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(This is one of a series of articles which provide an explanation of the meaning of Neil Young's song Powderfinger. While the interpretation of lyrics presented here is composed of several viewpoints, there is little consensus on the exact meaning of Neil's songs. The themes and symbolism of Young's songwriting provide a rich tapestry on which to project various meanings and analysis. Enjoy!)
Subject: thoughts on Powderfinger
Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 12:17:17 -0400 (EDT)
More Barn, Rainer & Rusties at large,
Okay, I'll bite. It's been great reading all the different and
*differing* reactions to Powderfinger. If I'm not mistaken, this is its
second go-round on Rust, the 1st time being in summer 1994 (before I got on the
list). Here are my thoughts and guesses about Powderfinger, and a few questions of my
own. My opinions, while deeply felt, are opinions and nothing more, and are
meant to be food for thought. If I digress, so be it. This is a Neil Young
list and this entire post is Neil-related.
1) What has Neil had to say about the song? Well, on a radio phone-in
interview in the 80's he had a question about Powderfinger, and all he could say was
that it just came to him and couldn't realy explain it. Hmmm... maybe.
Closer to the truth, I think, are his comments in an interview he
gave in a recent issue of Spin from 1995: the interview was almost over when
he mentioned (by way of commenting on his seeming nonchalance in talking about
his songs) the "anger and angst" behind this song, which may be not be always
easily visible but is nevertheless there. Weisblott, who conducted the
intervew, said he could feel Neil's eyes boring through Neil's sunglasses into
him. :) This leads me to believe there is more conscious thought behind Powderfinger
than we've been led to believe. This does not mean, though, that if Neil
did explain the song, it would be the only way to interpret it. When we're
talking great songs, the music and the lyrics, are always bigger than one
person's explanation. But a comment from Neil like those he gave for his songs
on Decade wouldn't hurt.
James McKelvey, if you're reading this, what did Elliot Roberts have to say
about this song himself, or was he being his usual cagey self?
2) Powderfinger's genesis: If I'm not mistaken, Neil wrote this song (and Sedan
Delivery in 1975) for the southern band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The story behind that
might be interesting. It's quite possible that someone from LynSkyn told Neil a
story about some event in the South, and Neil transposed it into a song, which,
as Locator suggested, reads like a script. Now those of us who've seen Neil's
movies or videos know how shaky :) his storylines can be. More than a good
story, he's after a certain feel or mood much more often than not, even in a
story-like song like Powderfinger. But Neil is so all over the map where his visual
imagination is concerned, there's no way I'm going to guess what script he had
in mind here. All we have are the words, and more important, the music, and
here I agree with Paul *SR* Gase's insightful comments on the words being a
set up for those great guitar workouts, which are the heart and soul of this
BTW, Locator, you're not the only one who appreciates the non-feedback
solos in Country Home. Ditto for me in Powderfinger, too Maybe one of the
reasons it is so popular is that Neil doesn't rely on feedback to convey the
feelings hidden in this song. More on that later.
3) The words:
3.1) "Powderfinger": what does this word itself mean? Did Neil coin it himself?
Is it a regional expression of some sort? My take is that it's nickname for a
trigger happy kinda guy, who solves his problems with a gun. Come to think of
it, it may well be a personification of or a metaphor for fate, even death,
itself. I don't think it necessarily refers to the 22 year-old (from here on,
I'll call him "22"). If anything, 22 is a *victim* of Powderfinger.
3.2) "white boat": It could be a Coast Guard cutter, or it could be another
kind of boat from another federal, state or local policing agency of some sort.
Take your pick. For instance, I imagine there are several kinds of these boats
operating in Florida. The important point for me here is it's some kind of
inexorable authority that you can't get away from, a messenger of fate maybe?
What the 22 and/or his family did or didn't do is also beside the point. Maybe
they're drug dealers or gun runners or makers of moonshine or (fill in the
blank). Whatever they did, the time has come to pay some terrible bill.
3.3) "big red beacon": To me this is a kind of serachlight boats use at night
to watch where they're going. The events in Powderfinger, then, take place at night,
which would help explain the black that 22 sees later on.
3.4) "Daddy's gone...": Yet another song where the protagonist (22, in this
case) is, or certainly, feels abandoned, like "Everybody's Alone." I have the
feeling that daddy is dead or at least is not coming back. 22's brothers are
not in either, so he's left to face the music, the "powers that be" all by his
lonesome. And isn't that the way we sometimes feel once we grow up and face a
big decision, go through a crisis, or deal with hostile, faceless forces day
after day that are bigger than we are? Here I have to thank Mike who talked
about being 22 lo those many years ago. Excellent point about having to take
responsibility all too soon, and the very mixed feelings that result.
3.5) "The closer they got, the more those feelings grew": It's not hard to see
why 22 gets shot. He's too busy wonderin' and thinkin'! He seems to be more
of a thinker than a doer, but again, like so many of us, is thrown into a dire
situation not of his own choosing.
