Neil Young: Rockin' Through Three Decades

"I'm a drug that makes you dream/ I'm an aerostar in a cutlass supreme/ In the wrong lane trying to turn against the flow/ I'm the ocean/ I'm the giant undertow/ I'm the ocean/ I'm the ocean." -- Neil Young, from "I'm The Ocean."In the aftermath of the 1996 Neil Young & Crazy Horse Charlotte show, Creative Loafing voted it the year's best concert. "He brought music, excitement, energy, truth and even some incendiary guitar playing that cut like a knife through the evening's haze," wrote our esteemed music critics. "Instead of being just another performing ant, he seemed at least 10 feet tall." Indeed. Neil Young has loomed large for nearly three decades. Sometimes impossibly so, thanks to the mythology-spawning fan impulse; and at other moments, on a more subliminal, instinctive level. Young clearly has no truck with deification, and to that end has fired off more than a few rounds at the rock altar over the course of his storied, idiosyncratic career. Young doesn't so much lead by example; rather, he presents small, lasting truths and suggests we take those truths, as they apply to each of our personal circumstances, and invite them into our own homes. No matter what age you happen to be when you get into Neil Young, when you do, it's for life. You might be an awkward 15-year-old in a small town, sleepwalking through the steamy 1969 summer, surrendering to the healing powers of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in the aftermath of a devastating bout of unrequited love. Or you might be a streetwise teen in the mid-90s, picking up on Sleeps With Angels because you'd heard it referenced a dead hero of yours, and discovering that its emotional depth dwarfed that of any feel-good bullshit some parent or teacher tried to feed you. Either way, you learn to carry the artist's words and music with you, resonating in your heart. Of course, all poetic musings aside, the ringing in your ears shouldn't be denied, either. Neil Young & Crazy Horse are ubiquitous this year, with a new live album (Year Of The Horse) a headlining slot on the HORDE tour (it hits Charlotte this Friday, August 15), and a forthcoming Jim Jarmusch-directed concert documentary (also Year Of the Horse but with a different soundtrack from the album). Jarmusch told the Chicago Tribune why he was drawn to the band, which he describes as more like a motorcycle gang or a ship of pirates: "Neil is contrary -- he will do things backward to understand them from a different perspective. He's stubborn that way, but in a positive sense, because it leads him to new places in his life and his music. He draws a circle around himself and he's adamant about how he works. That's why he's worked with [Crazy Horse] for so long, because he wants things set up exactly the right way all the time. That way he's able to pull things from deep inside himself when he performs." The circle has been drawn around the Horse for close to two years now. Before his untimely death in late '95, longtime Young producer David Briggs reportedly advised that '96 would be "the Year of the Horse... all you have to do now is get closer to the source. Keep getting purer and purer." Taking that advice to heart, Young, guitarist Frank Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina spent the first half of the year doing lowkey rehearsal gigs and preparing the Broken Arrow album. Then they hit the road, touring Europe and the States. A NY-CH show is where it all happens, for the fans as well as for the band, a point that Young himself concedes in the Jarmusch film: "It's a lot like classical music, as far as I can tell -- like a Wagnerian, melodic kind of thing that envelops all kinds of emotions and sweeps through things. It goes off on tangents and returns. No rules of the road in this band. There are places I can go that I don't necessarily get on my own." Certainly the massive sonic symphony of Year Of The Horse (the album) bears out Young's description. He could have put out another relatively faithful concert document like he did on 1979's hits-oriented Live Rust or on the incendiary '91 blowout Arc/Weld. But of course, he didn't, and as is frequently the case, he befuddled a fair segment of the media that's grown comfortable over the years pegging the man. ("Godfather of Grunge," anyone?) Year Of The Horse opens to the sound of Neil Young commenting off-mic, "They all sound the same." Then, at the mic: "It's all one song!" The phrase that launched a thousand record reviews, but for the wrong reasons; Rolling Stone, for one, blew it when the writer complained about how one long song after another makes the album "start to sound like one song." Sorry kiddo. This "oneness," as it were, is about a vibe; a low, sensual groove; a filmic sense of rising/falling emotional dynamics; and subliminal rock & roll messaging. It's like a two-act play, with coda/epilogue. Disc One is where the characters look back, reflect, and measure the snapshots of