OK, so we wandered off there for a bit, victims of circumstance and of our generally poor planning. Pete was off roaming the primeval forests for some indeterminable but probably wholesome reason, while I was indulging in my hobby of driving back and forth between Los Angeles and my home on the moon, a.k.a. the far south end of Nevada. Did you know that, if you live on the moon, you can’t get FedEx to deliver anything in the morning? The way they put it was “certain ZIP codes don’t support 10:30 a.m. delivery,” which I thought was intriguing. Apparently, the very ZIP code emits some kind of FedEx-truck-deflecting rays until after 4 in the afternoon.
So anyway, we’re back, precariously perched on an ever-expanding heap of real life, to talk about rock songs that might legitimately bring a tear to one’s eye. And here’s the song that actually inspired the category, Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.”
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This is a live record that’s as clean as a studio track, featuring just Young’s voice and masterful guitar. Young’s tenor was so strange when he was in his prime — with that quavery airiness, the bumpy shift to the high end that can make it sound like he’s moving into falsetto (he’s not), and a tendency to swallow the very end of a line — that it should have been pretty limiting. But Young is a good enough musician that he achieves a certain fluidity for all that, and of course he sang with intelligence and taste, and usually with careful diction that gives his lyrics their due.
With a title like “Sugar Mountain,” and knowing it’s about growing up, you’d think this would be a sentimental reflection on the end of youth. And it begins with a chorus, impossible to forget once heard.
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinkin’ that you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon
The brief, straightforward verses describe a series of small defining moments in a young person’s life. At first, being young and at the fair is enough; it’s a little scary, but you’re not alone.
It’s so noisy at the fair,
But all your friends are there,
And the candy floss you had,
And your mother and your dad
Then it’s time to notice girls — “You can hear the words she wrote/As you read the hidden note” — and, a bit later, for teenage defiance:
Now you’re underneath the stairs,
And you’re giving back some glares
To the people who you met
And it’s your first cigarette
And then, abruptly, it’s time to go:
Now you say you’re leaving home
‘Cause you want to be alone
Ain’t it funny how you feel
When you’re finding out it’s real?
That chorus that sounded so gentle and idyllic at the beginning of the song has a different ring to it now. This song is not about simple longing for the lost days of youth, or not entirely. Young makes his “Sugar Mountain” just a dusty carnival, “with the barkers and the colored balloons” — the kind of bright pleasures that fascinate and delight a child, but that an adult can’t help but see through. There’s nothing making young people move on except their own realization that youth won’t sustain them forever; it’s barely been enough all along. “You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain.”