Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Empty Quiver: Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Part 4)



Rust Never Sleeps

Dennis Hopper’s Out Of The Blue (1980) is a severe film about damaged people who damage their child into oblivion. She goes too soon. The film is Dennis Hopper’s finest achievement as a director. There’s really no contest. Out Of The Blue is an American tragedy of infinite proportions. If you haven’t seen it (I think it's streaming online, but try to grab the rare, essential Anchor Bay DVD if you can) I don’t want to give you more than flickering shadows of the experience you’ll have.

The film is a house haunted with the ravages of alcohol and the endpoint of behind-the-curtain incest, with Hopper only better playing Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, here a boozy ex-con out of jail for a genocidal road accident. His daughter is a teenage wannabe punk named Cebe, as jaded as Newt from Aliens and played by Linda Manz (the girl from Days Of Heaven) in a performance that flares and smarts and represents a summit no child actor has scaled since. It doesn’t have a huge reputation or much of a following, and I bought the now OOP DVD at K-Mart thinking it was an old Hopper movie I’d heard Tarantino talk about. (That turned out to be the relatively shitty biker drama The Glory Stompers.) The poster has a blurb from Jack Nicholson calling it a masterpiece. He isn’t wrong.

What’s the Neil Young connection? Simple. No movie has used one of his songs more effectively.

Rust Never Sleeps was released in 1979, half acoustic, half electric. Thus, Crazy Horse don’t play on every track. Rust is Young’s best album after The Ditch Trilogy, with the cryptic lyrics to “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” (“Rock and Roll is here to stay…It’s better to burn out than to fade away…The King is gone but he’s not forgotten/This is the story of Johnny Rotten”) endlessly discussed and debated, so much so that McDonough stops Shakey cold to devote a few pages to interpretation from Randy Newman and several others. What’s quite remarkable is that this gathering of disparate recordings cohere so majestically. Rust exists in a country fallen to compromised ideals that extend to it’s legends, it’s poor and it’s youth. The river has enough space for “Pocahontas,” where liberal Hollywood might be the latest offense for the Native Americans, “Sedan Delivery’s” monologue from a proud fly-over patriot asserting how fucking hard it is to find a job, the earthy ode to the love mountain power of Welfare Mothers, a eulogy for a lost generation in “Thrasher.” It bookends with the proto-grunge “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” a handheld mudslide avalanche of a song that is the naturally chaotic manifestation of the Black itself.

Cebe wanders through a country junkyard, rests against broken fences, uses an old car radio to communicate with passing out-there truckers. She frequents germy punk basements and is almost raped by a swinger couple. Hopper’s camera is freeform, tracking Cebe in her life’s quiet. There are numerous instances when the film slows to let her walk beside abandoned railroad cars, playing “My My, Hey Hey.” Many, many films have used “Old Man” or “Heart Of Gold” as place filling mood (perhaps never more shamefully as Ryan Murphy’s atrocious Eat, Pray, Love), but Hopper’s is one of the few that utilizes the deep-seeking, uncomfortable loneliness of Neil Young’s music.

The spectral “Hey Hey…” is all over Out Of The Blue, endowing Cebe’s lifestyle with a gentle despair, but after watching the horrific conclusion we’re in a “My My…” state of mind.

It uses other Young tracks without using them officially. Knowing Rust Never Sleeps makes Hopper’s film more devastating, especially if we’ve heard “Powderfinger” and see it cutting through every frame. Hopper came onto the troubled production as a gun-for-hire and radically changed the existing script. On the Anchor Bay commentary he talks about hearing “Hey Hey” on the radio. The lyrics, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” influenced the spontaneous production. “Powderfinger” must have stayed with Hopper too. Directly connected to the Hey Hey, My My cycle through its delineation of an early, wrongful death, “Powderfinger” is the 6th track on Rust Never Sleeps, and a standout in an album of standouts. And the song is Cebe’s fluttering soul.

A twenty-two year old boy sees a white boat approaching up the river. McDonough hears John Ford in the song. I hear some of Anthony Mann’s subversive westerns (Man Of The West, The Devil’s Doorway). The mystery thing, chopping waves, could be identified from a veritable cherry picking of historical oppressors. I see the white boat as an allegorical vessel, the demons coming to claim Cebe, the same forces that eternally silenced James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Sid Vicious, River Pheonix, Elvis Presley, Emmett Till, Heath Ledger, Pat Tillman, David Foster Wallace. Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry.

The boat isn’t here to deliver the mail. The boy’s fate is already sealed when he warns his mama in the song’s first sentence. We get scattered fictional flourishes, an absent brother, a man of unspecified relations named Big John who has lost himself in drink since the same river that brought the boat took a woman he loved named Emmy-Lou away from him. (He drinks like Hopper in the film.) The boy raises his father’s rifle against the attackers. He’s dead before he knows it. “Then I saw black, and my face splashed in the sky.”

Listen and sob for the prematurely entombed.

Following a bridge of awe-inspiring musical intensity, the boy returns, wizened by death, speaking for his entire brotherhood of the passed:

 Think of me as one you’d never figured
 Would fade away so young
 With so much left undone

These are the words that Cebe can’t say. The boy didn’t know he had poetry in him until he smashed into the blue sky’s reflection. Shelter me from the powder and the finger, he says. Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger. Only Cebe and the legion can shelter him and cover him. Absorbing the song, we fear the day we might speak these private words ourselves.

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In a sense, Rust Never Sleeps is an appropriately expansive adieu to the seventies body of work. Young went deep inside himself with those four albums, The Ditch Trilogy and Zuma; by Rust, it was time to propel into the world, speak through fictional characters, honor a musical past while foraging through the muck of art to establish a musical future. The acoustic and electric sequencing joins the wealth of themes and visions for Young’s most protean record.

A Crazy Horse devotee can hear a counternarrative of Young’s relationship to the band. The stripped aesthetic of Side A has the spook, and even though “Sail Away” and “Ride My Llama” work perfectly bare, we feel a great meshing when Young is reunited with them on Side B. The early songs yearn for the later ones, like the nude body of a “Change Your Mind” lover lying alone, waiting for their tardy companion. His bandmates’ echo of “Hard to find a job” on “Sedan Delivery” shows artists in total psychic sync. They continue breaching time and language when, on the last cut, they sing “Johnny Rotten, Rotten Johnny,” free to thrash in a zone where nothing matters but morality and musical penetration.

The album gave Hopper’s film its title and Dark Cloud throughsong. Greil Marcus wrote that Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks accepted death, from the single tear in Madame George’s eye to the spurned lover in "Slim Slow Slider" keeping tabs on his old flame and bringing both her and her new man into his ring of psychosis whether they know it or not. Both Hopper’s film and Young/Crazy Horse’s album are about death, but they struggle angrily against it. Young may have started the project to combat his growing sense of irrelevance (he first performed “My My” with Devo), but he achieved more than just cultural cache. He drove away the demons by becoming one himself.

Rust Never Sleeps is a document, hideaway and scourge. Listen to it, watch Out Of The Blue and ruminate on America and final things.  There’s a white boat coming up the river. What are you going to do now?

Ragged Glory

A collection of elegiac songs that rock too hard to be 100% elegiac, Ragged Glory continues the comeback tour after Young’s “lost” decade. It is less a return to form then a deliberate attempt for Young and Crazy Horse to play themselves back into the spook of miasmic sound where they work best. Ragged Glory is a prelude to masterworks like Sleeps With Angels and Broken Arrow.

The music is lavishly un-experimental. After Re-ac-tor and Life, Young seemed to conclude the best way to use Crazy Horse was to keep the approach gritty instead of grandiose. It’s an album of watercolors. “Fuckin’ Up,” the best cut, is a shameless ode to failure, vomited by the only man who could kill a curvy girl’s buzz. “Love To Burn” sends another single man galloping through the “valley of hearts” on a Homeric search for a heart to pluck free and call his own.  A mansion on a mystic hill plays psychedelic music around the clock like the flickers of a last dreamy dying star. It ends with the live “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” a prelude to Greendale and another recourse against unity.