a life: from the neo-teenage anthem "When You Dance" that kicks things off, the Horse next turns puckish (an edgy "Barstool Blues" that undercuts the original boozy studio version on Zuma) and tender (a hypnotic, Western-toned ballad called "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks"). An Unplugged-esque "Mr. Soul" explores darkness, then "Big Time" celebrates the light with optimistic lyrics like "I'm still living the dream we had ..." and some of the most bell-clanging chord changes Young's come up with since "Cinnamon Girl." With the wistful tone of "Pocahontas" and the gospel feel of "Human Highway" closing the disc, it's hard not to think in terms of a chapter, or a life, ending. Act/Disc Two transports all assembled off to a higher plane. "Slip Away" casts a devastating 11-minute spell: the tune voted "most likely to become a Neil Young classic" from Broken Arrow, it drifts in from nowhere, all gossamer vocals and atmospheric psychedelic drones, then disappears into the ether. The combined sonic blues of "Scattered" and "Danger Bird" sustain the dreamlike mood for an unbelievable 17 elegant minutes. (An 18-minute "Change Your Mind" was cut from the album at the last minute, presumably because it would have been redundant here.) When the decidedly unmetaphysical grand finale rolls around ("Prisoners Of Rock & Roll" and "Sedan Delivery") for some good old-fashioned bonehead thump and tension-cracking, well, call it a rock & roll moment. Unhitch the wagon; end of the ride.Or, live to ride another day. That was 1996; it's now '97. Here's Young, in Britain's Mojo magazine, hinting at the upcoming game plan: "I'm kind of tired of some of the things that I've been doing. I got so I was going off on these instrumental things, that the song was becoming secondary to the ending ... Sometimes I like to go out and really push it, where I know the song's not the kind of song [the audience] wants to hear about. If you've got anything to offer that you don't think the audience is going to understand, you should get it out there immediately, I think. If you've got a good audience, they know. [And] when you can transcend an audience and bring them up, so that they go nuts because they've just been moved, then that's a live performance." Early reports from the HORDE front suggest that Young's strategy is working; reviewers and fans (posting on the Internet) alike are with him all the way. One review said Young was "as razor-sharp as ever, playing up the deep resonance of his words to pound his points home rather than relying on the truculent guitar turmoil," while another countered, "when he says 'Rock & roll will never die!' you can tell he means it. And when the Horse makes such beautiful, groundshaking noise, you believe it too." Young's sets have been opening with an electric part, followed by an acoustic midsection, then closing with more electricity. Several new songs have been finding their way into the setlist, including acoustic numbers "Buffalo Springfield Again" (which has raised eyebrows for its nostalgic tone, given Young's boycott of the Springfield R&R Hall Of Fame induction earlier this year) and a Harvest-era soundalike called "Slowpoke." There's also a lengthy tune called "Horseshoe Man" (midtempo, wistful, somewhat twangy ballad) and another provisionally titled "Modern World" (50s feel, bluesy, with a harmonica bit). Young apparently is in an outgoing mood this tour -- last year it was unusual for him to introduce new material in concert -- as chatter on the Internet describes him as talking a lot between songs, telling brief stories to introduce songs, and in general looking like he's is having the time of his life. There's no such thing as a "typical" Young set, but just for fun (indulge this fan), here's an approximation (significant variations in parentheses) for HORDE, based on the first handful of shows: Electric: "Hey Hey, My My"; "I'm The Ocean" ("Crime In The City"); "Hippie Dream"; "Big Time" ("Cortez The Killer"). Acoustic: "From Hank To Hendrix"; "Needle And The Damage Done" ("Buffalo Springfield Again"); "Slowpoke"; "Ohio". Electric: "Crime In The City" ("Down By The River" or "Modern World"); "Tonight's The Night"; "Sedan Delivery" ("Don't Spook The Horse"); "Rockin' In The Free World"; "Throw Your Hatred Down" ("Mansion On The Hill"); "Roll Another Number." Tantalizingly, seven of the first 11 shows have also featured an unannounced Neil Young solo acoustic set. Officially, doors open at 2pm, and when Young does perform, it's prior to the first scheduled act, on a smaller third stage. At the opening show of the tour, July 11 at the Shoreline in Mountain View, CA, he played "Heart Of Gold," "Slowpoke," "Buffalo Springfield Again," "Needle And the Damage Done," "Out On The Weekend," "Long May You Run," "Pocahontas," "Someday" and "Homegrown." Other tunes at subsequent shows included "On The Way Home," "Sugar Mountain," "Comes A Time," "Unknown Legend," "Homefires," the rarely performed "Cripple