Friday, February 28, 2014

Forever Young # 9: "Unplugged"

Song:  Harvest
Album:  Harvest
Released:  February, 1972

Personal biases can be hard to overcome.  We all tend to gravitate to what’s familiar.  Some never sway from their original set of beliefs.  They stick with these convictions all the way to the grave.  Hopefully, however, your eyes can at some point be opened to the less familiar, and then, what was once thought of as inferior is now seen in a different light. 

My bias to the electric, full bodied, rock n’ roll band sound runs deep.  I’m an amplified guy at the core.  My first mind-altering musical moments were the plugged-in Beatles.  From there it was a steady diet of high-decibel music on the turntable, including the Stones, the Kinks, and Pink Floyd.  My attendance at concerts in the early going was contingent on this electric sound as well, from Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson to Rush and Tom Petty.  Mixed in throughout the early goings was the Who; seemingly the point of no return.  In the 70s and 80s, the radio stations I listened to regularly made sure guys like me kept allegiances strong with our foundations.  No dance beat, and no solo acoustic mellow strumming either.  It was all about rock bands; the louder the better.

I’ve never lacked for valid reasoning behind why I like this style of rock n’ roll so much.  For one thing, I have always believed (to this day) that creativity tends to get more interesting and more complex and more original when there’s a band playing, preferably with long-standing members.  Storylines are better with bands that have a long history together.  The sense that anyone, and not just the very gifted, could be part of something amazing if they happen to be in the right place at the right time, and then stick with it through the tough times, is appealing to me.  I like the notion of a genius, but what’s even more intriguing is the thought that a unique amalgamation of characters can make something big happen, and not only that, they can raise the bar beyond what the genius types could do on their own.  I like the idea that something special can grow over time between band members, and that in the right circumstances it can be transformative…. to them and their audience.

More specifically to that electric, full bodied, rock n’ roll band sound, there’s the jamming, the improvisation, the rapid-fire sense of timing - the bass playing off the drums playing off the lead guitar - that fascinates me.  There’s interplay and what I consider amazing, unique moments when it all meshes. Pete Townshend, a genius, wrote great songs on his own, played all the instruments and brought the demos to the band to record as the Who.  The demos were fantastic; to the degree that critics have commented that all Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle had to do was emulate what they heard.  Au contraire!  The Who had to Who-ify those demos…. and they did.  No one else could do this.  No other combination of personalities and talents.  Reading his memoir, “Who I Am”, even Townshend appears to under-appreciate the band’s role in the creative process.  But I don’t.  There are numerous stories on how things evolved for the Who in the studio and on stage when the four of them played off each other.  I had hoped Townshend would have discussed this more in his book.  Then there are the Stones.  I believe it was studio engineer Glyn Johns who once said that they would sit around for hours on end and sound like shit, but then there would suddenly be a moment where Keith would nod at Charlie, and then Bill would stand up, and they transformed into the Rolling Stones right in front of him.  I love these stories.

That full bodied sound was pretty much it for me all through the 80s.  With this bias, I for the most part stayed clear of the more toned down, acoustic shows and albums.  There were a few exceptions, including a great Simon and Garfunkel show in ’86 (see GMVW # 36).  But even at that event, my favorite song was a souped-up version of Late in the Evening.  Early waves of MTVs “Unplugged” passed me by.  Why would these musicians want to unplug and adapt such great music? 

I could have gone on forever like this and probably would have, seeing as the music that first touched me is so darn good.  I would have never known any better. Thank goodness, however, that there were those in my circles, whom I had much respect for, observing my musical interests at the time.  I’d like to believe they saw an apperception for quality, and therefore potential, in a manner that I was worth investing their time to round out my musical knowledge. 

One of them was good friend, Jeff Stause, who has been broadening my musical horizons for a good 20 plus years now.   There’s so much to be thankful for with Jeff.  I would have never attended those relatively lower-key, smaller stage shows by the likes of Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Richard Thompson, Sean Colvin, Rick Danko, the Nields, and many others (Jonathan Richman is on this list too, but I’ll give credit to Mac and Fred for that link).  I may have never enjoyed the music of Townes Van Zandt, Graham Parsons, Iris Dement, or Emmylou Harris. These musicians were/are storytellers.  Their show sometimes took patience to enjoy, but at virtually every event, there would be a gradual buildup.  If you listened closely, and took it all in, it was as intense as any big-time rock n’ roll event could be. 

