Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Helpless

Composed by Neil Young

Song Review by

This exquisite Neil Young ballad is arguably his finest written contribution to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y) debut long player Déjà Vu (1970). It is also one of the strongest examples of the dualistic nature in Young’s craftsmanship as a songwriter. Not only does his early cannon include the powerful and driving rockers “Southern Man” and “Ohio”, but there is likewise an exceedingly more introspective side on tracks such as “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and, of course, “Helpless”. The bittersweet melody is not all that involved, however is perfectly coupled with the stark reminiscence and nostalgia in the lyrics. In Young’s liner notes for the Decade (1977) retrospective, he quips that the slow, languid nature of the performance was recorded in “San Francisco at four a.m. when everyone got tired enough to play at my speed”. The song points the compass for his upcoming artistic and commercial triumph Harvest (1972) -- with its’ down home country-rock flavour. Stephen Stills piano inflections, steel-like lead electric guitar riffs as well as the unmistakable four-part harmony of the principle participants envelope the song into its’ tangible lament. The lyrical content of “Helpless” hearkens back to Young’s formative days in Canada (“there is a town in North Ontario”). His recollections provide some undeniably vivid imagery (“Blue, blue windows behind the stars”) and equally oblique references (“The chains are locked and tied across the door …”). Young has kept “Helpless” in his live performance repertoire and his rendition on Unplugged (1993) equals -- if not arguably surpasses -- that of the original. His aged perspective and organic interpretation only reinforces the tremendous view of life that Young possessed while barely in his 20’s. He also offered it on the Band’s Last Waltz (1977) epic -- which features Joni Mitchell on backing vocals. Additional covers of note include Bad Seeds leader Peter Case -- on the Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young (1989) benefit disc. Fellow Canadian folkie Buffy Saint-Marie also did a powerhouse rendition on her She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina (1971) LP. Perhaps the most overlooked version is from country vocalist Lori Yates who covered the track on the double-CD Borrowed Tunes homage to Young.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Déjà Vu 1970 Atlantic 3:30
So Far 1974 Atlantic 3:40
CSN [Box Set] 1991 Atlantic / Rhino
blue highlight denotes editor's pick