If there’s one law you can rely on in this post-truth age, it is that rock curmudgeons attract. Roger Waters and Neil Young are perhaps the most curmudgeonly, politically-engaged musicians around. Unlike so many of their countercultural contemporaries, they continue to rail against the status quo, with Young leading the recent Spotify backlash by removing his music from the streaming service and Waters calling for an end to the war in Ukraine. Given their mutual distrust of modern politics, it’s no surprise Waters selected one of Young’s songs when he was invited to name the eight tracks he couldn’t live without for the BBC.
Roger Waters rose to fame as one of the founding members of Pink Floyd. As the bassist and vocalist for the Syd Barrett-fronted psych-outfit, Waters helped redefine the parameters of rock music when it was still an amorphous blob rippling with sonic potential. Today, he is one of the most polarising voices in music – as you would be if you’d made a name for yourself as such a strident individualist. Whether it’s being openly critical of Isreal, labelling US president Joe Biden a war criminal or dismissing the West’s provision of arms to Ukraine, Waters has certainly become something of an iconoclast.
Perhaps that’s why he values Young’s music. Introducing his first pick on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Waters said: “Neil Young singing ‘Helpless’. There is an honesty and a truth in everything that he’s done. You feel the man’s integrity and passion. I can feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck now remembering the purity with which he hits the first notes of this song. It’s extraordinarily moving and eloquent.”
Originally featured on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu and later released on Young’s own 1977 Decade compilation, ‘Helpless’ was recorded in San Francisco at about 4am, at which point, Young later recalled, his band were finally tired enough to play at his speed. The track focuses on the town of Omemee, Ontario, where Neil’s parents moved in 1949 when he was only four years old. In the autobiography Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, Young describes it as “a nice little town. Sleepy little place… Life was real basic and simple in that town. Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody.”
‘Helpless’ is perhaps one of Young’s most impressionistic works. From his vivid description of “blue, blue windows” sitting behind stars, a “yellow moon on the rise” and “big birds flying across the sky,” it’s clear he’s trying to conjure up the same wonderment he experienced so effortlessly as a child. This profound nostalgia suggests that by 1970 Young was becoming increasingly disillusioned with his life on the West Coast. His response? To grasp for home.
You can revisit ‘Helpless’ below.
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