Are You Coming or Going? Neil Young, “Cinnamon Girl” (1969)

One of the most celebrated of all rock guitar solos consists of just one note repeated for most of four measures, nine seconds of real time.  And this tremendous note is just the tonic, D in the key of D.

“Cinnamon Girl” solo

Somehow it has obviousness going for it.  But there’s also an element of breaking the rules, a holiday from the usual formations of action—something like the scene in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid where Steve Martin shakes coffee grounds endlessly into his coffeepot.  The effect in “Cinnamon Girl” is sublime rather than comic, but it does make you smile.

So what were we expecting?  Why shouldn’t Neil Young play a D note for nine seconds?

We have an opening here to consider how any piece of music is an intricate schedule of arrivals and departures.  In music we’re always on our way from somewhere to somewhere.  Think of the succeeding notes of a melody as a series of journeys.  When note #1 is struck, we leave it for note #2:  note #2 is our anticipated arrival point all the time that note #1 is dying out beneath us.  When note #2 is struck it flashes out as the arrival point and then almost instantly converts into a new departure point in turn.  On top of this simple series of events, a melody can play with our expectations to create experiences of arrival and departure on higher levels:  an unexpected note (in pitch or timing) is an ambushing sort of arrival that is more like a departure, while a repeated or warmly expected note provides a departure that feels more like a prolongation of arrival; similar effects are gotten at the next level up in stringing together and relating groups of notes, and higher up again at verse-chorus-verse level.  Moreover, every element of your feeling of being somewhere or being bound for somewhere is soaked with the qualities of the sounds that constitute the landmarks of your journeys—their brashness or gentleness, their haste or languor—and these qualities in themselves become home bases and destinations in your journey even while they confuse the issue by overlapping and blending in with each other.  If an aesthetic interviewer accosted you in the middle of listening to a song and asked you to explain completely where you feel you are and where you’re headed at that moment, you’d have a lot to tell (oh, what a life).

The “Cinnamon Girl” guitar solo comes at the end of the song, after several verses musing on the girl and then a bridge with a more desperate-sounding repetitive melody for the girl’s own plea to get money from her dad.  Energy has mounted quickly in this bridge and now the loud D of the solo bursts forth, ushering us into a new place that might have new rules.  Then the phenomenon occurs.  The prolonged repetition of the D gives you a deepening sense of departing from the D—because it keeps getting stated as your point of departure—while at the same time you are profoundly arriving at the D—because it keeps turning up as the end of each discernable stage of your movement.  And D is D:  you’re moving but not going anywhere.  You are coming and going and neither—your movement just is a place to be, your D-life.  Happily the sound isn’t monotonous, partly because chords are changing underneath with each measure (from D to A minor to C to G) and partly because the lead guitar, like the other instrumental parts, plays its notes here in the gently rolling rhythm of the verse lyrics, giving a sense of chanting the song’s main proposition.  It’s a homey environment.  You’re caught like a fly in a spacious, bright, pleasantly revolving bottle.  After these four measures you’re let out to enjoy a single restatement of one of the song’s signature riffs (F-G-A-C-D-D-C-B-C-G), but then the bottle opens for more D-reveling and you’re glad to fly back in.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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