Monday, August 04, 2014

Neil Young revisited

I've never been interested in collecting Bob Dylan albums beyond John Wesley Harding (1967), although I did buy the last five of the last six, from Time Out Of Mind (1997) to Tempest (2012), where I used to make an effort, not so much lately though, to keep up with the contemporary releases of Neil Young through all of the decades of his career. In fact I own more Neil Young albums than Bob Dylan albums.

Young has not necessarily released high quality music all the way through his career. Silver & Gold (2000), for example, is pretty crap and I am dubious about Prairie Wind (2005), but on the whole his music from, say, 1980 to the mid-Nineties, is more interesting and captivating than most of Dylan's releases over the same period.

Anyhow, I have not kept up with Neil Young's releases after Mirror Ball (1995), the collaboration with elements of Pearl Jam. Unplugged (1992)
had its moments but Harvest Moon (1992) left me cold, especially the banal lyrics. How it could have even considered as anything like a substantive follow-up to Harvest (1972) is still beyond my ken.

Even the big guitar workouts on Sleeps With Angels (1994) dragged somewhat. After Mirror Ball I lost interest and skipped all of the new records released in the new millennium. I bought the Live at Fillmore East set with Crazy Horse and the Live At Massey Hall set, both of which are part of the Neil Young Archives series, mostly because I was keen on the early poetic Young and the early rocking Young.

During a UK holiday in 2012 I bought Zuma (1975) and Le Noise (2010), the older album being a mostly a typical mid-Seventies Neil Young album, and the first recorded with newly reconstituted Crazy Horse after the death of Danny Whitten. Le Noise features an experimental Young playing solo electric and acoustic guitars, which, as oddball, experimental concept, would perhaps have fitted right in with the "unrepresentative" music of the Geffen years. Le Noise does not blow me away and I am thankful that the album is short.

Zuma is much more to my taste. Stupid as it may be as a viewpoint, the Neil Young of the Seventies quite simply wrote far better songs because he was younger and full of some kind of poetic vision which became duller and more prosaic as he got older, more mature and less visceral.

I've recently become a bit of a belated convert to iTunes. I'd browsed in it before, particularly the US iTunes Store, to search how many classic albums were available and then, when the South African iTunes Store came online, started browsing that one too. It was here that I found so many cheap albums, again mostly of acts I'd either once owned records of or had always wanted to own records of, that I started going slightly crazy. The variety was huge and the prices compared to buying CDs in Musica were stupidly affordable to the extent where one could bankrupt oneself.

The other factor is storage. I own more than a thousand CDs and most of them are in boxes in the outside room and the newer ones, bought over the last few years, overflow storage space in the lounge. Digital downloads take up no more space than the size of a laptop regardless of how many tunes you've added. Only the hard disk storage limits one.

In the iTunes Store Neil Young has a large section all to himself, mostly the albums in the canon, plus some other items. This means, for the first time in my life, that I am in the position to fill in the gaps in my Neil Young collection from the debut album Neil Young (1969) to the latest, Psychedelic Pill (2012). If I wanted to, I could own them all. Ironically Young is very caustic in his criticism of the MP3 format for providing less than 5% of the actual audio output of the recording process. He is on record as believing that music recorded with analogue technology and printed on vinyl is still the best medium for music, that digital not only sanitises but also emasculates music and that MP3 is nothing short of a Satanic plot against the very fabric of Western civilization and the quality of music. This may be so, but the unparalleled opportunity of owning music I never had the opportunity to acquire as vinyl releases, is a benefit of modern technology that I am grateful for and relish.

There is also the first massive release in the Archive series. The major good thing is that most of these albums cost around R70 and there are some, the first ones I bought that are on offer for as low as R19,99 (Re-Ac-Tor) and R24,99 (American Stars 'n Bars, Hawks & Doves, Road Rock Vol I) and If this does not represent temptation I do not know what will.

I have no idea why Re-Ac-Tor (1981) has such a bad rep with the critics. It was the last Reprise album, before the wayward weirdness of the Geffen years, and followed on Hawks & Doves (1980), which followed Rust Never Sleeps with which Young ended the first decade of his solo career on a highlight of note.

