The Keeper Of The Flame: There is rock. There is roll. And there is Neil Young.
by various writers
MOJO, September 1994
"Stick to instrumentals!"
Shadows covers, fine. But Beatle harmonies were
less well received in the Kelvin High School cafeteria, Winnipeg.
Like all good Canadian artists in the '60s, Neil Young had to leave home to become successful. "Canada just couldn't support the ideas I had," he said later. "The sounds I liked were coming from California. I knew that if I went down there I could take a shot at making it." After almost 30 years in California, Young remains a Canadian citizen and continues to draw inspiration from his roots: "A lot of my songs come from flashes of things in my past. It's not specific but you'll get images here and there that are about Canada." Listen to Helpless, Don't Be Denied, Ambulance Blues, I Am A Child, Journey Through The Past or Long May You Run and see what he means.
"When I was a young boy, My Momma said to me,
When the 14-year-old Neil Young arrived in Winnipeg from Toronto in the summer of 1960, he already knew what it was like to be uprooted, since his family had gone wherever his father's career in journalism had taken him. But after the break-up of his parents' marriage, Neil and his mother Rassy settled into the working-class suburb of Fort Rouge where the shy, dry-humoured youth enrolled at Earl Grey Junior High School. It was there that he met Ken Koblun, later to join him in The Squires, and there that he formed his first band The Jades.
"I knew when I was 14 that music was all I wanted to do," he has said, although he did manage to trade his skills on the links for a few guitar lessons from classmate John Daniel. Daniel in due course joined The Jades, whose one and only performance came in early January 1961 at the Earl Grey Community Club, but he soon fell foul of Neil's single-minded ambition. "I had to go to hockey practice when Neil wanted to play guitar, and he told me I had to choose one or the other, hockey or music. I guess I wanted to play hockey."
Young's next move was to form a band to play Winnipeg's thriving community club circuit. By 1963 he and his mother had moved to the more well-heeled Crescentwood area, where he attended the prestigious Kelvin High School and formed The Squires, who specialized in instrumentals by their idols The Shadows. Young was particularly taken by Hank Marvin's melodic guitar style and use of the tremelo arm, both of which remain a trademark of his to this day. "The Shadows became the major portion of our repertoire," he recalled. "We did Apache, Wonderful Land, FBI and Shindig, and another one called Spring Is Nearly Here."
Local DJ Harry Taylor of CKRC offered the band studio time in the station's tiny two-track facility to cut a single. In the fall of 1963, V Records released The Sultan b/w Aurora, both instrumentals penned by Neil relying heavily on the echoey twang of The Shadows and Duane Eddy. "It was my first recording session and I was just glad to be there for the experience, but I was still searching for the right sound," Young says of that first release.
The Sultan scarcely hinted at the talent which lay behind it, but it did result in some airplay and gigs. With steady work came the need for new equipment: although Neil's mother had bought him his beloved orange Gretsch guitar, requests for a new amplifier to replace his homemade effort fell on deaf ears with his estranged father. "When your report card improves, we'll talk about it," Scott Young wrote curtly from Toronto. Despite her limited income, Rassy supported her son's aspirations, even borrowing the money to buy her "Neiler" the amp he needed so badly. Later, she helped him purchase "Mort", the hearse in which he transported the band's equipment.
The Squires' schedule included performing outdoors on a flatbed truck for a department store promotion, and at the intermission at a wrestling match. Further sessions at CKRC in 1964 failed to produce another single but did yield some interesting tapes. One was the self-penned I Wonder, a sort of Beatles/Dave Clark hybrid rocker which surfaced years later as Don't Cry No Tears on Zuma. Afterwards, the recording engineer rather bluntly opined, "You're a good guitar player, kid, but you'll never make it as a singer."
Other tracks from those sessions include the very Shadows-influenced instrumental Mustang and Ain't It The Truth, exhumed 25 years later in a rollicking version by The Blue Notes on Lucky Thirteen. Tapes of these and other long-forgotten Squires sessions in Winnipeg and Fort William (including the beautiful I'll Love You Forever) have recently been unearthed and are now in Young's possession. He plans to include them on his much delayed Archives box set. Another unreleased instrumental, White Flower, concerned the assassination of President Kennedy.
By this time Neil had taken on vocal duties. "The first song I ever sang in public was at Kelvin in the cafeteria," he later recalled. "It was The Beatles' version of Money. I think I also did It Won't Be Long. People told me I couldn't sing but I just kept at it." Testing the waters at a gig in January 1964, Neil and The Squires launched into The Beatles' She Loves You only to be greeted with a cry "Stick to instrumentals!" The band went so far as to don Beatles wigs for a few engagements, to squeals from the teenage crowd. The Squires survived several personnel changes under Neil's demanding leadership. "I always believed I could find someone else who might have the same determination I had. If somebody didn't fit in, I knew I had to tell him to go. I had to shit on a lot of people and leave a lot of friends behind to get where I am now, especially in the beginning. I had almost no conscience for what I had to do. There was no way that I could put up with things that were going to stand in my way. I was so driven to make it."
Young discovered folk music after several visits to the 4-D, a local folk club. There he developed a major crush on Bob Dylan, learned Ian and Sylvia's Four Strong Winds, and met Joni Mitchell who was then working the Canadian coffeehouse circuit with her husband Chuck. Not long after he dropped out of school to pursue his dream full time. "I wasn't into school. I had a pretty good time there but I really didn't fit in. I knew what needed to be done to make it and I was willing to make those sacrifices."
A brief road trip east to Fort William, Ontario in November 1964 resulted in another milestone. Alone in his hotel room on his 19th birthday, Neil wrote Sugar Mountain, an ode to perpetual youth. Although the song presented Neil's folk leanings, he had not yet abandoned rock.
"We did Farmer John really well in Fort William. We just got way out there and went berserk. That was one of the first times I ever started transcending on guitar. Things just got on to another plane. Afterwards people would say, What the hell was that? That's when I started to realize I had the capacity to lose my mind playing music." He later revisited his manic version of Framer John in 1990 on Ragged Glory.
In April 1965 Stephen Stills came to town to play the 4-D with folk group The Company, and was blown away by the opening act:
Neil Young And The Squires. It was mutual admiration at first sight. "Stills's voice was phenomenal," recalls Young. "We got on quite well right away. We didn't talk about forming a band then, but we knew that we wanted to get together."
What Stills witnessed that night was Neil's own unique blend of traditional folk with rock'n'roll. "We did classic folk songs with a rock'n'roll beat and changed the melody. We did a really weird version of Tom Dooley which was like rock'n'roll in a minor key, and we did Oh Susannah, Clementine, She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain. It was different from anything I did before or after. It was funky."
Following the breakdown and abandonment of his prized 1948 Buick Hearse near Blind River, Ontario (immortalized in Long May You Run), Neil ended up in Toronto where he resurrected The Squires for one last stab at success. Unfortunately no-one was buying his folk-rock vision. A name change to Four To Go with new personnel still brought no takers. Undeterred, Neil attempted to launch himself as a solo folk singer, again with little success.
"There was a review of one of my shows in a newspaper and it said my songs were all like a cliche. Toronto was a very humbling experience for me. I just couldn't get anything going."
This was a blue period which found him scuffling about Yorkville, crashing at various pads, including one on Isabella Street (immortalized in Ambulance Blues) and writing some of his most introspective songs. One of these, Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing, the story of a Kelvin High School acquaintance, served as a metaphor for Neil's own frustrations in Toronto. After a disastrous audition tape at Elektra studios in New York, the song found its way to Stephen Stills's roommate Richie Furay. "I thought it was a real fantastic song," recalls Furay. "Clancy certainly was not a typical song of the kind I was used to hearing. It had metaphor and allegory." Furay took the song to California where Stephen Stills had beckoned him to form a group.
