Neil Young

“Let’s Roll”

Is there anything grimmer and greyer than the Myth Of America? I am sick of the Myth Of America. Granted, Bruce [Springsteen]’s America is at least fractionally different from Rambo’s–a good bad sitcom compared to a bad bad one–but since we’re talking belief systems and the goddam marketplace, how many billion consumers do you think have bought both? Bruce and Rambo. Without missing a beat. –R. Meltzer on Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” 1985

Like it or not, we have an ongoing emotional relationship to history and politics that’s shaped by and registered in the wash of conversations, declarations, and stupid crap that constitutes our popular culture. So it’s worth asking: Who would say anything like this in public today? Who would dare? Not you, not your mom, and certainly not Neil Young.

Well, OK, I don’t know about you or your mom. But Neil Young once would have, and did. On May 4, 1970, students at Kent State University in Ohio mounted a protest against the Vietnam war. The national guard was called in, and in a chaotic standoff 13 unarmed young people were cut down by the guardsmen at close range in what was later legally designated self-defense. Four died. On hearing the news, Young walked off into the woods and emerged with the brilliant, disturbing hit “Ohio,” an act of mourning that doubled as a national challenge. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded it within the month, and Atlantic Records rushed it to DJs in a plain white sleeve.

On September 11 a shockingly unfamiliar kind of political violence again invaded American life. But there hasn’t been any good music about it yet. It’s four months after the worst geopolitical shock in United States history, and pop culture feels like business as usual again. And nobody seems to have wondered publicly about the sheer hollowness of our response.

Anybody who’s heard “Ohio” has at some point probably thought that nobody could write a song like it today. People complain about corporate control and the timidity of radio stations–the invisible limits imposed by our growing technology, economy, and power. But that’s not specific enough: those things set limits, but they don’t control our minds. The problem isn’t just that another “Ohio” wouldn’t get played–the reality that made that song work no longer exists, and neither does the audience for it.

“Ohio” is a strange song. For an anthem it’s restrained, practically cryptic. The guitar line is cutting and almost funky; the chorus is sung in eerie harmony but unfolds in total chaos. Until the 60s, most music was recorded live, with all the musicians playing together, but this song actually sounds like it’s happening in real time. The structure feels improvised, like it’s gelling as you listen: the guitar speaks out just once before a solo starts to build over it, strung out and sad like it’s already the end of the song. Young sounds alone at first, but by the end of the verse the voices backing him have gotten louder and clearer. Then the riff crests and the guitar breaks in a moment that seems to stop the song. But the momentum just builds from there.

“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,” Young intones. “We’re finally on our own.” As a coming-of-age tune, this is pretty fucking harsh: we’re on our own because either we or our leaders are now no longer part of the United States of America, and one side is going to have to go. The grammar alone is striking: the listeners, along with the singer, are a “we,” together in the first person. The government is in the third person, out of the conversation, and the soldiers aren’t even people–they’re tin. A nation’s troops are called out against its own people; how can they stay a part of it? Then Young zooms in on a female victim, who’s as human as it gets: “What if you knew her / Found her dead on the ground / How can you run when you know?” The people who heard themselves addressed in the song were being hailed as a community, part of a newly forming American “we” morally obliged to face down its own government.

Yet even as “Ohio” climbed into the top 20, the protest movement stopped working. Attendance at rallies fell off after Kent State, and the counterculture started to disintegrate. The problem was that “Ohio,” not to mention Nixon’s soldiers, offered listeners a tough choice: resist for real or give up. Along with the stick of bloodshed, the administration offered the carrot of de-escalation in Vietnam. So the students’ shed blood soaked into the ground, the boomers enjoyed a decade of ambivalent complicity, and Neil Young wrote songs about other things.