When I went to Tanglewood in western Massachusetts to see a solo Neil Young acoustic set with Jeff in June of 1992, I was not expecting much. I’d already seen Neil in several of his more rocking permutations, so this stripped-down sound was sure to be anticlimactic.  As it turned out, it was the beginning of this transformation for me.  It was an event that helped me out of my insular world of amplified rock-music appreciation.  Quality is quality, no matter the genre.  That acoustic set in Lenox Massachusetts was a big step for me in realizing this.  Here’s the set list of Neil’s solo performance that evening:

Long May You Run
Unknown Legend
Comes a Time
Dance, Dance, Dance
Love Is a Rose
From Hank to Hendrix
The Needle and the Damage Done
Tonight's the Night
Hitchhiker (this one is hard to believe)
Old Man
This Note's for You
Like a Hurricane
Old King
Such a Woman
Heart of Gold
Don't Let It Bring You Down
Sugar Mountain
After the Gold Rush

 Not a lightweight in the bunch.   A handful of these songs, I have seen performed in much higher-octane style.  Regardless, the set was memorable.  Mr. Young made it clear to me that his acoustic shows could be magical in their own rights.   

 Neil Young’s most famous “acoustic” album is ‘Harvest’, and he played several songs from this album on that evening.  Virtually every song on this 1972 album is a classic, but the one that has been connecting with me the most for a better part of a year is the title track, which did not reach the same level of acclaim as several other tracks on the album (not sure what’s going on here, but 3 of the last 4 “Forever Young” entries are based on title tracks). 

As done last week, here’s a bit of breakdown of my interpretation of the lyrics to Harvest as I see them: 
Did I see you down in a young girl's town
With your mother in so much pain?
I was almost there at the top of the stairs
With her screamin' in the rain
Did she wake you up to tell you that
It was only a change of plan?
Dream up, dream up, let me fill your cup
With the promise of a man
Ø  I believe we have here a mother who has taken a sudden turn for the worse in her battle with something.  Still, this woman has an amazing strength in both faith and spirit to be philosophical at such a fatal moment.  The singer is not quite connected with the daughter just yet (“almost there at the top of the stairs”) at this critical time in her life, but wishes he was
Did I see you walking with the boys
Though it was not hand in hand?
And was some black face in a lonely place
When you could understand?
Did she wake you up to tell you that
It was only a change of plan?
Dream up, dream up, let me fill your cup
With the promise of a man
Ø  This may be a reference to mourning:  A daughter in black, struggling to get beyond her loss, not able to connect with her children.  The singer realizes she’s on her own now as a daughter and mother, wishing to make things better.
Will I see you give more than I can take?
Will I only harvest some?
As the days fly past will we lose our grasp
Or fuse it in the sun?
Did she wake you up to tell you that
It was only a change of plan?
Dream up, dream up, let me fill your cup
With the promise of a man
Dream up, dream up, let me fill your cup
With the promise of a man
Ø  Well, this last stanza is self-explanatory I would think.  Still, the reference to a harvest is telling:  The daughter, it would seem, has gained her mother’s strengths in the process of losing her, likely fueled by those words of wisdom that are repeated in each stanza.

‘Harvest’ was Neil Young’s greatest selling album, going multi-platinum.  I wonder when it is musicians know they have a “classic” album in the works…. take Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ for example or the Rolling Stones ‘Exile on Main Street’.  Well, that’s a story for another time.  For now, I’d like to kick back and enjoy an acoustic highlight ( ), while feeling a sense of gratitude for friends like Jeff, who opened my eyes to some new experiences.

