“The essence of what we do is…we play together. And we express as one.”-Billy Talbot, in Jim Jarmusch’s Year Of The Horse (1997)
Neil Young on Ralph Molina: “Ralph’s the quiet one, but he’s also very funny. Ralph’s steady as a rock.”
Neil Young on Billy Talbot: “Billy’s the center in some ways, because he plays the big notes. Billy is a sound, a feeling that’s part of us.”
Neil Young on Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: “Poncho brings us strength. He has massive amounts of strength, just an unbelievable core of strength. When he’s there, it’s strong.”
Remember the orphan songs, those albums we may never hear. Homegrown, Toast, the original Chrome Dreams. The stragglers, an exclusive batch of ether songs. “Separate Ways,” available bootlegged from a Belgium concert in the bowls of a North Hampton Turn-It-Up. In the center of 2004’s Are You Passionate? is “Goin’ Home,” the only song with Crazy Horse on a work that was originally intended for them. We could make our own mixtape EP of songs from a crop of albums where Crazy Horse, or a member of Crazy Horse, played on only one or two tracks. After The Goldrush, On The Beach and Trans are three top examples. Would that EP sound unified after we’ve joined all those different shards of time?
Remember the live shows, where Neil Young and Crazy Horse whip up a cyclone that leaves everyone and everything behind.
Despite their lot as live albums, Time Fades Away and Rust Never Sleeps all consist of new songs, making them a part of the studio body. Because Young is always touring, there is a vast bounty of official and unofficial recordings to play through. We start at the top, with Weld, Live Rust, and like the Danger Bird we fly down, down, down to the four CD, career-spanning soundboard box called A Perfect Echo. That humongous gathering is rife with discoveries like a performance of Trans’s “Transformer Man” in Berlin even more poignant than the album version (Young’s robot voice ads a vulnerable “Thank you” after the song is finished) and the most despondent rendition of After The Gold Rush’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” you will ever hear, from a 1989 Hamburg concert.
I was browsing a Mom and Pop store in Cape Cod when I found physical copies of the Perfect Echo, so it is out there if you’re lucky. (Sadly, with the end of Megaupload I think any hope of getting it digitally is over.) But if you can’t locate Echo you still have the wonderful, officially sanctioned NY Archives Performance Series. Besides A Treasure, there’s Dreamin’ Man Live 92, acoustic versions of Harvest Moon that are great improvements on the actual studio record, and a brilliant concert at the Filmore West with the original Crazy Horse lineup. And there’s Year Of The Horse from 1997. Released to coincide with the Jim Jarmusch film (though it features entirely separate recordings, a testament to their touring prowess that year) the double album is everything I want my music and my art to be.
It basically transmogrifies past songs and present songs in the Broken Arrow syrup (including ones from Broken Arrow)-long, meandering, guardedly soulful, heavy on distortion and stealth vocals, the cracks on the gold-plating of a “Rock Legend” who rejects the attempts to gold plate him.
I played both discs during the victory lap of Shakey (ironically, McDonough dismisses the record), feeling it was Young and Horse undiluted. I played it loud in my car driving through the town where I live now but hopefully won’t live for much longer, wanting people on the street to experience my nighttime bedroom haze in the roar of the previously benign “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” now as mighty as the steam locomotive on the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone.”
“They all sound the same. It’s all one song!” Neil Young wails. Before the onslaught of music, this is the first particle of data we encounter on Year Of The Horse. He could be responding to the negative accusations of a fan a few degrees away from the martyr’s tongue of Dylan’s “I don’t believe you.” The song begins, torrents of rain fill the gutters of what was once “When You Dance You Can Really Love.” Now the lonely who mingle with circumstance have a better chance of locating happiness because the dancers are stifled, movements mechanical. They’re drowning in sand. “When You Dance…” becomes “Big Time,” the song a broken arrow, any of its previous lift ambitions dashed by longevity and harshness. What does “When You Dance I Can Really Love” become when it gets to be six minutes long? Words fail it. The new musical appendage transforms the song into an expression of righteous anger. In the context of new sequencing, it immediately bleeds into Zuma’s “Barstool Blues.” The lonely watcher has turned away from the dancers and back to the tolerant bartender who will let him talk and drink until they've both had enough.
