Right now, I think it would be just about impossible to overrate Neil Young. In the last few years he has web the most avant-garde styles to the corniest of archetypes — and deliberately ignored the public’s penchant for pasteurized product by rampantly (im)perfecting Bob Dylan’s crude but spontaneous recording technique. Seething with psychic dynamite, his raw and passionate electric-guitar playing boasts a tactility and uniqueness unmatched by any guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. Young has written songs as sensitive and beautiful as any by the most fragile and aesthetic singer/songwriter, yet he has played life-and-death rock & roll with the delirious ferociousness of the Rolling Stones at their most sordid and seedy. Of course, he has been misunderstood too quickly.
Since After the Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest (1972), many erstwhile admirers have filed strong charges of morbid self-indulgence and drugged-out incomprehensiveness against the later LPs. In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Janet Maslin wrote: “With On the Beach, 1974, Tonight’s the Night and Zuma, both from 1975, Young’s progressively more rudimentary music did little more than reiterate the murkiness of his lyrics. His renunciation of artifice was so absolute it left him no room for either drama or tension.” In the New York Times, John Rockwell, in a highly favorable review, characterized Young as “the quintessential hippie-cowboy loner, a hopeless romantic struggling to build bridges out from himself to women and through them to cosmic archetypes of the past and of myth.” Well, no.
Unless one understands the “On the Beach”/”Motion Pictures”/”Ambulance Blues” trilogy from On the Beach (and “Don’t Be Denied” from Time Fades Away), one simply cannot write intelligently about Neil Young. But when one understands these songs, one begins to perceive the exciting possibility that perhaps Young is rock & roll’s first (and only?) postromantic. That he knows something that we don’t, but should. Indeed, I suspect that Young took one of the longest journeys without maps on record, never even slowed up at the point of no return, but somehow got back anyway, a better man with all senses intact. When nearly overwhelmed by marital difficulties and the death of friends, he apparently looked into himself and managed an instinctive or willed act of Jungian purification that put him somewhat safely on the far side of paradise, if not paradox. I’m not saying he’s happy, but who the hell is happy? For Young, being a postromantic probably means he still loves the war, but knows exactly how and where to invest his combat pay — he may lose it, but never hopelessly. Romanticism is a foreign country; they do things differently there. It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Too homicidal.
Having gotten through the more self-destructive aspects of romanticism, Neil Young certainly takes full advantage of his revisiting privileges, pointing out the highlights and contradictions of his itinerary to all who will listen. Perhaps only a man who has known the answers can really see both sides of the questions. At any rate, Young’s Mona Lisa smile from the barroom floor on the curious American Stars ‘n Bars isn’t so much arrogant (“If you can’t cut it/Don’t pick up the knife”) as it is inclusive (“I know that all things pass/Let’s try to make this last”). So inclusive, in fact, that the album can almost be taken as a sampler, but not a summation, of Young’s various styles from After the Gold Rush and Harvest (much of the country rock) through On the Beach (the incredible “Will to Love”) to Zuma (“Like a Hurricane” is a worthy successor to “Cortez the Killer” as a guitar showcase), with a lot of overlap within the songs.
If one can divide American Stars ‘n Bars into major and minor Neil Young, I think that it breaks down this way: “The Old Country Waltz,” “Saddle Up the Palomino,” “Hey Babe,” “Bite the Bullet” and “Homegrown” are excellent examples of country rock at its most pleasant and muscular. While these songs abstain from cloyingness and retain the artist’s characteristic idiosyncrasies (Young is nothing if not quirky), they lack the necessary resonance to stand up to the LP’s four masterpieces.
In “Hold Back the Tears” and “Star of Bethlehem,” two songs about how it feels when you’ve just been left and didn’t want to be, a corrosive view of love metamorphoses into hopefulness (“Hold back the tears and keep on trying/Just around the next corner may be waiting your true love”), with a final metaphor equating the inevitability of the quest for a meaningful relationship with the apotheosis of the religious experience.
Which leads right into the shining “Will to Love,” a song that flies into the face of reason by flaunting the seemingly ridiculous — the thoughts of the singer as a salmon swimming upstream — in order to gain the truly sublime. And it works. (When was the last time you heard something like this on record?) Starting with a typical Young epigram (“It has often been my dream/To live with one who wasn’t there”), the song moves from the manic to the depressive (the two lines about “a fire in the night”) to a combination of both (“Now my fins are in the air/And my belly’s scraping on the rocks”) before homing in on the universal plight (“I remember the ocean from where I came/Just one of millions all the same …”) and promise (“. . . but somewhere someone calls my name”).
If Young’s triumph is that he will never lose the way to love, his need to locate that special someone can certainly cause tribulations. “Like a Hurricane,” with its gale-force guitar playing, is a perfect either/or, neither/nor description of a modern-day Gatsby caught between the tangible idea of transcendental love and the intangible reality of it. Everything is “hazy,” “foggy,” lit by “moonbeam” and “the light from star to star.”