-          Pete

Friday, February 21, 2014

Forever Young # 8: "The Pact"

Song:  Broken Arrow
Album:  Buffalo Springfield Again
Released:  October, 1967

 Monday, President’s Day, was one of those rare, nothing-to-do mornings.  I’d be taking Peter and his buddies to the YMCA for some basketball later, but the early goings of the day were strangely free of commitments.  How to take advantage of the time?  I turned the Olympics on for some early-morning hockey, but this was not enough.  I needed to listen to some music, and with Neil Young constantly on the docket this year, I had both focus and range to work with. 

 The reconnection with a free, tune-filled morning brought me back…way back actually, to my college years, when a weekend’s early hours would often be dedicated to broadening the music-knowledge horizons.  I recalled my senior year, spring semester ’84 in North Adams, living with Bob Bouvier and two other music-loving roommates (well, one of them had a steep learning curve) in an old, Victorian, 3-story, 3 apartment off-campus house-on-a hill.  Posters of the Who (and only the Who), decorated our T.V. room and quite often it was the Who that was all we played. 

 But we would break from the norm on occasion and in these moments we could be heard listening to quite a range of other stuff, including Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend solo (primarily the then-recently released ‘All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes’) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (one of Bouv’s favorite songs at the time was Vaughan’s version of Mary Had a Little Lamb).  We would also go downstairs to our fellow tenants’ apartment to hang out and listen to their collection, which was quite extensive.  Thinking back this past Monday, I recalled a good dose of Allman Brothers (it’s where I got into ‘Eat a Peach’), Zappa and Steely Dan.  It was all coming back.  And then another album materialized in my mind:  ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’. 

 Upon that recollection, I knew what I had to do. 

 And so, for the next 5-6 hours, I listened to Buffalo Springfield.…. again.  And not only did I listen to their aforementioned 2nd album, but the 1st (‘Buffalo Springfield’) and 3rd (the aptly named ‘Last Time Around’) albums as well, along with a handful of outtakes, singles and bootlegs.  Like the Beatles and the original Byrds, this was a band that did not survive the 60s and so, the context of all their music can be taken in entirely through that prism.  That thought helped put me in the right frame of mind, and before long, I was immersed in it all.

 What an eclectic band this was.  First, there was a young Stephen Stills on lead guitar/vocals, full of rock swagger, vigor and raw talent, not one to shy away from the spotlight.  There was rhythm guitarist/vocalist Richie Furay, bringing a softer angle to the mix, who may have paved the way for country-rock bands like the Eagles (though on their last album, Furay diversified nicely with more experimental, Grateful Dead-like sounds).  There was drummer/vocalist Dewey Martin, who would not have been out of place if he were picked up and dropped off behind the British-Invasion drum kit of a band like the Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark Five (Buffalo Springfield was an entirely North American band).  Looking at video footage, these 3 gents appeared to occupy the bright parts of the stage.

Then there were the guys who occupied the darker corners, the two Canadians in the band, bassist Bruce Palmer and lead guitar/vocalist Neil Young.  Although there may have been other reasons for this (both were in the USA illegally and without work permits during their tenure with Buffalo Springfield) it appears to me as a natural fit for them.  Palmer and Young came across as moody in demeanor and appearance.  Bruce Palmer combined his preference for dark corners with turning his back to the crowd (more on this below).  For Neil Young, his talents would not allow the shadows for much longer; his time with Buffalo Springfield proved to be the only period in his career where he would be allowed to stand behind someone else.   Together Palmer and Young gave Buffalo Springfield a deeper and more expansive, sound. 

 When I think of Buffalo Springfield, what often comes to mind is that now-famous chance encounter at the crossroads.  Driving in one direction was Young and Palmer, at the tail end of a futile week-long search for Stills and Furay in the streets of L.A. after a cross-country trip to get there; now broke and about to give up and head back north. From another direction was Stills and Furay, who spotted Young’s black hearse (which was familiar to Furay, having connected with Young in New York) and flagged him down.  The rest history. 

 I believe we all have a crossroad moment in our lives.  For me, it was in the summer of ’84, another memorable visit to Ottawa, Canada, and long term implications this time with a job on the line at one of the few places I could work:  The American Embassy (my lack of a work permit a mirror to Neil Young’s predicament in the States).  But it was not to be.  Several months later, back in Massachusetts, I met Nancy, and I have never looked back (though I still recall Fred’s comment to me in Ottawa that summer along the lines of “Pete, this is a great fit for you”).    

