If the mind is to remain sane, some wishes must be forbidden. An old man’s wish to be young again falls into that category. This desire for youth is so powerful, seductive, and painful that it torments even the young – this is the hidden significance of the beer and jeans commercials, among a thousand others, clogging the airwaves.
So I will not indulge in this desire in the brief memoir.
In 1979, I left Minneapolis where I had lived most of my life and moved to Austin, Minnesota to practice law. I regretted leaving the big city. Many of my friends were involved in the arts such as film and dance and I was sad to be moving to one of those last enclaves in the State where no one had ever heard of Garrison Keiller and where the Prairie Home Companion was unknown because there was public radio station to carry that signal. My girlfriend lived in Hopkins and, although she had been raised on a truck farm that produced melons and tomatoes, she had no desire to come with me to southern Minnesota. It seemed that many aspects of my life previously important to me would end when I emigrated to Austin.
I was 24 and thought that one day I would be an important artist and writer. Most things that I had attempted had been successes. I expected that if I didn’t become famous as a writer, I would become a well-known, world-recognized lawyer – such are the fantasies of youth. And I thought that leaving Minneapolis was an important stage in my biography, something that should be commemorated by a big party. So I invited a lot of people to a friend’s house to say goodbye to me. Note: these people didn’t host the party. In retrospect, I guess I was less important to that clique of friends than I had believed – they didn’t hold the party for me, I held the party for me.
In those days, I was obsessed with the idea of staging action and events before a large rear-projection screen. I rented a screen of that sort and put it in the garage where the keg of beer and bar with hard liquor were located. On the screen, I ran a super 8 mm. loop of a film shot at a previous party – for a romantic young person, I guess, a party is like high opera; I was much influenced by the descriptions of parties in Greenwich Village in William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions and I wanted my going-away party to be similarly fabulous, memorable, sinister with import, voluptuous with romance. We made films of people at the party cavorting in front of the rear-projection screen on which their images were also cavorting. I think it would be unbearable for me, today, to see those pictures.
At noon, hungover, on the morning after the going-away party – which I remember as being sad, humid, and rather desolate – I drove down to Austin, took possession of my little apartment, and a day later started at the law firm where I have labored the last 31 years. I had expended all of my money on the party and it was two weeks before my first paycheck – and, then, a car payment on my tiny Chevette was due. I recall eating canned chili and hot dogs for a month or so. Then, I had a little money. I was frugal. My girlfriend didn’t come to Austin and so I didn’t have anything much to spend my money on. For a few months, I didn’t have any friends outside of the law firm. I worked and, sometimes, went to a partner’s house for supper. I was well-liked at the firm because I was enthusiastic, willing to learn, and worked hard. After six or seven months, I had a surplus of money. So I went to the Oak Park Mall where there was a store that sold Hi-Fi components and bought myself a stereo. I spend a thousand dollars – a lot of money in those days. In 1979, you listened to music that was pre-recorded on records – although that form of audio reproduction was started to look obsolete – and little cassettes. Most people favored the cassettes at that time.
My dad, who had come from a hamlet in central Nebraska, always yearned for a Hi-Fi system. When I was in elementary school, he bought a kit from Radio Shack and spent many hours sitting at the kitchen table welding tiny wires together. When he was done, he set up the tuner-receiver in the basement of our house; we were working at that time to panel the nasty, moist concrete walls to make a kind of rec room. My dad connected some more wires, installed a long cable to serve as an antenna, and, then, plugged in the little silver console. We had some small speakers on a bookshelf, as I recall, and, after some difficulties – my father couldn’t find the tiny clitoral nub of the signal – a beautiful sound emerged to echo across the basement. It was a silky smooth, honeyed sound, an early FM announcer laid back as if half-comatose on cough syrup and qualuudes, then, a thousand strings playing some Broadway show-tune – it was such a dense, fine sound and the announcer’s voice had a patina like polished, old pewter and the music was a hallucination in your brain, something sounding from inside your sinuses and the cavities behind your eyes. We didn’t have a turntable – we were too poor for that and my father couldn’t afford, at that time, to collect records; you can see evidence of similarly straitened circumstances in the Coen Brothers great A Serious Man, in which the hero is half-destroyed by the demands of the Columbia record club and, like my father, had to climb onto his roof to adjust the antenna for the electronics in the house. The beautiful, seductive sound of the Hi-Fi system was something that was too good, too beautiful, too pure and voluptuous for us. After awhile, a tube blew and the Hi-Fi system gathered dust on the shelf. Then, when I was in ninth-grade, I think, my Dad suddenly had enough money and we bought a stereo system and began to collect classical records – Beethoven’s symphonies first, then, Mozart, then, Bach. But that was later... People today, at least in America, can’t conceive what a good, expensive stereo system meant to a young man. Lifestyle magazines like Playboy monthly featured recipes for Hi-Fi excellence and every fuck-pad was supposed to equipped with a high-end stereo to please the ladies. Concomitant to any successful seduction was a high-fidelity serenade of music by Keith Jarret or Pat Methaney or something, slippery and grand like Rachmaninoff. (I favored Patti Smith, Louis Armstrong and Dvorak – tastes that I knew I would have to revise if I hoped to become a successful lady’s man). I recall uncrating my components, swigging whiskey from the bottle, and, then, stitching them together with special high-fidelity copper cables. Finally, I had the thing all connected. I turned on the power and saw the tuner-receiver glow – it was a bluish-green night-light: how beautiful, I thought, to see my beloved’s naked body infused with the romantic glow from that console! I peeled the plastic shroud off my casette – it was an album, Comes a Time, by Neil Young. (In those days, I read two magazines cover-to-cover: The Village Voice and Rolling Stone; both had highly recommended the album.) I turned the knob on the amplifier to about 30% – those old stereos were powerful – swallowed another gulp of whiskey and lay back on my old, used couch. The music started. It was the most beautiful thing I could ever imagine: “Powderfinger” by Neil Young. The sound was a sword in the darkness lit by lightning – my own stereo, my own apartment, my job as a lawyer, my future opening before me with the promise of innumerable, wonderful adventures. How wonderful it would be — but, no, that thought is vain and shouldn’t be even acknowledged, let alone indulged...
