Helpless was originally recorded with Young’s band Crazy Horse in early 1969, before Young’s new CSNY bandmates (he had joined the then-trio in mid-1969) convinced him it would suit them better. The song was simple, at its core effectively the repetition of one melody over a descending D-A-G chord progression, but despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity the group found difficulty deciding on an arrangement and many different versions of the song were recorded before the group finally decided on the slow-paced version that appeared on the album. On this final version Young was in the foreground, singing the verses and the chorus with his bandmates providing the “helpless” refrain, while the instrumentation came in the form of acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar (or electric guitar with volume pedal), and piano. It became one of the most revered songs from the Déjà Vu album (Q magazine’s Peter Doggett regards it as “one of (the album’s) showpieces”), and has remained a live favorite of Young’s for over thirty years. Experimental rock artist Bill Nelson recorded a version of the song. K.D. Lang recorded a version with a lush string section for her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel. Nick Cave also recorded a rendition of this song for a Young tribute album. Young also performs the song with the Band and Joni Mitchell in the film The Last Waltz. Patti Smith covered the song on her album Twelve.
The “town in North Ontario” referred to in the opening line of the song is often presumed to be Ontario native Young’s hometown; Young himself cleared up the rumors in a 1995 Mojo interview with Nick Kent:
“Well, it’s not literally a specific town so much as a feeling. Actually, it’s a couple of towns. Omemee, Ontario, is one of them. It’s where I first went to school and spent my ‘formative’ years. Actually I was born in Toronto…”
Omemee, just west of Peterborough, is well within what is now considered Southern Ontario, and 130 km from Toronto by road.
The song’s second verse contains the surreal nature-inspired imagery that was typical of Young’s early 1970s work, similar to the lyrics of the well-known title track from the After the Gold Rush album:
Blue, blue windows behind the stars
Yellow moon on the rise
Big birds flying across the sky
Throwing shadows on our eyes
Edited by troglobiont on 16 Oct 2008, 03:25
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