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Neil Young performed "Rockin' in the Free World" for the first time on February 21, 1989 at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. Since then it has been covered by countless bar bands and big bands, including Van Halen, Pearl Jam, the Dickies, K's Choice, the Indigo Girls, Slobberbone, Patti Smith, and Bon Jovi. It was heard on newscasts all over the world when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989; it was dedicated by Young often from the stage to "the Chinese boy in Tiananmen Square who stopped the tanks"; and it abruptly concludes Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. It has been performed by Young approximately 370 times, though it is unlikely that it has ever felt more crucial, purposeful, or illimitable as it did the 371st time--last Tuesday, just before midnight, in a hockey arena in St. Paul.
A few hours earlier, to a flabbergasted and deafening whoop, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe asked the throng at Xcel Center, "Please welcome to the stage Neil Young." Young's appearance at the Vote for Change concert was a shock--not only because he supported Reagan in the '80s and the Patriot Act in the months following September 11, but because few expected him to be on the bill. It instantly upped the ante on the proceedings, and suddenly what was moving along nicely as an as-advertised fundraiser/feel-good rally morphed into a potentially historic night of music where anything could happen. Hope was no longer on the way; it had arrived in the form of a wispy-haired leaping gnome wielding a golden Les Paul and wearing a "Canadians for Kerry" button.
The headliner, of course, was Bruce Springsteen, whose songs--especially "The Rising" and "Promised Land"--took on a new richness in the context of the political, cultural, and religious cauldron in which his beloved America now finds itself, a cauldron that Stipe characterized as "the biggest thunderstorm I've seen in my life." I'd been disappointed by Springsteen the last two times I'd seen him in concert--on The Rising tour in San Jose and Sacramento--when his relatively uninspired shows failed to refract the urgency of the times. They left me wanting, and I bailed on both shows before the encores. Not this time.
This time, Springsteen was the picture of a free man; a formerly self-censored major-label artist unleashed. At one point he held a "Bush Must Go" sign and theatrically berated an actor playing a Boogie Boy-styled "Republican," hilariously encouraging the crowd to chant, "Halliburton, Halliburton, Halliburton." His and the other artists' between-song comments never approached preaching, though, even when Springsteen peppered his gospel-rap with, "I want to be drenched in the waters of democracy!" Rather, the most penetrating statement of the night came from a Springsteen interview that played on the arena video screen. "It's pretty simple to me," he said. "If you send young people to fight and die in a war that is proven there is no good cause for, you lose your job. It's not rocket science. You lose your job."
The raw heart of the night was provided by Young, whose dramatic guitar soloing pushed the E Street Band past any limits they had been observing. Most of the people onstage took on expressions of slack-jawed awe at Young's possessed playing. Anyone with half a sense of history could feel the climax of "Free World" coming all night, and when it did, it was that rare all-star jam (Neil and Peggy Young, Springsteen and band, John Fogerty, Bright Eyes, and R.E.M.) that exceeded any reasonable expectations and didn't devolve into smarminess.
Stipe, who had paid the cover at the door when he showed up to see bill-opener Bright Eyes at the 400 Bar the night before, patrolled the edges of the stage with a cowbell, cajoling the crowd into standing and chanting the chorus. Springsteen played his Telecaster like a recent garageland graduate, while Young wrestled his guitar, bared his teeth, and screamed about the homeless, the environment, the rich, and ad-libbed, "Boys are dying every day because we didn't have a plan."
Young's 1989 album Freedom opens with an acoustic "Rockin' in the Free World" and closes with an electric version. One of the song's most memorable performances came that year on Saturday Night Live, for which Young warmed up with his trainer before going on. In Jimmy McDonough's biography Shakey, Young explained, "To perform that song the way it's supposed to be performed, you have to be at peak blood level. Everything has to be up, your machine has to be stoked. You can't walk on cold and do that or you're gonna look like a fuckin' idiot."
Like the best music, "Rockin' in the Free World" is up for interpretation, and it demands that listeners come up with their own version of what "rockin'" and "free world" mean. Before last Tuesday, one of the last times I saw it performed live was at a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young show in Minneapolis a few years ago. I was reviewing the show for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the same paper that previewed the Vote for Change concert with a predictable "shut up and sing" column and a short news story about one fan's ticket mix-up. The next day, the paper reported on and reviewed the show with the sort of detachment that is sure to get no one accused of being liberal, free-thinking, or interesting.
Anyway, by the time CSNY got to "Rockin'" that night, I was bored out of my skull. But the song is indelible, and not even the sight of the waddling CSN backing Young could ruin it. I was sitting up in the Target Center press box, resting my chin in my hand, wondering why Neil even bothered with these jokers. The arena was dark, save for the stage lights and the small desk lamp and computer screen that illuminated my face. As I finished my review, I thought about how much I love Neil, and the song, and what it means to rock in the free world.
Then something weird happened. Young looked up at me, made eye contact, and raised the neck of his Les Paul in salute. At first I thought I'd imagined it, in that "He looked right at me!" delusion of the rock fan, but he kept grinning and staring straight at me. I sat up in my chair, tilted my head in pantomime question, and returned his look and grin. He stared back, laughed, and raised his guitar at me again. I got up on my haunches and gave him an exaggerated thumbs-up. He grinned maniacally, raised his guitar to me one more time, and went back to his bandmates. His message was clear: Hey, man. No worries. We're both workin' here. Don't let the bastards get you down. Keep on rockin' in the free world.
It was a small ripple, but it stayed with me, and I know I'm not alone. The morning after the Vote for Change concert, I visited the Wellstone Action! offices in St. Paul. When I was leaving, a young woman walked by me in the hallway, softly singing, "Keep on rockin' in the free world."
"Great song," I said.
"Wasn't that amazing last night?" she chirped. "I've been singing that song all day."