Thursday, March 27, 2014

Forever Young # 13: "Music to my Ears"

Song:  Love and War
Album:  Le Noise
Released:  September, 2010

 If you grew up in the 70s or 80s, it was highly likely that you knew someone who put a premium on their stereo system (it’s hard to believe this is an antiquated concept, but that’s a discussion for another time).  Several friends come to mind, and the most manic of them all was a roommate I had during my senior year in college.  His entire stereo system was top of the line, but it was his sound system that he prided himself in the most.  Yes, Gaff was a woofer/speaker/amplifier freak alright, and those close to him, including Bouv and I, benefited from this:  When the weekend commenced, it was his room we would convene in and where we would then proceed to drown ourselves in the majestic musical sounds that surrounded us.

 Gaff’s stereo system was very expensive and though I have always appreciated quality sound, I felt at the time that he was deep into the realm of diminishing returns:  My stereo system was 1/10th the price and I was quite satisfied.  The truth, however, is more along the lines that my hearing was not as finely tuned as his.  That’s not to say I did not pick up on great musical moments he himself would miss on occasion.  It’s just that when he heard music on a high-end system, it was received in a clearer, crisper and more acute way than anything I could decipher. 

 You could say my old roommate had Neil Young’s ears, though I was not aware of this at the time.  It took another decade or so - when the cd was overpowering analog records – for the connection to be made.  Young was a solitary holdout against the computerization of music.  The reason, which he espouses to this day, is his belief that analog is a strict interpretation of the original, pure sound while compact discs produce compromising digital output.  Young continued to put an emphasis on good ol’ fashioned vinyl well into the 90s, long after other musicians had caved to the inevitable.  As a matter of fact, he still emphasizes this point.

 Thinking back now, I recall being impressed, inspired and surprised with Neil Young’s stance.  He was making a statement yet again; holding fast to a belief system that has consistently risked his roller-coaster ties to mainstream success.  This was a qualitative statement.  Young was standing by something he saw as being a better way of doing things regardless of the trend. It was not the first time he would do this, and it would not be the last time.  There are many examples throughout his career.  In 1997 he boycotted Buffalo Springfield’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not because of tension with his former bandmates, but because of the commercialization of the event (MTV airing tape-delayed highlights rather than leaving in all the warts that he found to be far more human).  Prior, Young had pined for a reunion more than anyone else in the band, so this took some will power.   His stances supporting the family farm (vs agribusiness conglomerates), tribal rights (vs big oil tar sands in Alberta), green cars (vs the fossil fuel status quo), and peace (in hawkish times) have all gone against the grain as well. 

 Equally impressive are Young’s musical stances, exemplified in his early 70s and early 80s albums.  The 70s albums were abrasive responses to the soft rock sound he already had proven to be so good at.  More importantly they were soulful and in turn have only grown in stature through the years.  His early 80s albums will likely never be known as his high points, but they were at least partially a response to an overly demanding record contract (Geffen Records).   These 80s albums proved that Young was willing to wait it out through experimentation rather than trying to please anyone or anything other than his own inner voice, much of it may have been disparagingly intentional; an artistic statement reflecting the times he was living (in a similar vein to the way Bob Dylan has sung live over the past 20 years).

 I’ve learned from all this.  In many ways Neil Young is a reaffirmation of my upbringing; that whole “beat your own drum” mentality my Dad has always held true to.  The key to sticking to these drums is to know quality when you see it, and then to not cave to the forces that can easily pull you away for the sake of short-term gain.  It’s a character thing.  We all have a sense for it.  Not many of us stick to it.

 In 2010, Neil Young was refocused on quality sound.  He matched up with Daniel Lanois - one of the few record producers with a gift of refined hearing that can match Young – to compile the excellent album ‘Le Noise’ (Lanois is from Hull, Quebec, hence the classic title twist).  Daniel Lanois is best known for producing several great U2 albums, but for my money, his best work was with Bob Dylan on the 1989 ‘Oh Mercy’.  This album has such a unique, atmospheric sound (Dylan tells the story of how the album came together in great detail in his biography ‘Chronicles I’). 

