This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #158: Helpless by Neil Young.
“There is a town in north Ontario,
Dream comfort memory to spare
And in my mind, I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.”
And so begins Neil Young’s answer to the question, “Where are you from, son?”
To be technically correct, “Helpless” was a song that was first released on an album called “Deja Vu”, which is a Crosby, Still, Nash and Young album. He didn’t officially release “Helpless”, as his own song, until almost seven years later when he released his “Decade” compilation album. To be honest, I have always considered it to be his song (as opposed to CSNY) because it is an homage to the place where he spent much of his childhood.
The town that Neil is referring to is Omeemee, Ontario. Although he was born in Toronto, Neil Young spent his youthful days in Omeemee. Having said that, Omeemee, Ontario is hardly in “north Ontario”. It resides approximately an hour northwest of where I live in Cobourg, which sits on the shores of Lake Ontario. By contrast, my lovely wife, Keri, attended university in Thunder Bay which, by car, is a full eighteen hours away and, even then, it is not the northern-most place one can reach and still be in Ontario. This speaks to the vastness of the land we call, Canada. But, perhaps, back in the early 1970s, when “Helpless” was written, being an hour north of Lake Ontario made Neil feel that he was in “north Ontario”.
Neil Young describes Omeemee as being a small town where all of the kids walked to school on their own and where everyone knew everybody else. He has said that there was a lot of freedom to go anywhere and do anything he wanted in Omeemee because, basically, there was nothing really there so all of the games he played were made up, with imagination being a pre-requisite for fun. But, some of his memories are bittersweet, as well. For instance, he developed polio as a very young child and, actually, spent some time in Florida where his parents believed the warmer climate would be beneficial. It was, also, during his time in Omeemee that his parents divorced; with Neil going to live with his mother, while his father, journalist/writer, Scott Young, continuing to make a national name for himself in Canada. As Neil says in his lyrics, “All my changes were there”.
“Helpless” was a song that filled many Canadians with pride when it was first released. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, we, as Canadians, still measured the success of our singers and movie stars, in terms of their acceptance in America. So, first of all, to have singers like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and, soon to be, Anne Murray, become stars, in their own right, in America, meant that they had truly made it in our national eyes, too. But, more than that, the fact that Neil Young wrote of Canada and that he sang the words, “north Ontario” to U.S. audiences, was very special to us. The way Young sang “Helpless” almost made Omeemee sound exotic and alluring, in the same manner that some others sang of Kashmir or Marrakech.
One thing about Neil Young is that he is a very generous person. He has voluntarily performed at numerous benefits, such as LiveAid and FarmAid (helping to organize the latter) and has sung “Helpless” at all such events. However, the video that I am going to share comes from a different event which was, the final concert of the group known as “The Band”. Their final concert was made into a movie/documentary called “The Last Waltz” and was filmed by famous director, Martin Scorcese. In this video, Neil Young is introduced as a special guest. He sings “Helpless” along side Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko, with backup accompaniment by Joni Mitchell. Because of the skill of Martin Scorcese with how he shot this song, along with the emotion of the moment among those on stage, this version of “Helpless” has always been my favourite. What a gorgeous rendition this is. Wow! If you have a different version that tickles your fancy, feel free to pop it into the comments below.
For now, please enjoy Neil Young’s ode to Omeemee, Ontario. Here is “Helpless”.
The link to the video for the song, “Helpless” by Neil Young, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Neil Young, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.