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

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