There’s a warning sign on the road ahead …

The A.V. Club recently did a feature about songs that should never be covered again. While I agree with everything on that list, I think there’s one glaring omission …

Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” one of my favorite songs of all time.

I can understand why a lot of people cover this song. Hell, it was one of the first songs I learned on guitar. It’s something most young musicians can pick up pretty quick and, quite honestly, it seriously fucking rocks.

To me, it’s the embodiment of that old adage “three chords and the truth.” A precursory look through Neil Young’s songbook shows that most of his songs have simple harmonic and melodic structure, but the man uses those simple tools to voice some very profound things. “Rockin’ …” is just one in long list of examples that would also include “Ohio,” “Needle and the Damage Done,” “Cortez the Killer,” “Hey Hey, My My” and so on.

But there’s an argument out there that I’m in total agreement with: just because a song is easy to play doesn’t mean that everyone should play it. And it totally rings true in this instance. Aside from Pearl Jam, almost every band that plays – or, more likely, butchers – this song misses the point totally. This isn’t a upbeat celebration of being an American. It might sound that way at first, but it’s much more subversive than that. In actuality it’s Young’s way of damning the things that led to the social and economic collapse during the presidency of Bush I. (He even quotes H.W.’s “thousand points of light” campaign promises). Recession was setting in, a crack epidemic was sweeping the nation and the economic policies in place were allowing a lot of people to become filthy rich while a great many more were forced to live on the street.

I admit those themes have great relevance in modern times, but let’s put this to bed, OK? When you have a group like Maroon 5 covering this song at Live 8, someone has to say “enough already.” I think those four men are an embodiment of the gross consumerism Young damns in the song.

Let me put it this way – Neil Young is a man who’s always stuck to his guns and followed his muse. He’s got integrity to spare. He got sued by his record label by making albums he wanted to make, which they said didn’t sound “commercially viable.” (Young said getting sued by his record label was better than “winning a Grammy.”) On the other hand, I honestly believe the members of Maroon 5 would help spread the AIDS virus, buy weapons to support the genocide in Darfur, rape a whole ward of parapelegic grandmothers and rip down the New Orleans levies with their bare hands in the middle of the night if it helped their album sales.

Let’s not forget that, aside from Pearl Jam (their performances are transcendant at times), most bands who cover “Rockin …” do so in such a weak-ass, limp-wristed manner that it’s laughable at best. At 60, Young puts more fire, soul and spirit into the song than the guys three times his junior.

Need proof? Check out this SNL performance.

So that’s it. I’m calling for a moratorium on covers of “Rockin’ in the Free World.”


~ by J on October 16, 2008.

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