I am just a dreamer
But you are just a dream
And you could have been anyone to me
Before that moment you touched my lips
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Away between us and our foggy trip
The first three lines imply that the singer’s need to invent someone to love may be far greater than the someone he finds. One can infer from the last three lines that the feeling gained from the creation and the chance taken is undoubtedly worth it, no matter what the cost. Is there a happy ending? I don’t think so. “I want to love you/But I’m getting blown away,” Young sings. It’s like Key Largo with feedback.
Although he may be circling in a peculiar and seemingly haphazard manner (some claim he has as many as nine unreleased albums), Neil Young has a very good chance to be the most important American rock & roll artist in the Seventies. Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and others must be considered, of course, but I don’t know anyone who goes after the essences with as much daring as Young. I don’t know anyone who finds them like he does either.
There are few musical artists who need the old canonization speech less than Neil Young. With his reputation preserved amongst us youngsters as the Godfather of Grunge (apparently based on little more than a predilection towards flannel), he’s already known by all as the hip great-uncle amidst the Woodstock era’s senile grandparents. Still, attention must be paid to the most impressive feat of Young’s career: an all-but-perfect streak of very good-to-excellent albums that spanned an incredible, and unparalleled, eleven years. To put it another way, from 1969-1979, Neil Young was rock’s Joe Dimaggio.
Which makes it especially cruel that, for years afterward, Neil’s eccentric skepticism about the auditory worth of the compact disc format kept many of those albums out-of-print. So it’s somewhat ironic that now, in the dying days of the digital disc, Reprise Records has finally convinced their stubborn client to allow for patching up most of these holes, rescuing four albums from obscurity and bootleggers. Fancy remastering, fancy packaging: who cares? I can finally retire four crackly vinyls to wall-decoration duty.
The most criminal omission by a long shot was On the Beach, the 1974 disc that represented Young’s last ramp-up before his masterpiece, Tonight’s the Night. Recorded with help from The Band’s crack rhythm section and colorful multi-instrumentalist hick Rusty Kershaw, On the Beach is one of the few from Young’s catalog that doesn’t land easily on either his country or hard-rock piles. Three song titles with the word “blues” give you an idea of the mood, but hardly prepare you for the bleak anger of “Revolution Blues” or “For the Turnstiles”, post-apocalyptic visions as eerie as any of 28 Days Later’s scenic pans. The real engine of the album’s brilliance, though, is the trio of slow, long, lonely hotel room folk songs that closes out the album, peaking with Neil’s “Desolation Row”, “Ambulance Blues.” To hear them is to know that Jason Molina goes to bed each night caressing a copy of this record.
The stark tone of On the Beach was only carried over to one track from 1977’s American Stars ‘n’ Bars, the creepily lo-fi “Will to Love”. What fills the remainder of the album is a sort of buffet-style Neil Young, offering up choice leftovers from various failed projects of the era. The peak, of course, is “Like a Hurricane”, perhaps one of the finest examples of Neil’s willfully untechnical guit-hartic playing style, a chord progression that induces string-popping frenzy in his live shows to this day. But also making appearances are Skynyrd Neil, slashing country-rock lines through “Bite the Bullet” and Farm Aid favorite “Homegrown”, and Sensitive Poet Neil, revisiting Harvest seasoning with “Hey Babe” and “Star of Bethlehem”.
Unfortunately, reclaiming that Harvest mood is what chokes the majority of Hawks & Doves, notable for being the dashed-off post-Rust Never Sleeps album that breaks his streak of excellence, and not much more. Other than faux-traditionals “The Old Homestead” and “Captain Kennedy”, this 1980 release captures an uncharacteristically tentative Neil, clearly unsure of whether to develop quirky singalongs like “Lost in Space” or plastic soul like “Staying Power” (an early harbinger of his recent unbecoming Motown romanticism). Young can’t even seem to stay on task thematically here, sequencing the patronizing “Union Man” before “Comin’ Apart at Every Nail”‘s fanfare for the working man. Consider that the title track is brimful of pro-American nationalism from the Canadian-born songwriter, and you’ve got a good idea of just how confusing an effort Hawks & Doves can be.
But confusion was to be the name of the game for Young in the 1980s, a period celebrated for his principled resistance to record company pigeon-holing, but very, very rarely actually listened to. The fourth reissue in this batch, Re-ac-tor, doesn’t quite fall into the gimmick trap that so much of his second full decade’s work did, but the effort is still held back by an unhealthy fascination with using guitars as sound effect generators: machine guns in “Shots”, backfiring cars in “Motor City”, train engines in “Southern Pacific”. Quality of songwriting and fierce playing by Crazy Horse manage to redeem the album, however: “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” and “Shots” rank as two of his most underrated barnstormers.
To own all four reissues, then, is to witness a couple snapshots of the man mid-streak, and a couple from the immediate aftermath, as he began to slouch towards genre experimentation and respectably above-mediocre twilight. However, all but the most devout Neilologists should forgo the latter two; it’d leave enough money to track down a bootleg copy of Time Fades Away, now the only neglected step-child of Young’s peak period (and despite what you may have heard from Neil himself, one of his best). Although we’d love to see that record in print, too, us superior folk would no longer have anything to lord over the peons. Sorry, Col. Molina, your secret recipe is out.