Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Love to Burn – Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Love to Burn

Written by Neil Young and performed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The song originally appeared on the album Ragged Glory. You can hear a 1991 version from the Nassau Coliseum here, a live version from 1993 here and version from Bonnaroo in 2003 here. ITunes does not sell the individual song, but you can buy Ragged Glory here. IT also appears on the live album, Weld, which you can buy here.

An often overlooked song, “Love to Burn” proves that the best art offers mystery and exploration. In this case, Neil Young meditates on a tangled relationship, one soaked in love and strife, a relationship torn asunder by demands of the self, individual concerns that make impossible the leap of faith that love demands.

Opening with a wall of sound featuring Young’s backup band, Crazy Horse, as well as Young’s thudding guitar, the music makes palpable the fury, anguish and yearning that drive the song. We can sense the pounding thoughts, the self-recriminations and the loss of direction as the singer dwells on the relationship.

When the lyrics arrive, Young uses a late night walk through the “valley of hearts” as the framework to hold the ruminations on love and the guitars chords whipped by the anguish of the broken relationship. In a minimalist style, Young does not bother with any preamble, has no need to lay out the facts. He’s a man driven to wander and loses himself in his thoughts, so far gone that “a spirit” speaks to him with cryptic wisdom and warnings:

You gotta move to start
You gotta take the first step
You gotta crawl to be tall

Like an unseen object in the far off universe whose presence we detect by the gravity it imposes on other objects, we understand from the spirit’s words what drives the singer to such despair: the pain of a broken relationship. The words offer a truth the singer cannot deny, but not a full truth, not one that fully recognizes the discordant feelings that all lovers can have: the fear of the loss of self, the sometimes irresistible urge to protect the wounded heart and the desire to retreat. The singer wanders alone because the gap with his lover has grown and neither can ford it.

All relationships require vulnerability; the greater the intimacy, the greater the vulnerability. The Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor once said that a wife can hurt a man the most because she understands his loneliness. In their constant melodrama, all high school couples understand this situation: who will pick up the phone first to apologize? Yet Young sings of adult relationships where the stakes are much higher, the hurts much deeper and slower to heal. The spirit exhorts him to start the reconciliation, the spirit urges him to take the first step and the spirit compels him to be humble, for only by risking some loss of self can he attain the upright relationship. The wounded heart may understand these lines, but cannot act on them.

The spirit of love understands the singer’s resistance, so she tells him something else, “something that I’ll never forget.” The music picks up, Ralph Molina crashes the cymbals, the guitars whip into a frenzy and the four voices together cry out the chorus:

You got love to burn.
You better take your chance on love.
You got to let your guard down
You better take a chance,
A chance on love.
Take chance on love
On love.

It is the quandary of the song and all our relationships: love requires a leap of faith that challenges our very being. Our survival has always depended on caution, on the ability to flee from trouble, yet love requires humility, demands a leap beyond the individual concerns. The fresh love may soar on the rising hormones and infatuation (think Elvis’s hunk of burning love”); the more mature affair requires a more conscious commitment. The guitars swirl with desire and fear while Young sets up a crooked call and response with the band as he cries out, “Take a chance on love” and they call back, “on love.”

He continues his journey through the valley of hearts when he comes to “a house full of broken windows.” It is an apparition worthy of Dickens’s ghosts as the singer peers inside the windows (“it’s not a house/it’s a home”):

And the lovers inside just
quarrel all the time
Why’d you ruin my life?
Where you takin’ my kid?
And they hold each other saying:
How did it come to this?

We witness the fights, the urge to flee, to protect one’s self and one’s self-interest, yet we experience the simultaneous desire for love, “How did it come to this?” Young does not offer a prescription; instead, the guitars explode, the drums pound and Billy Talbot thrums a pulsing beat on his bass. The singer knows what he has to do and the music plays out the drama as he wrangles within to swallow his pride, to make that leap or to lose the love.

The song ends with a repeat of the opening verse and the chorus, we hear once again the spirit imploring him to “take the first step,” to be willing to crawl, to be willing to beg if that is what it takes and the ringing lines “take a chance on love.”

My friend Charlie got me to musing on this song. Charlie and Neil Young share much as they each continue on a path of self-discovery far from the maddening crowd. How can we not admire those pilgrims who keep pushing down the road after all these years?


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