Neil Young’s apocalyptic songs of change: “For the Turnstiles” and “Don’t Let it Bring You Down”

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I happened to be listening to the collection of songs called “Decade” by Neil Young the other day, and was struck by the song “For the Turnstiles” when he sang

You can really learn a lot that way
It will change you in the middle of the day.
Though your confidence may be shattered,
It doesn’t matter.

I thought that he seemed to be singing about reaction to “apocalyptic” events that can be the catalyst for a change, or turning in life, essentially a sort of “conversion.” This post will explore the question of apocalyptic and change in “For the Turnstiles” and in another thematically similar song, “Don’t Let it Bring You Down.” These songs are both from the early 1970’s and I would also like to say that they are both excellent songs.

All the sailors
with their seasick mamas
Hear the sirens on the shore,
Singin’ songs
for pimps with tailors
Who charge ten dollars
at the door.

You can really
learn a lot that way
It will change you
in the middle of the day.
Though your confidence
may be shattered,
It doesn’t matter.

All the great explorers
Are now in granite laid,
Under white sheets
for the great unveiling
At the big parade.

You can really
learn a lot that way
It will change you
in the middle of the day.
Though your confidence
may be shattered,
It doesn’t matter.

All the bushleague batters
Are left to die
on the diamond.
In the stands
the home crowd scatters
For the turnstiles,
For the turnstiles,
For the turnstiles.

“For the Turnstiles” is from Neil Young’s 1974 album “On the Beach.” Many believe that “On the Beach” is one of his best works. I would probably agree, but I have not heard many of his albums, so I am in not qualified to say. But I definitely think it ranks with some of the best of what I have heard.

I believe the song “For the Turnstiles”is about the nature of life and about change. The verses portray several episodes of various lives that perhaps characterize the bizarre nature of life as both mundane and cataclysmic, with the implication being that in either case it can turn out “bad.” If we know this we should see it as a life lesson and “learn a lot that way” and change. Thus the nature of life should drive us “for the turnstiles” where we can escape the consequence that will otherwise follow as the inevitable result if we simply remain where we are. The events of life should “change us in the middle of the day” which seems to signify an abrupt and decisive change. I think of  some fishermen sitting on the shore of the Sea of  Galilee while mending their nets in the middle of the day, with no apparent thought of change for their life’s work,  but then being “called” by Jesus and abruptly leaving their present lives and their nets to follow him. (see Matthew 4:18-22)

What I especially like about the chorus is the observation that if we are open to learning and changing, that the shattering of our confidence will become our experience, but “It doesn’t matter” in light of the alternative. What is the alternative? It is to not change, but rather to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and continue our facade of “confidence” that everything is fine as it is. This alternative seems to me akin to taking a nap in a burning building.

I once read somewhere that Jackson Browne’s songs could be generally categorized as some sort of “romantic/apocalyptic” genre because of their life settings. In similar fashion, Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles” is manifestly “apocalyptic” with images like “the great unveiling at the big parade” and “the home crowd” scattering “for the turnstiles.” But by mixing the apocalyptic with the mundane Neil Young seemed to be saying that all of life is in some sense apocalyptic in nature.

Perhaps some definition of “apocalyptic” may be helpful.

Preliminary Description of “Apocalypse”:

  • In popular terminology today, an “apocalypse” is a catastrophic event (e.g., nuclear holocaust).
  • In biblical terminology, an “apocalypse” is not an event, but a “revelation” that is recorded in written form:
    • it is a piece of crisis literature that “reveals” truths about the past, present, and/or future in highly symbolic terms;
    • the revelation often comes in dreams or visions, and usually needs to be interpreted with the help of an angel;
    • it is usually intended to provide hope and encouragement for people in the midst of severe trials and tribulations.

(From Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D. at http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Apoc_Def.htm)

It seems that Neil Young’s songs “For the Turnstiles” and “Don’t let it Bring You Down” are similar to points 1 and 3 under the second heading regarding the “biblical terminology” because of his focus on “crisis” (that includes the crisis of the mundane) and because of the “hope and encouragement” that is the purpose of the songs.

At first glance the songs seems to shatter our conception and confidence in life itself  but, “it doesn’t matter” since the shattering itself is part of the means of change and hope. Similarly, Adam and Eve’s world was shattered when they found they were prevented from re-entering what became their “old world” by a cherubim/guard with a flaming sword since their return would have actually sealed them in their separation from God and hope (see Genesis 3:22-24).

Here is “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” from 1970’s “After the Gold Rush.” It seems to contain the same concept of the need of turning, for hope, in the face of the “apocalyptic” nature of life.

Old man lying
By the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by,
Blue moon sinking
From the weight of the load
And the building scrape the sky,
Cold wind ripping
Down the allay at dawn
And the morning paper flies,
Dead man lying
By the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes.

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

Blind man running
Through the light
Of the night
With an answer in his hand,
Come on down
To the river of sight
And you can really understand,
Red lights flashing
Through the window
In the rain,
Can you hear the sirens moan?
White cane lying
In a gutter in the lane,
If you’re walking home alone.

