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.


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,, 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)

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