Recorded at McNichols Arena, Denver on October 19, 1978
It says here that “Powderfinger” is Neil Young’s greatest song, and one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century. That is, of course, a highly personal opinion, and Neil has loads of songs that are “one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century,” but to me, “Powderfinger” is both endlessly fascinating and the older I get, the sadder it seems.
As the song which starts the electric half of Rust Never Sleeps it’s a perfect transition from the all-acoustic side one, as “Powderfinger” feels like an ancient folksong, sporting both a melody and a story as old as America herself.
Look out, Mama
There’s a white boat coming up the river
With a big red beacon, and a flag
And a man on the rail
I think you’d better call John
Because it don’t look like they’re here
To deliver the mail
And it’s less than a mile away
I hope they didn’t come to stay
It’s got numbers on the side and a gun
And it’s making big waves
“Powderfinger” is a tragedy in four verses, with the first verse setting up a situation that is already out of the narrator’s control. Caught by surprise by the approaching boat, as confused to their motives as Ice-T would be later in “Midnight” when he asked “Where were these brothers from? / What made these brothers come?” but had that thought driven from his mind by the back window of Evil E’s car getting shot out.
Of course, Ice-T was an experienced gangbanger, and they weren’t nearly as overmatched as the unnamed protagonist of “Powderfinger,” who was clearly the last person who should be dealing with the men in the the white boat. But that was the problem: he was the last person.
My brother’s out hunting in the mountains
Big John’s been drinking
Since the river took Emmy-Lou
So the Powers That Be
Left me here to do the thinkin’
And I just turned twenty-two
I was wondering what to do
And the closer they got
The more those feelings grew
Dude is fucked. In the first verse, he automatically thought about John, but by the second verse realized why that was a bad idea; his brother sure picked a terrible (or perfect) time to go hunting, and his dad is either dead or good as.
“Powderfinger” was originally recorded at that all-night acoustic session that also gave the world “Pocahontas” and “Ride My Llama,” and that acoustic version was part of the tracklisting Chrome Dreams, not to mention was also given to Ronnie Van Zant for for Lynyrd Skynyrd to record. Luckily, Chrome Dreams went unreleased, and unluckily, Ronnie Van Zant died in a plane crash, and so Neil recorded it with Crazy Horse.
And thank gods for that, because they absolutely kill it throughout. Between Billy Talbot & Ralph Molina’s “oooooohs” during the back half of the verses — and even more crucial, during the guitar solos — and Frank Sampedro harmonizing his guitar with Neil’s after each verse, Crazy Horse are totally on top of the their game throughout.
Which is more than we can say for the guy in the song, who is clearly outmatched and outgunned, and yet futilely standing his ground.
Daddy’s rifle in my hand felt reassuring
He told, “Red means run, son
Numbers add up to nothing”
But when the first shot hit the dock I saw it coming
Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why
Then I saw black
And my face splashed in the sky
Neil takes guitar solos after the second and third verses of “Powderfinger.” Both are lilting and lyrical, weaving in and around Crazy Horse, complementing and commenting upon the the song, staying within its confines as opposed to to trying to break new ground with every note.
The second solo also sets up the final verse, as the newly-dead 22-year-old reflects upon his newly-dead status before fading away for good. And while we’ll never know what his momma — who presumably found his body — or his brother thought about his death, we absolutely know what he thinks about the whole situation.
Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Think of me as one you’d never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love
I know I’ll miss her
This is fucking heartbreaking. His death seems so pointless, and the dead guy singing how he’s gonna miss his girl from beyond the grave is ridiculously poignant; one last killing detail.
“Powderfinger” remains one of Neil Young’s most iconic songs; its simplicity and straightforward narrative making it ripe for covers, which we did in Sedan Delivery, along with other luminaries such as the Feelies, Drive-by Truckers and Cowboy Junkies. And it goes without saying that Neil’s been playing it ever since.
“Powderfinger” live from Rust Never Sleeps (the film), 1978
“Powderfinger” w/ International Harvesters, Live Aid, 1985
“Powderfinger” live w/ Booker T & The MGs, 1993
“Powderfinger” w/ Promise of the Real, Farm Aid 2016
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