Friday, May 23, 2014

Forever Young # 21: "Rural Rejuvenation"

Song:  Country Home
Album:  Ragged Glory
Released:  September, 1990

Old friend Bouv and I used to joke around that the members of Crazy Horse would wait at their phones with bated breath for the moment Neil Young finally came calling.  Unfortunately for them, there have been stretches when that call would take quite some time (most recently a decade), seeing as Young has explored many other musical options in his career.  Inevitably, however, Crazy Horse has been welcomed back into the fold, and all was right again with the world. 

One of those gaps came before that period in the late 80s/early 90s when Neil Young got his 2nd wind.  This rebirth was kicked into high gear with the release of his solo album ‘Freedom’ in 1989.  To sustain this new burst of creativity, Young must have realized that he needed to reunite with his old reliable jam band, and so his next album, ‘Ragged Glory’, was a Crazy Horse album.  Grunge was the sound of the youth movement of those times, and Young was aptly dubbed its Godfather (surprisingly, the 3 members of Crazy Horse did not in turn inherit the names Sonny, Fredo and Michael).  Nancy and I got to see Neil Young w/Crazy Horse perform that year at the old Boston Garden.  The opening acts were Social Distortion and Sonic Youth.  The entire event was omnipotent.  All 3 bands were on fire.  My ears rang for a day or two after; always a good indicator.

 ‘Ragged Glory’ is the kind of album that sneaks up on you.  At first listen, it comes across as not nearly as strong as its predecessor ‘Freedom’, but there is depth here, mostly when soaked in as a collective sum of parts.  There may even be a coherent concept.  I don’t often come to this conclusion.  I did here, and it was a concept I certainly could relate to.

 There are very few musicians I connect with who have a similar appreciation for rural America as I.  Most have been urban dwellers:  Townshend, Lennon, Reed, Bowie, Jagger, Davies, etc.  This is not to say the city does not have its allure:  I’ve had my fair share of great times in Boston, New York, Montreal, Chicago, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, Austin, Vancouver and other high-rise metropolises.  But if I had to choose, I’d take the country, and leave the city in the dust (and even more so, suburbia). 

 I believe Neil Young would too.  His love of the country is the overarching concept that I’m thinking plays out on ‘Ragged Glory’, which opens with this week’s gem, Country Home, and culminates with the closing track, Mother Earth (Natural Anthem).  This love of the rural realm is not a novel concept per se.  Many have focused on this theme, from John Mellencamp to John Denver to Gordon Lightfoot to Joni Mitchell.  But the fascination here is in the details (not to mention how hard this album rocks). 

 I thought some this week about how it was that Neil Young might have initially rolled his thoughts out to Messrs. Talbot, Molina, and San Pedro (Crazy Horse) as they prepared to cut ‘Ragged Glory’.  Here’s my take:

 Young:  Ok, so this album will be centered on our God-given connection with the natural world, how we lose that connection, and what it takes to get it back.  The album will open and close with songs directly linked to this concept.  Most everything else will be cause and effect related to losing our way, but very little of it will be overtly obvious to the main theme.  It will be about how we compromise ourselves through life, lose our moral compass, and the risks we need to take to break away from that spiral and connect back with who we really are.

 If I was in a band, and a member came at me with a proposal like that, I’d consider it an inspiration and a challenge.  Then I’d hone in and get to work.  Perhaps Neil Young said something like this, perhaps not, but there has to be something more behind what it is that makes this band gel so well together than what most of us know.

 The opening number, Country Home, is a perfect launch off point for ‘Ragged Glory’.  The song sets my imagination off to jamming in a barn somewhere here in my hometown of rural Pepperrell….someday perhaps.  It’s one of a handful of songs that had me picking up the bass guitar 2 years ago (yet another attempt to get good at it, this time with a lot more effort than previous attempts). The opening 14 notes to Country Home are about as upbeat as you are going to get on this album ( ).  The lyrics are as simple as the title hints at, but as with most of Neil Young’s tracks, the depth is in the music.  I loved this song the minute I heard it.  Take a ride on a country road with this song wailing on the stereo system.  I think you’ll get my point.