 Young was looking for something similar. He found it. ‘Le Noise’ is a great album.  Most of the music is solo electric guitar and heavy feedback (courtesy of Lanois and fellow producer Mark Howard), conjuring images of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock or Neil Young’s own Natural Anthem (Mother Earth) off ‘Ragged Glory’.  Much of what is impressive about this album is the accompanying black and white video footage, each and every song filmed live and raw, with a camera bouncing between Young’s face (singing) and his plucking fingers.  The entire album was produced in a handful of ambient rooms in Lanois’ Silver Lake California home (near L.A.); each room seemingly chosen to reflect the mood of each song.  It all works. I particularly like some of the footage from outside, below the din; noise and light cascading into the darkness.  There’s an air of unrestrained potency about it all.

 The best song on ‘Le Noise’ is Love and War ( ), one of only 2 acoustic cuts on the album.  I listened to this song over and over again this week and never got tired of it.  The music is surreal, and I would love one day to hear it on a quality Gaff-approved sound system.  Despite the intensity of the lyrics, I’ll leave discussion of my thoughts on the meaning to Love and War (and all ‘Le Noise’ songs for that matter) alone for the time being (it’s very likely I will revisit this album through the somber Hitchhiker at a later date).

 I would be remiss to be talking about quality sound all this time without mentioning Neil Young’s new PONO product ( ).  It’s digital, but innovatively analog-like. Young is at it again.  Another great musician once penned “There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath, rippling by”.  Neil Young may be the one who keeps that door open for future generations, despite the current ambivalence to his qualitative quest.

-          Pete

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Forever Young # 12: "Lock Picking"

Song:  The Loner
Album:  Neil Young
Released:  November, 1968

 I was an avid Marvel Comics reader in the mid-70s.  One of the comic books I read was a then new series titled ‘The Defenders’.  It centered on a ‘non-group’ of superheroes, a creative idea, published at a time when Marvel was at the top of their game.  Each of the original non-members of ‘The Defenders’ were already known through their own series, including the Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, the Submariner and the Hulk (the series got better and better over the first few years as the Defenders morphed to include a handful of more obscure non-members).  None of these characters had been cast by Marvel as the congenial type; not a one with any semblance of a personality that would be enamored by the thought of going to battle with others.  But the writers of this series found unique and often amazingly bizarre ways to bring them all together, one episode after another, only to have them part ways at the end of a storyline (usually in a huff).

Several weeks back as I listened to the music of Buffalo Springfield (see Forever Young # 8), I thought of ‘The Defenders’ and the difficulties that can crop up when trying to keep a group together.  For many reasons Buffalo Springfield was destined to be short lived, and the biggest reason of all was Neil Young.  In the comic series, the character who proved the most difficult to rein in was the Hulk; a loose wire, far more antihero than hero.  Concocting ways of incorporating the Hulk into a storyline was where the writers earned their keep.  Buffalo Springfield on the other hand had no such cohesive entity, and despite early success, the abundance of talent in the band, and the potential for grander achievements, it was not long before the loner in Neil Young took over, leaving the band several times before finally calling it quits for good in 1968 after less than 2 years.  If Buffalo Springfield had a Hulk, it was Young. 

Why was this?  Why would Neil Young leave a sure thing in the dust?  Reasons I’ve heard are legitimate enough given the career path which would follow, including the need for full artistic control, and his chameleon like qualities.  But I think there’s another deeper explanation that has not been explored, at least in the literature I’ve read.  Yet, it’s there for anyone to interpret in Young’s very first solo single, The Loner ( ), a song far more apropos than could have been obvious at the time of its release.  There are some very important lyrics in The Loner that help explain Neil Young’s need to go it alone.  The first is the refrain, which I first latched on to while enjoying this song back in the 70s:
Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
Step aside, open wide,
It’s the loner

 What has always intrigued me in this refrain is the “Step aside, open wide” line.  It’s telling to me in that there’s a respect here which needs to be recognized in this individual’s makeup.  Why?  The concept goes against the grain!  You step aside (and open wide) for a leader, not a loner.  A leader can galvanize crowds.  A leader can make a difference.  A leader can get people to do altruistic things.  As for a loner, the term is more synonymous with words like eccentric, or introvert, or outcast, or even loser.  But Neil Young is praising the loner in this song. 

