With the Edmonton Folk Fest season upon us, I am recalling kd Lang’s powerful rendition of Neil Young’s iconic song, Helpless. I love that song, the haunting melody, the profound lyrics, that refrain that anthems and honours one of our most painful human emotions: helplessness.
Now I know it’s commonly held view, and one recently portrayed in the newly released documentary, Neil Young Journeys, that the song Helpless is about his childhood years in Omemee, Ontario, but I think that is a mistaken conclusion. Yes, Omemee was where Neil’s formative childhood years occurred, but surely Helpless is much more likely about two other truly northern Ontario towns: Thunder Bay and Blind River.
In 1965, when Neil left hometown Winnipeg at 18, he purposefully chose Fort William (now Thunder Bay) in northern Ontario to expand his horizons musically. Young has acknowledged (Einarson, 1992) that “Fort William .. had an immense impact on me because I really started to grow once I got away from home. It was my first big step on my own” and that it was the start of the kind of folk rock that was different from anything he’d done before.
Watching planes take off from the Fort William runway, Neil remarked, “they’re like big birds flying across the sky,” a line he uses in his later writing of Helpless. In Fort William, Young’s band changed their name from the Squires to The High Flying Birds, illustrating the strong impression of that image and metaphor on Young. And significantly, Fort William was where Young first met and hung out with Stephen Stills, an encounter that transformed American rock and roll history. So much of the lyrics of Helpless is about Thunder Bay, where Neil felt the freedom to let his unique style of folk rock truly take flight. His writing “all my changes were there” surely expresses the profound musical transformation he experienced in Thunder Bay, Ontario
The song’s title, Helpless, and its hymn-like lament stems from Young’s time in Blind River, another “town in North Ontario”, where Young’s beloved hearse, Mort, broke down en route from Thunder Bay to Sudbury. Young states that “my whole life was in that car.” and, as we all know, he immortalizes his attachment to that car in another of his iconic hits, Long May You Run. Neil Young waited for several days in Blind River, hoping in vain for a new transmission for the hearse. While stuck there he spent time writing songs, likely reflecting on his recent creative period in Thunder Bay, and expressing the helplessness he felt after days of fruitless waiting for the repair of the vehicle he saw as the means of moving himself and his music forward.
Neil Young’s Helpless shows that even those very talented and successful can feel the pain of helplessness at times. If you would like to share your thoughts about feeling helpless, or about this blog on Neil Young, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org