Album: Psychedelic Pill
Released: October, 2012
It’s a relatively shortlist of rock and roll songwriters who have become successful in terms of relying on this art form for their livelihood; those who distinguished themselves from the pack. A minority of these success stories have even reached the level of achievement that has them recognized in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They represent but a small percentage of the totality of musicians that gave the profession a go. In the end most missed the mark (though I’m sure many had fun trying). As AC/DC once declared “it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll” (the first “Gem Music Video of the Week” over 5 years ago)
A vast majority of these successful songwriters will be known for a singular burst of creativity, making for a steady dose of quality material while in their heyday. It’s the rarer case when musicians have been able to get a second wind later in their careers. Paul Simon comes to mind with his 80s comeback album ‘Graceland’. The Stones kicked it back into high gear in the late 70s and early 80s with the albums ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Tatoo You’, which included quality hits like Beast of Burden, Start Me Up, and Miss You. The Kinks reached the MTV generation with Come Dancing and Randy Newman with Its Money that Matters. Springsteen, Petty, Mellencamp, U2, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits can all lay claims to a second wind too.
Third wind and beyond finds this shortlist dwindling considerably. Bob Dylan and Neil Young (and to a lesser degree, Leonard Cohen) are the only ones that come to mind. Their sustained excellence will have them recognized as movers and shakers of their times (and beyond) forevermore. Anything from here on for them is just icing on the cake. In fact, this could have been said 10 years ago. For these gentlemen, the legacy is secure.
Young’s most recent demonstration of this sustainability was his 2012 album ‘Psychedelic Pill’, which includes great tunes like Ramada Inn and the title track. It also includes an instant classic; this week’s blog-entry focus, Walk Like a Giant ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ub1qw2MmVOM ). To think that Young produced something of this caliber at the age of 67 gives us all hope.
Walk Like a Giant connected with me right away, but it really took hold when I listened to a live podcast of the Neil Young w/Crazy Horse performance of it at the 2012 Global Festival on Central Park, NY, NY (thanks for that tip, Jeff Strause). Considering the songs meaning, which I attempt to tackle below, performing it in the Big Apple before hundreds of thousands must have been poignant and potent for Young and company. Later, I would get to see it performed live at the Boston Garden, with Nancy, Mac, and Dave, which added to my insight of the meaning. This week I couldn’t get enough of it.
Walk Like a Giant somehow conveys both the contrasting feelings of abundance and loss, as well as bliss and unease. The positive sentiments come at you through the pace of the song - or more precisely the giant’s steady gait - which is delivered at key points in the chorus and reinforced by a casual whistle (performed admirably at the Boston Garden show by Young and Sampedro). It portrays a sense of success and accomplishment in ways that few songs do: After all, how can one top the image of a peaceful giant walking calmly across the landscape to get this point across?
The negative emotions come at you in the lyrics and guitar work. The first two lines capture these feelings in a nutshell:
As the song rolls along, the giant tries making a comeback but instead hits a couple of rough patches. One patch, after the 2nd stanza, has Young playing brilliantly the sound of what can only be interpreted as Godzilla making his way - under fire - through the streets of Tokyo (starting at 6:39 of the official video link above). The best effects are saved for the end however. It sounds as if the giant is woozy and attempting to get back on his feet; bass, guitars and drums out of synch, but attempting to get that gait back. Then slow, steady ambling and finally a stride that seems to gain in confidence as Walk Like a Giant winds toward a conclusion. This part of the song was an intense live experience; as intense as any Cortez the Killer version I’d seen over the years. In the end there appears to be a giant’s cathartic moment (the vocals similar to George Harrison’s at the end of Long Long Long, which was also meant to be cathartic), and an image begins to take shape of what could have been.
I have to say the Neil Young show this past year was a bit of an eye opener: I was surrounded by grey beards. Same for the Stones show I was at last year… and the Roger Waters ‘The Wall’ show at Fenway Park, and the Who ‘Quadrophenia’ show at Boston Garden several years back. I guess I was one of them. Neil Young and Crazy Horse were a bunch of grey bears too, as was Patti Smith, who backed them up. At first, this was a little disconcerting. I recalled a comment made by a work colleague about Mick Jagger looking so old and out of place as a rocker. He would have probably made the same comment about Young as well on that fine night for two reasons: 1) he clearly looked older (but wiser) and 2) he was rocking as hard as ever.
Thankfully it was not long before that disconcerting feeling was replaced by a familiar sense of camaraderie. And there was something new there too. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Patti Smith, and the Rolling Stones, and the Who and Roger Waters had all logged endless miles for what was now coming across to me as a common goal. Walk Like a Giant helped to make this all brilliantly clear. One line in the song states “Think about how close we came”, and another “We were pulling in the spiritual”. Yes, there was something heavy and deep that was there for the taking long ago, something that at the time seemed forever accessible.
The common goal was a yearning for what once was, and a GIANT sized yearning at that, because rock and roll has always aimed high. I once read that Mick Jagger should be looked at now in the way one might look at an old bluesman like Muddy Waters or B.B. King. That’s pretty accurate. Bluesmen are always yearning.
Now you can add old rockers to the list.