'You're All Just Pissing In the Wind'
by Ian MacDonald
Right now, Neil Young is in kind of an invidious position. On The Beach is his equivalent of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album in terms of being a reaction to, and rejection of, his earlier work but, whereas Lennon's change was gradual (starting, really, from "Help!"), Young has made his artistic stock-in-trade the investigation of personal pain from the very beginning.
Thus, that an album as bleak and miserable-sounding as On The Beach has been preceded by no less than six other albums almost all equally bleak and miserable-sounding can easily obscure the fact that the record represents a departure; Indeed, even if people were to credit Young with doing something vaguely new in On The Beach, a lot of them would be fairly justified in dismissing his "new" bleakness as a bleaker version of the one they... er, already knew and loved.
And that's the catch, really.
In our July 20 issue, Steve Clarke attacked On The Beach as too negative, too self-pitying - "whichever way you look at it, a depressing record. It's a downer in that depression is the mood which most of the LP evokes.
"But it's also depressing because Neil Young isn't writing as well as he used to ... and he and the rest of the musicians on On The Beach aren't playing as well as in former days."
Steve's a devotee of Neil Young. Probably knows the man's work in twice the careful detail that I do. I'm not a Young devotee. I could never totally accept his employment of self-pity as a creative focus. Sometimes, I felt it a shade dishonest or manufactured (e.g.: "Tell Me Why"); other times the whole thing got just a little too deliciously lush (e.g.: "When You Dance I Can Really Love").
In NME for August 3, reader Mike Gormley called Steve to task for criticizing the "mood" of the album at the expense of objective evaluation of the songs and performances it contained.
"The mood of an album," wrote Mike, "From my admittedly subjective point of view, provides no foundation for criticism... the man is, after all, only putting words to sensations we all feel at one time or other."
The criticism of a critical process which Steve may or may not have used is, I think, obviously fair. It's the second half of the statement I find curious. Yes, Young has earned a reasonable living out of making some successful artistic statements (for money) about "sensations we all feel at one time or other". But isn't that a shade dubious as an artist/\audience deal? "I'm miserable-but-I-can-make-it-sound-pretty-with-my-songs" pays "I-like-to-hum-along-to-your-songs-about-misery-cos-I-probably-quite-fancy-it-myself".
Like Leonard Cohen. A sugared pill just the correct distance into commerciality to be still believable. And that could be the main reason why the majority of Neil Young fans won't get into On The Beach. The pill is no longer sugared - either by Sweet Melody or by garlands of poesies. Instead, we have three varieties of 12-bar blues, one real primitive back-country number, and lines like "You're all just pissing in the wind / You don't know it but you are." Young has, quite simply, welched on the deal.
Which, in turn, suggests he's Woken Up.
At the beginning, I slipped an assumption on you when you weren't looking - that On The Beach isn't, as previously interpreted, the fag-end of Neil Young's romance with rejection, but actually a quite positive piece of work in the Merciless Realism bracket of Lennon's primal period.
How else you account for the reportedly totally revived Young now touring the States with CSN&Y, I don't know - but it's now up to me to provide the documentary evidence from the album itself. An album that - for me - seems clearly to be Neil Young's best so far.
The first thing you've got to do when encountering On The Beach is to forget about "developments" and "consequences" and start thinking about cause and effect. Young suggest this only five minutes before the needle's due to come up off the second side, so it's as well to get the relevant verse in mind before giving the record the old once-over.
It goes: "Now all you critics sit alone / You're no better than me for all you've shown / With your stomach-pumps and your hook-and-ladder dreams / We could together for some scenes."
To imagine that one album (by anyone) is necessarily a development or a consequence of the one - or ones - that preceded it, is to be the victim of a "hook-and-ladder dream". Things just don't work like that. Life has its ups and downs, etc. And to wish Young to return to his previous "listenability", to bring back the melodies and the poesie, is to offer him - as the recipient of his creativity - nothing more than a "stomach-pump". Which is a little presumptuous.
I agree with Mike Gormley that we've got to give Young the benefit of the doubt - "He knows what he's doing, he'd done beautiful stuff before," that sort of thing - but not for that reason. (Rather, because Young is still The Provider. Without him, we'd have nothing to fight about.)
So what about "cause and effect"? Steve, in his original review, suggested that On The Beach was the result of Young's supposed disenchantment with studio recording. He'd done Time Fades Away "live" and Journey Through The Past was a rag-bag of "live" cuts and studio out-takes; On The Beach was his first serious studio effort since Harvest in 1972.
