A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
I have long maintained that Canada's two greatest exports to America are Wayne Gretzky and Neil Young.
Gretzky was that rarest of athletes; a performer who transcended his sport. His statistical footprint dwarfs that of Jordan, and despite the fact that we witnessed his accomplishments, we remain in slack-jawed incomprehension. Amongst the major sports only hockey has no discussion over who its greatest player is. Not only did he perform at a demonstrably unequaled level, Gretzky changed how the sport was played, giving it grace, speed, and beauty. Carniversouly competitive on the ice, but always a gentleman off it; few sports nicknames have been better suited than his - "The Great One".
But as the years go by it is Young who remains a tangible part of my life. His body of work is eclectic, broad, and voluminous, and places him in the pantheon of my lifetime's recording artists. From his early days in the legendary Buffalo Springfield, to Crosby-Stills-Nash-and Young, to his rock band Crazy Horse, to his solo career; he has given us multiple iconic hits; songs that are encoded in the DNA of a generation.
Who can forget the opening riff of Ohio? Released in the wake of the Kent State tragedy, its fractured, disoriented notes gave voice to the strife of a nation; its lyric "tin soldiers and Nixon coming" are written on the pages of that epoch's history. The simmering interplay of rythym and lead guitars in Cowgirl in the Sand, the chords rising off his guitars like heat waves off highway asphalt. The rock-a-billy tribute to Elvis in He Was the King. Is there a richer, more textured accoustic sound than the cascading opening chords of Thrasher? Or perhaps the greatest pop song of our generation, Heart of Gold. Written in one night, his only companions a guitar, harmonica, and bottle of tequila; it portrays his wistful, world weary, and all but tangible longing to be a better man. With the exception of Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs of such rich story telling and ethereal imagery.
I thought of Young as we prepared for our annual summer vacation in the wonderland that is Northern Michigan. I have written of my feelings for that land, and the times my family has enjoyed there. Our memories stretch from our kids' diapered frolics on the beach, to the more current ones of kayaking, golf, sailing, and sand dune climbing. The land, trees, and rivers are woven into the fabric of our lives; imprinted like a braind on my consciousness. Specifically I thought of his terrific song, Long May You Run as I packed our mini-van for the trip. Young penned the track in fond tribute to his 1948 Buick Roadmaster, a vehicle he named Mort. Writing as he drove from Canada to Los Angeles, then an unknown wayfarer traveling down the coast, soon to write his name forever into the music and culture of the late Twentieth Century. His harmonica, guitar, and other-worldly voice gave us one of the most delightfully whimsical numbers in memory.
"We've been through some things together,
With trunks of memories still to come".
Our van is an inanimate machine - steel, glass, plastic, and electronics. But tapping into Young's whimsical vein, I softly sang as I packed, my mind turning to the places it has taken us, and the times we have shared inside her. She's eleven years old now, and surely has far fewer miles left than already traveled. But insider her steel-lined ribs, the very fabric of our lives has been woven.
Three trips to Florida, the sunshine State's warm zephyrs a tonic for our wintered bones. Driving through the Kentucky thoroughbred country; its regal inhabitants gazing at us as we sped by, mere transient vassals in their kingdom of rolling, carpeted green. The charms of Asheville, North Carolina; its artisan community and sidewalk cafes a delight. Hiking on the Appalachian Trail, the smell of bursting spring a pungent force, as thunder rollied down from on hgh. Then the long descent to the coastal regions, our children humbled and quieted by the sight of sunset over the great salt marshes outside Charleston and Savannah.
"We found things to do in stormy weather,
Long may you run".
Our treks to Rocky Mountain National Park, hiking the countless paths, streams, and falls of the Big Thompson River. On our travels we have crossed three of America's mightiest rivers - the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri; waters that ferried Lewis and Clark along their mythological expedition, arteries of American commerce, folklore, and history.
The countless trips to Michigan, to the shores, dunes, rivers, and meadows of that magical countryside. And finally her more mundane assignments: to work, to schools, to grocery stores, soccer games and track meets. When we bought the van my father was still alive. When we bought it our daughter was a third grader, and our son was a bleach-blond three year old. Now she is a young, emerging woman, and he is the tallest member of our family. If given a voice our van could tell the story of that family's life.
As I sang my eyes moistened, and I lifted an unadormed prayer even as I groped to steal those times back into my hands. My prayer of thanks was half to artists like Neil Young, who give voice and texture and beauty to our innermost emotions, and for the hours of enjoyment he has provided me.
And the other half was one of thanks for the memories our van has provided, as I softly murmured, "Long may you run".