Creek Ferry" and "This Note's For You." As with his Crazy Horse set, Young is reportedly relaxed and jovial with the small but enthusiastic audiences that luck out by showing up early. One other significant HORDE highlight: the Lionel model train tent. Longtime train hobbyist Young formed a partnership with the Lionel folks in '92 to develop control systems that could be operated by those with handicaps -- including Young's son Ben (whose severely handicapped condition also steered Young and wife Pegi in the direction of organizing the Bridge School for similarly stricken kids, including the annual Bridge Benefit concert). The fruits of this partnership are on display at the Lionel tent with a gigantic layout of 320 feet of track and loads of cutting-edge gadgetry such as tiny digital cameras mounted on the locomotive noses to transmit a train's-eye view of the tracks to a video screen mounted in the tent (look closely for the Neil Young album covers when the train enters the tunnel). Young explained his involvement with HORDE to an interviewer earlier this year when the tour was announced, saying, "It's not one of those trendy things or a new deal that's considered really hip. The bands that started it years ago were really committed to it, and the commitment paid off for them. That's the kind of feeling I can relate to." Sounds like it's gonna be a good feeling at HORDE. "Well, I keep gettin' younger/ My life's been funny that way/ Before I ever learned to talk/ I forgot what to say." -- Neil Young, "Crime In The City."Sidebar OneBooks, Boots and Ephemera For The Discriminating Neil Young Fan By Fred MillsSo you say you've got all the Neil Young recordings, including vinyl-only items like Journey Through The Past, and European editions of the unavailable-in-the-States Geffen. You've got all the official NY home video releases and are heard telling anyone who'll listen that the plotline of Human Highway is "elaborately obtuse for zenlike reasons." You've even reserved a spot in your carefully tended shirt drawer for a HORDE Neil tee. Hey, you call yourself a FANBOY, pal?Books*Neil And Me by Scott Young (McClelland & Stewart Inc.) In '84, Neil's pop Scott, a respected author, penned his view of his famous son's life; the book was recently updated and reissued. Tales are spun in ways other writers without intimate access could ever accomplish; the account of Neil's early bout with polio is as heartrending as recollections of later father-son encounters are heartwarming. Many rare photos plus the inherent deep trivia factor make the book essential for any fan.*For What It's Worth: The Story Of Buffalo Springfield by John Einarson & Richie Furay (Quarry Music Books). Canadian Einarson, author of the '92 Neil Young chronicle Don't Be Denied: The Canadian Years, teamed up with former Springfield/Poco guitarist Furay for this super-detailed and even-handed account of the storied but troubled band that introduced Neil Young to the world.*Ghosts On The Road: Neil Young In Concert by Pete Long (Old Homestead Press). Not your average rock read -- a compendium of Young's every known live appearance, from 60s dates in The Squires to the '95 Bridge Benefit which featured duets with Emmylou Harris and Bruce Springsteen. What makes this volume essential to the collector is simple: along with dates and venues are setlists for each concert, plus cross-references for those LPs and CDs euphemistically known as "live European imports." Speaking of which....The Boots*Rock & Roll Cowboy is a 4-CD bootleg set that, with lavish packaging and detailed booklet, rivals boxsets issued by major labels. The material is from live tapes, effectively bookending the man's career: it kicks off with "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" in '66 with the Springfield and closes with a March 21, 1994 solo version of "Philadelphia" -- with 61 songs in between, many of them never having been officially released in any form before. Noted rock journalist Paul Williams puts the obvious value of this bootleg into perspective: "We have Decade and Rust Never Sleeps and a someday forthcoming 10-CD 'career anthology' of mostly unreleased material that Neil and his friend Joel Bernstein have been preparing for years, but for a retrospective that you can hold in your hand and that successfully articulates a lot of the essence of Who Neil Young Is And What He Has Accomplished, I do earnestly recommend Rock & Roll Cowboy." Well said, Paul.