It is a great album, but a surface one, slightly overrated by the musicratti overwhelmed by the challenges of “Change Your Mind” and all of Broken Arrow. In many ways, Ragged Glory is a breather, a collection of sweaty jam sessions. A few years later, they would make an album together that was about people who kept fuckin’ up until they were almost beyond repair.

Broken Arrow

Every song on Broken Arrow is a hazy, uncertain morning after hundreds of bad nights. The characters inside the songs, like the real Young on Zuma, don’t know how or where they lost their way. It happens. We realize we’re on a twisted road. The way back demands courage from us, courage we might not be ready to extol. The woman in “Slip Away” uses the music to escape that road. In the gorgeous leadoff “Big Time,” the narrator (I imagine a paunchy ex-hippie) has an epiphany: that we can reject the suffering for now, just as the suffering has attacked and forced us to reject our own well being before, on that familiar dread twisted road.

 Gonna leave the pain behind
 Gonna leave the fools in line
 Gonna take the magic potion
 Gettin’ in an old black car
 Gonna take a ride so far
 To the land of sun tan lotion

Because this is a song the character and his faint new hope don’t have to be stitched to a story. This can be the opening credits or the end titles, we don’t know. The album’s glacier pace allows Young and The Horse to offer these vulnerable sketches before losing themselves in the music. “Big Time” is 7 minutes long, and goes past the break towards complete repetitive rock. The jam is ultimately philosophical about life itself, which has the odd tendency to keep racing onward after we have come to the epiphany on how to live it. We wonder why we’re still in the track long after the last lyric has been sung. Because when we aren’t listening, and conclude that things have to change if we’re going to experience a better quality of life, nothing ends. It is now up to us to keep the music playing, or make it stop if that’s the only way to save ourselves.

Sleeps With Angels, the brilliant live album Year Of The Horse and Broken Arrow come from a different ditch, concerned less with mortality than the dread of wasting one’s own life, the moment when we realize we’ve not only lost our way but lost ourselves. Who did we loose us to? It hardly matters. One of Young’s most nakedly existential lyrics comes in “Scattered,” where he sings, “I’m a little bit here, I’m a little bit there/I’m a little bit scattered everywhere.

It’s a strange title, Broken Arrow, but not a random one. The final cut of Buffalo Springfield Again, his former band’s blockbuster second album, is an indulgent, intermittently compelling psychedelic and soundscape free-for-all. That “Broken Arrow” was the work of a great artist still short in the tooth. It tries to be many things: Sgt. Pepper’s, Fellini, even the same album’s “Pretending To Fly.” Buried in the overproduction are ponderous lyrics that plant tiny seeds of the song’s 1996 cousin.

“Did you see them?” Young asks, the “them” an uncertain ignored. “Did you see them? Did you see them in the river, they were there to wave to you. Could you tell that the empty quivered…” The quiverings of the empty are the final signs of life by “Thrasher’s” Park Bench Mutations. The narrator of “Big Time” feels the quiver of the possibility of fulfillment that forces him to drink the magic potion even if the elixer is poison. The body of the boy from “Powderfinger” quivers with the new sadness and the knowledge that he’s now joined a small group who slipped away before we were ready to let them go.


Broken Arrow is also the name of Young’s massive ranch, where he lives privately with his family and the archives of a life enormously lived. Yet the songs on Broken Arrow center on people who never married, or never stayed married, who never fulfilled their potential, who died inside long ago even if they didn’t literally die like the boy in “Powderfinger.” They never left the small decrepit towns where they can walk in the center of Main Street (not the sidewalk but Main Street) and ascend to the higher depths of the TV Sky where artificial safety embraces them into a comfortable coma. They are all broken arrows, halved from their point of trajectory by the most unpredictable contingencies.

 Gonna take it state by state
 Till I hit the golden gate
 Get my feet wet in the water

The cuts don’t sound clean. The music is unbalanced and sometimes as out-of-focus as Robin Williams in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. On “Big Time,” “Loose Change” and “This Town,” his voice floats away like a boomerang stuck far from us in concrete gravity. Young couldn’t call this album Life even if he hadn’t already used the title because it would have been too blatantly on the nose. Some art (Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the films of Henry Jaglom) presents themselves unabashedly as messes because the artists see existence as a glorious painful mess and have no other choice but to funnel that mess onto their canvases.

The relationships break our hearts and piss us off: relationships between ourselves and other people that quicksand into the relentlessly fucked, relationships between other people who we never wanted to fall in love with each other, relationships we have with ourselves that are fraught with a million little dangers, relationships with family that contain the pregnant air of repressed confessions, relationships with friends sharp with the love and pocketed hatreds of too much time spent together. The right and pride of being an individual is a battle that will eventually be lost because solitude is a lance that will stab and stab until it maketh murder. And if the sound of Broken Arrow is dirty even by Young standards, then we shouldn’t complain but listen deeply and try to discern why it sounds like that. Young and Crazy Horse are keeping themselves amateur, a garage band with veteran experience and the lifescars to illuminate those unseen quiverings of the empty. Rust never sleeps.

The final track is an eight-minute live cover of Jimmy Reed’s blues song “Baby What You Want Me To Do.” I’ve never made it through. I don’t think you’re meant to. The sound is of sub-bootleg quality, recorded by an audience microphone at an intimate California concert. Squirts of guitar and manacled drumming reach our ears through ambient overlap and the clink of passed glasses. The unsuspecting become a portion of a Neil Young album forever. This could be another pit stop on the “Big Time” narrator’s journey, entering this bar on the way to getting his feet wet in the ocean. He didn’t expect to see these guys playing tonight. He’s glad he left it all behind. The pain is dimming.  

Life is full of miracles. We can find plenty more past the albums. The live recordings are one entirely separate ocean. 

(special thanks to Metrolyrics.com, Azlyrics.com, and David Tucker, who got me going on NY, gave me Rust for xmas '03 and was there for the Boston premiere of Out Of The Blue)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pardon My Heart: Neil Young And Crazy Horse (Part 3)


Greendale

The musicianship, compassion, and scope of Young’s first rock opera, dubbed a “musical novel,” are truly staggering. After seeing the live show, McDonough said, “I don’t know where he can go from here.”

Young’s activism was in high gear in the first decade of the 2000s, and for me it struggles to harmonize with his artistry. I wish the characters in Greendale weren’t mouthpieces because Young lacks the graceful didacticism of Godard or Bob Dylan. When Grandpa Green barks, “I don’t watch channel 2 or 6 or 9,” it betrays the character as cardboard, making his death-by-media later in the story contrived. As strong as the music is when daughter Sun Green becomes an environmental activist, the push of a political agenda is something of a disappointment after the vivid, italics-free songs “The Devil’s Sidewalk,” “Carmichael,” and the heartbreaking “Bandit,” which essays the mid-life malaise of the Green patriarch, a second-rate painter still unsure of his lot in life. I’m also not convinced at how invested Young truly is in the humble pie Americana of the Greendale town, as he conflicts against his volcanic nature and focused complexity to portray unadorned sweetness. Not that Young isn’t a sentimental and deeply feeling man, but those emotions register more powerfully when directed to personal matters. That’s why the vocorder webbed “Transformer Man,” for his disabled son, and the morality and family focused recordings off Prairie Wind (his best “soft” album) are a more acceptable reprieve from the darkness Young often excavates.

