Neil Young News
Lyrics for "Ordinary People"
Neil Young's 1988 song "Ordinary People" should never, NEVER, EVER be confused with 2003's William Shatner's 'Common People'. Furthermore, please do not confuse with the 2005 song by R&B artist John Legend on the album Get Lifted, and co-written by Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas. Young's song also has nothing whatsoever to do with the Robert Redford film "Ordinary People" (1980). PLEASE don't make these common mistakes!
[Note: This is one of a series of articles which provide an explanation of the meaning of Neil Young's songs. While the interpretation of lyrics presented here is composed of several viewpoints, there is little consensus on the exact meaning of Neil's songs. The themes and symbolism of Young's songwriting provide a rich tapestry on which to project various meanings and analysis. ]
To begin with, there is nothing ordinary about Neil Young's
"Ordinary People". Except maybe for the fact that it is the
greatest unreleased Neil Young song ever and - should "Ordinary
People" ever be released - is destined to become another classic.
IMHO, Young's song "Ordinary People" is his Guernica -
a masterpiece upon which to frame the debate of where
the song stands relative to his other narrative classics,
such as "Cortez The Killer" or "Thrasher".
A stunning tour de force, "Ordinary People" was performed
frequently during the Bluenotes 1988 tour, but has yet to re-
surface in subsequent concerts or albums. Those fortunate enough
to have caught the legendary "Ordinary People" performances
during the Bluenotes tour know that the song's musical intensity
and lyrical sweep rivals few - if any - other released Neil
Lyrically speaking, "Ordinary People" is the longest song Neil
has written besides "Crime In the City". Coincidentally, the
extended 11 verse CITC made it's debut on the Bluenotes tour, as
well. But while the full length CITC was played less than a half
dozen times (most notably in Toronto on August 18, 1988)
"Ordinary People" was played at a least a dozen concerts from
April '88 through September '88. Some shows that highlight
"Ordinary People" include the CNE, Toronto 8/18/88. Jones Beach,
NY, 8/27/88, and Pier 84, New York City, 8/30/88 (There are
slight lyric variations from show to show. Lyrics used for this
analysis are from the 8/18/88 show.)
Coming in at a breathtaking 9 verses, the epic "Ordinary People"
makes even the brilliant extended "Crime In the City" seem like a
tossed off short story. Many performances of "Ordinary People"
clocked in at around 15 minutes or longer. While Young has done
extended songs before such as, "Down By The River", "Like A
Hurricane", and "Cortez the Killer", these songs have been mainly
comprised of extended solos and jams.
OTOH, "Ordinary People" consists primarily of a driven and
passionate Young spitting out his fiercest lyrics ever. In
conjunction with Young's slide driven guitar work and stellar
backing by the Bluenotes horn section, "Ordinary People" sizzles
as a blues showcase.
Another notable performance of OP was an acoustic version in
Melbourne, Australia on 4/11/89. Interestingly, the acoustic
version comes across even more powerfully than the electric
version with more emphasis on vocal delivery at the expense of
the angry electric jam just prior to the final chorus. In
addition, Young's two handed harmonica playing reveals him to be
an accomplished blues player.
In terms of lyricism, only the beauty and poetry of Young's
magnum opus "Thrasher" can compare with "Ordinary People". Where
Bob Dylan may have been more ellipitical and Elvis Costello or
Graham Parker may have been more direct, Young's succinct
distillation of an era reads like a Charles Dickens novel, soars
like a Walt Whitman poem, and breaks the heart like an Otis
Redding blues song.
While a shortened CITC (subtitled Zero to 60) later appeared on
Freedom, only circulating concert tapes reveal the true nature of
the rare and legendary "Ordinary People". Just as "Stringman"
suddenly reappeared from the vaults during MTV's Unplugged, we
can only hope that we are as lucky with "Ordinary People".
In a departure from Young's traditional source of theme
material - himself - "Ordinary People" encompasses a broad survey
on the state of the union as seen through the eyes of the common
man. "Ordinary People" is Young's attempt to frame the plight of
the common man against the obstacles and challenges of the U.S.
in the late 80's.
The song works at multiple levels telling the stories of the
ordinary people - the factory workers, the bartenders, the
teachers. These ordinary people are trying to survive and make a
living against all odds in the face of trickle down Reaganomics.
Try as the ordinary people might, they just can not make it
happen for them. Young feels their anger and frustration and yet
offers them little hope.
"Ordinary People" is also the story of those whose aim is to
capitalize on the ordinary people's failure and inability to
defend themselves. Young denounces the crack dealers who prey on
the inner city children and the fat cats in their Rolls Royce's
who cruise alongside poverty. In one verse, Young sums up the
viscous circle of modern life, where repo men prey on crooks who
prey on the innocent.
The narrative climax of "Ordinary People" occurs when Young
brings his assortment of characters together for a scene where it
becomes clear there will be no winner. The social commentary is
dead on target and speaks volumes about what Young - and
America - sees all around us. Offering no solution, yet
capturing the moment, it is a premier example of the singer-
songwriter at the peak of his craft.
Using his backup band the Bluenotes to their fullest potential,
Young builds to a crescendo, trading note for note with sax
player Steve Lawrence. Young's guitar screams out the pain,
revealing himself to be a gifted blues player. The incredible
interplay rises to a fever pitch before Young delivers the final
lines of the Bluenotes' piece de resistance.
In the end, Young keeps the faith in the ordinary people. In the
never ending battle between good and evil, it's not a matter of
who wins, but who survives. Young, the man and musician is a
The release of a live version of "Ordinary People" will surely
put to bed forever any questions about the musical genius of Neil
(Adapted from RUST@DEATH posts November 1993 and April 1994.)
Here are some photos of "Ordinary People".
Neil's song "Ordinary People" should never, NEVER be confused with the William Shatner's "Common People".
Analysis of Neil Young Lyrics