Monday, May 10, 2010

Neil Young: Thrasher

SONG Thrasher



APPEARS ON Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Two themes have emerged from Neil Young's career: The primacy of individualism and the value of change for its own sake.  Few songwriters have expressed the necessity of going your own way as effectively as Young: His eccentric, defiant individualism marks his career and his success as much as any other trait. Even a Young song that doesn't deal directly with this theme comes from his unique, highly personal perspective.

Set in a surreal approximation of the American west and inspired by his tenure with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, "Thrasher" reflects the essential Neil Young theme of the dangers -- fear, really -- of calcification that comes from standing still and conforming. The song describes an arc beginning with an eagle ascending over a river of life and concluding with a vulture swooping down on the road to death.

A vision of gigantic thrashers inexorably mowing down all in from them haunts Young throughout:
When I saw those thrashers rolling by,
Looking more than two lanes wide
I was feelin' like my day had just begun
Although he knows that the thrashers will eventually come for him ("When the thashers come/I'll be stuck in the sun") as they must for us all, they're also a signal to live the life he has in the best way he can. For Neil Young, that always meant being himself; specifically, following his artistic muse wherever it led.

Three times, he returns to stifling canyons as places in which one loses ones way and from which one requires rescue:
I searched out my companions,
Who were lost in crystal canyons...

They were lost in rock formations...

I was watchin' my mama's T.V.,
It was that great Grand Canyon rescue episode...
The canyon walls of the mind, of business, of life, even of art hem one in: They stifle creativity and suppress the potential offered by change.

Young scatters the song with penetrating, metaphorical aphorisms like this one--
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates.

--a reminder that we live in times that more than ever require a belief in oneself, as that is becoming all that we have left to believe in.

In the song's portentous coda, Young admits that he, too, will go the way of the dinosaurs, but at least he'll know that when that time he'll have hoed his own row and no one else's: When "the time has come to give what's mine," he'll have something of his own to pass on. And he'll be "stuck in the sun" far from the immobilizing "crystal canyons" where success threatens creativity and self.

They were hiding behind hay bales,
They were planting in the full moon
They had given all they had for something new
But the light of day was on them,
They could see the thrashers coming
And the water shone like diamonds in the dew

And I was just getting up, hit the road before it's light
Trying to catch an hour on the sun
When I saw those thrashers rolling by,
Looking more than two lanes wide
I was feelin' like my day had just begun.

Where the eagle glides ascending
There's an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits
I searched out my companions,
Who were lost in crystal canyons
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates.

It was then I knew I'd had enough,
Burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand
With a one-way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends I still don't understand.

They had the best selection,
They were poisoned with protection
There was nothing that they needed,
Nothing left to find
They were lost in rock formations
Or became park bench mutations
On the sidewalks and in the stations
They were waiting, waiting.

So I got bored and left them there,
They were just deadweight to me
Better down the road without that load
Brings back the time when I was eight or nine
I was watchin' my mama's T.V.,
It was that great Grand Canyon rescue episode.

Where the vulture glides descending
On an asphalt highway bending
Thru libraries and museums, galaxies and stars
Down the windy halls of friendship
To the rose clipped by the bullwhip
The motel of lost companions
Waits with heated pool and bar.

But me I'm not stopping there,
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line in the field of time
When the thrashers comes, I'll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I'll know the time has come
To give what's mine.


  1. Neil Young's always worth a listen, and always has a few things to say. I kinda like him with more instruments and more voices around him, though; he has the ability to attract a great crew of musicians around him who help to make the song sound even better.

  2. Great song, & great review--hadn't thought of this song in ages, but it's one of my favorites by Neil Young.

  3. Roy: I've seen Neil four times, twice solo and twice with Crazy Horse. One of each was excellent, the other two were good. A solo acoustic version of "Ohio" turns out to be pretty good thing!

    John: Thanks! I found "Thrasher" spellbinding when I first heard it. I've listened to it as much as any song not named "Hey, Jude" or "Thunder Road."

  4. I love Neil Young and this song is one of my faves, too. Especially love the lyrics!

  5. One of my faves. This guy really knows how to rock n roll!! \m/

  6. neil is a living legend

  7. Part 1
    I missed Neal at the Grand Canyon back in the mid 70's by three days. I met a man at Phantom Ranch who told me about meeting him on the South Rim and talking to him for a while. The man said Neal was deeply moved and surprisingly curious about the Canyon. This fact stuck in my mind and when I first heard "Thrasher", I understood its meaning in this context:

    The hay bales were the hoodoo rocks on the Esplanade and the "They" were the ancient souls who were born, lived and died in the Canyon. The Sinagua (without water) were thought to have moved into the Canyon after the devastating eruption of Sunset Crater, hence they had given all the had for something new.
    The Athabaskan hunter gather tribes were thought to have raided and harried the Sinagua to the point that they were obliterated or perhaps became tribes like the Hopi and the Zuni. This was the harsh light that shown upon them and the Athabaskans were the thrashers of ancient times. The Sinagua record ends, the rains return and the Colorado river becomes powerful again, with the desert sun, shining like diamonds on the river's body.