Greendale was, however, the first Neil Young album I really got into. I saw the half-haunting, half-silly Young directed DIY film at my town’s left leaning theater. I copied the gushier lyrics as my Instant Message Away text. It provided me with my first, and still greatest, major Young memory, as my father and I drove around the block slowly, repeatedly, just so we could play the final cruncher “Be The Rain” again and again.

Young has directed five feature-length films as “Bernard Shakey.” His first, an acid trip called Journey Through The Past has yet eluded me, but Human Highway, co-directed with Dean Stockwell, co-starring Devo, and heavy on pratfalls between Russ Tamblyn and Young as the world’s most unlikely comedy team, is one of Filmdom’s great curios. Showcasing Jawas, “A Day In The Life,” and Young crawling around oversized amps like he’d just been zapped by Rick Moranis’s laser beam, the Rust Never Sleeps concert is an eccentric document that defies all rules of representation. With concert-reaction press clippings both positive and negative and footage of pissed off Red Stater walk outs, the 2008 CSNY documentary is certainly self-effacing, but much too placid, middle-brow and nice for the album and anger at hand. (Well, it is CSNY…) That leaves Greendale, a ramshackle home movie with a fetching blond schoolmate of Young’s daughter playing Sun Green, his close friend and musical collaborator Ben Keith as Grandpa, his wife Pegi as Edith Green and a full-time worker on his Broken Arrow ranch as Sun’s late dance partner and one night stand Earth Brown. (Yea, it’s not for everyone.)

Shot on 8mm and blown up to 35, every shot of Greendale is marked by diffusive grain. It looks as though it was lensed by the very soil Young is intent on saving. Some passages, like a montage of Eric Johnson’s Devil character (whose only devilish giveaway is being dressed exclusively in red) stalking empty roads and getting an electric shock from a church door have a primitive, uncanny Dawn Of Film emulsion. Young isn’t a filmmaker though, and relies on handmade charm to circumvent sillier choices like obvious taped-on newspaper headlines and High School props level costuming.

The most intriguing footage to emerge from the Greendale project isn’t from the film itself, but the behind the scenes documentary contained on the DVD. There are a few shots of Young recording the album with Crazy Horse in his home studio (minus Poncho Sampedro, who sat the sessions out), and it could be a visualization of the forgotten song “Ten Men Working” off his lovely, blues-influenced This Note’s For You. “Ten Men” looks at the act of music making as labor no different than construction or mining, though instead of producing a building or collecting coal, the Ten Men’s endgame is to “keep your soul from the blue.”

The candid footage of Young and a truncated Horse (Three Men Working) isn’t for a music video. They don’t know we’re watching. Sweat bleeds from Young’s face, Molina’s face. We can see the strain. Greendale isn’t a true NY & Crazy Horse album. Its a Young solo experiment with The Horse being recruited just like CSN were recruited for the Living With War concert tour after a choir was recruited for the album itself. Interviews with the band show them dazed and thrilled at the story playing out in song on a daily basis. They also kind of seem like they don’t really know what they’re doing there.

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Activism isn’t art, yet the final track, “Be The Rain,” has enough abstractions and foreboding portents to qualify. Sun, who’s become an outspoken campaigner following her grandfather’s death, doesn’t have a conclusive sendoff, she merely vanishes into another musical sandstorm. She blips away like a beautiful suicide walking into the morning’s ocean until we lose all trace of her. For many of Young and his backup singer’s underlined environmental slogans-Attention shoppers, buy with a conscience and save!-the first lines of the song proper throb with the vapor of dread, discovery and unanswered questions:

 We were running through the night
 Never knowing if we would see the light
 Paranoid schizophrenic visions
 Living in fear of the wrong decisions

This is ditch again. The lyrics are strange cousins to “See The Sky About To Rain,” the defeated On The Beach track where Young chillingly said, “some are bound to live with less/who will tell your story?

Beneath every hippie platitude is the romance of death. With the irreversible spoilage, perhaps the only way to save the planet is to enfold yourself in it, body and soul.

 Be the magic in the northern lights…
 Be the rain you remember falling…

In an early track, “Double E,” Sun is described as being “hot enough to burn the house down.” “Be The Rain,” can be heard as Sun’s ultimate, final, possibly first orgasm. In the film, Young shows her looking out at the ocean, unable to find Earth Brown. She looked around, and Earth was gone. Young the activist takes over in the film, and after Sun returns onstage in scenes from the live tour, Greendale’s end credits play over a National Geographic slideshow of the planet’s invaluable resources.

On the album, we don’t get Sun on stage. She’s searching fruitlessly for Earth. She’s as helpless as Clancy, though Sun’s song was stolen from inside her throat. Clancy is a hunchback, Sun a burning flower. On record, we see her smolder. Close your eyes, and the image is potent. After Earth, our Sun is the next thing blackened. Young woman goes. She’s the rain now. Feel her on your windshield and skin.

Re-ac-tor, Life

At the end of the decade, Neil Young was sued by Geffen Records, where he was signed for much of the eighties, for producing material that didn’t sound like Neil Young Music. The suit was ridiculous, even though I’d agree that some of his Geffen material-Everybody’s Rockin’, Old Ways, Landing On Water-ranks among his most half-hearted at best, his worst at worst. As I’ve said before though, Trans is a top-tenner (“This sounds like Daft Punk!” a very good friend gasped in my car after a thousandth playing of “Computer Age”), and his single Geffen album with The Horse resulted in a great complaint DGR never issued: that Neil Young and Crazy Horse weren’t making Neil Young and Crazy Horse music. The same could be said for 1981’s New Wave influenced Re-ac-tor, their weakest effort.

Young’s best work from that period (besides Trans) was the live country he played with a one-off band called The International Harvesters, finally compiled in the extraordinary 2011 “NY Performance Series” release called, fittingly, A Treasure. Some of the treasures: The only version of The Springfield’s “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” that you will ever need, previously unreleased jewels like “Amber Jean,” improvements on the songs “Get Back To The Country” and “Bound For Glory” from the country album Old Ways, and recapitulations of “Southern Pacific” and “Motor City,” cuts from Re-ac-tor that simply didn’t work on record.

“We’re not chops players,” Molina said in an interview. “When Neil plays with other guys, they’re more chops players, so you don’t get that raw, emotional thing happening.” As varied as the art they produce can be, The Horse are really best working in the constraints of that “raw, emotional,” sound they’ve cultivated with Young, chops be screwed. The harsh, New Wave Re-ac-tor is material that demands chops. Songs like “T-Bone,” and the original “Southern Pacific” are too theatrical and glittery for a band that would proclaim “We don’t wanna be good!” on Life’s “Prisoners of Rock And Roll.”

Now, I said way earlier that I don’t think Young and The Horse have made a bad album together. Re-ac-tor is as close as they’ve come, but its still miles above Everybody’s Rockin.’ Bob Dylan may be the better songwriter, but Young has never made anything that fills me with as much disgust as Dylan’s Down In The Groove (future Dylan completists beware!), and Re-ac-tor is strangely compelling. There’s a musical universe outside of Young, and the album is an attempt to encroach on some of that real estate. There’s just enough of the classic spook to make it clear that it is indeed Young we’re listening to, trying new things and failing. But the failure is a glorious one, more Brewter McCloud crashing to the bottom of the Houston Astrodome than John McCabe dying alone and unloved in the snow. Young and The Horse are all strapped with gaudy wings, and they go down together.  

Life is another departure from what we can semi-categorize as “typical” Young and Crazy Horse. Heavy on “War” and “Jungle” sound effects, disco synthy (the album’s best cut, “Around The World,” almost sounds like it was produced by Nile Rodgers) Life was his last album for Geffen. Unlike Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth’s fantastic final release for DGR, Life isn’t Young at his best. As evidenced by the cover-a photo of a free, rocking Young tacked to a prison wall and hemmed in by bars-he is relieved to escape this artistically stultifying contract.

After the scarily unified cohesiveness of Young and The Horse’s masterpiece Rust Never Sleeps, they made a few records that jumped carelessly from one thematic Lillipad to another. Life’s content is nearly as ambitious as its title. Like a book of collected short stories that don’t compliment each other but are all unmistakably from the same writer’s pen, Life jets from the disturbing patriotism of “Mideast Vacation’s” soldier narrator to “Inca Queen,” another of Young’s historical bong hits, to the firey “Prisoner’s Of Rock And Roll” and the pensive “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks.” It’s kind of shocking to learn that most of the album was recorded live, because it feels so incredibly studio, the sounds beaten into submission like a clay pot. There is none of The Horse’s emotion, but Life is so sure of its own wild-eyed convictions that we hardly notice even if we care.

“Around The World” is either a grab for relevance or a spoof of the idea of relevance from a musician who predicted grunge at the close of the seventies and has just announced that his next album with The Horse will be reconfigured playground songs. “Around The World” is panoramic, flying above the ground like the wings of Pazuzu in John Boorman’s Exorcist 2: The Heretic. It touches on modern love (“Boy and girl fall in love/Dreamin’ under stars above/Meanwhile push comes to shove…”), modern war (“Leaders fall, leaders rise/Terror wears a thin disguise/Not much room for compromise…”), the third world (“People sweat in planted fields…”) and the tectonic plates of culture shifting too fast for this aging rocker to keep pace with. “Fashion change, style change,” Young repeats like a mantra. He tries picking up a woman with the cornball line “Hey! You are something else tonight, so skin tight.” It doesn’t wash, but that’s the point. Life is ridiculous. Neil Young Jackson Pollock’d an album’s worth of his messy thoughts about it before shouting “kiss my ass!” to a belligerent record label. Fashion chance, style change. If you can’t keep up, make your own.

Zuma

In the final months of 2011, I was overjoyed at the discovery of an LP of Zuma (1975) stocked away inside the archives of my home. I played each side countless times. I sang its praises on Facebook and soon found that, if not exactly a tastemaker, I had inspired two people to seek out both the record and Young’s larger output. The two were women, and if they’ve heard Zuma by now I hope they don’t think I wanted to communicate buried thoughts to them through the album, through songs like “Danger Bird,” “Barstool Blues,” “Stupid Girl,” and especially “Don’t Cry No Tears.” I don’t pine for either of them, but it’s impossible for anyone who has ever been romantically disappointed to hear Young sing, in “Don’t Cry No Tears,” “There’s nothing I can say/To make him go away” and not have the Blue Monica Demon, however dormant, stir just a little. Young made the record with a new Crazy Horse, as Poncho had just replaced Whitten, and had noted to Young that, since his last few albums were bluesier, it was time to make sexy rock that would get women “shaking their bottoms.”

The finished thing was markedly different from that first hedonistic intention.

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I’ve only seen one filmic moment that truly approximates the sensation of playing vinyl. It comes in the first few seconds of Canadian artist Michael Snow’s three-hour La Région Centrale, a legendary corkscrew that makes the final trip in Kubrick’s 2001 seem like pony ride. Filmed by Snow in the starred-out Quebecian mountains by a camera mounted to a robotic arm that dictated new movement with every revolved automatic spin, Centrale twists, lifts, spirals like a dancer, hugs the ground and loves the moonbeam sky.

In those thrilling first seconds, we ascend from the dirt, leaving pebbles and snowy flecks behind, the motion signifying the collapse of personal choice. The camera, like the needle, is doing what it was programmed to do. There is no stopping it. The camera encompasses lone mountains, the needle unlocks the special sound…and in us, the watchers, the listeners, owners of a human heart, whatever chain reaction that has compelled us to another person is impossible to snuff once that fuse has been ignited with hellfire.

Zuma is about hating an entire gender after trying and failing to possess one of its members. Zuma is about the unhealthy compulsion to write and say things you know you’ll regret before they even leave you behind. Zuma is dangerously subjective. Zuma is about nothing. Zuma is about history unforgivably mutated into the opposite of history, a personal history that only applies to you and predicted you with knowledgeable congruency. Zuma is petty and boundless. Zuma is heartbroken art. Zuma is about heartbroken art. The needle of the record player isn’t a free agent, just like Snow’s mounted camera. Both of them, needle and lens, are witness to irrepressible earth and a broken arrow man reveling in his peaked powers, powers that aren’t enough to “make him go away.” She doesn’t want him to go away. The alternative is too volatile. The man she’s with isn’t a genius, but that’s a good thing, because geniuses are pathetic, particular, disturbed, hideous people; that’s part of the trade of being one. Zuma is about men.

It isn’t my place to comment on Young’s troubled relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass, the mother of his first child. Obviously he’ll never read this long, multi-part essay, but if he ever does in some parallel universe I want him to know that I tried focusing on the music and the relationships strictly related to the production of the music. I know why he made “Danger Bird.” If Young can’t make him go away from her, he can show her what he’s capable of in the solitude of his art. The solitude where he has brought The Horse, always willing to stand and play with him in this new nowhere.

 Danger bird, he flies alone
 And he rides the wind back to his home

“Danger Bird” is one of the major Neil Young songs. Like “On The Beach,” “Will To Love,” “Powderfinger,” it seems less recorded than Biblically conjured. The songs were always in the air, the fog, and they were always a rider approaching. “Danger Bird’s” central guitar riff is one of those sound sequences you can’t imagine your frame of reference being without. It is as much a distillation of lonely pride as a framed image pulled from Taxi Driver and hung on a wall in the Lost Highway Motel. The Bird is Young, but it’s also the Nowhere he first discovered by playing heedlessly with the ex-Rockets. The song hides spiraled lyrical pockets, stuff about cracking up in the museum with friends, stuff about pounding down, down, down.
 
The track meanders, as consumed by itself as Young is consumed by the woman he admits to thinking of all day long. It is a predator, and goes insane with guitar bullet spray right before fading out. Voices overlap, clouds dark with evening guard the flyzone. “Danger Bird” might be Young’s most transcendent song. It isn’t the blues but the reds of hard rocking slowed to a funeral march. Sorry Poncho, it won’t make women shake their bottoms. They will run away from the sad massive Danger Bird, pointing upward, warning future targets. They will take shelter. They needn’t worry, the Bird won’t follow. He’s exhausted. He’ll land soon.

 And I know we should be free
 But freedom’s just a prison to me
 ‘Cause I lied to keep it kind
 When I left you far behind

Ride the wind. The needle is scared but it dips into the breach. Snow’s camera summersaults through crisp mountain air. The divisive album cover by “Mazzeo” is a sexist cartoon, where a giant bald eagle points the way forward, carrying aloft a naked woman in it’s talons. They fly across a middle finger protruding from the ground like Carrie White’s bloody palm. The cover (more importantly, Young’s choice to use that cover) is an act of consumer warning as defiant as the sentence “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It says, “I won’t be like this thirty years from now. Right now, though, I’m a threat. I’m kind of a monster.”

The other songs pool into “Danger Bird” and the penultimate “Cortez The Killer.” The Horse tries giving Young the truth in “Pardon My Heart” by gently singing, “You brought it all on,” to which Young counters, “No, I don’t believe this song.” He’s sickened by what he’s been forced by cynical circumstance to say in “Stupid Girl,” comparing her to a “beautiful fish, flopping on the summer sand.” Who knows if the girl is stupid. We don’t get her side of the story like in the extraordinary second movement of Stevie Wonder’s “Ordinary Pain,” where singers Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams invade the song, and Wonder’s attempt to catalogue and conveniently summarize his ex-lover, by branding him a “masochistic fool” and erasing his macho fabulist heartbroken bullshit. The only woman we’re going to find in this land called Zuma is the Mad Magazine imitation of a woman helpless helpless helpless in that dangerous eagleman’s claws. 

The emotions of a spurned heart are both rigorously complex and as simple as nursery school chants. They are selfish feelings, unimportant to the world and its progress and the rest of its people and their progress. Our problems are meaningless, but that doesn’t make them go away. In “Barstool Blues,” Young relays the story of a “friend” who “died a thousand deaths.” He tells this now-mythical, absent “her” that “I saw you in my nightmares, and I’ll see you in my dreams. And I might live a thousand years before I know what that means.”

Yet he knows what that means in the moment, the faux-profundity of the bar and its nectars have unrolled his wasted love into a massive rope of dumb tongue. “Drown Your Sorrows” is the Bar’s promise and great cliché. Yet sorrows have gills. You trust in a woman, and in her you make your bets. But that’s shaky ground to build a life on. You should know better. What’s the upside? You’ve written “Barstool Blues.” You’ve made Zuma.

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“Cortez The Killer” is the sepia blinkered, Samuel Bronston epic of a conqueror and a spoiler, until we ride a long ellipses to the other side of time, where a woman stands alone in a house in the flatlands built by native spirits waiting for the man she loves, a man who will not materialize.  

Play music. Study history. Write, read, watch movies, make them if you have the strength; study the past, invent, quest inside yourself for what you are truly capable of. All those achievements on paper, on record, on screen, all the triumphant matter come to ashy nothing when the productive heart stays unfulfilled. Cortez “Danced across the water/with his Galleons and guns/Looking for a new world/In that palace in the sun.” Young chose Cortez because he did the same thing himself, dancing to our shores from Canada (home of The Central Region), finding the key to that palace much too quickly, before he knew the extent to which a psychologically traumatic relationship could turn him out.

 And his subjects gathered round him, like the leaves around a tree
 In their clothes of many colors, for the angry Gods to see

Why does one person make another person lose control? Why does a face, a personality, a single shared passion send minds cranking at the whim of a robotic staff? What leads us to push someone on the turntable, thinking and hoping they’re one genre when they are in fact quite another, forcing the needle to a future cut we haven’t yet earned, thus scratching the LP and rendering it unplayable forever?

During On The Beach, Young sang, “I’m deep inside myself but I’ll get out somehow.” He hadn’t yet, not on Zuma. Instead he plunged deeper. Cortez and Montezuma are chords, ending with the song. The house where the woman waits, built from the stones carried by their subjects, is the song’s only reality. His only way to see her is to remain inside himself, where the Danger Bird can rest in a mountain cave and spy on a strange photographic mechanism far off, looking at the bird looking at it.

After the record is finished, the needle singing thumps, Snow’s camera looses what little film stock it had left, after the interpersonal calamity has cooled and we can only hope we have the strength to let her “Drive Back” and rebuild a friendship years on, all that stays are the random clicks and cultural brainwaves where, in our headspace if not Young’s, Sun Green meets Cortez The Killer and he woos her with tales of a time when “Hate was just a legend, and war was never known.”

Beautiful, budding, an anti-Bush administration relic we all fell in love with in 2003, Sun has also just gotten into Neil Young. She’s only heard a few of the albums. She sings to Cortez, “Tell me wh-y-y, is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, when you’re old enough to repaint but young enough to sell?”

Cortez is silent. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her what she’ll find if she ventures further into the canyon of her creator’s canon. He doesn’t want to watch Sun’s face change when she listens to “Cortez The Killer” in her new room in the palace and first hears the lyrics:

 I still can’t remember when
 Or how I lost my way

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sleeps With Nowhere: Neil Young And Crazy Horse (Part 2)


Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Neil Young has always been weird. We hear a voice that unique, “androgynous” (to quote McDonough), alien, and the songs that voice produces couldn’t be anything but. Even from the start, in his compositions for The Buffalo Springfield, there was a troubling fixation on loneliness and despair. Young didn’t perform his own “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”-that would be Richie Furay-but there’s nobody else who would have conjured the man “putting sponge in the bells he once rung.” Clancy could sing, before his night called it a night.

I wonder if Young still gets late phone calls from Clancy, an old character in an old song? The musician certainly stands out in early photographs of the band. While the other members, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Dewey Martin, Bruce Palmer, are posh and photogenic, Young is gawky and too tall, bearing a toothy smile and faraway eyes. You might mistake him for one of the other member’s cousins, or a withdrawn older brother, allowed a spot in the group photograph just this once.

So when this rambler came out with his self-titled LP in 1968, the songs were as inexplicable as his appearance. The album is very Cold Light Of Canadian Morning. Neil Young is Canadian in the same “This could be America, tweaked” feeling also attainable from Allan King documentaries and episodes of Degrassi. It could just as well be called “The Loner,” after its second cut. I was very exited to find the Vinyl copies around the house for both this and Young’s second LP, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, consequently his first with The Horse.

Young’s face stares chalkily from the cover, illustrated with psychadelic splash. Behind him roll bucolic hills that could be American, or Canadian, or even the Irish countryside Robert Altman mythologized in his thriller Images. Turn the cover upside down and we can discern a city in the reflecting pool of his black sweater. He's going places, and he knows it down to every strand of his DNA.

I’ve only been playing Vinyl since last fall. Every time I apply the needle I feel like I’m in the process of diffusing a bomb. I haven’t become a Vinyl snob, and I certainly listen to MP3s more out of sheer convenience (though Young himself has practically issued a contract on the format’s life), but playing records does develop a closer relationship to the sound, which is now malleable and delicate as a newborn.

It really is an event every time an LP is selected, removed, placed on the turntable and played. Standing up and changing sides is a careful practice. With double albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Derek And The Dominoes’ Layla, the listener practically goes on a journey with the work’s progression. In the case of Layla, which picks and picks at the scab of unrequited love until, in that miserably orgiastic title song, the wound spurts a torrent of plasma, we get up after one side ends and flip the record over, nearing that track, our palms clamming up for the chills only Layla and Clapton’s obsession with her foolish pride can give us. It’s like watching a 16mm print of Sam Fuller’s Park Row.

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On the back of the LP, serving as an epigraph for the whole album, is a prose adaptation of lyrics from the longish final track, “The Last Trip To Tulsa.” Beneath a woodcut picture of what appears to be a frowning apple street vender holding the corpse of a child, Young writes:

I was chopping down a palm tree when a friend dropped by to ask if I would feel less lonely if he helped me swing the axe. I said, "No, it's not a case of being lonely we have here. I've been working on this palm tree for eighty-seven years." He said "Go get lost" and walked toward his Cadillac. I chopped down the palm tree and it landed on his back.

That paragraph is abstract, pretending to be thematic, in awe of creativity finding out that a devotion to creativity unveils a night sky full of as many pretensions as mysteries, just like Neil Young, which falls just short of true greatness because of the lyrical self-consciousness and Dylan smog of the songwriting. Young can’t really pull off fantasy, and his lyrics are more effective-and allegorical-when he stays on the surface of things, not claiming to be a woman in “Tulsa,” or waking up with an arrow through his nose, as an Indian tries on his clothes.  

Crazy Horse, formerly The Rockets, brought Young to America, and arguably to himself. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is a discovery in the second-by-second recording, as it feels itself out and stakes the uncharted ground it can plow. Like Neil Young, it is a lament by the losers for the lost, as the opening cry for a “Cinnamon Girl” is canceled by the singer’s epiphany that he’s got to flee the day to day running around, because “Nowhere” is more than a simple state of mind, “Nowhere” is a friend who won’t leave the party, a girl with whom you have all in common with except the vital strains you live for. As Young sings it, he’s just spotted Nowhere following him down the street like one of the suited bodyguards employed by Sydney Pollack’s Master Of Ceremonies. If there isn’t any running away-Nowhere would never allow it-there is the option to stay and jam in Nowhere’s gluttonous belly. Molina, Talbot and Whitten, unlike The Buffalo Springfield, are willing to stand with Neil Young inside of Nowhere. They are the “everybody” who knows the truth.

