It’s easy to understand why Donald Trump has been playing “Rockin’ in the Free World” at his rallies these past five years despite howls of protest by Neil Young. Not only is Trump a huge fan of the man’s work, but it’s a famous rock song that sounds like a patriotic anthem if you just listen to the fist-pumping chorus and ignore the verses about homelessness, the destruction of the environment, the recklessness of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy, and a chilling tale of a baby left to die in a dumpster by a drug-addicted mother.
Earlier this week, Young finally sued Trump over his repeated usage of the song. But “Rockin’ in the Free World” isn’t the only song named in the suit. It also calls Trump out for playing “Devil’s Sidewalk” at a recent rally. This one is more of a head-scratcher given that it’s a super obscure tune from Young’s 2003 rock opera Greendale. Young has never played it a single time in concert outside of the 2003–04 Greendale tour since it makes little sense divorced from the context of the album.
Greendale tells the story of a fictional small town in California devastated by the murder of a beloved police officer. The incident creates a media firestorm within the community and inspires a teenage girl named Sun Green to devote her life to environment activism. “Devil’s Sidewalk” comes three songs into the work, setting an ominous tone right before the death of the cop that kicks off the larger story in the next song. “When the red light shines,” Young sings. “On the streets of hate/Where the devil dines/Who knows what he ate.”
Why this particular song was played at a Trump rally is anyone’s guess, though it does have a nice bluesy riff and great harmonies by the backup singers. Maybe Trump’s team thought it somehow evoked the pleasantries of small-town life? Perhaps they just punched up Young’s catalog on a steaming service and hit shuffle. Whatever happened, it’s truly hard to think of a more random Neil Young song that appears on an official studio album. He might as well have played “T-Bone,” “Drifter,” or “Fly by Night Deal.”
Young filed his lawsuit this week in a New York court, but it’s likely to linger in the system until long after the November election. In the meantime, it wouldn’t be surprising if Trump continues to play his music at rallies. If he’s into Greendale, though, we recommend the epic grand finale of “Be the Rain.” The eco-friendly message of the anthem would make it a ludicrous choice considering Trump’s belief that climate change is a “hoax,” but it’s no more ludicrous than “Rockin’ in the Free World” or “Devil’s Sidewalk.”