For anyone still passionately in love with rock & roll, Neil Young has made a record that defines the territory. Defines it, expands it, explodes it. Burns it to the ground.
Rust Never Sleeps tells me more about my life, my country and rock & roll than any music I’ve heard in years. Like a newfound friend or lover pledging honesty and eager to share whatever might be important, it’s both a sampler and a synopsis — of everything: the rocks and the trees, and the shadows between the rocks and the trees. If Young’s lyrics provide strength and hope, they issue warnings and offer condolences, too. “Rust never sleeps” is probably the perfect epitaph for most of us, but it can also serve as a call to action.
On 1974’s On the Beach, the singer summed up a song (“Ambulance Blues”) and a mood with the deceptively matter-of-fact phrase, “I guess I’ll call it sickness gone.” On that same LP, he felt such a renewal of power that he delivered, in “Motion Pictures,” what may be the most boastful and egotistic line in all of rock & roll: “I hear the mountains are doing fine.” Rust Never Sleeps makes good on every one of Young’s early promises.
As you can see, we’re dealing with omniscience, not irony, here. Too often, irony is the last cheap refuge for those clever assholes who confuse hooks with heart, who can’t find the center of anything because their edges are so fashionably fucked up, who are just too cool to care or commiserate. Neil Young doesn’t have these problems. Because he actually knows who he is and what he stands for, because he seems to have earned his insights, because his idiosyncratic and skillful music is marked by wisdom as well as a wide-ranging intelligence, Young comes right out and says something — without rant, rhetoric, easy moral lessons or any of the newest production dildos. He doesn’t need that crap.
This man never reduces a song to the mere meaning of its words: he gives you the whole thing, emotions — and sometimes contradictions — controlled but unlimited. For my money, Neil Young can outwrite, outsing, outplay, outthink, outfeel and outlast anybody in rock & roll today. Of all the major rock artists who started in the Sixties (Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Who, et al.), he’s the only one who’s consistently better now than he was then.
Though not really a concept album, Rust Never Sleeps is about the occupation of rock & roll, burning out, contemporary and historical American violence, and the desire or need to escape sometimes. It’s an exhortation about coming back for those of us who still have that chance — and an elegiac tribute to those who don’t. That much is pretty clear. But unlike most of Young’s records, this one’s a deliberate grab bag of styles, from sensitive singer/songwriter seriousness (“Thrasher”) to charming science fiction (“Ride My Llama”) to country rock (“Sail Away,” a gorgeous Comes a Time outtake sung with Nicolette Larson) to an open embrace of the raw potency of punk (the hilarious and corrosive social commentary of “Welfare Mothers”).
Side one is awesomely acoustic: ostensibly a folkie showcase, it’s actually a virtuoso demonstration of how a rock & roller can switch off the electricity and, through sheer personal authority and force of will, somehow manage to increase the voltage. Side two is thunderous Crazy Horse rock & roll, but its opening song, “Powderfinger,” is, oddly enough, the LP’s purest folk narrative. And, to prove that he’s more than just a contender, Young punches out one tune, “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue)” or “Hey Hey, My My (into the Black),” both ways.
Rust Never Sleeps leads off with “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue),” and you can tell in an instant — by those haunted, ominous low notes played on the bass strings of the guitar, by the singer’s respectful and understated vocal, by the lyrics’ repetition — that this song lies not far from the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter here is death and desperation. And commerce. While “out of the blue and into the black” is a phrase that’s filled with mortal doom, “into the black” can also mean money, success and fame, all of which carry a particularly high price tag. “My my, hey hey,” Young sings, the line both fatalistic and mocking, “Rock and roll is here to stay.” Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols are introduced:
The king is gone but be’s not forgotten
This is the story of a Johnny Rotten
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust
The king is gone but he’s not forgotten.
Though Young believes “Rock and roll can never die,” he knows that a lot of people in it can — and do. Fast. Hence, the final admonishment: “There’s more to the picture/Than meets the eye.”
The autobiographical “Thrasher” (the threshing machine as death symbol) follows, and it’s about rock & roll destructiveness, too — this time in the guise of the easy living that can lead to artistic stagnation. But even as the singer chronicles the downfall of many of his friends and fellow musicians
They had the best selection, they were poisoned with protection
There was nothing that they needed, they had nothing left to find
They were lost in rock formations or became park bench mutations
On the sidewalks and in the stations, they were waiting, waiting
he makes the decision that it won’t happen to him: “So I got bored and left them there, they were just deadweight to me/Better down the road without that load.”
Written partly in the florid and flowery style of mid-Sixties rock “poetry” and beautifully played on the twelve-string guitar and harmonica, “Thrasher” is a very complex composition that dwells deeply on the ties and boundaries of loyalty, childhood memories, fear, drugs, the music business, taking a hardheaded stand and art itself. When the latter is threatened, Young sings:
It was then that I knew I’d had enough, burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand
With a one-way ticket to the land of truth and my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.
