Sunday, July 27, 2014

Forever Young # 28: "At the Root of It All"

Song:  Wonderin’
Album:  Everybody’s Rockin’
Released:  August, 1983

Ever since its birth in the 50s, Rock and Roll has proven to be an extremely fluid genre, morphing with the times and as a consequence, built to last.  I’m not familiar enough with other musical genera’s to qualify this as unique, but I’m willing to make an educated guess that it is.  This shape changing ability is one of the most powerful aspects of the Rock and Roll brand, and anyone with an interest and an open mind can connect themselves through the generations.  The music unifies those of us who love it, no matter your age, but at the same time it allows each of our eras to stand out as a significant contribution to the whole. 

Nothing proves the morphing nature of Rock and Roll more than the changes that took place in the art form from the 50s to the 60s.  Compare a song like Jail House Rock to one like Gimme Shelter and that transformation can only be deemed profound.  Don McLean lamented these changes in his song American Pie, going so far as to suggest that there was a discernable loss of innocence in the process.  I’d agree with this assessment, but only because both R&R and Mclean were coming of age during this period.  The 60s demonstrated that the music could mature in mind-boggling ways.  The rebelliousness of the era simply conspired to emphasize this over a natural expanse of time (youth to adulthood).

The amazing take home message here, however, is that there really was no disconnect; no history of the new leaving the old in the dust.  On the contrary, connections are rampant from 50s to 60 icons.  Keith Richards was awestruck and greatly inspired by Chuck Berry (to the point of putting up with Berry’s renowned temperament by recording and performing with him in the completely uncharacteristic role of lackey).  Lou Reed took his queues from Dion.  Dylan was blown away by Elvis Presley.  Paul McCartney got his groove from Buddy Holly.  The list goes on and on.  For a kid taking the genre in for the first time in the 70s - one step removed so to speak - these connection can be difficult to discern.  To these ears, 50s Rock and Roll sounds rudimentary and a bit too polished.  Why such accolades from the 60s musicians I so admire toward their predecessors?

I thought long and hard about this over the past few weeks while listening to Neil Young’s throwback rockabilly album, ‘Everybody’s Rockin’.  It’s an abbreviated disc, clocking in and out in 30 minutes, with short drive-it-home songs, the way things were done in the 50s.  It showcases Young and his once off band, the Shocking Pinks channeling Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis in admirable fashion.  Neil Young had actually intended this as a concept album, and was in the process of adding several more songs when the chord was cut on the production by Young’s record company owner, David Geffen.  Geffen was outraged that Young was continuing along a path of not producing ‘classic rock albums’, exemplified in the previous release, ‘Trans’ (see Forever Young # 26 ‘A Trans-formation’).  ** Geffen by the way would never get his wish throughout the entire life of the 8-album contract.

I decided to zero in on Young’s intention of a concept album.  A concept about what?  Most of the songs that appear on ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ are love lost laments, including covers of Rainin’ in My Heart, Bright Lights, Big City and Mystery Train, along with originals Cry, Cry, Cry, and this weeks’ Forever Young entry Wonderin’  ( ).  There’s also a finger-pointing call out to the radio station payola scams of the day (Payola Blues) and several light-hearted efforts, including the upbeat Kinda Fonda Wanda (lyrically reminiscent of the Who’s Mary-Anne With the Shaky Hands). All in all, there’s nothing particularly revealing here in terms of concept. 

So, I honed in on those 2 songs that did not make the album:  Get Gone and Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me.  Both tracks eventually appear on Young’s ‘Lucky 13’ compilation album, a collection of his best works from the off-kilter Geffen era.   Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me did not add much to the big picture, other than one line that stuck: “When I make a promise you can bet that it’s true”.  Get Gone however, pulled it all together for me.  Get Gone is a cautionary tale about a band that starts out authentic but eventually sells out to the ‘city slicker’, ultimately leading to a fiery plane crash “a little low on fuel “ while on a big tour. 

I thought more about American Pie and what 50s music meant to Neil Young’s generation.  I thought about youth and idealism and honesty and truth and innocence and young love.  I thought about roots.  And then it hit home.  ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ was meant to be a roots album, not just in the obvious musical style of the songs, but in all meaning of the term.  I’m sure of it.  And I do believe that Young’s explorations throughout the 80s were centered on this notion of rekindling with which you once were at the root of it all:  The days when everything was an experiment and nothing was old hat.  The days of feeling helpless.

Wonderin’ is one of Neil Young’s hidden gems.  The song was written well over a decade before ‘Everyboy’s Rockin’ release in 1983, and was modified somewhat to better fit the rockabilly style of the album.  Young’s vocals are appropriately plaintive here.  He sounds exactly like someone who has been wandering the streets all night, talking to himself, past the point of craziness, wondering if a loving relationship is still intact. The video is apropos; the juxtaposition of Neil Young’s disheveled, unshaven all-nighter appearance to the Shocking Pinks suave look and feel makes all the more clear the state of affairs.  I get a kick out of Young’s demeanor.  It’s so…..gonzo.