“Mr. Soul” has undergone some radical taffy pulling since its debut on Buffalo Springfield Again, the electro-pop version on Trans only seconded by Year’s brittle, guitar-leading rendition. The song’s opaque, psychadelia-profound lyrics take on the new context of a sixties survivor saying them after he’s woken from a Rip Van Winkle sleep and looked bleary-eyed at the new world. In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster? That could have been a new lyric Young wrote now that he was as legendary a figure as himself still prolific at the stroke of a new millennium. A song originally about the youthful coup of fame is now a meditation on the vicissitudes of the years to come. Is it strange I should change? I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?
You could, but if you just listen you know he’s changed. A song that was always accusatory is now low-key, gentle even. Getting older, Young sees “When You Dance” as a threat. The ovaries of each passing year have reborn “Mr. Soul.”
Aurora Borealis. Songs like “Pocahontas,” “Human Highway,” “Danger Bird” and especially “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” stand back and look upon themselves. They have a vanishing-point phosphorescence. This can be the final time each song reaches an audience. Not that that audience is the highest priority. After the “It’s all one song” rap we’re in the musical sandstorm with the guys, given the slightest applause belch. They drill into less popular songs like “Slip Away,” with such a delicate devotion to the woman at the center of the song, not wanting to harm her or rush her through. Young, Molina, Talbot and Sampedro are giving her the music to slip away to. They know she’s “in such pain.” Wherever she eventually finds herself after slipping away (transcendence? Death?) The Horse will provide the portal and slip away beside her. Year Of The Horse is meant to be listened to, alone, us and the music, and its meant to be listened to by people who understand. If two lovers listen to Year Of The Horse nude on a bed and one of them isn’t enveloped and hates the music, that thing, that thing between them won’t work out.
What would John Updike’s short story “Snowing In Greenwich Village” look like if he rewrote it forty years after it's initial appearance? Would the poltergeist of eroticism still determine the actions Richard Maple doesn’t take in walking a pretty female friend home as his wife waits back in their new apartment? I think he would still write from the perspective of the young and married, but there would be flourishes only age and wisdom could provide. It doesn’t matter if this hypothetical new story works or fails. I’d just like to see what an aged Updike would bring to it.
With Year, we get this artistic revisiting. The best cut-and quite possibly the most affecting live recording of a previously released song in Young’s career-is the second disc’s “Danger Bird,” which symphonically ties Young’s present with his past. Broken Arrow’s “Scattered” (I’m a little bit here, I’m a little bit there, I’m a little bit scattered everywhere”) is the preceding track, but it doesn’t end when “Danger Bird” starts. No. “Scattered’s” central guitar riff spills over, as if it was too individualistically plutonium to stay within the grounds of its designated album space. The song becomes scattered, ricocheting through Year Of The Horse like a stray bullet, but as soon as we hear the familiar fade-in strains of “Danger Bird” we know this invasion of “Scattered” is no mistake. In many ways “Scattered” is the contemporary “Danger Bird,” defeated in the aimless 90’s as opposed to the predatory seventies alcohol. Yet this is a new “Danger Bird.” Neil Young is no longer the pining ex-lover writing songs with a frustrated erection. He’s a family man. He’s concerned with the cosmic, specifically the death from lung cancer of his producer David Briggs. Briggs was on the canon from Neil Young to Sleeps With Angels. McDonough’s book paints him as a garrulous raconteur, and it’s clear by the end that he misses Briggs and might respect him more than Young (who tried blocking the bio’s publication long after a decade of work). Briggs hated the rough aesthetic of Time Fades Away, and in a sense his passing allowed Young to further explore that sound on Year and Broken Arrow, which he produced himself. This new “Danger Bird” is about David Briggs. The Danger Bird can’t work and influence when it’s flying high. It flies alone. Concerns of love mature into concerns of gone friends. Before, the lyric about the “Training that he learned” getting him nowhere fast was about the emasculation of a flamed-out relationship. Now the training is the result of living helpless helpless helpless at the tragic failures of the body. The danger bird is a little bit scattered everywhere. From the close of a song made without Briggs, Young drives back to a time when they were brothers in work. After completing “Will To Love,” where a lonesome fish narrates over the rush of little fires, Briggs reportedly embraced Young and rubbed his shoulders in a gesture of the communion of completion. Many artists work alone. The ones who collaborate form a deep, unimpeachable bond with their collaborators because going through the joys and rigors of creation is a mutual quest that can commence anywhere, lifting time.
