THROUGH THE PAST WITH THE
CONSTANTLY CHANGING, ETERNALLY CHALLENGING NEIL YOUNG
King, Barry Gilbert, Jeff Daniel, Daniel Durchholz and Richard
Of the Post-Dispatch staff and correspondents
August 10, 2003
Neil Young visits St. Louis on Sunday with a quasi-theatrical show, complete with sets and actors, featuring songs from his upcoming CD, "Greendale." The chronicle of a family and fictional American town, "Greendale" has been described variously as song cycle, musical novel and concept album. The boldness of the conceit -- and the perversity of performing the songs live before his fans can hear them on CD (which isn't released until Aug. 19) -- is typical of the idiosyncratic Young.
To provide a hint of the breadth and depth of the ever-evolving singer-songwriter's work, five writers have surveyed Young's career. Chris King's overview is below. On F13, Barry Gilbert, Jeff Daniel, Daniel Durchholz and Richard Newman provide a decade-by-decade look. .
Rock 'n' roll is, at heart, a young man's art. No one knows that better, or has known it longer, than Neil Young.
"It's better to burn out," he sang, "than fade away" -- and he sang that 24 years ago, when he had been releasing records for 13 years.
Young may have seemed a burnout -- another shambling casualty of drugs and the road -- for many years, but he never, in fact, burned out. That is remarkable, considering all the others wasted on the way (as his former bandmates, Crosby, Stills and Nash, sang in the '80s). It's even more amazing that he hasn't faded away, either.
Quite the contrary. Young has been a marvel of self-reinvention, an artist who has consistently shed, shaped and shifted musical identities. Long-form blues-based epic rock, punchy pop, aching solo folk, retro white-boy doowop, twang, smart-aleck bar-band riffing, electronica and, most recently, neo-theatrical story-song cycles -- what a long, strange resume.
Only one other songster has been this good, weird and unpredictable for so long: Bob Dylan.
Like the shifty bard from the North Country, Young has influenced so many generations of rock musicians and bandleaders that it would be difficult to list good rock bands of note that escaped his influence.
Young has left an especially sharp impression on the rock sounds of St. Louis. Uncle Tupelo (now split into Wilco and Jay Farrar) and Chicken Truck (now the Bottle Rockets) have hailed him as supreme. Knowing Young's alternative, insurgent sense of country music, these guys would laugh at the idea that they created any such genre, as some critics have claimed.
Through the changes and the inevitable disappointing records, Young remained vital for a simple reason. He never quit writing songs that were unforgettable and had his spirit. You might not like everything he did, yet it was possible to follow him over the years. There is a through-line: hair-raising and enchanting songs.
At some point in every decade since the '60s, if not on every record, he rocked with savage force. He mocked fools. He wept over injustice. He remembered the dead. He loved openly, like a wound. He noticed nature in its detail and praised it in its majesty. And he did so in songs that you could hum, strum or thrash.
Neil Young, like rust, never sleeps and never loses his characteristic colors. Long may he run.
-- Chris King
NEIL YOUNG ...
THROUGH THE YEARS:
A LOOK AT FOUR-PLUS DECADES OF MUSIC FROM THE LEGENDARY ROCKER
If Neil Young had retired on the laurels of his 1960s output - quitting, say, when "After the Gold Rush" was released in July 1970 - his place in rock history already would have been secured.
By that date, Young, then only 24, had written and recorded "Mr. Soul," "Expecting to Fly," "Broken Arrow" and "I Am a Child" with Buffalo Springfield; and "The Loner," "Cinnamon Girl," Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," "Down by the River," "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Southern Man" as a solo artist, with and without his longtime band Crazy Horse. He also had contributed three songs and his fiery guitar to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Deja Vu" (1970).
More than perhaps any artist of his generation - taking nothing away from Dylan - Young's fierce independence and integrity has been an inspiration to waves of young musicians, from Los Angeles punks (Social Distortion, Sonic Youth) to Seattle grunge rockers (Nirvana, Pearl Jam et al.) to alt-country hipsters (Uncle Tupelo, Bottle Rockets - listen again to "Thousand Dollar Car").
All the while, Young has recorded exciting, challenging, sometimes exasperating (see the 1980s), occasionally confounding but never boring music in a career that continues to flourish.
Young is such a singular artist, it's easy to hear whom he influenced. But it's harder to pick out his influences: perhaps Del Shannon (listen to "Burned," his first studio vocal, from "Buffalo Springfield"), maybe some Roy Orbison, some Woody Guthrie and some blues.
Buffalo Springfield burned bright for about three years until falling apart in 1968 before the release of its final album, "Last Time Around," mixing hippie sentiment, psychedelic song structures and folk-country twang.
