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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Forever Young # 24: "Deep Cuts (of the music-video variety)"

Song:  People in the Street
Album:  Landing on Water
Released:  July, 1986

 Well, I’ve bounced all around Neil Young’s discography for this blog, excepting for an 8-album stretch covering that bizarre decade we all know as the 80s.  This was a truly outlandish period for Young and many other musicians.  Was it John Lennon’s death in December, 1980 that initiated the whole scene?  Was it the election of a former Hollywood actor to the presidency of the United States during that very same time period?  Though each was quite the jolt, I think not.  The biggest culprit was most likely MTV, which became immediately popular upon its launch in August of 1981. Suddenly, a shift occurred.  Appearance and cleverness rose to the level of musical quality and performance.  The wave in the hair lick now equated with the mastery of the guitar lick.  Other performing arts succumbed to this new world of style over substance, but none to the level of pop music.  This is not to say that Neil Young was a victim of this new compromise.  But critiquing his output during this period, there can be little doubt Young was affected by it all. 

In the upcoming months, I’ll be making the occasional foray into this period in the career of Neil Young.  I can’t say I’ll be doing it consistently.  I’m pretty sure even Mr. Young wouldn’t risk such a venture.  There’s just too much baggage there.  But it is worth a revisit; intangibles that deserve some fleshing out.  There’s plenty to weave through, although I anticipate the inspirations are likely to be few and far between.  Yet, I relate it to making your way through your grandparent’s attic.  Most boxes contain artifacts beyond your understanding or interest.  And then you open up a chest and there’s that gem of a photograph or a family heirloom, or a collectible. 

I’ll start here with People in the Street off the 1986 album ‘Landing on Water’.  Years ago, before YouTube, I stumbled across this video on the internet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOVkzZn48vo).  The song is about the plight of the homeless, and yet the upbeat bop/techno/new wave mood of the music in People in the Street, which is reflected in the video, betrays the empathetic lyrics.  Strangely enough, however, I found myself drawn to this video.  Why?

I do admit to having a weak spot for new wave/techno music.  Not much of one, but it’s there.  In high school, I was not only listening to old Beatles and Stones.  I was also tuned into the music coming out at that time:  the Cars (I still believe ‘Candy-O’ to be underrated), Joe Jackson, Supertramp and even Gary Numan and the Knack.  Most of this music was late 70s and so I pretty much had my fill by the time techno music took full effect in the 80s, which again was fuelled by MTV.  By that time I was full scale into the Who, which pretty much saved me from 80s limbo: There are times where it can be said being stuck in the past is a good thing.

There’s more to my connecting to this video than the music, however.  Watching it reminds me a bit of the movie ‘Cabaret’, which approaches the rise of Nazi Germany in the early 30s from the perspective of the passive world of cabaret performances in Berlin.  At the beginning of the movie, Nazi youths are treated with scorn in the back alleys, but by the end of the movie the entire audience at the cabarets are brownshirts and the ominous amoral emcee carries on, intrigued by the developments from a devilish point of view.   The key to the movie are the musical stage performances, which are upbeat.  But every song drives home a point, underscored by the scary developments happening on the streets outside.  Like 'Cabaret', People in the Street drives home a point, in an offbeat sort of way. 

 Finally, I’m impressed with the musician himself.  Neil Young showed a penchant for not following established rules in the 80s.  I mean, can you picture David Crosby doing a song/video like this, or Lou Reed, or any iconic 60s rock musician?  There’s something to be said for breaking the mold.  This approach to life refreshes you.  It revitalizes you, and it matters not if what you do is a setback really.  What really matters is that you did it!  I believe that by taking high risks in the 80s, Neil Young made it possible to do what he did in the 90s.  And ya know what?  ….I think he knew this all along.

There’s humor in this video, in the form of dog shit.  Young hilariously steps over it at the 0:19 minute mark of the attached link, and then inadvertently steps into it at the 0:42 (which he does not notice until the 0:53 mark).  At the end of the video, one of his sidekick’s slips in more dog shit (4:17).  And what’s with the ever-present white car driving back and forth between the 1:18 and 1:32 marks and appearing in several other scenes (including with a sailor standing at the drivers-side door at the 3:10 mark)?  Or the cheering crowd at 3:43?  I love it all…. the feel of going off script.  Just the way Neil Young has produced much of his great music over the decades. 

But there’s serious stuff in this video too.  Neil Young looks out at a battleship at one point, no doubt making the point that the money spent on it is lost on the homeless (taking me back to that sailor by the white car observation).  And of course there are the ever-present lyrics:  There’s no glossing over anything there.  Here’s one line:

There's a muffled scream
from the alley scene
From the alley scene
comes a muffled scream
And the siren wails
while the system fails
In the steaming heat
people walk in the street
People can't run and hide
If you want to feel good then
you gotta feel good inside.

 From a topical standpoint, ‘Landing on Water’ is not a lightweight album.  Far from it!  The titles to the songs alone bear this out: Weight of the World, Violent Side, Pressure, Hard Luck Stories, Bad News Beat, and Drifter to name a majority.  Touch the Night appears to be about the feeling of losing a loved one in a car accident (with the protagonist as the hard luck driver no less).  Hippie Dream appears to be about CSN and Young’s disillusionment with their loss of idealism.  Pressure is just downright depressing.  In a lyrical context this album ranks up there with ‘Tonight’s the Night’ and ‘Sleeps with Angels’ as one of Young’s heaviest.

 I have to hand it to the Neil Young fan who stuck with him in the 80s.  Were there many?  I equate it to sticking with Pete Townshend thru ‘All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes’, ‘White City’ and ‘Iron Man’ or the Rolling Stones thru ‘Undercover’, ‘Dirty Work’ and ‘Steel Wheels’.  In Young’s case, however, it was an 8 album stretch!  That’s a long time to hang in there.  I picked up bits and pieces through this period during the time, which I’ll be addressing soon enough.  For now, however, I’ll just reconnect with this relatively unknown video, which I truly believe has its place in the grand scheme of things.

 -          Pete

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