Neil Young: “Powderfinger”

Posted: January 23, 2014 in THE CLASH of Cover Tunes
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Tune du Jour: “Powderfinger” – Neil Young
THE CLASH of Cover Tunes: Chris Burroughs vs. The Watson Twins
Peruse, Comment and Vote (I Beseech, Implore and Urge Thee, respectively)


So Where Are the Strong, And Who Are the Trusted, And Where is the Broccoli, Sweet Broccoli!

So Where Are the Strong, And Who Are the Trusted, And Where is the Broccoli, Sweet Broccoli!

Powderfinger is one of a number of extraordinary songs on Neil Young’s 1979 masterpiece, Rust Never Sleeps. The first side of the album is acoustic. Powderfinger kicks off the mega-electric second side. The lyrics of Powderfinger are narrated posthumously by a young man who observes a menacing gunboat approaching his island home. The elders  of the household are not present or available, leaving the young man alone to deal with the threat. With his father’s rifle in hand he resolves to protect his family by force, ultimately losing his life in the process.

Following the acoustic side, Allmusic critic Jason Ankeny describes Powderfinger as “a sudden, almost blindsiding metamorphosis, which is entirely the point — it’s the shot you never saw coming.” Ankeny feels that the song’s first person narrative “evokes traditional folk storytelling” and yet the music is “incendiary rock & roll,” and praises the “mythical proportions” of Young’s guitar solos as the story approaches its “harrowing” conclusion. Allmusic critic William Ruhlmann described the song as “remarkable,” considering it the best of the great songs on Rust Never Sleeps. Author Johnny Rogan describes Powderfinger as one of “Young’s great narrative songs” and “almost cinematic in execution.” Rogan also praises Crazy Horse’s backing as “ideal” as it allows Young to “invest the song with epic significance.” Rolling Stone Magazine critic Paul Nelson compared the violence in the song to the helicopter scene with Robert Duvall in the movie Apocalypse Now in that it is “both appalling and appealing — to us and to its narrator — until it’s too late.” According to Nelson, the song generates “traumatizing” tension and “unbearable” empathy and fascination as Neil “tightens the screws on his youthful hero with some galvanizing guitar playing, while Crazy Horse cuts loose with everything they’ve got.” Nelson points out that the music incorporates “a string of ascending [guitar] notes cut off by a deadly descending chord,” what critic Greil Marcus described as “fatalism in a phrase.” Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield calls Powderfinger “an exorcism of male violence with shotgun power chords rising to the challenge of punk rock.” Author Ken Bielen compares Powderfinger to film noir in that the narrator has died before the song begins; Bielen also notes that the song “has remained in high regard over the decades.” Bielen regards the theme as “the tragic and wasteful loss of youth to conflicts between countries and their leaders. Nelson suggests that although it opens the Crazy Horse electric side of Rust Never Sleeps, it is the album’s “purest folk narrative.” Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time describes Young’s guitar-work on Powderfinger as such, “Young’s guitar hits the sky like never before.” Critic Dave Marsh claimed that “Young wrote as brilliant a statement of American nihilism and despair as any rock writer has created.”

The Original


Neil Young & Crazy Horse:

Shelter Me From the Powder and the Finger …


THE CLASH of Cover Tunes


Chris Burroughs vs. The Watson Twins


Chris Burroughs:

The Watson Twins:

Oh the disharmony! Much like Harlan County there are no neutrals here. Only one cover tune will live to play another day and it is your solemn responsibility to decide which one prevails. So tell me … Which Side Are You On?!!?



Votes can be cast up to seven days from the day and time of the original post.

Disclaimer: Votes cast from Florida may or may not be counted.

  1. Cuspid says:

    Watson Twins win this one by a landslide. I can’t think of one aspect of Burroughs’ version I like better. I wonder what would have happened if NY had released this song as a single back in ’79. I bet it would have been his biggest song since Heart of Gold 7 years earlier. Classic.

  2. Arnie Plotnick says:

    I agree with Doug. Burroughs’ version is just a straightforward mediocre rendition of the song. The Watson Twins version shows that you can alter the tempo, make it quieter, use female vocals… a great song is a great song.

  3. RDubbs says:

    This is another one of those tunes that is practically impossible. Neil’s got such a distinct voice and unique guitar style that it’s got to be difficult to try and emulate. Unless live in concert one is probably best served by not even attempting it. Unless, that is, you’re going to get very creative and reinvent the sound completely. Of course when dealing with a mega-classic like Powderfinger that route is full of potential pitfalls as well.

    I’m going to buck the trend and take Burroughs. He does not have the voice for the song but he gave it a spirited whirl. I give The Watson Twins a lot of credit for creativity but I honestly don’t like what they ultimately did with it.

  4. Lucky H says:

    Maybe some songs were just not meant to be covered,. Couldn’t really warm up to either version, if you’re gonna cover anything from Side Two, you better bring the heat.

  5. Lucky H says:

    Can I just change my vote to Dave Marsh for his statement on “American nihilism’?

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