It had me digging deeper.

Early this week, as I thought more about The Loner and this refrain, another of Neil Young’s great songs kept looping through my conscience:  Helpless.  At first I concluded the reason was fairly superficial:  To understand Young it helps to understand his childhood, which this song is most certainly about.  Simple enough.  But then I picked up on a common analogy in the two songs; that of chains, keys and locks….and something clicked (no pun intended). 

In Helpless there are these lines:

The chains are locked
and tied across the door,
Baby, sing with me somehow.

And in The Loner there are these lines:

He's the unforeseen danger
the keeper of
the key to the locks.

I began thinking these analogies were linked (ok, pun intended this time).  In both cases the locked chains appear to be referring to youthful innocence and the unlikelihood that you can reconnect to these ideals once you lose them.  The thing about the hero in The Loner is he’s figured out how to maintain that connection….but at a cost (hence the title to the song).  This thought process actually brought me back to the Hulk, a simple minded brute who could only relate to the pure-at-heart (and even then it was precarious).  I always loved this angle in the Hulk storylines…. that being his zero tolerance for even an iota of superficiality (a similar trait to several people I know). 

Interestingly, listening to the studio version of this song there is an audible second “of” in the line about locks: “He’s the unforeseen danger of the keeper of the keys to the locks”.  That other “of” is not captured in any subsequent printing of the lyrics, including the in-sleeve of the original album (the self-titled ‘Neil Young’).  Is this a Freudian slip?  The additional ‘of’ changes the meaning some:  Instead of actually being the keeper (of the key to the locks), he’s a threat to that keeper.  I like this meaning better.

One other line in Helpless reverberated with me this week as well:  All my changes were there”.  In other words, nothing else was going to mold Neil Young…. not Buffalo Springfield, not CSNY, not the Stray Gators, not even Crazy Horse.  He was already shaped in his very young life.  By the time he released Helpless in 1970, he knew this.  It’s not so much a bold declaration as it is a submission to what he sees as fact. 

Growing up, I connected with far more loners than insiders.  I’m not sure why this is, as I was likely the most extroverted of the crowd I hung out with (in a musical context, I enjoy musicians who can survive in a band more than those who need to break away).  Regardless, I feel blessed:  These connections shaped me, and made me a better person. 

At the very least, they allowed me to relate to someone like Neil Young.

-          Pete

Friday, March 14, 2014

Forever Young # 11: "How Do You Know When a Diamond Is Real?"

Song:  Barstool Blues
Album:  Zuma
Released:  November, 1975

 Among the many reasons for doing these write-ups is to fill in holes, and Neil Young’s 1975 album ‘Zuma’ was one great-big gaping hole for me.  The true aficionado of the man’s music might find this humorous:   How could someone write a blog casting Neil Young and his music as central figures, without a prior connection to this album?  Point taken; however, leaving a few boulders unturned has been standard operating procedure for me for as long as I can remember.  When it comes to my favorite musicians (or for that matter most anything of interest), I like the idea that there’s always something out there to discover.   This is certainly the case with ‘Zuma’.  I’ve known this to be a great album for quite some time.  To me though, it was buried treasure, and I had the map of how to get there etched in my mind for whenever I felt the time was right to dig it up. 