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Just find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Just find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

So if Neil Young is showing the need to change in the light of the nature of life, for the sake of hope, then what is the specific hope he envisioned? First of all I would say that it is not primarily the hope of an external change in the person’s relation to the nature of life portrayed in the songs but in the person’s internal perspective regarding it. We usually think of apocalyptic crises as things that have the power to change us, without thinking of the fact that they are merely opportunities to change, opportunities that arise from our struggle with the powers beyond our control. But in a sense changing is in our power inasmuch as we face the choice of changing or resisting change.  Neil Young seems to be portraying in these songs the practical change that is the oft-missed purpose of all apocalyptic, whether futuristic or occupied with the present. (Actually, even exclusively futuristic apocalyptic is for the purpose of change in the present.) We need to again remember the following parts of the definition of apocalypse from Felix Just:

“it is a piece of crisis literature that “reveals” truths about the past, present, and/or future in highly symbolic terms…it is usually intended to provide hope and encouragement for people in the midst of severe trials and tribulations.”

Neil Young is focused on the “hope and encouragement” that can come if we allow our eyes to become open to the reality of the nature of life. That reality is portrayed in apocalyptic literature as futuristic and cataclysmic, but as I noted earlier, the songs show that the crisis of the mundane is also essentially apocalyptic because it demonstrates that many events of life are beyond our control and are therefore powers that we struggle against. This struggle is the older existential apocalyptic of Job, of the Psalmists, and of the writer of Ecclesiastes. This older apocalyptic purpose is not absent in the newer, although it is often missed by mistaking the purpose of all biblical apocalyptic. William Barrett, speaking of the older view, states the “change” or “turning” that is the purpose of all apocalyptic:

“The Hebrew, however, proceeds not by the way of reason but by the confrontation of the whole man, Job, in the fulness and violence of passion with the unknowable and overwhelming God. And the final solution for Job lies not in the rational resolution of the problem, any more than it ever does in life, but in a change and conversion of the whole man.” (Irrational Man, A Study in Existentialist Philosophy, William Barrett, 1958, p. 65.)

In conclusion, I find these songs of Neil Young to be in alignment with the essential nature of existence as understood by pre-Christian Judaism and Christianity. The nature of all human existence, not merely the “end of the world” cataclysm that many people throughout history have believed would come in their lifetimes, but even the present tense mundane existence, is essentially apocalyptic. It is for all people in some measure, a life of “castles burning”, of “flaming swords” that ban us from eternity here.  Hopefully we have seen that the futuristic and present tense apocalyptic views of life are not  mutually exclusive, for people will experience both eventually, as Neil Young’s “great explorers” will at “the great unveiling.” But in the meantime, because of the cherubim’s flaming sword we all live in the world of the “blue moon sinking” and “castles burning,” with our “confidence shattered.” But “it doesn’t matter” since “it will change us in the middle of the day”  if we “find someone who’s turning” so we “may come around.”

The two main points are that even the “crisis of the mundane” is apocalyptic, and that all apocalyptic is for the purpose of “turning.”  As the late Mark Heard wrote in one of his best songs,

The headlines in the dailies
Are the horses in a race
They lead you to believe
That life and death are commonplace
Some believe it
And I’m crying again

Mark Heard, and Neil Young are simply saying that nothing in life and death are “commonplace” and that if we acknowledge rather than evade the nature of reality “it will change you in the middle of the day.”

Neil Young also alludes to what may be the most important aspect of this change, namely to “find someone who’s turning.” What, or probably more accurately, who, is he referring to? I cannot really say who he had in mind, but I personally believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the best candidate. According to the New Testament, he is the “New Adam,” meaning the first of what some have called a “new way to be human.” He therefore, actually is the “turning,” just as he is “the way.” It is a little known fact that the early Christians were not at first called Christians, but “followers of “the way” – the new way to be human.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The ironies of life – “Strong Hand of Love” – by Mark Heard via Bruce Cockburn

strong hand

Here is one of the most simple and beautiful songs about life I have ever heard, written by the late Mark Heard and sung here by Bruce Cockburn on a tribute project to Mark following his passing. The overall theme of the song seems to be about the ironies of life. Continue reading

“She don’t have a clue…she is love” by Mark Heard

I was listening to a CD by the late Mark Heard today while I was plowing snow. The song “She Don’t Have a Clue” came on and suddenly I realized what the song was about which I guess I had missed on prior hearings. I realized that he was alluding to 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter” of the Bible. I also have lately taken special notice of a few other songs that are obviously based on 1 Corinthians 13. (My listening is following a recent determination to meditate more on this chapter, as is my book reading which now includes two classics: Charity and Its Fruits” by Jonathan Edwards and “Works of Love” by Soren Kierkegaard.) I had also recently thought of blogging about these other songs, so I decided to start with this one by Mark Heard, which will certainly be one of the most interesting ones since it is much more veiled in its allusions. Thank you Mark Heard! Continue reading