08 June 2009

In Appreciation of Neil Young

My love for Neil Young runs deep. I love the way Neil Young sings, and I love the way he plays the guitar more than just about anyone I've ever heard. He has maybe my favorite guitar tone ever- and I'm fairly obsessed with that, too. You can tell a Neil Young solo totally out of context in an instant. I'm listening to "Country Home", off of Ragged Glory, his sensational 1990 Crazy Horse backed comeback. He absolutely shreds lead on this song, yanking those notes to that Neil Young place. Glorious.

So I stayed up late last night watching a documentary on PBS called, I believe Don't Let it Be: Neil Young. It was mostly interviews with Neil, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, James Taylor and the insufferable Graham Nash. Man, Stills can barely talk anymore. How is that true and Crosby's making kids with lesbians and stringing together complete sentences? The banality of evil. Looks like a walrus, the most gifted arrainger of harmonies this side of Brian Wilson, gives his sperm without prejudice, and has ingested enough hard drugs in one lifetime to kill Captain America. Evil takes many forms. I never really liked Neil's association with CSN, honestly. Stills is obviously a gifted guy and a really great songwriter, but Crosby was a stoned hippie and Graham Nash is an epic, epic douchebag. They talked about Neil leaving them in the lurch often, which he makes no bones about- "I follow the music. So you either get that, or... it doesn't end up working out."

Anyway- this documentary reawakened my love for this man. No artist from the 1960s has aged as well as Neil Young. Not one. Not Paul McCartney, not Lou Reed, not Brian Wilson, not David Bowie (close), not even Bob Dylan (who'd be his main competition). Neil has evolved and spun so many realms from what is his core gift- that tension between his gentle, confessional work and his torrid, face melting rock rave ups. What's so remarkable is that his ability to do this has earned him the ability to fail sensationally, and it's all part of the journey. Yes, I own Trans. It is insanely weird, but did you know that the genesis of that bout of electronic weirdness was Neil's immersion in technologies relevant to better communicating with his son, who was born with cerebral palsy? His son responded to electronic voice filtering similar to what's used on that record (I'm paraphrasing the technology jargon there of course). Yes, I downloaded Living With War. Yes, I've heard Landing on Water, with the weird synthesizers and nutso drum sounds. But... it's all part of the Neil thing. I'm not really even into Buffalo Springfield, to be honest. "Mr. Soul" rocks pretty hard I guess.

So arguably Neil's greatest song is "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," the final, brutally distorted ode to punk rock from his 1979 masterpiece Rust Never Sleeps. In high school a friend and I used to take turns putting Rust (that was mine) and Harvest Moon (that was my friend's pick- maybe Neil's strangest record ever. After Harvest came out in '72 and blew up, Neil listened to David Briggs, who thought the record was too pandering. He swears up and down he's not going to make a record like that again for those reasons. Makes that famous "middle of the road" quote you've probably read. Then, 1992 rolls around, and he makes a fucking sequel? I mean, it's a good album, but... an odd moment, considering the source) on his car stereo (plus Automatic for the People, if we're on the record) buzzing around town in his white fuzzmobile with candy red interior. I've long loved that RNS album most of all Neil's work. Robert Christgau once wrote in a review of After the Gold Rush, "While David Crosby yowls about assassinations, Young divulges darker agonies without even bothering to make them explicit." This is so true of Rust, a record that is half stoned, spaced out "darker agonies," half heaviest-he's-ever been rock, a direct growth of his inspiration drawn from punk and new wave (the quote also speaks to another of my favorite Neil qualities- his ability to dodge getting tangled in the overbearing politic messages in a lot of music from that 60s era). These were things I'd known for a while. What I hadn't known until seeing last night's documentary is that much of the riff for "Hey Hey, My My" (and then, one would assume, subseqently for "My My, Hey Hey") came from a filmed jam session between Neil and fucking Devo. DEVO! It was part of a film project he was working on with them, having reached out himself to incorporate the theatrical elements Devo brought to the table. And there they were, Neil in a fucking SEX PISTOLS T-SHIRT, jamming ("Devo jams?" "Devo jams.") with Devo. Plus, the album's name came from Gerald Casale's idea to use the slogan for Rust-Oleum. "RUST NEVER SLEEPS!" (And then Kurt Cobain misappropriated (or not, I guess) a sardonic line about the fury and rage of the Sex Pistols into his suicide note, causing Neil to record "Sleeps With Angels," which, while not a great song, has a truly great line considering the subject. "He's always on someone's mind." I always really liked that.)

This is what he says in the documentary, too- when this new music came toward the end of the 70's, it wasn't a threat, it was just the medium continuing. "They're new, and it's great. They didn't grow up in the same time as we did. They grew up in the time they grew up in. That's all." When you consider how that whole era ate bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Who and in many ways Bob Dylan alive, the way Neil Young was able to digest and take part in it is something he has over anyone other than Bowie. He wasn't intrusive, he didn't appear to want to make that music because it was emergent- he seemed to want to take it in, digest it, and then give his take, from his perspective.