Since that time, I always get a rush of excitement whenever I hear Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”. The song vibrates with a looping country-western and folk sound – like an ancient ballad from some immemorial past suddenly occupying the present, a little non-plussed, perhaps, but still vital and moving and meaningful. The feed-back guitar chorus always sings like a church choir. For years, I’ve tried to decipher the song’s lyrics – you can hear them pretty clearly, but it simply isn’t clear what they mean.
Interpreting rock and roll lyrics is pretty much a fool’s exercise. I recall spending many stoned hours trying to figure out the meaning of enigmatic lyrics written by Lennon and McCartner. “Now you know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall,” for instance, from Sergeant Pepper’s “A Day in the Life” – what could that mean? Are they saying that the people who attend the annual Proms concerts at the Albert Hall are “assholes”? (In fact, about ten years ago, McCartney said that he needed a line for the lyrics, free-associated, and came up with those words – they came from a headline about filling the various potholes in London streets. The asphalt required to fill that number of potholes would “fill the Albert Hall”. But how this helps to construe the song at large is mysterious.) And so, I’ll try not to slip into the dim, reefer-smoke-laden suburban basements of such criticism with respect to “Powderfinger”. In fact, my thesis is that the song is, more or less, indecipherable.
“Powderfinger” narrates a fatal encounter between a young man and a mysterious gunboat. The song’s protagonist is twenty-two when an armed river-going vessel approaches the remote village where he lives with his kinfolk. The young man’s impulse is to defend the village and so he attempts to shoot at the gunboat with a rifle. In the process, he is killed. The narrative identifies itself as inexplicable with respect to its point-of-view: the ballad is told by the protagonist, that is, narrated by a dead man. Accordingly, the entire form of the ballad partakes of the uncanny. It is interesting to observe that Neil Young’s lyric reverses the deceased narrator’s ordinary function. Two prominent examples establish the norm: William Holden’s posthumous narration in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950) and the ghostly narrator in the song “The Long Black Veil”. In both cases, the posthumous narrator knows what happened. The dead see the whole picture and can explain things that might otherwise seem mysterious: how does a young screenwriter end up floating face-down in the decrepit pool of an aging silent film star’s mansion? Why does a woman “roam these hills in long black veil”? The dead narrators have privileged information and they use their knowledge to decipher the mystery. By contrast, death doesn’t solve anything for Neil Young’s narrator – he remains as befuddled by the events that killed him as he was when he “raised (his) rifle to his eye/ Never stopped to wonder why...”
The first stanza establishes the situation:
Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat comin’ up the river
With a big red beacon, and a flag, and a man on the rail
I think you better call John
‘Cause it don’t look like they’re here to deliver the mail,
And it’s less than a mile away
I hope they didn’t come to stay
It’s got numbers on the side and gun
It’s makin’ big waves.
Significantly, the young man’s first impulse when he sees the gunboat is to call for his mother. Our hero is not a warrior but a hapless “mama’s boy” who finds himself confronted with a situation that he can’t understand. Observe how the first stanza presents the young man’s perceptions exactly as he experiences them: in the distance, the boat is a white speck on the river, then, the narrator sees the beacon and the flag and a man. What is this boat? The narrator’s hesitancy, his doubts, are precisely conveyed by the way that the third-to-last line is sung: the boy says “...it don’t look like they’re here to deliver” – and the word “deliver” is extended immensely to emphasize the rhyme with “river” – “the mail” (these last two words added as a kind of afterthought to rhyme with “the mail”). The sense that the lyric presents as sung is that the young man hopes fervently that the gunboat is the innocuous mail vessel, holds that notion in his mind as long as possible, and, then, dismisses it only reluctantly. As the sinister gunboat comes closer, the proximity of the vessel is measured by the fact that the narrator now can see “numbers on its side” – a pun that means both that the vessel is literally numbered like PT-109, for instance, but also that it represents a superior, “outnumbering” force. Waves slap the dock where the young man stands. As the wake of the gunboat approaches, the narrator senses that he must do something. But what?