Even before we reach “Down By The River,” it’s obvious we’re hearing Young’s best work to date. A lack of overdubs and the heedless, hungry rocking allow for white heat expression he never raised with The Springfield, or with himself in the first solo LP. And then, at the close of Side One, Young and The Horse take us down by the river, where a woman has been shot.

It took me quite a few spelunking dives into this musical sandstorm to realize, “holy shit, he’s saying he shot her down by the river!” Young, Molina, Talbot and Whitten come to the song modestly, and it heightens like a rockier version of one of those hundreds of blues songs about murder that keep Greil Marcus up at night.

 Be on my side
 I’ll be on your side, Baby
 There is no reason for you to hide
 It’s so hard for me staying here all alone
 When you could be taking me for a ride

This opening verse harkens to the standing-on-the-curb angst of the debut’s “What Did You Do To My Life,” except the music is of a fuller blood, you can imagine Young staring at Whitten and Whitten staring back, and the two exchanging the slightest twitch or twinkle. Neither will be alone. They’ll be going into this maw together.  Be on my side, I’ll be on your side. “Down By The River” is the song where Young and the former Rockets realized they were musical adventurers together. 

The cut is nine minutes and thirteen seconds. A second definitive performance from “Live At The Filmore East” is even longer. Why, as I listen, do I feel more elated than disturbed, despite the narrator’s confession that he shot his baby down by the river?

Because it never happened. The words are just that, mere words. They were always an excuse for the music. The image we perceive-the woman falling, her man holding a hot smoldering weapon, evening sun glinting within liquid ripples, glazed and Vaseline-lubed like a frame from Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand-is wiped away by that sandstorm, the harmonious back-and-forth of sinister chords, the confident communication, the leisurely meandering sink. It’s quite surprising that Young and The Horse were able to reclaim this spook with Poncho, but “Down By The River” and the equally immersive closer “Cowgirl In The Sand” are singular additions to the Young canon because of Whitten. When the posthumous narrator of Young and The Horse’s later “Powderfinger” states that his death has left “so much left undone,” he’s partly speaking for Danny Whitten along with every other much too sooner you can name.

“Down By The River” changes what a song can do. It is the first signal that Young and the ex-Rockets were capable of ducking around common strictures of song and time. In approaching the work that commences, I don’t feel obliged to follow any kind of linear calendar. I’ll tackle the records I feel like tackling in the moment, starting with 1994’s Sleeps With Angels, one of those forgotten works that deserve a higher standing in serious Young assessments. (I’d also include Broken Arrow, Trans, and Year Of The Horse in that list.) Just as the music of “River” levitates from the tableau of a man and his murdered woman, I’m going to levitate from one album to another album decades later. Molecules and brainwaves split open. The wielder of the axe doesn’t stop to consider the implications. He time travels. To follow him, we need to catch the warp and time travel as well.


Sleeps With Angels

The intimacy and expansive potential of two people alone in a room together is too scary for many to face full-measure. Try to think of the movies-The Mother And The Whore, Last Tango In Paris, L'amour Fou, Contempt are so galvanizing and cultic because they zero in on the anatomy of a human relationship. They take you into the room with the two who have suddenly found themselves bound together past all conceivable reason.

Imagine. You were with yourself until you aren’t. Another person has entered the play. They’ve broached your thinking. They’ve caused a significant change on your Facebook page. The floodgates of new burst open. The world gets better and worse and better again. This is good. There is only one other person now who could make a dent on your independent steel. Void fillers can mould, even if that wasn’t their first intention. Why? Because they are Void fillers.

This is the territory of “Change Your Mind,” a fourteen-minute song off Sleeps With Angels. Much has been written about the album’s connections with Tonight’s The Night, as certain structures and themes crosshatch (the death of another talented young man, Kurt Cobain, was a large inspiration, both albums share 12 tracks, both were recorded in L.A., each album is death-snared and autumnal), but “Change Your Mind” is its own livewire tendril. The song is uncomfortable. All Christgau had to say was that it wasn’t “Like A Hurricane.” (As if it was trying to be!) The song is, for some, a way back to hazy flesh memories, and to the demonic untouched it is a country where they have always wanted to go.

Unlike “Down By The River,” the extended musical passages in “Change Your Mind” are knotted tight with the lyrics. It doesn’t matter if the narrator of the song is a man speaking to a woman or a woman speaking to a man or a man or woman speaking to the same member of their own gender. The song is narrated by the naked secret voice born from naked secret bodies. It begins with the words of someone who knows their lover so intimately they can speak for them; any barrier or former free will is gone:

 When you get weak,
 And you need to test your will
 When life’s complete,
 But there’s something missing still
 Distracting you from this
 Must be the one you love
 Must be the one whose magic touch
 Can change your mind

The wielder of the magic touch knows the tremendous power they hold. The song is pocked with dread, as this all-consuming bond is always in danger of mutating into abuse or sado-masochism. Nothing asked would be considered unacceptable. Every chorus is another declaration of what the lover with the magic touch anoints their chosen. To wit (the refrain after every “you” is the song title):

 Protecting you…
 Restoring you…
 Revealing you…
 Soothing you…
 Destroying you…
 Embracing you…
 Protecting you…
 Confining you…
 Distracting you…
 Supporting you…
 Distorting you…
 Controlling you…
 Embracing you…
 Concealing you…
 Protecting you…
 Revealing you…

The music is damp and drenched in clandestine fluids. The room is dark, windows shuttered. The camera of Molina’s drums and Talbot’s bass pan away from the sticky bed where the two roll over, tracking to the window at the moment headlights from a passing car navigate through the blinds. Young’s lead guitar provides the cut back to the lovers on the bed. The voice returns. We feel dazed, lovely, scared. The voice doesn’t care. It has taken so much from another person as to become God Himself:

 The morning comes
 There’s an odor in the room
 The scent of love
 More than a million roses bloom

The song is about consensual enslavement. It is Young’s most disturbing because, as a musical equation of Manny Farber’s “Termite Art,” it evokes the danger of true passion, when, in every relationship, one person must give up more of themselves than the other gives up to them.

Young and The Horse sustain the intensity. The very next song is called “Blue Eden,” because what is a real-life Garden without it's own fallout melancholy? A sequel of sorts, “Blue Eden” swirls and melts down lyrics we’ve heard on the album so far into a medley. Over the same instrumental as “Change Your Mind,” The Horse intone, “Revealing you/Concealing you…” before dreamily repeating lyrics from the title song. Each member of The Horse has writing credits on the song. It’s as if they all realized the album needed this, a Twin Peaks-like Black Lodge track in a separate dimension. 

This is the same artistic path that leaps forward hundreds of years into the future at the end of Zuma’s “Cortez The Killer,” or disintegrates the classic “When You Dance You Can Really Love” into grungy sludge on Year Of The Horse to mine new revelations from something that was once clean and proper. “Blue Eden” and Sleeps With Angels rescue Young, in a sense. They rescue him from the notable yet bland comfort of ‘92’s Harvest Moon, just as ‘79’s Rust Never Sleeps rescued him from the acceptability of Comes A Time, the weird, Mekons-like Life rescued him from the awkward Landing On Water in ‘87 and the raging bull Ragged Glory saved him from the Free World ubiquity of the half-great Freedom at the start of the nineties.

The Ditch is always waiting eager with craggily opened arms.

The resigned entropy of “Safeway Cart” follows in “Change Your Mind” and “Blue Eden’s” wake. “Safeway Cart” can be heard as a correction of the histrionic didacticism of Freedom’s “Crime In The City,” replacing satire and answers with art and confusion. It stays in the urban ruin long after Elvis Presley’s beautiful “In The Ghetto” has left. The “Ghetto dawn” Young sings of is the same morning light touching the affluent room in “Change Your Mind” and mingling with their excreted scent of love.

