Perfect Song Forever.

May 9, 2005 at 5:19 am (Uncategorized)

If you dig music at all, you’re always getting into internet discussions that are way too loaded. “Who’s your favorite band?” “What are your top five favorite albums ever?” “What’s your favorite song ever?”

Those are impossible questions for anyone really absorbed by the subject to answer. Some days, some answers fit my mood, other days, others. Anyone with more than a few dozen CDs or records most likely feels the same way. Picking just a few over so many choices isn’t the kind of question that any of us give satisfactory answers to.

So imagine my chagrin; I think I might have one answer to one of those questions. Favorite song ever? Yeah, maybe I have one, after all.

I first became aware of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues” thanks to Soul Asylum’s excellent cover of that song from the long-forgotten The Bridge tribute/covers album. Up until that point in my life, I’d never really given Neil a fair shake, but just on the heels of hearing those excellent songs, Ragged Glory came out, and I went into a lengthy period of Young discovery which hit my wallet pretty hard.

For me, at least right now, I’d say “Barstool Blues” is that elusive “favorite song”. While the title promises, I dunno, some sort of pedestrian bar-band workout, nothing could be further from the truth.

Opening with a killer 2-chord guitar riff, Young lays down a pretty solid, if unremarkable first verse over the churning, swirling rock din:

“If I could hold on, for just one thought
For long enough to know
Why my mind is movin’ so fast
And the conversation is slow.
Burn off all the fog and let the sun in to the snow.
Let me see your face again
Before I have to go.”

Ok, that’s a pretty good opening, but not the thing to which any music geek would too readily give their heart to. Still, here you’ve got the classic tale of a guy who’s obviously torn between being drunk (the first two lines) and nervous and shaky (the second two) and realizing that being in that state so much is probably not such a good thing. Hey, such sentiments basically gave birth to today’s alt-country movement, so if Neil wants to be joining a long, long line of antecedents dating to before Hank Williams, Leadbelly, and Robert Johnson, who are we to naysay it?

The second verse though (no choruses in “Blues”, oddly enough) is where things start to come unglued and Neil makes it clear that this is not the song that you think it is. This isn’t a barroom anthem for crappy Skynyrd cover bands. This is something more….meta…than any of that. This song is out there, and starting with the second verse, it wanders way off the reservation into new territory.

“I have seen you in the movies
And in those magazines at night.
I saw you on the barstool
When you held that glass so tight.
And I saw you in my nightmares
But I’ll see you in my dreams.
And I might live a thousand years
Before I know what that means.”

Can we get to one thing first? The couplet “And I saw you in my nightmares/But I’ll see you in my dreams” is the kind of thing that any great classic poet would be proud of. I think those two lines stand as one of the greatest–and one of the very few–examples of rock and roll lyrics as poetry. The problem with “rock lyrics as poetry” is that usually those lyrics end up looking pedestrian at best (or howlingly awful at worst) when denied their music accompaniment. That’s not the case with that couplet.

On this verse, we’re back to the person that the narrator was too drunk/nervous/strung out to talk to in the first. The first two lines here might be about a specific actress or model…but I think here Young is just doing the metaphor for a beautiful woman looking like a movie star or magazine model. The next two lines we realize that Young is a voyeur here, too messed up to talk to this woman, whom he clearly sees as out of his league…and whom he realizes is probably trouble with a capital T. And so we hit the third and final verse, and here’s where things get even more poetic, and then some.

“Once there was a friend of mine
Who died a thousand deaths
His life was filled with parasites
And countless idle threats.
He trusted in a woman
And on her he made his bets.
Once there was a friend of mine
Who died a thousand deaths.”

There it is, really. A great flourish of a finish to a brilliant song. I get the feeling that there is no “friend of mine”; the details of “parasites” and “idle threats” are far too intimate for a “friend” to know about. No, the “friend” is the narrative voice of the song, perhaps having separated himself so much from the naive true love believer who had his heart broken that this previous incarnation has become a separate person to him entirely. I can see that: every time I’ve had a long term relationship in which the “L-word” got tossed off, when that relationship comes apart, I look at the guy I was when the relationship was going on and wonder “who the hell was that gullible bastard?”

In any event, verse three ties it all together. The narrator seems to be coming to grips with the fact that if one’s life is filled with parasites and countless idle threats that seeking salvation in anything–especially looking for a woman to save you–is pretty much a good way to end up worse than you were before.

None of that would matter though, if the song didn’t just totally kick ass. As mentioned above, Soul Asylum covered it. So did the Feelies, and Yo La Tengo. Ex-Lone Justice singer Maria McKee has a new album with it, and the Washington Post recently had this to say about it in reviewing her new CD:

“A cover of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues” is practically perfect, if only because the song was mostly perfect to begin with…”

Mostly perfect?

1 Comment

  1. Richard said,

    <>Marie McKee<> is perfect.šŸ™‚

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