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Helpless by Neil Young

Album: DecadeReleased: 1977
  • As told in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, this song is about the town of Omemee in northern Ontario. In 1949, Neil's parents moved there with him when he was just four years old. Young describes it as "a nice little town. Sleepy little place... Life was real basic and simple in that town. Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody."
  • More so than any other song, "Helpless" touches on Young's earliest childhood memories. Young came down with polio by age six, prompting his parents to spend a year in Florida hoping the warmer weather would speed his cure. Ten years after this came the Young's divorce, from which Neil stayed with his mother while his father kept his brother Bob and later remarried. So, typical for Neil Young, the memories represented here are bittersweet.

    Speaking of his family, most people forget that Neil's father, Scott Young, was a celebrity in his own right! Scott Young was a career journalist and writer, who started out in the Winnipeg Free Press and writing for other magazines and newspapers. He also wrote books - over three dozen, in fact - mostly boy's adventure/sports stories. And to round that out, his was a familiar face on Canadian TV. So it came as a surprise to him that his son's fame would eclipse his own to such an extent; he was happy with it anyway.
  • Young sang this live at "The Last Waltz" - The Band's farewell concert. As well as The Band themselves he was accompanied on vocals by Joni Mitchell. It is amusing to see Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko from The Band come in too early for the first chorus and then burst out laughing. You can see this clearly on the film as they accompany Neil Young. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Dan - Auckland, New Zealand
  • In 2011, Neil Young performed the song with popular indie band Arcade Fire at the Bridge School Benefit Concert.
  • An alternate version appears on Neil's Archives Volume 1, featuring a much more prominent harmonica.
  • Various artists have released covers of the song, notably among them Nick Cave and Patti Smith.
  • This has remained one of Young's standby live songs throughout his career.
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Comments: 30

Good morning on Feb 7 2016. While those from Tbay believe the song is about there, I can definitely say as some one from the Golden Horseshoe that when I was a kid (Im now 58) that anywhere we would vacation in the Kawartha's was called "going up north" hence "there is a town in North Ontario". Back in those days geez Barrie was considered "up north". This is no slight on the good people of Tbay but that's "up north" to us. And if you ask anyone from these parts they'll tell you the same. When we go on our annual spring fishing trip to Roseneath on Rice Lake we still say "going up north".

Hope that clarifies. Neil was not using artistic licence using that opening line.

Oh btw I was at Varsity Stadium on that cold rainy Labour Day weekend. And I concur that it was CSNY, The Band and Jessie Colin Young who opened.
Brianbki - Hamilton Ontario
If you listen to this version (in the clip) it sounds like "mystery, comfort, memory, despair". I know all the lyric sites say "dream, comfort memory to spare". I'm just saying what it sounds like to me, especially the "despair" rings true.Robban - Sweden
It's about Omemee, per Neil Young himself. See Jonathan Demme's "Neil Young Journey" (2011) documentary, approximately 2:00 minutes into the movie, in an interview dated "May 11, 2011" in Omemee, while he drives through Omemee (with Demme and Neil's brother Bob), Neil points out things from his childhood and says [exact transcription]: "This is Omemee.....This is a little.....This is a town in North Ontario. [points] That used to be the mill down there where I used to catch fish when I was just five years old or whatever."
Hopefully, the "This is a town in North Ontario" sounds familiar to you all...
Now, WHY would he posit the location of Omemee in North Ontario? The man is an artist, so there could be many reasons, but as a songwriter, a couple come to mind: 1) He had the tune and rythym and needed 5 syllables for that space and "North Toronto" (or other towns) just didn't sound right; 2) Artistic license, narrative liberty, naive revisionism, purposeful obsfucation....the list goes on.
For whatever reason, he places Omemee in North Ontario for the purpose of the song, and for everyone who loves great music but doesn't need geographic integrity lessons from artists we love, let's just let it be.
I hope this was helpful, see the movie (not Neil or Jonathan's best, by any stretch) to draw your own conclusion. :)
Mikey - San Diego, Ca
First great website! Neil Young's dad Scott Young was not "happy" with his son's success, when Neil was being inducted into the Rock/Roll hall of fame, he refused to go saying, " I won't be a tail on someone else kite". This is from the book "Shakey", (great book by the way) He was very jealous of his son and resented how much more famous he became. To bad he wasn't big enough to share in his sons success.Kelly - San Luis Obispo, Ca
Now,, I live nowhere near either Omemee or Canada for that matter, but this I know: Neil loves to throw you off. maybe where he was at the time, everything north of Toronto was "north"? In my mind,"the place in north Ontario" is images from a place in time, not a specific place. Doesn´t matter!
In Last Waltz I´m pretty sure that Robbie is signing to the engineer cause he want to make sure that Neiler gets a signal in the mike.
That performance was bombed by The Band in my opinion,, It was way over their heads,, speeding it just like CSN. The definitive version was played by Crasy Horse, but the tape wasnt rollin´. Neil would tell you the same thing
Henrik - Knislinge, Sweden
I dont know much about neil young but I do know that Omenee is definately southern ontario.. not even a monkey could mistake it for northern ontario. but my research hints that some of the emotion in this song comes from his omenee memories. and that definately Thunder Bay is one of the towns he is singing about.Jesse - Thunder Bay, On
I'm sorry to say....but Dale (first comment here) - what film did you see? CSN&Y were not on stage with the band.
"Only" Neil Young! And Bob Dylan was there - for sure.
Regina - Berlin, Germany
Dale Toronto: Maybe sleeping outside for 2 days blurred your memory, (or perhaps you inhaled); but Bob Dylan was not at that concert. It was Crosby Stills Nash and Young with The Band, and Jesse Colin Young.