With no other means of support, Neil accepted an offer from Bruce Palmer to join The Mynah Birds, a Yorkville-based rock group featuring a self-styled "black Mick Jagger", Ricky James Matthews (AKA future funk star Rick James). But his stay was brief, a mere six week rollercoaster ride that found the band earning the backing of a millionaire and a disastrous recording session at Motown in Detroit before Matthews's arrest by the US army for desertion. A listen to the tapes years later reveals no trace of Neil's characteristic guitar or vocals. With no options left in Canada, Neil and Bruce sold off The Mynah Birds' equipment, purchased a 1953 Pontiac hearse (Mort II) and illegally crossed the border, heading for California. This was a bold gamble which ultimately reaped enormous dividends.
A bout of nervous exhaustion stalled them in Albuquerque before they rolled into Los Angeles in search of Stills. Driving around by day and sleeping in the hearse at night, the two finally gave up after a week. "Bruce and I were just leaving to go to San Francisco," recalls Young. "We were on Sunset Boulevard heading North, stopped at a light. The traffic was heavy. Then I heard Stephen Stills saying, I know that guy, it's Neil." The four pulled into Ben Franks's parking lot, embraced and headed to a friend's house where Stills and Furay played Young their arrangement of Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing. And the Buffalo Springfield was born.
Expecting To Fly
The perfect line-up was slowly secuded by the new
West Coast bohemia. "Do I like this?" wondered their naive but ambitious
When Neil Young arrived in February 1966, Los Angeles was the pop capital of America. For a city so derided, usually by its Californian rival San Francisco, for being 'plastic', it is ironic that folk was its fortune. LA had not only those Dylan-endorsed hitmakers The Byrds, but also the icons of new bohemian hipsterism Sonny & Cher. With year-round sunshine to nurture the muse, and LSD still not yet illegal, even those candy-striped squares The Beach Boys had grown their hair and got hip.
Thus is was natural at this point for vagrant folk-rockers to bypass San Francisco, whose own hippy scene was still an in-house secret, and proceed straight to the heart of the action. According to some sources the Young-Stills-Furay-Palmer group, formed to explore directions suggested by Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing, at first toyed with the name The Herd. Serendipity stepped it. "We were living on Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles, and workmen were tearing up streets to do resurfacing," Furay recalled. "They were using these big steamrollers to flatten it all out, and they had a nameplate on the side - just two large words: Buffalo Springfield." A drummer, ex-Dillard Dewey Martin, a fellow Canadian demanded by Young in preference to Stills's choice, completed the group.
"We thought we were going to be together for about 15 years, because we knew how good it was," Young remembered the early promise. And, as he recalled in 1975 to Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe, hanging out on Sunset Strip wasn't all work: "I loved the hearse. Six people could be getting high in the front and back and nobody would be able to see because of the curtains. The tray was dynamite. You'd open the side door, and the tray whips right out to the sidewalk. What could be cooler than that? What a way to make your entrance. Pull up to a gig and just wheel out all your stuff on the tray."
But within weeks of Buffalo Springfield forming, a less welcome development entered Neil's life. He and Bruce Palmer were stoned, standing in a small crowd watching a man demonstrating a Vegematic kitchen slicer when Neil collapsed. He was having his first epileptic fit, a condition whose medical treatment only enhanced his moody and intense personality: simultaneous (such were the times) self-medication of dope, speed and acid didn't help. His two songs on the self-titled first Buffalo Springfield LP, Flying On The Ground Is Wrong and Burned, alluded to bad trips - unusual in an era of psychedelic celebration.
That album was the fruit of a deal engineered with Atco, a subsidiary of New York's premiere black music label, Atlantic, just then diversifying into white pop with Sonny & Cher, whose managers, Charlie Green and Brian Stone, then added Buffalo Springfield to their client roster. Cut at the end of '66 and released in February the following year, that debut album featured five Young songs to seven by Stills.
It was a Stills tune that in March 1967 took Buffalo Springfield to Number 7 in the US singles charts and, when tacked on to the debut LP, reinvigorated its hitherto wan commercial performance. In August '66 the local citizenry had tried to clear the area around the Sunset Strip club Pandora's Box, whose long-haired clientele deterred legitimate tourism, by having the police enforce a curfew. Protests followed, things turning ugly when the police weighed in with the night-sticks. Witnessing this upon returning from a trip to Nicaragua, Stills was inspired: "All the kids on one side of the street, all the cops on the other side - in Latin American that meant there'd be a new government in about a week." Both a warning and a barricade-manning counter-culture rallying cry, For What It's Worth owes much of its power to Young's paranoid guitar. This creative contrast was seldom otherwise captured on record to Young's satisfaction.
Stills: "When we got to our first session, we went into the studio and cut this one song, the voice came over the talk-back saying, No, that's too long. Play it faster. Neil and I looked at each other and I said, We better learn how to work this shit ourselves. From then on it was a race to see who could learn the most about making records, about electronics and engineering, the whole nine yards." As Young told Nick Kent: "The real core of the group was the three Canadians - me, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin. We played in such a way that the three of us were basically huddled together behind while Stills and Furay were always out front. 'Cos we'd get so into the groove of the thing, that's all we really cared about. But when we got into the studio the groove just wasn't the same. And we couldn't figure out why. This was the major frustration for me as a young musician, it fucked me up so much. Buffalo Springfield should have been recorded live from the very beginning. All the records were great failures as far as I'm concerned."
If so, then Buffalo Springfield's second album, Again (December 1967), is among the greatest in rock history. Including early country-rock forays, the Jack Nitzsche-arranged Expecting To Fly and Young's own equally ambitious production on Mr. Soul and the collage epic that is Broken Arrow, it offers diverse moods and styles, reflecting by then perhaps not so much a world of possibilities as a band in the process of fragmentation. Bruce Palmer had been deported twice for dope and visa violations, and Young was never short of reasons to leave the group: untrusted management, recording frustrations, mental strain and Stills's high-handed attempts to keep the show on the road.
Young, to Kent: "There were a lot of problems happening with the Springfield. There were a lot of distractions too. Groupies. Drugs. Then there were all these other people... They were always around, giving you grass, trying to sell you hippy clothes... I never knew what these people really wanted. And there were so many of 'em! Not to mention all the women ... all the clubs, places to go, things to do. I remember being haunted suddenly by this whole obsession with 'How do I fit in here? Do I like this?'" That Summer of Love, Young missed its beacon event, the Monterey Pop Festival. Ex-Byrd David Crosby deputized and so laid the ground for the later partnership with Stills, who recalled Young's final departure following a gig on May 5, 1968: "I remember we were headed back East to do the Johnny Carson Show, the first rock'n'roll band to be on the Carson Show, and Neil quits the night before we're supposed to leave. We fell prey to the whole entourage system. Everybody had to have his own entourage and it got stupid. We forgot the initial brotherhood."
Young: "I just couldn't handle it towards the end. It wasn't anything but my nerves. Everything started to go too fucking fast. I was going crazy, joining and quitting and joining again. I began to feel like I didn't have to answer or obey anyone. I needed more space. That was a big problem in my head. So I'd quit, then I'd come back 'cos it sounded so good. It was a constant problem. I just wasn't mature enough to deal with it. I was very young. We were getting the shaft from every angle, and it seemed like we were trying to make it so bad we were getting nowhere."
As his future manager Elliot Roberts admitted, "When David Crosby was telling me about the Springfield breaking up, he said I should definitely get Neil. He brought intensity to the party that no one else could muster because he was so much more serious than anyone else. It was all life and death to Neil."
