Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Still Crazy Horse After All These Years

Jeff Apter, NYrock, 1997

The Godfather of grunge, Neil Young, shows no intention of slowing down. Busier than a politician on the election trail, he divided his '97 year amongst the H.O.R.D.E. tour, another Crazy Horse live album, and a starring role in the Jim Jarmusch-directed rockumentary, Year of the Horse. To wrap up his year on a positive note, he's now helped assemble a solid-gold cast for the first of The Bridge School Concerts albums, which is culled from the fund-raising shows that Young helped initiate over a decade ago.

Young, of course, is all over The Bridge School Concerts Volume One (Reprise Records) like a rash. "This is a song I'd like to do for all the kids everywhere," he announces, before leaning into "I Am a Child," a stark strum from his Buffalo Springfield days, which opens the album. Later on, he joins in with Elvis Costello for a scrappy yet sincere "Alison," and then helps Nils Lofgren through "Believe," adding raspy blasts of harmonica and equally raspy vocals.

As for the rest of the album, the line-up includes such Young cronies as Pearl Jam and twangmeister Tom Petty, along with Beck, Bowie, Bonnie Raitt, and the Pretenders (who cruise through a sweetly swinging "Sense of Purpose"). And, yes, there are surprises. Known more for menace than melody, Al Jourgensen and his Ministry take a breezy stroll through the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," while Heart's hefty Ann and Nancy Wilson (aka Lovemongers) pull off a note-perfect cover of Led Zep's "Battle of Evermore" -- close your eyes and you'd swear it was Plant and Page.

Patti Smith's strident "People Have the Power" is the perfect closer, reminding us why we're listening in the first place: people really do have the power, if they check their egos at the door and pitch in for a decent cause. You can almost picture Young offstage, nodding his shaggy head in agreement. Check for yourself, soon, when MTV screens their Bridge School special.

Young, inspired by his own son's disabilities, set up the first of these shows (along with his wife Pegi) in 1986 to raise money for kids with similar speech and physical shortcomings. (Young's son now attends the Bridge School.) Since then, they've become annual all-star get-togethers.

The most recent show -- number 11, staged in Mountain View, California -- not only featured Metallica, Lou Reed, and the Dave Matthews Band, but it teamed Marilyn Manson with the Smashing Pumpkins, Blues Traveler's John Popper with just about anyone who'd let him join in, and gave Alanis Morissette the chance to premiere some new angstathons, including the eagerly anticipated "No Pressure Over Cappuccino." Young, as ferocious as always, stormed through Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" like a man on a mission. "I'm blown away by the support," he stated afterward.

Apparently, age has not wearied the coolest 50-something on the planet, who spent most of 1997's warmer months on the road with the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) tour. Off stage, Young's model train collection was one of the better exhibits, while on stage, out front of long-time consorts Crazy Horse, Young mixed up older moodpieces such as "Cortez the Killer" and "Like a Hurricane" with later riff-and-rock efforts from "Broken Arrow" and "Mirror Ball." Their guitar-strangling orgies contributed to one of the summer's better musical marathons, a serious improvement on Lollapalooza, which lacked a weighty headliner. One of H.O.R.D.E.'s stranger events was during the Chicago show, when torrential rain and hail created a power outage -- yet still Young played on. "He never thought he was in danger," noted his manager, Elliot Roberts.

Just as focused was the recently released Jim Jarmusch flick, Year of the Horse. It charted Crazy Horse's meandering course, swinging between Europe and the USA, from the mid-70s to the late 90s. While it may not have set any box-office records, the film still garnered plenty of positive reviews, mainly for its fly-on-the-wall treatment of middle-aged guys with a serious need to rock. (The first product of Young's relationship with Jarmusch was the 1996 film Dead Man.)

Spin magazine described Year of the Horse as "a flattering if not fawning celebration of nearly three decades of rockist camaraderie." The film also proves that there are few things in life more reassuring than the sight of not one, but four, flannel-clad warriors who refuse to let creaking bones, thinning hair and dodgy hearing catch up with them. "The older we get," Young has stated, "the more we realize how special it is."

And, naturally, the Year of the Horse double album (also on Reprise) is a typically gargantuan sonic ritual. Young and Crazy Horse have updated back-catalog chestnuts such as "Pocahontas" (which has absolutely nothing to do with the Disney film) and "Mr. Soul," while sending the newer "Big Time" and "Scattered" into orbit, propelled by monolithic riffing and rhythms that would cause Mount Rushmore to shudder. Year Of The Horse demonstrates just how seriously possessed Crazy Horse is when it comes to the pursuit of amp-cranking Nirvana. When Young growls, "we don't want to be watered down," during "Prisoners," you know there's no chance that'll ever happen. "Smell the horse on this one," he wheezes breathlessly, as they launch into the garage-band raunch of "Slipaway." Listen up and you'll understand just what Young meant when he declared some time back that "Crazy Horse plays big so I can play huge."

As for the future, it's tricky to predict what Young will emerge with next -- his four-decade-long career has taken more detours than the I95 -- but it's unlikely it will be anything less than fascinating. As the man once said, "It's better to burn out than to fade away."

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