The wings have turned to stone. Open the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere LP and zero into an image of Briggs, lanky and bearded, brandishing a rifle and looking like Robert Altman regular John Shuck. The expression on Brigg’s face parodies the high-wire intensity of the western hero so perfectly contained in a song on Sleeps With Angels that he would produce so shortly before his death. His picture is only a few centimeters from Danny Whitten’s, who sits in a chair, as fond of his acoustic guitar as Briggs is of his firearm.
Young plays “Danger Bird” like he was at Briggs’ funeral and the song his 21 Gun Salute. If he could fly alongside the danger bird he would. But mortality has given him no choice. The song sprawls for 13 minutes. Young doesn’t want to let the Danger Bird out of his sightline.
Jarmusch’s film is an austere portrait. Predictable anathema to a philistine like James Berardinelli and a simpleton like Roger Ebert, the movie is (proudly) shot in Super-8, giving these concerts the direct visual equivilent of their sound. The intercut scenes range from candid hotel goofing (Molina watches Robocop on TV, a prickly Sampedro scolds Jarmusch for trying to pin down 30 years of raising families, playing together and trying to live through mutual problems with bullet questions) to archive footage of the band from the 70s and 80s. Horse would be more of an obvious hagiography if it was made in 35mm; instead, it comes off as genuinely humbled when facing the darkness in the music.
As a director of fiction features, Jarmusch can be equally great (Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, the Young scored Dead Man, Broken Flowers) and terrible (The Limits Of Control), though as a documentarian he shows none of his usual compact focus. For a band like Crazy Horse, especially at this phase of their playing, Jarmusch’s rough and tumble assemblage is paramount, yet the film is strangely choked, airless. Jarmusch nervously edits interstices into the hallucinatory concert footage when he should just let it be. The dissolves from Young’s in-song grimace to country roads and backstage waiting feel incongruous. Perhaps a more audacious execution would have been appropriate if Jarmusch wanted to dramatize the performances, with Gena Rowlands as “Slip Away’s” woman in the black limousine or John Lurie as the wanderer in “Big Time.”
Yet Jarmusch thankfully withholds this creative instinct during the raging “Like A Hurricane” that explodes the mine, causing a rockpile that blocks the way and ends the film. Besides a draining, Horsified “Tonight’s The Night,” the “Hurricane” section is when Jarmusch makes extraordinary rebel cinema of The Horse. The main interviews, conducted in a scummy barren laundry room with the principals (including Young’s father, Scott) are good for pull quotes and exhausted summings-up but little else. The truly worthwhile footage besides the main concerts are minor off-the-cuff video grabs of the guys fighting and trying to delegatate vocal portions of “Cortez” on an ’86 European tour. The sight of Young cursing at the others in a Lionel Model Train muscle shirt is just as WTF as anything in Human Highway. And a moment on the bus where Jarmusch explains the Old and New Testaments to a perplexed Young probably should have been deleted, even though it is the most “Jarmuschian” touch here.
I think there’s another hour missing, an hour Young won’t let us see. The guys can’t truly open up to Jarmusch because they can only open up to each other, through music. Poncho describes them as “one big guitar.” Despite its flaws, the Year Of The Horse film is invaluable for how close it brings us to the musical sandstorm, where Young’s face twists and extends like a gargoyle, squeezing his electric guitar “Old Black” for every last ounce of tune-cum. The other guys, cool in comparison, watch Young and play, the only four men on earth.
