The Meaning of Neil Young’s “Old Man”
Neil Young’s classic 1972 song “Old Man” explores the similarities and differences in perspective between a young man, at the beginning of his journey through life, and an old man who is closer to the end of his. It shows that the two men, despite having vastly different circumstances in life, ultimately have a lot in common.
The track was released as a single from Neil’s popular 1972 album Harvest, and was the second biggest hit of his entire career (second to “Heart of Gold” from the same album). It reached number 4 in his home country of Canada and number 31 on the Billboard Hot 100. Today it is seen as one of his signature songs.
“Old Man” Origins
Neil Young himself has stated that “Old Man” was inspired by the caretaker of Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California, which he had purchased in 1970 for a price of $350,000, when he was just 25 years of age.
The caretakers’s name was Louis Avila, as he explained in the 2006 documentary film Heart of Gold:
About that time when I wrote (“Heart of Gold”), and I was touring, I had also—just, you know, being a rich hippie for the first time—I had purchased a ranch, and I still live there today. And there was a couple living on it that were the caretakers, an old gentleman named Louis Avila and his wife Clara. And there was this old blue Jeep there, and Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep. He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, “Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?” And I said, “Well, just lucky, Louis, just real lucky.” And he said, “Well, that’s the darnedest thing I ever heard.” And I wrote this song for him.Neil Young on the origins of “Old Man”, 2006.
Neil recorded “Old Man” in early February 1971, and later that month he appeared live on a BBC television broadcast. He performed a 30 minute set that included several new songs, including “Old Man”, which he introduced by explaining how he bought the ranch from two lawyers. Of course, this is also a stellar performance of the song.
Neil Young – “Old Man” (Live on the BBC, 1971)
The studio version of “Old Man” was recorded during the same session that produced “Heart of Gold”, and features Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor on backing vocals. Linda discussed this during a 2020 interview with Mojo Magazine:
I can’t remember why Neil wanted me to sing with him — I guess he just figured I was there and could do it — but we went in there and they were doing ‘Heart Of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ and I thought they were such beautiful songs. I loved them. And I knew how to do harmonies — I’d listened to Buffalo Springfield harmonies and I knew how to get that 7th they always used. I don’t think we started until midnight and it was dawn when we came out, and it was snowing. We came out to this beautiful snowstorm in the rising sun. It was really exciting. I just thought I had been part of something really wonderful.Linda Ronstadt on the making of “Old Man”.
As it turned out, Linda’s hunch about being part of something truly wonderful was correct, as they had created a song that has touched the hearts of many over the years.
“Old Man” Lyrics Meaning
While Neil himself has related the meaning of the lyrics specifically to the old man who took care of Broken Arrow Ranch, many have found that this song helps them navigate their relationships with their own fathers.
It’s true that the song speaks to a generational difference that would exist within a father-child relationship. As we grow older, we often notice similarities between ourselves and our fathers, and realize that now matter how different we grow to be, there will always be a thread that connects us.
With “Old Man”, Young sings from both the perspective of the young man and the old man, as they each reflect upon their lives in comparison to the other.
Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics, starting with the intro:
Old man, look at my lifeIntro to “Old Man” by Neil Young.
I’m a lot like you were
Old man, look at my life
I’m a lot like you were
The opening lyrics present the song’s overarching theme. A young man addresses an old man, telling him to look at his life and realize they have a lot in common, despite the difference in age. This is perhaps following a misunderstanding between the two.
Next up, the first verse introduces the young man:
Old man, look at my lifeFirst verse to “Old Man” by Neil Young.
Twenty-four, and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two
Here, Neil Young presents himself as twenty-four years old, with his whole life ahead of him. He lives by himself at a paradise called Broken Arrow Ranch, and while he recognizes the beauty of it, he truly finds that it would be much more suited for two people.
This suggests a feeling of loneliness, despite the success that he had found at such a young age. He continues to expand upon his, and his ultimate desires, in the second verse:
Love lost, such a costSecond verse to “Old Man” by Neil Young.
Give me things that don’t get lost
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you
Neil reflects on the cost of lost love, which is quite high. He suggests that he not satisfied with material things, nor is he satisfied with shallow love that gets tossed aside. He’s looking for a lucky coin that you’d never think to toss away, always coming back home to you.
This is, of course, a deep and pure kind of love, as he shares in the chorus:
Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like youChorus to “Old Man” by Neil Young.
I need someone to love me the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true
See, despite having a misunderstanding with the old man, they each share one core need in common, which is the need for someone to love and look after them. Taking one look in each other’s eyes, you can see this desire for connection that exists within both of them.
It is suggested that this need for love is an innate need that exists within all of us, whether you are young or old. We’re all just looking for someone to love us the whole day through.
In the third verse, we switch to the jaded perspective of the old man:
Lullabies, look in your eyesThird verse to “Old Man” by Neil Young.
Run around the same old town
Doesn’t mean that much to me
To mean that much to you
It’s clear the old man thinks he’s seen it all. He’s hearing the young man’s words as lullabies, which means he does not find life so exciting or romantic as the young man seems to. He sees the young man running around the same town that he used to, which doesn’t seem like it’s changed a bit. What more is he doesn’t care one way or the other what the young man thinks of him.
It seems that this is the natural course of getting older, as the things that once excited you or bothered you as a younger person don’t have quite the impact when you’ve seen them before.
The fourth verse gives further insight into the old man’s perspective:
I’ve been first and lastFourth verse to “Old Man” by Neil Young.
Look at how the time goes past
But I’m all alone at last
Rolling home to you
He’s been the winner and he’s been the loser, and either way the time goes by, and he ends up alone. When he says he’s rolling home here, he may be referring to rolling home that comes in death.
This brings to mind the Grateful Dead song “Brokedown Palace”, written in 1970, which contains the lyrics, “Going home, going home / By the waterside I will rest my bones / Listen to the river sing sweet songs / To rock my soul.”
Some have also suggested that Neil’s lyrics here refer to Jesus’ statement from Matthew 20:36: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”
In Jesus’ use, the verse is about the rich and the poor, and how everybody shares the same fate of being “called” to death, but few will be chosen for salvation. Young seems to use the line in a more nihilistic way, stating that regardless of being rich, poor, first, or last, you’ll be old and alone in the end.
Listen to the Harvest recording of “Old Man” by Neil Young below.
“Old Man” Covers
As “Old Man” is such a well-known and beloved song, it’s only natural that many other musicians have provided their own takes on the song. This has resulted in a number of different covers of “Old Man” over the years.
Enjoy a few of our favorites below, and let us know if there are any more we should know about in the comments!
Lizz Wright – Old Man (2005)
In addition to appearing on Lizz Wright’s album Dreaming Wide Awake, her cover of “Old Man” was also in the popular skateboarding movie Lords of Dogtown.
EJ Barnes and Liam Finn – “Old Man” (2010)
Puddle of Mudd – “Old Man” (2011)
Excellent butt rock cover of “Old Man”.
City and Colour – “Old Man” (2011)
The Sheepdogs – “Old Man” (2015)
Beck – “Old Man” (2022)
Experimental legend Beck was one of the more recent artists to cover “Old Man”. Released in 2022, his cover is a wonderful take on the song. We were lucky enough to see him do it live in Charleston, SC at High Water Festival 2023.