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.
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.
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.
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.
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 , 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.
“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