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Friday, January 31, 2014

Forever Young # 5: "Setting the Record Straight"

Song:  Cinnamon Girl
Album:  Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released:  May, 1969

The ‘White Album’!  I never thought I’d see the day, but there it was in all its glory, playing out from beginning to end before my eyes this past Tuesday night at the Berklee Performance Center.  It was kind of like watching a film you never knew existed of some great moment in your life.  In terms of music events, I equate it to watching the performance of the Kinks ‘Preservation Act II’ at the Middle East in 1998.  But better.  The Boston-based Tom Appleman Band (with Berklee-based accompaniment when needed) that put on the show was good.  Strike that… excellent!  Most every song on this magnificent Beatles album was nailed, including Martha My Dear, Sexy Sadie, Dear Prudence, and Long, Long, Long (my favorite).  Thanks to Mac for clueing me in to this show. 

As I listened, I found myself reflecting back to Christmas of 1975 and my first memories of this album.  There was a new stereo system under the tree that year, which was soon to be the cornerstone to my earliest years of rock and roll awareness.  And with it – acting as a ribbon cutter I suppose - was the ‘White Album’.   It was a brilliant, pivotal (and to a degree unintentional) choice of music by my parents to include in this package deal.  The ‘White Album’ was not your ordinary album, even by Beatles standards.  It was deep and dark and mysterious and bizarre and multi-faceted and inexplicably fluid.  It pointed me down a path that has had me searching for more of the same ever since.  It’s not a path many formative teens go down.  Most end up keeping it simple.  They end up seeing music quality relative to how “easy listening” it is or how danceable or how discernable, or how fun or even worse, as quiet background fodder.  Perhaps they never had a ‘White Album’ moment.   If this be the case, I can only say one thing: I lucked out.

Now, I’d love to delve more into the ‘White Album’, but this is not the time to do so since I plan on a Beatles series somewhere down the road.  The reason I’m discussing it here though is because that initiation into the ‘White Album’ was when I first began to realize the importance of an original album.  There were songs on that album that I’d heard before:  Back in the U.S.S.R, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.  The reason was that these songs were on a compilation (aka greatest hits) album I’d already listened to often…. the so called ‘Blue Album’.  I’d been enjoying a handful of original and compilation albums up to that point, but had never really dwelled much on the difference. No longer!  The contrast between the ‘Blue Album’ and the ‘White Album’ (aka ‘The Beatles’) could not have been starker.  It became clear to me that the ‘Blue Album’ was a pruning out of hit songs.  It also became clear that the ‘White Album’ was how the Beatles originally had intended the listening experience to be.  This was a watershed moment for me.

Flash forward a year or two; Fred purchases the Neil Young ‘Decade’.  I loved ‘Decade’ and listened to extensively.  And as is the case with any great album, the listening was not enough. I read all the details of the songs in the inner sleeves, which included the dates the songs were produced and Neil’s handwritten notes. 

And yet….this was another compilation album.  But  I understood this now;  same thing for the Rolling Stones ‘Hot Rocks’ and the Kinks ‘Kronikles’ both of which I was getting heavily into at this time as well (thanks to Fred’s collection).  Don’t get me wrong….I enjoyed these albums, thoroughly.  But from Christmas, 1975 on, I knew there was potential to delve a lot deeper.

I’ve since looked at compilation albums as inferior products, and find myself impressed with bands like R.E.M. (and Neil Young) who refrain as best they can from this not-so-subtle exploitation.   Call it the purist in me, or even the historian.  My interest in original albums cuts to the core of this blog series, including my attempt at trying to flesh out the unique factors that contributed to growing up in the 70s.  It’s not a simple thing to tackle, but then neither were many of those fascinating albums by the likes of Neil Young, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Who, and others.  The common denominator with all these musicians is that they first made their mark in the 60s but they continued to produce quality music into the 70s and beyond (in the Beatles case, as solo artists).  In doing so, they had a profound and unique effect on us latter-day fans (by "unique" I mean in comparison to their original 60s fans).  My hope is, that by the end of this blog series, I can say:  This is our story.

Anyhow, ‘Decade’ had a handful of songs on it from the first Neil Young/Crazy Horse album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’.  Again, ‘Decade’ was a brilliant introduction for me, but ‘Everybody…’ takes the listening experience so much farther.  And there’s not a weak moment on this album.  The lyrics to every song convey a truth about the times (1969).  Neil Young was immersed in the California counterculture of the late 60s, but he does not shy away from the fact that this ‘hippie ideal’ world has its share of demons.  This concept, I believe, is at the heart of this album and is there for all to hear in songs like Down By the River, Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long), and Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets).  ** Side Note:  I love the endless possible meanings of the subtitle ‘Requiem for the Rockets’ as this was the name of Whitten, Molina, and Talbot’s band before Neil Young dubbed them Crazy Horse **.  There was premonition in these songs, with Whitten and many others of the era succumbing to the effects of the subject matter.  Neil Young would end up going on a 3-album binder to deal with the aftermath of it all in the early 70s (more on this period in future entries).

The first song on the album is this week’s ‘Forever Young’ song, Cinnamon Girl.   This was a difficult choice to make.  There was heavy competition from the title track and Cowgirl, and the superb Losing End (which will have to be the focus of a Forever Young entry at some point).  You can feel the time period in all of these songs.  But, my goodness, Cinnamon Girl: Amazingly this is Young/Crazy Horse’s very first collaborative song.  You get it all here though:  The extended jamming, the high backing vocals, the solid, simple, rhythmic (bordering on hypnotic) back beat.   It’s often been said that Crazy Horse is musically uneven and that other bands could play circles around them (David Crosby for one, was reluctant to recognize their value early on).  The flip side of that argument, however, is that none of these perfectionists could play like Crazy Horse.  When I saw it for myself for the first time in 1986, I was hooked.

It took one song back in 1969 for Neil Young to realize that he was too.

Here’s Neil Young and Crazy Horse performing Cinnamon Girl on their 1978 Rust Never Sleeps tour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XWHF27R0AA

Here's a link on Neil Young news explaining the likely meaning behind Cinnamon Girl (thanks, Fred): http://neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.org/2011/03/so-who-was-cinnamon-girl-story-behind.html

-          Pete

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