Yearning For Simplicity

The older I become, my craving for the simple life increases. Our world is so consumed by strife, noise, conflict, wars and threats of war, uncertainties, complexities, health crisis, etc., that I desire to return to another time when life was not so insane.

I mentioned in a prior post that, though I was more of a music lover/listener in my teenage and 20’s, I’ve drifted far from those times when music was so much a part of my existence. Though I still listen to music, it is nothing compared to the amount of time I once spent engaging in it. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus summed this up nicely when he said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Life is constantly changing, and so are we.

As many have noticed, when we watch a video on Youtube, the algorithms suggest certain videos based on our previous views and individual preferences. One of these suggestions is the music by Neil Young; at 76 years old, he is still playing, performing and writing music, though I only like less than a handful of all the music he has written and sung.

The song that keeps coming up in my feed was one of his best known songs, “Old Man”:

Neil Young performing “Old Man” in 1971

I was 11 years old when this concert was held. Something strange happens to me when I hear this song: I’m brought back to that special time in my troubled life that, though rarely if ever great, nonetheless provided me with an escape and a certain feeling of beauty through certain music that reflected an oasis of sanity and goodness.

At 0:43, Young begins the introduction to the song. This simple guitar melody instantly takes me back to that time in my youth when I first heard this tune. Though I cannot remember where I was or how old I was when I first heard this particular song, that powerful “something” in my soul resonates upon hearing these chords.

One of the remarkable aspects about this particular song is the simplicity of it. Here is Young, 26 years old or so, performing by himself; no backup band, no other singers, no fancy light show or fog machines, but one young artist with his guitar. He is seated on a chair, dressed modestly, and is not jumping all around, baring his hairy chest and waving his guitar in the air…just a simple man playing and singing a simple song and the effect is, at least to me, overwhelming and powerful.

There was a certain simplicity and innocence with Young at this moment in his life, a persona that, to me, was lost as he aged, became a wealthy music star, and achieved the pinnacle of success as a musician. His music evolved into harder rock and roll, with all the trappings of this genre: loud music with a far harder edge and a more “look at me” emphasis, two things I back away from in music.

One man with a guitar. Simple. Uncomplicated. Nothing fancy. And as powerful and moving as one can get, singing and playing a song with his distinctive, trademark voice that over 50 years later, can still move the soul.

Young sings of lost love, loneliness, a desire for something meaningful. Young, with all of his new found wealth as a rising star and with his recently purchased ranch from two lawyers, at the end of the day, coming home to his ranch, is just as lonely and longing for companionship as his old, poor caretaker is. Loneliness and the agony of failed relationships is an equal opportunity employer that does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the famous and the nobody, or the old—the caretaker—and the young—Neil Young. Loneliness and regret touches all of us without preference, condition, or status.

And one man, with only his guitar and voice, has the wonderful gift of touching our souls with this sad and haunting message.

Here is another classic from, I believe, the same concert:

Heart of Gold

And again, the same powerful feeling as “Old Man” but with the added touch of another instrument, the haunting sound of a harmonica; still, one man, one voice, but now with two instruments. Still, nothing fancy, no theatrics, no jumping up and down, no eye popping and grotesque facial contortions.

And again, at the beginning of his guitar and harmonica solo at 1:48, strong and overpowering emotions and memories are evoked in my mind and soul, bringing me back to that time long ago when I first heard this particular piece of music. In the midst of a life living with an abusive father, somehow this song, like the other, spoke to my troubled life and brought me comfort and perhaps a bit of sanity in a personal, insane world.

I have heard these two particular songs by Neil Young for decades. How many times? Who knows…at least dozens and dozens. Maybe over a hundred; I don’t know.

And like I wrote in the above mentioned post, that special “something” that was part of these kind of songs from my past cannot be replicated today. If Neil Young sang this song today using the exact same guitar, it would not sound the same. He has changed, and because he has changed, that song and the special vibe it threw off has changed as well. I’m unable to explain it better than this.

But simplicity of life, of music, where I live, how I spend my days—all of these things and more are now marked by simplicity. Does Neil Young need a seven piece band to play his early 1970’s music, like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”? No, he doesn’t, but what folk/rock stars perform by themselves any more? It seems all of the successful ones now travel with full bands and have brought light shows, fog machines, and all the trappings of “high energy” concerts to their adoring fans.

Not for me. I prefer the old paths, the paths marked by quiet, uncluttered simplicity. A lifestyle centered on thinking, philosophy, and mediating on the deep things of life, the “things that are more excellent.”

So often, less is indeed more.