Meaning of “Ambulance Blues” by Neil Young
In the case of “Ambulance Blues”, the vocalist himself plainly admits in the third verse that “it’s hard to say the meaning of this song”. Neil Young did write this piece and afterwards confessed that it was influenced by a 1965 song titled “Needle of Death” by Bert Jansch (1943-2011).
But that influence was specifically on the instrumental level. As for the lyrics of “Ambulance Blues”, they read more like a freestyle or hodgepodge of thoughts (as opposed to those of “Needle of Death”, which revolve around a discernible narrative). So perhaps the best approach to this analysis, instead of trying to make comprehensive sense of the song, is to use a verse-by-verse approach.
In the first verse, we find Neil harping back to being in Toronto. That’s the city he was born in but, more to the point of being noted in this song, where Young spent some time during his earlier, formative days as a hustling musician. For example, he mentions The Riverboat, a coffeehouse that was around during most of the 1960s and 1970s, which has hosted so many popular musicians (including Young) that it has its own Wikipedia page.
And he also gives a shoutout to the “proud Isabela”, which was a guesthouse on Toronto’s Isabella Street which, as noted in the song, has since been demolished.
But the second verse that follows is about a completely different topic. Neil starts off by mentioning “the Navajo Trail”. One theory posits that said mentioning is a shoutout to a song that Roy Rogers dropped in 1945 which itself is titled Along the Navajo Trail. But it has also been suggested, we can say relatedly, that Young is referencing the movie of the same name upon which said song is based on.
Afterwards he sings about “waitresses… crying in the rain”, as implied for romantic reasons, which is an easy enough concept to understand, though it’s not clear what that observation has to do with “the Navajo Trail” – or anything else mentioned in this song for that matter. Then, Neil depicts “Mother Goose” as sort of a verbally-abusive parent, whom he too has the tendency to ‘make feel so bad’.
The third verse is the only part of the song where we find mention of “an ambulance” which is noted as being able to “only go so fast”. That observation would imply that maybe the vocalist dealt with some type of medical emergency in which an ambulance did not respond fast enough.
It was been suggested that what Neil is referring to is the death of a friend/bandmate of his named Danny Whitten, who died of a drug overdose, at the age of 29, in 1972. Indeed, Young later revealed that for a decent period of time thereafter, he felt as if he were responsible for Danny’s passing. And the lyrics express what may be considered a related sentiment, i.e. the vocalist noting that “it’s easy to get buried in the past”.
The fourth verse begins with what reads like a brief narrative about a “mom and dad” whose child has seemingly been kidnapped. In the process, Neil also mentions “private detection” and coming across this news “today in the entertainment section”, perhaps implying that said parents are celebrities or something of the sort.
Young then proceeds to lambast “critics”. It has been put forth that this song was written at a time when Neil was dealing with bad reviews as a musician, which more specifically occurred during his aforementioned Toronto days.
The fifth verse rather has been taken as a criticism of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. That act is better known as Crosby, Stills & Nash, because Neil Young’s participation in the group, when it was active, was sporadic.
Besides that, the crew as a whole was on hiatus when this song was dropped. So it was reportedly Neil’s manager who stated that they were “pissing in the wind”, which we will take as meaning shooting themselves in the foot, as pissing in the wind often results in the person doing so being hit with their own urine.
Then in the sixth and final verse, the subject flips yet again to ‘a man who tells so many lies’. What has been acceptably theorized is that in this case, the vocalist is referring to US President Richard Nixon who, shortly before this track was dropped, had been disgraced by what is infamously known as the Watergate scandal.
“I guess I’ll call it sickness gone
It’s hard to say the meaning of this song
An ambulance can only go so fast
It’s easy to get buried in the past
When you try to make a good thing last”
LONG AND SHORT OF “AMBULANCE BLUES”
So as can be gleaned, there’s a lot going on in this song. The release of “Ambulance Blues” harps back to a day where it was kinda chic for folk-like artists like Neil Young to drop these kinda songs that no one can really understand.
But in the case of this track, it isn’t as if the lyrics are overly poetic. Rather, the subject matter of the verses are so respectively diverse it’s challenging, if not impossible, to pin down the thesis sentiment of this piece. But what can be concluded is the lyrics do represent a case of the blues on the part of the vocalist, as for the most part they read to be pretty pessimistic.
CREDITS FOR “AMBULANCE BLUES”
Neil Young also produced “Ambulance Blues”, in that regard getting the job done alongside Al Schmitt (1930-2021).
RELEASE DATE OF “AMBULANCE BLUES”
This track came out as part of “On the Beach”, Neil Young’s fifth-studio album, as made public through Reprise Records on the 19th of July, 1974.