*Some Favorites: Over 300 Neil Young boots have appeared since 1971's seminal Young Man's Fancy 2-LP set. Far too many to review (except in cyberspace -- see separate sidebar) -- but with apologies to any in the Young camp who frown on such matters, here are a few of this collector's favorites on CD: * Rock & Roll Can Never Die: Palace Theatre, Manchester, England, (11-3-73), where the Tonight's The Night material got a good airing -- and boozing-out. Soundboard recording, and presented in a cool mini-LP gatefold cardboard sleeve. * Wondering Back Home: Music Hall, Boston, MA, (11-22-76), featuring two CDs worth of prime mid-70s Neil & Crazy Horse ("Campaigner" and "Cortez" are brilliant highlights). Again, superior sound, great artwork. * Blue Notes: Jones Beach, Wantaugh, NY, (8-27-88), in which the legendary Young-with-horns tour is captured in full honking flight on a two-disc set. Essential for a moving 12-minute version of "Ordinary People," a 14-minute "Tonight's The Night" blowout -- and a jaw-dropping 18-minute bonus track, a pre-Freedom "Crime In The City." * The Feedback Is Back, Catalyst, Santa Cruz, CA (11-13-90), from one of two pre-Ragged Glory tour warmup gigs for the Horse. Truth-in-titling for this 2-CD set: pure mayhem and magic, especially if you like your songs long, longer and longest.. * Last Night With The Echoes, Old Princeton Landing, Princeton By The Sea, CA (3-21-96), yet another tour warmup, this time preserved on a near-flawless digital recording lasting over two hours. The Echoes, aka Crazy Horse, rocked 150 people each night, closing up shop in the early morning with a parting "Powderfinger" volley.The EphemeraBroken Arrow is a digest-sized fanzine published quarterly by the UK-based Neil Young Appreciation Society. Hats off to esteemed editor Alan Jenkins for his smart visual layout and info- and analysis-heavy text. The 66-page issue #67 is just out, featuring extensive Buffalo Springfield coverage. Inquiries to: 2A Llynfi Street, Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, CF31 1SY, Wales. Or check the colorful website: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/nyas. The astute video buff is not to be left out of this discussion. Young has always been generous with the offical home videos; he's also turned up on the tube often enough to keep Maxell and TDK in business. One significant appearance was on the PBS show Centrestage. This 20-song, two-hour video was originally recorded during the Harvest Moon tour, November 17, 1992, in Chicago's WTTW-TV Studio A before a studio audience. It was subsequently broadcast on cable several times, and with varying songlists. (Yes, there is a 2-CD bootleg of it as well.) It's an inspired, revealing document of the solo acoustic Young persona; he is at turns appreciative, shy, bemusedly befuddled, talkative -- and absolutely in charge of the collective vibe. This is one artifact that deserves to gain a commercial home video release. Likewise, it would be nice to have an official release for the time when Young and his countryish band The International Harvesters turned up in Austin at KLRU-TV, September 25, 1984, to tape a segment of Austin City Limits. Viewers were treated to an up close and personal glimpse of a man at ease with himself and having a good ol' time pickin' & grinnin' and rockin' out. The show was broadcast on TV in slightly pared-down format (from 20 songs to 14), and rebroadcast later over the years with even fewer songs. But if you ask around, you can score the full set... And, just to close on a tantalizing note: while it may be somewhat unusual to walk in to a friend's den to find him or her settled back in the La-Z-Boy fast-forwarding through segments of Young's part-autobiographical, part-fantasy, part-musical documentary Journey Through The Past, it's been known to happen. Me, I only got to see the film (which officially premiered in '73) once, in a crowded college auditorium with a bunch of rowdy fellow long-hairs, many moons ago. But I'm still hoping to see it again someday. (Maybe around the same time that ever-elusive 10-CD Archives project finally arrives?) Maybe, too, with another bunch of fellow long-hairs, older and mellower and not as rowdy, but no less into the whole gig.Sidebar TwoNeil On The Net: Top Ten WebsitesBy Fred MillsThe Internet has revolutionized the means of information sharing, archive storage/access and fan interaction. No matter what artist or band you're into, chances are pretty good there's an accompanying website or newsgroup, sometimes officially sanctioned but more often not, just a keystroke away. Any monkey with a web browser and a search engine can find enough Young-related sites to keep those paws busy for hours and hours; here are a few (of nearly 100) choice sites the Loafing chimps found.1. HYPER RUST NEVER SLEEPS (HyperRust.org) One of the first I came across, HRNS is also one of the most expertly designed, in terms of interactivity and just plain wealth of info. Here you can find: up-to-the-minute tour info; behind-the-scenes reports and commentary that eschews, for the most part, rumor-mongering (and rumors, when reported, are listed as such); well-written reviews and equally professional photos; databases of many sorts (lyrics, discographies, bibliographies, etc.), numerous links to other sites; a discussion group that's as lively and focused as they come (no flaming allowed). The fact that Reprise Records has a link to this website is significant; while not "officially sanctioned" by the