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

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