If those lines remind you of the “On the Beach”/”Motion Pictures”/”Ambulance Blues” side of On the Beach, they’re supposed to. That song cycle was also about survival with honor.
Taken as a unit, “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue)” and “Thrasher” almost suggest a paraphrase of the frontier father’s warning to his son in side two’s “Powderfinger”: rock means run, son, and numbers add up to nothin’. But Young isn’t that preachy. If he’s strong enough to leave, he’s strong enough to stay and work, too. He’s able to adapt (“I could live inside a tepee/I could die in Penthouse thirty-five”). He’ll bury his dead and maybe even drop a ghastly joke about it: “Remember the Alamo when help was on the way/It’s better here and now, I feel that good today.” Though his profession may be dangerous, it can also be glorious, and in the end, he’s proud of it (“Sedan delivery is a job I know I’ll keep/It sure was hard to find”).
With Crazy Horse in Rust Never Sleeps’ ferocious finale, “Hey Hey, My My (into the Black),” Neil Young makes rock & roll sound both marvelously murderous and terrifyingly triumphant as the drums crack like whips, the guitars crash like cannons and the vocal soars above the blood-red din like the flag that was still there. “Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?” the singer asks. Yes and no. If we can’t beat it, we can sure as hell beat it to death trying, he seems to be saying.
I’d be the last person in the world to claim that “My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue)”/”Hey Hey, My My (into the Black)” and “Thrasher,” two of the album’s best tunes about rock & roll, have any direct connection with “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger,” Rust Never Sleeps’ pairing about America. Of course, I’d be the last person in the world to deny it, too.
“Pocahontas” is simply amazing, and nobody but Neil Young could have written it. A saga about Indians, it starts quietly with these lovely lines
The icy sky at night
Paddles cut the water
In a long and hurried flight
and then jumps quickly from colonial Jamestown to cavalry slaughters to urban slums to the tragicomic absurdities of the present day:
And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.
With “Pocahontas,” Young sails through time and space like he owns them. In just one line, he moves forward an entire century: “They massacred the buffalo/Kitty corner from the bank.” He even fits in a flashback — complete with bawdy pun — so loony and moving that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry:
I wish I was a trapper
I would give a thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the mornin’on the fields of green
In the homeland we’ve never seen.
Try reducing that to a single emotion.
Like the helicopter attack in Francis Coppola’s hugely ambitious Apocalypse Now, the violence in “Powderfinger” is both appalling and appealing — to us and to its narrator — until it’s too late. In this tale of the Old West, a young man, left to guard a tiny settlement, finds himself under siege and can’t help standing there staring at the bullets heading his way. “I just turned twenty-two/I was wonderin’ what to do,” he says. Between each verse, Neil Young tightens the screw on his youthful hero with some galvanizing guitar play.
Well, this is something that doesn’t happen too often. As soon as an artist realizes he’s irrelevant he does nothing in terms of changing his sound, but he comes to terms with it… and ends up releasing an album that destroys his back catalogue. It’s not a perfect album by any means, but … well, it’s great. Lemme splain.
Not only does Young sound more honest (and stable) than he’s ever been before, but the overall melodies haven’t been richer. The lyrics are such that I became intensely interested in delving into them more deeply meaning that this will be an album I will be revisiting frequently in the future, above most others. Sure, a handful of the tracks are clearly less-than-perfect, and there was only one song that I felt wholly deserved a coveted A+ rating, but … hell, this is a great, classic album that everybody should hear.
The most appealing aspect of it, to me, is that it’s easily his best put-together ALBUM. This is far from having a patchy, leftover feel of Zuma or American Stars ‘N Bars. It starts out as a simple folk album with just Young, his guitar and harmonica. But the album actually evolves to eventually incorporate fuzz guitars louder and uglier than he had ever done before. This transition is surprisingly subtle, and rather brilliant!
He delivers the lines to the opening track, “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue),” with as much earnestness as I’ve ever heard from him… There, he’s revealing his whole outlook on the then-current music biz, which was then-overrun with the freshly emerged second wave. Though, already by 1979, the punk rockers had already made their mark and were “burning out” (as opposed to “fading away” like he says Elvis did). This is followed-up with the endearing “Thrasher,” which continues to sound earnest (though not as solidly melodic).
“Pocahontas” is the mark of something a little more interesting… Though another light, folky number by heart, there’s the hint of new on the horizon, musically. Hear those weird sound effects that sounds like someone’s rasping an electric guitar the wrong way… Call me crazy, but I also think I hear someone playing a recorder and someone else playing … er … bongos? (Oh that’s a great song by the way… yeah, I’m talking about the melody.)
