Friday, August 19, 2005

Portraits of Integrity
Why Neil Young's best music won't age

It's 1971. You're a singer-songwriter. Your lingering back ailment played up and you suffered a slipped disk. After the operation you've been allowed just 4 hours on your feet. You have the urge to write, but the electric guitar's too heavy, so you use an acoustic guitar and write songs accordingly. You record practically on your back and finish a lethargic downbeat album. Next year, it becomes the biggest-selling album in America.

1974. You're half-drunk, with an unkempt beard, uncombed hair over your shoulders, dark sunglasses. You're standing in front of a heckling crowd that wants you to sing your hits…songs that seem from another time to you now. Because now you're grieving the drug deaths of 2 of your friends, you've recorded a bunch of songs for them, feeling your way to their situation, their pain. And these are what you're going to sing now, the audience can go hang itself. "If you can get back to where you were two years ago", you yell at the barrackers, "I'll get back to where I was…."

1996. You've recorded an amazing, brilliant bunch of songs, flawless and incandescent, with stunning electric guitar-work. You round it off with a beautiful, intimate acoustic song - one of your best. You listen to the album. No, it's too well-crafted, almost unreal. So, you add an extra track… an 8-minute bootleg-quality cover, recorded live with a single audience mike as audience chatter offsets the performance. There. No-one will call it a masterpiece album now - rock 'n' roll is about spontaneity, not perfection, dammit.

If you're Neil Young, this is all in a day's work. Eccentric? Obsessive? Perverse? He's been called all these things in his 30-odd years as a premier and visionary singer-songwriter. Since 1967, he has been using his immense musical gifts to explore the truths inside and around him. The result is a vast and varied body of work, a third of which are certified all-time classics. Primarily, his music has been in three basic styles - solo acoustic ballads, country-rock and hard-edged rock. But it's been his high voice that's the most distinctive thing about his music - vulnerable , yet lived-in, full of longing, yet immediate and as writer Paul Evens says, "keyed to a note of wonder". He broke new ground, first with classic sixties band Buffalo Springfield (often called "the American Beatles"), then with the band Crazy Horse (termed "the American Rolling Stones" by some), with CSNY (still retaining its cult status) and solo - making Neil Young a colossus of popular music. Though it is his seventies work that made him a living legend, it is his nineties music that is most amazing. It is a tribute to his vitality as an artist that he has turned out to be the only sixties icon who cruised through this decade at his best. He celebrated rock 'n' roll with Crazy Horse and associated himself with contemporary bands like Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam. A collaborative album with the latter got him the sobriquet "Godfather of Grunge" - a soundscape that Young, in fact, was largely instrumental in creating during the sixties itself.

Born in Toronto, Canada, Neil Young got into the local folk scene in the sixties. Rock 'n' roll excited him too and in 1966 he joined a band called the Mynah Birds, which fizzled out pretty quickly. He drove to Los Angeles ("The great Canadian Dream was to go to America", Young would say later) with band bassist Bruce Palmer, and ran into fellow-Canadian folkies Stephen Stills and Richie Furay in a traffic jam. They formed the band Buffalo Springfield, named after a tractor. This band broke new ground and went on to become one of the most important American bands ever. Stills' "For What It's Worth" would become an alternative hippie anthem. Young contributed classics like "Broken Arrow", "I Am A Child", "Mr. Soul" and "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing", the band combined folk, rock and country traditions to create timeless music. Stills and Young also discovered the D modal tuning for the guitar where it was possible to make the string ring and get a droning sound going (influenced by Indian raags). Young would work on this and refine it throughout his career - in both his electric (grunge's infancy?) and acoustic work. Despite Buffalo Springfield's brilliance, Young was dissatisfied because he felt he needed more space. He quit, then rejoined again when he realised the enormity of what they were doing. By 1968 however, the intense chemistry of the hugely talented band-members spurred them on in different directions and the band split up.

After recording a decent self-titled solo album, Young yearned for the chemistry of being in band again. He found it with a bunch of raw but brilliant musicians and named them Crazy Horse - a band that still survives. The first album they did as "Neil Young and Crazy Horse" was Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) where Young embarked on extended instrumental interplays with the band. Both "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" were almost 10 minutes long -full of intuitive, spontaneous, passionate and freewheeling forays (amazingly, both these songs were written on the same day by Young, when he was in bed, burning with fever). "Cinnamon Girl" was a powerful demonstration of the D modal tuning sound and the title track was a heartfelt gem. The album was a critical success and Neil Young was getting known as a solo artist.

Then, inspired by a film screenplay (about an earthquake causing floods), Young wrote some songs on his own. Due to lack of finance, the film was scrapped but the songs were recorded as an album. After The Gold Rush (1970) became a big success - critically and commercially. A true classic, it was Young's first solo masterpiece. The tough guitar strains of the brilliant "Southern Man" and the ardent "I Believe In You" were just 2 standouts in this superb album.

Meanwhile, old bandmate Stephen Stills, David Crosby from The Byrds and Graham Nash from The Hollies, had teamed up and released an album as CSN. But they needed someone to hold the instrumental end up and Stills asked Young to join. Young agreed on the condition that he could be in and out as he pleased. For him, it was an opportunity to play with Stills again (which he treasured) but also to enjoy himself as just a guitar-player without worrying about doing all the songwriting (as it was with Crazy Horse). Still, some of the songs that he did contribute were easily the most soulful the band ever did, songs like the lovely "Helpless" and the brilliant "Ohio" (Crosby actually cried after the recording of the song, which was about anti-Vietnam protesting students being shot in Ohio). CSNY became hugely popular and still have a cult following but really, much of their music is vastly over-rated (showcasing a slick wistfulness). Most of their songs haven't passed the test of time, except some of Young's contributions, which in fact makes the post-Young CSN seem facile and shallow (the CSNY 1999 reunion album Looking Forward proves it too - the best songs are Young's).

Young's next solo album Harvest (1972) became the largest-selling album in America and made him a superstar. It had a host of accessible nuggets including his first and only no.1 - "Heart of Gold". "This song", Young was to famously write later, "put me in the middle-of-the-road, travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A bumpier ride, but I met more interesting people."

The "ditch" was the severe depression that hit Young when Crazy Horse lead guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry died of drug overdoses. Both were close friends of Young and their wasteful loss was something Young felt he had to exorcise through his music. He rounded up the remaining members of the band and booked Berry's brother's studio. They'd come there at 5 pm, drink tequila and play pool. Around midnight, when they felt on the edge, they'd start playing. An amazing outpouring of feelings resulted in the album that became Tonight's The Night. Young sounded drunk throughout, the band was fluid and intense, overall there was a raw rehearsal sound. Technically, it was a disaster. On "Mellow My Mind", for example, Young's voice cracked several times, straining with feeling, which made it deeply moving and wondrous. Indeed, many songs on the album redefined beauty in the conventional sense; the pain that caused their creation became something vividly tangible, and it takes one's breath away even now. Ironically, his record company refused to release it without "smoothening it out". Young refused and it took the company two years to relent. Tonight's The Night stands as a veritable classic of heartfelt art, one of the greatest rock albums ever, and probably Neil Young's finest.

In 1974, Young joined CSN for a concert tour. He travelled separately with his son and two friends rather than with the entourage (that included prostitutes on the pay-roll for "sexual snacks" and people with cocaine tablets for "instant highs") and finally called it quits with them. Once again, he began to concentrate on his solo work and continued writing great songs (like "Cortez The Killer" from 1975's Zuma and "Like A Hurricane' from 1977's American Stars 'n Bars). In between, he released his monumental compilation triple album - Decade, which still stands as one of the greatest compilations in contemporary music. In 1978, he released Comes A Time, an album of pretty country tunes accessible enough to become his biggest hit after Harvest. A line from one of the songs on it gave away the plot perhaps - "In the field of opportunity / it's ploughing time again".

Neil Young & Crazy Horse then released the utterly brilliant Rust Never Sleeps (1979). One side was fully acoustic, luminous with beauty, the other was angry, electric rock 'n' roll - masterful and commanding. The first and last tracks were the same song "My My Hey Hey" - rendered acoustically, then electrically (a device Young would make famous) and it had a classic line that would come back to haunt him later.

After the success of Live Rust - the live counterpart to Rust Never Sleeps, Young slowed down. His eighties work was often experimental and mostly unsatisfying.
Re-ac-tor (1981) was gawky rock 'n roll, Trans (1982) played around with Kraftwerk - like Synth sounds, Old Ways (1985) was a maudlin country album, Landing On Water (1986) and Life (1987) were bland rock albums and This Note's For You (1987) used R&B horns unconvincingly. A large part of this period was spent by Young trying to communicate with his son Ben who had cerebral palsy (his elder son Zeke had also had a milder version of the same disorder). This anxiety with its attendant concerns had affected his music and the most amazing by-product of this was his music company Geffen actually suing him for "not being himself"! He left Geffen, and ironically, very quickly found his form with Freedom (1989), which spawned the hit single, the catchy anthem "Rockin' In The Free World".