Much of what we know now about Neil Young was apparent at the beginning. The epic sweep of "Broken Arrow" (1967) co-existed with the sock of "Mr. Soul" (1967) and the lovely fragility of "I Am a Child" (1968). "Sugar Mountain," a delicate wisp of hippie longing, was such a staple of Young concerts that it became something of an FM-radio hit when it finally appeared on record - as a single B-side.
The man who later was a co-founder of Farm Aid veered easily between romance and rant; his "Southern Man" condemnation triggered reaction through the decades, from Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Sweet Home Alabama") to Warren Zevon ("Play It All Night Long") to, again, the Bottle Rockets ("Wave That Flag").
The scope of the work of the young Young is remarkable, and more than 30 years later, fans are still trying to catch their breath.
-- Barry Gilbert
The '70sNeil Young entered the '70s with a flourish. Here was the singer-guitarist as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, a supergroup with a landmark album, "Deja Vu," awash in pop hits ("Our House," "Teach Your Children") and generational anthems ("Woodstock"). And here also was Young flying solo for the third time with "After the Gold Rush," a brilliant display of an artist's ability to meld pure songcraft with idiosyncratic vision.
That opening year was a big one for Young - and a prescient one. Over the next decade, Young would chart an eclectic, creative musical course rivaled in scope - have you heard this before? - only by Dylan. (And in Dylan's case, choose a decade, any decade.)
As for "After the Gold Rush," it also serves well as a microcosm of the Young stylebook. You get social commentary in "Southern Man" and the catchy melodic hook in "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." There's a little folk here, some country twang there. Toss in some rock and a little blues. Little is predictable, including the raw vocals that somehow manage to be both sweet and strange. The real gift of this album, however, was the title track, a surreal tune that served as a virtual template for such curr ent bands as the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy, which, not inconsequentially, happen to be two of the most musically creative outfits going.
To repeat, this is no coincidence, as Young has long served as a kind of godfather - or, better yet, the eccentric uncle - of many an alternative band. Chalk up much of this influence to the '70s catalog, one that ranges from the country folk-laden "Harvest" (1972) to the dark, gritty and soul-baring mid-decade albums highlighted by "Tonight's the Night" (1975). (For some fans, such dealings with despair equaled a turnoff.) Any subject, from the ravages of drug addiction to the minimalist wonders of nature, proved fair game for Young. More often than not, he succeeded in his musical and lyrical adventures.
On the music side, of course, much credit must also be given to Young's collaborators - be it the Stray Gators, Crazy Horse or the army of talent that showed up for the occasional cameo. Young didn't lead these fellow troubadours as much as he invited them along as equal partners. The result can be seen in that trademark eclecticism: The Young sound could change from song to song, or album to album - look no further than the seismic shift that occurs between the countrified "Comes a Time" (1978) and "Rust Never Sleeps" (1979), the latter of which literally explodes at times with punk-era energy.
But standing still, as Young fans have always known, was never the artist's strong suit. As exhibit A, simply look to "Decade," the compilation of hits, B-sides and rarities released in 1977. Young is all over the map, as always, and the misadventures are few. The same could be said of the decade that was the '70s. From the poignancy of "Old Man" and "Sugar Mountain" (first put to disc on "Decade") to the scorching narratives of "Powderfinger" and "Cortez the Killer," Young showed he was as multifaceted as any superstar quartet.
"It's better to burn out than to fade away," he sang on 1979's "Out of the Blue." By the end of the decade, Young had done neither. If anything, the man behind "After the Gold Rush" was still looking to mine new territory.
-- Jeff Daniel
The '80sThe event that best typifies Neil Young's 1980s odyssey didn't happen on one of his albums or in concert but in court. In 1983, he was sued by his record label for making music "uncharacteristic" of his previous work. In other words, they claimed Neil Young no longer sounded like Neil Young.
In retrospect, the litigation seems unnecessary, but in some ways, the label had a point.
Young began the '80s with "Hawks & Doves," a country-rock album that flirted with right-wing politics - a surprising turnaround for Young. "Re*ac*tor," a hard-rock effort recorded with Crazy Horse, followed in 1981, but its most notable song is a nine-minute epic called "T-Bone," the sole lyric of which is, "Got mashed potatoes/Ain't got no T-bone."
Seeking greater artistic freedom, Young signed with Geffen Records and released "Trans" in 1982. An album of mechanized pop inspired by the likes of Devo and Kraftwerk, it was shunned by his fans, few of whom understood its underlying themes of communication between Young and his severely handicapped son.
As quickly as he embraced electronic music, he abandoned it for rockabilly, recording "Everybody's Rockin'" with a backing band he called the Shocking Pinks. It was one of the poorest-selling albums of his career. When he gave Geffen "Old Ways," a straight-ahead country album, they called in the lawyers.
