Neil Young, the 80s

In A Rusted Out Garage Tour Program Text

by Bud Scoppa

September 1986

Hanging Ten at the Edge of his Feather

Neil Young is a walking paradox. As a songwriter he's the king of metaphor, but his best-known songs are nakedly literal and literally naked. He can conjure up childlike innocence like no one else, yet much of his most compelling work is shockingly worldly and bitter. He's equally adept at handling gemlike miniatures and full-blown epics. His songs tend to be either deeply mysterious or utterly simple. And for one who sings and plays guitar in a highliy unorthodox fashion, he communicates as effectively as any artist of the last 20 years.

Young's extensive body of work can be organized according to his radically shifting moods; and while it's arguable whether his most indelible music is born of contentment or demoralization, he unfailingly sings from the heart and shoots from the hip at any given moment. To one part of his constituency, Neil Young is the archetypal pastoral singer/songwriter; to another, he's the boss of white-knuckle rock & roll. One thing is clear: Everything he does, Young does on his own terms, for his own satisfaction - the man is dangerously honest. At times it's difficult to avoid the sense that we're eavesdropping on an intensly personal meditation; never have private revelations been made so public. Welcome to Neil's World - news at eleven.

Everybody Knows This is a Rusted Out Garage

For this 1986 concert foray, which he calls (with tongue only partly in cheek) the "Neil Young & Crazy Horse in a Rusted Out Garage" tour, the artist has called upon his longtime rock & roll cohorts Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot, and Frank Sampedro, known collectively guessed it. Young's storied association with Crazy Horse dates back to 1969, but NY&CH haven't been out on the road together since the "Live Rust" tour seven years back (resulting in a film directed by Young's alter ego, Bernard Shakey, the pizza baron). There's no question that the reunion bodes well for the true rock & rollers in the audience. But exactly what sort of rock & roll will the entity known as Neil Young & Crazy Horse purvey in late 1986? Will it be akin to the loping, elongated sagas of their classic initial collaboration, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, wherein Neil guitar-rumbled with the late, great Danny Whitten, the Horses's original leader? Will it be the shimmering meditations of the epic Zuma ('75), which introduced Sampedro, Whitten's long-sought replacement? Will it be the chopped and channeled R&R of the punk inspired Rust Never Sleeps? The wall-shaking sonics of the truly boffo Live Rust (as glorious a concert LP as you're likely to hear anytime, anywhere)? The rapid-transit psychodrama of Re-act-or? Or something entirely different and unexpected?

Whatever shape(s) this performance takes, one thing's for sure: It'll be anchored with yeomanlike crunch and precision by drummer Molina and bassist Talbot, who are as unified and spot-on as a rock rhythm section can be. For Young, Crazy Horse has always been synonymous with rhythm, which is musical reason he was so devastated by the loss of Whitten (he hardly picked up an elecrtic guitar between Whitten's death and Sampedro's arrival several years later), and subsequently so reinspired when Frank came around. Make no mistakes about it - Neil Young & Crazy Horse is one of THE great rock & roll bands, a fact that shall be made abundantly clear when the house lights go down this evening. Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen.

Comes a Time

There's no illusions that someone can say what I'm going to do before I get there, Young once said. "I don't want to feel like people expect me to be a certain way.... I have to be able to feel like I can do whatever I want to do and it's not gonna disappoint me to do it." He's lived by those words.

Young's music is like the weather in Eastern Canada, where he's from - if you don't like it, just wait five minutes. Stylistically and temperamentally, Young always got his flavor of the month, his mood du jour. When other artists get a wild hair, they normally think better of it in the clear light of day. Not Neil - his total output (which spans 20 years and some 27 albums) is a virtual tapestry of wild hairs. These sudden, often extreme shifts invariably leaves fans and critics alike scrathing their heads for months (sometimes years) on end. By the time people have assimilated his most recent twist of tone, texture, and theme, Young's off on another tangent altogether. He keeps 'em guessing, all right. But you get the feeling he really can't help it, being endlessly curious about the workings of his own concious and subconcious mind, not to mention the weird turns of the world around him. He could easily have chosen to make innumerable follow-ups to the Number One Harvest, thereby clinging to the stardom he'd attainted as Mr. Mellow. But that's not where Neil Young is at - comfort is apparently much less important to him than risk.

Transformer Man

Yes, change has been Young's constant companion (along with his shadows and some fine feathered friends of the metaphorical hue) for two decades now. Consider: Way back in the mid Sixties when we first discovered he was the lead guitarist in the Buffalo Springfield. He'd already quit the group; by the time we found out he was out, he was in again. A few years later, the world was proclaiming him the ultimate proponent of the "laid-back" school folk/pop troubadours in the wake of the ground-breaking albums After the Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest ('72). At that moment, Young was ripping that passive image to shreds as he undertook the harrowing triology made up of Tonight's the Night (begun in '73 and finished two years later), Time Fades Away (a lacerating '73 live album), and On the Beach ('74), effectively scaring off his milder fans and giving a defiant finger to superstardom. The mellifluous milieu "was just me for a couple of months", he once reflected. "If I'd stayed real mellow, I don't know where I'd be right now." So where is Neil Young right now? Let's backtrack a bit.

As the Eighties began, Young entered his most idiosyncratic period, beginning with Hawks & Doves, a jumpy mixture of hillbilly fiddles, blue collar politics, and self-probing. The album. haunted by a flock of teasing prehistoric birds, signaled the period of disquiet that would commence with Re-act-or, and angst-laden metalloid rant, and proceed with Trans, wherein Young dueled with the demons living in his computer. That effort bounced him off the walls and straight into rootsville with Everybody's Rockin', which took rockabilly to the White House, and Old Ways, an often haunting excursion into trad countryland. Each of these four highly stylized works was definantly singleminded in tone and intent, as Young successively threw himself into a specific bag and all but exhausted its possibilities. This period, streching from '81 to '85, comprises a composite portrait of the artist as a caged cat, clawing in self-willed agiation at the bars of the stylistic cell he's locked himself in. It'll be some time before the world comes to terms with this particular stack of wax.

Weight of the World

In the wake of the claustrophobic stage that preceded it, the boldly confessional Landing on Water seems all the more liberating. If he was seducted by technology on Trans - a futuristic nightmare haunted by Kraftwerk - here Young has the high-tech hardware securely under his thumb, as he forces the uniform digital sonics to bend to his erratic analog will. On Water, Young refuses to return to a simpler time, choosing instead to confront the world as it is and find his place in it. Thus the programmed drums clatter out of control, like they've been purposly glitched by some outlaw Blade Runner replicant, while the familiar squalls of Young's elecric guitar take charge in reassuring fashion.

Amid this confrontation of warring electronic polarities, Young wails anxiously about his "Violent Side" and refuses to entertain any more "Hard Luck Stories", even though he's covering the "Bad News Beat"; he does admit, however "I Got a Problem", though it has lessened considerably since "The Weight of the World" has been removed from his back. The devastating "Hippie Dream" finds him capsizing those wooden ships with tie-dyed sails once and for all. And in "Drifter", L.O.W.'s culminating opus, Young explains, with utter clarity, "I'll stay until you try to tie me down...Don't try to tell me what I gotta do to fit/ Don't try to rescue me, I'm gonna go with my ship...Don't try to fence me in, don't try to slow me down/ Don't try to speed me up or tie my feet down to the ground...I like to feel the wheel/ Put down the top and let it roll...." He could be admonishing a lover; then again, he could be talking to his audience. Either way, we're dealing with a starkly black & white guy in a world of neutral grays. You won't see this codger guesting on Miami Vice. Wooly bully for that.

Feathers & Sails

If he's switched styles and setups frequently over the course of his career, certain constants have remained at the heart of Young's expression. He's received numerous visitations from mysterious birds and brown-skinned Indians, dating back to "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow", respectively, in 1968. The ocean was constantly lapped at his feet, and his wooden ships have been tossing in the swells since "Tell Me Why" in 1970. These leitmotifs are as much as part of Neil Young as the soulful stare and the ratty hair; they figure sifnificantly in many of his most indelible songs.

The images of birds, flight, and feathers that dot the artists's work function in a multileveled way, simultaneously suggesting escape and epiphany, romance and religion, intuition and illusion. He first broached the subject on Buffalo Springfield, recorded back in '66: "Is my world not fallin' down?/ I'm in pieces on the ground...But if crying and holding on/ And flying on the ground is wrong/ Then I'm sorry to let you down...." The inference seems clear - the motion of flight suggests sensitivity and imagination, and this is the path he's chosen for himself.

Fourteen years later, on Hawks & Doves, Young has become "the naked rider" who "gallops through his head" in seeming aimlessness. The rider is visited by "a prehistoric bird", who attempts to help the poor fellow by placing a phone call to the moon. "We'll say that the shadow is growin' dim", the bird tells the rider, "and we need some light to get back to him". The bird's feathered companions are less sympathetic to the rider's plight; they fill the sky, out of his reach. Eventually, "Tired and beaten, he fell into a slumber/ But up in the sky they still had his number...." Now, while I wouldn't bet the farm on it, I have a strong hunch that "The Old Homestead" is an evocation of that maddening syndrome, writer's block; alluring and elusive, those birds make perfect muses.

Tellingly, the song that precedes "The Old Homestead" is "Little Wing", a terse demonstration of the power the birds-as-metaphor continues to hold to Young:

All her friends call her Little Wing
But she flies rings around them all
She comes to town when the children sing
And leaves them feather as if they fall...
Little Wing, don't fly away
When the summer turns to fall...
Winter is the best of all.

Tale of the Tape*

neil young, lead guitarist
brown and green
leather and suede
deep and dark
hot and cold
wild sense of humor
*(from the back cover of Buffalo Springfield, Atco, 1967)

Experiments in the Soul Form

The elemental settings of sky and water that Young constantly returns to are particularly central to his Big Songs, the extended, dreamlike narratives that run potently through his body of work. On "The Last Trip to Tulsa", the dolorous epic that ends his first solo album, the protagonist assumes, in turn, the shapes of a cab driver, a woman, a folksinger, a dead man, a traveler, and a murderer. Seventeen years later, this hazy dreamscape remains as cryptically powerful as it was when Young wrote it. The same can be said of the dual excursions that dominate Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand". After the Gold Rush is built around the post-apocalyptic vision of its title song, wherein a huddled group of earthly survivors gather in "Mother Nature's silver seed" en route to "a new home in the sun".

But it's on the mythic masterpiece Zuma that Young's primal dreams and potent symbols quintessentially converge. Prominent throughout are his recurring metaphors of birds in flight and boats on the water, his intuitive narrative style, compulsive honesty, effortlessly lovely melodies, and cat-in-heat singing. With Crazy Horse providing both firepower and stability, Young is at hist best: boundlessly inventive and determinedly multileveled. Of the nine songs on Zuma, five are hot, stormy rockers, three are gorgeous, hazy ballads, and the last, "Cortez the Killer", is a lengthy musical tale that packs equal wallop as a classic retelling of an American legend, a Lawrencian erotic dreamscape, and Young's ultimate personal metaphor. The song gathers intensity through several minutes of tense, deliverate playing before the haunted voice strikes the first verse:

He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
And that palace in the sun.
On the shore lay Montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wandered
With the secrets of the worlds.

The secret of the album, and perhaps of the artist's work in its entirety, is encapsulated in the confrontation he describes: Force and wisdom, innocence and aggression, love and death are the issues and the stakes. And the climax is inevitable, as it is with all tragedies, but not before Young succumbs for a single verse to a direct comment on the classic struggle:

And I know she's living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can't remember when
Or how I lost my way.

In the brief final ballad, "Through My Sails", Young (joined by Crosby, Stills & Nash), attempting to soar on wings that "turned to stone", lands finally on a shoreline, where he transforms his wings into sails and sings, "Know me/ Show me/ New things I'm knowin'". Then off he sails, presumably to new adventures in dreamland.

The N.Y. Times

If Young has been criticized over the years for being overly enigmatic in his songwriting, just as frequently the critics have accused him of being too direct. Actually, both these observations are at least partly legitimate: "Broken Arrow", for instance, seems as opaque in 1986 as it did in 1968; while, on the other side of Young's extremism, there's the incendiary indictment "Southern Man", a song he apparently couldn't help writing (although he later said he'd rather play Lynyrd Skynyrd's pissed-off answer song, "Sweet Home Alabama"). At certain points over the years he's manifested a childlike impetuosity in like manner - it's a function of his honesty - and the resulting music seems to come sweeping out of him like a gale.

Such was the case with "Ohio", written and recorded in a pale fury immediatly after the Kent State massacre. And you can imagine him being so stunned by the overdose death of his comrade Danny Whitten that "The Needle and the Damage Done" wrote itself. There's no mistaking the intent or conviction of either of these heartbreaking (and bitter) songs - they're as real as the events that brought them forth.

And Young is an artist who allows himself to be overtly influenced - it's another function of his honesty. With their defiance and intensity, the Sex Pistols in particular and punk in general must have reawakened something in Young - did their spirit remind him of his own gutbucket instincts? The sound and fury of the Rust albums suggests that it did - and some truly compelling rock & roll ensued.