Assembled by engineer/producer Jim Messina (who had also replaced Plamer on bass), the album Last Time Around was released three months after Buffalo Springfield broke up. A rumoured "lost" second album Stampede exists only in a sleeve front cover and catalogue number. Reunions have been mooted, a possibility welcomed by Young in 1975: "Everybody in that group was a fucking genius at what they did. That was a great group, man... I'd love to play with that band again, just to see if the buzz was still there." In February 1986, 20 years after the band's foundation, his wish came true: the original five rehearsed both old and new songs with an eye to playing again. But Young failed to turn up for their third planned get-together, later claiming to have "forgotten".
Where Are They Now?
Dewey Martin until recently drummed in Buffalo Springfield Revisited, a repeat of his attempt in autumn '68 to pass off a group he'd assembled as the real thing. Living in Los Angeles, he has recently suffered from long-term illness.
Steve Stills continues to tour and record with David Crosby and Graham Nash, as he has done since December 1968.
Richie Furay is a Minster of the Rocky Mountain Christian Fellowship in Boulder, Colorado. After Buffalo Springfield he and Jim Messina formed the country-rock bank Poco, who enjoyed success for 15 years, reuniting in 1989 for a year-long last hurrah. Furay has also made four solo albums, records gospel music and occasionally plays with a pick-up rock band.
Bruce Palmer made a solo album in 1971, dropped from sight only to resurface in the late '80s with Dewey Martin in a covers band trading as Buffalo Springfield Revisited, much to the annoyance of Young, Stills and Furay, who tried, short of legal action, to stop them. He is now described as 10 stone heavier than his '60s fighting weight and "somewhat troubled".
A rougher ride
"The middle-of-the-road became a bore. So I
headed for the ditch." He'd tried mellifluous balladry, next was a detour into sonic
sludge. Neil Young in the '70s
Twenty-five years after it was recorded at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, Cinnamon Girl sounds like it was cut the day before yesterday on a battered eight-track studio in Seattle. With its raw, churning groove, the song's riff is a slacker headbanger's wet dream, one of those hypnotic loops you'd point to as incontrovertible proof of the power of rock and roll. The voices are high and mewlish, the lyric drippily hippy-dippy, but it doesn't matter, because what this is about is electricity, texture and repetition, the whirring and buzzing of distorted guitars. It's about GRUNGE.
Cinnamon Girl, the opening track on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), tells us almost everything about the wayward, unpredictable path Neil Young would take through the ensuing decade. Coming after his frustrating adventures with the Buffalo Springfield and his own over-produced failure of a debut album, Cinnamon Girl spelt out his love of sonic sludge at a time when his LA peers (not least Crosby, Stills & Nash) were losing themselves in diffuse, layered harmony rock. It also made it clear that Young was going to have his cake and eat it: he wanted a real band, dubbing Crazy Horse "the American Rolling Stones", but he also wanted to be the Great Lone Wolf of West Coast rock.
Young's profound love of electricity - of the anti-muso grunge of Crazy Horse - is one of the keys to his durability as a rock icon. Punks and grungesters alike have connected with Neil Young for the simple reason that all he's ever wanted to do is drive us over the edge of emotion. Another key is the sheer truculence of the man - his refusal to kow-tow to his audience's expectations of what Neil Young should be or do. In a sense, the whole point is that we shouldn't look to him as some kind of seer. Many of his lyrics, for example, are at best nebulous, at worst facile. As Dave Marsh (a noted dissenter among the higher echelon of US rock critics) wrote of the mid-'70s "trilogy" of On The Beach (1974), Tonight's The Night (1975) and Zuma (1975): "The vision is nothing more than a rehash of images and themes that have appeared in Young's work from the beginning: conflict between Cowboys and Indians, privacy and fame, youth and age, drug-soaked Utopianism and drug-soaked disaster".<>No, Neil Young wasn't voted Rock Artist Of The Decade by Rolling Stone and the Village Voice because he was a poet (or even a prophet), but because of the grunge in his grooves, the seizures of his solos, the wasted despair of his voice on, say, On The Beach. Because of the little guitar figure which ties up each section of Powderfinger, and the heartbreaking final chord in the verses of Like A Hurricane. Because he was the fuck-up who didn't fuck up, the hippy who didn't buy the hippy dream, the confessional singer-songwriter who masked himself at every turn. Because at the end of the day, he made music in good faith - music which still sounds livid with fury and desire.
If one wants to be boring about it, the music of Young's 'golden decade' (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to Rust Never Sleeps) can roughly be broken down into four main styles: electric grunge (Cinnamon Girl), singer-songwriter balladry (After The Gold Rush), countrified rock (Heart Of Gold) and symphonic pop (A Man Needs A Maid). There are hybrids and permutations of all these, but he tends to move to and fro between them, usually, within individual albums. The fact that he could bring Jack Nitzsche in to orchestrate Such A Woman, 25 years after working with the former Phil Spector henchman on Broken Arrow and Expecting To Fly, tells us something, for instance, about the room Young allows on his palette even now for symphonic pop arrangements.
The remarkable thing about the '70s albums is that not one of these 'styles' can be said to have produced a greater share of riches than any of the others. It's difficult to claim categorically that one prefers the electric Neil Young to the acoustic one, or even the guitar-bases songs to the piano-based ones. For all its cloying sentimentality, Old man is as affecting a song as the enraged Alabama, while the plaintive I Believe In You cuts as deep as the pulverizing When You Dance I Can Really Love. The mordant ennui of On The Beach is as harrowing as the Manson-inspired Revolution Blues; the Nitzche-esque Country Girl every bit as good as the stripped-down Helpless. By the same token, the country-inflected Harvest is just as dull as the sludgy blues of Are You Ready For The Country?, the punk-grunge of Welfare Mothers (from Rust Never Sleeps) quite as offensive as the country-grunge of Bite The Bullet (American Stars 'n' Bars).
If there was ever a critical moment in Young's career, it surely came with the body-swerve away from the unexpected success of the winsome Heart Of Gold, a Number 1 single in February 1972. "Heart Of Gold put me in the middle of the road," he wrote in the liner-notes to the triple-album retrospective Decade (1977). "Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
"Rougher ride" was an understatement. If he'd already seen enough of the "damage done" by drugs, he was to witness a great deal more over the course of the following year. The drunken, mumbling Young of Tonight's The Night was almost unrecognizable from the mellow, patched-denim troubadour of After The Gold Rush or Harvest with the raucous Time Fades Away tour late in 1972, he went even further after the overdose deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. "Neil was sort of dribbling out of the side of his mouth on that tour, the mood was so down," recalled his manager Elliot Roberts. "He wasn't playing one hit song from Gold Rush or Harvest that you'd laid down your good poundage for." It's hard to believe in these days of professional incapacitation that Warners refused to release the ragged, dirgelike Tonight's The Night for two years, but refuse they did, clearly unaware that the album would sound even better in 1994 than it did in 1975.
Released before Tonight's The Night, On The Beach (1974) sounded like a hangover from the Tonight's tour. Bleak and bitter, the album found Young in broodingly introspective mood. "I need a crowd of people / But I can't face them day to day," he groaned on the title track, summing up his growing distance from the Laurel Canyon rock community - a community he imagined being decimated by Charles Manson's dune buggies on the thrilling Revolution Blues. Yet true to capricious form, Young had barely issued On The Beach when he agreed to join his old cronies Crosby, Stills & Nash on the multi-million-grossing CSNY tour of 1974.