 The connections for me to Country Home (and ‘Ragged Glory in general) are in the past (Franklin) and present (Pepperell).   Franklin was a small town when my parents moved there in 1960.  They got their milk from the family-owned Brett Farm down the road on Mill Street and their eggs from “Gooey Louie” less than a mile away.   Behind our home was a chunk of woods Joe and I called “the lost forest” because of its sheer size.  Tree climbing was a routine part of the day, and on weekends Dad would occasionally take us on hikes up on “Joe’s Hill”, which was also very close.  Later when we moved closer to downtown, there were jaunts to the “Mountain” and the train tracks, both locales which I have written about on these blogs. 

I’m thankful to have something similar to old Franklin now.  Pepperell may be the closest town to Boston without a set of traffic lights.  If you head Northwest from here, you will not connect with a major highway until you get to route 91 in Vermont over 60 miles to the west or route 89, over 80 miles to the north.  In between there are over 40 towns in Southwest New Hampshire that do not border a highway.  If you are out and about early enough it is likely you’ll encounter more dogs than people, as there is no leash law.  The woods are still bountiful here, and the small town feel is everywhere. 

And yet there is a part of me that still yearns for the yesteryear that was small-town Franklin.  But that’s something that is far more difficult to go back to than simply finding a rural locale.  It’s achievable though, and I do it in bits and starts.  The visionary ‘Ragged Glory’ most definitely helps:  A masterful road map for bringing it all back home.

 -          Pete

Friday, May 16, 2014

Forever Young # 20: "Softball"

Song:  Horseshoe Man
Album:  Silver and Gold
Released:  April, 2000

 In a recent interview, Paul Simon made the self-aware observation that his singing talents are restricted to soft vocals that set a melancholy or romantic mood, while lamenting that he has never been able to growl, howl, sneer or scowl in his music.  Simon can’t begrudge his own success, but there is a risk to having soft vocals in that a musician can easily sound syrupy or corny.   Paul Simon has rarely been guilty of this, though many others with similar limitations have fallen into that trap.   

 Neil Young is far more flexible with his vocals, but he has been known to take the soft path at times, including the whole of his Y2K album ‘Silver and Gold’.  It’s hard to pinpoint how it is that musicians like Simon and Young can overcome the stigma that can often be associated with a soft touch.  In my ‘Forever Young’ explorations this year, I came across a review of a Crosby Stills Nash and Young album that made the astute observation that CS&N need Young to avoid the risk of sounding corny and syrupy .  The amazing thing about this is that when composing and performing with CS&N, Young himself frequently goes into soft mode, and yet somehow, in the process, he’s able to bring the type of edge to this band’s music that they rarely achieve independently. 

 I thought often all week about this ability of Neil Young’s to buck the ‘softie’ odds as I listened to the tracks on ‘Silver and Gold’.  It’s a gift for sure, this ability, but I think it’s more than that. I believe a lot of it has to do with maintaining one’s integrity.  Neil Young and many other successful musicians started their careers with integrity, but few have been able to prolong it in the way Young has.  This maintenance, however achieved, has put Neil Young into the upper-echelon tier of his contemporaries, and it’s a main reason why he’s been signaled out in this blog series as a deep well source for intensive and extensive reflection on my own part.  The integrity of others inspires such thoughts.

 ‘Silver and Gold’ brought me back this week, back to 10 years ago when my family and I moved to Pepperell.  It was not the easiest of transitions; few moves are.  If there ever is a silver (and gold) lining in such times though, it is that your senses go into overdrive, allowing you to connect better with your past, present and future. 

It was precisely this state of mind that I was in one deep-into-winter morning that first year in Pepperell when I slipped ‘Silver and Gold’ into my car’s cd player for a drive to a meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts.  It was still dark out when I headed west out of town, through Townsend, then up into the hills of Ashby on rte. 119; a stretch of road that reminds me of the Mohawk Trail further west in the Berkshires.  In no time I was crossing the border into Rindge, New Hampshire on a 10 mile or so stretch of rte. 119 that arches in the Northwesterly direction before intersecting with rte. 202, which would take me south, back across the Massachusetts border, through the Quabbin Reservoir watershed, and the Connecticut River Valley lowlands beyond. 