In his dependably shitty multi-cardboard celebrity saga New Year’s Eve, Garry Marshall directed a number of mugging actors through nonexistent characterizations, perhaps none more unmemorable than Jon Bon Jovi playing a flawless version of himself who goes by the single name “Jensen.” That moniker is the one thing from the movie that actually resonated with a friend and I, in that we now call any ineffectual, middlebrow song/band/movie/tv-show “Jensen.” Jensen isn’t just the death of art but the death of interest. Jensen comforts the arrogantly non-disturbed. Jensen is safety at the expense of any challenges that a complex approach might yield. Year Of The Horse isn’t heralded as a major Young work (if this essay has any real agenda it’s to change the respective reputations of Year, Sleeps With Angels, Broken Arrow, Life, with a promised in-depth of Trans on the way), but I think it is, and it wasn’t until I saw New Year’s Eve that I could really put my finger on why.
The thing is about as un-Jensen as culture can get. The human brain might need the murky sound of Year Of The Horse and Broken Arrow more than it thinks. The ragged imperfections have a way of focusing us and tightening the screws. Jensen sunburns the intellect, while the labyrinth of the rebuilt “When You Dance…” and “Danger Bird” show us the way to the ditch where everyone has to visit. When we come back, we’re better, healed through the scars.
Year Of The Horse is a legal bootleg. We’ve paid for something we should have obtained under the counter in a brown paper bag. Very hard to tell where one ends and another begins. It’s all one song with a hatchet taken to the body. It’s all one year and a very long night.
Neil Young is randomly generous with his Archives series, in production for decades before a first volume finally appeared in 2009. In preparation of that major release (reportedly one of the reasons he kept delaying it was a dissatisfaction with available technology before Blu-Ray) he issued selections-live concert recordings instead of the shelved albums promised for future volumes-from the “NY Archives Performance Series.”
The first Performance Series album wasn’t his spine-tingling 1974 Bottom Line set where he patiently ushered spectators into the ambience of On The Beach. I don’t even know if he knows that was recorded. In 2006, a year when I was still lost but didn’t realize it yet, Young came out with Live at the Fillmore East. Culled from shows in 1970, it offers a chance to hear Danny Whitten in his prime and imagine what the subsequent albums and live albums would sound like if he had survived. Whitten sings alongside Young for the 6 tracks, mostly songs from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere except for two, “Winterlong” and “Wonderin’,” that would find their place on records much later down the twisted road.
“Winterlong” is drenched in melancholy, with Young and Whitten screaming “come back now” in what sounds like a portent of the losses to come. The versions of “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl In The Sand” attain a level of skywriting blaze that eclipse even the versions on record.
“I would like to introduce you to the band, and the band to you,” Young says before they hurl themselves into “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown.” We know the song from Tonight’s The Night, and this is actually the performance used on that album. Young slips into the wallpaper and lets Whitten’s hostel, authoritative vocals take over.
Whitten’s songwriting is disarming in it's directness and gutter-poetic encapsulation of an illegal, dangerous lifestyle. “Downtown” is an early circle of hell where everybody dances to the doom. The people are desperate but smiling because the next fix is on its way. Whitten’s narrator is providing expository info to a girl new to Downtown, a girl he wants to fuck because she is still relatively clean. Here, he tells her, it’s deadly to be caught with a tear in your eyes. The details arrive in a pulpy monsoon:
Snake eyes, French fries, and I got lotsa gas
Full moon and a jumpin' tune, now you don't have to ask
Sure enough, They’ll be sellin’ stuff when the moon begins to rise
Pretty bad when you’re dealing with the man
And the light shines in your eyes.
The Man’s bright beam makes them all scatter like low-income cockroaches. Whitten’s voice isn’t repulsed. He’s aroused by his place among the fallen. Because he’s actually addicted to “the stuff,” Whitten’s striking talent merges with the night to create a verisimilitude that would inevitably burn him out too soon. It’s as if Nicholas Cage was a real alcoholic and made Leaving Las Vegas as a valentine and letter bomb to the world that was embracing and killing him all at once.
