In the 1970s when I assumed the principalship of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta, part of my job was to raise money for the school. One of the ways I did it was through establishing a band that would play for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I was blessed to have a number of talented adults who were willing to donate their services for this project. We named the band Matzah since we saw ourselves as the Jewish version of Bread, a popular rock group of the seventies.
I recall that the most difficult part of being in the band was setting up my drums and the sound equipment. Playing the drums and providing the vocals was easy. What was difficult was shleping all the heavy and unwieldy equipment up the various hotel freight elevators, arranging the placement of my drums and positioning the sound system. My experience of being in this band for close to 15 years made me especially sensitive to a band’s preparation for an event. This is perhaps why I enjoyed a superb documentary chronicling the premiere performance of Neil Young’s album “Prairie Wind.”
Elvis Presley, Elton John, Billy Joel – these were my musical icons as I grew up. I had never even heard of Neil Young. But there was one student at Yeshiva High School who was a big Neil Young hasid, and did a spot-on imitation of him that captured the imagination of his fellow students. This student, now a successful Atlanta attorney, introduced me to his music. But it was not until 25 years later that I gave serious attention to this classic troubadour, when he was the subject of the Jonathan Demme film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.
The film opens as Neil is driving through Nashville, getting ready for his “Prairie Wind” concert in the celebrated Ryman Auditorium. It is fascinating to meet the other members of the band, all of whom, like Neil, are now senior citizens, along in years but young in spirit. Each member of the band has special memories of how they first played with Neil, about their first recording session, about the unique place of the Ryman Auditorium in the annals of rock music. Yet what is remarkable is their excitement about playing new music together. Singing and playing together re-establishes their community of old. At that moment, they are no longer old men; they are young men, mellowed by a lifetime of experiences, infused with wisdom and hope.
Interestingly, we learn at the beginning that Neil is going to New York after the concert to have an operation on a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Moreover, in the course of the concert, Neil reflects upon the recent loss of his father and his dad’s dementia. He also talks about his daughter in college. All of this banter reminds us the Neil is no longer the hippie icon but rather a mature and creative singer/ songwriter. He values each moment of life and the opportunity to still be creative into the twilight of life.
His focus on being in the moment and sharing the creative muse with his long-time friends and family calls to mind the Biblical examples of Abraham, who is described as being active until the very day of his death, and Moses, about whom the Bible tells us at his death, “his eyes were not weak, nor his strength gone.” In fact, Moses concludes his final oration at the end of his 120 years with a song of faith and optimism about the future. Song, in truth, is a metaphor for the soaring human spirit. Singing a song, particularly in the twilight of life and singing with others, connects us to our past and future, and reaffirms our eternal ties to the community of man.