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Neil Young’s "Old Man" – The Meaning (and Musicians) Behind the Song
The song “Old Man” first appeared on Neil Young’s 1972 album harvest The album has become one of “Old Man” Neil Young’s most memorable tunes, with its booming and raggedly-picked acoustic guitars, high-tenor lead vocals, and overall folk sound and feel. What was the inspiration behind this song and which famous musicians lent their talents to create this musical masterpiece?
“Old Man”, which reached no. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1972, Young begins by singing: “Old man look at my life, I’m just like you.” As listeners, we immediately wonder about the old man’s identity. Was he Young’s father? grandfather? Of course there is always the possibility that the “old man” is a metaphor and there is no actual old man. However, we now know that there was a certain old man to whom Young was singing.
In 1970 Neil Young purchased the Broken Arrow Ranch in Redwood City, California. Apparently the subject of this song is the keeper of this ranch. In Young’s recent concert film Heart of Gold, he introduced the “Old Man”: “At the time I wrote Heart of Gold and I was touring, I also had — just, you know, a rich hippie for the first time. — I bought a ranch, and I still live there. And there lived a couple who were caretakers, an old gentleman named Luis Avila and his wife Clara. And there was this old blue Jeep, and Luis gave me this blue Took me for a ride in the jeep. He took me to the top of the place, and there’s this lake that fed all the pastures, and he said, “Well, tell me, how’s a young man? Do you have enough money to buy a place like this?” And I said, “Well, just lucky, Louie, really lucky.” And he said, “Well, that’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.” And I wrote this. . sing for him.”
Of course knowing what we know now makes it much easier to understand the rest of the lyrics which include: “Old man look at my life, twenty-four and more. Being alone in a paradise that makes me think twice. . Lost love , this price, give me things that will not be lost. Like a coin that will not be thrown away, rolling in your house.”
Mystery solved. Which brings up the question regarding the supporting cast on this classic song. The album’s liner notes confirm that singer/songwriter James Taylor played six-string banjo (with guitar tuning) and sang backing vocals on the song. Singer Linda Ronstadt also added her signature vocals. This combination of mega-talents of the day explains the song’s undeniable “sound”. Young’s blend of raw vocals and guitar playing is perfectly balanced by sweet vocals and musical touches provided by Taylor and Ronstadt.
“Old Man” is one of Neil Young’s best songs, with the perfect blend of subject matter, powerful (and haunting) vocals, impressive performances, and guest appearances from singers James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
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