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Neil Young’s “Ordinary People” and the Beauty of Coincidence

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Neil Young Ordinary People

A conclusion that I’ve drawn recently is that I am honestly thankful for coincidence. Whether it be stumbling across a book you’ve been searching for in a thrift store or passing by an old friend out of the blue, coincidence can often be a blessing. A few weeks back I found myself challenged by depression, eventually finding myself deep in a discussion with my father that wove its way in and out of the flaws of socialism, the challenges of a corporate mentality, and ultimately my struggles with thoughts of a sustainable future. It was a tough week.

But as chance had it I happened to come across a CD that day, one I was very much looking forward to: Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams II — an album that serves itself up as a sequel to the unrealized Chrome Dreams about three decades too late. Nonetheless I was drawn to it as I have been equally drawn to Neil’s last handful of albums. But as coincidence would have it, I found myself curiously interested in listening to the adventurous 18 minute “Ordinary People” for a second time that first time through, before I had even made my way through the remainder of the album’s other nine songs.

And a few days later, after about two more hours of time devoted to the track I received an email, of the type that had become lackluster in my every day — a forwarded “must read”-type, this time from my father. While I typically neglect to do much more than scan these sorts of emails (always on the look out for the next great “hang in there, fella” cat pic!) I found myself reading away as if it were a daily ritual. And for whatever reason this email shed light on something that had previously been on the tip of my thoughts for a number of days without me even realizing it: Neil Young’s “Ordinary People” isn’t just a story about a people beaten down yet struggling to survive, but rather the equivalent of a modern day parable about strength, will, and the necessity of “takin’ it one day at a time.” Coincidence is a beautiful thing.

The track, originally meant for release on Young’s 1988 This Note’s For You finds itself as the only track on II to feature the collective Blue Note Horns in turn with a makeshift band of historical Young collaborators. In doing so, the track succeeds where 2002′s Are You Passionate (sort of) failed, with its abstract collection of misguided Crazy Horse/Booker T. & the MGs contributions. Even for its length, its rolling verse after verse of visually inspiring description, “Ordinary People” seems a shortened version of what the track could have been if only it weren’t for the burden of the rest of the album. Rob Mitchum describes the track overtly, concluding that, “Obviously, a song with a runtime that impressive necessitates the use of terms like ‘sprawling’ and ‘epic,’ and it is pretty impressive, its twenty verses providing a stack of snapshots of life for drug dealers, assembly line workers, and the homeless between zealous horn and guitar solos.” To push the thought once more – as coincidence may have it, the track (despite its occasionally unfashionable references) and its subsequent themes not only found me at a time of confusion, but offered itself as guidance in much a similar way to that chance email I happened to read.

A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, ‘Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.’ The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man’s mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. 

The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. The Lord said, ‘You have seen Hell.’ They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘It is simple,’ said the Lord. ‘It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves.

Now, for a moment, remove the story from the context of holy men, God, or whatever else may affect your willingness to consider what it has to say; simply think of this: by helping one another we shall all be rewarded. Easy enough. And after reading the email my father sent me I found a bit of pleasure in its simple message, though it was more than a little preachy in its delivery, and it went against our previous discussion on the evils of socialism… but all the same it offered guidance.

Neil Young has never been unnecessarily cryptic in his message, whether it be a story faulting globalization, his take on the country’s political climate, or the evils of drug abuse — historically he has been fairly up front about what it is he is singing about. “Ordinary People” reveals itself in much the same manner, and as it turns each new layer back I still find it amusing — the coincidence between his (sometimes cynical) “fightin’ for the people” message of the song and that of the email parable.

Neil Young “Ordinary People” Lyrics:

Two out of work models and a fashion slave try to dance away the Michelob night. The bartender poured himself another drink, while two drunks were watchin’ the fight. The champ went down, then he got up again, and then he went out like a light. Fightin’ for the people. But his timing wasn’t right, the high rolling people. Takin’ limos in the neon light. The Las Vegas people, they came to see a Las Vegas fight. Fightin’ for the people. 