 This and other road-trip experiences are one reason I believe I can relate to Neil Young.   I was in search of something back then, though not quite knowing what it was or how it would all come together.  But I was willing to travel to find it.  Neil Young wandered North America and eventually found what he wanted.  His North American experience and the times that it all happened are familiar to me, more so than say, what many of my favorite British bands went through (though those experiences were challenging in their own rights).

 A few years back, the family and I took our second trip to Newfoundland, a top drawer destination for me.  The trip included a 13 hour overnight ferry ride from the northern tip of Nova Scotia to the Avalon Peninsula (east coast of Newfoundland).  On the ferry was a young kid who sat out on the cold deck during the dusk and dawn hours and played guitar, his girlfriend close by his side.  He played some great music, and I stood out there longer than I would normally have, just to listen and I guess to also offer support.  We talked a bit.  He was Canadian.  This was his first trip to Newfoundland, and he, simply put, wanted to see what he could find in himself there - on a wing and a prayer.  Later I would run into him several more times in the streets of St John’s.  He was drawing a small crowd, and yet it was clear he was a struggling musician trying to make ends meet.    I was impressed.  Was this kid at a crossroads? I thought of Neil Young and what it must have been like for him in his early break-away days in Thunder Bay and Toronto.  This young man had painted an indelible image for me. 

 Over the past few months listening to Neil Young’s music, I’m beginning to see a triple pattern with what he does.  Concepts seem to come in 3s for Mr. Young.  There’s the “Ditch” trilogy (discussed in Forever Young # 7); there’s the fever-inspired triple set of Cinnamon Girl, Cowgirl in the Sand and Down by the River on ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’ (see Forever Young # 5).  There are references linking Young’s acoustic albums, ‘Harvest’, ‘Comes a Time’ and ‘Harvest Moon’.  There’s the triple album retrospective ‘Decade’. 

 And there’s Neil Young’s classic triple contribution to ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’; Mr. Soul, Expecting to Fly, and this week’s Forever Young tune, Broken Arrow ( ).  These three songs complement one another with themes of soul, love and peace (respectively) which were the 3 core ideals in the hippie movement of the late 60s.  Young seems to be making a pact with himself here:  To keep his soul intact on his path to fame (which he appears to fear losing in Mr. Soul) he would focus all his energies on writing music about love and peace.  These two themes would remain the cornerstones upon which he would weave his magic for the rest of his career.  He’s never lost those hippie ideals.

 It’s fascinating seeing the rise of Neil Young during his period with Buffalo Springfield.  The band’s appearance on ‘Hollywood Palace’ (where they lead off with Stills’ hit For What It’s Worth ( ) is indicative of this.  The second song of the night was Mr. Soul ( ).  Neil Young is intense here, which comes across most clearly during the 1:22 to 1:37 stretch of the clip, when Young walks up to Bruce Palmer (who looks as if he is conducting an orchestra, his back to the camera, directly in front of the audience!) and goes into overdrive; oh too short, but still sweet.  Young is playing off the bass.  It may have been the moment Crazy Horse was born, as he would search for this type of lock-in often with Billy Talbot in the decades that followed.  I love Palmer’s bass jam here, but make no mistake that Neil Young is the catalyst.

 My final thoughts here though are on the song Broken Arrow.  What a play with lyrics in the refrain:

 Did you see him in the river?
He was there to wave to you.
Could you tell that
the empty quivered,
Brown skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow,
Held a broken arrow? “

 “Broken Arrow” is another triple theme with Neil Young.  It’s not only a song title for him, but a 1996 album title and the name of his Northern California ranch as well.  Clearly, the term means a lot to him. “Broken arrow” has several meanings, but Young’s use of the term is in relation to it being a peaceful gesture by Native American warriors, which brings to mind the 500 year struggles of these first Americans since Europeans first landed on these shores.