 As I made the arch into New Hampshire, I entered a large tract of forested land that surrounds Mount Watatic.  In the ensuing years, I would be discovering the great trail system in this region, which I have often hiked with friends, family, or alone, but at the time, this was all new to me.   I was not far from the more renowned Mount Monadnock region, and I took comfort in the thought that we now lived so close to all of this.  It felt relatively remote and inaccessible for the heavily populated East Coast (in general) and Boston suburbia (in particular).  This was what I was looking for as a connection for Charlotte and Peter to first make and then experience routinely while still in their younger grade-school years.

 Upon entering New Hampshire, the abundant stars above faded in the dawn light.  It was a cloudless winter morning and I could now see that there was plenty of snow on and around Mount Watatic.  It was cold out, which was made all the more obvious as I observed the frozen wetlands I was driving through.  Everything was still, a freeze frame of life, ‘Silver and Gold’ offering a perfect soundtrack to the moment. 

 I rounded a bend in the road and made a glance into the frozen wetland to my right, just as the sun’s dappling rays were catching the same location.  I was astounded to what I saw.  There on the edge of the ice was a full-racked bull moose carcass, and feeding off it was a large coyote resembling more of a wolf than the scraggly species he belonged to; at least in relation to the individuals many of us are used to seeing in New England.  I caught the coyote unaware of my presence - or more likely believing he was still shrouded in darkness -but in the blink of an eye that changed.  He looked up at me, startled for a second or two, and finally scampered into the underbrush.  The scene had me feeling as if I were much farther North, the tundra around Hudson Bay perhaps, which added considerably to that freeze frame moment, now entering the indelible portion of my mind where it has remained ever since. 

 The remainder of the trek to Amherst was a blur of Neil Young sound, along with some treacherous icy conditions just west of the Quabbin Reservoir.  I was thinking of my Uncle Bill who had recently passed away, including the last conversation I had with him a few months earlier.  I thought of my childhood memories at his home in Framingham with my cousins’ Jack and Tom, and all those Fourth of Julys.  While listening to the song Daddy Went Walkin’ I recall now the images it conjured for me at the time of the afterlife, spurred I am sure by my reflections of my uncle as well as my maternal grandfather.  I was also thinking about Pepperell; this strange woodsy world that was an adjustment for us all in terms of a location to actually reside but that eventually became our home.  Looking back now, it seems long ago, both that period of my life and the sensation of sensory overload. 

 There are 2 idyllic tracks on ‘Silver and Gold’:  Razor Love and Horseshoe Man ( ).  They are both about devotion, and the necessity of rebuilding and refocusing oneself to make something good last.  Last night in Utah I stayed at the historic Peery Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City for a night, with its easy access to the airport after a week at a conference in the nearby mountains.  As I entered my room to retire for the evening, a newlywed couple was crossing the threshold into their room directly across the hall from me.  They were just starting a big adventure together, and it showed on their faces.  I wondered some about what was ahead for them; the joys and challenges. 

 Earlier in the week, I had missed a connecting flight in Denver.  With ‘standby’ my only option through to the next afternoon, and a presentation to make that day, I made the somewhat rash decision to rent a car and ended up driving over the continental divide to Salt Lake City.  ‘Silver and Gold’ was thrust yet again (and again) into the cd player for good chunks of the ride west.  It was a long trip, much of it in the snow, but it gave me the chance to flashback to that drive to Amherst 10 years earlier.   No moose or coyote this time around (though I would encounter another large coyote by mid-week) but other aspects of the two trips were remarkably similar, including the convergence of journey, music and memory. 

Sometimes an album comes along just at the right time.  So it has been for me with ‘Silver and Gold’. 

