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Lyrics, Tabs, And Chords for "Rockin' In The Free World" by Neil Young
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[Note: This is one of a series of articles which provide an explanation of the meaning of Neil Young's classic song "Rockin' In The Free World". While the interpretation of lyrics presented here is composed of several viewpoints, there is little consensus on the exact meaning of Neil's songs. The themes and symbolism of Young's songwriting provide a rich tapestry on which to project various meanings and analysis.]
Neil Young's song "Rockin' In The Free World" from the album Freedom is one of his most popular, important and prophetic songs.
The song has become an iconic anthem and it's status continues to rise as more and more artists cover the song. Young's lyrics are considered to be an indictment of the politics of the 1980's. In today's post-9/11 world, the lyrics seem prophetic and even more meaningful than when originally written on the eve of the '90's.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine selected "Rockin' in the Free World" as one of the 500 greatest songs of all times.
"Rockin' In The Free World" was first performed live in concert on February 21, 1989 at the Paramount Theater, Seattle, WA with Neil Young's band The Restless (review of concert). Since then, the song has been performed 368 times through the Greendale tour's conclusion on March 21, 2004 at the Mullins Center in Amherst, MA according to The Neil Young Tour Statistics page.
The song is prominent in director Michael Moore's film 'Fahrenheit 9/11' where "Rockin' in the Free World" runs over the closing credits. A re-release of the song and a new music video directed by Moore is scheduled for the Summer of 2004. (See more below on the film and song.)
The newspaper USA Today has called the song:
On the contrary, a strong case can be made that the song is NOT "anything but a celebration of democracy." In fact, an argument can be made that the song is very pro-democracy and is a protest song that has advanced the argument about inequities in society. The song is clearly the work of someone who could be called a courageous patriot.
The song's lyrics contain the lines:
The lyrics are a direct reference to President George Bush's (#41) campaign pledge to create a compassionate citizenry volunteering to help cope with society's ills. The "thousand points of light" symbolize the American citizen's spirit and a shining example of giving selflessly to care for one another's neighbor and brother. Along with "a kinder, gentler hand", Bush believed that each American could contribute to helping make the United States -- and the world -- a better place to live and work.
The song is strongly democratic and with pro-American ideals in that it is a condemnation of the supply-side/trickle down politics of President Ronald Reagan. "Reaganomics" involved massive tax cuts in the wealthiest brackets which supporters claimed would trickle down to lower brackets. In fact, the policies led to huge federal deficits and exploding unemployment and social decay, particularly in large urban American cities.
The economic realities of the 1980's with increasing social problems -- such as homelessness and drug abuse -- made Young mock the campaign promises of President Bush as hollow rhetoric. The drug problems ("she's gonna take a hit") refer to the crack epidemic which swept large American cities during the 1980's.
The lyrics of "Rockin' In The Free World" also refer to the rampant consumerism of American culture and the rise of the disposable society based on waste and pollution.
The lyrics "Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive" refer to the Reverand Jesse Jackson's signature phrase to "Keep hope alive." Young contrasts President Bush's rhetoric and Rev. Jackson's religion as solutions to society's ills, when in actuality, they are nothing more than "feel good" slogans with little results to show.
According to Neil Young's biography Shakey, while on tour in the late 80s, Young and Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro looked at photos in a newspaper of the Ayatollah Khomeini's body being carried to his grave. These images showed mourners burning American flags in the street, which incited fear in Poncho due to the band's up coming European tour. Sampedro commented that 'whatever we do, we shouldn't go near the mideast. Its probably better we just keep on rockin' in the free world.' Then Young asked if he could make a song out of it. (source: Wikipedia)
On June 9, 1989, Chinese authorities confronted student protesters in Tiananmen Square, which led to the deaths of an untold number. From this event, the picture of a student standing before a line of tanks became the image that was broadcast around the world.
Neil Young, upon seeing this photo and video, began commenting before performing "Rockin' In The Free World" that the song was going out to that "Chinese boy in Tiananmen Square who stopped the tanks."
Similar to Young's '70's political protest anthem "Ohio", the song has become associated with peaceful, non-violent protest.
On Saturday Night Live in September '89, Neil served notice that he was back with a vengeance with his legendary performance of 'Rockin'. Considered to be one of the most intense live television studio performances ever, Young seemed possessed as he throttled his Les Paul guitar and shredded its strings before the audience. Wearing a Elvis Presley T-shirt, Young seemed to be bridging his 1970's classic "Hey, Hey, My, My" with the lyrics "The King [Elvis] is gone but not forgotten, this is the story of Johnny Rotten" with the end of the 1980's and the impending advent of the grunge-alternative music explosion.
Later, Young commented that he worked with a trainer before going onstage to work himself up to the encore intensity level when he normally performs the song after 2 hours on stage. Neil came on the set as if he had just performed the concert of his life and went from there. The song was selected as one of the best of Saturday Night Live musical performances of all time in broadcasts later in the 1990's for the 25th anniversary.
Critics were ecstatic about Young's return to form based on just the single broadcast and it marked a critical turning point in Neil's career. Jimmy McDonough writes in a Village Voice interview:
Just the look on his face was enough. He really seemed insane.