 It’s another struggle though, the Vietnam War, that jumps out at me even more starkly in this song’s second verse:

 “Eighteen years of American dream,
He saw that his brother
Had sworn on the wall.
He hung up his eyelids
And ran down the hall,
His mother had told him
A trip was a fall,
And don't mention babies at all”

 Wow.  A young man coming to grips with what his older brother went through in the jungles and small villages in Southeast Asia.  The line “And don’t mention babies at all” the most poignant. 

 Broken Arrow starts off with a brief live clip of Mr. Soul…. “Well, hello Mr. Soul I dropped by to pick up a reason” (sung by Dewey Martin). Neil Young picked up a reason all right, not only with Broken Arrow, but with most everything he’s written subsequent.


 -          Pete

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Forever Young # 7: "Structurally (un)Sound"

Song:  Time Fades Away
Album:  Time Fades Away
Released:  October, 1973

Talking shop with my boss, Chris, recently in his office, we got on the subject of management styles.  For a frame of reference, my boss is a brilliant Ph.D. and former university professor; hands off, but always interested in your work and what he can do to support it.  His office walls are adorned with family and other personal photos (teaching days, travel), and a few certificates (both serious and humorous).  Around his computer workspace are smaller images of several of his influences, including pioneering limnologist (= freshwater science) Raymond Lindeman and two counter-culture luminaries; Che Guevara and Woody Guthrie.  Now, the government can be known for its stiffness (think, Al Gore), but it’s difficult to fathom Guevara and Guthrie adorning the walls of a high rise corporate office.  But that’s beside the point. 

Both Chris and I have experienced, over our careers, a wide range of management styles and we agreed that the hardest to work for is the centralized approach that relies on a simple, organizational structure.  This may be effective in some work environments like the military, but in the US Geological Survey, a professional scientific agency, it doesn’t work nearly as well as other more democratic approaches, particularly when it comes to the self-motivated - be he/she a technician, specialist, supervisor, or research hydrologist.

Before we moved on to other work-related topics, Chris brought up the period he came of age, the late 60s, and raised an interesting insight:  The counterculture environment of those times worked for some personalities, but for others it was disastrous.  There was little or no structure to speak of, and without it, these individuals eventually lost direction (Robin Wright’s - “Jenny” - character in Forest Gump comes to mind).  Some never got it back.  Chris was making an analogy to our management-style discussion.  His point: Some people simply need structure.

I thought often about our conversation this past week.  It factored greatly into this Forever Young entry. 

 It’s too bad the Rolling Stones had to go and christen the title of their 1966 album ‘Aftermath’, expending the name in the process.  The word aftermath is defined as “the consequences of a significant unpleasant event”, and the mid-60s, along with the period that preceded, were relatively tame in a historical context (as was this album), so there’s little to work with here (in hindsight the title ‘Prelude’ may have been more appropriate, but the Stones would have had to be visionaries to anticipate what was soon to follow). 

 On the contrary, ‘Aftermath’ would have been the perfect title for any number of early to mid-70s albums by any of a handful of musicians who cut their teeth in the 60s, including the Stones.  Now, I’ll go to my grave believing there were many great things to come out of the 60s counterculture movement, including the highly innovative and often free form music.  It was a rapid growing experience for those involved and for some like Neil Young, who thrived in those extremely unstructured times, it was positive in many ways.  But for others the growing experience was all too rapid and ultimately Neil Young and many of his contemporaries would have to bear witness to close friends who fell through the cracks. 

 The immediate stretch that followed, the early to mid-70s, was an amazingly prolific time for many 60s musicians including Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, George Harrison, and John Lennon.  The common denominator of their music during this time:  The lyrics were deeply personal, and often painful, reflecting on what was lost in the years that preceded.  For these musicians, their 60s albums were revolutionary, but for my money their ‘aftermath’ albums are better: ‘Who By Numbers’, ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Dark Side Of the Moon’, ‘Empty Glass’,  ‘All Things Must Pass’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, ‘Exile on Main Street’, ‘Goats Head Soup’, ‘Plastic Ono Band’, ‘Desire’, ‘Imagine’ and of course Neil Young’s “Ditch” trilogy of albums: ‘Time Fades Away’, ‘Tonight’s the Night, and ‘On the Beach’. 

