By Michael Goldberg.
If you saw Neil Young’s Farm Aid performance Saturday, September 21 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, you saw a superstar lose his cool as he tried repeatedly to talk serious to the audience about the domination of farming by corporations, about the connection between factory farming and climate change and, finally, about the suicides of Kurt Cobain and Phil Ochs.
Young opened his 40-minute acoustic set with a spirited performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’:
His set was dominated by cover versions, as if the recent release of Bob Dylan’s Another Self Portrait had inspired Young: Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” (included on the original Self Portrait), Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” (played on upright piano), Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe (played on pump organ) and Phil Ochs’ “Changes.” Young interspersed just two intense performances of his original songs among the covers: “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.”
‘Early Morning Rain’:
The music was great, but Young was intent on delivering a message beyond the music. “The Farmers are on the front line of climate change…,” Young told the audience. “All that carbon that’s up in the sky. And believe me, this has a lot to do with what’s going on with all these radical weather patterns we’re seeing. It’s real. All the carbon that’s up in the sky, it used to be down here. Used to be in the ground. Used to be in the soil. Used to be down here under the crops. And then Monsanto and all the big chemical companies nnd the industrialists, they came and made factory farms and replaced family farms and they brought in the chemicals, made it so [family farms]couldn’t grow without chemicals. And the farmer, the little guys, tried to get a loan from the bank and the bank said. ‘We’ll give you a loan but you have to use these chemicals, what we tell you to use, or we won’t give you a loan.’
“That’s the truth,” he continued. “That’s what we’re living right now. Those chemicals have made it so we’ve lost sometimes more than half our topsoil. And it didn’t just disappear; it’s up there. We need to bring it down to earth…”
‘Heart of Gold’:
‘Since I Met You Baby’:
Some of the audience weren’t buying it, and just wanted more music. Young became agitated, and started talking some more about climate change.
“Colorado could be coming down the highway towards Albany right now,” Young said, referring to the recent storm in Colorado that caused nearly $2 million in property damage. “If you don’t believe me, you’re in denial. Wait a couple of months. We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it down in New Jersey. You saw it in New York, saw it in New Orleans, saw it up in Canada, saw it in Toronto, saw it in Calgary, in the Midwest. It just keeps moving around like a ghost. We got to stop it…”
He sat down at his pump organ, started to play “Reason To Believe,” but he just couldn’t do it. It was like he was compelled to keep talking about what he felt was the point of the Farm Aid benefit concerts. So he got up and said to the crowd, “I’m not done. I don’t care. Somebody’s got to say something. Somebody’s got to say something. Don’t you want freedom of choice. Wouldn’t you like to burn something clean instead of something dirty? I would. A lot of people don’t believe it. Oh we got to have big oil, he’s out of his mind. I may be out of my mind but we still don’t need it. We got farmers we got the earth we got the sun we got the land. Let’s give it a chance.”
What followed was a funeral slow rendition of the Tim Hardin classic.’
‘Reason To Believe’:
And then Young was talking again. “Life is short folks,” he said. “We all know that. There’s no time like right now. I was talking back stage with Pete [Seeger] before he came out here and he told me a tale about this friend of his. We lost this friend a long time ago ‘cause life is short. He killed himself. And Pete talked to him a few days before that happened and Pete said, ‘I wish I’d done something more to stop that from happening.’ I said, ‘Well don’t worry about that, there’s nothing you can do about it. Because that kind of thing happens all the time.’ It happened to me. I had a friend [Cobain], who was a singer and he was great. And he reached out to me and I tried to get back to him through his office. I tried for days and days and finally I gave up. Couple of days later he blew his head off. So life is short and you can regret things…
And that’s when someone in the ground yelled out “Come on, let’s go,” and Young freaked.
“Come on let’s go?” he said. “Did I hear ‘come on lets go?’ I’m on my way buddy. I work for me. So you know I’m trying to make a little point here. But this guy that Pete knew, he was one of the greatest poets that ever lived. He wrote this next song that some of you have probably never heard and it’s long as hell. I don’t know what to tell you… One of the greatest songwriters that ever lived. Phil Ochs was his name…”
And then Young ended his set with a beautiful performance of Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes’:
You can read Michael Goldberg’s blog at: Days Of Crazy-Wild
Watch Saturday’s Farm Aid performances, including Young’s entire set: