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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVi0UvFu8Yo : 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.