 In the meantime, I’d been content all these years to unearth smaller riches, including lesser known albums like ‘Life’, ‘Greendale’, ‘Silver and Gold’, ‘Mirror Ball’, ‘Tonight’s the Night’, ‘On the Beach’, ‘Time Fades Away’, and ‘Le Noise’. These and many of Neil Young’s better selling albums have sustained my appetite during those inevitable stretches of time when the need for a NY fix would kick in.  In the words of the man himself though, there comes a time. And so, as was the case with the Rolling Stones two years ago, (and hopefully will be for several other rock immortals in years to come), these ‘Forever Young’ blog entries are helping me in rounding things out.  I suppose what I’m really doing is completing a journey. 

 With that said, I’ll move on to something I’ve been pondering all week while listening to ‘Zuma’:  What makes a great album?  I’m not sure this concept is quantifiable, but I’ll give it a try.  For one thing, I believe a great album needs to have at least 3 killer tracks.  ‘Zuma’ has 4, including the haunting, guitar-rich Danger Bird; the perfect synchronization of music, lyrics and vocals that is Pardon My Heart; the omnipotent Cortez the Killer; and this week’s honoree, the driving, soaring Barstool Blues ( ). What the heck, I’ll throw in the sole CSNY track Through My Sails for good measure. 

 With few exceptions, a great album should also have zero clunkers (one example of an exception for me is the inclusion of the below-standard Maxwell’s Silver Hammer on ‘Abbey Road’).  You’d think a song with the title Stupid Girl would be a candidate; a reminder of a handful of poor Stones singles in their early years.  But the riff to this tune makes it solid (the song supposedly about Joni Mitchell).  Other than that, everything is rock solid. 

 The question then becomes, what makes a solid song, or for that matter a killer one?  Why does a song like Barstool Blues resonate so intensely with those of us who love rock and roll?  This is much harder to quantify then simply saying an album has to have 3 killer tracks to be great.  This gets more to the core of trying to understand how great music can be so transcending.  Having read so much in relation to musicians, I still have not heard a perfect answer to this question (though Pete Townshend has come close on several occasions). 

 It’s much more than a band clicking on all cylinders (though that does help, as witnessed in magnificent fashion in Barstool Blues with that driving Crazy Horse beat, captured in image on the cover of his later album ‘Life’).  Great music takes you places in your mind you would not go otherwise.  It also stirs memory, rekindles emotions, and lifts the spirit.   

 One thing Barstool Blues did for me this week was it brought me back to thinking about that all important decade in this series; the 70s.  Last week, daughter Charlotte was back home for the weekend and talked with me a bit about how she loves this decade.  That was interesting to me.  Charlotte has a roommate who taps into the cultural influences of bygone eras (including a poster on her wall of Jerry Garcia) which appears to have rubbed off on my daughter.  But the 70s have never been singled out in any special way by the generations that have followed. That decade has always fallen in the shadows of the one that preceded it. This may be changing.

 The one exception to this is the music.  Whenever a well thought-out ‘best rock songs/albums’ list is compiled by a magazine or book, it’s that music which was produced in the 70s that routinely blow the door off each and every other decade from the 50s on.  This is where you find the mother lode. For those of us who came of age in that era, it has to have had a uniquely profound effect.  As stated before, I will continue to try and capture that effect in this series.

 When you break down Neil Young’s studio albums by decade, it’s fascinating how it categorizes well with the musical reputation of the given era.  With a little bit of bleeding over from one decade into the next (for example, ‘Déjà vu’ was released in 1970 but is so connected to the 60s), here is one man’s attempt to do just that:

 The 60s: Neil Young is rebellious, feeling his oats: ‘Buffalo Springfield’, ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’, ‘Last Time Around’, ‘Neil Young’, ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’, ‘Déjà vu’.

 The 70’s: Young is deep and introspective; the music is profound and powerful, much of this music was questioned upon release, but has only gained admirers with the test of time: ‘After the Goldrush’, ‘Harvest’, ‘Time Fades Away’, ‘On the Beach’, ‘Tonight’s the Night’, ‘Zuma’, ‘Long May You Run’ (actually, this is the exception here), ‘American Stars ‘n Bars’, ‘Comes a Time’, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’

 The 80’s: Experimental, relatively weak, inconsistent, or all three (though I object to the notion that Neil Young fell for any fleeting fad during this era, and I’ll be connecting with some of these releases in later entries): ‘Hawks and Doves’, ‘Re-Ac-Tor’, ‘Trans’, ‘Everybody’s Rockin’, ‘Old Ways’, ‘Landing on Water’, ‘Life’, ‘This Notes For You’.

