By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Jan. 25, 2010 — Neil Young first recorded “Long May You Run” 34 years ago, in 1976.
He performed the song last Friday on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show.”
It’s a great song, but a pretty old one, the equivalent of performing a song from 1944 on “The Tonight Show” of 1976. In 1976, Conan was 13.
In liner notes on the 1977 compilation album “Decade,” Young wrote that “Long May You Run” was a song about a car and a woman.
“‘Long May You Run’: A song written for my first car and my last lady,” Young wrote. “As Dylan says, ‘Now that the past is gone’ [from Dylan’s “Wedding Song”].”
Search for information on the Web about the car and the story behind it and you will find endless debates about which car (two hearses — one a Buick, the other a Pontiac — are in contention), whether the song’s subject is a car or a motorcycle, and what the lyrics mean, the usual inconclusive Google search.
However, it is clear the song was not written about a late-night talk-show host, though some of its lyrics were adaptable to the situation in which Young performed it on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show” last Friday (the lyrics include, “We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather, long may you run.”).
The song is a classic example of what used to be known as “album rock,” but today, if categorized for radio play, it would be classified as “classic rock,” basically, an oldie, but not as old as the more traditional “oldie” — more likely a Top-40 pop song from the 1950s or ’60s.
The same can be said for “Free Bird,” the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic first recorded 37 years ago, in 1973.
Conan’s last “Tonight Show” closed with “Free Bird,” sung by Will Ferrell, backed up by The Tonight Show Band, and assisted on guitars by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (another icon of classic rock), Beck and, impressively, Conan himself.
When Young finished singing “Long May You Run” and Conan came over to greet him, Young, 64 and as much a “classic” as anyone, told Conan he came on the show to support him because of all that Conan had done over the years for the exposure of new music.
You might not have heard it; Young said it rather softly and it was partially drowned out by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to Young’s performance (and, apparently, you can’t try and hear what Young said now, since it looks as if NBC has barred video of the performance from being posted on YouTube though it could be found there throughout the weekend).
Conan’s emphasis on emerging music acts has been his pattern over the years, particularly on “Late Night,” where music bookings tended toward artists on the way up who hadn’t quite gotten there.
And yet, when it came time to load up on the sentiment on his final “Tonight Show,” Conan revealed a personal preference for the classics, which would tend to separate him from the younger fans who showed their love for him in the waning weeks of his “Tonight Show.”
The fact is: Conan O’Brien is 46 years old. It’s a funny age for show business, especially for the way show business, or the television version of show business, is now constituted.
At 46, he’s a little old to be considered “young.” Though he’s not yet 50, he is too old to comb his hair into a point at the center of his scalp, or wear a backward cap, or go self-consciously unshaven, or wear intentionally faded jeans with an untucked shirt.
This is the outfit worn by “young” TV personalities and movie stars these days — on MTV, on the talk shows when they appear as guests, or in commercials for computers, cellphones, fast-food chains and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Moreover, at age 46, how much longer can Conan get away with the kind of sophomoric comedy that’s better suited for younger personalities?
At some point, Conan’s going to have to reinvent himself as a more mature performer capable of evolving a persona that will be seen as hip enough to continue drawing younger fans, while, at the same time, retaining his many other fans who will inevitably age along with him.
David Letterman, 63, enjoys a reputation for accomplishing this feat — the aging crank who nevertheless possesses a subversiveness that is supposedly still attractive to younger viewers. However, reputations are often inaccurate.
The truth was: Jay Leno, now 59, had better younger demographics than Letterman when Leno hosted “The Tonight Show.”
And Leno’s younger demos weren’t that much worse than Conan’s.
I can remember seeing Leno perform in Atlantic City a few years back, and most of his audience was composed of extremely worshipful college kids, among whom he apparently has a huge following, whether erudite critics in New York and L.A. care to accept it or not.
Ultimately, a great scenario for Conan — given the caveat that nothing at all is certain in show business in general or late-night television in particular — is that, in a few years, he may be in a position to take over for Letterman.
The odd thing is, he might then be competing with an aging Leno, and he, Conan, just might beat him.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com