The term “solo artist” is the most common misnomer in rock history, an insult to the oppressed and silent majority behind each legend’s curtain. I’m talking about the sidemen, the backing bands, the producers, whose names are known only to the most ardent of sleeve-note scholars and biographers, and whose importance is recognized all too rarely. Elvis Presley had Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips, Bob Dylan had Al Kooper and Bob Johnston, David Bowie had Brian Eno and Mick Ronson, all integral parts of the sound that made each one famous, but doomed to never grace the marquee alongside the featured star.
Over the course of his career, Neil Young has run through a whole wardrobe of identities, each with its own critical supporting cast: a handful of country-rock bands with Stephen Stills, his seminal acoustic records with Nashville session supergroup the Stray Gators, tours and records with Booker T. & the MG’s and Pearl Jam. But the group that Young returns to again and again is perhaps the unlikeliest, certainly not the most famous, and definitely not the most technically polished. Since 1969, Crazy Horse have been the three-piece engine that has fueled some of Young’s most iconic work, and he has repaid them with the kind of equal billing that unsung sidemen so infrequently receive.
The proof is pictured on the cover of Live at the Fillmore East, where Young made the venue’s sign-letter putter-upper do the extra work of spelling out his backing band’s name alongside his own. At the time, Young was coming off an insanely successful record and tour with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but he brushed them aside to play shows with the band that had backed him on his breakout solo statement Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina. Unknown, unpolished, even untalented (according to some), Crazy Horse were the complete antithesis of the polished and fashionable CSN, yet they helped Young achieve his apocalyptic garage-rock visions more vividly than the awkward compromises of the industry-assembled supergroup ever could.
Ironically, given Crazy Horse’s oft-documented lack of technical ability, these 1970 shows took place at the time in rock history when improvisation was prized almost to the point of being a requirement. The Fillmore itself was a venue closely associated with the marathon jam sessions of bands like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, and Miles Davis’ fusion experiments actually shared the bill with Young & Crazy Horse. Young’s contribution to this trend were his fraternal-twin epics “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”, each with grand valleys of open space between brief scripted moments of verse and chorus. This release is dominated by those two songs, both of which gallivant past the 10-minute mark without ever growing stale, perfect demonstrations of the chemistry between frontman and supporters. The rhythm section of Talbot and Molina is anything but tight or flashy, but their dinosaur lope contains enough unpredictability to give the band a weird sort of swing, the bedrock upon which Danny Whitten and Neil Young stage their guitar conversations. The myth of Whitten has always been cloudy, his heroin habit having extinguished his much-lauded talent and, eventually, his life just as Crazy Horse started to gain a reputation, but it’s on full display here, his ever-evolving rhythm parts combining with guest Jack Nitzsche’s electric-piano to steer the jam sections’ flow, giving Young plenty of room to lay down his alternately sad and angry note-choked leads.
Between these monumental performances, the set’s other songs are almost like smoke breaks, brief bits of the heartfelt, ragged pop Young specialized in circa After the Goldrush. Relative rarity “Winterlong” is the gem of these shorter tracks, one of the sweetest songs in Young’s electric repertoire, with a romantic aura made somehow more genuine by the hilariously broken harmonies. “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” is the Horse’s spotlight, Whitten showing that he was arguably a better, or at least more traditionally rock’n’roll, singer than his boss– a reminder that he essentially sings the lead part on “Cinnamon Girl”, Young’s biggest electric radio hit.
Yet as the first release of the long-promised purge of Young’s extensive archives, the format of Live at the Fillmore East is condescendingly slight, selecting only highlights from the band’s two-night/four-show run rather than providing complete, unabridged sets. For a band whose genius sprouts from imperfections and serendipitous mistakes, it’s a disservice to deny Young’s rabid fanbase unedited release of tapes that have been so long anticipated; they were recorded at the time for a live album that was later scrapped. But the few scraps they deemed worthy of release are nevertheless enough to justify the legendary status of Crazy Horse’s early days, and explain why it was an easy call for Young to make the rare “solo artist” decision of treating his collaborators as equal partners.