Including, 31 years later, the events of September 11. On December 10, Young released “Let’s Roll” into a mainstream engorged with Britney Spears. It begins with a blatant studio effect: over the drone of a huge, sustained synth bass note, we hear the piercing ring of a cell phone, then the chirp of a pickup on the other end. There’s a dirgy funk riff, with organ stabs courtesy of Booker T. Jones, and then the verse begins, sung in a warm but strained voice: “I know I said I love you, I know you know it’s true / But I’ve got to put the phone down and do what we’ve gotta do.” Then the chorus: “Time is running out–let’s roll.” Young is fusing the perspectives of Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett, and Todd Beamer, the three male passengers whose struggle aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was immortalized in a Newsweek article he read. Both Glick and Burnett had heartbreaking final talks with their wives; Beamer was cheated by technical difficulties of a last talk with his. His “let’s roll” was overheard by the Airfone operator with whom he said his last prayer.

The second verse is saddest because the passenger, unlike us, doesn’t yet know how it ends. “How this all got started I’ll never understand / I hope someone can fly this thing, get us back to land.” But then, without a break, his ghost begins a sensible but rather jarring speech about military policy: “You got to turn on evil / When it’s comin’ after you / You got to face it down / And when it tries to hide / You got to go in after it / And never be denied.” There’s a dramatic climax, and then suddenly the funky organ’s back and the music sounds like a beer commercial: “Let’s roll for freedom / Let’s roll for love / Going in after Satan / On the wings of a dove.” Because it’s so obviously well-intentioned, it’s hard to say this (but because I’m so disgusted at having to prove my antiterrorist credentials to even have the right to an opinion I’m going to): this song just sucks.

It’s not important whether music is good right now. And it’s not so surprising that “Let’s Roll” isn’t: fading away is part of a rock musician’s expected life cycle (though “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Sleeps With Angels” demonstrate that Young’s coals still glow). But the specifics of its lameness are significant. Female passengers had equally detailed conversations with their families, but the song (like the article that inspired it) doesn’t make much of them. And I guess it’d be too complicated for a pop song to have included the bits where Glick asks his wife if she thinks rushing the terrorists is a good idea and gay passenger Mark Bingham calls his mom. So instead, “Let’s Roll” portrays a fantasy husband making a tough decision in front of his silent fantasy wife. In a time of fear and confusion, we all want to hear the voice of a strong man reassuring a woman, because we all want to feel like that woman: protected and reassured.

Like “Ohio,” “Let’s Roll” speaks to, and helps conjure up, a collective “we” you can imagine joining. But the “we” that “Let’s Roll” aims to construct is already in place: it’s the official “we” of the United States of America. The phrase “let’s roll” had already appeared in presidential speeches, car commercials, and Newsweek; it was the previously ratified, legitimized, and fully funded choice. The choice in “Ohio” was tragic but real; in “Let’s Roll,” there really isn’t one.

Our national sense of self was torn apart and rendered vulnerable for a few weeks in mid- to late September. During that period, things seemed open, in an unpleasant and scary but potentially interesting way, and everybody, spontaneously or not, elected to pull for sobriety, piety, and solidarity. Practically the only critical responses on a national scale came from the Onion. Thanks to all those held tongues, that gap between then and now narrowed and later became, in retrospect, a kind of initiation into a newly hardened and immutable national self.

Unlike “Ohio,” “Let’s Roll” isn’t important as music. But it is crucial as a thought captured in midair. This crummy song about this heroic individual guy, trapped aboard a doomed airplane, deciding to sacrifice his life in a way nobody will ever see, reflects the uncomfortable new fact that politics now happens, more and more obviously, outside of the public sphere. Nixon and the protesters were visible entities that responded to public pressure. But individual access to technological power has actually eroded democracy, because now invisible groups have access to the sort of destructive force that used to belong to a whole state. You can’t picket Osama bin Laden any more than you could Tim McVeigh. So we’re ready to imagine the state–or firefighters, or Rudy Guiliani, or courageous Hollywood producers, or anyone we stumble across who vaguely resembles our dad–as our only refuge. God, does this song suck.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.