Certain Songs #1237: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Helpless”

Album: Déjà Vu
Year: 1970

Recorded at Wally Heider Recording Studios, Hollywood, on November 7, 1969

And suddenly, Neil Young was everywhere instead of nowhere.

At the very moment that “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River” & “Cowgirl in the Sand” were establishing themselves as once and future hard rock radio staples, Neil took a left turn and joined Crosby, Stills & Nash, just in time for their performance at Woodstock.

Of course, Neil being Neil, he skipped the opening acoustic numbers, and refused to appear in the subsequent film — and in fact, some stories have it that he refused to be filmed at all, because he was pissed that there were cameras on the stage, distracting the musicians from the music.

In any event, Neil spent the last part of 1969 alternating After The Gold Rush songs with Crazy Horse and recording Deja Vu with Crosby, Stills & Nash. And while he had joined ostensibly to provide some more instrumental firepower, he also turned in quite possibly the finest song on the album, the wistful, achingly lovely “Helpless.”

There is a town in North Ontario
Dream comfort memory to spare
And in my mind I still need a place to go
All my changes were there

Slowed to a crawl, and featuring a mournful steel guitar as the the prominent instrument, Neil is singing at the top of his range so as to distract us from the fact he’s being this nostalgic just days before his 24th birthday.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars
Yellow moon on the rise
Big birds flying across the sky
Throwing shadows on our eyes

Leave us

And while I’ve never been the biggest fan of Crossmee, Ogden Nash and Mr. Stillman, I can’t imagine “Helpless” without their exquisite backing vocals, which add extra power and beauty to one of the prettiest melodies Neil ever devised.

(Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless)
Babe can you hear me now?
(Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless)
The chains are locked and tied across the door
(Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless)
Baby, sing with me somehow

There isn’t really much more to “Helpless:” it’s really as much of a mood as a song, an evocation of days gone by that ain’t ever going to return no matter how much we try to invoke them.

Oh, and the legend has always been that Neil was incredibly coked-up when he came onstage to perform “Helpless” with The Band during The Last Waltz, which of course makes the choice of this song kinda ironically hilarious.


CSNY perform “Helpless” live at Wembley, 1974

“Helpless” with The Band during The Last Waltz, 1976

“Helpless” performed solo acoustic at Live Aid, 1985

“Helpless” w/ Booker T & The MGs, Belgium, 1993

“Helpless” w/ Willie Nelson, Farm Aid, 1995

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