Neil Young once stated that he put his all into ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and the subsequent tour.  I believe him.  I’ve watched several clips of shows during this period, and Young and company were definitely into it.  At the time there were not many examples of 60s and 70s rock stars tracing themselves back to earlier eras.  John Lennon released ‘Rock n’ Roll’ in 1975, which was a recognition of his influences, and Joe Jackson did the same with’ Jumpin’ Jive’ in 1981.  Since these forays, there have been many more efforts along these lines. 

The closest I come to identifying with 50s music is the early Beatles and Stones.  But both bands were already a step removed from Long Tall Sally when they began penning their own songs.   There was already something new in the air in 1963.  Other than the occasional tribute like ‘Everybody’s Rockin’, it’s really all about building on that early foundation.  For 60 years running, Rock and Roll has proven that it can keep adding bricks.  I may not fully identify with the earliest form of the music I love, but there is no mistaking the recognition of it as the simpler sound of such. 

But roots?  Well, we can all identify with that concept.  60s musicians were lucky.  They got to take a young art form and advance it through its formative years.  They did this in brilliant fashion.  But none of them ever forgot where they came from. 

-          Pete

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Forever Young # 27: "It's Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry"

Song:  Ohio
Album:  Released as a single (with Crosby, Stills and Nash)
Released:  June, 1970

It’s taken half a year of weekly entries, and I have finally come around to that other piece of the Neil Young puzzle:  His association with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, or CSN for short.  I have to say that the more I learn about Young’s history, the less I understand this relationship.   But I don’t really mind.  In fact, I think it a good thing.  Like a close family with diverse personalities and opinions, some working relationships are simply inexplicable. 

Let’s run through the lineup.  First there’s David Crosby; he of drugs, arrests, guns and unrivaled womanizing fame.  Yet Crosby also has a reputation as a hard worker, a perfectionist.  And there’s no doubt there is talent there too.  Few musicians have more ties to American Rock history and aristocracy than does Crosby.  I recall him goofing around with Bob Dylan during a Byrds reunion (along with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman) at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles as Nancy and I took it all in from the 2nd row.  Dylan and Crosby were checking into each other like hockey players while strumming their guitars.  The only thing I can compare it to is witnessing Pete Townshend clowning around with harp-player Peter Hope Evans.  It was hilarious.  At the very least, you can say that Crosby helped draw in the Southern red neck crowd as somewhere in the early to mid-70s there was a transition in the Deep South from ‘Easy Rider’-type confrontations to long hair.  Crosby’s longtime interest in guns may have helped create an overlap of the two worlds, and lead to the emergence of bands like Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd (ironic for Young given the Southern Man/Alabama/Sweet Home Alabama salvos later in the decade).

Next, Stephen Stills.  Here I believe is the real attraction for Neil Young, who has forever been obsessed with his ex-Buffalo Springfield mate.  Everyone needs a competitive crutch, and for Young, that person appears to be Stills.  The man is a great guitarist, and vocalist, as well as a pretty darn good lyricist, yet the one thing he seems to lacks when compared to Neil Young is intense passion.  After Young penned Ohio, this week’s blog entry ( )  , CSNY gained a reputation as a protest band.  And yet, Stills has always come across to me as the reluctant antagonist.  However, every band needs someone who comes across as somewhat more level headed than the rest: Think Bill Wyman, John Entwistle, Peter Quaife, Mickey Hart, and Peter Buck.  In CSNY, that person is Stephen Stills.  Part of Young’s fascination with Stills may simply be their long history together and the early chance encounters in Ontario and Los Angeles.  Perhaps Young has a fate-accompli sense about it all.

Finally, there’s The Brit, Graham Nash, the counterbalance to Stills. The passion is certainly there, but for me the verdict is still out in terms of how much pure talent he has.  Nash is a 60s holdout, a true believer in the hippie movement, and occasionally I get a whiff of what he brings to the table.  The lyrics to Teach Your Children are much deeper than apparent on the surface for example. And his loyalty to his bandmates is second to none, even after his recently released tell-all autobiography, “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life”.  He probably has the least affiliation with Neil Young in the band, but they did pen 1972’s War Song together (which may be one reason why Young writes most of his music solo).  And just when you think he’s a bit soft around the edges, he will toss out a comment that reveals his acerbic English wit.