My heightened interest in Rock n’ Roll stems to this aftermath era and I’ve frequently pondered over why this is.  It’s not as if I have any nostalgia related to when these albums were released:  In virtually all cases, I got into this music at a later time.  I believe now that a big reason is that I can feel the brutal honesty in the music on these albums.  I can sense the maturation.  It was a time that separated the men from the (play)boys.  It was a extraordinary time in history as well; we will not see one like it again in our lifetimes.  Those who seized the moment to reflect on the downside of these unique times should be praised. 

‘Time Fades Away’ was released at a time of great turmoil in Neil Young’s life, primarily due to the death of 2 of his close friends to drug abuse:  Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry.   The mood of the entire album reflects this turmoil.  One of the amazing things about ‘Time Fades Away’ is that it’s a live album of all original songs!  This I believe is singular in the rock world.  Listening now, I think it highly unlikely that Neil Young would be able to convey the same mood in the studio.  He must have known this.  This album was an early indication that Young would always be willing to take risks while following his musical musings (foretelling this was the fact that Young had, without warning, skipped out of a CSNY session months earlier to track down his ‘Harvest’ band, the Stray Gators, write and jam with them on some new songs, and go on the road).
The title track ( ) is full of heartache, the refrain seemingly a Dad’s plea to his wayward son to get off the streets and come home.  It starts off….

 14 Junkies too weak to work,
One sells diamonds for what their worth
Down on pain street
Disappointment lurks

 Followed by the refrain…

 Son don’t be home too late
Try to get back by eight
Son, don’t wait till the break of day
Cause you know how time fades away

 The song finishes with the same set of lyrics and refrain, but instead of “14 Junkies” there are now 13.  Was the son saved, or did he succumb?  The best thing about Time Fades Away is the back and forth vocals between Neil Young and pedal steel player, Ben Keith.  This comes across to me as Young playing the role of the son (his Dad’s voice echoing in his ears), and Keith as the father.   Ben Keith’s voice is deep and belies his age at the time (36), sounding like a much older and wiser man.  Listening now, this song sounds like a prelude to ‘Greendale’, a concept album which had a similar father/son relationship.

 The other verses are afflicted as well:

 All day presidents look out windows
All night sentries watch the moon glow
All are waiting till the time is right

I see this as the father lamenting that he did not intervene sooner.  Then there’s…

 Back in Canada I spent my days
Riding subways through a haze
I was handcuffed, I was born and raised.

Here, Neil Young appears to be relating to all of this, reflecting on a weak time in his own life, alone in Toronto, just before he started his path to success. 

Other highlights on ‘Time Fades Away’ are Yonder Stands the Sinner, Don’t Be Denied and Last Dance.  All have ominous undertones (‘Yonder’ is just plain scary).  In Don’t Be Denied, a highlight and lowlight reel of Neil Young’s life, he sings one line about Buffalo Springfield: “We played all night.  The price was right.” Jack Nitzsche, Stray Gators keyboardist, took this to heart, insisting on a significant raise for the entire band half way through the tour.  Neil Young agreed to this, but from all accounts, band cohesion was never the same afterwards. 

I pulled out my old album to reconnect with memories of when I played it a lot, slipping out the large-print lyrics written on a folded, paper-thin, poster-sized insert. The cover is oh, so familiar on multiple levels: A large crowd at an arena-sized rock concert.  Looking at random individuals in the crowd, I wondered where they are now.  This was the early 70s.  Many of these kids likely had experiences themselves in the late 60s.  I recalled an article I read one time about George Harrison’s visit to San Francisco not long after Sgt. Pepper was released in 1967.  This was the “Summer of Love”, and Beatle George wanted to see what it was all about at the heart of it.  He wanted to participate.  But when he got there, he was chased around by Haight-Ashbury hanger-ons.  They were amazed George Harrison was in their midst and many of them crowded tightly around him and his entourage in a park, some tearing at his clothes.  Harrison could not handle it (who could?): This was stranger than Beatlemania.   The crowd was treating him as if he were some kind of Messiah.  He wanted out, and soon made a B-line for a ride out of there.

