"Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" is a rock song by Neil Young. Combined with its acoustic counterpart "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)", it bookends Young's successful 1979 albumRust Never Sleeps. Inspired by proto-New Wave group Devo, the rise of punk and what Young viewed as his own growing irrelevance, the song today crosses generations, inspiring admirers from punk to grunge and significantly revitalizing Young's then waning career. The song is about the alternatives of continuing to produce similar music ("to rust" or – in "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" – "to fade away") or to burn out, as John Lydon of the Sex Pistols might be considered to have done by abandoning his Johnny Rotten persona.
A part of a lyric from the song, "it's better to burn out than to fade away," became infamous after being quoted in Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's suicide note. Young later said that he was so shaken that he dedicated his 1994 album Sleeps with Angels to Cobain. Because of Cobain's suicide, in live concerts he now emphasizes the line "once you're gone you can't come back".
The song "Hey, Hey, My, My..." and the title phrase of the album, "rust never sleeps" on which it was featured sprang from Young's encounters with Devo and in particular Mark Mothersbaugh. Devo was asked by Young in 1977 to participate in the creating of his film Human Highway. A scene in the film shows Young playing the song in its entirety with Devo, who clearly want little to do with anything "radio-friendly" (of note is Mothersbaugh changing "Johnny Rotten" to "Johnny Spud"). While the famous line "It's better to burn out than it is to rust" is often credited to Young's friend Jeff Blackburn of The Ducks, its sentiment is also similar to an adage by President Millard Fillmore: "It is better to wear out than to rust out." Neil Young's 1969 song Cowgirl in the Sand has the lyric "Hello ruby in the dust, Has your band begun to rust". Some fans believe the reference to rusting refer's to the Cowgirl's musical band, others feel it references the Cowgirl's marriage (wedding band).
Some reviewers viewed Young's career as skidding after the release of American Stars 'N Bars and Comes a Time. With the explosion of punk in 1977, some punks felt that Young and his contemporaries were becoming obsolete. Young worried that they were right. The death of Elvis Presley that same year seemed to sound a death knell for rock, as The Clash cried, "No Elvis,Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977!" in the song "1977".
From Young's fear of becoming obsolete sprang an appreciation of the punk ethic, and the song was born, initially an acoustic lament that became "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)". Upon embarking on a tour with his backing bandCrazy Horse, the song took on new life in a rock arrangement, punctuated by Young's guitar solos that would go on to inspire players of the proto-grunge scene, including Sonic Youth, The Meat Puppets, Pixies and Dinosaur Jr.
Upon its release, Rust Never Sleeps was hailed as a commercial and critical revitalization for Young, and the successful, bizarre tour (featuring oversized amps, road crews dressed as Jawas from the new Star Wars film (called Road-eyes), sound technicians in lab coats, audio recordings from Woodstock played from disintegrating tapes, etc.) earned him a new generation of fans and good will, buoyed mainly by "Hey Hey, My My".
As Young's commercial popularity waned in the 1980s, an underground rock movement began to embrace the artist. At a time when glam metal and bubblegum pop saturated commercial airwaves, disaffected bands used Young as a prime example of the perfect blend of noise and melody, braggadocio and vulnerability, folk and hard rock. A collection of Neil Young covers emerged in the late eighties, featuring a veritable who's-who of the pre-Nirvana grunge scene. When Nirvana appeared on the national stage with Nevermind, Cobain and Young took to acknowledging one another in the press.[clarification needed]
"Hey Hey, My My"'s most memorable impact on modern rock comes from the line "It's better to burn out than to fade away" (actually only spoken in full in the acoustic "My My, Hey Hey" and the Human Highway film recording). Kurt Cobain's suicide note ended with the same line, shaking Young and inadvertently cementing his place as the so-called "Godfather of Grunge".
- Sheff: You disagree with Neil Young's lyric in Rust Never Sleeps: "It's better to burn out than to fade away..."
- Lennon: I hate it. It's better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. If he was talking about burning out like Sid Vicious, forget it. I don't appreciate the worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or dead John Wayne. It's the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison – it's garbage to me. I worship the people who survive – Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They're saying John Wayne conquered cancer – he whipped it like a man. You know, I'm sorry that he died and all that – I'm sorry for his family – but he didn't whip cancer. It whipped him. I don't want Sean worshiping John Wayne or Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it's garbage you know. If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn't he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I'll take the living and the healthy.
Young would reply two years later when asked to respond to Lennon's comments:
The rock'n'roll spirit is not survival. Of course the people who play rock'n'roll should survive. But the essence of the rock'n'roll spirit to me, is that it's better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity. Even though if you look at it in a mature way, you'll think, "well, yes ... you should decay off into infinity, and keep going along". Rock'n'roll doesn't look that far ahead. Rock'n'roll is right now. What's happening right this second. Is it bright? Or is it dim because it's waiting for tomorrow - that's what people want to know. And that's why I say that.
The song also had an impact on Britpop artists. Oasis covered the song on their 2000 world tour, including it on their live album and DVD Familiar to Millions. Not coincidentally, the band acknowledged Cobain's attachment to the song by dedicating it to him when they played it in Seattle on the sixth anniversary of his death. Scottish band Big Country recorded a version, which can be heard on their Under Covers album, and the remastered edition of their live albumWithout the Aid of a Safety Net. It is also used as live-intro to System of a Down's "Kill Rock 'n Roll" in some live performances.
The song still appears frequently on FM radio today, most often on "classic rock" stations. Young's penchant for "bookending" an album with the same song in different renditions, first seen on Tonight's the Night, returned on his second "comeback" album, Freedom, in 1989, with "Rockin' in the Free World".
Young performs the song at nearly every concert in one form or another. It is included on his Greatest Hits.
Many other bands and singers have played or recorded covers of this song: System of a Down (Festival of Hurricane in 2005), Dave Matthews Band, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Battleme (closing track of the Sons of Anarchy Season 3 finale), Rick Derringer, Nomeansno (FUBAR soundtrack), Mexican rock & roll band El Tri, Finnish glam rock band Negative, Argentine rock band La Renga, Chromatics, Jake Bugg (played live at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival).
The song was included at #93 in Bob Mersereau's book The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).
Courtney Love, singer for Hole and Cobain's widow, alludes both to this song and her husband's suicide note in the song "Reasons To Be Beautiful" from the album Celebrity Skin. In "Reasons To Be Beautiful," she changes the verse to "It's better to rise than fade away."
Metalcore band Killswitch Engage have quoted the line in their song "New Awakening".