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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. 
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 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 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVn8jvddl64 ) 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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53CSOJZ1bIs). 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.

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