Neil Young wakes in the semidarkness, rises like the very sun itself, and places upon his head a dusty black fedora. He wraps his physical manifestation within a flannel shirt, as if wrapping it within a shroud of the Holy Spirit. He eats something organic and picks up the news and quickly puts down the news, and outside is waiting a specially engineered, environmentally conscious classic car into which Neil Young climbs with great pleasure.
He stretches, rubs his eyes, keys the ignition.
Neil Young’s dreams have been troubling. In them, there was a Rubik’s Cube that Neil Young had been trying to solve. This Rubik’s Cube should have been called the Devil’s Cube, so certain is Neil Young that he could not have solved it, even if he had been given a lifetime. Now, as the American West unfolds before him like a motion picture that does not move but is, rather, moved through, Neil Young begins to mentally design a machine that will not only solve the Rubik’s Cube but also punish the Rubik’s Cube for being all but unsolvable. Neil Young, in his dream, and, in the here-and-now, as they call it—in “dream” or in “reality”—is suddenly willing to do anything, willing to risk anything to bring this machine to fruition. He will meet presidents and prime ministers. He will go on television and try to remain at least moderately cheerful and accessible. He will record new music, perhaps even alongside fellow rock icons with whom his current relations are rumored to be as frigid as an Ontarian winter.
Of course, all of this is a tall order, even for Neil Young, who finds himself suddenly sweating beneath his fedora with the heat of the enormous pressures he places upon himself. Off comes the fedora. The western atmosphere sucks through the car window and swirls around Neil Young’s uncapped head, cools him, restores his senses. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief, catches a glimpse of himself hatless in the rearview.
His hair is less substantial than it was at one time. His face is different than he usually imagines it. His eyes still cut, but…but…but…
I look so…mortal, Neil Young thinks. Back on goes the fedora, quickly, and yes, Neil Young feels himself again, restored to legend-in-the-flesh status, just another rock god out cruising in his environmentally friendly land yacht to breathe in the soul of the mountains and the essence of the valleys he so desperately hopes but is not confident will be here for future generations.
He reminds himself the fedora stays in place from now on.
Now a song begins to knock at the cellar door of Neil Young’s imagination. He applies greater pressure to the gas pedal, feels the minutes and the miles falling away like old habits and old friends. Someplace deep and lost and wild, Neil Young pulls over. He takes out, or perhaps conjures up, a guitar and an amplifier, which he plugs directly into the side of the first mountain he reaches. This perhaps seems unlikely, and it would be, except that it happens. It is the truest thing you will find written here. Neil Young plugs the amplifier into the side of the mountain and he plugs the guitar into the amplifier and he makes a contorted face and begins to do Neil Young–like things to/with the guitar. The sound is the sound of an electric beard trimmer and a concrete truck making strangely melodic love. The sound travels high out over the lands and everything the lands support—the flowers, the cities, the rivers, the graves of the famous and the graves of the forgotten alike. The sound travels out over everything and everything willingly submits, agrees to believe that Neil Young can create anything Neil Young can dream. The irony: in that same moment, Neil Young himself no longer believes. Neither does he disbelieve. He has no opinion; in fact, no existence except in the noise he has become, or perhaps that he has always been. Neil Young has forgotten the Rubik’s Cube of the long dark night behind, the punitive measures he wished to take against it, the great promise of his unmade machine.
Our scene must shift now. Missouri. Early morning, just me and a steaming cup of Jamaican blend, three sugars and three creams. I’m sitting at an outdoor table watching the breath steam like dragon smoke from the mouths of the winter sidewalk walkers, Neil Young’s memoir spread open beside me, when the sound of his guitar hits my ears. I can’t tell if it is real or if it is something I have invented from what I have been reading.
I hear the guitar, and soon after I hear the trees calling back. And the mountains, and the valleys, too, and the last of the clean rivers who still have voices and a chorus of gleaming fish. And I wonder if these sounds are mine. Do they belong to my mind? Or are they formed from the corporeal stuff of this world?
That’s the thing. I can’t begin to say for certain.
For their part, the mountains and valleys and rivers and fish do not seem to care. Neil Young, they howl in ragged unison, responding to the call of his guitar, and their howls easily stretch the long miles between us.
Neil Young. Neil Young. Neil Young.
Justin Hamm is the author of a full-length collection of poems, Lessons in Ruin, as well as the chapbooks Illinois, My Apologies and The Everyday Parade/Alone With Turntable, Old Records. He is also the founding editor of the museum of americana. His poems or stories have appeared in Nimrod, The Midwest Quarterly, Punchnel’s, Hobart, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. Recent work has also been selected for New Poetry from the Midwest and the Stanley Hanks Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center.
Image: Neil Young albums by Matthew Klein