First, the young man reviews his resources. He needs counsel. But from whom:
Daddy’s gone, my brother’s out hunting in the mountains,
Big John’s been drinkin’ since the river took Emmy-Lou
So the Powers that Be left me here to do the thinkin’
And I just turned twenty-two
I was wondering what to do
And the closer they got
The more those feelings grew.
Diction like “Daddy” and “Big John” suggest the immaturity of the 22-year old narrator. “Powers that Be” is a lame cliche – the young man doesn’t know what to do and there is no one “to do the thinkin’” that the situation requires. Neil Young’s craft is obvious in the way that the indecisiveness in this stanza, increasing as the boat approaches, mirrors the physical details of the boats advance shown in the first stanza.
The narrator takes up arms against the gunboat. And with the rifle in his hand, he canvasses his memory for some maxim, some proverb, some snippet of wisdom to tell him what to do:
Daddy’s rifle in my hand felt reassurin’
He told me: Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothin’
But when the first shot hit the docks I saw it comin’
Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why.
Then I saw black,
And my face splashed in the sky.
The narrator doesn’t understand what is happening. But it is “reassuring” to raise a rifle against what might be an enemy. The maxims of fatherly wisdom which the protagonist recalls are incoherent, impossible to understand. “Red means run” – what can this mean? Did the protagonist and his father once go to a big city and notice that when the traffic semaphore turned red pedestrians have to run to evade the cars intersection? How does “red mean run”? And what can it mean “that numbers add up to nothin’”? Of course, in combat, outnumbering the enemy is usually decisive. Surely, “numbers” must add up to “something”. But if “red means run,” the “big red beacon” requires that the protagonist take to his heels. On the other hand, if “numbers add up to nothing,” the young man need not fear the superior firepower of the approaching gunboat – counsel that he stand his ground and fight. Accordingly, the excerpts of fatherly wisdom that the hero recalls seem to suggest exactly opposite responses to the peril.
As the hero ponders these maxims, rifle at the ready, the gunboat fires a warning shot. The young man misperceives the danger – he thinks that he can see the shot coming, when, in fact, all that he witnesses is the effect of the gunblast after it has hit the dock. Of course, as the song demonstrates, no one sees the shot that kills him – it happens too quickly for any response. To listener sof my age, and to a Canadian like Neil Young, the line “never stopped to wonder why” unmistakably resonates with Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” – “theirs not to reason why”. As reflex, and because the heft and shape of the gun is reassuring to him, the young man takes aim. The gunboat fires and blows the young man’s head off – “his “face” splashes “in the sky.”
The last stanza is the young man’s envoi, his valediction and farewell.
Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Think of me as one you’d never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love,
I know I’ll miss her.
The young man’s prayer, which is tragically retrospective, is to be “sheltered” from volatile, indecipherable circumstances in which the explosive gunpowder is lit by a finger that “never (asks) to wonder why”. The young man’s finger in proximity with the gunpowder yields the chimerical trope of the “powderfinger” – that is, the 22-year olds dangerously volatile response to the threat that he perceives against those that he loves.
“The thought that pulled the trigger” is love for the young man’s family and, in particular, the unnamed girl saluted in the last line. The narrator hopes that his death can be understood as meaningful, that is “covered,” by his noble motivation. Yet, the nobility of the young man’s motives, the desire to defend and protect those dear to him, coupled with the volatile, indecipherable situation results in meaningless tragedy. The young man is killed and, in fact, like all of the dead “fades away” in human memory.
Listeners attempting to interpret this song always speculate as to the nature of the boat and the intentions of those occupying it. They wonder where the story is set and ask why the young man is reflexively xenophobic. I think this sort of analysis is unproductive. The exact point of the lyrics is that young man doesn’t know what the appearance of the boat means. He has no one to give him counsel. The poem doesn’t give us any clues as to why the boat appeared, whether it was hostile, whether the young man’s reaction was unreasonable or excessive – instead, the lyrics put us in the young man’s shoes and require us to experience his own confusion and desperation. We can’t know what the boat means or its intentions – all we know is that the young man has been raised to regard outsiders as dangerous and firearms as the remedy to that danger. From this predisposition which is innate – “never stopped to wonder why” – this small, but savage, tragedy flows.
The Armed Forces recruit young men whose natural reflexes are patriotic. These young men wish to defend those that they love. War is their powder. The trigger-finger twitches and the explosion follows. But, as the song shows us, the threat is fundamentally misunderstood, indecipherable to the warrior, or, worse, perhaps not a threat at all.