Neil Young has always seemed simultaneously crazier and saner than everybody else. Dontcha think? Doesn't he seem one minute like the gentlest puppy in the litter, and the next like a crazed hillbilly reaching for his shotgun? Maybe that's why I love him so. For decades Neil has consistently delivered deeply introspective songs, along with songs that blazed like headlines: Four Dead In Ohio...Blue blue windows behind the stars...Let's impeach the president for lying...Like a coin that won't get tossed, rolling home to you...Keep on rockin' in the Free World!...
Here he is doing an exquisite version of "After The Gold Rush" of fairly recent vintage. It's just Neil, his bagpipe-esque harmonica, and a pump organ, like the kind that used to sit on my Grandma's porch. And so much music coming out! Give it a listen and then we'll talk some more...
Notice, first of all, how Neil changed the lyric to fit the times. The original lyric: Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s has been changed to ...in the 20th century. And that in turn is changed to We've got mother nature on the run in the 20th century. Because rust never sleeps and neither does Neil. He knows now that his elegiac, post apocalyptic dream has come true in the thirty years between its original recording and this performance. And he's keeping the lyrical heat on.
Check it out: He starts with a kind of Renaissance imagery, knights in armor saying something about the queen, peasants singing, drummers drumming, and the archer split the tree. There's an eerie kind of violence expressed in that line. Apparently this is some sort of super archer, able to spit a whole tree with one shaft. In the next verse Neil himself seems to be a soldier in an apocalyptic battle. He's lying in a burned out basement with the full moon in his eye, he's hoping for a replacement (someone to relieve him at his post?) when the sun bursts through the sky--like an atomic blast? Oh well, it must be a common occurrence. He doesn't get upset. He's feels like getting high, and he's thinking about what a friend had said I was hoping it was a lie. All of this is hint poetry. No clear information given but just enough of a hint to suggest a complete story. And then of course the final verse, where they're loading up the space ship to carry "the chosen ones" to a more hospitable planet. Flying mother nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun. This is a sci-fi nightmare, told through a kind of drugged out haze, like something sung by a post apocalyptic wandering minstrel. It seems cool, like a breeze, but like I said, the heat is on.
Neil Young always keeps the heat on. Not for him any of this "I'm an old dude now, let me do standards, or rework my hottest rock song into a lounge ballad." Neil has said that he's only interested in what he's doing right now, and the fact that right now he is in his mid 60s doesn't change his point of view at all. Like Leonard Cohen in last week's post, he gives the lie to the idea that being a singer songwriter is somehow only a young person's game. It was never any mystery to me why Neil was called "the father of grunge." Heck, he WAS grunge. What were those young Seattle bands doing except emulating the look and energy of Neil Young? And at the nadir of the Bush years, with Iraq a gaping wound, Neil was the most prominent musical artist to take a stand against it all. I don't think "Living With War" represents Neil's best work, but the impulse was key, and it put a host of younger artists to shame. I applaud the Dixie Chicks for speaking out against Bush and taking the heat, but why didn't they sing out, explicitly? That job fell to the old Canadian, who was called out by Lynyrd Skynyrd in "Sweet Home Alabama" for his "Southern Man" on the Gold Rush album:
Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down.
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
a southern man don't need him around anyhow
That's goes down just fine with Neil Young. He's busy keeping on. Here's an interesting anecdote about him: When Neil makes a recording at the studio on his ranch, he sets up two giant stadium size speakers, one in his house, and one in his barn. The left stereo channel goes to one speaker, the right to another. The music starts blasting and Niel rows his rowboat to the middle of the lake and stands there shouting "MORE HOUSE! MORE BARN!" until he gets the mix he likes. That is one crazy hillbilly and one sensitive artist. I for one hope he never sleeps.
Hey, I just noticed that the three songwriters I've singled out for discussion so far in the SongMine are all Canadian. Got to get some 'Merican songwriters mentioned in here soon. BB