I had other more positive thoughts as I looked at the crowd on the album cover, but that conversation with my boss about structure kept coming back to me.  It had me thinking; different times and circumstances work for different personalities.  Some people thrive with structure, some with the opposite.  This past year ushered in a new Pope who seems to be shaking down the establishment in the Vatican somewhat, perhaps in reaction to the prior Pope’s overzealous stances in this regard.  There’s a Tea Party movement that has done quite well and an Occupy Wall Street movement (a latter-day hippie culture) that has faded with time.  Tea Partiers would argue it’s all about genuine anger in the country for their success, but is part of the reason due to the likelihood that this mindset works well with structure and the Occupy mindset recoils against it?  A lack of interest in structure could also explain the struggles of the Arab Spring movements against longtime entrenched structural systems in those countries.  How do you find an anti-leader, anyway? 

Maybe Danny Whitten was emblematic of many who “dropped out” in the late 60s and early 70s: Someone in need of a little more structure in his life.  It certainly comes across this way when you see some early footage of “Danny and the Memories” before they became the Rockets and then Crazy Horse ( One can only wonder.  My own thought is that there’s a balance there somewhere between a world of rigid structure and one of unstructured anarchy.  The hope should be that we never stray too close to either end of this spectrum for the simple reason that, depending on your makeup, one of those poles makes for a pretty rough ride.

-          Pete

In closing, a nod of thanks to another Chris (Brady) for reconnecting me with the ‘Time Fades Away’ music:  It’s been at least 20 years since I’d listened to it front to back, my vinyl in that interim “without a home”(turntable).  Nothing like a fellow ‘aftermath’ enthusiast to bring it all back.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Forever Young # 6: "Just Rewards"

Song:  Harvest Moon
Album:  Harvest Moon
Released:  October, 1992

 Inspiration is more often than not an unpredictable process.  Put too much effort into it and you will likely be denied.  If you don’t try to some degree though, it won’t come often enough.  Sometimes you have to go out and look for it, and even then, it’s no guarantee you are going to find it. Still, there can be sources of inspiration that become fairly reliable over time.  And occasionally, a source can be so reliable it has you going back to that well again and again.

 Bob Dylan has certainly had his share of inspiration over the course of a brilliant career.  Like all great artists, it probably comes at him from many directions, and at a far more frequent rate than us ordinary folk are accustomed to.  Off the top of my head, I’m thinking he’s been inspired by effects as diverse as people watching, a quiet room, reflections on life experiences , reflection on myth, a river, the Bible, and riding his motorcycle… this no doubt a small sample size.  With such a vast catalog of quality songs over his career, however, you’d think by his late 60s that Dylan would have pretty much tapped out on the variety of ways he could get the creative juices flowing.  But in 2008 while on a tour stop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Dylan was apparently expanding on that variety.

 Where was this new inspiration Dylan was looking for?  It was in Neil Young’s neighborhood and home.  Only problem was Neil Young didn’t live there anymore.  Neither did anyone else in his family.  Bob Dylan had tracked down Neil Young’s childhood home.  The family that lived there in 2008 was aware of the fact, though Dylan was not certain of this until he introduced himself in their front yard on a Sunday morning.  He then stated why he was there, and asked if he could tour the house.  The shocked couple obliged, and to Dylan’s pleasant surprise they ended up knowing quite a bit about the Young family history at the time they lived in the house, including which bedroom was Neil’s.  Bob Dylan asked if he could see the room, and it was here he withdrew for a time while staring out the window, according to the occupants (who were interviewed later by the city newspaper).  For Dylan knew (from either conversation, reading or folklore) this was the window Neil Young had stared out of as a young man, guitar in hand, gaining his own early inspirations.

Bob Dylan had done something like this at least once not long before on a European leg of the same “Never Ending” tour in Liverpool England, visiting the neighborhood of a young John Lennon (around his Aunt Mimi’s old home).  He would do it yet again in Long Branch, New Jersey the next year, roaming the suburban streets that inspired Springsteen to write Born To Run (on this occasion it was at night, in the pouring rain - the venture ending when a suspicious cop picked him up).    

