Monday, August 06, 2012

Down by the old mainstream 3: Neil is for real

The first memory of Neil Young I have is the jagged chords of "Ohio" pouring out of the radio speaker before the lyrics kicked in with their stark horror. For a lot of people, Kent State in May 1970 was a defining moment, although after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention, I think a lot of 'em were probably just numb already. Myself, I was more struck by the Jackson State shootings a couple of weeks later, when the media couldn't even bother to get outraged.

In Jonathan Demme's Neil Young Journeys, Neil sings the song solo, accompanying himself on a LOUD electric guitar, over a photo montage of the four Kent State students who died (two of them protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and two of them onlookers, one of them a ROTC member) and film of the Ohio National Guard advancing on the students, bayonets at the ready. I suspect Neil did that to provide context for younger fans who might not already know the story (although the audience when we saw the film was wall-to-wall boomers, but you can't blame a fella for trying).

It didn't seem like he fit in CSNY. (Aren't they Bosnian?) The others made pretty sounds; he made noises that cut to the bone.

I remember reading the Rolling Stone review of After the Gold Rush when it was new, back when RS still used to run long-form record reviews. What resonated for me was not the pan by Langdon Winner that's on the rag's website, but the short story that preceded it, penned by I-forget-who (and I can't find it online), which told the story of a teenager and his distant relationship with his father that reminded me of the stilted attempts at communication between myself and my dad.

My best buddy from middle school, who'd moved upstate the summer before eighth grade, had graduated from listening to Roger Miller and Peter, Paul and Mary to the Beatles' Let It Be and After the Gold Rush before moving on to Steppenwolf and, in our acid daze, the Doors...but that's another story. While Gold Rush wasn't exactly my cup of tea -- I'd gotten obsessed with the Who the previous winter, and had driven my sister nuts playing Live At Leeds four times a day through the summer -- it was part of the soundtrack of my life; I didn't listen to it critically, it was just there. Now, of course, it holds a different kind of significance for me. When I heard the first piano chords of the title song in Demme's documentary, I felt myself tear up involuntarily. But we do get more sentimental as we get older.

I erroneously lumped Neil in with the "mellow" Southern Caifornia singer-songwriter claque -- a case of guilt by association if ever there was one -- and so missed out on the "ditch trilogy" (Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, and On the Beach) when it was new; I only became a fan in the '90s, the same decade when I finally learned to stop worrying and love Elvis (well, the Sun sessions and the '68 TV special, anyway).

That didn't prevent me from listening to my share of Neil in the late '70s, particularly Zuma and American Stars and Bars, because my buddy "Whiskey Man" was a big fan. While Neil might not have been the burnout we all assumed he was back in '75 (he recites his entahr drug history in Le Noise's "Hitchhiker"), he was definitely familiar with the scene and chronicled its fallout in the "ditch trilogy" and elsewhere. We could relate. Remind me sometime to tell you the story of the guy we knew that had a Christmas tree decorated with downs, or the one that kept a candy dish full of different colored pills in his bedroom. But I digress. What I responded to musically was the cathartic guitar blowouts on "Cortez the Killer" and "Like A Hurricane." And what stuck with me was the disoriented, dreamscape vibe of a song like "Cortez," which was unmatched in my experience until I heard the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks On Me" a few years later.

I remember being a little dismissive of Neil as a guitarist back in the '70s. My main man in those days was Jeff Beck, compared to whom Neil was a terrible tyro (or so I thought). I mean, for chrissakes, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was recorded when Crazy Horse had been a band for like a week, and sounded like it. I now realize how much I've inadvertently stolen from Neil when it comes to guitar damage. I was particularly struck by this realization this morning, listening to his staccato-strummed double-stops and the way he worries the notes at both the top and the bottom of the fretboard on the epic Live At the Fillmore East versions of "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl In the Sand." I'll be thinking of Neil the next time the li'l Stoogeband lights into "I Wanna Be Your Dog" or "Funhouse."

Rust Never Sleeps really got my attention. Part of it was that I'd moved to Texas and started to "get" punk. The roughness and rawness of some of the songs on that LP were a striking contrast with what most of Neil's contemporaries were up to at the time. It was the film version of that concert that really clinched it for me, however -- not just the goofy surrealism of the staging, but the realization that dude had a catalog; even back then, he was more obsessed with his history than anybody this side of the 'orrible 'oo. (Since then, he's released a live album of the same songs every five years or so, not to mention the first volume of the monumental Archives, but the '77 triple LP career-so-far summation Decade remains one of the best rekkids your money can buy.) And "Powderfinger" was another song with an interesting POV, in which Neil thinks himself into the mind of a colonial-era youth who gets his "face splashed in the sky" while fighting off hostile interlopers.

I kind of lost the thread for a few years after that, but I remember listening to Hawks and Doves in the last record store I worked in before joining the Air Force. I thought about the lyrics to his Cold War black comedy song "Comin' Apart At Every Nail," with their reference to the DEW line, during the seven years I spent in SAC before the Berlin Wall came down. During the decade I spent Guarding Freedom's Frontier, Neil kept on doing pretty much whatever he wanted to do, so much so that his label sued him for delivering uncommercial product. I had to respect him for that, and for his commitment to his disabled son, as well as to peace and the environment. (Hearing "Rockin' in the Free World" on the radio, it seemed to be another case of protest being misconstrued as jingoistic anthem a la "Born In the U.S.A." The '80s were a funny decade.) During my enforced hiatus from the electric guitar (1983-1990), I used to sing "Sugar Mountain" to my kids.

I got Sleeps With Angels the year I got divorced. I can't remember much about any of the songs, except for "Piece of Crap," which was the theme song for the guys that worked in the quality control lab at RadioShack corporate, where I spent my first decade out of the service editing user manuals for clocks and toys. I liked that Neil, then pushing 50, could connect with the Seattle grunge kids (not to mention Sonic Youth). Cobain's suicide reminded me of when my mom picked me up from middle school and told me that Hendrix was dead. I was pissed at Cobain because my then-teenaged kids really believed in him.

Since then, I haven't really kept up with Neil's work (dude makes a lot of records), but every few months I'll geek out on him the way I periodically do on Hendrix, Zappa, and the Velvet Underground. I liked what I heard of Le Noise when it was new, but the $40 price tag for the vinyl LP discouraged me from buying. The Journeys doco locked it in for me the way that the film version of Rust Never Sleeps did, though. The stripped-down performances let you see the bones of the songs, which are more literally autobiographical than we've come to expect from Neil, in the same way that Broooce's Nebraska did. Sonically speaking, the contrast between Neil's voice -- he still sings in a child's falsetto whine after all these years, although his aged face contorts in a snarl of disgust when he lets it out -- and his feedback-oozing, overdriven guitar (his tone combines booming bass, thick midrange, and stinging treble in a way you wouldn't think possible without hearing it) hits like Skip James being accompanied by Link Wray.

My favorite song in the movie hasn't been released so far. "Leia" is an old man's song about a baby -- the other side of "Sugar Mountain," "I Am A Child," and "Old Man" -- that I believe was inspired by a child who was born after her father was killed in Afghanistan. That a man in his mid-60s can still hold such a clear-eyed, yet compassionate view of the world -- and rock so hard -- gives me hope for both his future, and my own.


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