The complaint was that Re-Ac-Tor was just a collection of jams, like "T-Bone" with repetitive, nonsensical lyrics and pretty much everything on the second side of the record just Crazy Horse country rock by rote. Why these tunes should be considered any worse than the songs on Freedom or Ragged Glory beats me. In my opinion the critics overreacted to the content of these two half decent albums because they were a considerable improvement on the basic Geffen-era Neil Young album. The very long rifferama rockers on Ragged Glory are overbearing and every bit as tedious as "T-Bone." The rockers on Re-Ac-Tor, except maybe for "T-Bone," are at least relatively concise and to the point.

It may be because Re-Ac-Tor was only the second Neil Young album I ever bought that I have such a soft spot for it but I do like it, and much more than such highly rated albums as Ragged Glory or Harvest Moon, and would defend this stance with all the passion I can muster. There tends to be a critical consensus on certain records that seems to come into existence not so much because the music is necessarily that wonderful but because the critical consensus feeds on itself and is then perpetuated by newer and younger writers who do not care to challenge the conventional truths of the genre. Regardless of how crap some Dylan albums have been over the years, you will have those who defend him as an unadulterated genius and find diamonds even in the dross. The same applies to the way Neil Young's output has been received and rated. Once some opinion has been repeated often enough, with no consideration for the actual merit, it becomes the Holy Writ and shall never be reversed or re-evaluated.

Time Fades Away (1973) and On The Beach (1974) were respectively the third and fourth Neil Young albums I owned, specifically because they were part of a Warner Brothers "twofer" reissue, perhaps because neither of them had been major commercial successes when first released. It is perhaps for this reason that both albums are particular favourites of mine and I am quite distraught that Neil Young has seen fit not to let his record company release Journey Through The Past on CD or even as part of the iTunes library. I do not understand what dire defects he sees in it. In my book ii is a fine record and easily as good as anything he's put out and a damns sight better than some.

Tonight's The Night (1975) was recorded before On The Beach yet released later, because it was too stark a contrast to the country warmth of Harvest and would scare the newly won fans away. I know about three songs off this album, the ones that were anthologised on Decade, the double CD version of which served as a neat introduction to the width and breadth of Neil Young's body of work during his first decade of solo stardom.

Well, the opening cut of the title track is certainly stripped down, stark and bare bones, and reminiscent of John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band in its simplistic strength but it is not that far removed from anything that came before, either on After The Goldrush or Harvest and if it were five minutes longer and contained a lengthy guitar solo it would fit right with "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand." this is particularly true of "Tonight's The Night, Pt 2" that closes the album with a loose, loping two guitar duet that sounds, as the saying goes, Stonesy.

Tonight's The Night is the first of three Young albums I know of that are framed by two versions of the same song. The other albums are Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom.

Likewise, "Speaking Out" with its pedal steel guitar and country rhythm is of a piece with Harvest's finest. In the middle of the song Young calls out to Nils Lofgren by his first name and because it sounds exactly like my name, Neels, I was startled the first time I heard Neil Young apparently calling out to me. "Borrowed Tune" could be from After the Goldrush. And it so it goes. Musically there is nothing here that we've not kind of heard before or that is completely out of kilter with preceding group of studio albums, from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to On the Beach. Oddly, Tonight's the Night seems like light relief compared to On The Beach, which was recorded second and released first.

I guess contemporary critics may have been blinded by the back story to the album and by the comparatively dark subject matter of the songs and therefore reached the consensus to pronounce this actually quite typical Neil Young record to be his long dark night of the soul. This is not so bad. Not so depressing as I've been led to believe. If not a jolly romp, then simply standard ranch stash mid-Seventies rocking Neil Young. Having listened to the album a few times now, I am of the opinion that it is one of the masterpieces in the Young canon and a fitting part of that great run of records from Everyone Knows This is Nowhere to Hawks & Doves.

In context Zuma also makes more sense now and is less of a let-down than it was when I first trawled through it. Rock critics took themselves very seriously in the late Sixties and Seventies, especially when dealing with the iconic acts of the era who supposedly had something more to say than just rocking out.