label or Young's management, the folks affectionately known as "Rusties" consistently demonstrate a level of respect for Young's right to privacy that's unprecedented in the fan-celebrity world. And when was the last time you heard of an on-line group holding fundraisers for a charitable organization (i.e., The Bridge School)? Rust is far more than a website. It's a community of disparate folks with like-minded ideals that are in synch with the ideals Young has espoused over the years. Some of the nicest people you'd probably care to meet, on-line or off. At this year's HORDE show you might spot 'em toting around a big "Ordinary People" banner. And, we are told, an aftershow "Rust Fest" gathering of pickers and grinners will be held in Fort Mill. If you want to attend, show up early (before 1pm) in the Blockbuster parking lot near the main entryway and look for a gold Jeep Grand Cherokee with a "Rust 'Em Pole" (a banner depicting a large broken arrow logo) visible above the vehicle. The good Rusties at the Jeep will provide subsequent info.2. THE DUTCH NEIL YOUNG FAN CLUB (web.inter.nl.net/hcc/Ton.Labee/fancleng.html) In addition to offering memberships and a Dutch-language magazine, This Note's For You, this unofficial fan club includes English-text areas on its website, which include tour info, record reviews, a detailed discography of every official Young release, and ways to contact other fans. Rumor has it that Young's management frowns on fan clubs; this site is so well-organized and graphically eye-catching that only a curmudgeon could complain.3. THE NEIL YOUNG APPRECIATION SOCIETY (ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/nyas) Likewise, an expertly designed site. See the other sidebar for comments on the UK fan club's fanzine; this website will tell you how to join, as well as offering a ton of discographical info and the obligatory links to other sites.4. AURORA BOREALIS (www.capetech.co.uk/Aurora_Borealis/ny_index.html) Sleek graphics aside, this UK-based "Neil Young tribute page from the exact center of nowhere" ranks high on the info scale: reprints of text and photos from vintage UK articles haven't been that easy to come by. Until now.5. VAPOR RECORDS (www.vaporrecords.com) Sights, sounds, info and hype from the label established a couple of years ago by Young and his management. To date, Vapor has issued CDs by Jonathan Richman, The Customers, Cake Like, and the soundtrack to the Jarmusch film Dead Man; this superbly designed site gives you the poop, and if you look close enough you can spot links to various Neil-related sites, and maybe even enter a contest or two.6. THE BRIDGE SCHOOL (www.bridgeschool.org) How could such a list not include Mr. and Mrs. Young's esteemed charity of choice? Click on this and watch a little part of the world open up, both on the web and in your hearts.7. SUGAR MOUNTAIN (www.scruznet.com/~tah/sugarmtn.html) A Neil Young fan (apparently with a lot of time on his hands) has compiled and organized listings of every known Dead concert and what songs were played. The site is broken down by year so, for example, if you want to jog your memory about that special gig you and your soulmate shared over 'shrooms and sensimillia back in '75, there's a listing awaiting your cursor click.8. THE OLD GREY CAT (www.geocities.com/~oldgreycat/neil.htm) A web mainstay, we are told; the Cat regularly features other artists such as CS&N, Springsteen, Laura Nyro, Kelly Willis, and Maria McKee. His Neil section is crammed with even-handed record reviews (all having links to other areas), and just recently, an interview with Young/Springfield biographer John Einarson.9. INTERSTATE (www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/5998) If it's info on bootlegs (titles, sources, songlists, but not how to purchase) you're looking for, this site is your consumer guide, period, although the author suggests that tape trading is a better option. He also suggests that the caring fan might divert some funds towards The Bridge School instead of into the hands of bootleggers.10. MOTU'S ULTIMATE NEIL YOUNG PAGE (www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/6734/index.html) An exhaustive, vertically arranged collection of site-links whereby you scroll down the list and click on the ones that look promising. On the one hand, budding musicians will appreciate the "cyber-sheet music" (tablature and lyrics for Young songs) and your garden variety fan will enjoy reading various reviews that have been linked (some pro, some amateur); on the other paw, a few links steer you into realms dubious (a story about repairing Neil Young's bicycle was a bit gratuitous) or obnoxious (a guy who sells celebrity addresses and autographs -- supposedly he'll sell you Neil's address for a fiver). Just the same, as Motu's page was how the chimps and I found most of the above-discussed sites, it's pretty essential, and a good place to start your net hunt.

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