The supposition is that Young was postponing the inevitable because he knew he couldn't cut it any more. More apparent evidence for this lies in his seeming dither over what the new album would consist of. The title alone changed four times, Young first selecting "Tonight's The Night" (a song he sang on his last tour and which didn't make it to the final selection), then rejecting it in favour of "Human Highway" and vacillating over the odd alternative, "Human High" (odd, that is, in terms of the final album's supposed negativity and depression).
At length, he chose On The Beach, chucked out the material that didn't fit, and recorded what he'd selected over a remarkably short space of time, mostly "live" in the studio.
The "postponement" guess is probably fairly accurate and it supports both cases, that is, if he had no faith in himself any more, he'd hold off - and, if he didn't quite know what he was about to say, he'd hold off just the same. It's still supposition, though. Young's done no interviews to support either interpretation, and probably won't - if I'm reading him right.
On the other hand, if we've "supposed" so far, we might as well keep on supposing.
Suppose Neil Young was getting towards his wits' end, what with all that's expected of him and fatigue and drugs and directionlessness-made-a-virtue and all. Suppose it was time to make a new album and he had the material ready, just like he had six times before, but somehow didn't believe in it any more - didn't believe himself, didn't believe his audience were picking out what he regarded as important in his songs. He's stymied and he's going down fast.
Then something happens that Opens His Eyes. Someone says something to him, something happens - whatever. He suddenly realizes where he is and what he's doing. Perspective. Reality.
He writes a new bunch of songs fast. Out comes On The Beach. Ok, that's "cause and effect" supposed for present purposes. The precise nature of the occurrence which changed Young's head will be looked at later, when we get to "Ambulance Blues". For now, let's keep that supposition in mind and begin looking at the album.
First, the cover...
It shows a beach, sparsely populated with a few folding chairs, a table, a big umbrella (all in patterned colour scheme); a half-buried object that could be a dune-buggie, a rocket, or a dodgem-car; one long, thin palm tree plant in a wooden bucket; and Young himself, hands in pockets, surveying the horizon with his discarded brown city boots beside him (in the ads for the album, he's turned round and is grinning - actually grinning - at the camera. This is supposed to be depressing...?).
You pull out the inner sleeve - two scraps of paper lying in the sand, one for the track listings, one for violinist Rusty Kershaw's strange sleevenote - and you notice that the inside of the outer sleeve (have a squint, if you haven't realized before), is printed on the same patterned colour scheme as the beach furniture.
The design - by R Twerk - is a kind of belated answer to that of George Harrison's Living In The Material World, in which the beatitudinous Beatle sat in the midst of the symbols of his wealth looking puzzled and spiritual.
Young's version is a much more direct joke about the whole material paraphernalia of rock - a jibe at ornate, octagonal, gate-folding 3-D monstrosities in precisely the same way that Kershaw's sleevenote is a joke about sleevenotes, and the deliberate looseness of the playing and raw 30-Watt amp production is a snook cocked at bands prone to using sufficient stage-equipment for six 1963-vintage groups and dressing up their albums with enough quadraphonic over-dubbed, cross-faded, pan-potted warp-drive to launch a starship.
Young's known to be a solitary, in no way enamoured of the superstar existence, and probably pretty bitter about The Business in general. But Neil Young As Satirist? That's surely an unforeseen "development"?
"Walk On" walks the album on. Gently rocking, very "live" sound, but very clear, too. At once we get Perspective: "I remember the good old days, stayed up all night getting crazed / Then the money was not so good, but we still did the best we could."
And, straight after, we get the Reality available from that vantage-point: "Oh baby that's hard to change / I can't tell them how to feel / Some get strong, some get strange / Sooner or later it all gets real / Walk on."
Say the person he's talking to here is his current lady, Carrie ("Motion Pictures", on Side Two, is dedicated to her), and the "them" in question is Young's audience. Ze pieces begin to fit together, hein?
Still, the nature of the perspective still seems blurred. When Young sings, "I hear some people have been talking me down / Bring up my name, pass it round / They don't mention the happy times / They do their thing and I do mine," it sounds a shade close to defensive sentimentality.
But the music's too incisive for that. It comes on like a brief overture to what is to follow - describing, possibly, Young's state of mind at the time when he hadn't yet sussed what it all meant.
The next song (and the third longest on the album, even though it sounds quite short) is "See The Sky About To Rain", dating back to 1971. Now, if my case for On The Beach depends on some kind of revulsion on Young's part towards his former work, how come he's got a number that old on his new album?