3.6) "Red means [run], numbers add up to nothing": another symbol of authority,
like flashing red lights that figure in other Neil songs: Roll Another Number,
Don't Let It Bring You Down", the video of "Touch The Night". The numbers
could refer to the numbers on the side of the boat, the number of years to be
spent in jail, and/or the fact that the most important things left can't be
counted or measured. A great line, IMHO.
3.7) "When the first shot hit the dock I saw it comin'": If 22 sees the shot
comin', he's already a dead men. He's way too slow. The best he can do is
raise his rifle in a futile but gutsy attempt to fight back.
I had to laugh when Cathy (Purple Words) suggested that 22 shoots himself
accidentally. Certainly a black humor type of possibility.
That's more plausible than the theory that 22 did himself in deliberately.
He's too young for that, with "so much left undone" and I doubt he'd have much
emtional room for missing his love if he were suicidal, being too consumed by
fear and self-pity. Characters in Neil songs may be losers in society's eyes,
misfits, loners, at odds with their surroundings, they may be even be victims,
but they do not give up. If Neil stands for anything, it's for fighting back,
no matter what the odds. "I've been down, but I'm comin' back up again."
"He tried his best but he could not." For me, the guitar solos in Powderfinger are not
the music of or about a guy who throws in the towel.
3.8) "I saw black and my face splash in the sky": If the events take place at
night, there's black all around. Even in the daylight, water can tend to be
black. So my take on this line is that 22 falls into the water, and just
before he falls in, he sees his face reflected in the water which is already
reflecting the sky. For those who are into deeper analysis, you remember a
discussion in early September revolving around "I'm The Ocean". Among other
things the archetypal significance of water and sky were discussed in
connection with that song. It may well apply here. It's certainly a
possibility. I don't know.
3.9) "Shelter me from the powder and the finger": In other words, "protect from
a society where accounts have to be settled with guns, where lawlessness
parades as the law; protect me from my fate; protect me from dying."
3.10) "Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger": This line remains
enigmatic to me. Perhaps: "Make me like the Powers That Be, they're the one
in charge, they're the ones running the show"? I'm not happy with that
3.11) "Remember me to my love, I know I'll miss her": this sounds like a very
reluctant farewell to life and love to me.
4) The music: none of this would grab people as it does were it not for the
great melodies in this song, and Neil's often changing variations on the themes
in Powderfinger. In contrast to a lot of other electrical songs, this has a solid
structure of words + music + words + music + words. It's as if Neil were
saying to himself, "Okay, buddy, instead of going on and on, you've got 5-6
minutes to sing the song and say your piece." The tight structure is a
challenge that many musicians will set themselves to paradoxically break out of
the corset by staying within its limits on the surface. The freedom in Powderfinger
comes in the solos which follow distinct lines but never the same way twice.
Now Neil doesn't always strike gold, but more often than not in Powderfinger he aces
it, hits a bulls-eye as it were, with sometimes 2, sometimes 3 guitar solos.
He's played Powderfinger with Crazy Horse in 1978, 1986, 1987, 1991 and 1995, and with
the International Harvesters (the public at large has no idea of how good this
band was, as there's no officially released recordings of them) in 1984 and
1985, with Booker T & the MGs in 1993 (though so far I've only found one Powderfinger
from their tour that has the spark), and in 1995 with PJ. I've heard only the
Powderfinger from the Jun.24 Golden Gate show. If that's a taste of what was to come,
then we're in for some Powderfinger treats.
BTW, Powderfinger is one of the few songs (the other being Misfits) that Neil
has played with both CH and IH at the same time, during his Australia tour of
March 1985. If someone has a high-quality copy of one of the Melbourne shows
for example, it would be great if it could be treed. My copies I have are okay
sound-wise but not good enough to be treeable. These shows are a great example
of country Neil, acoustic Neil and r&r Neil during the *same* show, and of his
balancing of golden oldies, somewhat familiar songs and new songs.
5) Summing up: I never expect to be standing on a dock firing at some sort of
cops (or drug runners wanting to be paid up, yet another possibility). But if
Powderfinger is about facing situations where I'm overmatched, about not wanting to die
young, not wanting to die at all, then I, and many others, can idenitfy with
Neil and 22, if only on a half-concsious level. If so, Neil is saying with
his guitar solos, "I'm gonna give it my best shot, I'm gonna give it my all"
and goes on to express the hopes, the bittersweetness, the ecstasy, the love of
life and now the regret, all too soon, of having to leave life and loved ones
behind. And he does it in a beautiful, melodic and musical way that over the
course of many renditions of Powderfinger has turned into a clinic on, an overview of
his various guitar styles from country to rock to blues to 50s to various
combinations of them. The results are often profoundly moving, inspiring and
exhilarating versions that continue to encourage me and help me live my life
and, it seems, of many others. God bless him for it.
And thanks to all you Rusties who have helped me get to know Neil
better. He's one of the treasures of modern music.
Mark (Powderfinger) / email@example.com
For more on the song "Powderfinger", see the Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young page.
Also see, the band Powderfinger.
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