Neil Young was not only a rocker but a "rock poet" rocker and his records were deemed to merit closer scrutiny than that of, say Kiss or Aerosmith, yet if one examines the lyrics they are not always poetical or even very deep. I often think that Young relies to mine significance from the banal minutiae through vocal inflection and tune rather than from the intrinsic value of what he is saying on the surface. The younger version of the artist, the folk poet version, obviously did make an effort to write lyrics that were as oblique as any rock poetry of the time, without the wit and love of language that one associates with Bob Dylan, and made his reputation as one who does not write stupid pop lyrics. However, as Young got older and perhaps found it harder to write eloquent words, he increasingly turned to banality and the mundane, perhaps to prove a point, perhaps simply because he was now old enough to have learnt that one can say what one wants to say without hiding behind metaphors or allusions and elipticism.

So, to get back to my earlier point about Tonight's The Night, it seems to me that this record does not stick out like sore thumb in the Neil Young Seventies canon, as the conventional wisdom seems to have it. The music is as exhilarating a mix of tough rock 'n roll, country and folky sentimentality as can be found on any of the Seventies albums. The lyrical concerns and themes might be more gloomy and doomy but I still do not see how these songs are in any way more depressing or doom-laden and obsessed with death and decay than anything that has come before. I am writing with the benefits of having heard not only the preceding albums but also the ones that followed, which would not have been the case with the writers who critiqued Tonight's The Night when it was released. They could compare it only with what had come before, yet even in that limited context the album simply seems like a variation on a theme that had been well established since the start of the solo career.

Revisionism is a curse word and anathema, I suppose, to the very serious, articulate guys who wrote about Neil Young in the Seventies, or even later, but I would suggest that it is apposite in any artist's long career to take a long, hard, good look at that artist's oeuvre some thirty or forty years down the line to make a proper assessment of particular records and artistic moves with the benefit of the overview as opposed to the blinkered contemporary view. Of course, given that Rolling Stone, for example, is something of a publication of record, I will not expect it to discard the views of its writers from the past. Many of those views have been cast in stone (pun not intended) in the Rolling Stone Record (Album) Guide that has seen a number of editions over the years without material re-evaluation of opinions from earlier editions.

Writers who come later tend simply to rely on the standard view and repeat and reinforce it seemingly without critically listening to the subject matter.

Anyhow, on to American Stars 'n Bars (1977). The first batch of tunes follow the Neil Young country rock template with jaunty rhythms and sweet tunes, and lyrics of little consequence, underpinned and somehow elevated by Ben Keith's pedal steel guitar, and the backing vocals of Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt. Young's youthful whine is the saving grace on the tunes. Thirty years later the same thing would grate. "Bite the Bullet" is the first proper rocker, a bit of a false alarm as it is followed by "The Star of Bethlehem" which sounds like a practice run for Harvest Moon. "Will to Love" is legendarily about Neil masturbating in front of a fire while ruminating on salmon swimming upstream. Nice folk ditty. This dream is followed by the equally legendary "Like A Hurricane" in a version, according to Robert Christgau, that is a pale imitation of the live version that could be heard on the Stills-Young tour that preceded the release of the album. Well, the album version is pretty damn fine and transparently the big killer number on the record. "Homegrown" is a bit of a doggerel sea shanty, elevated by its rock and roll punch and ends the album on an elevated mood.

My take on American Stars 'n Bars is, with this release, that Neil Young is entering the realm of albums that are mostly anodyne and slight, with two or three standout tracks, all the more significant in the context of the undistinguished company they keep. Most of the tunes on the record are okay and quite pleasant but one has the sneaking feeling that they would not have been so esteemed if it had not been for their good fortune of being Neil Young compositions. Neil Young has said he writes songs only when he has to and it is a pity that albums like this seem to epitomise this approach. A songwriter of his quality and pedigree cannot help but come up with really great tunes on a regular basis but the strike rete seems to be 5 middle-of-the-road songs for each gem.

This album could also represent a holding pattern for Neil Young to prepare for the next two records, Comes A Time (1978) and Rust Never Sleeps (1979), to enable him to clear the decks, get a breather and reinvigorate himself. There is definitely a sense of re-invention and rejuvenation about Rust Never Sleeps. As of writing this I've not heard Comes A Time as a complete album. Some of the tracks were played on South African rock radio at the time and the country / folk style was not exactly to my taste. Perhaps I should buy it now, seeing as how I'm finally catching up on the other Seventies albums.

