By Matt Meade
Neil Young has been coaxed, once again, into the current election cycle by that age-old political practice of a candidate willfully misunderstanding what rock and roll songs are about. Back in September Young yanked his Hubert Selby novel set to music, “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World,” from one walking Rorschach test of a candidate and bequeathed it upon another.
“Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” is probably second only to Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in the contest to see how often a song can be misappropriated by suit-and-tied politicians who sport furiously low pop-culture comprehension. This recent dust up over “Keep on Rockin’” may be the reason I am thinking about Neil Young, but that is not the song I have stuck in my head.
“Campaigner” was written in 1976, in classic Neil young fashion, in one sitting after Young was inspired by some cultural event (in this case the stroke of Richard Nixon’s wife Pat). Young’s take on the event is a predictably and bravely sideways interpretation as he inserts into the Nixon narrative something America was yet to see; humanity.
“Guess I felt sorry for [Nixon] that night,” Young would later say of the song.
Felt sorry for him indeed. The lyrics hint at notions of mortality vs. possibility, despair vs. hope, and the prison of our bodies vs. the infinity of our minds. It’s a Nixon who still yearns despite the global embarrassment of losing the American presidency, a Nixon who still dreams of making some kind of headway on high-minded ideas even when he is at his ill wife’s bedside.
Hospitals have made him cry
But there’s always a freeway in his eye
Though his beach got too crowded for a stroll
Roads stretch out like healthy veins
And wild gift horses strain the reins
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul
Armed only with a tattered acoustic guitar, Young played the song for an audience the night he wrote it. I assume they had no idea what to think of it. It was released as something of an afterthought on the 1977 compilation Decade (an album which must have seemed like a fastidious and career spanning feast at the time, but in retrospect feels woefully incomplete considering what we now know about Neil Young and what we know his music is capable of mutating into). By the time the song was pressed to vinyl the news story about a former head of state whose wife suddenly became ill and then recovered was forgotten and replaced by some other piece of gossip. “Campaigner,” by rights, should have relegated to the same cultural scrap heap as other songs about weirdly specific news items like Rush’s “Countdown,” about a 1981 space shuttle launch or the White Stripe’s little ditty “The Big Three Killed my Baby,” which is about corporate espionage in the automobile manufacturing industry.
Despite its hyper-specific references to Richard Nixon, a politician who hasn’t even been alive since the 90s, let alone in office or on the campaign trail, the song contains some quality that keeps it from sliding into irrelevancy. What is it about a Canadian’s warbling ballad to a politician broken by one too many rides on the election merry-go-round that makes it germane to the current American election?
Certainly all of Young’s sharply critical observations are present. After all, every election takes place in a world where “Traffic cops are all color blind / People steal from their own kind,” but that kind of perceptiveness isn’t the only thing that keeps the song relevant, nor is the tender, everyman brand of poetry that has seemed to come so easily to Young since before people started walking on the moon. The reason the song continues to resonate, I would argue, has more to do with Richard Nixon than Young’s lyrical and musical acuity.
Sure, Nixon has been made into some kind of a metaphor for America and for politics many times over – Hunter S. Thompson made a career out of presenting Nixon as a grinning and insane hydra whose evil tentacles wrapped themselves around American politics; Alan Moore used him in his revenge-fantasy, superhero melodrama Watchmen to represent the tendency toward authoritarianism in not just American politics, but in the American psyche in general; and Oliver Stone portrayed Nixon in his 1995 film as a Shakespearean tragedy with a five o’clock shadow, an overachiever whose own ambition had undone him, to name but a few – but Young’s Nixon is a different kind of metaphor. It digs deeper. It reveals more. It confronts the listener more acutely than all those other Nixons.
Young’s Nixon sums up the melancholy, the slow motion sadness of doing the things that we know we need to do, but that don’t really make us human; going to work, getting a haircut, campaigning for president. Nixon is somehow the perfect emblem of all that. Sure he is an easy scapegoat, Young seems to say, but who’s to say we aren’t all the Nixons of our own lives? Who hasn’t been outclassed by a younger, better looking, Kennedy-esque smooth-talker? Who among us hasn’t been a bit hubristic? Who hasn’t been embarrassed by our tendency to eavesdrop?
Most importantly though, Young knew that when Nixon’s wife Pat had a stroke, the disgraced president was coming face to face with something he could not negotiate with, buy off, or trade favors with. There is something very universal about that realization. Young saw the sad, broken man Nixon had become (and perhaps had always been) and Young explained him to us all. Like Professor X playing chess with a bested Magneto, Young offers a tacit defense of Nixon. After a career where Young had already written the blistering critique of the Nixon Administration, “Ohio,” this song seems to say, “Hey man, we all make mistakes…”
Young’s Nixon is the most weaponized form of metaphor. He takes the universally reviled Nixon, who betrayed his constituency and confirmed for Americans every twisted thing they had assumed about politics, and transforms him into a human being. (And yes, I know he got us out of Vietnam and went to China and all that, but he ushered into the American conscious a fundamental distrust of politicians and you know in your heart that you think of him as a slimy, paranoid liar and a person at whose legacy we dare not examine too closely). But Young succeeds in showing that somewhere deep down Richard Milhous Nixon is actually a human being. And not just any human being. Young transforms him, deftly, subtly, grotesquely, into You.
Who is the “lonely visitor” mentioned in the lyrics? Is it Neil Young, the Canadian who is commenting on American politics? No. Could it be Nixon who is haunting the halls of the hospital where he fears his wife might die? No. It’s you. You’re just visiting this country, this planet, this plane of existence, and you’ll be as dead as Pat Nixon in no time. Who “campaigned all my life towards that goal”? It’s you again. You have been striving your whole life toward that goal. Which goal? Oh you know. You know damn well.
So as we all piss each other off by supporting candidates who are offensive, un-American, criminals, or just too ubiquitous on Twitter, we should remember that we are all just doing what everyone else is trying to do. We are all trying to get noticed, we are all trying to make a difference, we are all trying to change something. We are all running for some office for which we aren’t qualified. We are all facing our own mortality in the lonely hallway of a hospital. We all keep our humanity hidden deep down someplace where everyone has soul. Even Donald Trump you ask? Yes. Even Donald Trump.