On the evening of February 21, 1989, veteran rocker Neil Young (b. 1945) and his band unleash a scorching new song, "Rockin' in the Free World," at Seattle's Paramount Theatre (911 Pine Street). In addition to boasting a powerful electric guitar-based tune, the song also features scathing lyrics aimed, in part, at the cynical policies of the new administration of President George H. W. Bush (1924-2018). Young, esteemed for his sometimes gentle and poetic folkie songs, is simultaneously admired for his occasional forays into political commentary in such hit tunes as "Ohio," which famously marked the May 4, 1970, shooting of anti-Vietnam War protesters by National Guard troops at Kent State University.
The Young & Restless
The exact origins of "Rockin' in the Free World" are, alas, shrouded in a minor bit of mystery. One story -- related in the 2002 book Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Young's associate Jimmy McDonough -- asserted that the song was sparked while Young and his band, the Restless, were out on tour. McDonough wrote that Young and his guitar-player, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, were reading the newspaper and saw coverage from Iran of mourners torching American flags during the funeral procession for their deceased Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That's when Sampedro -- thinking ahead to some upcoming European tour dates -- supposedly said: "Whatever we do, we shouldn't go near the Mideast. It's probably better we just keep on rockin' in the free world" (McDonough). It was a catchy phrase that immediately sparked Young's keen songwriting instincts. Problem with that tale was that Khomeini actually died on June 3, 1989 -- four months after the Seattle show.
Young himself provided the other key version of the origin saga. His band had set out from their California base by motor coach on a fresh new tour and:
"We were cruising along in the mountains between Spokane and Seattle. Something about the Berlin Wall and the recent unrest was on TV. 'Keep on rocking in the free world,' said Poncho. I said, 'What?' Then I wrote that whole song and we did it that night" (Young).
Well, that telling seems a bit closer to what probably happened, but it also contains factual flaws. The established gig chronology actually suggests that the song was probably penned on the way to Seattle prior to the Spokane gig ... but that's just nitpicking.
In the decades, years, and months leading up to early 1989, East Berliners had suffered material and cultural deprivation in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Their society was simmering with palpable resentment toward their government and somewhere between 100 and 200 defectors had been shot by soldiers as they attempted escapes to West Berlin. The last to die, Chris Gueffroy (1968-1989), was killed on February 6, 1989. From there unrest in the streets accelerated, and ultimately led to the fall of the wall on November 9, 1989.
What is established fact is that Young and band performed "Rockin' in the Free World" at the Paramount Theatre show in Seattle on February 21, 1989. Then -- presumably after "cruising along" into and through the Cascade Mountains on Interstate 90 -- the guys gave it a second shot at Spokane's Opera House (later INB Performing Arts Center, located at 334 W Spokane Falls Blvd) on the 23rd.
Interestingly, the song wasted no time in leveling a snarling and sarcastic rebuke to the campaign pledge by newly inaugurated (on January 20, 1989) President Bush to help make America a "kinder, gentler nation" than it had been during the preceding eight years of what many saw as the Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) administration's cowboy diplomacy and warring. (Perhaps the song was also a rebuke or response of sorts to the controversy that Young had raised in some circles during that earlier administration by expressing -- or appearing to express -- support for some of Reagan's policies.) Adding to the attack, Young's new song also served up another jab at Bush's inaugural-address rhetoric about the good people of America being "a thousand points of light" that, through citizen volunteerism, would mitigate the societal ramifications of conservative trickle-down economic policies. In his blistering song Young sang:
"We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man,
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand"
On September 30, 1989, Young performed "Rocking in the Free World" for the whole world on NBC's Saturday Night Live television show. Then, on October 2nd, the tune was released on the album Freedom -- which included both studio and live versions of the song -- and it quickly took on a life of its own. The song was soon adopted by scores of musicians all across the rock 'n' roll spectrum (including David Byrne, the Indigo Girls, Patti Smith, Van Halen, and the Vines) who presumably liked its powerful riffs and chord structure, sing-along melody, and push-back lyrics. By the time that the Berlin Wall crumbled in November, and thereafter, Young's tune was becoming closely associated with that historically revolutionary moment. But it has also proved to have staying power and has often been employed as a concert encore by Seattle's grunge stars Pearl Jam -- a band that Young reveres and has jammed the song with live, including very notably at the 1993 MTV Music Awards show.