Ambulance Blues

Album: On The Beach (1974)
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Songfacts®:

  • "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.
  • A telling verse in the song is:

    All along the Navajo Trail
    Burn-outs stub their toes
    On garbage pails


    This is almost certainly a reference to the 1945 film All Along The Navajo Trail, which featured a song of the same name. The film is about an undercover US Marshal posing as a traveling poet who has to stop a group of villains trying to take over a family farm in order to run an oil pipeline through it. It's an apt theme for Young, whose concerns about the environment and about the "little guy" getting screwed over have been clear in his work since very early in his career.
  • The "ambulance" in the title is discussed directly in the lyric:

    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


    The suggestion appears to be that the past can be solace from an uncomfortable present, but that it also can be a trap all its own.
  • Rogan claims the "you're just pissing in the wind" line was taken from Elliot Roberts, music manager and record executive who worked with all sorts of heavy hitters in the 1970s, including Young, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty. In more recent times he worked with Mazzy Star, Tracy Chapman, and Devendra Banhart.

    Rogan also relates the rumor that Richard Nixon is the person spoken of in the lyric, "I never knew a man could tell so many lies."
  • In Shakey, Young confesses to accidentally stealing the song's melody.

    "I always feel bad I stole that melody from Bert Jansch. F--k. You ever heard that song 'The Needle of Death'? I loved that melody. I didn't realize 'Ambulance Blues' starts exactly the same. I knew that it sounded like something that he did, but when I went back and heard that record again I realized that I copped his thing... I felt really bad about that."
  • In Don't Be Denied (published in 1992 by Quarry Press, Inc., out of Kingston, Ontario, Canada), author John Einarson writes that this song was inspired partially by a bad review Young got in December of 1965. This was when Young was still working the local Toronto folk circuit and trying to make it as a musician, so bad reviews were painful and damaging.

    Einarson, who had a direct line to Young during the writing of his book, specifically ties the review to the verse:

    Well, I'm up in T.O.
    Keepin' jive alive
    And out on the corner
    It's half past five
    But the subways are empty
    And so are the cafes

    Except for the Farmer's Market
    And I still can hear him sayin'
    You're all just pissin'
    In the wind
    You don't know it but you are


    It's kind of an odd specification on Einarson's part, because the preceding verse seems the most likely one to highlight the event, seeing as how it directly addresses critics.

    So all you critics sit alone
    You're no better than me
    For what you've shown
    With your stomach pump and
    Your hook and ladder dreams
    We could get together
    For some scenes
  • Isabela is a reference to a building, not a person. As explained in Don't Be Denied, Young briefly lived in an apartment at 88 Isabela Avenue in the Yorkville Village area of Toronto, Canada, in 1965. This was the period in which he was still trying to break through as a musician, playing small gigs and hustling for record deals. His band at the time was named Four to Go (sometimes presented as 4 to Go). The owner of the Isabela apartment was Geordie McDonald, the drummer for Four to Go.
  • The riverboat was rockin'
    In the rain


    The Riverboat was a club in the Yorkville area of Toronto. It was owned by Bernie Fiedler and was an important part of the local music scene. In Don't Be Denied (John Einarson, 1992), friend and former Young bandmate Geordie McDonald recalled that Young once played a prank on the business to get revenge for the Riverboat doorman rejecting them from seeing Jesse Colin Young. Young and McDonald convinced them that Bob Dylan was coming in to play an impromptu show, causing a packed house to sit around until six in the morning waiting for a star that never arrived.

Comments: 4

  • The Driver from TorontoYeah … we’ve always thought Isabella meant Isabella street in Toronto (as it was one of the main streets in the Yorkville area - an area known as a center of music and arts and cultural back when Neil would’ve been hanging around there before leaving for California).
  • Charles Buckley from Memphis TnWho is tive? Pissin in the wind is a diatribe against congress written back at the time when Nixon was president facing impeachment.
  • Garrett from ColumbusI've always thought the ambulance in the verse (as well as the song itself) was a sort of veiled reference to himself as he drove a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse in his Toronto days and drove it down to Los Angeles when he moved there.

    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
  • Ty from TorontoThe first verse is about Toronto, where Neil grew up (in part), and where he began his career as a folkie. The Riverboat refers to the coffeehouse of the same name on Yorkville Avenue, which was the centre of the folkie scene in Toronto. I've always assumed that "Isabella" refers to Isabella Street, which is downtown and not too far from Yorkville. Maybe Neil lived there for a while. And of course in a later verse, Neil sings "Im up in TO, keeping jive alive." TO is the standard nickname for Toronto.
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