So when Young writes a song like “Driveby” or “Safeway Cart” he’s writing with the spirit of Danny Whitten hovering above every word. Those songs exist outside the bubble he could live inside if he chose to. When he sings “Safeway Cart” he’s going back Downtown. Whitten gave him the directions, and the vision to project himself there when he needs to return to that old ditch with the miracle geyser of creativity at a cost.
“I lost some people I was travelling with. I miss the soul and the old friendship.” These words rise from “Walk With Me,” the first track on Le Noise. He’s addressing the passengers on a ship that is adrift forever. The Fillmore ‘70 concert is profound evidence of that soul and the old friendship. It is vital and deeply sad.
We’re nearing the end of our journey. The fact that I’ll be done with this article soon is proving to be a little heartbreaking. I don’t want to let this music go. I don’t want to let these people go.
There’s a moment near the close of Shakey that McDonough didn’t have to include. I’m glad he did. As they sit together on his tour bus, Young tells McDonough that their interviews are over. They aren’t friends, as their nasty court battles would prove. Yet a bond happens between biographer and subject, or critic and artist, one-sided or not. McDonough spent more than a decade on his biography; I’ve spent a little over a month on this modest piece. But the world of Neil Young is so endlessly immersive that any engagement starts to feel like going home after enough time. Writing about the songs is more than a critical action. The strangeness of Young’s compositions invite you inside. They become your life, every note and word. I’ve never really left “Change Your Mind” or “Danger Bird,” and Young and Whitten made it so they would never leave the 16-minute “Cowgirl In The Sand” at the Fillmore East.
The other side of it is more. No matter his countless interpersonal betrayals, they were in the music together. Filmmakers like Jarmusch and writers like McDonough and myself can’t know what that feels like, but we can write ourselves into our private visions of these songs. The songs want us to write about them in perpetuity. The moment when Young closes the gateway on McDonough is accidentally tragic not because of the loss of Young’s insights (which are guarded) but because time with one more outlet to the songs is blocked to the obsessive scribe.
I was always writing about Neil Young and Crazy Horse, even as a child hacking out screenplays based on early experiences in a life they’ve helped me to fathom. I don’t know what I’m going to write about now.
“The Violent Side” is a song that Young performed live in the mid-eighties, but unlike Filmore 70’s great “Winterlong” (which was finally contained on the Decade comp) it never got past the venues. We have to go looking for “The Violent Side” through bootlegs linked by the message board anonymous. The concert in Santa Cruz at The Cataylst from July 1984 appears to be the most commonly viral-traded recording.
In the static fields of Neil Young and Crazy Horse it’s good to have an orphan who left the pack and is now God knows where. The Catalyst “album” is dingier than Year Of The Horse (call it Tomb Of The Horse) but this only seems to enhance a song like “The Violent Side,” which isn’t great but is also intriguing enough to consider as a renegade much like it’s lead character, who sees the night coming and feels his anger rising like a sunfist.
His violent side is described as a“stranger, wandering through the dark/following me.” We imagine Arch Hall, Jr., the babyfaced lead of the 1963 Black & White exploitation classic The Sadist, except this is his All-American Boy character from the Richard Kiel Caveman movie Eegah, made a year before. Hall is trying to remain the sunny, girlfriend'd Tom Nelson from Eegah, but the Charles Starkweather-based Charlie Tibbs from The Sadist has broken through his psyche’s mirror and is in hot pursuit of Tom. He resists, repeating “Control the violent side/control the violent side/control the violent side.”
As much as I hate the term “dated,” the song does endearingly date itself with an approach redolent of Springsteen barfight music (though I could see it hypothetically stamped into This Note’s For You), and Young’s vocals, at least in the Catalyst tape, are too light-hearted for the conflicted subject matter. Maybe the song shouldn’t be very fun. Tibbs will catch up to Tom Nelson and make him do bad things to women with a knife.
No matter. We can lower ourselves to the Catalyst concert and lift up again, flying through brackets of time to another venue in another strand of year.