While some of his work has been purely spontaneous, there have also been times when a certain stimulus simmered and seethed in him over a period of time before being disgorged. These delayed-reactions creation (e.g.: Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, Re-ac-tor, Trans) are among his most shocking and offbeat. And if their content seems clear-cut, their implications are complex. What are we to make of Trans four years after the fact? Maybe "techno-prophecy" would be a good way to describe this disturbing album. In retrospect, 1975's Tonight's the Night seems just as prophetic, considering that America is now in the grips of what amounts to a collective narcosis. Chilling stuff.

In certain pieces of music, Young's dual penchants for the surreal and the literal converge, resulting in work as chilling as front page news and as hair-raising as a nightmare. Such is the case with "Revolution Blues" (from 1974's On the Beach), with its vision of a horde of armed crazies swooping down on L.A. in souped-up dune buggies. And "Tired Eyes" (from Tonight's the Night), with its utterly harrowing descriptions of midnight drug deals and shootings, is frightening enough to cause insomnia.

This is not easy music, nor is it "pretty" in the strict sense of the word. But it's as real as artistic expression gets, and there are very few with the guts and grit to tell the truth as unblinkingly as Young does. And there is an austere beauty in this music, engendered by the courage and conviction with which it's rendered. These works are as dangerous as life itself.

Dramatis Personae

The Squires Tap Tap & Boom Boom
Clancy Frank Sampedro
Mr. Soul Cortez & Montezuma
Jack Nitzsche Stupid Girl
The Indian Motorcycle Mama
The Loner Stephen Stills
David Briggs Ocean Girl
Buffalo Springfield Guardian Angel
The Old Laughing Lady Blue Haired Ladies
The Emporer of Wyoming Johnny Rotten
Crazy Horse Pocahontas & Marlon Brando
Cinnamon Girl The Road Eyes
Cowgirl in the Sand Caesar & Cleo
Richard Nixon Welfare Mothers
Crosby, Stills & Nash Bernard Shakey
Dean Stockwell Little Wing
Southern Man The Naked Rider
Old Man Captain Kennedy
A Maid Union Man
Ben Keith Opera Star
Elliot Mazer Surfer Joe & Moe the Sleaze
Stray Gators Transformer Man
Soldier Computer Cowboy
The Sinner An Aztec, an Inca
The Vampire Betty Lou & Wanda
Danny Whitten Jelly Roll Man
Bruce Berry Ron & Nancy
Nils Lofgren Willie & Waylon
Lookout Joe Danny Kootch
New Mama Pegi

Cries & Whispers

On the other side of the coin from these unsettling visions of a world gone hay wire are some of the purest and loveliest ballads imaginable. Among these are the pop hits Young is most widely known for: "Heart of Gold", "Helpless", "After the Gold Rush", "Comes a Time", "Lotta Love", "Sugar Mountain". These songs are "commercial" not because of any calculation on Young's part, but rather because he has a rare gift for melody and thematic simplicity that he sometimes chooses to manifest. Simple as "Heart of Gold" is, though, it resonates for miles:

I wanna live, I wanna give
I've been a miner for a heart of gold
It's these expressions I never give
That keep me searchin' for a heart of gold
And I'm gettin' old.

These five lines have the laconic elegance of a haiku, and the melody that carries them flows like water. But beneath the matter-of-factness of the song lurks the dimension of existential tragedy. "Heart of Gold" is that simple, and that profound. Of Young's contemporaries, only John Foggerty rivals him in terms of economy and plain talk.

If "Heart of Gold" and its fellow hits are the mother lode, by miming deeper into his vast body of work you'll find a wealth of lesser-known but equally exquisite songs, some of them performed with such retaint that you could easily miss them. These range from miniatures like "See the Sky About to Rain", "Star of Bethlehem", "Little Wing", and "My Boy" to tableaus such as the autobiographical "Don't be Denied" and the incredibly vivid "Will to Love". This last song, in which Young imagines himself as an ocean fish swimming relentlessly upstream, away from everything he loves, finds him singing in a near-whisper over this acoustic guitar and a crackling fire. As in a dream he continually changes form - by turns he's a fire, a performer, a motormouth, a fish again. In the last verse, all these personas fuse into an expression of intense longing:

If we meet along the way,
Please sway beside me; let us sway together,
Our tails together and our fins and mind.
We'll leave this water and let our scales shine
In the sun above and the sky below,
So all the water and earth will know.
We got the will to love...

Young delivers these lines in a hush, but it's as if his life depended on their utterance. His vocal equipment may indeed by limited, but it surly doesn't matter here - his emotional equipment carries him through. As much as any, this unbearably sad but ultimately triumphant song epitomizes what this singular artist is all about. In this age of injection-molded sound and image, we need a guy who dares to do - can only do - things his own way.

Long may he run.

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