Which really begs the question: Why CSNY? How could Neil Young stomach being in a band which refused to perform Revolution Blues while warbling through Graham Nash's hideous Our House? And why did he hook up with them in the first place? The less cynical answer is that Young couldn't resist returning to the love-hate affair he'd had with Stephen Stills ever since they'd first paired up in the Buffalo Springfield. The more cynical one is that touring with CS&N - in 1974 as much as in 1970 - helped to raise his own profile while allowing him to remain comfortable in the shadows.
Whatever the reasons, Young was surely the only good thing about CSNY, either onstage or in the studio. At the risk of offending numerous diehard CS&N fans, let's just say they were crap and get it out of the way. Worse than that, they embodied all the most heinous characteristics of Californian rock stars in the mid-'70s, using the fact that they were virtually the biggest band on the planet as a license to behave like drug-addled despots. The scale of the debauchery on the 1974 tour may have topped even the worst outrages of Led Zeppelin; certainly it was so antithetical to the spirit of the group which had recorded Young's magnificent "instant-protest" anthem Ohio in 1970 that Young himself could hardly stand to be around them.
Recuperating from the overkill and internecine bickering of the 1974 tour, Young recorded and then shelved Homegrown, an album of songs about the failure of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress. In its place came Tonight's The Night and the official reunion with Crazy Horse that produced Zuma. While being all of a piece with the dragging, wasted moods of On The Beach and Tonight's The Night, Zuma nonetheless felt like a defiant rebirth, thanks not least to the slow-building fury of the epic Cortez The Killer and the general intensity of the guitar-sparring between Young and new Horse recruit Frank "Pancho" Sampedro. On Cortez, Danger Bird and Drive Back, one heard Young's playing at its splintered, squalling best, carving like a blade through the dense undergrowth of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina.
Coming after Cortez The Killer, the parodic country songs on side one of American Stars 'n' Bars (1977) sounded suspiciously regressive, especially since he had a store of unreleased gems such as Don't Say You Win, Don't Say You Lose (and Powderfinger, come to that) to call upon. But the album did include the sublime Like A Hurricane, a Crazy Horse-driven epic of engulfing desire reworked to equally spine-tingling effect with the aid of a pump organ on last year's Unplugged. No less regressive was Young's decision to saddle up once more with Steve Stills, though again there was one marvelous song (Long May You Run) to show for it. Halfway through the Stills-Young Band tour in the summer of '76, Young decided to jump ship, sending Stills a telegram which read: "Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil."
After the release of Decade, a retrospective selection of Young classics featuring such previously unissued tracks as Winterlong and the Springfield-era Down To The Wire, he wound up in Nashville, returning to the mellow pastorale of Harvest with Comes A Time (1978). As if refuting the amour fou of Like A Hurricane, the album was a serene, unruffled affair, full of soft guitars and wise ruminations that appealed to almost as many people as Harvest had done. But anyone who thought Young might have attained lasting Peace Of Mind (as one of the tracks was called) was deluding himself: Barely had Comes A Time appeared when he was off and running in precisely the opposite direction.
The opposite direction this time took the form of punk rock, which attracted him almost to the degree that it annoyed and alarmed the majority of his contemporaries. As he told one interviewer, "As soon as I heard them saying, God, what the fuck is this... this is going to be over in three months, I knew it was a sure sign right there that they're going to bite it if they don't watch it." The difference between Young and his LA peers was that he could instantly 'punkify' a pre-punk song such as Sedan Delivery in a way they would never have been able to do. Not that he opted to record a punk album as such: indeed, he chose an acoustic song, Thrasher, to hammer the final nails into the coffins of his "lost companions" Crosby, Stills & Nash. But taken as a whole, Rust Never Sleeps was the perfect way for Young to reinvent himself at the end of his decade as the Artist Of The '70s.
Divided between acoustic and electric sides, Rust was not only a collection of great songs (My My, Hey Hey, Pocahontas, Powderfinger), it was also implicitly a statement about rock'n'roll and what the hell "rock'n'roll" meant after 25 years. Punk seemed to have rejuvenated Young's own belief in the power of music, as well as made him resolve not to let the "rust" creep over him: "It's better to burn out / Than to fade away", is the now (in)famous phrase. The king was gone but not forgotten, said Young, rock'n'roll was now as much "the story of Johnny Rotten" as it was the story of Elvis Presley. The point was made even more unequivocally in Rust Never Sleeps, the concert film shot at San Francisco's Cow Palace in October 1978. With its giant amplifiers and hooded roadies/"road-eyes", and its use of announcements from the soundtrack to Woodstock, the film questioned the legacy of rock culture while acknowledging its continuing role as modern ritual. With Young looking younger and healthier than he'd looked in years, the performance captured a man at the peak of his powers and convictions. When the set climaxed in the full-on electric reprise of Hey Hey, My My ("Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?" Young now asked), he looked every inch The Artist Of The '70s.
Watching Rust Never Sleeps again in 1994, one question naggingly presents itself. If Kurt Cobain's use of the "burn out/fade away" phrase in his histrionic suicide note has persuaded Young never to include the song again in his live repertoire, does that mean he's now resigned to fading away? The truth is, he probably will do exactly that, and it'll be the perfect antidote to rock's self-fulfilling fantasy of self-destruction. Rock'n'roll will never die, but that doesn't mean that its heroes have to.
In a sense, young answered his own question when - in the terms posed in his bootlegged 1974 song Love/Art Blues - he chose the love of his wife and tragically-handicapped baby son over the suffering-for-art which has burnt out so many restless seekers. For Young, that meant "shutting the door on my music" for the best part of a decade, hiding behind disguises and reactionary stances. Yet when he re-emerged, it was as the exe-wielding grizzly of Freedom and Weld - the indisputable Godfather Of Grunge.
The Bronx-born manager met the Canadian folk-rocker in Laurel Canyon,
parkinga three-decade alliance that was to revolutionize the sound of the West Coast.
Few other artist/manager relationships have endured as long as the one between Neil Young and Elliot Roberts. It is nearly 30 years since the lanky, shambling singer first knocked on Roberts's Laurel Canyon door and suggested he manage him as a solo artist. Nor has the former Elliot Rabinowitz forgotten that it was Young, along with his first charge Joni Mitchell, who helped him to establish a decisive foothold in the LA rock community of the early '70s.
Like David Geffen, his partner in the formidable management company they established in 1970, Roberts was a graduate of the legendary William Morris mailroom in New York. But it was a young Canadian folk singer who proved to be Roberts's passport out of the Bronx of his boyhood. Living in Greenwich Village, Elliot heard Joni Mitchell singing one night at the Cafe A Go Go and made up his mind there and then to dedicate his life to furthering her career. "I told her I'd kill for here, even though the folk period had died and she was totally against the grain," he says. "We tried every company in New York, and everyone turned her down." By 1967 the pair of them were living in the new pop mecca of Los Angeles - "strangers in a strange land", as Mitchell recalled - and David Crosby was producing her debut album across the hall from Buffalo Springfield at Sunset Sound studios.
Already in disarray at this point, the Springfield were in the process of severing ties with their existing managers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone. It was only a matter of time before they approached Roberts and asked him to help them sort out their differences. When Young stormed out of the preliminary meeting to discuss this, it turned out to be a pretext for his leaving the band and persuading Roberts to manage him solo.
Roberts rapidly found himself at the hub of the coalescing Laurel Canyon scene, consisting of equal parts country-rock bands and confessional singer-songwriters.
