"Ambulance Blues" is the final song on Young's fifth album, On The Beach
. At just under nine minutes long, it was never going to get a lot of radio play, and its conversational feel makes it an unlikely choice for jukeboxes or party playlists. Still, it's counted among Young's greatest artistic achievements. Johnny Rogan in The Complete Guide to the Music of Neil Young
goes so far as to call it the "summit of Young's achievement as a singer songwriter... the most likely candidate as his greatest and most memorable composition."
Lyrically, "Ambulance Blues" is an exploration of Young's past and an attempt to find meaning in it:Back in the old folky days
The air was magic when we played
By the end of the very first verse, the song takes a plunge into the disenchantment that marks all of On The Beach
. "Midnight was the time for the raid," Young sings, and from there transitions into one of the saddest, prettiest vocal turns of his career when he laments, "Oh, Isabela, proud Isabela, they tore you down and plowed you under."
Who Isabela is meant to be is unclear, as are most of the song's lyrics. At one point Young sings, "It's hard to say the meaning of this song." It's largely a stream-of-conscious rant similar to "Last Trip To Tulsa
," except not nearly as abstract or weird as that song from Young's first solo album.