A Safeway cart rolls down the street, after possibly coming unglued from a supermarket rack. It rolls alone in the stark light, a free agent like the barely conscious heroine clad in nothing but a blood-soaked nightie at the close of the 1978 slasher film The Toolbox Murders. The bums and the addicts sleep under graffiti and demolished plaster. Just keep rolling on it’s a ghetto dawn. A Bass Marimba provides doom-laced sonic resonance.

Not everyone is asleep or dead. In an apartment house near the rolling cart, towering projects maybe, a presence sits on a cheap couch watching TV. Baby looks so bad with her TV eyes. The song never gives us more details. Is “Baby” a neglected child, a crack addict, an obese, an old woman handing over the final months of her life to the smarmy hosts of A.M. infomercials? Fringe dwellers of the Young catalogue have heard variations of the phrase “TV Eyes,” in the “TV Sky” mentioned in songs “We R In Control” off Trans and Broken Arrow’s “Slip Away.” The TV Sky has different functions in both. In “Control,” the TV Sky is the province of the Orwellian C.C.T.B. Corporation, a media sphere that keeps expert surveillance on the land and its people. The dancing woman in “Slip Away” is single and “lives in the TV Sky,” realism as opposed to halfbaked science fiction. Her TV Sky is embedded with afternoon reruns of Robert Redford movies and Soap Opera dreams. They R in control.

This is different. These are TV Eyes, infected with the strain and bloat of too much watching. Baby doesn’t see the Safeway cart outside. She’s too entranced by flicker. Baby and the Safeway Cart are the two loneliest creatures in the world, interchangeable objects as contrasted in finality from the lovers in “Change Your Mind” as Sleeps With Angels is from Harvest Moon.

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There are more riches here, the forlorn “Prime Of Life,” “Driveby,” “Sleeps With Angels,” “Western Hero,” the welcome levity of “Piece Of Crap,” which doesn’t sacrifice thematic unity in its laundry list of failed consumerism. I’m specifically highlighting these three tracks though because they’re indicative of an eternal flame that has burned since “Down By The River.”

Watch a performance video for “Change Your Mind” by the great director Jonathan Demme, shot for a mini film called The Complex Sessions. Watch how Young and The Horse play together. Demme’s lighting brightens and subtracts, leaving the players in occasional darkness. Viewing a performance of “Change Your Mind” rather than listening to the song brings the realization that, in this context, the lyrics sometimes refer to Young’s relationship with the members of this band. As David Crosby said in CSNY Déjà Vu, an artistic collaboration with Young is comparable to living in a police state, as he calls the shots and makes the rules. (Young isn’t so different from C.C.T.B. in that regard.)

We know from reading McDonough how The Horse has been mistreated in the past, dropped suddenly so Young can tour with CSNY or record a new album solo. After Whitten’s death, The Horse was basically dead as an act divorced from Neil Young. The geniuses behind their excellent debut album were former members Whitten and Jack Nitzsche. Young is in charge of controlling them, revealing them, destroying them and restoring them whether they like it or not. 

Like the suffocated loved one in “Change Your Mind,” Crazy Horse are not great without him. Young can be great without them, but is better with them. His magic touch, like the Overlord lover’s, is magic because it has a partner to brighten. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Neil Young And Crazy Horse (Part 1)


The most exciting cultural news I’ve heard this infant year is that Neil Young is finally recording again with his longtime backing band, Crazy Horse. This is the first they've played together since the uneven 2003 concept album Greendale. Listen to the direction of Young’s recent music and it's clear that he’s driving back to the domain of the “spook” he gets with the Horse’s Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro.

His last studio album, Le Noise, was a reckoning of his decades in the spotlight. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it catapults Young into uncharted sonic territory, as he plays solo with Lanois blasting every electric shred and lick into widely discordant streaks. The lyrics to “Walk With Me,” “Love And War,” “Hitchhiker,” “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” all hear like scrawls an unsettled, insomniac Young jotted down on napkin paper in the middle of the night. Le Noise isn’t sentimental like 2000’s Silver And Gold, or elegiac like 2005’s Prairie Wind. The record is terrified at the prospect that life is closer to ending than it was before, and all the accomplishments of a great artist may not have been enough. That’s why it is so damn loud. Le Noise is Crazy Horse music without Crazy Horse, except with prayers finally answered that’s all about to change.

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I’m playing a bootleg recording of a concert Young performed in Albany on May 18th, 2010. Musicians work in perpetual regeneration that artists in other mediums don’t experience because their paint is dried. As Young re-enters “Tell Me Why,” or “Down By The River,” it’s like John Cheever rebuilding his short story “The Enormous Radio” from the ground up, night after night. There are a few pauses and false starts-it appears Young isn’t crazy about the venue’s sound system-but the new and old songs merge in a seamless tapestry of a united life’s work (“isn’t it all just one song,” Young asks at one point, echoing his Into-The-Breach credo at the beginning of the 1997 double live Year Of The Horse), and yet we feel his sense of incompleteness at playing “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” by himself.

There’s a laid-bare finality to Le Noise. Young confesses that while he tried to write songs about love and war, he might have “hit a bad chord”-possibly referring to his 2006 screed Living With War or “Bernard Shakey’s” flaky activist films Greendale and CSNY Déjà Vu. On the epic, autobiographical “Hitchhiker,” he borrows the melody from “Like An Inca,” a song from his criminally underrated electro-sci fi-Hawaii-rock record Trans to recount how far he has come despite battles with relationships, paranoia, cocaine, and himself. “I’m trying to escape my past but its catching up to me,” he sings. Two albums with The Horse have been announced for release this year-be still/heart-but this union is clearly a part of Young’s past he is always willing to make present. I’ve decided to revisit a selection of releases by Neil Young and Crazy Horse while this news is still warm. Young said that he has never played a bad night with them. I don’t think he’s made a bad album with them, either.

The Ditch Trilogy

To get one thing out of the way: Young’s crowning achievement wasn’t officially made with The Horse. After the enormous mainstream success of 1972’s Harvest, which contains the Neil Young songs most people know the best (“Old Man,” “Heart Of Gold,” “The Needle And The Damage Done”), Young felt like he had ended up in “the middle of the road.” To get out of this artistic stagnation, there was only one gritty place to go.

The Ditch Trilogy is the unofficial, fan-branded moniker for 1973’s Time Fades Away, ‘74’s On The Beach, and the following year’s Tonight’s The Night. Barring Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Updike’s Rabbit At Rest, Jean-Luc Godard’s entire filmography and Morrissey’s “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” this triptych is probably my personal favorite work of popular art. Time Fades Away is comprised of eight soundboard recordings from a tour so draining that Young has yet to release the record on CD. It is out of print, and he’s rarely played the songs since, which is an enormous loss, considering just how essential “Don’t Be Denied” and “Last Dance” truly are.

David Briggs, Young’s late, great longtime producer, hated the unpolished blitzkrieg of the album. I’m reminded of the myths accusing Robert Altman of deliberately distorting McCabe’s picture and sound to its bare muddiness. Really, for a follow-up release to one of 1972’s most successful records, Time Fades Away first demonstrated Young’s sheer power of gut-will. He had to put out Time Fades Away, no matter the dozens of factors explicitly telling him he shouldn’t. The sonic mange only adds resonance to “Denied,” a rags-to-riches story tangled in the rags, and the where-I’m-calling-from “L.A.” where Young tells us, as if over the phone, “Don’t you wish that you could be here to?” Does he want to switch places?

