Certain Songs #1250: Neil Young – “Ambulance Blues”

Album: On The Beach
Year: 1974

Recorded at Sunset Sound, Hollywood on March 25, 1974

It’s of course, so obvious that Bob Dylan was one of Neil Young’s influences that I haven’t even bothered to mention it until now. Mostly because I hadn’t really loved Neil’s longer, impressionistic folk songs. Until now.

“Ambulance Blues” is eight minutes of quiet surrealism which somehow always surprises, despite the only instruments being Neil’s acoustic & harmonica, Ben Keith’s bass and, of course, Rusty Kershaw’s fiddle. I say, of course, because the fiddle is doing the heavy musical lifting here, weaving in and out of the song, which starts autobiographical, and then goes in a completely different direction.

Back in the old folkie days
The air was magic when we played
The riverboat was rocking in the rain
Midnight was the time for the raid
Oh, Isabella, proud Isabella
They tore you down and plowed you under
You’re only real with your make-up on
How could I see you and stay too long?

This was all real reminiscing: Neil used to play midnight shows at a place called the Riverboat, and lived on Isabella street in Toronto, which had changed significantly in the previous decade. But right after that, “Ambulance Blues” starts wandering lyrically to the point — in one of the more meta moments of a pretty self-aware career, Neil sings:

I guess I’ll call it sickness gone
It’s hard to say the meaning of this song
An ambulance can only go so fast
It’s easy to get buried in the past
When you try to make a good thing last

But of course, it doesn’t matter: because right after this section, there’s a long instrumental break which is just Neil blowing big thick notes on his harmonica while Rusty Kershaw swirls around him on the fiddle, and it absolutely aches with exquisite beauty, and leads into perhaps the most Dylanesque verse Neil ever wrote:

I saw today in the entertainment section
There’s room at the top for private detection
To Mom and Dad this just doesn’t matter
But it’s either that or pay off the kidnapper
So all you critics sit alone
You’re no better than me for what you’ve shown
With your stomach pump
and your hook and ladder dreams
We could get together for some scenes

And then finally, at the end — after another crazily lovely fiddle-and-harmonica section — apropos of absolutely nothing, he takes a shot at Richard Nixon, then in the final stages of Watergate: he would resign a little over a month after On The Beach was released.

I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he’s talking to?
Because I know it ain’t me and I hope it isn’t you

Of course, it’s not just Nixon this could apply to: some have thought that he was referencing his father in this verse, and let’s just say it could also apply to our current President, as well.

In any event, the length and style of “Ambulance Blues” meant that it was another On The Beach song that didn’t have a long concert afterlife. One notable exception: the 1998 Bridge School show, where backed by post Bill-Berry R.E.M. (minus Michael Stipe), and playing banjo to boot, Neil uncorks an undeniably powerful version, like he’d been playing it forever. It’s stunning.

“Ambulance Blues”

“Ambulance Blues” performed live at the Bridge School show, 1998

Every Certain Song Ever
A filterable, searchable & sortable somewhat up to date database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.

Check it out!

Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)

Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page

Comments are closed.