‘Blue, Blue Windows Behind The Stars . . .’

Originally posted November 18, 2008

The title track of Déjà Vu, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album from 1970, popped up on the RealPlayer the other day, and as music generally does for me, it sparked a couple of memories.

First, I recalled the review of the album in the St. Cloud Tech High student newspaper, written by a couple of fellow seniors in the autumn of 1970, not long after the album was released. What I recall is the reviewers’ complaint that the title tune failed because it had nothing of the sense of what a déjà vu experience feels like. I had the record at home, and agreed with them. I knew, though, that writer David Crosby was using déjà vu as a metaphor, although I wasn’t certain what the point of the metaphor was. A few years later, as the record played at a Friday night party somewhere in St. Cloud, I got the reincarnation references.

The second memory also comes from around the time the album was released: During the first semester of my senior year in high school, I took a course in psychology. We examined the stresses of everyday living, looking at how mood, temperament and environment affect our sense of who we are and our actions. I thought at the time the course had a pretty loose definition of “psychology,” but it was a fun and fascinating semester.

Along the way, we students were periodically assigned to bring in examples from the mass media of news reports, magazine articles, television programs, songs or anything else we found that showed some connection to the course’s definition of psychology. Again, that cast a pretty wide net, but we had some lively sessions, and our teacher was good at sifting through the stuff we brought in and pointing those discussions in thought-provoking directions.

When it came my turn to offer a media artifact for discussion for the class, I brought in Déjà Vu and cued up the record’s third track, Crosby’s lament, “Almost Cut My Hair,” with its somewhat tongue-in-cheek examination of alienation. We had a good time dissecting Crosby’s intent and the song’s take on life, and the other members of the class were a little impressed that I’d changed from a musically clueless goof a year earlier to someone who had the new CSN&Y album before almost everybody else. (Demonstrating that change, I think, was the real reason I was determined to find something on the album that I could share in my psychology class.)

But as the track “Déjà Vu” played the other evening, I thought of another track on the same album that I could just as well have shared in that long-ago class: Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Tucked inside Young’s memories of his Ontario childhood, the recurring chorus of “Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless” sings of alienation and loss as vividly as any part of the David Crosby track I did play. The elegiac tempo and the country-ish instrumentation of Young’s track tie the song firmly in all our pasts, pasts that – if I interpret Young correctly – we are helpless to entirely escape.

That may be too deep and intense a reading of the song, but now, almost forty years after the nearly simultaneous events of the song’s release and my first steps at leaving my own childhood behind, that’s what I hear. I’d be interested in thoughts from others.

I’m not sure where the song ranks in Neil Young’s catalog. That depends entirely on the mood I’m in when I hear it or any other work by Young; the wide range of moods, styles and approaches he’s shown us in his career make his work more difficult to assess, categorize, and in fact comprehend as a whole than the work of anyone else in rock music I can think of. (Well, maybe Bob Dylan.)

It’s a song that’s not been covered by a lot of folks. In its assessment of the song, All-Music Guide notes covers by Nick Cave, Yukihori Takahashi, Nazareth, Trip Shakespeare and Fareed Haque. Another version, one I enjoy, is by k.d. lang on her 2004 CD of songs by Canadian writers, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel.

But I think the best cover of “Helpless” that I know of is the one that AMG said was the first, by Young’s fellow Canadian Buffy Sainte-Marie on her 1971 album, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina.

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