Sometimes the music pours out of Neil Young — who turns 70 years old tomorrow — in ways that even he can’t understand. Producer David Briggs has said that at one point in 1975, Young told him, “Guess I’ll turn on the tap,” picked up his guitar, and then wrote half of Rust Never Sleeps in one day, maybe two: “Powderfinger,” “Pocahontas,” “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Ride My Llama.”
“Powderfinger” is an inscrutable rock & roll koan: a song sung by a dead man, but full of life and longing. The narrator, just turned 22, was leaving boyhood behind by defending his family’s land against a gunboat coming up the river. The day he became an adult, however, was also the day he died. Young has performed the song regularly since its 1979 release, but it’s taken decades for him to plumb its depths. Versions from 30 years ago (at Live Aid in 1985, for example) sound rushed and choppy, as if Young can’t bear to linger at the scene of the shooting.
In recent years, however, Young and Crazy Horse have been playing “Powderfinger” better than ever before, as in this excellent 2013 version from Sydney, Australia. Young slows down and stretches the song to nearly eight minutes; drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot lock into the song’s groove while Young just keeps soloing. Young is telling the narrator’s story with his guitar as much as with his voice: The solos are beautiful but inexorable, a reminder that fate can smash you in the face like a shotgun shell.
At the end of the song, the narrator makes four requests. One of them — “Shelter me from the powder and the finger” — can’t be granted: It’s a final, forlorn hope that he might not die. With two other requests, the narrator hopes to be remembered: by the girl he loved, and by the listener, who needs to understand that he could have accomplished so much more if he had lived longer. The fourth demand from beyond the grave: “Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger.” He might be asking for you dig his grave with anger, or haste, or cold-blooded professionalism — or just to remember how he died.
Asked by biographer Jimmy McDonough if “Powderfinger” was an antiviolence song, Young said, “I dunno. Depends on how you interpret it. Might be. I think that the crux of it is antiviolent, because it shows the futility of violence. Guy’s gonna take a shot but gets shot himself. It’s just one of those things. It’s just a scene, you know?” That’s not exactly a definitive answer, but it’s comforting to know that one of the greatest songs in Neil Young’s catalogue is as much of a mystery to its author as it is to his fans.