Saturday, February 24, 2018

Borrowed Time

I'm climbin' this ladder,
My head in the clouds
I hope that it matters,
I'm havin' my doubts.

I'm watchin' the skaters
Fly by on the lake.
Ice frozen six feet deep,
How long does it take?

I first heard this song one evening in 1977 while browsing in the old St. Mark's Book Shop in the East Village, a few blocks away from where I was living at the time, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. That the melody was lifted (although only in part) from the Rolling Stones' "Lady Jane" was obvious even to me, but Young's song (which openly owned up to the appropriation) seemed direct and affecting where the faux-Renaissance "original" struck me as just affected. You take your inspiration from wherever you can get it.

I didn't hear "Borrowed Tune" again for years; for a long time I didn't even know that it was called "Borrowed Tune," nor what album it had appeared on. I knew some of Neil Young's records fairly well; then as now I've had mixed feelings about him in general, enjoying a lot of his music without ever quite buying into the whole mystique. (This tends to be my default attitude.)

Eventually I came across a copy of Young's Tonight's the Night on CD, and there it was. For those not familiar with the story, Young recorded most of that album in 1973 in the aftermath of the drug overdoses of two friends, one a fellow musician named Bruce Whitten and the other a roadie named Bruce Berry; it wasn't released, however, until 1975. It was ragged, dark, and commercially unpromising, full of references to death and drugs; even in "Borrowed Tune" Young sings of being "wasted" while he composed it. I'm not alone in liking it as much as anything he's ever done, but it clearly wasn't destined for AM radio.

When I listen to "Borrowed Tune" now, every now and then, something in it takes me back forty years and still lives. The qualities that first caught my ear, its plaintiveness, its vulnerability, its uneasy serenity (I don't think that's an oxymoron, in this case), have endured through time — but at the same time I know that other ears might find nothing there at all, or just dismiss it as old news, one more pathetic drug-addled product of post-hippie burnout. But that's how one's moments in time are: irreducible, non-transferable, not valid for tender or exchange. The ones that mean something never quite go away.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Hiking in the woods in a steady February drizzle is understandably not everyone's idea of fun, but it does have its upside. For one thing, you'll be unbothered by crowds. Except for a young couple treading on the ice of a pond that probably wasn't all that safe, and that at the very beginning of the walk, I saw no one. The human world fell away, except for the stone wall remnants of another era.

In the mist, the green of the mosses and lichens seemed to deepen, forming a muted palette with the stones and brown leaves that might be less evident on a clearer day.

I half-expected to hear spring peepers, but it must be too early still. In compensation, I spotted a screech owl peering warily from a nest box. It wasn't what I went looking for at all, which is, of course, the best part.