"Here I am looking after Neil, and in the meantime I'm making Crosby's deals, and everyone from Donovan to Mick Jagger is coming down to Joni's sessions. Then Graham Nash comes to town with The Hollies, so Joni and Steve Stills and I go, and that night we invite Graham back to Joni's house for this singfest. It was all so fast." So fast, indeed, that Roberts saw no option but to call his razor-sharp agent pal David Geffen to sort out the various deals which led to the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
One night the two men were driving through Laurel Canyon when Geffen turned to Roberts and said, "Listen, let's just do this". It was the start of the Geffen-Roberts empire, one which would take in the formation of the Asylum label and the signing of such hugely successful acts as Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles. "We were very fortunate in that Joni and Neil drew great people to them like a magnet," Roberts remembers. "They were totally uninterested in fame and money, yet they knew they were great artists, even when they were failing miserably."
Asylum Records was literally that: an asylum for the ladies and gentlemen of the Canyon, most of them having affairs with each other and writing songs about them. The scene may have been incestuous but it undeniably produced some of the best music of the '70s. "Jackson was up the block, Joni was two houses down, Zappa lived on the corner," says Roberts. "We really did all walk to the Canyon Country Store, smoking a joint together along Lookout Mountain Road." What no-one could have anticipated was just how big these artists would become. From The Eagles scuffling at the Troubadour club in 1972 to The Eagles selling out vast arenas four years later was nothing short of a quantum jump.
The Geffen-Roberts empire was eventually broken up, with Irving 'The Poison Dwarf' Azoff making off with The Eagles and Geffen himself trying his luck in the movie business before launching the even more obscenely successful Geffen label in the early '80s. Even Joni Mitchell changed management in the '80s, entrusting her career to James Taylor/Linda Ronstadt producer Peter Asher. Only Neil Young stuck with the man whose taste and vision were so instrumental in shaping the sound of West Coast rock in the '70s.
"Neil and I still have screaming fights all the time," says Roberts, whose appearance suggests Woody Allen after 25 years in the warm California sun. "People were always very afraid of Neil, but he was actually very frail. He's not any more, because he's been training for years and he's beefed up to 165 and he's an axe murderer. But he sort of glared at people and they'd freeze. He was so intense, nothing was casual. But I never think of him as a Lone Wolf, because he's a good friend and he's very funny. And he's very gracious. He likes to fail. He's had a lot of bad breaks, bad relationships, and they've all affected what he does. It's not like the art is separate from the life, it's one and the same with Neil. He's always Neil."
Driven, Drunken, Dramatic
Tonight's The Night. The story of Neil Young's finest album by John Bauldie
At the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in November 1973, Neil Young played a stormy, chaotic, scary show. It took everyone there by surprise. Shambolic and brilliant, it was the kind of "you had to be there" rock'n'roll experience that comes along only once in a lifetime. I'll tell you about it. But first, a little background.
In January 1973, Neil Young's first UK visit in two years was advertised: shows in London and Manchester featuring the Stray Gators, the musicians who'd backed Young on Harvest, scheduled for May. Three weeks later, the tour was abruptly cancelled.
The previous November, when rehearsals for the tour began, original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten had been recruited to toughen up the sound. But by now, Danny was a junkie and in bad shape. Maybe Young thought that a new challenge might help Whitten overcome his heroin addiction, but when he showed up it was immediately clear it wasn't going to work. "He just couldn't cut it," Young told Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe later. "He couldn't remember anything. He was too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to LA... He just said, I've got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends? He split."
Danny Whitten was driven to the airport with $50 pocket money. He spent it on heroin.
"That night the coroner called me from LA," Young recalled. "And told me he OD'd. That blew my mind... I loved Danny."
Neil Young brooded for weeks on the death of his friend.
Then, in the summer of 1973, a second blow. Crosby Stills and Nash roadie Bruce Berry died, another victim of heroin.
The deaths hit Young hard. As a kind of personal therapy, he found himself writing a series of new songs, crazed songs of people in situations they couldn't control. A couple written earlier in the year, Borrowed Tune and Look Out Joe, were also recalled. In mid-August, Young summoned Crazy Horse to Topanga, broke open a few crates of Jose Cuerva and then they played as live and as loud as they ever had, recording nine songs in two sessions.
"What we were doing was playing these guys on their way. We all got that high - not that high, but we got as close as we could," he told Bud Scoppa in 1975. "I mean, I'm not a junkie and I won't ever try it out to check out what it's like. But we'd drink a lot of tequila, get right out on the edge, where we knew we were so screwed up that we could easily just fall on our faces. But we were wide open also at that time. So we'd just wait until the middle of the night until the vibe hit us and just do it..."
Those driven, drunken tracks would subsequently appear on Tonight's The Night, Neil Young's darkest, livest, most dramatic, most moving, most exciting album of all. Originally sequenced with various inebriated mumblings between the songs, the version which was finally released did not appear for a further two years...
It's unlikely that many in the audience had heard about the Tonight's The Night sessions when Neil Young finally arrived in Manchester on November 3, 1973. They did know, however, that Crazy Horse was going to play with Nils Lofgren on lead, so were prepared for a good-humoured, rock'n'rollicking time. The Palace was humming with expectancy. On the murky stage was a decrepit old piano, with what appeared to be battered boots hanging from it; a wooden Indian figure and, way downstage, a full-size fake palm tree. When Young stumbled out of the darkness and into the gloom, he looked wrecked - greasy hair hanging lank and heavy over his shoulders, unkempt beard, a soiled white jacket, dark sunglasses. Then came the first brooding notes of Tonight's The Night, the heart-rending songs about the life and death of Bruce Berry: "I picked up the telephone," Neil Young hollered, "and heard that he died out on the mainline..."
The effect was shocking. When the song ended, the tentative applause very quickly subsided, and the theatre was suddenly deathly silent. Young spoke: "Welcome to Miami Beach, ladies and gentlemen. Everything's cheaper than it looks." Then turning to a roadie he called, "Let's have a little sun on that palm, BJ!" BJ tugged a string hanging from the tree and a 60-watt bulb shone dimly down. "No expense is spared tonight, ladies and gentlemen," Young said, turning again to face the audience, who laughed nervously, pleased to be offered some light relief. Then in a tortured, strangled voice, he began to scream out another unheard song, Mellow My Mind.
By the time he'd croaked through World On A String and Speakin' Out, those who had come to hear pleasant folky melodies such as Heart Of Gold were growing restless. The heckling began: "Play something good!" someone in the front stalls shouted. "Let's hear some Nils Lofgren songs!" cried an Irish voice from the dress circle. "Shut the fuck up!" came a voice from the gods. But the show went on, 50 minutes of raucous, disturbing, totally unfamiliar material. It was a crazy, provocative thing for any performer to do to any audience, and Young knew it.
"These songs are all going to be out on a record in three or four months - January or something," he explained as the barracking continued. "Hope it comes soon," he added wryly, after the most strung-out, melancholic song of them all, a death-weary Tired Eyes. Tonight's The Night itself was played for a second time, more frantically, more passionately. And then he was gone.
It probably would have been the boldest, craziest thing of all for him to have left it there, but he took a break and came back to play a selection of better-known stuff and won back the crowd in the end, but before he could begin, with a delicate, acoustic version of Flying On The Ground Is Wrong, he'd had to stifle further audience disruption: "If you can get back to where you were two years ago," he yelled at the barrackers, "I'll get back to where I was..."
Into Alien Territory
"If an idea makes me laugh, I know it's a good one." After he'd delivered albums of synth burp, rockabilly, chart-pomp and faux-woodsmoke romanticism, the record company sued. Neil Young's restless decade by David Fricke
It was a defining moment in Neil Young's career - in his so-called 'lost' decade, anyway. And I missed it.
Thank God for bootleg tapes.