 The 90’s: Rebound, ‘Godfather’ of grunge, back to depth, but with an air of wisdom: ‘Freedom’, ‘Ragged Glory’, ‘Harvest Moon’, ‘Sleeps with Angels’, ‘Mirror Ball’, ‘Broken Arrow’ (this being the one exception in this bunch), ‘Silver and Gold’.

 The 00’s: Disruption (911), big ticket items of the times (war, big oil, the environment, the plight of the family farm): ‘Are You Passionate’, ‘Greendale’, ‘Prairie Wind’, ‘Living With War’, ‘Chrome Dreams II’, ‘Fork in the Road’

 The Teens (so far):  Rounding out loose ends; an ongoing wish list fulfilled one piece at a time: ‘Le Noise’, ‘Americana’, ‘Psychedelic Pill’

 Until next week….

 -          Pete

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Forever Young # 10: "Expecting the Unexpected"

Song:  Bandit
Album:  Greendale
Released:  August, 2003

In the fall of 2003, I got my first (and to date only) taste of a disgruntled Neil Young crowd.  I’d heard of other Young tours that threw off the fan base.  The ‘Time Fades Away’ tour in 1973 had the crowd expecting a mellow ‘Harvest’ sound.  Instead they heard what was interpreted at the time as borderline chaos (but has since been seen in a better light).  For the ‘Trans’ tour of Europe in 1982, guitar was frequently replaced by vocoder, a bizarre about-face by Young, drawing many jeers.  Later there would be Young’s war-protesting ‘Freedom of Speech’ tour in 2006 with Crosby, Stills and Nash…. and another miffed crowd (including Brother Joe, who actually enjoyed the show).  To a lesser degree, there were the Shocking Pink (1983) and Blue Notes (which I caught in ‘89) tours, the first heavy on the doo-wop, the second heavy on the brass.  I’m sure I’m missing a few more.

And so, in 2003 it was my turn to get a dose of Neil Young’s unpredictability in the form of ‘Greendale’, a concept album brought to life on stage.  I actually enjoyed both album and tour. At the Boston show, however, I was surrounded by a crowd who spent most of the evening scratching their heads (including at least one in my own party), many uninterested, some sounding pissed off that they wasted their time and money.  Part of me couldn’t blame them.  Although Neil Young was performing with his magical band, Crazy Horse, this time they were joined on stage by thespians who were acting out the songs, and a set….farm houses, a jail cell, a cop car; all well and good for a play but not so much for a rock concert.  Another part of me, though, was disappointed in the crowd.  With Neil Young they should have known better.  They should have expected the unexpected.  

 I had experienced something like this 10 years earlier, watching Pete Townshend perform his then new album ‘Psychoderelict’ with a band, actors and stage props.  A few years earlier it was Lou Reed’s performance of his new album ‘New York’.  At these shows, the crowds were yelling for Won’t Get Fooled Again and Sweet Jane respectively.  It was not going to happen.  The musicians were intent on playing their new songs, disregarding demand for the old and reliable. I was prepared, having listened heavily to these new songs before the tours. I loved it all; the albums and the tours (though I do have to admit, I've occasionally been in the dark myself.  One memory was the CSN 'Daylight Again' tour, Jeff Brady enjoying the show immensely - which was laced with the news songs - while myself and others were busy crying out for the "Y" part of the band). 

