Thursday, April 10, 2014

Forever Young # 15: "The Commencement Speech"

Song:  Ordinary People
Album:  Chrome Dreams II
Released:  October, 2007

 Boston has had its share of unifying sporting events since the turn of the millennia, with another one coming up in two weeks on the 1st anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.  Most of these special occasions have been related to championships, the city celebrating a whopping 8 in the time period since Y2K, with at least one in each of the four major professional sport leagues (MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL).  During that span, I’ve been lucky enough to be to a World Series (thanks, Mac) and an AFC Championship game (thanks, Kurt) and so have had opportunities to see for myself what these big-stage atmospheres can do for a home crowd when on the winning side of the ledger.

 For my money though, sporting events don’t hold up to concerts when it comes to transcendent moments.  These moments are uncommon, but when they happen, they can be extraordinary and moving.  One that I mentioned in an earlier blog entry was the Rolling Stones performance of Sister Morphine on their 97’ ‘Bridges to Babylon’ tour (see Stepping Stone # 9).  There have been others as well, including a handful of Neil Young concert highlights that I’ll be connecting with over the course of this series. 

 The biggest surprise of them all however was a song I heard while attending Neil Young’s ‘Sponsored by Nobody’ tour in 1988 with Mac and Bouv at Great Woods in Mansfield Massachusetts.  Before I get into that moment, a little background is in order.  This was my second Neil Young concert; the first being a phenomenal Crazy Horse show two years earlier.  That event set a rather high bar, and so out of the gate this heavy-on-the brass morph with the “Bluenotes” was a bit of a downer to tell the truth.  I was well aware of Young’s need to experiment though, so I decided right off to cut him some slack, and as the concert played out I adjusted my expectations and actually started enjoying myself.  I recall getting into the horns during Ten Men Working and the big MTV hit of the day, This Notes for You (side note: MTV playing this song was akin to Rolling Stone Magazine allowing Nirvana to appear on a 1992 cover with Kurt Cobain wearing a t-shirt declaring “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”; yet another reason Neil Young has been dubbed “The Godfather of Grunge”).

 Anyhow, about halfway through the show, the band launched into Ordinary People, a tune that we had never heard before, and as I later found out, neither had a vast majority in attendance that night.  Though Mac and I were certainly no experts with Neil Young’s entire back catalog, we were pretty sure at the time that this song was unreleased.  How did we know this?  Because it made an instant impression, and so if we had heard it before, we would have known it.  Yes, Ordinary People was that good, and as it played out before us, the hushed and focused nocturnal emissions off the stage made it clear that the full house around us felt the same way.  It’s rare when a song grabs you at first listen.  It’s even rarer when that first listen is a live event.  This was something special, and we knew it.

 Ordinary People is long, clocking in at almost 20 minutes, and even though it was probably the longest song I’d ever seen live, I would have been happy  that evening if it kept on going.  Neil Young has his share of long numbers, but most of them involve lengthy jam sessions in-between lyrics.  Not this one.  This was a no-repeat series of verses, laying out a loose narrative of the modern day ‘ordinary’ American from an insider’s perspective, focusing on obstacle and resilience, as well as the cause and effect that help paint the picture of the path that leads to the vast majority of our personal stories.  It made a powerful connection with the crowd, foremost because it is simply a great tune, but also because of the meaning, which became quickly apparent.  Neil Young must have known that a fair percentage of us were young adults in our mid-20s, children of the 1970s. We were at an age where we were becoming far more aware of our ties with other generations beyond our own generation as we immersed ourselves into the working world.  Young was pointing out our commonality with those older generations, not our differences (which is the case at most rock events).  His sense of timing was impeccable; his discourse uniquely insightful.  Ordinary People has the air of a commencement speech.  I recall few details in the ones I’ve witnessed.  I would have definitely retained this one. 

Listening frequently this past week to the studio version of Ordinary People (yes, it was finally released on the 2006 album, ‘Chrome Dreams II’) while commuting to work, I felt the sweeping, all-encompassing narrative in the homes, workplaces and cars I passed by each day.  This song zooms in and out of locales and scenarios across the country, from a boxing match to a crooked antique dealer, to a train yard, to a factory, to a bar, to the homeless, to an assembly line, to all those patch-of-ground, hardworking, ordinary people;  all from the perspective of that common man in most of us.  If I were sitting in a limo with the President - or anyone else in position of power - and wanted to give him/her a sense for what was happening out there on the landscape on any given day in our lifetimes, I’d pop this song in, crank it up, sit back and nod in agreement with each epic stanza. 

 On the ‘Chrome Dreams II’ version of Ordinary People ( ) the backing vocals are credited to one “Joe Canuck”… a Neil Young’s pseudonym.  It took me a while to figure this out.  At first I thought it was some amazing backup singer who could actually synchronize with Young’s lead vocals.  It turns out the only person who can get that right is Young himself. These backing vocals are a great added touch to the studio version, including a handful of seemingly off-the-cuff comments (such as the “That’s me” thrown in after the line “some are saints and some are jerks” and “she’s a beauty that number 9” in reference to a railroad passenger-car boiler cleaning and repair by some of those ordinary people).   Neil Young’s guitar playing is selectively intense, but more in the mix than usual; perhaps out of respect to the Bluenotes. 

 The lyrics to this song have been presented in different order between the live and studio takes, revealing to me that this is not a storyline per se.  No matter.  Young gives general commentary here, and not from an outsiders view (as is the case on the Kinks concept album ‘Soap Opera’) but as someone in-the-know; a musician who clearly connects with the “Average Joe” and his trials and tribulations.  As a young adult trying to make my way into the real world, the live viewing of this song was an eye opener, and as Ordinary People inevitably wound to a conclusion, that proverbial tassel on my proverbial cap was finally moved…. from right to left.

-          Pete

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