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

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