The Arc/Weld project cubes and magnifies dates from a 1991 tour. Weld tumults songs from Rust Never Sleeps, Ragged Glory and other albums into prosperous mushroom clouds. (Mixed so effectively it permanently damaged Young’s hearing.) Arc is a different beast, for Young a new beast. Subtitled a “Compilation Composition,” this 34 minute noise experiment crashes guitar licks and song fragments from the ’91 tour galaxy, giving us strains of the familiar (the opening of “Like A Hurricane”) and plenty of time with the feedback unknown. Sonic Youth toured with Young that year, and Arc came together party from their influence. We can’t listen to Arc and not hear the clanking noise machinery of “Expressway To Yr. Skull” from Sonic Youth’s 1986 classic Evol. Arc is a veritable expressway to Neil Young’s skull, perceptions from the skull of a touring musician. We could be hearing the memory of that tour, a cacophony of indistinguishable beginnings and endings, random song lyrics petering into the void of the unremembered.
Once I thought I saw you in a crowded hazy bar/Dancing on the light from star to star.
Those lyrics are repeated throughout this Compilation Composition, because Arc itself is dancing on the light from star to star. It exposes the fragments stripped off other live albums, the ditches of sound, the hopeless rumblings, the trying-to-find-our-way-in. The influence of Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth is the closest we’ll get to the kind of collaboration album Young made with Pearl Jam. Imagine: Arc, by Neil Young and Sonic Youth. This isn’t “Greatest Hits.” This isn’t Jensen. Arc continues Young’s murder spree against the eternally resurrected and popularly demanded Jensen virus.
I prefer the risks Year Of The Horse takes with familiar songs over the exiting but standard Weld. That said, there’s a section of Weld, specifically some banter as they wind down on “Welfare Mothers,” that captures in a perfect 25 seconds the magic and spook and complex vibes Neil Young and the ex-Rockets wrestle into our ears and lives.
In the midst of the finishing din, Talbot’s voice rings out, stretched and eerie like a heavy metalist. “TAKE CARE,” he says. Other voices join him:
“NO MORE PAIN.”
“NO MORE PAIN.”
The statement wets all that has come before, in the pain of the shooting down by the river, the pain of the beautiful gameplaying Cowgirl in the sand, the pain of the Danger Bird and the pain of the boy we’d never figured, whose face splashed in the sky. If we’ve come this far with Neil and The Horse, we’ve felt years of pain in our own lives and felt that pain reflected in their greatest songs. But now, they are giving us permission to let the pain go, if only in the slipstream before the record concludes.
Then Young asks Talbot, “Where’s the check Billy?”
And Talbot answers, “Check’s in the mail.”
“No, put the kids in the station wagon.”
“Hey mom, hey mom, hey mom, I’m hungry.”
“Tell those kids to shut up!”
Call and response. American lives, American deaths. Out There. No more pain, but wait.
“I’m hungry mom.”
And the response to that?
They find the beautiful in working class complaints. One band member shouts a line, and another scoops it up and lobs their own. This is the symbiotic relationship between Tonight’s The Night and Sleeps With Angels, between “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” and “Safeway Cart,” between the old “Danger Bird” and the new, between Sun Green and Cebe, “Barsool Blues” and Broken Arrow, Clancy and the TV Sky, Cortez The Killer and the Inca Queen, the lost and the found, the scattered and the dancers, the devils and the angels, the blue and the black, Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
Before the song ends for good, we hear the verdict. “The check is here.” So beautiful, no more pain. Smell The Horse.
Epilogue: Horse Back
This essay began after I watched a 37-minute film called “Horse Back.” It was posted on Young’s official website after the news of his reunion with Crazy Horse. Young, Talbot, Molina and Sampedro never appear in the video’s duration. The mystery sustains itself. A spirit-like hi-def digital camera records and rotates through Young’s home studio, as balanced and inquisitive as the mechanized tentacle searching the leaky basement for survivors in Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds. Loud music plays, but with no human in sight we’re reminded of George Kaplan’s clothes being made by invisible weavers.
