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 na├»ve 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

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