Neil Young was on the road with his band the Restless in February of 1989 when he learned that a planned cultural exchange, which would have brought him to Russia, wasn’t going to pan out. “They were getting us in exchange for the Russian Ballet,” Restless/Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro told Rolling Stone in 2013. “And it just fell through. Neil was like, ‘Damn, I really wanted to go.’ I said, ‘Me too. I guess we’ll have to keep on rockin’ in the free world.'”
The line struck a chord with Young, and he said he might use it for a song. “We were checking into our hotel and the manager was [talking about] that stuff going on with the Ayatollah and all this turmoil in the world,” Poncho recalled. “I said, ‘There’s a song there, man. Come on, get to it.’ The next day he came up to me and told me to check out this lyric sheet.”
In a single day, Young had fleshed out Poncho’s idea into arguably his single greatest song of the 1980s. President George H.W. Bush had been sworn in just four weeks earlier, and the song absolutely rips him to shreds. At his inaugural address he optimistically referred to America’s “Thousand Points of Light” and during the Republican National Convention he talked about a “kinder, gentler nation.” Young flipped those hopeful words into the brilliantly sarcastic lines, “We’ve got a thousand points of light/for the homeless man/We’ve got a kinder, gentler/machine gun hand.”
Other parts of the song refer to Ayatollah Khomeini’s proclamation that America is the “Great Satan” (“Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them”) and Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign slogan (“Got a man of the people/says keep hope alive.)” The middle verse is the absolutely chilling tale of a drug-addicted homeless woman who throws her baby into a garbage can. Clearly, the man who praised Ronald Reagan to the press in the early 1980s had a change of heart.
The song was unveiled at Seattle’s Paramount Theater on February 21st, 1989. “We didn’t even rehearse it with the band,” Poncho claimed. “I was telling the chords to [bassist] Rick Rosas as we went along.” Thankfully, a fan caught this historic moment on tape and you can hear it right here. Remarkably, the rendition Young and the Restless played that night is almost identical to the version the rocker recorded on Freedom later that year.
An acoustic rendition of the song kicks off Freedom and the LP wraps up with an electric one, just as Young did with “Hey Hey, My My” on Rust Never Sleeps a decade earlier. The tune became a big hit, launching Young into his “Godfather of Grunge” period. “Poncho thought he should get credit for [the song] and told me years later he had always felt that way” Young wrote in his 2013 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. “Now he gets credited and paid whenever that song is involved.”