Neil Young is uncompromising in his lyricism. Whether he’s delivering piercing rock with Crazy Horse or swaying folk with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Young isn’t afraid to say what he wants—when he wants. He’s continued that tradition for decades in the music industry and doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
In celebration of Young’s incomparable career, we’ve picked a handful of lines that stand out as some of his best. Though this list could go on for days, find 6 great Neil Young lyrics below.
1. They were hiding behind hay bales / They were planting in the full moon / They had given all they had / For something new (“Thrasher”)
This delicate acoustic offering concerns Young’s feelings toward his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash. In 1995, he revealed that he began to worry the group had lost its direction and felt a sense of liberation after breaking free from CSN. In lines from “Thrasher” above, Young looks back on the heyday of the group before his departure, allowing for a moment of fondness.
2. There’s one more kid / That will never go to school / Never get to fall in love / Never get to be cool (“Rockin’ in the Free World”)
“Rockin’ in the Free World” is a berate to society during the Bush Sr. era. Across the song, he comments on his own standing in society, the government, and (as seen in the lines above) the vicious cycle poverty can enforce. It’s one of Young’s most popular songs for a reason. He leaves no stone unturned in this one.
3. I see bloody fountains / And ten million dune buggies coming down the mountains / Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars (“Revolution Blues”)
Yet another sharp social commentary from Young, “Revolution Blues” was inspired by the Charles Manson murders of 1969. In the lines above, he references Manson’s delusions of an impending apocalypse and mixes them with observations about upper-crust culture as a whole. It can also be seen as a dig at his fellow musicians in Laurel Canyon, whom Young always felt slightly out of place with.
4. Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself / When you’re old enough to repay / But young enough to sell? (“Tell Me Why”)
Despite being a lauded songwriter, Young isn’t afraid to admit that sometimes he doesn’t know what he’s singing about. “Tell Me Why” is one such song. In Young’s biography, Shakey, he says that the lines above “sound like gibberish” to him. Famously not one to edit his songs, he rolled with what came to him and landed on something great, unbeknownst to him.
5. And I saw you in my nightmares / But I’ll see you in my dreams / And I might live a thousand years / Before I know what that means (“Barstool Blues”)
In “Barstool Blues,” Young reckons with a lost love. She is so ingrained in his mind that he’s thinking about her even when he’s asleep, though he doesn’t know quite what to make of it. It’s simple, relatable yet poetic—a hallmark of Young’s lyricism.
6. Sometimes I think that I know / What love’s all about / And when I see the light / I know I’ll be all right (“Philadelphia”)
Written for the soundtrack for the 1993 drama film of the same name, “Philadelphia” takes a stand on LGBTQ+ rights. The movie, which follows the story of a gay man who attempts to sue his employers after being fired for having AIDS, clearly inspired the lyrical content. He opens the track with the lines above, imbuing an air of optimism into the otherwise grave situation.
Neil Young Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)