There’s a man in the window with a big cigar, says everything’s for sale. Yeah, the house and the boat and the railroad car, the owner’s gotta go to jail. He acquired these things from a life of crime, now he’s selling them to make bail. He was rippin’ off the people. Sellin’ guns to the underground, livin’ off the people. Skimmin’ the top when there’s no one around, tryin’ to help the people. Lose their ass for a piece of ground, the patch of ground people. 

He was dealing antiques in a hardware store but he sure had a lot to hide. He had a back room full of the guns of war and a ton of ammunition besides. Well, he walked with a cane, kept a bolt on the door with five pit bulls inside. Just a warning to the people. In case they try and break in at night, protection for the people. Selling safety in the darkest night, tryin’ to help the people. Get the drugs to the street all right, tryin’ to help the people. 

Well, it’s hard to say where a man goes wrong, might be here and it might be there. What starts out weak might get too strong, if you can’t tell foul from fair. But it’s hard to judge from an angry throng of hands stretched into the air. The vigilante people. Takin’ law into their own hands, conscientious people. Crackin’ down on the drug lord and his bands, government people. Confiscatin’ all the dealers’ land, the patch of ground people. 

And then a new Rolls-Royce, a company car they went racin’ down the street. Each one was tryin’ to make it to the gate before employees manned the fleet. The trucks full of products for the modern home were set to roll out into the street of ordinary people. Tryin’ to make their way to work, the downtown people, some are saints and some are jerks (that’s me). Everyday people, stopping for a drink on their way to work. Alcoholic people – yeah yeah, takin’ it one day at a time. 

Down on the assembly line, they keep puttin’ the same things out. The people today, they just ain’t buyin’, nobody can figure it out. They try like hell to build a quality end, they’re workin’ hard without a doubt. Ordinary people. But the dollar’s what it’s all about, Lee Iacocca people. But the customers are walking out, the nose to the stone people. Yeah, they look but they just don’t buy. The patch of ground people. 

In a dusty town the clock struck high noon, two men stood face to face. One wore black and one wore white, but of fear there wasn’t a trace. A hundred years later two hot rods drag through the very same place. And a half a million people moved in to pick up the pace, a factory full of people. Makin’ parts to go to outer space, a train load of people. They were aimin’ for another place, out of town people. 

Down at the factory, they’re puttin’ new windows in. The vandals made a mess of things and the homeless just walked right in. Well, they worked here once, and they live here now, but they might work here again. The ordinary people. They’re just livin’ in a dream, hard workin’ people. Just don’t know what it means to give up, people. Just like they used to be, patch of ground people. 

Out on the railroad track, they’re cleanin’ ol’ number nine. They’re scrubbin’ the boiler down, she really is lookin’ fine. Times’ll be different soon, they’re gonna bring her back on line. Ordinary people. They’re gonna bring the good things back, hard working people. Put the business back on track, every day people. I got faith in the regular kind, patch of ground people – yeah, yeah.

It’s not so much that “Ordinary People” strictly depicts a world where people survive by offering others their spoon, of sorts, but rather it offers an outlook suggesting there can be betterment if only one is given a positive outlook and a sense of humanity in the face of our every day obstacles.

When it comes down to it, I identify with those people, those “patch of ground people” in Young’s song. Those ordinary people who have searched for relief through substance, or those who are trying to find fulfillment in a mentally cluttered environment — with those people I can identify. But with the song, like my father’s email, the undertones (or overtones, for that matter) didn’t matter as much as the key conclusions drawn in the process. As I ultimately question myself and my daily conclusions, which often lead me to a pessimistic view, I believe Young, like my father, would suggest our world a place worth living in. Right now and most certainly in the future. Is a world where you feel you have to struggle just to survive each day worth living in? Without diverting from my point any further, I think Young would say “yes,” as knowing that you’ve struggled through yesterday and survived can grant one the mental capacity to not only approach another, but make that day count. And if some good can come of that, you are the better for it – and coincidentally, so am I.

Like I said, coincidence is a beautiful thing.