BY ELIZABETH BARKER (ILLUSTRATION BY JEN MAY)
Anyway, what I really want to tell you about is how I've ruined "Cinnamon Girl" for myself two times in the semi-recent past.
The first has to do with putting "Cinnamon Girl" on a CD to listen to in my car -- I was hanging out with a dude I halfway liked and had a hunch I was heading for disappointment, so my plan was to use "Cinnamon Girl" as a sort of buffer against the pain of impending rejection. To me "Cinnamon Girl" isn't about groupies; it's about some scrappy, hulking, Neiler-y guy who's going to come along and be all starry-eyed in a chill sort of way, and you're gonna have this gorgeous epic romance together, chasing the moonlight and all that. It's deluded and lazy to think one person's going to make you happy the rest of your life, like Neil sings about in the song, but deluded and lazy's a good look for some people. I appreciate Neiler's delusional laziness, and also I love how his handclapping's sloppy and out of time. If a dude clapped along to the beat in perfect rhythm, it would seem so lame to me.
So I put "Cinnamon Girl" on that CD and listened to it over and over and pretty soon it got to be a drag, the disparity between the song and the reality of my romantic underwhelment. I resented "Cinnamon Girl" a little, I felt like it was mocking me. Soon enough the boy turned out to be a jerk indeed, deluded and lazy and not in a Neiler-y way at all. I threw the CD into the backseat and didn't listen again for months.
The second time I ruined "Cinnamon Girl" was when I was trying to write a short story that my heart wasn't really in. I'd gotten some idea that I should try my hand at writing cynical, clever fiction full of cynical, clever characters, and I started thinking up a story about a girl who's obsessed with Neil Young and wants to go to Topanga Canyon to find the ghost of his late-1960s self (which, in retrospect, seems neither cynical nor clever, but there you have it). I had this plan that one Saturday in the fall I was going to drive up to Topanga and listen to "Cinnamon Girl" and eat a cinnamon donut, and then everything was going to come together and the story would get my heart in it and I'd have something great to give the world. I kept dreading Topanga Canyon "Cinnamon Girl" Cinnamon Donut Day, most likely because it seemed impossible that it could ever work out the way I wanted, so I put it off and put it off and then fall ended and I still haven't eaten a cinnamon donut, which is really what I wanted most genuinely out of the whole situation. I never wrote that story. I'm glad I didn't.
I absolutely, emphatically believe in using music to get what you want out of it. But using music to get something you only halfway want -- a replacement for the affection of a dude you don't even actually like that much, a story that don't really even want to tell -- is bullshit. It's pathetic and nasty and ultimately abusive of the song itself. So don't do that.
ii. MAINTAIN YOUR NOWHERE. One sunny Sunday morning last summer I walked to the top of a big hill on Mulholland Drive and took a picture of Los Angeles. I used my sucky phone-camera and the picture came out all washed-out and hazy, but I liked it and put it on the Internet with the caption "Everybody knows this is nowhere," and felt smart about that. It was a real turning point for me.
I live in L.A. and I love it so much. So, so much. I haven't been to all that many places in my life, but there's no other place I've ever taken to so immediately and wholly as I did with Los Angeles. I've been here almost nine years now and I still have moments (usually on the freeway) when everything stops and I look at the city and think, "Wow, whoa, I actually live here." I think it's so beautiful and the only recurring nightmare I ever have is the one where I impulse-decide to move away, and then get to the new place, and am instantly heartbroken and devastated that I left Los Angeles.
The thing about living in your dream city, though, is sometimes it gets claustrophobic, not having some other place you think about running away to someday. So sometimes, every six months or so, I drive three hours up the coast to this weird little town, in the woods and by the sea. It's easy and breezy, like in the song. When I go there, I have a rule that I can't start listening to Neil Young till the landscape gets all Neil Young-y: dusty, mountainous, majestic, lonely. I could probably never really exist in that habitat, but it's good and comforting to have an escape to aspire to.
iii. DESTROY ALL NIGHT ANGST. A couple years ago I wrote a story for our Beatles book, called "Golden Slumbers." It's got two characters who eventually became the center of the novel I'm writing; their names are Sally and John (Jack). "Golden Slumbers" was about a summer when they were kids (sixteen for Sally, nineteen for Jack) and had an afternoon ritual of eating Heavenly Hash ice cream and napping in the hot sun while listening to records. It wasn't much of a story, sort of a lark, but there was a cool part where Sally makes a napping mixtape for them and I wrote out the tracklist. One of the songs was "Round & Round (It Won't Be Long)," which is a perfect song to sleep to.
Soundtracking your sleep is a very teenage thing to do. I used to do it when I was a teenager and I don't very often anymore, but when I do, it's usually so nice and a good antidote to what our friend Laura calls "night angst." I think night angst is just the worst symptom of adulthod and I hardly even believe in nonpharmaceutical interventions for it anymore but, still, I made a playlist that's all Sally's sleeping songs. It's meant to be a 60-minute mixtape. Here.
iv. BAD PARENTING HAS ITS MERITS. When I was little my dad showed me part of River's Edge, which is a movie based on the true story of a teenager in Northern California who strangled his girlfriend and left her naked body by a river and brought his friends to the river to show them but none of the kids bothered to report the murder for days. I was, like, 9-years-old? I think? My dad's point was that it'd be interesting for me to see Crispin Glover in a role vastly different from his performance in Back to the Future. I don't think I actually saw the parts with the dead girl right then, but the movie was recorded onto the same VHS tape I'd used to record Adventures in Babysitting, and I ended up watching River's Edge not too many years later. It's a good movie. It's so goddamn bleak but weirdly sweet in moments and the kids are the most accurately portrayed stoner-metalhead teenagers I've ever seen on film: they all look so legitimately filthy and malnourished, like none of them has bathed or changed clothes or consumed vitamin-containing foods in weeks and weeks.
I always think of River's Edge when I listen to "Down by the River," even though the River's Edge boy didn't shoot his girlfriend. I just replace the kid from the movie with Neil Young and it's creepier, and the water's muddy. "Down by the River" itself has a muddy kind of feel to it -- it sounds dirty (not like sexy, though I think it's sexy too), but like the actual song is caked in dirt. It's cruddy and grimy and that's so much of why it's gorgeous to me. The guitar solo sounds like a busted gun. It's all so shitty and glorious, which is a really cool dynamic.
Now that I'm older, I'm happy I saw River's Edge when I was too young. I like how it's all mixed up with all my other preteen obsessions, like Sweet Valley High and 90210 and YM magazine; I think those sorts of fucked-up juxtapositions do cool things for your imagination. One of my favorite lines is when Keanu Reeves asks his little brother and his brother's friend, "Why are you two such delinquents?" and the little brother shoots back, " 'Cause of our fucked-up childhoods!" He says it all snotty and stupid, but he thinks he's so tough and cool.
If River's Edge and "Down by the River" were the same for real, though, then Neil wouldn't be the boy who killed his girlfriend. He'd be the sensitive stoner boy in the tie-dyed t-shirt and black leather jacket, the one who helps his kid sister have a funeral for her favorite doll after her other brother drowns it in the river, the closest thing to a hero in the whole ugly story.