So really, his contemporaries on this scale are Dylan and Bowie. Dylan's peaks are higher, probably, but it's debatable who's made more truly Hall of Fame level great albums, and Neil is indisputably, 100% no doubt about it better live than Dylan, especially over the last 15+ years. That's not even a knock on Dylan. Maybe the best line from the documentary was from David Crosby: "He's just- he's a force of nature. It's like having... The Wind in your band."

Bowie represents a more modern art approach in a broad sense, so while his ability to adapt to emerging trends is one of the things that makes him so incredible, it's on a different angle than Neil. Neil has the benefit of appearing at once working class rock and roll (true) and savant-like artiste (also true), which translates better across a broader spectrum. Bowie's much more exacting- Neil is more stream-of-consciousness with his work- he doesn't care where he's going, the music takes him there. Bowie is the captain of his ship.

There are a lot of parallels between Dylan and Young, though. Neil had "The Rockets"- aka Crazy Horse, argubaly the single greatest live rock and roll band of all time. Dylan had "The Hawks"- aka the Band, one of the great studio bands ever assembled. Both had awkward 80s periods, but in different ways- Dylan struggled to find a voice, while Neil boldly and, at times, angrily changed his voice without fail. An album like Everybody's Rockin', his pissy rockabilly retort towards a record company trying to push him in a more commercial direction. "They told me to make a rock and roll record. So I thought- 'ok, what's rock and roll. Oh, this is it. It's like, rockabilly.' You better be sure when you tell ME to do something, you're sure of what you're telling. Because you might get exactly what you ask for." See, that has a purpose. Street Legal just sounds like a pile of cocaine to me.

They're both, of course, gifted lyricists. I'll be honest- I don't get much from lyrics for the most part. They're lower on the list of what I really want in a song than I think they are to most people. To me, they're part of the sound. They're syllables and phrasing and that's about it. I have songs whose lyrics I love to death, obviously, but on a general level, I often don't even notice them. I like certain words, and when I hear them, or a mood is evoked, I like that. What I could more or less not (with some exception) give a wet fart about is the relative "poetry" of a given lyric. This is probably why I've never bought Jim Morrison on any level, and why I think that of the behemoth that is Dylan's reputation, too much rests on periods of lyric writing that are very overrated. Neil's never written anything as beautiful as Blood on the Tracks, but I think it's a mistake to say that, for instance, most of the lyrics to something like Bringing It All Back Home are somehow unassailable. There's more simplicity in Neil, more structure, and much more reliance on common rock tropes (all great things)- things that Dylan, by the way, does musically, which is where he does not get enough credit. They're two sides of the same coin, as they say.

And now what's he doing? Making records about green communes and electric cars? OK. I haven't heard either yet (I'm starting to sift my way through the parts of Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972)that fell off the back of an internet truck, including the mind-blowing old live releases he's done over the last five years), but I'll give it a listen at some point. Maybe I won't like it. But he's still doing something. Part of me wonders if, at times, people forget how much slack we extend guys from that era that don't do a fucking thing but stage multi-million dollar reunion tours and cash checks. I don't mean that to sound overly cynical because those bands earned that- I respect that, actually. I've gone to a lot of those shows. But Neil Young's still out there making records, trying shit out.

To further the Dylan thing (because, while Bowie is certainly comparable, his career just has such a different shape to it, so we'll leave him out), Both had late career resurgences. A lot of these artists from the 60s had "return" albums in the 90s- records that marked a stepping back from the dementia that set in during the 80s. Mick Jagger had Wandering Spirit in 93, Plant and Page had that Walking into Clarksdale collaboration with Steve Albini. Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton did very well received episodes of Unplugged. You get the picture.

Dylan and Young both had such records, both towering high above the aforementioned bunch. Dylan's, a classic that ranks right up there with his 60s peak, was 1997's Time Out of Mind. Dylan took the tone of this geriatric archivist, chronicling American music and, obviously, himself. Definitely some of his best work, and rightly was called a return to form. Young's is the 1990 studio jam with Crazy Horse, which I mentioned here up top- Ragged Glory, a most appropriate name. "Country Home," "Love to Burn," "F*ckin Up!" It may not have been as transcendent as Time out of Mind, but for a guy that had spent the better part of the last decade making music in the form of big, grand, angry gestures that amounted mostly to fucking with the record company, his audience, expectations and himself, to get a record starting off the new decade where he sounded focused just on the songs, rocking hard and getting a good record out was a huge, huge moment. Some of his best guitar work, maybe his best-produced album, and not a wasted second on the entire thing.

And to bring it all full circle, "Days That Used to Be" borrows it's melody from Dylan's "My Back Pages."

Rock some Neil tonight. The man invited Sonic Youth to open for him in 1992!

ps- the best Neil album you may not own is On the Beach. Also his coolest album cover.

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