Southern Sounds

We should think of “Rockin’ In The Free World” as a State of the Union speech given by Neil Young. The song served as an appraisal of Young’s adopted country that he delivered not once, but twice. He opened his 1989 Freedom album with a melodic and deliberate version of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” its unhurried pace ideal for Young’s keen assessment on the striking disparities in Reagan-Bush America. When bringing Freedom to a close, he delivered a lengthier rendition of the song which rocked with intensity, allowing him to articulate what he observed with tremendous passion. It’s something that comes natural for a plugged-in and committed Neil Young. The points he made hit home.

Photo by rustybrick

“Rockin’ In The Free World” enumerates the problems America faced in the late ’80s: homelessness, drug-addicted parents, abandoned children, the abuse of the environment and other afflictions, most of them still festering our nation. Young alludes to a society consumed with consuming; shoppers racing to the department stores for trinkets, baubles and whatnot in “styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer.” The restless consumers, as always, didn’t realize the things they owned actually owned them: those things packaged in the styrofoam boxes acquired the souls of the shoppers in takeovers that were less than hostile.

As the well-heeled and the wanna-be well-heeled in America jammed the parking lots of the malls surrounding the interstates, people in other parts of the world, far from any grand shopping experience, not only questioned American values, they questioned American motives and determined, sometimes rightly, that America was a cause of their troubles. The Iranian chant, “Death to America,” from the late ’70s continued to reverberate.

Neil Young surprised many in the early ’80s when he voiced support for Ronald Reagan, a politician who saw America as the shining city on a hill, sharing its bounty with the world, and certainly blameless for any of its travails. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, Young surely gave thought to the political metamorphosis he himself had experienced. Troubled by the indulgence of the Reagan-Bush years, Young likely pondered how Americans were perceived in countries where people struggled to feed and clothe their children. He contemplated the children struggling in America as well, when on “Rockin’ In The Free World,” he grieved for the baby of  “a woman in the night near a garbage can.”

Now she puts the kid away

And she’s gone to get a hit

She hates her life

And what she’s done to it

That’s one more kid

That will never go to school

Never get to fall in love

Never get to be cool

In the lengthier version of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” he mocked a George Bush notion, made famous in his speech at the 1988 Republican convention, by singing, “We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” As it turned out, machine guns and much worse would be pointed in America’s direction in the coming two decades. This would mystify and alter the lives of Americans, and not for the better. What happened? Had the world forgotten the Marshall Plan? Didn’t the world appreciate the generosity of our people, individually and collectively, when earthquakes, droughts and famines occurred? And what about Radio Free Europe? It’s no fun not being loved. America was having to deal with ugly truths, many of its own making. The vengeful ugliness that came our way grew from bad to worse, then unfathomable and unforgivable.

On “Rockin’ In The Free World,” Neil Young acknowledged the enmity felt by some toward America. He also noted, in the song’s first verse, how most of us didn’t want to think about it.

But there’s a warning sign on the road ahead

There’s a lot of people sayin’

We’d be better off dead

Don’t feel like Satan

But I am to them

So I try to forget it, anyway I can

On the driving, plugged-in version of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” the chorus, which is simply “Keep on rockin’ in the free world” repeated at least four times at the end of each verse, is all at once a summing-up and a declaration. The vitality and determination in the chorus create a classic rock and roll moment, and it’s even more than that for those who truly love and value freedom. Appreciating, understanding and sharing the true gifts of being free can inspire others to throw off what shackles them. Think back to when Marcos stepped down in the Phillippines or just recently when Mubarak fell from power in Egypt. All around the world those embracing liberty sensed the need to celebrate. The cause of freedom is lifted higher when more people are enabled to join the festivities.

America has rightfully taken comfort in the killing of Osama bin Laden, a tyrant who threatened freedoms long taken for granted. The evil he perpetrated against three thousand innocent victims on September 11, 2001 cannot be, in any way, considered similar to the actions of a freedom fighter or the representative of an oppressed people. Hatred and terror were his only devises in carrying forth a perverted cause. As President Barack Obama said, “the world is now a safer and better place” with bin Laden dead. Americans can feel justified in their relief and desire to celebrate. Still, the threat of terrorism is something we’ll be reminded of with each trip to the airport. Terror has not left the building.

As Neil Young alluded in “Rockin’ In The Free World,” to some, America is Satan. That notion rankles. All the same, resolving to no longer participate in “wars of choice” and to not be so ravenous with the world’s resources can only improve America’s image. Therefore, it’s a good time to realize that our feelings of pride, joy and love of country are not best displayed in gatherings that seem like boisterous frat parties. Along with our joy, there should be moments of reverence as we again honor the courageous actions of those who died saving others on 9-11: the first responders in New York City and the brave passengers of Flight 93. Their faith, courage and selfless bearing reflected the qualities free people hold dear.

In the long run, America’s new-found exhilaration can make the greatest impact as we celebrate the stirrings of democracy in the Mideast, the region where the now-vanquished terrorist first conjured his deadly games. He can no longer exploit those he claimed to be his people. Let us look forward to the day that they too are rockin’ in the free world.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.

  1. I love what Jeff Cochran writes about music and life.
    Whenever he digs into politics without the connection to music, a journalist is in danger of exposing his agenda, his non-musical rough thoughts, not very well educated or informed opinions.
    With this piece you moved across dangerous grounds, Mr. Cochran.