So Young developed 'a brand new technique for doing TV' - a half-hour before going on he worked out with his trainer, lifting weights and doing calisthenics to get himself wired. "
In October, 1989, the album Freedom was released to considerable critical acclaim. A review on Pagewise declared: "If 'Freedom' is the first true alternative album, 'Rockin' in the Free World' is the first true alternative song."
At the Jones Beach, New York concert on June 14, 1989, Young performed an acoustic version of "Ritfw" with a third verse that was removed from the LP.
Little did critics and fans realize that the album's signature song soon would be heard around the world.
Before the Fall: Neil writes "Love Is All We Need" on the Berlin Wall in 1982
On November 9, 1989 The Berlin Wall fell and Young's song lyrics "Keep on Rockin' In The Free World" could be heard over newscasts of the historic occasion. The song has since been established as a beacon of hope for repressed people throughout the world and a soundtrack for freedom - in it's every manifestation.
In essence, "Rockin' in the Free World" became a rock and roll coda for the Cold War as a "new world order" began to emerge. This long sought "new world order" by the elite has been widely exposed to be beyond all imaginable evil and must be stopped.
In the music video for "Rockin'", directed by Julien Temple, the performance footage is intercut with scenes of Neil as a homeless person pushing a shopping cart through city streets. As a homeless person, Neil encounters numerous pitiful situations but manages to inject some humor. For example, at one point as he pushes his worldly possessions along a sidewalk, he encounters an elderly woman who he gives money.
The music video also has a montage of television news footage of a variety of current events such as police busting drug dealers and other criminal activity interspersed with Wall Street dealers. The "Rockin' In The Free World" video also includes footage of China's Tiananmen Square protests.
Among the many bands performing "Rockin' In The Free World" are Pearl Jam who have covered the song over 100 times in concert, often as final encores.
Neil joined Pearl Jam onstage at the MTV Music Awards on September 2, 1993 to play an incendiary version of "Rocking in The Free World". After the broadcast, MTV commentator Kurt Loder observed that the interplay between Young and Pearl Jam was probably one of the most memorable live MTV performances ever.
Some of the other bands that have covered "Rockin'" include:
The song became a standard during the 1991 tour with Crazy Horse which began as the Persian Gulf war began. At the end of "Rockin' In the Free World" (listen to San Francisco, CA. 1991-04-06) segues into a homage to Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" for a most majestic feedback drenched finale.
Again, during the second war with Iraq, Young featured the song "Rockin' In The Free World" prominently during encores for the 2003 Greendale tour. The lyrics to the song were altered in the Greendale concerts to: "Boys are dying everyday because we didn't have a plan". The additional lyrics were censored for the Farm Aid 2003 broadcast on PBS on Thanksgiving Day.
Also during the Greendale tour, the feedback drenched finale of "Rocking in the Free World" segued into "Taps", Neil's gesture to the soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq.
In the post 9/11 world, the lyrics take on a sinister new meaning:
'There's a lot of people sayin' we'd be better off dead.
Don't feel like Satan but I am to them.'
It is very hard to listen to these words today and think about what they mean to people of various religious beliefs. How could Neil have possibly known the prophetic power which these lyrics hold today?
In an analysis of "Rockin'" called "The Advantages of Using Rock and Roll in Teaching Social Studies by James Lane at the Orange High School he writes:
In June 2004, filmmaker Michael Moore and Neil Young reached agreement to use Young's song 'Rockin' in the Free World' for the controversial film 'Fahrenheit 9/11''s closing credits. (For more, see June 2004 News page and Neil News page for updates.) From Thrasher's Wheat Guestbook, Bill posted:
A new video for "Rockin' In The Free World" directed by filmmaker Michael Moore was released in November 2004. The video intercuts footage from the film Fahrenheit 9/11 and performance footage of Neil Young and Crazy Horse performing the song on the 2003/4 Greendale tour.
The song "Rocking in The Free World" continues to be a standard encore for Neil Young's concerts and most likely will continue as long as there is a need to rock in the free -- or more or less free -- world.
The use of the song "Rockin'" undoubtably put Young and his music in the political spotlight. In the summer of 2004, we asked what folks thought of a Moore's use of the song. The question was whether the use of the song in the film was a good idea? Or was it going to create trouble for Neil?
About 70% thought it was a good idea, 27% thought it would cause trouble, and less than 3% didn't much care about music & politics.
In November 2004, a music video for "Rockin' In The Free World" directed by Michael Moore was released.
So what did folks think of the video for "Rockin"? With nearly 600 votes, here are the results when the polls closed:
77% (455 votes) voted "Yes, I like both the song and the video"
10% (58 votes) voted "No, I can't stand Young and Moore"
13% (78 votes) voted "Not sure because politics and music make me feel uneasy."
Please comment and add your thoughts on "Rockin' In The Free World" in the guestbook.
Also, check out the other Neil polls, so get off that couch, turn off that MTV and VOTE!
Lastly, here's a song parody by Skisics Surus:
"Rockin' In The Free World" lyrics by Neil Young
See inside reference book pages of Music and Social Movements : Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century by Cambridge Cultural Social Studies for more on music relating to China's Tiananmen Square protests and the fall of Berlin Wall.
Also, see Neil Young News: Freedom in a New Year
Play and watch the video of "Rockin' In The Free World" here.
Freedom - Album Reviews