Certain Songs #1286: Neil Young – “I’m The Ocean”

Album: Mirror Ball
Year: 1995

Recorded at Bad Animals on February 7, 1995

My favorite Neil Young song of the 1990s doesn’t have guitar solo, or even a chorus, really. And in fact, it might be an initial runthrough that ended up becoming the main take.

What it does have, however, is an absolutely unstoppable momentum, as well as maybe my all time favorite Neil Young lyric. And, yeah, it also has Pearl Jam, too.

I’m an accident, I was driving way too fast
Couldn’t stop though, so I let the moment last
I’m for rollin’, I’m for tossin’ in my sleep
It’s not guilt though, it’s not the company I keep

Over two decades later, it’s kinda weird to think that for the first half of the 1990s, Pearl Jam were probably the biggest band in the world — Ten, Vs. & Vitalogy have sold 25 million copies in the U.S. alone — but they were, and they were definitely trying to distance themselves from that success, especially in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

And of course, Neil Young seemed to be an avatar of being able to distance yourself from an early success in order to have a career on your own terms, and indeed their contemporary battle against Ticketmaster seemed to be the exact kind of action item that would totally hobble a career while giving a band massive authenticity points.

Neil Young had hooked up with Pearl Jam a couple of times in the past — doing “Rockin’ in the Free World” at 1993 MTV Music awards, as well as during his Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, after which he decided to go to Seattle for a couple days in early 1995 and record on their turf. Neil was pushing 50, and still challenging himself.

People my age, they don’t do the things I do
They go somewhere, while I run away with you
I got my friends, and I got my children too
I got her love, she’s got my love too

It’s that first line that struck me hard in 1995: “People my age / they don’t do the things I do” is both a declaration of fact and a huge bit of myth-making, and has become a mantra for me ever since. What I love about it is that it’s not about denying growing older — it’s about accepting that growing older doesn’t necessarily stop you from continuing to chart your own path.

Need distraction, need romance and candlelight
Need random violence, need Entertainment Tonight
Need the evidence, want the testimony of
Expert witnesses on the brutal crimes of love

Recorded as quickly as any Crazy Horse album, Mirror Ball both suffered and benefited from Pearl Jam’s youth and technical skill set: on “I’m The Ocean” you can almost feel guitarists Stone Gossard & Mike McCready lock together as bassist Jeff Ament and (especially) then-drummer Jack Irons settle in for a long ramble. And with producer Brendan O’Brien even adding piano to complement Neil’s pump organ, Neil continues to up the ante of song verse after verse after verse, until he arrives at the climax.

I’m not present, I’m the drug that makes you dream
I’m an Aerostar, I’m a Cutlass Supreme
In the wrong lane, trying to turn against the flow
I’m the ocean, I’m the giant undertow
I’m the ocean, I’m the ocean, I’m the giant undertow
I’m the ocean, I’m the giant undertow
I’m the ocean
I’m the ocean
I’m the ocean
I’m the ocean
I’m the ocean
I’m the ocean

In the end, the rest of Pearl Jam (minus Eddie, of course) chime in as they repeat “I’m The Ocean” with various underwater sound effects, as “I’m The Ocean” finally crashes onto the shore.

It is, of course, a pretty big statement to call yourself the ocean, but in the mid-1990s, it did seem like 75% of indie rock was covered with Neil Young, so it also felt kind of apropos.

“I’m The Ocean”

“I’m The Ocean” live w/ Crazy Horse in San Francisco, 1997

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