The jam and the entity rove together. The screen ripples. Strips of labeled masking tape are set down everywhere. As we view the lift across amps, microphones, soundboards and slung jackets there’s time to reflect on Young’s work in the 2000s, long after the year of the horse was over. There are clues abound, lyric sheets for songs like “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain” and “This Land Is Your Land.” They got me. I never expected this, and I don’t know what to expect from the forthcoming Americana.
Young’s 2000s music is the often lovely, less demanding output of an artist with nothing left to prove. The hurdles have been cleared. The muse isn’t gone but it has probably given away it's best multitudes, and there’s a welcome relaxation in Are You Passionate?, Prairie Wind, Fork In The Road. This is what comes after The Great Work, and we find the same serene yet uncompromised Old Master fabric as in the later films and novels of Raoul Ruiz and Joyce Carol Oates. And one of the most rewarding things about Old Master work-besides the fact the artist is still around to do it, and the work is still worthwhile-are the enlightened revelations gleaned from a more advanced age. Prairie Wind’s title song turns the act of remembering a passed loved one (in this case Young’s father, Scott) into a thriller of keeping pace with the past and ones wits in gaining from it. “Prairie wind blowing through my hair/trying to remember what Daddy said…”
Are You Passionate? is soul music with a cavity. The song “Let’s Roll” was directly inspired by 9/11 and the heroic, fatal efforts of the United 93 passengers to stop the hijackers. A phone rings across terrified wires. The listener is placed in the role of the passenger’s wife. The passenger tells her that “One’s standing in the aisle way, two more at the door/We got to get inside there, before they kill some more.” In a sense, the mellowness of the surrounding record, the surrounding life, intensifies “Let’s Roll” because it’s all worth protecting.
Remember the withheld, the fragmentary songs, Chrome Dreams II-a sequel to an album never actually released, with a song running the length of an average South Park episode (“Ordinary People”), formerly intended for This Note’s For You nineteen years earlier. “Ordinary People” has Poncho among its personnel, and Are You Passionate?’s “Goin’ Home” is a Crazy Horse song without a Crazy Horse album to call home. Remember orphans and the formerly discarded.
There are “dirty” albums made with Niko Bolas as “The Volume Dealers,” the purposefully rushed “Metal folk protest music” of Living With War and Fork In The Road, an indescribable concepter about his alternative-fueled Lincoln Continental. This music isn’t Horse, isn’t Ditch (more like driving in the other lane) and I don’t want it to be. The Volume Dealers’ work is listenable minor Young designed to showcase his liberalism and continued indefatigable spirit. When Young is playing with The Horse they go beyond the pale. War and Fork dare to crash (with War mostly succeeding-one wishes Young had said “fuckin’ war” instead of “stinkin’ war” on “After The Garden Is Gone,” and the backing choir doesn’t fly-which is the reason I prefer the stripped down Living With War: In The Beginning) and sport a recklessness about orbiting nothing but themselves.
For a long time I thought Young and Crazy Horse had finished their work together. I figured it was all over until I heard Le Noise. He’s getting the spook back alone save the dashes of Lanois’ sonic paint. In the black-bleeding chiaroscuro short films of the album, Young plays in a sprawling mansion at midnight. He’s in a way station, done with “The Volume Dealers” for now and transitioning to the future. The specific songs in Le Noise are perfect by themselves (its really the best LP since Broken Arrow), but as an artist always in Jay-Z's “on to the next one” state of mind, we know he’s pursuing smoggy music at this endpoint. By the album’s close, I swear I thought: “He’s ready to drive back. And they are all going to be waiting for him.”
This art covers the major existence themes of love, death, history, mythology, patience, rebirth and time. On “Love And War,” Young admits that politically he might not always know what he’s saying. I feel the same way about my music writing. Yet he still sings in tearful empathy of the “young brides praying,” and I knew I had to set down everything about this legacy that was stuffed in my head. The failures across these many pages are my own and not the band’s. I can’t thank any of them enough for providing the work that inspired this project.
The musicians don’t physically appear in “Horse Back” because they’ve returned to the ditch. We don’t get to see them after the spook has been recovered. They’re expressing as one. I tremble to think. What will these Old Masters give us next?