Friday, June 6, 2014

Forever Young # 22: "Bridging the Generational Divide"

Song:  Prime of Life
Album:  Sleeps with Angels
Released:  August, 1994

In the late 80s and early 90s, Friday’s Boston Globe Sports section would take second fiddle for me to rock critic Steve Morse’s column in the Arts and Entertainment pages.  Morse knew his music, and was a great source for getting the inside scoop on upcoming shows in the region.  One big reason why I found myself in many-a-long lines at the box office (including a few overnighters) was Steve Morse. 

 When Neil Young hit a new creative surge during this time period, Morse was one of the first to recognize how important it was.  Young had not burned out, and now he was proving that he would not fade away either.  In the process, Neil Young was connecting with rockers far younger than he, not only because his new music was relevant, but also because he was reaching out to this emerging generation in ways few elder rock statesmen do when several decades removed from their own prime.  Steve Morse was impressed by all this.  So was I.

 The seeds for staying connected to younger generations were already sown many years earlier.  1979s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was a call out to the punk movement (in similar fashion to the Who’s ‘Who Are You’ from the same period).  And when I first saw Neil Young perform live in 1986 (as the “Third Best Garage Band in the World” with Crazy Horse) a video montage showcased numerous rock musicians, past and (then) present.   This was the first time I’d ever seen anyone in Rock close ranks with other musicians to this degree.  And it did not escape me that in doing so, Young was also closing ranks with these musicians’ fans.  Judging from the band’s performance in front of that video screen that day, he meant all of it too. 

 I reflect on these thoughts now, primarily because I listened to ‘Sleeps with Angels’ much of last week, arguably Neil Young’s most consistent album (yes, I’m a week removed from Young’s music due to travels with Dad, who I figured may not have been keen on listening to grunge on the car ride to and from Quebec).  The only other time I passed this way for this blog was back in August, 2008 (Gem Music Video of the Week # 32).  That was my first Neil Young entry.  The song I connected with for that entry was Change Your Mind ( ). It’s my favorite Neil Young recording; the penultimate cornerstone of an exquisite masterwork.  However Change Your Mind gets help from its surroundings, hence this revisit. 

 ‘Sleeps with Angels’ is Exhibit A of Neil Young’s solidarity with Generation X (‘Mirror Ball’ and “Ragged Glory” being Exhibit’s B and C respectively).  The most common review topic in relation to this atmospheric album is in regards to the title track, which is about the struggles and resulting suicidal death of Kurt Cobain (which I have also written about in these pages:  See GMVW # 95, October 2009).  But there is so much more here, not the least of which is some of Young’s best vocals and guitar work.  This album has empathy with humanity that is on par with Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.  It’s that deep, but has not been recognized as such - as of yet.

 My daughter Charlotte was born the same week that ‘Sleeps with Angels’ was released.  I was hitting a new phase in my life at that time; as a Dad.  It was a strange period for me in relation to rock music.  My interest in staying on top of developments in this sphere had waned somewhat.  I let my Rolling Stone Magazine subscription lapse after 10 years of faithful monthly reading.   I attended fewer concerts.  I frequented fewer record stores.  New albums like ‘Sleeps with Angels’ crept in here and there, but I was not immersed in them as I was with albums released in years prior (like ‘Freedom’).  My focus had changed.  All the great music that came beforehand factored in my new fatherly role for sure, but for all intents and purposes, I had become dormant with new interests.

 Later, when I got my legs back, I tried to backfill the missing time.  I’ve got a long way to go, but listening intensely to the music on ‘Sleeps with Angels’ is a big step in the right direction.  This album is a revelation to me for many reasons.  First off, Neil Young was about the same age I am now at the time of ‘Sleeps with Angels’ release.  From this perspective, the album means more to me.  Young was well into his parental role in 1994 (as I am now).  He was able to look at the struggle of youth in a different light.  Where in the mid 70’s he was dealing with the death of Danny Whitten and other friends (epitomized in the epic ‘Tonight’s the Night’), now he was coming at Kurt Cobain’s plight from a far wiser vantage point.   Cobain’s contemporaries were listening.  They needed to hear this.  There were no elder statesmen to make a similar point for Neil Young when Whitten died.  There was now.  He was it, and it made a boatload of difference. 

 ‘Sleeps with Angels’ can teach us all a lesson.  Wisdom is meant to be passed from one generation to the next.  This can only happen if the elder generation is willing to open up and work with what they see coming down the pike.  It’s not an easy proposition:  Many of us create an illusion of our past for our kids, glossing over the troublesome memories or even worse outright lying about them.  In the process, we inadvertently build a fa├žade around who we truly are.  We forgot what we hungered for in our own youth:  Honesty.  This is not to say we need to volunteer information, but when an inquiring young mind needs to hear the truth we need to be ready to break down barriers and reveal that we are not all that different.  We were once them.  Neil Young makes this brutally clear on ‘Sleeps with Angels’. 

On track two, Prime of Life ( ), Young brings us back to our glory days, when life was innocent and carefree, and the world was at our fingertips.  But there is a hint of a reality of sorts kicking in here, the notion that these days are ephemeral and so easily lost through compromise.  It’s a story that has been told often before, starting with Adam and Eve, and that would be told again (i.e. Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’).  This particular narrative is unique in representing the period it was written, unfortunately not in time for Kurt Cobain, but I’m guessing it got across to many others of like mind, ilk and age in the mid-90s.   To my knowledge, Neil Young has never talked at length about ‘Sleeps with Angels’, but my guess is that the album was jarred out of him.  There is little hint of self-reflection, as there is on many of his other albums.  And like ‘Tonight’s the Night’, much if not all of it appears to have been written on the spot.  You can hear it in the music.

 I’d like to think songs like these can help bring some of that prime of life back. It’s certainly a key reason to why I’m writing this blog.  Perhaps this was at the core of Young’s intentions in ‘Sleeps with Angels’:  To bring us closer to that period “when the mirror showed both ways”.   Steve Morse had it spot on with his glowing reviews of Neil Young albums in the early to mid-90s.  Honesty and insight in music (and elsewhere) touches the critic and fan alike. 

-          Pete

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