Actually, I had a few good reasons for being elsewhere. It was an outdoor gig - a pier-side affair on the concrete shores of the grimly fragrant Hudson River - prefaced by a violent rainstorm which had done nothing to relieve the steamy late-summer funk that had settled over New York City. And the show itself was one of dubious promise: Young with a crack wheatfield-soul band, the International Harvesters, but peddling the cloying, cornpone minstrelsy of Old Ways, a record of faux-woodsmoke romanticism and faint Harvest echoes that even Young, in later years, would repudiate as a distorted reflection of its original spirit.
I didn't care much for it either. The night of the show I stayed home and listened to On The Beach and Live Rust. The next day, the only thing Young obsessives could talk about - albeit in tongues - was the encore, a long, corrosive and wholly unexpected revisit to Down By The River.
Almost ten years later, I've finally got a tape of that September '85 performance and am stunned by what I'd missed. On guitar, Young is in top fuzzbox-marauder mode; his solo breaks are manic chorales of bull-elephant groans, harpy shrieks and wrecking-ball clatter. The Harvesters, although lacking the native garage-rock moxy of Crazy Horse, gamely clamber up to speed, challenging the warrior tone of Young's guitar with their own rowdy, back-40 touches: agitated honky-tonk piano, campfire background howls and, in the mad peaking of the chorus, the beeswarm sawing of Rufus Thibodeaux's fiddle.
Hearing that tape now in the broader context of young's most contentious work - that recorded body of '80s weirdness beginning with the synth-burp Trans and including Old Ways, the greasy '50s kids stuff on Everybody's Rockin' and the AOR chart-pomp of Landing On Water - is also to understand how easy it is to mistake the records for the man, to confuse the permanence of the music inscribed on an album with the more fluid course of human events and art.
Most of Young's fans are happy now to write off that commercially disastrous stretch of his career as some rock and roll variation on the male menopause. That night in New York, playing Down By The River, Young ran the risk of perverting one of his best-loved songs with the wrong kind of band and feeling. Actually, he was just showing how much true country soul he'd always put into his rock'n'roll (there's enough sex, murder and remorse in Down By The River to give Johnny Cash the shivers) and how little he really cared for judgement-by-genre. In other words, for Young it was business as usual.
Ultimately, Neil Young's '80s are not about what's on those records. They're about what's not on the records, those onstage moments and unreleased songs that filled in the apparent gaps between the electro-pop zigs and roots-abilly zags. Young admitted as much on his own CD reconstruction of that period, the 1993 Geffen days compilation Lucky Thirteen (and deftly subtitled in fine print Excursions Into Alien Territory, a double-play on both the music and his adversarial relationship with the label). More than half of the album features previously unissued material, including live recordings with Crazy Horse, Young's pseudo-Crickets combo the Shocking Pinks and his 1988 brass-balls R&B revue the Bluenotes.
I have quite a few entries in my own Neil Young tour diary and bootleg file to offer. Such as the night with Crazy Horse at Wembley Arena in June 1987, when he knocked the stuffing out of Opera Star from re*ac*tor climaxing five consecutive breaks of scalding solo guitar with an armageddon feedback finale that would have sent J. Mascis scurrying for shelter. Or the April 1988 New York unveiling of the Bluenotes, in which tinges of Harvest melancholy were reconfigured with sorrowful Stax horn chorales. Or the 20 minutes that Young devoted most nights on the subsequent summer and fall Bluenotes shows to Ordinary People, an extra-ordinary Desolation Row-style epic ballad scored with doleful brass choruses and scorched-earth lead guitar. Young says he's saving that one for the big, long-promised, life's-story box set; it should have been released years ago.
And then there was the brilliant future blues exhibition of early '83, a confounding juxtaposition of stark solo acoustic vespers (The Old Laughing Lady, Revolution Blues, a little banjo ballad to his son Ben called My Boy) and the Trans-fired electro-sabotaging of Buffalo Springfield's Mr. Soul, with the author trading Vocoder vocals with a huge video-projection of himself, and scarring the seamless synth-thump of the backing tapes with the real-time shriek of his electric guitar. At Madison Square Garden, the After The Gold Rush crowd practically choked on their Maui Wowie; my wife, who has an almost homicidal distaste for folkies, was simply wowed. It was art, it was fun, it was loud. And it was hilarious. When writer Cameron Crowe asked Young in 1979 about the difficulty in choosing which of his artistic impulses to follow, Young cracked back "I only follow the ones I get. And if it makes me laugh... I know it's a good one."
It makes you wonder what the legal wizards at Geffen Records were thinking when they sued Young in the mid-'80s for delivering to the label what they termed "unrepresentative" records. Unrepresentative of what? The only thing more surprising about the arrival in late '82 of Trans - certainly the strangest-sounding record Young has ever made (on three of the nine tracks, he doesn't even sing in his natural voice) - was the revelation several years later that Young's first album for Geffen was supposed to be an acoustic folk-pop record called Island In The Sun. (Trans's two token "straight" tracks, Little Thing Called Love and Hold On To Your Love, had been originally recorded for that project). Young, to his subsequent chagrin, took this as an encouraging word, a nudge into outer limits.
The hard rain of rejection sobered him up quickly. Old Ways, as it was first conceived, was literally Harvest Revisited, an elegant revocation of the folk-pop craft and prairie-salon romanticism of both the original 1972 best-seller and its 1978 sister record, Comes A Time. Geffen, Young later complained, rejected the album "as too country". The official MK11 version was Young's revenge, a country record so orthodox in its rote Nashville packaging (the Nudie-style glimmer of the pedal steel'n'strings) and delivery (five of the songs were duets with Waylon Jennings) that it was hard to tell the craft from the cowpie. Young might have shot himself in the foot, but Geffen Records had a loaded gun handy.
The mistake most people make in assessing Young's rollercoaster ride through the decade is to assume that he first hit ignition with Trans. In fact, his first appearance on record in the 1980s was a damp-gag reading of Home On The Range for the soundtrack of the dismal Hunter Thompson bio-pic Where The Buffalo Roam. Within 18 months he'd polarized critics and fans with both Hawks and Doves, a mixed-blessing of socio-political ambivalence and country-folk schizophrenia, and the proto-grunge grenade re*ac*tor, 10 minutes of which was devoted to the locomotive idiot-mantra "Got mashed potatoes / Ain't got no T-Bone". Anyone expecting Young to sleepwalk through the next 10 years to the tune of Heart Of Gold or Southern Man would have done well to go back and consult the exhaustive '79 interview with Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone. "People don't understand sometimes how I can come in and go out so fast," Young remarked "how I can be there and want to do something and then when it's over, it's over. To other people, it's just beginning."
But, he insisted at the end, "I've got a job to do. The '80s are here. I've got to just tear down whatever has happened to me and build something new. You can only have it for so long before you don't have it any more. You become an old-timer... which... I could be... I don't know."
There was always method and emotional root behind his apparent madness, even on Trans. In 1988 he told Rolling Stone that Trans was the result of his "fascination with machines and computers taking over our lives. The image of elevator doors with digital numbers changing and people going up and down the floors - you know, people changing levels all under the control of a machine. And drum machines, the whole thing. And here I was, like an old hippy out in the woods, with all this electronic equipment."
There was also his second son, Ben, a toddler at the time, afflicted with severe cerebral palsy and learning to communicate with his dad and the outside world with the aid of electronic devices. In deliberately distorting his voice and wiping the music clean of familiar instrumental references, Young made a graphic point about alienation and connection. A bit too graphic, as it turned out.