In general, Crosby, Stills and Nash have been of moderate interest to me over the years.  I’ve seen them several times, and do recognize their legacy.  There’s a bold daring there.  When CSNY toured an anti-Iraq-war stance in 2006, they were booed loudly at a number of locales, many fans surprised at the intensity displayed by the band during songs like Let’s Impeach the President.  Nope, Rage Against the Machine has nothing on CSNY.  Yet, I also cannot overlook a whiff of hypocrisy in the form of excess, particularly with Crosby and Stills.  It’s the same feeling I get with Led Zeppelin:  One too many moral chips cashed in; a bit too much ‘wasted on the way’.  I believe Neil Young has had this sense too, as hinted at in his ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ song, Thrasher.  I’m reminded of a reflection Pete Townshend writes about in his book “Who I Am”, his thoughts of witnessing Keith Moon and John Entwistle compromising themselves in various ways before the Who took the stage at Woodstock.  He went on to say it showed in their performance that night.  Anyhow, that’s what I’m talking about….something like that.

One other thought about CSN.   I’ve always felt the band name should have been different, not emphasizing the singer’s names, but more all-encompassing, to include original drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Greg Reeves.  Perhaps with a more democratic name, they would have been more productive and prolific over the long term.  ‘Democracy’; yes, that would have been a good band name for CSN (and Y). 

Ok, enough background.   It’s time to discuss Ohio, which remains one of the top protest songs of all time.  This song has a sense of urgency, which indeed was the case, having been written and released almost immediately after the tragic events at Kent State on May 4, 1970.  This is the song that gave Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young their reputation, which as a band they would attempt futilely to match on numerous occasions in years hence.  But Ohio was perfect for the time it was penned, and much has to conspire to even have the opportunity of seizing the moment to write a classic protest song.  The aforementioned Woodstock Festival was only 9 months earlier, and there was a sense in the interim that a youth movement which emphasized peace in the face of war could actually win the day.  Disillusion was settling in, however:  At a time when there was hope that the Vietnam War was decelerating, President Nixon announced an incursion into neighboring Cambodia.  Kent State and other college-campus protests were a direct response to this.  The lingering effects of the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations factored in as well.

And the establishment was starting to take this youth movement very seriously.  In some ways you could say they were successful in permanently squelching serious protest like that which took place at Kent State.  Although the reverberations were profound in the immediate aftermath, which included the biggest mass-campus strike in USA’s history, another Kent State never happened.   We would never again see the likes of students sticking flower stems into the gun barrels of the National Guard or the Guard in turn shooting those rifles at a crowd.  Life eventually returned to a sense of relative normalcy.  Flower Power was ebbing.  Kent State may have been its last hurrah.  I suppose brute force can do that.

But the music survived, and lived on in the burgeoning 70s youth generation that followed, including within myself.  Songs like Ohio did not fade away.  On the contrary, they thrived during this period.   We wanted more, and we were more than happy to support musicians like Neil Young in their efforts to keep creating good music.  Young and many other 60s songwriters obliged us.  I can’t think of many more carry-over examples than the one that played out through 70s youth, which allowed 60s rock icons to continue to deliver, be it in the studio or on the concert trail.  Many of them earned it with bold truth-seeking statements in the face of strong resistance.  We in turn recognized this merit, this worthiness, this badge of honor. 

There is much to love about Ohio, but the starkest part of the song for me is the ending, with David Crosby literally crying out lines of disgust: “Four!”, “How many?”, “How many more!”.  It’s raw and alive and as fresh hearing it now as it likely was when first recorded.  Crosby once stated that Young singing Nixon’s name in the song Ohio was one of the bravest things he ever heard.  It shows when you listen to his grieving appeals as the song fades.

I’d like to think the American spirit still has the potential for the type of galvanizing emotion displayed by Neil Young and his cohorts when put to the challenge.  Part of me hopes we will never find out.  Yet another part of me hopes we will, if only for the creative passion that can ensue.

-          Pete

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Forever Young # 26: "A Trans-formation"

Song:  Transformer Man
Album:  Trans
Released:  December, 1982

 I have had the good fortune of connecting with tremendously influential people and events in my life, a fair number of whom (and which) I have written about in these entries; with more to come I am sure.  Obviously, the big focus in these passages has been musicians and their music, but it is always my hope that this is but a springboard to unveiling even deeper personal connections, which, after all, is likely a goal of all the musicians I write about as well.

 Still, there are a few occasions in the annals of rock ‘n roll history when the musician is the influential end game; when their story is uniquely renowned for its fearlessness and boldness.  Until recently, there were only two musicians that reached this plateau for me:  John Lennon and Bob Dylan.  Lennon when he overhauled his life by unequivocally focusing on his new relationship with Yoko Ono in 1968, ultimately causing the breakup of the most popular band of our times.  Dylan, when he went all Christian on his fans by releasing and touring a series of very spiritual albums in the late 70s and early 80s.