Although I loved Rust Never Sleeps I was never keen on buying Live Rust at the time of its release mostly because of the acoustic, folk-type songs on the first side. Tunes like "I Am A Child" and "Sugar Mountain" just sounded awfully twee to me, like kid's songs, and when I was in my early twenties this style of music was furthest from my interest. The live show also seemed to be heavy on country-ish songs that did not appeal. In contrast, the acoustic songs on Rust Never Sleeps at least sounded sonically robust and the electric tunes on the second side of the record rocked out brutally.

I bought Live Rust eventually in 2012 during one of the typical trawls through HMV that I did when visiting England. On this holiday I also bought, if I am not mistaken, Le Noise (2010) and Zuma. I'd heard parts of Live Rust somewhere during the Eighties and so was not totally unfamiliar with the material on the record and it was in effect almost like encountering an old, long lost affection. I was older and more relaxed about Neil Young's folky fancies and the rock songs still rocked like hurricanes.

The concert ends with a series of fiery renditions of the classic Young rockers from "Cortez the Killer" to "Powderfinger" to "Like A Hurricane" to "My. My, Hey, Hey (Into the Black)" with a positively crackling version of "Tonight's The Night." The two studio versions of this song, specifically the second take, on the eponymous album are pretty much a master class in the tension and release of great rock and roll and as I have remarked above, the second version would have made a great live workout for two lead guitars. The live cut on Live Rust lacks the sparring partner of a second guitarist foil that Young had in Nils Lofgren on the live-in-studio performances of the song, Here Neil Young is left to his own devices to dig deep and extract the pain and misery of the song while Frank Sampedro just chugs along on rhythm. Wonderfully, it transpires that this live version of "Tonight's the Night" is built on a riff very similar to the "Peter Gunn Theme."

Young repeated this electric set, or a variation thereof, on the Weld double live album of the early Nineties and it would be instructive to listen to the two concert recordings back to back. At the time of Weld Young was past 45 and had experienced a resurgence in creativity and critical acclaim with Ragged Glory. I have not listened to Weld in a while but my recollection is that the songs tend to go on a bit too long, wonderful for fans of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's on stage rapport but a tad wearying for the home listener. The versions of the same songs on Live Rust are more or feel more concise and therefore more powerful, and obviously the interpretations are rather fresher than they would be ten or more years, and many shows, later.

Year of the Horse and Road Rock Vol 1 (2000) are later live sets, the first a double, and the second a single CD, covering some of the same old ground that one would expect any old rocker to do late in their career, namely the best known and best loved songs. At least one can say that there is little duplication from live album to live album though "Cowgirl in the Sand" remains a perennial jam, a true classic from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), and the template for the big guitar rock Neil Young and Crazy Horse have made famous. Of course I like both albums and this is the type of Neil Young music I prefer listening to rather than most of the country of folk styles. The softer, milder songs tend to have twee trite lyrics that grate all the more for the quietness of the music. When the band rocks out I do not listen to what the singer is telling me in verse but concentrate on the guitar, bass and drums.

I have recently bought Americana (with Crazy Horse) (2012) as a CD album. The somewhat odd high concept is that Young and band do their versions of well-known tunes from the American songbook, essentially by rocking them the Crazy Horse way. As an experiment it works, as a good rock album it works too. Whether there is any point or deep significance to these remakes is doubtful. This smacks of Young not necessarily having any new material yet feeling a need to make music with Crazy Horse that is not simply a retread of the Young canon. On the other hand, maybe Neil Young wants to reclaim some of the old, weird America to prove its relevance for today or maybe it's the same thing as recording non-copyright material to save on costs yet have new product. The terrible thing, for me, is that Neil Young has released so many albums that the impact they make is diluted. It may be because I've lived with them for longer that the older, mostly Seventies albums but also some from the Eighties, have songs I know and treasure unlike the newer albums, where none of the songs have made any lasting impact. I simply believe that he no longer writes important songs with legs and long shelf life. Neil Young no longer speaks to a peer group that is young; he is in his late sixties and has the concerns of a person of that age and cannot hope really to relate to or represent young people in the way he did forty years ago.

So, although I do have had a deeper interest in the music of Neil Young, than Bob Dylan, in the sense of a comprehensive collection of the music, I doubt that I will ever own, or want to own, every album Young has ever recorded. I would not mind listening to them all at least once without having to pay for the privilege. On the other hand, if they are cheap enough I might well buy them all on iTunes.

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