  8. Part II
    Perhaps Neal came arrived at night and saw the Canyon at sunrise in its morning splendor. Now the thrashers are the endless, mindless flow of Winnebago RVs streaming into Canyon from their campground in Bedrock City. The highway was a lot narrower back then and the RV's indeed appeared more than two lanes wide. But Neal's communion with the Canyon was not to be a mere check mark on a tourist list; he had just set out to see the Canyon in reflections from his mind's memories bestowed by the Ancients.

    There are many eagles that live above, along and in the Grand Canyon. If you are lucky, you can watch them as they glide out to the Canyon's rim and over the abyss. They catch the thermals at the cliffs' edges and ascend at astonishing rates of climb, then suddenly dive into the abyss at even more astonishing rates, toward the Colorado River, a meandering, dynamic body of water that some say could be as old as 10 million years, since before and throughout the reign of man.

    Neal probably separated from his companions for the walk to the edge of the rim. Perhaps they were hiking down to Phantom Ranch, for bragging rights or maybe they went to one of the many restaurants, bars and gift stores in the village. Or maybe they went to one of the really popular overlooks where you jockey for position to get a good view. Why would anyone want to go to those mundane places when you have the Canyon to yourself within a short stroll off the trail? His companions could have been looking down into Clear Creek or over toward Crystal Creek, both of which cut mamoth gorges in the rock on their way to the Colorado. No doubt, one of the multitudinous tour planes swooped aimlessly low over Angel's Gate directly across from one of those crowded overlooks.

  9. Part III
    That would be enough for me to head out for my own Canyon experience. I'd stroll diagonally across and away from the parking lot for the village with its crowds to peer into a gorge that cuts across more than 3 billion years of geologic history. Maybe I'd want a cup of tea, and that plastic in my bilfold could give off enough heat to boil a small cup of water. Yep, get a permit (ticket), leave the masses and go find a real truth that is held deep within the Canyon.

    Apparently, his companions spared no expense when outfitting themselves for the great outdoors. Maybe they had one of those big gas rotisseries, North Face blazers and, of course, wore the Cutters bug repellant with an overdose of DEET. With a comfortable lawn chair, a big fat roasted turkey leg, and a cold bottle of beer, what across the highway to the North could possibly be better? Some of them could be mesmorized by the view at an overlook, or sit in the shade on one of the many benches along the paved rim walkway. Hey, there will be a show at the Visitor's Center amphitheater in thirty-five minutes. Not enough time to go to restaurant ". . . so let's look at all the exhibits in the little museum or walk down to the old train station and back. The video will be worth the wait." How could you argue with that kind of logic?

  10. Part IV
    Those companions must have been a dictionary picture accompanying the word "enoui". By the way, I remember that show (I was four or five), "Rescue 8" I believe was the name. One of the episodes our hero was rescuing an injured Canyon hiker, using a bulbuous, two seat helicopter.

    So the thrasher Winnebagos and the latest model cars and trucks speed along the Rim Drive, squashing, smashing, ejecting and bashing chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, coyotes and deer, much to the delight of the migrating Great California Vultures. If you weigh under 250lbs, you can go on a mule ride with a whip cracking mule skinner in 1890's cowboy garb. Just that thought sends Winnebago drivers speeding with slobbering alacrity, headed for the air-conditioned restaurants, bars and hotels that overlook the Canyon. Afterwards, they can take a dip in the hotel pool in the cool night air while they sip martinis from their lounge chairs.

  11. Epilogue
    Neal, being a descendant of the ancients, most likely had seen enough. The Sinaguas were agrarian, grew corn and peas on the great terraces by the River. When his time is up, he will be on one of those terraces in his corn field. There will be a great flood, he will be covered in the mud, which will be covered by more mud and flood debris for millions of years until the place of his passing is compressed in the geologic book of time.

    What a great man!

  12. Corrections:
    Sorry, Angel's Gate is in Zion; I meant Angel's Window.
    I also forgot to reference the "Shrines" like Rama Shrine, Krishna Shrine and Vishnu Temple.

  13. I just discovered this song recently and it's my favourite. The weird thing is that I can't find any other versions of it except the one on the album which seems very rare for a Neil Young song. Has anyone ever heard another live version or demo or anything?

  14. As far as I know, Neil has released "Thrasher" only on Rust Never Sleeps. There is no non-bootlegged studio version, and it has not appeared on any other live album.

  15. There is a live video at