 For both John Lennon and Bob Dylan, the motivation was love and devotion.  Lennon fascinated me back when I was a young man when I began to connect with his in-your-face perseverance, personified in his joined-at-the-hip relationship with Yoko.  Dylan did the same for me some time later when I began to understand the depth of his resilience, personified in that lyrically sermonizing period of his life.  In each of these cases, it was the music that made these connections for me.  With John Lennon, it was his steadfast songs like Don’t Let Me Down (that performance of it on the Apple Roof remains moving whenever I watch it), Jealous Guy, and later (Just Like) Starting Over.  With Bob Dylan it was transcendent songs like Every Grain of Sand and I Believe in You.  You can hear the transformation of both these musicians in these songs.

 In recent years, Neil Young has made his way into this extremely exclusive club.  Where Lennon did it with his unbridled commitment to his spouse and Dylan did the same with his devotion to the Almighty, Young’s intense focus was of yet another nature:  His son, Ben, born in 1978 with a severe case of Cerebral palsy.  The realization of this turned Young’s life upside down.  Astoundingly, Ben was the 2nd of Young’s three children to have this disorder, though his son Zeke’s (born in the early 70s) affliction was not as acute.  And his third child, Amber Jean, like her father, had to contend with epilepsy.

 As opposed to Lennon and Dylan, my connection to Neil Young’s transformative period would take quite a bit longer to establish.  After all, I was not a Dad myself until 1994.  But there were other hurdles to clear in regards to Neil Young’s intense display of devotion.  The music he produced in the early 80s in response to this new sober reality of dealing with his son’s debilitation was a bit “out there”.  1981’s ‘Re-ac-tor’ and 82’s ‘Trans’ were a far cry from anything Young had produced before.  This was electric, computerized, synthetic stuff, with much of the lyrics being expressed through a strange speech-modifier called a vocorder no less!  Where was the improvisation, the spontaneity?  What the F&^%^k was this all about?

 Although I had no clue at the time, what Neil Young was doing was extraordinary.  He was making a valiant effort to bond with his son despite Ben’s extremely limited communicative abilities -and he was welcoming the fan base into this typically private world.  We are talking here about a very personal struggle made public, a road that few of us are willing to tread.  The combination of the subject matter and the experimental new sound - inspired by a need to break down communicative barriers with his son - rises this period of Young’s career to the same level as those storylines mentioned earlier in relation to Messrs. Lennon and Dylan.

 It’s odd, but when you are a fan of a musician or band when they are at the height of their popularity, you tend to expect something from them.  You feel that you are owed a certain progression of brilliance that is based on familiarity.  Yet I believe a majority of the lasting fans of the best of bands are the ones who discover them after their glory days.  There are no expectations in these cases.  Everything has already been laid out on the line, or better yet, has been given time to be digested and put in its proper, non-impulsive place.  Neil Young’s experimental years in the 80s are a great example of this.

 At the start of this ‘Forever Young’ series, I would have never thought the song Transformer Man would have made my list of topic songs (which is now 28 and running when you include the two from the original Gem Music Video of the Week series).  But after listening to ‘Trans’ this past week and putting the album into its proper context, I feel the song is more than deserving. The Transformer Man of reference is Ben, and Neil Young is trying to explain to him how treasured he is. At the same time, he is trying to get Ben (then 4 years old) to maximize on his ability to physically respond to stimulus.  The intense therapy the family went through during this period comes through in a big way in all six of the vocorder songs on ‘Trans’.  Alluding to the core concept of the album, Young once commented “All of the electronic-voice people were working in a hospital, and the one thing they were trying to do is teach this little baby to push a button”.  But the best line on the album is more personal, repeated in the refrain of Transformer Man:  Every morning when I look in your eyes, I feel electrified by you, oh yeah!”.  It’s convincing when you listen, particularly live, as seen in the attached url ( ).  * That's Nils Lofgren going all trippy with Neil on stage.

 Watching that video, it can be difficult to equate the man on that stage with the one who only 3 years earlier performed the songs to ‘Rust Never Sleeps’.  Then again, it’s not so hard to fathom when you chew on it some.  Neil Young was in his mid-30s when he toured ‘Live Rust’.  Many of his contemporaries were showing a bit of wear and tear by this time, but Young looked like a man 10 years younger.  He was maintaining his youthful spirit, which equates to an open mind.  And no artist that I know of resists being driven by commercial success more than Young.  It all ties together.

 I wonder how much of ‘Trans’ eventually connected with Ben Young?  The album certainly has got an anticipatory/futuristic feel to it:  A computerized world where being physically disabled can still be full of normal sensation and communication.  The journey has likely been a long yet fruitful one for Ben; model trains making their way around model tracks along an elaborate setup throughout his home; the Bridge School and related Bridge School Benefit shows that have featured a who’s who in the music industry over the years; family tour buses customized to his needs; ownership of a chicken farm.  Anyone who is a Dad knows they would do anything for their kids.  A listen to Transformer Man is an early indication of what was in store for the 2nd son of Neil Young.

-          Pete