Sunday, June 29, 2014

Forever Young # 25: "Lightning in a Bottle"

Song:  Like a Hurricane
Album:  American Stars ‘n Bars
Released:  June, 1977

I’ve never been one for the standout lead guitar.  I do recognize the talent in many cases, and cannot deny that songs associated with a brilliant lead have made their way to my top-tier favorites, but when it comes to a single instrument consistently dominating a band’s sound, I rarely if ever dive deep into their catalog.  And so, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, the Yardbirds,  Santana, even the Grateful Dead are all of interest to varying degrees, but none will catch my imagination in the way that bands do with a guitarist who is settled more into the mix.  I’m not really sure why this is, but I believe it has something to do with the concept of the whole being better than the sum of its parts.  My own life experiences have proven this:  The most creative of environments emerge out of teamwork.

The one exception to this, from that music interest, is Neil Young.  I’ve always been bowled over by his often-overwhelming guitar contribution to songs.  Again, I can’t quite figure it out, even after writing about the man for the past 6 months.  Some of it definitely has to do with Crazy Horse, the most generous of rhythm sections, who lay out the perfect palette upon which the guitarist can paint his portraits.  But I’ve seen Neil Young play with Booker T and the MGs, and with the Bluenotes, and with other assemblages, and in each of these cases, I could not get enough of that screaming guitar sound.  Why is this?

Like a Hurricane alone may be able to decipher my unique affinity with Neil Young’s lead guitar playing.  For starters, the song captures just about everything that Young is about, which may explain why he has played it live more than any other tune in his repertoire.  It connects with both the ideal of rock ‘n rolls reckless abandon and its poetic longing, single-handedly revealing why Neil Young audiences are so diverse.   The lead vocals on the studio version are pretty subdued for a hard edged song, but this helps to balance things out as well. 

But more than anything, it’s the guitar that makes Like a Hurricane so compelling.  Neil Young w/Crazy-Horse guitar-centered jams are extensions of the lyrics, taking the listener deeper into the songs.  The jams give us all breathing room, a chance to explore further into our newly stirred-up thoughts and images as the music engulfs you (the Grateful Dead did this for me too, but not to the degree of Neil and company).  I’ve come to expect this recipe playing out over the years, and as I blasted Like a Hurricane this week on my car stereo, I once again was not left disappointed.  In the past, my thought progression with Like a Hurricane was connected primarily to live albums and live events, with the song pretty much standing on its own in my thoughts.  This time around however, my thinking evolved within the context of the album that Like a Hurricane was originally released on.

‘American Stars ‘n Bars’ is aptly named.  It may be a concept album, though it’s never been described as such to my knowledge.  Yet the out-and-about town feel is pervasive throughout.  Problems and solutions all seem to be posed from the seat of a barstool or on the hood of a parked car under the night sky.  The cover is a classic; probably Neil Young’s best, depicting the man himself passed out on the floor of a tavern.  It’s the perspective that makes the scene memorable though:  This being a glass floor, the view is from below looking up at Neil’s flattened face.  Regardless, the cover is another clue that there is a storyline here centered on a long-weekend bender.

The first cut, The Old Country Waltz, describes a down-and-outer in a bar who has just lost his lover – and now is most likely on the cusp of that bender - as the small-stage band plays a waltz in recognition of the loss.  This is followed by Saddle Up the Palomino, which comes with a devil-may-care attitude about the consequences of said bender.    Later we have a drowning of sorrows in Hold Back the Tears, and a bar hall queen with a short term solution in Bite the Bullet.  Side two begins with Star of Bethlehem, which may have been an inspiration of Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days (another barstool lament).  The majestic Will to Love describes the not-easily attainable solution to the problem. 

 And then comes Like a Hurricane (

Every so often you come across an album that contains a centerpiece, which is the case here.  Like a Hurricane pulls everything on ‘Stars ‘n Bars’ together.  It makes the album coherent, which I do not believe it would be otherwise.  If the concept here is indeed a love-lost-fueled weekend bender, the aftereffect of what transpires in Like a Hurricane - that being renewed passion - makes it all worthwhile.  The most obvious cause is the focus of the singer’s desires, the woman he meets at the bar – the eye of the hurricane so to speak.  But there are other positive spinoffs as well.  One stanza in the song is particularly poignant.  It’s the concept of the singer escaping to “somewhere safer where the feeling stays”.  I believe this is a songwriter’s declaration…. to hold on to these emotions inside so you can find a way to express them before losing the intensity of it all.  It’s actually the goal of any artist.

And oh boy does Neil Young express these emotions, which is almost entirely through the guitar.  The story goes that he did rush to a friend’s home later on the evening after the encounter with that hurricane of a woman and immediately began pounding away on a piano for hours on end.  His focus was soon transferred to the guitar.  Not everyone is geared to interpret music in the way Neil Young produces it, but this song is an opportunity for these types to gain insight to just what it is that those of find fascinating with this musician.  It’s about as clairvoyant as he gets, even with the emotions being primarily spoken through the guitar.

As with any great song, there are mysteries to Like a Hurricane.  The big one for me are the diametrically opposed lyrics “I am just a dreamer, but you are just a dream” early in the song, and then later “You are just a dreamer and I am just a dream”.  I believe this has something to do with Young seizing the moment:  In relation to the first line, he is overwhelmed by the situation, yet by the second line, he’s come to grips through expression in song.  It’s Dylanesque, something many rock and folk musicians aspire to, yet few achieve.

For a kid in his early 20s, which I was when I first witnessed the performance of Like a Hurricane, the experience was primarily a visceral one.  I’m already convinced that this was the ideal experience.  But a visceral reality is very difficult to convey in words.  Yet I’ve come to the realization that it’s worth trying.  Neil Young makes it easier with songs like this one.  He captured a visceral experience and ran with it.  Like a Hurricane is lightning in a bottle.

-          Pete

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