“Sail Away” ends up being somewhat shrug-worthy, but you hear a real drumbeat for the first time. Even somewhat missable, but it’s there… And then, he subtly turns electric with the sensational song “Powderfinger!” Oh, and he does it right too, even delivering a lengthy, beautiful electric guitar solo. Wonderful! “Welfare Mothers” turns up the rock ‘n’ roll up another notch … maybe too much of a notch since that’s the only song on the album that’s not especially endearing. It’s not a bad tune, but it’s the only thing here that actually sounds somewhat banal. Still, it’s hard to deny that I can’t get caught up in the beat, and it does have plenty of spirit.
Knowing that he couldn’t get harder rocking than that one, he decides to turn up the fuzz with the absolutely mean sounding “Sedan Delivery,” which makes similar work done in Zuma sound like small potatoes. It’s the sort of ugly song that really gives this Godfather of Grunge title plenty of credence… It’s also very melodic, which means it’s better than the majority of grunge songs.
But it’s not until the very end that Young delivers the album’s real gem… And, the funny part is that we’ve actually heard it before. Yes, it’s a reworking of the album opener except with lotsa electric guitars. The guitar tones are even fuzzier than the previous track even though it sounds rather robotic and industrial… These rhythms are interesting and even somewhat innovative (especially considering “industrial” is an actual genre that would emerge sometime in the ‘80s). Of course, the electric guitars make that song what it is.
That interesting album development is exactly the sort of thing I long to hear in albums… and I can’t say I’ve heard it done like this before. And this well, too! I’ve done a pretty thorough job telling the world that I’m not much of a Neil Young fan… but this album really seemed to have changed my mind. …Oh, and I haven’t told you the punch line yet; this was all done live. Yup.
Neil Young ended off the seventies on a great note. Before releasing the live album Live Rust, Young finished the decade that was perhaps his most successful with one of this finest works up until then and remains now, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’. Although the album was recorded live on the tour of the same name, it consisted entirely of new material and with most of the audience track removed and later overdubbing, it felt like a studio recording but with a rawer, more intense and intimate feel of a live performance. Young makes some of his most memorable work ranging from the gentle, cryptic folk of the opening track to a heavier, rocking alteration of the same song to conclude. Divided into two separate sections, acoustic first and electric tunes on the second half with his famous backing band Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps is one of his most unique and self representative works.
Opening with powerful, atmospheric My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), the albums distinctive tone is set. Possessing the infamous line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, an inside look at the music industry and an era as well as a modest salute to the King Elvis Presley and embracing the modern punk age with a nod to Johnny Rotten, the track is one of Young’s most prominent and for good reason. Thrasher solidifies the albums brilliant start with a beautiful, warming and intimate story telling song with some of his best and most descriptive lyrics that read like an autobiography with lines such as “And I was just getting up, hit the road before it’s light; trying to catch an hour on the sun, when I saw those thrashers rolling by; looking more than two lanes wide I was feeling like my day had just begun” and a excerpt from the final verse “But me I’m not stopping there got my own row left to hoe; just another line in the field of time”. Ride My Llama and Pocahontas are also both wonderful songs that fit along side his best, especially the latter. The majority of the lyrics are written cleverly, sometimes laced with obscure metaphors, imagery and passages that may have numerous meanings, but are bound to make the listener think. What to think about depends.
The electric second half is highlighted by Powderfinger, which actually works as a transitional song in the middle with its blending of softer, mid tempo melodies with heavier guitar parts. One of Young’s undisputed highlights, the five minute plus song combines a folk country melody with mesmerizing guitars including a remarkable, yet straightforward solo and Young’s distinctive tenor. Only contending with the opener and Thrasher, this track leaves the longest lasting impression.
With the possible exception of the comical, but slightly repetitive and rowdy Welfare Mothers, Rust Never Sleeps is flawless in terms of song quality, which can’t necessarily be said about Harvest. It is no doubt to me that the first six tracks outweigh the latter, but even with a somewhat imbalance in song superiority, Rust Never Sleep can play right through with no interruption and plays with excellent flow. Along with Welfare Mothers, Sedan Delivery might be considered the heaviest track, and works better than the aforementioned due to a more focused take. The heavier counterpart to the introduction, Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) follows the same structure as it but with slightly altered lyrics and a (in the best way) messy, grunge feeling ending the album perfectly. It is around this time that most of the audience is heard.
Rust Never Sleeps not only an essential Neil Young album (up there with After the Gold Rush, Harvest, Tonight’s the Night), but simply an essential. With being for the most part easily accessible, it can also work as a good starting point for newcomers to his music due to showcasing his folk, acoustic work with a contrast side by side. Young’s emotion and heartfelt lyrics are strong messages that get across here, and the music is as inspired as ever. In a redundant summary Young & Crazy Horse are at their finest here on an album just as enjoyable as it is symbolic.
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!’