Neil Young may be isolated away from the world in the remote Colorado home he shares with his wife, actress Daryl Hannah, but he’s still found ways to be there for his fans. During the past few weeks, he’s released three excellent Fireside Sessions, performing rarities and offering glimpses of his dogs. He’s also continued to roll out vintage concert footage from his Archives site for free, including a rare 1971 clip of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and a thrashing 1991 Crazy Horse concert. He even takes time to politely reply to fan letters from irate Trump supporters, acknowledging their viewpoints and signing off with “Be well, my friend.” This summer, he’ll release his long-lost 1975 album Homegrown.
All the recent activity has us thinking about a track from Young’s past that seems particularly timely at the moment: Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation,” a gem from his 1989 LP, Transverse City, that features Young on backing vocals. Young first contributed lead guitar to the title track of Zevon’s 1987 album, Sentimental Hygiene, and Transverse City saw him lending a hand on both “Splendid Isolation” and “Gridlock.” This kind of collaboration wasn’t unusual for Zevon, who was known for recruiting lineups that seem almost mythical today. Transverse City alone had appearances by Jerry Garcia, David Gilmour, Chick Corea, and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell.
But there’s something about “Splendid Isolation” that makes it stand out. The term “splendid isolation” is a British military term from the late 1800s that refers to avoiding permanent alliances. The late songwriter delivers a hell of an argument about wanting to be alone, delicately supported by a harmonica and Young’s signature falsetto on the chorus.
The duo first performed “Splendid Isolation” live in July 1992, at the Winter Park Resort in Colorado, and then a year later — as seen in the clip above — at Young’s 1993 Bridge School Benefit. The lineup included Simon and Garfunkel, Heart, Sammy Hagar, Bonnie Raitt, and others, but aside from his own set, Young appeared onstage only with Zevon.
The performance is a subtle and sweet rendition of the studio version, complete with Young’s harmonica and the musicians playing their acoustic guitars in unison. “Neil was kind enough to sing this next song with me from some album of mine,” Zevon tells the crowd before launching into the first verse: “I want to live alone in the desert/I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe/I want to live on the Upper East Side/And never go down in the street.”
Many songs have taken on new meaning during the pandemic, but nothing says “please leave me alone” better than Zevon’s lines about “putting tinfoil on the windows” and not wanting “nobody coming by without calling first.” We can all relate.