The Meaning of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”

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    The Meaning of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”
    Published: October 24, 2023

    Neil Young’s 1970 song “After the Gold Rush” is an early career staple from the songwriter that managed to capture the countercultural spirit of the era. Coming from his now-famous album of the same name, “After the Gold Rush” has an interesting backstory to accompany its iconic sound and artist-defining quality.

    Inspired by a Screenplay

    The initial idea for the entire album After the Gold Rush spawned out of a screenplay that Neil’s friends Dean Stockwell and Herb Bermann wrote in 1969. Their screenplay was also called After the Gold Rush, and it was inspired by the massively successful movie from that year, Easy Rider.

    Stockwell and Bermann’s screenplay never made it to production and has since been lost to time, but it has the distinction of inspiring the budding young songwriter to write an entire album in just three weeks.

    The Plot

    The screenplay for After the Gold Rush was an apocalyptic environmental thriller about an earthquake that ends up washing away the Topanga Valley hippie community. Neil was totally into the idea at the time, and after reading the script, he wrote his album with the intention of having a few songs appear in the film.

    By the time Neil’s album hit the shelves, there were only two songs on it that had been influenced by or intended to be used in the film: “After the Gold Rush” and “Cripple Creek Ferry.”

    “After the Gold Rush” Lyrics Meaning

    With such an abstract, very 70s backstory, we go into our lyrical analysis for “After the Gold Rush” primed for a bit of sci-fi enhanced hippie poeticism.

    The beauty of this song is how Neil manages to capture the spirit of the counterculture in a song that is purely fantasy, with lyrics referring to a dream of a future when mankind travels through space to reproduce after the Earth is destroyed.

    Let’s take a look at the iconic lyrics to this song and see how Neil accomplishes this.

    Verse One

    “Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor comin’ / Sayin’ something about a queen”

    Right away Neil introduces the dream that serves as the subject matter for the song. We are placed in a medieval setting, with knights in armor and a queen.

    “There were peasants singin’ and drummers drummin’ / And the archer split the tree”

    It seems to be a nice day. People are singing, music is playing, and the archer makes a shot so perfect that his arrow splinters the tree. This is the first inkling of trouble in paradise, with Neil hinting at humanity’s tendency to destroy the planet.

    “There was a fanfare blowin’ to the sun / That was floating on the breeze”

    Still, it’s a beautiful day, and you would never know that anything is wrong, without the haunting undertones and the subtle lyrical references.

    “Look at Mother Nature on the run / In the 1970s”

    Where the previous lines focused on the actions of people, this last line, repeated twice, shows us Mother Nature. While the humans are enjoying their day, slowly chipping away at the planet’s habitability, the Earth is trying to escape.

    Verse Two

    “I was lyin’ in a burned out basement / With the full moon in my eyes”

    As the song was inspired by the apocalyptic screenplay in the first place, we’re inclined to picture an apocalyptic scene here. The basement is “burned out” from a literal nuclear holocaust, alien invasion, or environmental disaster. In that case, the “moon” is a strange glow coming from the general direction of where the moon might be.

    However, I’d like to offer an alternative interpretation that also seems to fit.

    When he says the basement is “burned out,” he could be be referring to a smoky basement, and the full moon could be the glow of a single fluorescent bulb overhead.

    If the basement is dark, and the basement lacks a window to the outside, the full moon in his eyes could be a reference to the dilated pupils that come from ingesting psychedelics.

    “I was hopin’ for replacement / When the sun burst through the sky”

    Neil was still pondering a replacement, perhaps for the planet or for society, when the morning came around. This means he was up all night thinking about life, perhaps on drugs, or perhaps living in a post-apocalyptic reality where sleep doesn’t come easily. The genius lies within this ambiguity, lending itself to multiple different interpretations throughout.

    “There was a band playin’ in my head / And I felt like getting high”

    He was thinking about music, and then he wanted to smoke some weed. This is consistent with the afterglow that one might feel the morning after tripping all night long. Plus, everybody knows that music sounds better when you’re high.

    “I was thinkin’ about what a friend had said / I was hopin’ it was a lie”

    A conversation with a friend gives him pause, and he hopes that what his friend said doesn’t turn out to be true.

    Verse Three

    “Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flyin’ / In the yellow haze of the sun”

    Another dream, except this time instead of dreaming of medieval times, he dreams of futuristic space ships. This journey, from the medieval dream of the first verse, to the basement trip of the second, to the alien escape of the third, gives the song a complete story arc.

    “There were children cryin’ and colors flyin’ / All around the chosen ones”

    A disorienting and chaotic scene. Bright colors around the “chosen ones,” and cries of children all around. This suggests that only a select few people will make it off the doomed planet.

    “All in a dream, all in a dream / The loadin’ had begun”

    Neil reassures us that this took place within a dream, but they had begun loading the chosen ones onto the UFOs.

    “Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed / To a new home in the sun”

    His use of “silver seed” brings to mind the concept of the “silver spoon,” which is consistent with Neil’s mention of the chosen one.

    Only those deemed special are being flown to a new planet, and the rest are left to crumble with the Earth. The use of “seed” means that the chosen ones will be responsible for repopulation.

    Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” remains relevant in today’s society, over half a century removed from its initial release. The impacts of humanity on the planet that this song warns about have become even more apparent over time. Plus, people still like to get stoned in basements.

    For both of those reasons, we still spin this track today. Listen below.

    Neil Young – “After the Gold Rush” (1970)

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