Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Blowin’ in the Wind – A Live Performance by Neil Young

Written by Bob Dylan, though this note concerns Neil Young’s live performance from his 1991 tour, a performance you can see here.

On a frigid night in January 1991, I piled into Madison Square Garden to see and hear Neil Young. After the intermission following the opening act (Sonic Youth), darkness enveloped the crowd. We heard the sounds of machinery and explosions, alarms rang out. We were surrounded by the sounds of war – a reminder that while we sat in that arena a war raged across the world in Kuwait and Iraq.  Out of the cacophony came the unmistakable sound of Neil Young’s guitar – thick, muddy, purposeful – playing the simple melody to “Blowing it the Wind.” On the stage, roadies dressed in leftover Star War-movie robes, raised an oversized microphone in an echo of the flag rising over Iwo Jima. The microphone stand wore a huge yellow ribbon.

As if rising from the guitar chords, Neil Young’s voice filled the arena – plaintive and yearning:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

For weeks, I had felt so alone in my own country, alienated as my friends and neighbors watched the aerial bombing in the Middle East as if a video game on our TVs. We watched nightly footage of aerial assaults with green-tinted videos tagged with captions identifying what just vanished from the screen. News anchors announced in hushed tones the success of another bombing. The sky lit up with streaks of light and we were told those were Iraqi missiles shot down by U.S. Scud missiles. It all seemed so frightening and overwhelming, yet no one cold dare ask a question. No one could ask “why?” No one could ask if everything we saw and heard was true.

And then came Neil Young, fuzzy guitar and wavering voice bringing a song that had all but stagnated into a museum piece back to life, a song that did nothing but ask questions, a song that made it possible to challenge, to dare. Standing in the darkness, he made it possible to wonder why and that song provided the common text around which 20,000 people could unite and know we were not alone. As the crowd cheered, we did so in appreciation of what the artist had just done for us. We stood in a collective sign of relief and empowerment, no longer alone, but connected in an experience that only certain art can provide.

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