Well, "See The Sky About To Rain" is a fairly neutral song. It's philosophical in tone and is, generally, about Fate, Inexorability Of. It introduces the notion of ever-present rain which is taken up again in the opening verses of the final track, "Ambulance Blues". It sets a "mood", OK? But it's the way it's handled that makes it more than an artificial transplant from the past. In 1971 (or '72 or '73, for that matter), Young would never have considered handling it so casually. He might have used a steel guitar, but surely not that warm electric piano - and definitely not the peculiar cymbal thinking approach of skins slapper Levon Helm. The last verse is even weirder: "I was down in Dixieland / Played a silver fiddle / Played it loud and then the man / Broke it down the middle."
This bitterness about "the man" (and you can take it straight as Big Business or bend it towards the Drug Connection) is reiterated constantly through the record, from his showbiz/high society aspect in "For The Turnstiles" ("Singing songs for pimps with tailors / Who charge 10 dollars at the door") to industrial magnates in "Revolution Blues" and oil millionaires in "Vampire Blues".
And listen closely to the longish fade. Doesn't Young's wordless vocal sound a little Las Vegas-y? And that harp! Pure corn! Seems like a send-up to me, bub.
If it's ambivalence recalls that of Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait, the next track, "Revolution Blues", is positively riddled with Dylan.
It's hard to say whether "Revolution Blues" is meant to be seen from Young's point of view or from that of a persona. Manifestly, he doesn't "live in a trailer at the edge of town", or possess "twenty-five rifles just to keep the population down". Manson's lot, maybe - or, more relevantly, the SLA. But not our Neil.
On the other hand, he evidently identifies strongly with that outlaw-avenger attitude, even if he's laughing about it while he's pulling triggers in his head.
The mode is prime '65 Dylan. Militant psychotic-surreal. (There's even a line that wobbles off into the basement a la Lou Reed.) And get into the visionary sick humour of this: "I got the Revolution Blues, I see bloody fountains / And 10 million dune-buggies comin' down the mountains / I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars."
"On The Road Again" sprinkled liberally with "Motor-psycho Nitemare".
"For The Turnstiles" isn't another blues, but it might easily have been. Instead, it's a primitive back-country moan for banjo, dobro, and steady foot-stomp - skeletal in sound and concept, and unearthly in the harmonies of the title-phrase. A cousin of the kind of thing Ry Cooder was getting into on Boomer's Story.
It's about how everybody gets nailed by The Business Of Fame sooner or later - and how it's a question of being able to realize in time to stop it becoming permanent in your case. First, it's "Singing songs for pimps". Then it's "All the great explorers are now in granite layed". Between the verses comes the pained chorus: "You can really learn a lot that way / IT CAN CHANGE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY / Though your confidence may be shattered / It doesn't matter." (The caps are mine.)
The urgency of that last couplet is underlined in an extraordinary closing verse in which Young sees all the baseball batting stars "Left to die on their diamonds" (that is, batting bases) while "In the stands the home crowd scatters / For the turnstiles."
"Vampire Blues" is a joke over chumming out albums about anything. It starts with a guitar-intro reminiscent of the Stones on a typical "album-filler" (e.g.: "Now I've Got A Witness") and proceeds into a mock-fumbling, mock nod-out 12-bar guying the mandatory macho blues with which all second-raters pad their albums out over there in the US of A.
One side two, we get to the real meat: the tale of Young's personal experience in the last few years and the story upon which this whole interpretation hangs.
First, the title track. It's the fourth blues or blues-influenced number in a row and it's getting plainer what's going on: "The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away (rpt) / All my pictures are falling from the wall where I placed them yesterday / The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away." It's important to bear in mind that this is a memory, not what's in young's mind now.
It's a blues in four lines, the third breaking the traditional harmonic sequence into a gentler, more reflective side-street, but not disturbing that familiar overall structure: "I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day (rpt) / Though my problems are meaningless, that don't make them go away / I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day."
In the succeeding verses, Young finds himself alone at a microphone after a radio interview and interjects the oddly stock-shot image of being "Out here on the beach" where "The seagulls are still out of reach"; finally, he resolves to get out of town, head for the sticks with his bus and his friends, and follow the road, although he doesn't know where it ends - the song closing with a repeat of the solitary line, "The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away," and a beautiful guitar solo over a slow fade.
"Motion Pictures" forms a short break between the seven-minute "On The Beach" and the nine-minute closer, "Ambulance Blues". Dedicated to his girlfriend, Carrie Sondgress, star of Diary Of A Mad Housewife, it's a very personal song, almost a confession ("I hear the mountains are doing fine"). But it's centrally the work of a man who had a shrewd suspicion that The Business was doing him in, and only just found out how.