Time Fades Away is a gloomy title for a wracked, uncompromised work. If an album by a major success (remember, before his rise as a solo artist, Young was a former member of the classic rock band Buffalo Springfield and on-off “N” of CSNY) reaches the ear with such spotty rawness, what does that say about its maker’s vision of that success? Young doesn’t even believe it, proclaiming himself as “A pauper in a naked disguise/A millionaire in a businessman’s eyes.”

The next two installments are both introspective and expansive, peering into the soul of a desiccated artist and outward at the crime and dope-soaked world that artist lives in. Tonight’s The Night was inspired by the deaths of Bruce Berry, one of Young’s roadies, and guitarist Danny Whitten, an initial member of Crazy Horse. Both fatalities were drug related.

Harvest’s “Needle” is the ideal NY anti-drug ditty for radio play and Greatest Hits canonization, poetic and sad enough to move the casually moveable before they move on. Tonight’s The Night is the unmitigated exploration of substances eroding talent, soil, light and hope. The opening title track mentions Berry by name, and Young’s voice has never sounded more parched and decimated than the moment he chokes, “I heard that he died, out on the mainline.” Rock critic Cormac McCarthy’s description in The Road of his jet-black, post-apocalyptic American skyline resembling “some cold Glaucoma dimming away the world,” is as good as any summing up of the experience of listening. Nothing can survive in the space of this album, from Young’s creativity (“Borrowed Tune”) to the lives of dope dealers killed before morning’s first light (“Tired Eyes”), as if Berry’s fate in that inaugural track formed the black roots of an immense dying tree. When his behavior couldn’t be tolerated any longer, Young fired Whitten, giving him the 50 dollars he would later use to purchase his climactic hit. Whitten is reanimated on the live recording “Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown,” but the track ends, and he goes away, back into the dark bloom. Tonight’s the final night, the final hit, the final show, the final breath. Enjoy it. There won’t be any more.

On The Beach’s California death trip cuts from Young’s lost-soul diary to view in longshot the Mansonlike cult in “Revolution Blues,” who hate celebrities worse than lepers and want nothing more than to kill them in their fucking cars; afterwards we dissolve to the somber eco pollution of "Vampire Blues," and the whole thing started so jauntily with “Walk On,” an up-tempo birdflip to Young’s critics. The production gets more and more nonexistent, until we can practically see the hemp smoke rising from “On The Beach,” “Motion Pictures,” and “Ambulance Blues” like the evident haze of Honey Slides, the Grass and sweet honey combination Young and his personnel consumed while recording.

This trilogy is a manifestation of a state of mind, especially side B of On The Beach, which is a place we might all go after the deal cracks up. As listeners, we don’t have to be Neil Young to empathize with the three lengthy cuts, we just have to be people who know what he means when he sings, “I’m deep inside myself but I’ll get out somehow.”

On The Beach. If we’ve survived the night that for the less fortunate was The Night, we walk on the beach, our bodies emoted to the furthest point of endurance, and we flop near the shoreline, wondering why we’re still here. Time fades away. Tide fades away. We’re Barton Fink: we’ve failed, even if we have just completed the best work of our lives. Young sees “motion pictures on my TV screen,” creating a perfect metaphor for human beings living at half of their capacity, relegated to grains of suicidal thought and self-doubt, just as the mighty Panavision movies they used to make in California become chopped, cropped, cut, and broadcast on television in the age before VHS tapes made the hatchet jobs collectable. The Beach can be a bedroom where it has been decided by the inhabitant that the inhabitant no longer wants to be alive, or a car ride when you feel like a passenger, even though you’re driving and there’s nobody else on the highway. 

“The seagulls are still out of reach.” We swim inside the song and use the projection power the blues can enable to make those gulls a person so much like ourselves that we can’t possibly stay in touch with them, or the shores of previous years hollowed like landmine impact, empty like tubes of toothpaste, and we can’t get back because we’re lying here, kneading sand.


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The Ditch Trilogy is a chronicle of the loss of time, friends, well being. Demure, redheaded B-Movie actress Monique Parent said something in an interview I read years ago that I’ve never been able to forget. Commenting on the tonic effect sultry, erotic softcore movies like Playtime have had on the sleepless viewers who come to them on the late-night Cinemax slipstream and find endearing, hot, whatever, the fussed-over simulacrum of sex our species wants to prefer to tell itself it has, in a great rush of motherly compassion, in a quote that probably came from somewhere else but that I’ll forever associate with her, she said: “I comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

Monique’s delicious performances and Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy are best inhaled at nighttime, when the comfortable-who are really disturbed but won’t admit it, or admit that sometimes they need Monique’s help-have turned in, leaving here the wretches and the demonic untouched.

Comforting the disturbed is noble work. The disturbed switch on a pay-cable channel, or play an album years older than they are, and the healing can begin. The only way to escape the ditch, to reclaim time, to get to the next morning and find a way off the beach is to meet a fellow traveler, a pilgrim, who has remained, waiting for a disturbed individual to guide.

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Why devote so much space to The Ditch Trilogy in a piece ostensibly covering Young’s work with “The 3rd greatest garage band of all time?” Because nearly every time he makes a record with them, or plays with Crazy Horse live, he’s back in the Ditch Trilogy zone, where the characters Young sometimes plays are brought novelistically to life, material about war (“Mideast Vacation,” “Around The World,”) and urban squalor (“Drive By,” “Safeway Cart,”) actually transport us to diseased locations both home and abroad, instead of being merely the sung lyrics of the more popular Freedom’s “Crime In The City.” He passes the roadblock, buries himself back on the beach like the submerged vehicle on the album cover, isn’t content, isn’t domesticated, isn’t “Neil Young” but “Neil Young” and a whinnying stallion defying the orb of the moon. They allow Young to sound like shit because he lets them allow him to sound like shit and dig to a given song’s marrow until he transcends the marrow and isn’t playing a song but is just one of four men, playing long into art’s night.

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Reading Jimmy McDonough’s essential Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography while listening to the music is a tremendous experience, almost like entering another country. At close to a thousand pages, there isn’t an exit visa. Take the trip, and you sometimes forgot where you are. Hopefully, you might forget who you are.

McDonough is an odd sort, a hipster narcissist who periodically inserts himself and his own encounters with the work of those he’s profiling. (You’ll probably never find another biography where the author gets so close to his subject he ends up wiping his ass, like McDonough did with ramshackle horror director Andy Milligan.) I think I’m youthful, egocentric and full of piss enough to admire his autobiographical digressions into the sensual feel of the Tonight’s The Night LP, or staring into the soul of a girl at the other side of a party room while Young’s “Like A Hurricane” claims the air. Even though Jimmy’s relationship with the girl “went to hell in a handbasket,” he still possesses that almighty song and the sparkle in her eyes. I wish I had his chutzpa. I can only write obliquely about the people with whom I’d had a connection and subsequently drove away, and I’m not doing it while being entrusted with the only authorized biography of one of the world’s most popular musicians. If you’re a flawed human and have at least dug a single Young track, you have got to read it, especially with the body of work close at hand. The experience will change your life.

Luckily, McDonough is a Crazy Horse fan. He writes that even though The Horse aren’t taken seriously by much of the professional musicalratti, he would listen to hours upon hours of their roughest playing over, say, the cleaner guitar work of Sting. One of the things I love about them is their unadulterated thrashy fuckall, Poncho and Talbot’s guitar support and Molina’s tinny, relentless backbeat. The form and content of their records with Young are endlessly fascinating to me, and I get more catharsis out of them than I do “better” bands like The Clash, The Rolling Stones, New York Dolls. The only comparable sensatory power arrives to my neophyte ears in the bliss of Sleater-Kinney. While Carrie Brownstein is a first-rate guitarist and Poncho isn’t, her only comparable disadvantage is that she is not playing with someone who uses every session with The Horse as a chance to burn out and fade away at the same insane instant.