Neil Young was just 28 years old when he wrote “Ambulance Blues” in 1974, but he’d been a professional musician for over a decade by that point and had a lot to reflect back on. “Back in the old folky days,” he sings over an acoustic lick that he admits he subconsciously nicked from Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death. “The air was magic when we played/The riverboat was rockin’ in the rain/Midnight war the time/for the raid.” He’s referring to Toronto’s Riverboat Coffee House, a folk club where he played in his pre-fame days along with Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and many others.
The message becomes a little harder to discern over the next nine minutes as he references everything from the Navajo Trail to Mother Goose, something he even admits when he sings, “It’s hard to say the meaning of this song.” But it’s a chillingly beautiful tune that provides the perfect finale to 1974’s solemn On the Beach. He played it live a bunch of times on the infamous 1974 CSNY reunion tour. His bandmates probably didn’t realize it, but the line “you’re just pissin’ in the wind” was aimed squarely at them. Young’s manager Elliott Roberts accused Crosby, Stills and Nash of just “pissing in the wind” by that point in their career since they seemed more focused on groupies and drugs than actually creating new music.
The song was written in the midst of Watergate, and in the final verse Young moves on from CSN to Richard Nixon. “I never knew a man could tell so many lies,” he sings. “He had a different story for every set of eyes/How can he remember who he’s talking to?/Cause I know it ain’t me/and hope it isn’t you.”
“Ambulance Blues” sat dormant for 14 years until the 1998 Bridge School Benefit, when R.E.M. convinced him to break it out. Their live version is one of the greatest moments in Bridge School history, and it seemed to get Young back into the song, since he played it nearly 20 times on his solo acoustic tour the following year. It was a regular part of his 2007/’08 Chrome Dreams II tour, and was last heard at a private gig he played in Paris last year for French billionaire Édouard Carmignac. Young hasn’t played live since Donald Trump became president, but if he wants to address a “man who could tell so many lies/he had a different story for every set of eyes,” it might come in handy.