Farm Aid first started back on September 22nd, 1985, when the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and more came together in a scintillating show before an 80,000 strong crowd with the goal of raising money for the ailing farmers of America. The show was the brainchild of American legends Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and, of course, Neil Young.
The first show came together after Bob Dylan sparked controversy at Live Aid by stating, “It would be nice if some of this money went towards American farmers”. Whilst Young and Co. recognised that one person’s suffering is not comparable to another’s – and indeed there was a dire need to assist Africa – it would also be dutiful to set up a concert to support the Americans that were suffering too. The annual event has continued in this benevolent vein ever since.
Over the years, the Farm Aid stage has been graced by names ranging from Carole King to Joni Mitchell, Eddie Van Halen and Kris Kristofferson, all taking part and uniting for the greater good. Perhaps the most notable performance came on the festivals 15th anniversary in the form of the reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
During its inaugural event, Neil Young befittingly rattled off his classic ode to the subversive force of rock ‘n’ roll itself. The song comes from the 1977 period when Young formed a short-lived band called The Ducks and played the Santa Cruz club strip for a bargain $3 cover fee. Jeff Blackburn was a member of The Ducks, and he told Uncut: “I was playing in Santa Cruz with John Craviotto and Bob Mosley (Moby Grape) who were a great rhythm section when Neil ducked into it. That was a great summer. We played about 30 shows with The Ducks, we played every night. It really was a mighty month.”
Adding: “Neil and I swapped ideas. We both had material, we had ideas and things came together as we were rocking together pretty good. I had a song with the line, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.’ Neil liked that and the whole rust thing came from that line – rust never sleeps. Not many people share a credit with Neil Young. It’s hard to say why I got one, you’d need to ask Neil. But you never know what he’s going to do next.”
Thereafter, the song has woven its way into the very fabric of rock ‘n’ roll. Tragically, it even worked its way into Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. And it was this potential for a tragic interpretation of the line “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” that led John Lennon to lambast it. As he told Playboy in an interview in 1980 shortly before he was murdered: “I love all this punky stuff. It’s pure. I’m not, however, crazy about the people who destroy themselves.” When asked whether Young’s line fell on the wrong side of this, Lennon replied: “I hate it.”
Going on to explain: “It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne. It’s the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison…it’s garbage to me. I worship the people who survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They’re saying John Wayne conquered cancer… he whipped it like a man.”
Young, however, would respond to this two years later by saying: “The rock’ n’ roll spirit is not survival. Of course, the people who play rock ‘n’ roll should survive. But the essence of the rock’n’roll spirit to me, is that it’s better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity. Even though if you look at it in a mature way, you’ll think, ‘well, yes … you should decay off into infinity, and keep going along’. Rock’n’roll doesn’t look that far ahead. Rock’n’roll is right now. What’s happening right this second. Is it bright? Or is it dim because it’s waiting for tomorrow – that’s what people want to know. And that’s why I say that.”
It is certainly this notion of the latter rather than the former that shines through in the scintillating performance below.