 I find all this fascinating.  Bob Dylan has sung about all these fellow rockers at one time or another (most recently Lennon in the 2012 song Roll on John) so there is clearly a connection there worth exploring deeper.  But the aspect that fascinates me the most are these clandestine neighborhood visits.  No pun intended, but this hits home with me; especially the Neil Young story.  Dylan, as usual, was on to something here.

 Here’s the thing; Neil Young connects the listener to his life experiences better than any musician I know.  Listening to his music, you can eventually find yourself sucked into his world: Winnipeg, California, Florida, Toronto, Nashville, his Mom, his Dad, his friends, his lovers, his music connections, his dog, his neighbors, his cars, his passions, his views.  You can relate to most of it, which is what makes him such a great artist.  Bob Dylan and Neil Young (and maybe Leonard Cohen) are the only musicians I know who have kept their creativity intact and thriving into their 70s.  Dylan does it one way, and I’ll get into that more at a later date (once I figure it out!).  Neil Young’s way is relatively straightforward but no less difficult to achieve:  He’s never lost ties with his younger self.  He abandons nothing and no one.  It all matters to him, from his youngest memories to his complex elder thoughts.  I believe Dylan needed to see this for himself when he visited Young’s childhood home.

 The reason this hits home with me is that a primary driving force behind this series is to flesh out inspiring formative memories of my own through the music I grew up listening to, and to try to make sense of these memories in the context of the times.  Many of the memories start at the old homestead in Franklin and in the old neighborhood that surrounded 17 Park Road.  If you had a great upbringing in a great locale, as I did, the effect of that experience never leaves you.   You try to feed off it the rest of your life… and you frequent that well as often as you can for inspiration. 

 ‘Harvest Moon’ is one of those classic albums (from beginning to end) that cover a broad range of subject matter while never losing that high-quality focus of knowing what our real priorities should be.  I believe Neil Young pulls this off by once again connecting to that passionate kid who stared out his bedroom window in Winnipeg, a world of ideas already at his fingertips.  The title track bears this out  : A just reward (in more ways than one) for staying in tune with who you are.

 I’ll close this entry with a few additional thoughts on the relationship between Neil Young and Bob Dylan, two of a handful of “Mount Rushmore” Rock icons.   Young was there to recognize Dylan at his Atlantic Record 30th Anniversary Tribute (one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, watching a live simulcast of it at Jeff Straus’ apartment), and was one of a few musicians to play 2 songs that evening in Madison Square Garden:  Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and All Along the Watchtower.  He came on right after the Sinead O’Connor out-of-script ranting of Bob Marley’s War, having to bring things back in order I suppose.  It showed, as he appeared to overreach some (though thanking Dylan for “Bob Fest” was a highlight).  Still a great performance, but not quite to the amazing level of some of the other performances that night (Ronnie Wood, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Winter, and Richie Havens all come to mind). 

 Bob Dylan mentions Neil Young in one of his many opus songs, the magnificent, sprawling Highlands (on the 1997 ‘Time Out of Mind’ album – a favorite of mine).  When I heard this when released it was the first time I got the sense that the respect between these musicians is mutual.  Many musicians honor the guiding force of Bob Dylan.  He does the same for musicians who came before him (bluesmen, folk heroes, others), but rarely for his contemporaries (he’s like Keith Richards this way).  They really have to earn it.  By 1997, it appeared that Neil Young had done just that. 

 Finally, there’s the cover of Bob Dylan and the Band’s ‘Basement Tapes’.  Is Neil Young in the crowd or not?  I believe so.  Many who have discussed this on the web zero in on the wrong person(s).  The only one it could be is way in the back, behind Richard Manuel; partially blinded out by the dim basement lighting (he’s a bit more prominent on the inner sleeve to the left of Rick Danko).  Neil’s got that ‘On the Beach’ look about him (though much of the ‘Basement Tapes’ was performed in the late 60s at Big Pink in Woodstock, it was not released until 1975).  I love this:  One of the most mysterious albums of all time will forever have us questioning Neil Young’s participation in it (at the very least on the cover). 

 On that surreptitious note, I’ll call it an entry.

 -          Pete