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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 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnvQcPQzx88 ).  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

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