As commercial suicide goes, 1983's Everybody's Rockin', recorded with a mixed crew of Stray Gators and International Harvesters trading as the Shocking Pinks, was a work of intrepid genius - real spit-in-your-eye stuff, but not without honest precedent. Neil Young knew his hillbilly bop and surf'n'roll twang by heart, not proxy. He'd already recorded the real thing back in Winnipeg in the early '60s with The Squires. I gave Everybody's Rockin' a four-star review when it was released and still don't begrudge Young a single one of them. I don't play the album much any more - OK, hardly at all - but I believe that in rock'n'roll attitude is at least seven tenths of the law and, hell, there was enough spunky singing and playing to cover the rest of the equation.
Payola Blues, dedicated to the disgraced pioneer DJ Alan Freed ("The things they're doing today will make a saint out of you"), was also the first in a series of crackshot invectives - Prisoners Of Rock & Roll, This Note's For You, Rockin' In The Free World - fired over the next few years at the cynics and breadheads that had, in Young's vigilant estimation, betrayed the spirit and conscience of the music. It was a snort of defiance grounded in autobiographical bitterness: "If a man is making music / They oughta let his records play." Or videos, he might have added later. I still remember quite vividly the look of tight-lipped disbelief on young's face, back-stage after a show at the Palladium in New York in 1989, when he was handed the MTV moonman statuette - Video Of The Year, no less - for This Note's For You; a clip that gleefully mocked corporate sponsorship and, by name and face, the artists who took the money, and which had originally been reflected by skittish MTV programmers in the flimsy name of "trademark infringement". Even after he won the award, they never did play the whole thing.
I should probably say more about the last two Geffen albums, Landing On Water (1986) and Life (1987). The former actually spawned a near-hit single, Touch The Night, the closest Young had ever come to genuine AOR banality, while Life, mostly recorded live with Crazy Horse (and then tarted up in the studio), was a decent dry run for the white-noise charms of 1990's Ragged Glory and the deafening Arc-Weld '91 tour souvenir. Oh, yeah, there was a forgettable Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young record in there somewhere too, American Dream.
But it was all part of one long, hard push to Freedom, the 1989 end-of-term report that reconsidered and reconciled every hard turn, musically and otherwise, that he'd taken with a power and grace not heard since Rust Never Sleeps a full ten years earlier. In '84, Young had endured major heat for his presidential endorsement of Ronald Reagan. "I related to (his) original concept of big government and federal programs fading away so that communities could handle their own programs like day care," Young explained. "I thought it would bring people together." By the time of Freedom, Young had put his own shoulder to the wheel - initiating an annual series of benefit concerts for the Bridge School, a Bay Area learning facility for the handicapped - and seen the terrible fallout of broken Reagan-Bush promises: "We got a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand."
The only people who still complain about Neil Young's messy '80s are those who over-rely on him as a surviving totem of '60s idealism and a model for noble celebrity. When he succeeds, we celebrate; when he screws up, we take it personally. Neil Young has never taken his audience for granted; he's always expected the same in return. And he's always been willing to fight for his right to roam. Freely.
There is a particularly telling anecdote in that '79 Rolling Stone interview: a dark, funny tale about Young getting picked on by school bullies up in Whinnipeg and scoring top marks in vengeance by whacking one of the goons with a hefty Webster's dictionary in full view of his teacher and class. Knocked the guy out cold, too.
"Yeah, I got expelled for a day and a half," Young recalled, "but I let those people know just where I was at. That's the way I fight. If you're going to fight you may as well fight to wipe who or whatever it is out. Or don't fight at all."
"A few years later, I just felt it," he added. "All of a sudden I wanted a guitar and that was it."
That, in short, is the Restless Years: no quitting, no apology, no regrets. You should fuck up so good.
A Heretic Writes
"Coming to the conclusion that he was a second-rank artist scared the hell out of even a veteran heretic like myself." Neil Young unpraised by Dave Marsh
I didn't fall off the Neil Young bandwagon, I was pushed. But since it was Neil himself - or rather, his music - that pushed me, a lot of people saw it more of a case of me jumping off and trying to pull the whole cart over at the same time. My old Rolling Stone pal, Paul Nelson, an exceptionally mild-mannered fellow (for a guy who owned a .44 Magnum), came near to slugging me when he learned what I'd written about Young in the second edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock And Roll. Nelson believed Young equated with Jimi Hendrix (reincarnated as a folkie or something). I'd concluded that Young was, at best, the world's greatest Dylan imitator, but nevertheless, a second-rank artist.
To tell you the truth, coming to that conclusion scared the hell out of even a veteran heretic like myself. Time Fades Away and Tonight's The Night made me a Neil Young fan. Zuma had a heart of gold. Decade struck me (as it still does) as a brilliant act of rock criticism, Young cherry-picking his oeuvre to make the most believable self-mythology he could construct.
Unfortunately, writing the Young chapter meant paying equal attention to the parts of his musical career that he'd edited out, including such mediocrities as his Stephen Stills collaboration, the wimpy Comes A Time and the wildly uneven American Stars 'N Bars. Spend a couple of weeks really saturated in Young's work up to Rust Never Sleeps, and you'll come to the same conclusion: he's less diverse than erratic, his stylistic changes the result of lack of commitment rather than successful eclecticism. His singing never gave me a problem - that high, thin tone evokes Skip James, one of the great Delta bluesmen - but the perfect heartless pitch of accompanists like Nicolette Larson (the worst) and Linda Ronstadt suggested a certain opportunism. In the end, reconciling Young's rock'n'roll with his spineless country-pop proved impossible - and not only for me, since the man himself has never been able to combine the two into anything convincing.
Beyond style lay an equal problem with substance. Young's vaunted guitar-playing, which gave off sparks when he first came to it on Time Fades Away, never went anywhere. On Rust Never Sleeps he's still playing the same dirty, distorted riffs he was playing on Tonight's The Night and Zuma. This ranks as rock classicism only if you truly believe that what were once vices should become habits. Crazy Horse, the world's most over-rated backup group (as even Young periodically admits), suffered from all Young's problems, only more so. True, from moment to moment, the tension between Young and Crazy Horse could kick up some of the same primitive energy as the best of punk.
Finally, then, Young's reputation rests on his lyrics. He's certainly the hardest rocking of the singer-songwriters, and his apocalyptic world view coincides more closely to post-punk tastes than any other rocker of his generation. But simply brooding about the end of the world doesn't justify calling Young a visionary. His narrative songs, like Ambulance Blues, Cortez The Killer and Powderfinger, repeat themselves without resolving into a coherent picture. His social instincts have always been fundamentally reactionary: it is not very far from "It's better to burn out than to fade away" (probably the one lyric in rock'n'roll that I hate the most, something I was saying well before Kurt Cobain used it as an excuse) to Young's endorsement of Ronald Reagan - either temporarily (about a year) or philosophically. Ronnie Van Zont had the self-satisfied liberalism of Southern Man pegged 100 per cent correctly, and with the usual latter-day reactionary consequences, which is one reason I never trusted the self-satisfied liberalism of This Note's For You. (Though MTV banning it in the States was kinda cool).
Young has also written music of great compassion. The verse about roadie Bruce Berry in Tonight's The Night, and the way it's sung, can break your heart 20 years later; Helpless and The Needle And The Damage Done still haunt me; Rockin' In The Free World made a brave statement at a time when it was sorely needed. But again, these are fragments. Young lacks the coherent, consistent world view that marks the greatest artist, in rock or anywhere else. Those with a greater taste for perversity than I possess may consider Trans, re*ac*tor, Life and the other lazy, quasi-experimental noise gratifying. For the rest of us, they're just a waste - of Young's talent and his audience's time and attention.