    Oh yes, you got it right, Americans are depicted in foolish icons like Satan. for the song it went well. The dynamic of the song you described so well, your portrait of the song gives the reader the imnpression of what ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ really is: a classic rock ‘n roll song. But the politics you include in the story dilutes the power of the art. Youy make it sound as if Neil Young’s song is like that stupid McCartney song that was so off target after 9/11, as if tindividual freedom was a God given right. Well of course it isn’t, that what some think, just like Salafists think they have been given what it takes by God.

    The worst however is in the finla paragraph…
    “In the long run, America’s new-found exhilaration can make the greatest impact as we celebrate the stirrings of democracy in the Mideast, the region where the now-vanquished terrorist first conjured his deadly games. He can no longer exploit those he claimed to be his people. Let us look forward to the day that they too are rockin’ in the free world.”

    No sir, the greatest impact America would have if it surrenders itself to International Law, and controls it vengeance and impulse for violence and dominance. You are no example for the young in Europe and the Middle East. To dwell on the death of someone, regardless of what he did. That is never a proper example of civility for others. Those who behave like that, should by distrusted, even when friends or lovers economically, physically or politically

    Materialism and technology veils American eyes. Indeed it is what most of the world’s populace appreciates, but not most of your ethics and beliefs, these are just as backward and vicious as you portray the beliefs and ethics of your enemies. It is the west who exploits the peoples where we buy/take our raw materials.

    Please, whenever you have time, write another article about the song so it will shine your light on it so it gets the appreciation it deserves without a bitter aftertaste.

    1. It’s probably really petty of me, but I can’t give much credit to a person whose critique wanders from from first person to second and third without any rhyme of reason.

      Anyway, Americans have been duped, by the right to own things (property rights), into ceding their human rights to tyrants. Perhaps the clearest evidence of the scam can be found in the mountains of trash where most of the things we own end up long before any life-time guarantee runs out.

      What I would note is that there is a significant difference between being free or at liberty and freedom. There’s a reason conservatives define freedom as obedience to the law — a law which they and their clan claim the power to define. Conditional freedom is an oxymoron; it means we are un-free as a default and just stayin’ alive has to be earned by being subservient. The call for subservience to international law undoubtedly appeals to the moguls of private corporations (David Rockefeller comes to mind), who have discovered that international law is much less restrictive of what they have in mind. A global legal system would be a monopoly and would fail. Because that’s what too big does; it fails. But then, failure by design is what conservatives count on to slay “the beast.” That would be us, the great unwashed.

    2. “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
      If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
      If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”
      Sun Tzu

      I’m afraid the United States knows neither itself nor its enemy….this is the danger we have allowed ourselves.

  2. Hey hey, my my … it’s rock ‘n roll, and like all art it goes where the passions of the artist go. Another great installment on music & life, Jeff.

  3. Will Cantrell

    Cochran, methinks that in addition to The Dew, you need to ALSO be in classroom teaching this stuff. Cantrell is serious about this. Nobody has takes on music and life like you. I am so glad that those people who run The Dew were lucky enough to find you and also have the good sense enough to run your pieces. This is another classic about music and the subtext of life. You deserve an even wider stage. I hope you get it …but please don’t leave us behind. Will

  4. Will, I totally agree. Jeff has a sensitivity and empathy that a great deal of journalist and writers today lack. Yes, of course there ARE many with great insight. But having said this, and for me, I like the way Jeff approaches each topic without a personal bias that would tend to influence the reader to ‘his way’ of thinking and allow one to think on their own and decide for oneself.

    Personally, I feel more ‘civility in discourse’ is what’s needed in today’s world, especially here in the good ole U.S. of A.. It seems folks have become distracted and more selfish and self absorbed with their hi-tech toys and seem to depend on others to do their thinking for them; hence the media influence we are bombarded with constantly from both ‘Left and Right’.

    It’s difficult at best for one to have a conversation regarding the problems we face today in our ever changing world without a ‘talking point’ being quoted that one has adopted as their own, regardless of actual fact. I shudder to think of what my grandchildren will face as they take their rightful place in our continuing ‘uncivil society’.

    I suppose we all can have a “political axe to grind” and opinions to offer, but it’s the less than civil nature that’s really hurting this country now.. no real empathy it seems and concern for the needs of others.

    Awareness is what Jeff offer in the things he shares with us, a caring and real concern.

    Speaking for myself, I can only say, .. thank you Jeff, thanks for caring enough to put your thoughts on the line, regardless of how they’re perceived. Your articles help one to stop for a moment, put down our toys and think, and most of all, thank you for tying your feelings together with music, for music is the one thing that is universal in bringing us all together as one.



  5. Tim Oliver

    Hey, Rob, here’s an idea : why don’t you try to write an article spelling out what the song means to you ? While you’re at it, please explain to us what a “Salafist” might happen to be.
    The whole song is a bitter aftertaste. The satire is supposed to be biting. What part of ” kinder, gentler machine gun hand” didn’t you understand ?
    A year ago I saw the Driveby Truckers cover this song at the Variety Playhouse. It rocked, it rolled, it blasted us into clumsy dance move oblivian ! The thing was, Mike Cooley was singing it, and he didn’t know most of the lyrics. So, he injected his own. I don’t know what they were, but, it had the effect of making the rest of the band die laughing. Sometimes, a good song is just a good song, I don’t care how you swing it.

  6. I agree with and appreciate the essay and always read Jeff’s writings with interest. Often share them on Facebook.

    Shouldn’t the term be “well-heeled” ?

    1. Jeff Cochran

      Thank you Jan. And the spelling correction has been made. Jeff

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