The parties eventually settled, and the album came out in 1985, the same year Young, along with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, held the first Farm Aid benefit concert in Champaign, Ill.
"Landing on Water" returned Young to rock in 1986, but it was a mostly disappointing effort. The lone highlight was "Hippie Dream," a song that blasted his old mates Crosby, Stills & Nash. (Crosby at the time, was teetering at the edge of death because of drug abuse.)
Crazy Horse rejoined Young for 1987's "Life," which became his last album for Geffen.
Returning to his former label, Reprise, Young opted for another genre exercise, this time exploring R&B and blues on "This Note's for You." The title track was a passionate stance against music selling out to corporate interests. Its video lampooned current stars and advertisers so mercilessly that MTV banned it. They later reconsidered and eventually named it Video of the Year.
After a brief reunion with CSN for "American Dream," which Young had promised to do if Crosby cleaned up, he regained his footing at last with the heavy, guitar-based EP "Eldorado" and the triumphant rock album "Freedom," his best work of the decade. The album's strongest track, "Rockin' in the Free World," criticized the first President Bush, charging, "We've got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand."
The album also assured Young's place as a godfather of grunge and alternative rock. And why not? He had the right band in Crazy Horse; he had the right attitude, and, God knows, he had plenty of flannel shirts.
-- Daniel Durchholz
The '90s and beyondIn the '80s, Neil Young proved he was more than two-dimensional (half folksy, half rockist), but his often flabbergasting excursions into sci-fi synth-pop, rockabilly, Nashville country and horn charts finally culminated in 1989's masterpiece, "Freedom." "Ragged Glory" in 1990, however, found him again mining familiar rockist territory.
This album marks the beginning of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's "It's all one song" decade, and the songs rarely vary from the lumbering 4/4 anthem with the multiple and extended guitar breaks. Two songs that do, "(Expletive) Up" and "Farmer John," might be throwaways in any other context, but here they not only break the monotony of that grizzly-bear lumber, they relieve and underscore it. "Over and Over Again" and "Days That Used to Be" are classic middle-aged anthems. Crazy Horse proves once again to be the best garage band in the world. And Neil Young's guitar breaks are breathtaking and exhaustive.
The next year, 1991, saw two live albums, originally sold as three CDs. "Weld," recaptures the "Ragged Glory" one-song ethos and reprises much of 1979's "Live Rust," with some songs now making a fourth appearance. "Arc" welds together 35 minutes of tune-ups, outros, feedback and noodling - a sound collage for hard-core fans and completists only.
"Harvest Moon" (1992) finds Neil Young reprising the spirit of 1972's "Harvest," but with the exception of a few songs, especially the title song, this collection is thinner and paler than "Harvest." Several of the songs sound more immediate and vulnerable (and what's Young's voice if not immediate and vulnerable?) on his live "Unplugged" recording. This 1993 MTV album is one of Neil Young's best of the decade, with strange, captivating versions of early songs such as "Mr. Soul," from his Buffalo Springfield days, and an eerie pump-organ version of "Like a Hurricane." It also includes great versions of "The Old Laughing Lady," "World on a String," "Pocahontas," "Needle and the Damage Done" and "Harvest Moon."
Neil Young and Crazy Horse blow the "one song" ethos to bits with 1994's "Sleeps With Angels." Apparently exorcising his guilt at being quoted in Kurt Cobain's suicide note, the band tortures these widely varied songs. The cycle begins and ends with a drunken barrel-house piano from the Old West, and the guitar often sounds like someone blowing through corroded tenement-house plumbing, but "Sleeps With Angels" has folkier moments, too. "Train of Love" sounds like something left over in the vaults from "Harvest Moon," and "Driveby" is lovely and haunting. Far from perfect, it's nonetheless a fascinating collection, as Neil Young strives to find a few optimistic notes in a world of drive-bys and ghetto dawns, ecological destruction and corporate greed and, of course, death and suicide.
"Mirror Ball" (1995), recorded with Pearl Jam, has some interesting moments, and possibly even some decent songs ("Downtown" and "What Happened Yesterday"), but the terrible production makes them tough to wade through. And despite the grunge they learned from their mentors, Pearl Jam never jells like Crazy Horse.
The last album Neil Young issued in the 1990s was, surprise, another live album with Crazy Horse. Nineteen ninety-seven was the "Year of the Horse," a companion to Jim Jarmusch's tour documentary, and the album begins with Neil saying into the mike, "It's all one song." Of course, it spans 30 years of great songs by perhaps the most original and idiosyncratic songwriter of all time. It's several great songs, good renditions even, even if we've heard some of them a half-dozen times now. And, yes, they do indeed rock.
-- Richard Newman
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