More To The Picture Than Meets The Eye . . . Atlanta, Georgia, a blue city in a red state, seemed natural for a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert appearance during their 2006 Freedom of Speech tour. Atlanta had welcomed the world during the ’96 Olympics and had generally* been a successful stop for Neil Young, having played the city numerous times since the ’70s, appearing at the Omni, the Fox Theatre, Philips Arena and the amphitheatres.
Touring behind Young’s album, Living With War, the reunited CSNY were again striking blows against the empire. The set lists throughout the tour included their anti-war songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s such as “Wooden Ships,” “Military Madness,” and “What Are Their Names,” augmenting Young’s new songs which denounced the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Other well-known sociopolitical songs featured in the concerts were “Teach Your Children,” “Find The Cost Of Freedom,” and “For What It’s Worth,” each long embraced by those to the left of America’s political center.
In the early to mid ’80s, it was a more politically conservative Neil Young speaking out on the issues of his adopted country, voicing disapproval over Jimmy Carter and endorsing Ronald Reagan’s arms policies. Young’s comments, however, made their way into the music press when a string of lackluster albums brought his career to a low ebb. Only his hard-core fans, quite used to his mercurial inclinations, took note of the jingoism then influencing his political thoughts. In the late ’80s, when Young revived his career, he also seemed to shift away from the political right, as indicated by the material on his album, Freedom. Absorbing the American mood after Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president, Young noted a country riding high in the material world but unable to secure an equanimity of spirit. His observations were key in making Freedom one of his most resonant and vital albums.
As with the Kent State killings which inspired him to write “Ohio,” the most fiery protest song of the rock era, and the discriminatory treatment of blacks in the South which led to his writing “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” it is when Young is most incensed about war, bigotry and misuse of government power that he throws himself head-first into writing and promoting his political songs. The war in Iraq, and especially the way President Bush led his nation into battle, with unfounded claims of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” and the Mission Accomplished appearance when at least 3,900 more American soldiers were yet to die in the war, were among the things incensing Young in the new century’s first decade. Those things also upset millions of Americans, many who set aside a good chunk of the week’s grocery budget to see Young, with Crosby, Stills and Nash musically inveigh against the war that was eating away at America. Young aggressively promoted the Freedom of Speech tour and Living With War with a special online site that went beyond hawking the musical endeavors. Mainly, he took strong issue over what appeared a betrayal by the people, who, as David Crosby put it, are “the men who really run this land.”
Yes, there was a lot out there regarding the songs featured in the Freedom of Speech tour as well as the assumed political leanings of CSNY. So how was it that hundreds of people who paid their way into Atlanta’s Philips Arena to see the group on August 10, 2006 had such little idea of what was driving the group, particularly Young? And why, if they chose to go to a concert highlighting freedom of speech, were they so hostile when that freedom was exercised? They may have paid more than $100.00 a ticket to see the concert, but they held back on the southern hospitality, seeming to demand a higher cost for freedom of speech and appearing ridiculous all the while.
In his film about the Freedom of Speech tour, CSNY/Deja Vu, director Neil Young (using the alias Bernard Shakey) does a superlative job in not only covering the tour, but also examining the anguish suffered by those who fought in the Iraq War as well as the anger felt by millions of Americans helping to foot the bill for a war they opposed. President George W. Bush, who led the US into a war of choice, is mocked in the film for his decisions and a bumptious attitude exhibited that’s inappropriate, given the troubles afflicting the nation.
The anger felt toward Bush was palpable across America, but in the minds of hundreds who attended the Atlanta Freedom of Speech concert, the president was due a free pass. Never mind all the mistakes he made in office, they thought a rock singer such as Neil Young had some nerve accusing the president of lying. When CSNY broke into “Let’s Impeach The President” from Living With War near the end of the show, many at Philips Arena stood to cheer the sentiment. Also standing, but not in approval, were those who booed the song and Young, giving him, the band and the cameras the finger. Hundreds walked out, as was their right, and, before the cameras, utilized their “freedom of speech” with some asinine and obscene suggestions directed at Young. There were others who kept it clean but indicated a lack of understanding about the meaning of free speech, especially when it’s unpopular.
Southern Man Don’t Need Him Around . . . One gentleman, noting the vast amount of Southerners killed in the Iraq War, said, “You don’t come to the South singing this kind of stuff and springing it on somebody.” Another opinion, albeit less thoughtful, came from a man on the concourse, who determined that “If you’ve never been shot at or never had to shoot at anyone, then you have no right to blame the government, because they’re … they’re smarter people up there. You may not realize it, but they’re smarter than you.” The poor guy probably had no idea, but his words make him sound as one who, in the words of the song, “Living With War,” would “bow to the laws of the thought police.”
The more circumspect of the people who walked out of Philips Arena that night would have done well to consider Young’s message as one critical of Bush, yet loyal to the nation, and especially those in uniform. President Bush wasn’t forthcoming in justifying America’s invasion of Iraq. He wasn’t loyal to the American people, taking advantage of them while they yearned for leadership after the 9/11 attacks. It seems a hazy memory now, but in the wake of 9/11, millions of Americans set aside partisan politics to support and hope the best for George W. Bush. The people were afraid of what would happen when the other shoe dropped, many of them unaware of how the Bush Administration would gain more power while misleading them.
All of the charges Neil Young made against George W. Bush in “Let’s Impeach The President,” which so angered many Atlanta concert-goers that evening, wouldn’t have gone very far in Washington’s corridors of power. Sadly, many of those in the legislative bodies whose views came to more closely match Young’s than the Bush Administration’s had granted approval for America’s invasion of Iraq. They too, if their consciences remain intact, will live with war everyday.
When You Write Your Songs . . . Years ago, a prominent reviewer, genuinely fond of Neil Young, wrote that Young’s voice and guitar could often be grating to some listeners. Well, yes. Young’s singing and playing are rough, but quite often there’s beauty in his aggressive style. He certainly can shock some of his more casual listeners. The man who sang sweetly of looking in both Hollywood and Redwood for a heart of gold one year later sang grimly but energetically about “14 junkies too weak to work.” Neil Young covers a lot of ground; he surprises, shocks and challenges his listeners, sometimes to the point, like with many in Atlanta in 2006, they walk out in anger. Yet less than three years later, people lined around a prestigious Atlanta venue to see Neil Young in concert.
*The 2003 Atlanta appearance at Chastain Amphitheatre in which songs from the “Greendale” were featured was not well-received. Atlanta amphitheatre attendees are not concept album types.