[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

March 2006

After the Gold Rush

Well, I dreamed I saw the knights in armor
Sayin’ something about a queen.
There were peasants singin’ and drummers
And the archer split the tree.
There was a fanfare blowin’ to the sun
That was floating on the breeze.
Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s,
Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.

I was lyin’ in a burned-out basement
With the full moon in my eyes.
I was hopin’ for replacement
When the sun burst through the sky.
There was a band playin’ in my head,
And I felt like getting high.
I was thinkin’ about what a friend had said,
I was hopin’ it was a lie.
Thinkin’ about what a friend had said,
I was hopin’ it was a lie.

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships
In the yellow haze of the sun.
There were children cryin’ and colors flyin’
All around the chosen ones.
All in a dream, all in a dream,
The loading had begun.
Flyin’ Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new
   home in the sun,
Flyin’ Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new

Dream, Nightmare, or Both?: Neil Young’s "After the Gold Rush"

After recent experience with hurricanes, mudslides, fires, new confirmations of global warming, and continued official deflections of public attention to outside enemies, one might feel nostalgic hearing Neil Young wail in his youthful, reedy voice, "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen-seventies," in the title song of his 1970 album After the Gold Rush. Times were uncertain, long-held beliefs were being challenged, but Canadians like Young and Americans like most of his audience shared an abiding faith in awareness-raising and deliberative democracy. Agreeing on the goal, we could do anything, fix anything.

Realities from dreams

The singer of "After the Gold Rush" reveals poignant concrete images and thoughts related to three different phases of Western civilization, one in each of the song’s three chronologically sequenced verses: medieval Europe, current times, and an unspecified future moment. Details of the first and third periods come to the singer in dreams, occurring too long ago and too far off in the future, respectively, for him to know them firsthand. The singer experiences details of the middle period directly -- even though they are as metaphorical and cryptic as the dreamt ones.

This mixing of actual and dreamt realities leads the listener to feel powerfully the ramifications of failing to stop assaulting Mother Nature: the apocalyptic flying of her "silver seed" -- a portion of humanity -- to "a new home," because our species has ruined the old one, Earth. This new home will be "in the sun" literally because that star is a necessary source of warmth and nourishment, and figuratively referring to one’s moment in the sun, when one’s special accomplishment is applauded. With ingenious irony, the song leads us to recognize -- entirely through concrete detail, using very few words, and without preaching or moralizing -- the astonishing paradox that the very same achievements for which our species constantly praises itself, extraterrestrial travel among the most recent, are those that threaten our survival by harming nature.

So "new home in the sun" contains a subtle note of sarcasm, hinting at the arrogance driving humanity to believe it can solve every problem it creates for itself, even ecological destruction, the ultimate playing with fire. See what we get for always seeking, rewarding, and delighting in those moments in the sun, the song says. Now look what it will take merely to survive. And it appears the vast majority of people won’t, since just a "seed," the beginning of a new crop somewhere else, is leaving Earth, and a spaceship cannot carry thousands, let alone billions.

The song’s pretty melody, slow, even tempo, and gentle rendition with just piano and voice belie the terrible irony it serves up: Mother Nature may be "on the run" in the nineteen-seventies, but she isn’t in full retreat, isn’t through with us yet, for we who have made her flee are in flight and in need of a new home in the end.

All in the details

Each of the three verses contains a reference to human technology’s impact on nature. Back when knights in armor came to a village announcing royalty with a fanfare, "the archer split the tree." Not everyone shared in bow-and-arrow technology -- maybe "peasants singin’ and drummers drummin’" could not afford crossbows; maybe only those serving and protecting the queen had access.

In contrast with the spaceship "lyin’ in the yellow haze of the sun" in the third verse, the fanfare is "blowin’ to the sun" in the first verse. The royal musicians direct their sound upward, not down at the ground, probably dating back to sun worship, acknowledging royalty’s stature. No "yellow haze" is mentioned in the first verse; it suggests pollution in the third. The bow and arrow had been around for many centuries and didn’t show signs of destroying ecosystems. Even though there’s that nagging split tree, this particular moment in the sun -- what the people are celebrating with their parade and music -- is the excitement of being visited by the almighty queen and the privilege of being associated with royalty and its accoutrements and entourage.

In the second verse, the singer is lying in a burned-out basement with the full moon in his eyes. No reason is specified for the building’s destruction, but it smacks of war or perhaps the aftermath of riots in the years just before Young recorded the song. The power of technology and the average person’s impact are ratcheted way up from peasant days. The singer might be on guard duty: The band playing in his head could be a military band, and his "hoping for replacement" could refer to the end of his shift. Or the thought might be more existential: Alone in the darkness "with the full moon in [his] eyes," the replacement he hopes for could be his death. "Burned-out" hints at "playing with fire" -- that chief metaphor for taking too great a risk, which at the same time refers to one of our species’ earliest forays into mastery over nature.