 -          Pete

Friday, May 9, 2014

Forever Young # 19: "Coping Mechanisms"

Song:  Ambulance Blues
Album:  On the Beach
Released:  July, 1974

 A month ago, my son Peter wrote a fantastic essay on the World War I book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ focusing on the stages of emotion that a German soldier, Paul Bäumer, goes through; from patriotism to disillusionment to despair.  Peter used song lyrics to get many of his points across (a requirement), primarily quoting the songs of Eminem.  I reviewed the essay before he handed it in and I must say it was a learning experience.  First off, Eminem is a bit deeper than I had given him credit (though unlike many of my contemporaries, I’d like to think I had some genuine respect already, based on both the movie ‘8 Mile’ and Peter’s admiration for this rapper’s music).  The bigger insight for me however was that, like myself, Peter was gaining valuable lessons in life through music.  Has he been reading my blog?

 It’s been a treat witnessing Peter connect with his musical interests beyond the superficial entry point.  I’ve never really pushed my own tastes on my children, although long drives on vacation trips and the like have called for us all to comprise and listen to one another’s selections on occasion.  Ultimately, however, music is specific to the times it was written and experiencing that period oneself (or experiencing the period soon after) is important to make the connection.  To expect another generation, before or after, to relate with the music of your times can be a futile quest.  Not impossible, mind you, but at the very least an uphill battle.  Besides, I believe what we really want to see is our kids making their own discoveries within the context of their times, no matter how great we think our music is.  That’s what Peter has done with Eminem and a handful of other musicians. 

 And yet, there are artistic statements out there that not only immerse themselves within the times they were created but also transcend beyond those times. These works, be they a book (i.e. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’), a movie (i.e. ‘8 Mile’), or any other art form, are truly meant for any generation.  In these blog pages, I have made several attempts to explain the power of a great album in comparison to an individual song or a compilation of songs (i.e. “greatest hits”).  Albums are the only way a musician can achieve this lofty achievement of immersing within and transcending beyond a time period.  Songs are simply not all-encompassing enough, and compilations are often too contrived. 

 ‘On the Beach’ is one of these albums that can speak to all of us.  It is a period piece for sure, of the mid-70s, with references to Patty Hearst, Charles Manson and the Woodstock aftermath.  The general vibe is all 70s as well, including the powerful rhythm section of Levon Helm and Rick Danko on Revolution Blues (at their ‘Last Waltz’-period peak) and the album cover, one of Neil Young’s best; a beach scene full of symbolism, including a Cadillac supposedly having sunk deep in the sand (all that is exposed is the rear fin) and a newspaper with the headline “Sen Buckley calls for Nixon to resign”.  Yes, for those of us familiar with the 70s, this is the real deal.

But ‘On the Beach’ is not stuck in its times.  On the contrary, it is far reaching.  The album does this with an overriding theme:  That of coping - carrying on, dealing with difficulty, starting with the opening harbinger, Walk On.  We can all relate to these emotions.  One could argue Bob Dylan may have taken note with the release of ‘Blood on the Tracks’ just six months later, which dealt with similar themes.  Neil Young was turning a corner with this album.  ‘On the Beach’ has a feel that Young was in it for the long haul, albeit far removed from his 60s blind-faith glory days.  He comes to terms with this new reality here, but in doing so, he stands true to his principles.  After listening to this album again for this entire week, it is not surprising to me that Neil Young is one of the few 60’s musicians still creating in any meaningful way.  Read between the lines, with the knowledge we have now about this man’s career, and longevity is all over the place on ‘On the Beach’.

The central coping theme in the songs on this album is a response to personal loss and generational disillusionment, though it’s the latter that gets the mother lode of focus here.  But Young does not abandon his generation.  Rather he admits to being part of its failures and shows solidarity with his peers by rejecting the alternative paths of prior generations.  The final cut, Ambulance Blues collects all of this together – the times, the coping, the comparisons to other generational norms - in brilliant fashion.  One verse in the song is particularly poignant:
“You’re all just pissin’ in the wind
You don’t know it but you are
And there ain’t nothin’ like a friend
Who can tell you you’re just pissin’ in the wind”

Many have read into these lyrics.  From my perspective this is referring to a comment made by an elder Torontonian to Neil Young at a farmers market.  This catches Young at a low point, but other lyrics respond to this comment, including a seeming response to a first responder’s attitude toward hippies (at Woodstock perhaps?):  

