Certain Songs #1260: Neil Young – “Pocahontas”

Album: Rust Never Sleeps
Year: 1979

Recorded at Indigo Ranch, Malibu on August 11, 1976 w/ overdubs at Triiad Studios, Ft. Lauderdale on September 4, 1977

This is where I came in — with Rust Never Sleeps — a little over a decade after Neil Young’s career started, back when that meant that he was considered, you know, “old,” because the concept of being a life-long rock and roller was still suspect, even for a guy who was declaring that rock and roll would never die.

Rust Never Sleeps came out the summer before my senior year of high school, and it and Live Rust were part of the soundtrack of my life as surely as The Clash, The Who, The Jam and The Rolling Stones, especially the second side, which was as noisy as any punk rock and as singable as any pop.

Aurora borealis
The icy sky at night
Paddles cut the water in a long and hurried flight
From the white man to the fields of green
And the homeland we’ve never seen

That all made sense for teenage rockboy Jim, but what didn’t quite make sense was that I also loved the first side a ton, as well.

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Crying on the ground
But the fire sticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

That first side of Rust Never Sleeps, though, is a marvel, isn’t it? Opening with the acoustic “My My, Hey Hey,” which established that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” and then following up with the epic “Thrasher,” the hilarious “Ride My Llama,” (where he’s doing drugs with a Martian) and then peaking with “Pocahontas,” a song which fucks endlessly with time and space as it ties the massacre of native Americans to the modern day society that resulted from that massacre.

They massacred the buffalo
Kitty corner from the bank
The taxis run across my feet
And my eyes have turned to blanks
In my little box at the top of the stairs
With my Indian rug and a pipe to share

“Pocahontas” was originally recorded during a remarkable overnight session where Neil put down solo acoustic versions of such heavyweights as “Campaigner,” (which I just missed writing about) and “Powderfinger” (tomorrow) as part of a 10-song marathon that was released in 2017 as Hitchhiker. Cocaine is a helluva drug!

In any event, the original acoustic version of “Pocahontas” was originally going to be the lead track of the legendary lost Chrome Dreams album, but instead, Neil stuck some overdubs — backing & harmony vocals, as well as those weird seagull noises — and made it one of few studio-only songs on Rust Never Sleeps, where it fit perfectly, riding Neil’s relentless acoustic guitar and surreal lyrics.

I wish a was a trapper
I would give thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the morning on the fields of green
In the homeland we’ve never seen

That’s one of the most brilliant verses in Neil Young’s long and storied career, if for nothing else but the multi-layered “And find out how she felt,” but then he tops it with the final verse, which is a brilliant melange of juxtapositions.

And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome
And the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
Pocahontas

There is almost too much going on with this verse to even deal with. The juxtaposition of the Astrodome and the first teepee; the underlying sarcasm about the good things for hire in Hollywood, and of course the choice of Marlon Brando as the other person he and Pocahontas are hanging out with.

After all, when “Pocahontas” was originally recorded it just a few years after Marlon Brando sent an Apache woman named Sacheen Littlefeather (I almost wrote “Littlefinger,” thank you Game of Thrones) to read a speech in lieu of his accepting his Academy Award for playing Don Corleone in The Godfather.

So at the very least, while in 2018, Marlon Brando still works as an icon of cool, 40 years previously, it was all about a specific incident, no doubt one of the topics discussed while sitting around the campfire no doubt stoned to shit. On an album with a surfeit of major songs, “Pocahontas” stands as one of the majorest, having been re-recorded not just during Unplugged and again with Crazy Horse on Year of The Horse, but another version — Neil on pump organ — has just released this year on the Paradox soundtrack.

“Pocahontas”

“Pocahontas” original version, 1976

“Pocahontas” live MTV Unplugged, 1993

“Pocahontas” live with Crazy Horse, 1996

“Pocahontas” live at Farm Aid, 2004

“Pocahontas” live at Farm Aid, 2014

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