If not military, the band playing in the singer’s head could be a rock band he is remembering or hearing on a radio. His focusing on music from elsewhere, in contrast with the fanfare of the first verse, along with his feeling like getting high and hoping something a friend had said "was a lie," tells us he feels a strong need to escape from his present reality. The sun’s bursting through the sky seems to overcome his hoping for replacement, but he seems to be experiencing dread, and his isolation is striking: No visit from royalty, no communal music as in the first verse. Perhaps our naturally social species is isolating people through its technologies. Considering all of that, the twice-sung line commanding the listener to look at Mother Nature on the run at the end of the preceding verse, and the fact that this verse does not describe a dream but the singer’s actual experience, we know the singer is not happy, and we are not supposed to be, either.

From the mouths of babes

With "Mother Nature’s silver seed" in the third verse opting for that once-in-a-lifetime real-estate deal in another biosphere -- and the only human shelter mentioned in the entire song is just a burned-out remnant -- two seemingly contradictory images occur in the line "There were children crying and colors flying." I take it that the colors flying -- official flags and perhaps additional banners and pennants, all celebratory -- reflect unenlightened optimism about our species’ accomplishments. Ironically, we’ve replaced a humble but socially rewarding and not terribly destructive peasant life under royal tyranny with isolation, devastation, an uncertain future, a dying planet, and music and drugs for mental escape under a democratic regime that supposedly serves the public interest.

Children’s gut reaction to an event can indicate a deeper truth than the official one to which the grownups subscribe for fear of ostracism. Their crying says the children intuit that this is not truly a festive occasion despite the festivities. Not yet conditioned to respond emotionally to flag waving and other optimistic gestures used to mask unpleasant realities, they are responding to the grief, loss, and uncertainty the adults are trying to hide as they try to face the undeniable hard reality before them: a spaceship carrying a "lucky few" to a non-existent "home" where they will supposedly perpetuate the species.

Identifying those boarding the spaceship as "the chosen ones" again ingeniously suggests several thoughts at once. "The chosen," "God’s chosen people," and other similar phrases are traditional references to the Jews. The song was recorded just 25 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the "final solution" for people long persecuted and ultimately "chosen" as the chief scapegoat for Hitler’s demagoguery and the evil at the heart of his "Reich." Could it be that it is not exactly a privilege to be among the chosen few sent off to an unspecified and possibly not yet located "new home in the sun"? Is the song’s second dream possibly a symbolic forecast that, when the ecological screws tighten, it will happen to the Jews again so others can commandeer their share of the pie -- as non-Jews conveniently did during the Holocaust? Of course a group can be chosen by lottery or other criteria as well, but the particular words should make at least a few hairs stand on end.

"All in a dream, all in a dream" describing "the loading had begun" -- when we already know the entire verse depicts a dream -- suggests that the singer has trouble believing what is going on -- can’t wrap his brain around it, as we say today. The unthinkable is happening.

In the first verse, the queen embodies the hope and aspirations of her people. In the second verse, hope is waning -- night has fallen -- and the singer is struggling to cope. In the third verse, the new "elite" flying off into space embody the society’s hoping against hope and possibly a space-age form of mass execution. The grownups celebrate the chosen ones by waving flags as their ancestors learned to do so as not to seem unpatriotic or antisocial centuries before, but the hope is not realistic. They’re going along to get along.

Lasting significance

"After the Gold Rush" hit the scene at the beginning of the environmental movement (the conservation movement had begun nearly a century earlier). Silent Spring had been followed by The Population Bomb and other books both revealing and troubling. Earth Day had been introduced, but it generated more car driving and paper-plate and -cup use than it eliminated. Agent Orange was defoliating and mutating a defenseless country. "Smog" had entered the popular vocabulary -- sometimes decking out the sun in a yellow haze.

This song’s singer hopes what his friend said is a lie -- that humanity’s most conspicuous inventions will put an end to life as we know it. In the same period as Young and friends were frequenting recording studios and partying down, private interests that benefited the most materially from humanity’s inventions began orchestrating an effort to convince people that Young’s "friend" was lying.

The effort continues today, with billions of dollars from sales of weapons, drugs, and other inventions funneled into think-tanks, public-relations and advertising firms, publications, and other venues that announce today’s rulers -- consumer products, expensive vacations, celebrities, famous talking heads, and politicians whose cover has not yet been blown -- with songs of the 1960s and '70s as fanfares. Every day, whether watching actual royalty greeted by crowds or heads of state, smart bombs burning out basements, or a vehicle leaving or returning to Earth’s atmosphere, we can hear people presented to us as friends tell us global warming is a hoax, pollution can be fixed while polluting industries expand, there is no such thing as a resource shortage, and human ingenuity can fix anything.

Maybe they are the silver seed that belongs on a spaceship headed for Pluto. Maybe the golden seed are those willing to accept reality and life without a perpetual gold rush.

...David J. Cantor

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