“So all you critics sit alone
You’re no better than me for what you’ve shown
With your stomach pump and your hook and ladder dreams
We could get together for some scenes

…and a reference to the Nixon scandals at the end of the song:

“I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he's talking to?
Cause I know it ain't me, and hope it isn't you”

 Although Neil Young has moved on from certain songs in his vast catalog, he remains connected to this one despite its first-listen time stamp feel.  An outstanding rendition of Ambulance Blues is on the 2009 Neil Young documentary ‘Trunk’:

Reconnecting with my initial comments about Peter’s essay, there’s a link there to ‘On the Beach’.  Neil Young went through a transition from enthusiasm to disillusionment in the early 70s, but unlike some of his brethren (and the protagonist in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’), he never succumbs to despair.  This speaks to a positive take from the 60s that lasts to this day: Openness.  The Beatles, Neil Young and others of that era showed us all that we could be far more transparent than earlier generations.  Perhaps there was more of a need for secrecy in the eras prior (i.e. WWII memories) but this did not have to carry over to the Baby Boomers and we made sure we broke the mold.  The 60s allowed the 70s and beyond to play out this way, and I personally benefitted from it.  Some of the highlight moments of my friendships over the years have been frank and open discussions on life, love and faith.  Heavy one-on-one conversations with Pat, Dave, Luc, Rocco, Kurt and others come to mind when I think of how I have been blessed by this generational characteristic.  I can thank the 60s era for this.

 With that said, what I really gained from that learning experience of reading Peter’s essay was a sense of a continuum that appears founded in the blues; from Bob Dylan to Neil Young to the Clash, to Nirvana to Green Day to Eminem.  Many rock and roll musicians espouse upon the influence of blues music to their own success.  For the longest time, I could not make the connection, but in recent years I’ve begun to see the light.  Blues music is rooted in bare-bones openness, no matter the revelation.  Ambulance Blues has this in spades.  It’s aptly named:  A raw, naked song that cuts straight to the soul.

 -          Pete

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Forever Young # 18: "Nature's Stewards"

Song:  After the Goldrush
Album:  After the Goldrush
Released:  September, 1970

One thing I emphasized to Charlotte while in her teen years -and now Peter - was to venture forth into the woods with friends.  That’s where much of the magic is, I have told them, and the freedom, and the wonder, and the joy, not to mention mind expansion of the non-chemically-induced variety.  I’d like to believe they both have taken this to heart.  Charlotte and a close friend spent long summer days several years back exploring a small frog pond on the mostly undeveloped west side of town; just the two of them knee deep in mud.  They got to observe bullfrog survival techniques as the pond began drying up (as it does most years), but mostly they just had a blast in an environment devoid of text chats and video games.  Over the past few years, Peter and friends have hiked into a savannah-like meadow not far up the road from our home. They call the area “Africa”, and Peter has opened up to me on occasion about some of his adventures there; spooking out a baby deer, crossing a stream on an overhanging tree branch, discovering clearings within deep pockets of thicket. 

 Nancy and I connected the kids with the natural world regularly when they were younger.  Many a family trek, be they hours a day or longer, were in the forest.  And though I am sure Charlotte and Peter got a lot out of these experiences, I knew that doing it with friends later in their lives would be another thing entirely.  I knew this because the woods were where I spent a significant amount of my time as a teenager.  And I did this with my closest friends, several of whom were a perfect fit for these landscapes that were just out of reach of civilization. 

 The most frequently visited woodsy area of our youth was a region of undeveloped land down the train tracks from my home on Park Road, Franklin, MA.  This region was our second home growing up - a handful of square miles of lakes, trails, wetlands, streams, rocky outcrops, pine-tree groves, meadows, and deep forests - and by our senior year, we knew every nook and cranny of it.  Many a memory comes flooding back when I think about this open space.  There was the time I found myself sinking into what I could only describe at the time as quicksand; close friend Bruce pulling me out with a long stick after I’d sunk up to my waist.  There was the grey fox Phil and I stumbled upon.  The fox was trapped – with a rocky cliff behind him and our dogs (Nicky and Whiskers) and us in front - and could only stand there as we marveled at his sleek silver coat.  We finally moved on so the fox could scamper off.   That same cliff was where you could make your way to the peak and be a hair breath away from the top of the trains that whizzed by.  My only concerns at those times were the dogs wandering out onto the tracks.  When we heard the train coming, we’d call them close to us and even hold them.

