“Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat coming up the river.” So begins Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” a song that has captivated, intrigued and mystified his fans ever since it was released. It’s a striking opening, one that might have portended something fortuitous had Young taken the song in another direction. But “Powderfinger” burrows mercilessly towards death, landing there even before the narrator has finished his story.
Many Young fans have spent the last four decades or so trying to decipher the song’s clues, hoping to put a finer point on a song that leaves you guessing. If they were hoping for some help from the author, well, that doesn’t look like it will happen. Young has stayed mum on the song’s inspiration and particulars, revealing only that there was “angst” and “anger” behind it in a 1995 interview with Spin magazine.
What we do know is that he originally intended “Powderfinger” to be recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd, but the plane crash that claimed the life of three band members in 1977 scuttled that plan. We also now know that Young did a haunting acoustic version of the track, as evidenced by its inclusion on Hitchhiker, his just-released “lost” album from 1976. But most of the world knows the song from the take found on the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps, with Crazy Horse loping along at a sludgy rhythmic pace while Young adds elegiac electric guitar leads.
While getting caught up in the “who,” “where,” and “when,” of “Powderfinger” can be diverting, what ultimately makes the song such a classic is how Young brings the charismatic character... Sign In to Keep Reading