This was a reunion tour which went on to New York state, where Neil Young performed "Helpless" with Joni Mitchell singing backup in the same way that she did on the Last Waltz.

And, the comments about Neil Young saying "i think they've got it now Robbie" were in reference to Robbie signalling the audience to quiet down for this acoustic performance.
Gracie - Toronto, On
Once and for all this song is not about Omemmee ontario which isnt even in northern ontario nowere near it he didnt even play music the brief time he was there it is about thunder bay ontario his very first stop on the road to stardom his very 1st recordings ever with a man named ray dee were done here he met steven stills at a coffee shop he played at called the 5th dimension here and the formulations of a career in music all started in thunder bay he urged the rest of the squires to join him on the road to greatness but they returned to winnepeg so he got in mort and the rest is historyJohn - Thunder Bay, On
some of you say thatits omemee,ontario, realize how that is in southern ontario, and the lyrics exactly explain''There is a town in north Ontario'' northern, where thunder bay, so it is probably thunder bay, but he talks about big birds flying over and in Wawa ontario, they have the famous big goose and he has played in wawa many timesMartin - Thundey Bay, On
Actually the song was first recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in 1969.It was then released on there Deja Vu album in 1970. So i would say that Dylan borrowed from Young.Alex - Toronto, On
This song was released in 1977, Knocking on Heavens Door was released in 1972. So to the guy who says Dylan ripped off Young, its vice versa.Jesse - Dettoit, Mi
I am going right now to check it out. Just plugged in the headphones.Edal - Baltimore, Md
I think I've got it now Robbie. Go and check out the Last Waltz performance of this song. Jodie Mitchell is singing backup. Robbie Robertson and crew are playing along side Neil. This maybe one of the most incredible moments ever captured on stage. These musicians were all about their own perfection, and for this night it all came together. I love this song, but even more I love this performance. Enjoy.Edal - Baltimore, Md
Great, great song. It's interesting to note that Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heavens Door" is basically a rip off of this lol.David - Huntington Beach, Ca
every time I play this song I've got tears in my eyes...Neil Young foreverTom - Cracov, Md
Nick Kent from MOJO magazine interviewed Neil Young in 1995 and he asked what town the song 'Helpless' was about and Young said "Omemee Ontario, where I spent my formative years".Chris - Toronto, Canada
I have always been told that this was about Omemee. I have been there once and stood on that bridge -- it's still just a sleepy little country town, with the high school named after Neil's father. As I heard it this was recorded at 4 a.m. because Neil insisted on take after take until he was satisfied. That's why they sound like they're half here and half there.Ekristheh - Halath, United States
The prevailing wisdom when I was in HS was that Young awakened the band at 3:00 AM ( I guess to eventually record it at 4:00AM) because he wanted CSN to play it slowly enough for him

-Gerald, St. Louis, MO
Gerald - St. Louis, Mo
Having been born in thunder bay its always a laugh to hear people from toronto call omemee northern ontario. i grew up believing the song was about thunder bay as neil met stills there in the early 60's while playing the fifth dimension club with the squires. tommy horricks, who was a local musician at the time, also swore that it was about t. bay and that the big birds were airplanes flying by neils hotel room window in fort william.Rufus - Victoria, Canada
This is one of my favorite Neil Young songs.Stefanie - Rock Hill, Sc
It's actually Omemee, Ontario (Omemee is a native word for Pigeon: the town lies on the Pigeon River in the Kawartha Lakes) If you've ever seen the reflection of the full moon in the Omemee mill pond on a cold September night, and listened to the geese flying over, you'll "get" this song :)))))

BTW, k.d. Lang does a great cover of it on "Hymns of the 49th Parallel"
Paul - Toronto, Canada
I've never gotten this song. It is one of my least favorite Neil Young songs. I think the Country Girl medley on Deja Vu is much better.Steve - Fenton, Mo
I love this song and its kind of nice to hear Ontario mentioned in a Neil young song. A great shout out to Canada, I love it!! This is such a great song, it really has the ability to just soothe a person.Kayla - London
Im from Toronto, Ontario Canada. Neil spent his youth in this general area including Toronto. He spent his young years in Ommee, Ontario. His father lived there when he passed aways this year. I have been listening to Neil for 35 years. I first saw him at Varsity stadium september 4 1974. It was my birthday, he played with The Band and Bon Dylan. I slept outside for two days to get tickets. It poured down rain, but I will NEVER forget it. Helpless is about Ommee Ontario. Neil has said this many times and Ive talked to people from that area that knows Neil personally. I lived just down the raod in Pontypool Ontario. Its an true ledgand in that area. Look on a map I know this is the truth and its my alltime favorite tune..... barrnone.Dale - Toronto, Canada
This section need more comments....... but anyway, I realize how sorta deep this song is, but im confused as to why everyone else was tired and wasted, and why he was sober.Galina - New London, Ct
So Far is probably the best album (from my point of view) because it all of my favorite songs, and it is constanly in the car being played, which is how I know it.Galina - New London, Ct
On the Last Waltz check out what appears to be a rock of Cocaine in Neil Young nose during Helpless. Young starts the song over because of I think a sound issue (He says they got it now Robbie). Then Robertson (and maybe Danko)kinda mess up on timing. Neil is a huge perfectionist, I think he was cool because it was the Bands show, and they were all real high!!Phil - San Jose, Ca
he is singing about thunder bay, ontario. (where he holds an honourary PhD is music from lakehead university). is great to see it performed at the last walts concert as robertson and the rest of 'the band' frequented the city as well.Hillary - Ontario, Canada
Recorded with CSN at 4 AM when all but Young were dog tired and hungover from drinking. Young is singing about his hometown in Canada and also about the early morning outside the studio. Song is also on CSN&Y's Deja Vu and So Far albums.Robert - Chicago, Il
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