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 You might mistake him for one of the other member’s cousins, or a withdrawn older brother, allowed a spot in the group photograph just this once.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.


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.


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. 

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