One of the most moving musical performances for me, one I deeply love, one that even makes me cry — it’s Neil Young singing his song “Harvest Moon”, in Jonathan Demme’s Heart of Gold, a film of a Young concert.
Anyone who knows me well (and knows the song) would know why I’m so deeply touched. I’m not a young man, and here’s Neil Young, 47 when he first released the song on an album also called Harvest Moon, 60 when he sang it in the film, and now 72. Singing a love song.
But not an impetuous or breathless one, not a young man’s song, not a sentimental one, not a song about romantic love. Instead it’s a love song to his then-wife Pegi, whom he’d been married to for 14 years when he first released the song, and for 27 years when he sang it in the film. So this is a song about mature, settled love.
And so no wonder, as an older man in love with my wife of 17 years, I relate to it. Young and Pegi have since broken up, but let that go. Neither that or knowing that they were having trouble when the Harvest Moon album came out can take anything away from his love for her, or his admiration for her as mom to their handicapped kids and as a singer-songwriter in her own right.
Because in the film, she’s one of his backup singers. Twice in the song, he sings:
But now it’s gettin’ late
And the moon is climbin’ high
I want to celebrate
See it shinin’ in your eye.
Because I’m still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I’m still in love with you
On this harvest moon.
Getting late…Young (and me, too) growing older…
And when he comes to these words the second time, right at the end of the song, when he sings “I’m still in love with you,” he turns to look at his wife, and she melts.
As I rewatched this moment yesterday, I saw it wasn’t as big as I remembered it. But still…what we see is unmistakably love.
I wrote this post when I was preparing to use the song today in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. In today’s class we talked about how classical music relates to the rest of our culture, and I used the song to how pop music can touch us very directly, by showing a mirror of our lives. And through that mirror, teaching us many things.
I hadn’t thought to assign “Harvest Moon” (as you’ll see if you follow the link, and go to the assignments for the January 31 class). I did assign three songs — three of so very many — that bring us the African-American experience, Something we hardly encounter at all in classical music.
But I’ll start the class by showing the video. That’s part of a plan I have, to start each class with something that shows musicians or audience (or both) enjoying something in music, something that — with all our stiff and abstract talk of timeless values — we often don’t acknowledge as part of classical musicmaking.
Neil Young shows me someone who’s now about my age, and who was just as much in love as I am. Someone real whom I can see before me.
I talked about this Monday night, at dinner with Anne and two of our friends. One of the friends — who has a high position in classical music, and loves pop music — said something wise. After I said that pop music could show us things that touch our lives directly, he said that classical music, too, could show us ourselvebuts. But not directly! Only at step away, at one remove. (I wish I remembered the succinct way he put it.)
I never thought of that. I think it’s true. I tried to think of mature and settled love in classical music, and came up with Gremin’s aria, from Eugene Onegin. (So beautifully sung, if you follow the link, by Nicolai Ghiaurov.)
And yes, Prince Gremin is an older man, and yes, he loves his wife Tatiana, loves her truly and sincerely, as Tchaikovsky’s music tells us.
But that — however beautiful the aria is — is abstract to me. I don’t know the circumstances. I can’t see how his love plays out.
With Neil Young, I can see that, if only just a little. But enough to someone who – at least in this all way — I can recognize as a version of myself. Or as Young once said, “The real music of my life is my family.”
Someone might ask about the musical depth of Neil Young, compared to Tchaikovsky. A useful conversation! But later for it.