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The Song That Changed Your Life

An aesthetic compass by Kevin Chong

As part of The Song That Changed Your Life series, we asked writers from across the country to tell us which song or piece of music is important to them. 

The first in the series is Kevin Chong. This is what he had to say about his choice: “Since I wrote a book about his music, I was hoping to be cool and name someone other than Neil Young. But more than anyone, it’s his music that has left an indelible stamp on my life.” 

I was 14 years old. My mother had signed me up for guitar lessons to help me make more friends. So far, I had pecked through the grim opening guitar lines to Metallica's "One." 

Up until then, I listened to music I originally found through MuchMusic, and video hits shows on other channels, and one day I saw Neil Young’s "Rockin' in the Free World". At different points in the video, Young dresses up as a homeless man and a frighteningly ugly version of a glam rocker. I think it was his nuttiness that appealed to me. Someone was telling me it was perfectly acceptable to feel indifferent to how others perceive you. It was a revelation.

I became a Neil Young fan in a big way. I bought all his albums, an electric guitar, and sundry flannel shirts. My love of Neil Young never made me popular at school or won me friends, but for those teenage years it gave me one fewer thing to feel ambivalent or awkward about, and for that I am completely grateful. 

I no longer play guitar or wear flannel except for my pyjama pants, but I still have those albums. The Canadian singer-songwriter's music provided me with an aesthetic compass I still rely on. His artistic vision favours passion over precision, immediacy over presentation; it is tender but often irreverent; intimate but stubbornly unknowable. For better and for worse, I think that's how I go about writing.

Above all else, from him I've come to feel that work should bear the touches of the maker's self—and the odder those touches are the better. As writing, Young's lyrics don't stack up next to Dylan's or Leonard Cohen's. There's something about "Knocking on Heaven's Door" or "Hallelujah" that makes those songs feel as though they exist outside their authors; the songs are platonic forms. In their inwardness, often wavering between being suggestive and obscure (e.g. "what is the colour when black is burnt?"), and their "unfinished" production quality, Young's works always feels like personal documents. It's what makes his fans follow along his wayward path, each album a bread crumb along an unmarked trail. We're not searching for him but the part of us that responds to him.

Kevin Chong is the author of four books, most recently a novel entitled Beauty Plus Pity and a nonfiction book on horse-racing, My Year of the Racehorse. He's an editor at Joylandmagazine.com and teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. 

Tell us about the song or music that changed your life! 

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