A year later, Young was at his peak again with Crazy Horse as he brought out the magnificent Ragged Glory (1990) - the title describing the album perfectly. This was conventional hard rock 'n' roll, immaculately executed. Interestingly, the melodies were lovely. "Country Home", for example, was really a pretty tune, surrounded by power chords and garnished by fiery guitar solos. "Mother Earth" was like a traditional hymn, accentuated by a choral sound, with a gnawing electric guitar arrangement around it (much like Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner"). The two live albums Young released around the same time - Weld and the fully instrumental Arc, made it clear to all that he was in rollicking form.

And then, as usual, Young took an about turn again in 1992. He released a fully acoustic album, with gentle, wistful songs. Harvest Moon, deliberately named to evoke his 1972 classic, was actually the result of a medical disorder (just like Harvest). Now, he was suffering from tinnitus which had made him overly sensitive to loud sounds. Hence, while recovering, he did this quiet album that actually ranks among his best.

In 1994, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain killed himself with a suicide note that quoted Young's famous line from "My My, Hey Hey" - It's better to burn out/ than to fade away… Young was a great admirer of Cobain and this broke him yet again. He released Sleeps with Angels that very year with Crazy Horse, the title track clearly eulogising Cobain (though he refused to talk about it). Some of the other tracks were about death as well. Overall, this was a brooding, low key, even mournful album. A huge critical success, Sleeps With Angels is still considered one of the great albums of the nineties.

Young also admired the other grunge supergroup Pearl Jam. In 1995, he released his album Mirror Ball, where he was backed by this band (instead of Crazy Horse). Here, Young took a look at the sixties counterculture, hippiedom and all, through the nineties view-finder. A contemporary sound to evoke a timeless spirit - the album was another massive critical success. The very next year saw him back with Crazy Horse and releasing Broken Arrow (1996), still very much at his peak. This was another stunning album, very melodic despite being totally electric, delectable guitar solos embellishing the songs, piercing lyrics sung with feeling. Overall, the album was crisp and supple. The second-last track "Music Arcade" was the only acoustic song - he practically whispered the lyrics in a quiet masterpiece. Inexplicably, he then ended the album with a rough live cover of a fifties standard, that left you wondering…

Young's famous distaste for digital sound says it all. He abhors the absence of variation and nuance, the averaging out from a universe of possibilities. It's not real, he says, it's not true emotion. Without emotion, Neil Young is nothing.

February 2000

Decade (1977)
Tonight's The Night (rel. 1975)
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
After The Gold Rush (1970)
Sleeps With Angels (1994)
Broken Arrow (1996)


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most excellent ... cept for...

"He drove to Los Angeles ... with band bassist Bruce Palmer, and ran into fellow-Canadian folkies Stephen Stills and Richie Furay in a traffic jam." (emphasis added)

Stephen Stills & Richie Furay were NOT "fellow-Canadian folkies"!!

Stills & Furay are both Americans.


Richie Furay (born Paul Richard Furay, 9 May 1944, Yellow Springs, Ohio).

Stephen Stills was born in Dallas, Texas on January 3, 1945 to a military family. Moving around as a child, he developed an interest in blues and folk music. He was also influenced by Latin music after spending his youth in Gainesville and Tampa, Florida, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal Zone, where he graduated from high school.

Stills dropped out of the University of Florida to pursue a music career in the early 1960s.

Before Buffalo Springfield, Furay performed with Stills in the nine-member group, the Au Go Go Singers (Roy Michaels, Rick Geiger, Jean Gurney, Michael Scott, Kathy King, Nels Gustafson, Bob Harmelink, and Furay & Stills), the house band for the famous Cafe Au Go Go in New York.

Stills, along with four other former members of the Au Go Go Singers: Geiger, Michaels, Gurney & Scott, formed The Company, a folk/rock group. The Company embarked on a 6-week tour of Canada where Stills met a young guitarist named Neil Young.

In 1966 he (Stills) convinced a reluctant former Au Go Go Singer, Richie Furay, then living in Massachusetts, to move with him to California.

... and while driving on Sunset Strip...Stills spotted a Hearse with Ontario plates and just knew it was Young...and it was. Buffalo Springfield was born.

4:23 PM  

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