What's changed in the 15 years since I wrote that debunking historical analysis isn't Neil Young's music, which remains the same convoluted, somewhat inscrutable mess. It's Young's mythic significance, his stature as an icon of anti-commercial rebellion. If you're willing to ignore his weaknesses, his strengths seem overwhelming.
However, people who operate off such a partial perspective aren't called critics or historians. They're fans. Book me for not being one, if you will, but I'd advise against trying to marshal the evidence that second-level remains anything other than an accurate assessment of what Neil Young has accomplished.
These Notes Aren't For You
Alan Jenkins of the Neil Young Appreciation Society selects 25 songs that you'd really like, if only you had a chance to hear them.
1. The Rent Is Always Due
2. Find Another Shoulder
3. Love Hotel
4. Evening Coconut
5. There Goes My Babe
6. Bad Fog Of Loneliness
7. Pushed It Over The End
8. Amber Jean
9. Bad News
10. It Might Have Been
11. Lady Wingshot
12. Sweet Joni
13. Johnny Ride On
15. Hawaiian Sunrise
16. Nothing Is Perfect
18. Day And Night We Walk These Aisles
19. Grey Riders
20. Everybody's Alone
21. No One Seems To Know
23. Give Me Strength
24. Sixty To Zero
25. Ordinary People
Out Of The Black
The fog of personal tragedy and confusion lifts, and The Godfather Of Grunge emerges to due respect. By Ben Thompson
"Last night I dreamt I kissed Neil Young / If I was a boy I guess it would be fun." Sonic Youth, Creme Brulee, 1992.
It's not so much a moment with Neil: one song on which the needle goes down or the disc clicks in and your heart lifts, though he has recorded a hundred such songs. With Neil it's more a feeling that the sound of him taps you into, a feeling at once thrilling and melancholy, of being completely distanced from the world at the same time as being right in the middle of it.
The keeper of the flame; the guardian of the sacred flannel shirt; the living embodiment of everything about rock'n'roll which might be good: Neil Young is all these and more. Some people know this instinctively, others come to realize it only after an extended period of forcible indoctrination by better-informed friends. Either way, for those born too late to experience his wayward genius as it happened the first time around, Young's creative renaissance since the late '80s (five great albums in as many years - stitch that, Stephen Stills) has been a blessing from the skies.
Maybe he just didn't want to be left out. It can't be a coincidence that Neil came in from the cold just as a new generation of scruffy guitar bands were preparing to board a raft made out of his old furniture and sail into the mainstream. But the enticingly straightforward conventional wisdom about his return from self-imposed obscurity - a fog of personal tragedy and confusion lifts and the Godfather Of Grunge emerges to get his respect - fails to do justice to the complexity of what happened.
Ironies abound in the Young comeback saga. The song which began to re-establish him in the eyes and ears of the American public was This Note's For You, an infectiously simple-minded anti-commercial rant, whose success was largely built on a promotional video with MTV - one of the main objects of Young's satirical intentions in the first place - first banned and then took to its steely heart.
The record company which benefited most spectacularly from the Young-inspired rock revival was the one owned by former CS&N manager and ultimate post-hippy capitalist David Geffen, which Neil had to leave in order to get good again and which sued him for 'making unrepresentative music'. And the new band whose free spirit seemed most in tune with Young's, Nirvana, never publicly acknowledged his influence (though they were quite happy to rabbit on about The Melvins) until Kurt Cobain's suicide note quoted the now notorious lyrics from My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue): "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Neil, whose career would seem to be living proof that it is possible neither to burn out nor fade away, and who had tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Kurt shortly before his death, was left to sorrowfully strike the song from his set-list.
Growing up in England (and, at a guess, in America too) after punk, the image of Young as the ultimate old hippy was deeply ingrained. This was in fact grossly unfair, as Neil was actually the only rocker to come out of punk with his integrity uncompromised - Johnny Rotten had angered Malcolm McLaren by playing Neil Young records on Capital Radio, in return Young signaled his empathy with My My, Hey Hey ("The king is gone but not forgotten / This is the story of a Johnny Rotten") - but his early and mid-'80s recordings didn't do much to shake this misapprehension. If punk rock took a decade to break in American, it took Neil Young the same time to pick up his marker.
While Neil spent the '80s wandering in the rockabilly electric wilderness, a new generation was cutting its musical teeth on second-hand copies of Decade, perhaps the most persuasive argument ever made in favour of long hair and hanging around in the desert with your guitar case. Young's first reaction to 1989's tribute album, The Bridge, which featured respectful assaults on his back catalogue by, among others, Dinosaur Jr, the Pixies and Sonic Youth, was that he 'wasn't ready to be embalmed'. The savage and monumental live track LP Eldorado triumphantly proved his point, but - elusive as ever - Young released in on Japanese import only, making it too expensive for any sane person to buy. Not having had a top 20 album in 10 years he didn't want to frighten people, so Freedom, the record which finally emerged in 1989, was a compromise. But what a compromise! Between the madness of Don't Cry and the beauty of Hangin' On A Limb, a new world opened up, or rather the old Young world opened up again.
Rockin' In The Free World, the theme song which, in familiar Rust Never Sleeps fashion, opened and closed the album, even gave Neil an unlikely handle on the zeitgeist (he would later over-crank this spectacularly with his justly notorious Mandela concert feedback orgy). He played a brilliant one-off acoustic show at the Hammersmith Odeon, which had sold out before the date was even officially announced. I know this because I was outside, desperately endeavouring to persuade members of the touting community that the 50 Pounds I had with me would make a fair exchange for two tickets. They were not convinced and, in retrospect, they were probably right.
1990's superb Ragged Glory saw Young reclaiming his dumb '60s garage roots, keeping company with the inspirationally clod-hopping Crazy Horse again, and shunning social comment to sing of the joy of multiple home-ownership. F*!*in' Up was a master-stroke. And with a little help from the Gulf War, the Spinal Tap-rooted Smell The Horse tour was transformed into a stunningly ambivalent apocalypse. The tour never came to Britain, but the very electric live album Weld did, and there was a bonus in the alarming shape of Arc - Young's cochlea-warping 35 minutes 'compilation composition' of feedback and shouting, released at the suggestion of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.
Perhaps realizing that he could not go a lot further in this direction, Young made Harvest Moon; the mellow, fruitful successor to Harvest and After The Gold Rush which Reprise had waited 20 years for. I got ton interview him. It was in no way a disappointment. Neil was wearing a horrendous, fringed brown leather jacket, a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, jeans and an outlandish pair of white sports shoes. He didn't seem at all mad, just very affable in a grizzly kind of way. On the point of releasing his most commercial album in several eons, his only concern was to rubbish the way it had been recorded. "With analogue recording," he insisted, "the moment used to be captured. When they got digital they concentrated on removing all the flaws, and forgot about preserving the sound. You can reproduce it and it never loses its quality; the only problem is, it never had the quality in the first place."
When he finally got around to talking about Harvest Moon itself, he described it, aptly, as an album of "songs about hanging on and trying to make things last, and being able to reach back into the past and take it with you, rather than having to abandon it". This was exactly what Young himself was up to with 1993's Unplugged; not just giving his back catalogue the once over for the sake of a new audience, but picking out landmarks familiar (Like A Hurricane) and not so familiar (Transformer Man, from the much-feared Trans), and making them new and beautiful again.
In the summer of last year Young finally got round to playing in Britain again, with a scratch band called Booker T & The MGs he'd picked up at 1992's Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute. Their Dock Of The Bay, with Neil singing "I left my home in Canada, headed for the 'Frisco Bay" and hamming the whistling bit on his harmonica, was one of the loveliest things I have ever heard.
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