 ‘Greendale’ was Neil Young’s first overt attempt at telling a multi-song story.  It was 2 years after 911.  As Rolling Stone Magazine stated in its review of the album, “there’s paranoia on Main Street”.  There’s plenty else too, including stream-of-consciousness and insights into how Neil Young writes music and what he thinks about on stage.  There are plenty of complex characters in the story to wrap your mind around as well. There’s a well-respected hippie grandfather (and grandmother), a troubled nephew, a struggling son, an unfortunate cop (and cat), the mysterious Lenore, and a hip, eco-friendly granddaughter carrying her grandparents hippie ideals to a new generation.  Oh and there’s the devil weaving his effect on the goings on in the small town.

 To enjoy this show and album, I found it helped to connect with the little nuances of Young’s persona in his music, singing, and lyrics; stuff only he could dream up.  How Grandpa takes his wife’s words of wisdom and makes them his own in the opener, Falling From Above; the local furor over Earl and Edith (son and daughter-in-law of Grandpa and Grandma) renaming the “Double L” ranch to the “Double E” when they bought it; the references to John Lennon and Bob Dylan; the reaction of a grieving widow upon taking in the news of her husbands death (killed-in-the-line-of-duty) in the song Carmichael (“you asshole”) and reflecting on nice memories, including his spontaneous abuse of Wayne Newton during a chance encounter on Pebble Beach while they were on vacation years earlier; Grandpa moaning about the singing he - and only he - hears (is it Neil Young himself?) while dying of a heart attack after confronting a media horde (“can’t somebody shut him up!”); and on and on.

 Neil’s persona comes out in all sorts of ways in this week’s ‘Forever Young’ song, Bandit.  It’s a familiar theme for Neil Young about a guy down on his luck.  In this case, it’s the owner of the “Double E” ranch, Earl.  He’s lost another bet and doesn’t know where he’s going to get the money to pay up.  He can’t turn to his brother or his friends; those bridges have been burned.  He’s not been able to sell his paintings.  He’s also got too many secrets, and is in jeopardy of becoming invisible (a reference to Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone).  Pretty heady stuff, and played brilliantly by Neil Young in this Madison Square Garden performance: ( ).

 In general, I find that rock critics have always struggled with concept album. To many of them the abstraction goes against the grain.  Rock is supposed to be spontaneous and edgy, not grandiose.  There’s too much thought put into a storyline lasting longer than 3 minutes.  I can see that reasoning.  I mean, could you ever imagine the Ramones doing a concept album?  But to me the criticism makes it all the more alluring when a musician takes that plunge that risk, and invests a good chunk of time into explaining a deep storyline in song.  ‘Quadrophenia’, ‘Tommy’, ‘The Wall’, ‘Schoolboys in Disgrace’, ‘American Idiot’:  They are all impressive to me.  All these albums catch the musicians who wrote and performed them at the height of their careers. 

 Equally impressive to me though are a handful of latter-day, post peak, concept albums, ‘New York’, ‘Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking’,‘Psychoderelict’ and of course ‘Greendale’.  I believe these albums are even riskier than the aforementioned ones, because the musicians are older and wiser to the critical reaction:  Been burned once, and it can be hard to go back.  It’s this very age and wisdom however, that makes these albums special.  ‘Greendale’ comes at you from many angles.  It can sound naïve during one listen, and multi-layered during another.  It can have me embarrassed for Neil Young at one moment, and reassured of his amazing talents the next.  ‘Greendale’ is packed with a lifetime of failures and successes.  I’m not sure Mr. Young could have conceived of this album in his 20s or 30s. 

 A big reason for Neil Young’s success - his niche really - is made more apparent than ever with ‘Greendale’.  At his core, Young is a risk-taking hippie, someone who doesn’t care what the establishment thinks of him.   You can say this about a very few handful of people from his era (another that comes to mind is Patti Smith).  When I listen to ‘Greendale’, I’m reminded of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance bed-ins and nude album cover with Yoko (‘Two Virgins’).  Lennon was a guy not in the least afraid to wear his emotions and beliefs on his sleeve.  I wonder sometimes what would have happened if he were never killed?

 Hmmm…. Maybe the answer has played out after all: Perhaps Neil Young has done it for him.

-          Pete