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

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