We’re all feeling a bit cooped-up at the moment, with the Covid-19 lockdown in place, so time to get out on the open road with this riff rock classic, credited with the introduction of the term ‘heavy metal’.
I’m focusing on the song, really, but the context in the video is the 1969 film ‘Easy Rider’. In it, the characters are escaping with the proceeds of a drug smuggling enterprise. Just a bit of a spoiler – it doesn’t end well. So despite its countercultural portrayal of sex, drugs and er… some other drugs, the film is a kind of morality tale.
The song wasn’t written for the film however and I’m interested in the way it speaks to me about life and how to live it. The 60s were a time when people were trying to find new ways of living and ‘head out on the highway’ is obviously a metaphor for that. I’m involved with Christian friends who are trying to pioneer new ways of following Jesus and so the message of the song is relevant to that calling.
Among many religions, there is tradition of journey as a picture of life and that is the meaning behind the act of pilgrimage – deliberately going somewhere with other people for a spiritual purpose. The destination is not really the point of it, so much as the travelling together and the adventures on the way.
“I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder”. If that’s for you, I hope you enjoy this Bible reading about the prophet Elijah.
Boys don’t cry? Sung ironically, of course, because, yes boys DO cry. This one does, anyway. So here is a song with an almost timeless message of lost romance and yearning “I would do ‘most anything to get you back by my side”- followed by the stoic response that has traditionally been expected of men , at least in the England of 1979: “I try to laugh about it, hiding the tears in my eyes.”
Slight aside – it’s worth mentioning the award-winning 1999 film ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, which makes use of this song. It dramatises the real-life story of a trans-man in America who was looking for love but was brutally raped and murdered.
There are only a few primary human emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger and surprise. Four out of six are ‘negative’ – too bad – your fault for being a human! Some lists add other emotions such as shame and pride. Part of being human and being alive is feeling and expressing emotions. We write love letters, sing songs, tweet in anger, shout in the streets. Our faces usually show our emotions and sometimes our bodies just give the game away for us, and then we cry.
So crying in the Bible? Actually there’s plenty of it, all over. But there is an account of Jesus crying – not because of some cosmic disaster or over the plight of humankind. He cried because his friend had died. So you can cry too, if you want to.
This song by Neil Young is a rock classic, witness the number of top artists that have created cover versions: Pearl Jam, Bon Jovi, Suzi Quatro, Krokus, The Alarm, Simple Minds, John C. Cale, Big Country, G3, Hayseed Dixie and The Junkyard Angels among others.
The lyrics criticize the George H. W. Bush administration, then in its first month, and the social problems of contemporary American life, while directly referencing Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” remark from his 1989 inaugural address and his 1988 presidential campaign promise for America to become a “kinder, gentler nation.” The song also refers to Ayatollah Khomeini’s proclamation that the United States was the “Great Satan”.
Rockin’ in the Free World was used in the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 11/9 release in 2018 which was critical of US president George W. Bush and the ‘war on terror’ which led to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The video here has clips from the film, although the song was released in 1989, twelve years before the war. The moral truth of the song endures, even when the context changes.
There’s a lot of people sayin’ we’d be better off dead Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them So I try to forget it, any way I can.
What do you make of the idea of Satan? Is there really a malevolent spiritual being with god-like power or is there the satan – some infective psycho-social principle of evil? I’ll let you mull that over while reading Matthew 4:1-11.
PS – on careful listening, this particular video seems to be a kind of ‘radio edit’ that has been shortened and misses out the crucial lyrics which I focused on. Twaangg. So that’s an excuse to put another version of the song up, but for technical (performance) reasons it works better in a separate post – so enjoy it here.