There were the fishing adventures to the 3 lakes in the region, each with its own distinct habitat.  The larger second lake for example had giant-sized carp that you would never find in the others.  Several times, close friend Pete and I beat the sunrise, making our way down the tracks in the early twilight hours; rods, bait and tackle in hand.  Bruce was the real fisherman of the crew though, with an uncanny sixth sense on where to go and what to use for lures and bait (often salmon eggs).  When he was there, you were guaranteed to get a gander at something interesting on the line at some point of the day, be it a carp, bass, bullhead, perch or snapping turtle. And if Bruce’s older brother was with us, we’d get a good education on bird identification too. 

 The winter was never lost on us down the tracks.  There was hockey in the day, small bonfires on the edge of the frozen first pond at night and just general exploration on ice and snow.  In the early spring we took daring treks across the weakening ice, a loud crack often shaking us in our bootstraps.   The tracks were where I broke my leg on an unfortunate hill-sliding incident and got carried a mile home by Pete and Jeff.  My dog arrived home alone that evening, wet and out of sorts.  My Mom knew something was wrong since Nicky never left my side. 

 In our earlier years of exploration into this region, we would come at it, not down the tracks, but from the “Mountain” (see the 9th in a series of Stepping Stones “Gone but not Forgotten” from March 3, 2012).  This was a tricky approach.  First you had to deal with a large forested wetland.  It was an adventure getting across it, and sometimes we didn’t bother to continue.  We would get sidetracked at some rivulet where we would build dams and divergences (years later when I read Stephen King’s “It”, I could identify so well with the opening chapters where the lead characters began their friendship doing the very same thing).  More often than not though we would forge ahead, setting up log bridges and hopping tufts of grass, which would lead to the occasional hilarious moment when someone would lose their footing and plunge into the murky mess.  One situation had me clinging desperately to a tree sapling as it bent me closer and closer to my muddy doom.  Once we got past the wetland, we would have to deal with thorn bushes.  Beyond that was a hill that had a wonderful feel of isolation to it.  Not many were willing to go through what we would to get there, so we knew we were on uncharted territory when we reached the scraggly large pitch pine tree at the summit.  From there we descended down the other side and out through more thickets, before finally reaching the Southwest edge of the first lake.  Nearby that access point was an open culvert that was risky to jump over.  Only a few of us dared do this on a regular basis.

 In our upper-classman years of high school, nighttime was the right time to head down the tracks.  One of our favorite hangouts was a place we called “Pine Tree Grove”, a stand of pitch pine just beyond the view of the Thompson Press building.   We were invisible from civilization here - including the cops - and so a fire pit, beer and great conversation were the order of business at this juncture in our lives.  Even though we were losing our youthful abandon by this time we were still connected to the night air, the stars, and the memories around us.  I now recall a comment made by a friend in college.  His roommate was from the same town.  I liked them both, but they were clearly from different circles.  I asked him if they ever hung out together back in their hometown.  His reply: “are you kidding…he hung out in the woods.  I was at the house parties”.  This was meant to be condescending, and it was funny, but to me it opened a door with his roommate and partially closed one with him.  My thought at the time was that he missed out.

 I reflected on all of these memories this week as I listened to ‘After the Goldrush’.  The title song ( ) was the first Neil Young tune I really connected with.  It was also the first time I realized rock and roll had a green side to it.  The song is a dream sequence with 3 versus that appear to connect with past, present, and future.  The underlying analogy is that of a gold rush (though a gold rush is never mentioned in the song) and the strip-mining aftermath; a once pristine environment turned into a barren wasteland.  The lyric-induced imagery is intense in this song (“lying in a burned out basement”, “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s”), which raised my awareness to man’s responsibilities as stewards of the earth and helped pave my eventual professional path. 

 -          Pete