Moving back and forth between two balancing lines throughout its length, it covers this ground with the impressive economy which characterizes the whole album: "All those headlines, they just bore me now / I'm deep inside myself, but I'll get out somehow / And I'll stand before you and I'll bring a smile... to your eyes." Which has, in turn, been arrived at via a verse that represents The Young Policy Statement For The Past: "Well, all those people, they think they've got it made / But I wouldn't buy, sell, borrow or trade / Anything I have to be like one of them / I'd rather start all over again."
Note the echo of the last line of "Stage Fright" and the deadly seriousness of the proposition.
All the loose strands are gathered and woven together in the final track, "Ambulance Blues" - a beautiful song, possibly Young's best ever. It's organized to self-regenerate: a verse formed from a repeated couplet that wanders round a little circle of six changes, then ... another verse that strains vainly upwards for three lines, sags back for one more, and finally relaxes resignedly into the original verse. There's no chorus, no middle eight. It just keeps going, round and round, slow-medium tempo, utterly composed.
Young picks an aged acoustic and blows smeary harp. Ben Keith slaps a bass that keeps getting its shoes caught in the mud, Ralph Molina pats hand drums almost inaudibly, Joe Yankee chinks an "electric tambourine" (sounding, as Steve said, "like somebody dripping silver" into it), and Rusty Kershaw's violin sounds like the hillbilly cousin of The Incredible String Band's Robin Williamson's creaking gimbri. It's raining. Obsessively so.
The lyrics open with a direct reference to the Perspective outlined at the beginning of the album: "Back in the old folkie days, the air was magic when we played / Old riverboat rocking in the rain, midnight was the time for rain..." Then the verse begins striving up in its secondary form - a memory about "Isabella", which Young develops. "You're only real with your make-up on", he sings, maybe using the same words he did then. And back into the verse again: Young walking up the towpath, looking the old place over. "Waitresses are crying in the rain..."
And the second encounter with the "up" section - another direct reminiscence now, of "Mother Goose" who's "on the skids", though this time the memory has a sting: "She needs someone that she can scream at / And I'm such a heel for making her feel so bad."
The verse again, and a crucial one: "I guess I'll call it sickness gone / It's hard to say the meaning of this song / An ambulance can only go so fast / It's easy to get buried in the past / When you try to make a good thing last." Which supports the case for the Traumatic Change Theory quite admirably. Now it's just a case of (a) What caused the change?, and (b) What does the change involve?
There now ensues a few lines of wondering harp-puffing extended enough to point up the fact that the first half of the song is separate from the second. Then Young comes back in with: "Saw today in the entertainment section / There's room at the top for private detection / To mom and dad, this doesn't matter / But it's either that or pay off the kidnapper."
The "up" section falls back once again on to the steady verse - this time the one about the critics - followed by more wheezing harp.
The next "up" section signals the climax of the song. Young's in town, having played a gig ("Keeping jive alive"): "Out on the corner it's half-past five / But the subways are empty and so are the cafes / Except for the farmers' market / And I still can hear him say..."
(Back to the verse for the final time - Young by himself picking with almost pedantic precision, and singing in a hushed, trenchant voice.) "...You're all just pissing in the wind / You don't know it, but you are / And there ain't nothing like a friend / Who can tell you you're just pissing in the wind."
So there's the answer to the question - and, while we're mulling over what this character means, Young blows some more, now rather deflated harp.
Only it isn't a breather. It's a Dramatic Pause.
Using the "up" section for the final time. Young slams back with the rebuttal and clear statement of where he's at now: "I never knew a man could tell so many lies / He had a different story for every set of eyes / How can he remember who he's talking to? / Cos I know it ain't me and I hope it isn't you..."
Another coupla lines and a final sigh on the harmonica. The mic-boom clinks as Young shifts away from it, still playing - and there's a second or two of sound in the studio after the last note's died.
That certainly doesn't sound like the work of a depressed, negative man to me. It sounds extremely positive, actually - and note that "Ambulance Blues" is the only track thus listed which isn't any kind of blues at all.
Who the man is who met Young in the market that morning we'll probably never find out, unless he mentions it in an interview. Personally, I think Young heard Dylan on tour recently, copped for what the new version of "It's Alright, Ma" was all about ("I've got nothing, ma, to live up to"), and decided he'd been jerking off too long.
There's scattered evidence for A Dylan Experience in many of the tracks from On The Beach, but the more important thing is that, though Dylan and Young may have taken a parallel path recently, Young now sounds actively dangerous, whereas Dylan's just singing his own peculiar gospel.
I doubt if Neil Young has the humour to become a Cosmic Buffoon. on the other hand, On The Beach is a fairly mighty statement in its own terms. Perhaps we shouldn't categorize him.
That might turn out to be just one more "hook-and-ladder-dream".
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