Classic Rock Review

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Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps (1979)


For my money, this is the best Neil Young that money can buy. Harvest is preachy, and After The Gold Rush is a bit dull, so make sure this one’s among your first buys. In fact, I’d go as far as to state this should be your first buy, because no other album captures the whole Young experience so well. Not to mention that this is a seminal album and one of the major key albums in the whole career of the man, because this is Young’s brave response to punk and one of his best, most clear and brilliant artistic statements. But let’s get that in the correct order, shall we?

The album was recorded live with Crazy Horse, with the audience carefully muffled out; however, there is still no doubt that it is a live album, judging both by the cover and the final audience response at the end of the show. Moreover, Neil carefully divided the two sides, so that the first one is just him and his guitar ‘n’ harmonica (the band does join in in a light shuffle on ‘Sail Away’, though), while the second one is an all-out rocker paradise, with gruff, distorted electric guitars and bucketloads of feedback all over the place. If this doesn’t remind you of Dylan’s past, you probably know nothing of it: critics at the time compared this stunt with Bringing It All Back Home, however, right now it seems more obvious (though less correct from the chronological point of view) to compare it with the newly unarchived Live 1966, where Dylan first plays his acoustic set and then is joined by the ferociously rockin’ Hawks. Again, the comparison is not in favour of Young: his material just doesn’t hold a candle to Dylan, and none of the actual songs are among Young’s major masterpieces (at least, not according to me).

What matters here is the very statement made by this album. By 1979, punk rock was already fading, but the ‘dinosaur rockers’ had already faded away several years ago, and Neil rises up to defend the positions of both. It’s funny that two of the reviews of this album I’ve read on the Web (Wilson & Alroy’s and Brian Burks’) hold the exactly opposite opinion on the message of the opening song, ‘My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’: the former claim this to be a eulogy of the Sex Pistols, while the latter says that it primarily eulogizes Elvis Presley and the ‘dinosaur rockers’. Indeed, the lyrics are a bit too witty to be easily understood, but one thing’s for certain: the concept of a ‘dinosaur’ is what bugs Neil the most as he proclaims that it’s ‘better to burn out than to fade away’. After which he calmly proceeds to prove to everybody that he’s not yet burned out at all: in a certain sense, the whole concert is built with one intense desire, to prove that rock’n’roll and true music in general are totally independent of age (a concept that I uphold fully and without any compromises). This gives the songs, even if they’re not all that great, a new dimension – something of a heroic type, I’d say, and the record never becomes boring.

It’s rather hard to pick out a highlight on the first, acoustic side: the songs are rather even, with nothing to stand out in a particular way. ‘My My Hey Hey’ goes off splendidly, with a very Dylanesque harmonica solo and vocals that are undoubtedly heartfelt and, this time around, fully convincing – after all, Neil is just defending himself, and he stands the test. The allegories of the lengthy ‘Thrasher’ (no, no, it ain’t a heavy metal player, it’s just a peasant who thrashes grain) are not very well understood, but the melody is fine – it does borrow something from Dylan’s ‘Love Minus Zero’, but to good effect. After which we get a three-song mini-suite about America: ‘Ride My Llama’ is a rather complex song, a mystical travelogue lyricswise and a folkie-styled number melodywise; ‘Pocahontas’ deals with native Indians and their fates in the modern world; and ‘Sail Away’ is yet another mystical travelogue, this time some kind of a ‘we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place’ number. Not that you’ll remember them very well after you turn off your player, but while they’re on, they’re fine.

The second side, though, kicks your butt throughout – even if none of the Crazy Horsemen can play worth a crap (their rhythm guitarist seems barely competent and only happy to hide his talent behind a wall of fuzz and distortion, and I could play better than that drummer after a week of drumming), isn’t this the necessary attribute of a qualified punk band, after all? ‘Powderfinger’ starts the side on a wonderful note: the lyrics are just your typical nonsense-making Americano bunch of cliches about me and my Dad and my rifles and hunting out in the mountains and white boats comin’ up the river, but the melody is groovy, since, in any case, it’s ripped off from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds Of Silence’. At least, partially, and don’t bother telling me that it isn’t. If it wasn’t, no way could I have thought of that song after thirty seconds of listening. ‘Welfare Mothers’, though, is a worthless piece of metallic crap: why Neil thought this dumb tune, with its leaden riff and stupid social commentary, was necessary on this album, is beyond me. The situation gets a little bit steadier with ‘Sedan Delivery’ that has quite a bit of that precious punkish drive and energy (yeah, I know I said I hate punk, but punk taken in small doses doesn’t hurt anybody), and, of course, the closing track, which is an electric reprise of ‘My My Hey Hey’, quite naturally entitled ‘Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)’. It features almost the same lyrics, although most of them come in reversed order – what a clever idea, but it turns out that the song is even more effective when given this violent, energetic kind of treatment, with feedback basically dripping off your ears. The short bunch of solos that Neil gives out in the course of its rendition are among his most precious ever – forget that crappy Harvest, I tell you, and hearken as the man lets go in order to prove that he’s just as hip as Johnny Rotten, and maybe even more! If this is punk, this is the most cathartic that punk ever managed to get.

I don’t know yet if it’s really the best Neil Young album ever – I still miss out quite a lot. And, come to think of it, After The Gold Rush and others, hell, even his debut album had much stronger melodies overall. But, on the other hand, they all had a lot of painful duffer material, while here there’s only one seriously offensive track, and none of the other albums are as strongly compelling as Rust Never Sleeps. What I’d really want to state is that this album breathes – it lives its own life, fresh and full of that delicious live energy that, in fact, can be pulled off only by rock ‘dinosaurs’. There, I’ve made my serious artistic statement. I don’t give a damn about Neil Young, but I welcome this album as a metaphor for the battlecry – ‘Long Live All The Bearded Dinosaurs!’

February 24, 2013 - Posted by | Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps |

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