And again, six years after Harvest, Neil goes with a pure country-folk album in more or less the same style, as if he thought Harvest had left something unsaid. Even so, if there’s little to add to that previous effort, I easily welcome Comes A Time as a relative improvement. I know this decision will be severely unpopular among Neil Young fans, but I have my ground to stand on and I’m gonna stand on it in any case. Yes, I know that Harvest is the primary Bible for Neil fans, but that’s the very fact that makes me turn away from it and face this one instead. Harvest suffers from a certain Bible flavour indeed: in 1972, Neil was going for a mega-effect record that would be country and mellow, on one hand, and bombastic, overblown and preachy, on the other. Half of them sounded like sermons and the other half like parables – you could almost see the guy trying on the cross. However, even with all his merits, Neil Young is still no Jesus, and all the preachiness ended up sounding dull – especially when set next to the fact of lack of decent melodies.
Not so, at least, not quite so with Comes A Time. On here, Neil abandons most of his usual pretentiousness and substitutes the universalist vibe for a simpler, more grounded one: the songs he sings mostly borrow heavily from traditional country melodies (a good fact, since we know that Neil couldn’t pen a half-decent melody himself unless put to torture), and the lyrics are either plain love ballads or nostalgic, sometimes autobiographic snippets. There’s just about a couple high-nose ditties, like ‘Field Of Opportunity’, and even they are rather harmless – especially because of an absolute lack of bombast. And on one track, the one I consider the best, the gritty ‘Motorcycle Mama’, Neil even delivers his characteristic rockin’ chops. Well, better to say ‘bluesy chops’, because it’s a generic blues tune (on which he’s greatly assisted by back vocalist Nicolette Larson), and, in fact, it might not be the best, but at least it’s the one that stands out most of all. And I love that tasty, gruff blues riff that Neil punches out with so much taste and precision… and sloppiness at the same time. The most precise sloppiness ever seen, dammit! How’s that for words?
Normally, though, the music here is just plain untampered country – acoustic guitars, mellow piano, soft drums, fiddles and diddles, and every now and then an orchestrated arrangement pops up, but that’s not a very big problem. He’s also joined by Crazy Horse on a couple tracks, but you really wouldn’t know – after all, they don’t jam anywhere, so what difference does it make? In any case, the album is very even, so that it’s hard to pick any favourites or any special duffers. I’d say that the slower songs tend to drag, like the killing, bleeding ‘Peace Of Mind’ which bores me to sleep all the time I hear it. Basically, what it comes down to is banal lyrics about love problems set to a musical marsh with no discernible melody. Perversely enough, it’s exactly the songs recorded with Crazy Horse that also turn out to be among the slowest. However, they are a little better: ‘Look Out For My Love’ has some really sharp, invigorating guitar playing the likes of which you’d never see on Harvest, and ‘Lotta Love’… well, it’s just a little pleasant, although I can’t explain why. No. Wait. It’s crap. Why do I need to defend a crappy song? Why, just because I wrote ‘they are a little better’ without thinking about it, and I was too lazy to re-write it. Well, now I’m punished by having to pen this lengthy apology for my lying to you. Don’t believe me, ‘Lotta Love’ with its whiny la-la-la’s and pedestrian piano playing goes nowhere and has no sense at all. Murky.
So I really prefer listening to the faster stuff, first of all, because it’s faster, and second, because it’s more generic country, and I like generic fast country ’cause it gets you going. (I hate generic slow country, though, ’cause it gets you sleeping). ‘Human Highway’ and ‘Field Of Opportunity’ are the highlights here; they say nothing that hasn’t been said earlier in Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but they say it consistently and say it better. Oh, and say it more sincerely, too: in ‘Field Of Opportunity’ Neil whines ‘let me bore you with this story/how my lover let me down’ and he does, at least he pretends he does. Also, I think his whiny voice perfectly fits the mood and acts as an attractive factor here, quite unlike the indistinctive vocal harmonies of the Byrds. The best one of these fast ditties, though, and the second best song on the album (first, if there comes a time when I start hating ‘Motorcycle Mama’) is the title track, the only one with some real emotional power for me – probably due to the fact that the guitar, banjo, fiddle and vocals find just the exact note in some places and sound so wonderfully together.
Yes, this is not bad. Nothing great here, but definitely worth a listen. You know why it is better than Harvest? You can’t safely put Harvest on as background music – you’re supposed to be listening to that one, and since it’s so painful to listen to, I just hate it. This one, though, well, you’re not supposed to take this as a serious music dissertation. You just have to put it on and then go and play a game of Tetris. Or some King’s Quest. In case you have your emulation priorities all set straight, you nasty potential Quake-lover.