As I mentioned in my first post, there’s no small controversy over what, exactly, “Powderfinger” is about. Aided by the abundance of specific details in the lyrics, especially about that boat, almost all interpretations nod to Young’s political sensibilities in some way. That is, they identify the young man as one who is defending his himself and those he cares about against an armed government force. Not too hard to do given the details in the song and a not uncommon theme for Young, of course.
Many think the white boat coming down the river is a U.S. Coast Guard boat, and that the family being targeted is involved in some kind of illegal activity – drug running or more likely a distillation operation. Could well be:
Coast Guard gunboat, with a big red beacon, numbers on the side, and a gun.
Many others have tried to make the case that the song is set during the Civil War, with the family under attack by Union soldiers. This also could well be, and that would be interesting for many reasons. Is there a boat to match this scenario? I found a few that I thought might suffice, but really don’t know – we could use Pat’s historical knowledge and sleuthing skills here.
I’ve even read interpretations of the song that figure the narrator to be a soldier on a U.S. Navy patrol boat during the Vietnam War, imagining the thoughts going through the mind of a young man who lives along the river. I don’t buy that at all (but, again, maybe, just maybe) though I do like it.
A U.S. Navy river patrol on the Go Cong River – what is this young man thinking?
Speaking of spirits, some fans also imagine the song to be about something less literal — the death of the spirit of American music in the 60s, for example. In this reading, the rifle in question is Young’s own guitar, and the boat coming down the river is the march of time that is once again a-changin’, and in a not good way. With similar intensity, fans argue about who in the song does and does not actually pull the trigger. That is, is the young man able to fire a return shot, or is he killed before he can do so? Some argue that, young and inexperienced, his rifle explodes in his face, killing him, or even that he commits suicide. Again, I don’t buy that, but it’s interesting.
Representative examples of the typically earnest (though also sometimes lighthearted) analysis of the song’s lyrics by fans can be found here, here, and here. And here. And many, many other places. What can also be found in these amazing forums is a lot of evidence about how deeply affecting the song is for so many people — even in the face of, or perhaps because of, all the uncertainty about it. (I think we at MBM have a lot in common with these fans.)
At the end of my last post, I suggested that the Cowboy Junkies’ version of “Powderfinger” may be the cover that conveys the emotional core of the song the best, perhaps especially to those who aren’t big Young fans.
Why that last comment? I adore the Junkies and think their version is stellar. But it also tips the emotional scale and balance of the song. It takes us to a singular place of deep sadness and away from the original’s powerful, more complex place in which a simmering anger is also present. Other good covers do the same thing, more or less. For example:
So, let’s backtrack and set things right. Did I say anger? Yes, and that’s Young’s word, not mine. And it is an important word, one of the very few Young ever uttered about the song. When asked what the song is about, Young has been prone to say simply, “I don’t know” or “I forgot.” But in a 1995 Spin magazine interview, while commenting on a question about his often casual disregard for talking about the meaning of his songs, Young referenced the obvious “anger and angst” present in “Powderfinger.” The interviewer reported that he could also feel Young’s eyes boring through his sunglasses right into him as he made the comment, underscoring his point.
Angst is certainly palpable in the lyrics, and the Junkies get that right. But anger? It’s there. But to really feel it you need Young’s guitar solos and his live performances. Let’s listen, paying primary attention not to the lyrics but to the placement and emotional tone of those solos. (These performances also show that you don’t have to be a young man to sing an angry young man’s song.)
“Powderfinger,” Neil Young with Crazy Horse, 1991 (the reactions in the audience here are precious gems)
“Powderfinger,” Neil Young, 2008
As some have pointed out, and I think they are right, the heart of “Powderfinger” and its story is in these instrumental solos.
As a sharp observer commented in this thread, there’s a similarity here to the Grateful Dead song “Jack Straw,” where the instrumental jam near the end embodies the murder that takes place in the story at that point; the more intense and raw the jam is when performed live, the more truthfully the murder is conveyed. You can see this illustrated in Pat’s terrific discussion of “Jack Straw” on our blog, which starts here. And why not take another look and listen right now without leaving the page:
“Jack Straw,” Grateful Dead, 1989
Another way of putting all this is that in “Powderfinger,” and songs like it, the thought that pulls the trigger, so to speak, is found in the music. No amount of lyrical or historical analysis is going to identify that thought or the murder to which it leads more clearly or more truthfully.
But, we can’t help ourselves. None of us fans can. So, at least, let’s say that any interpretation of the story this song is telling us must take as our guide the message in the music. So, forget for a moment about his awful sorrow, and our own. What is this young man angry about, who is he angry at, and why?In the next short and final post I’ll pose a possible answer, one that really makes this song hit home for me. It’s also one that has helped me think about why Young bothers at all with the specificity of narrative detail that he provides in this song.
Until then, one more live version — our second stop at Live Aid so far on the blog (first one here, with Dylan):