Saturday, August 30, 2014

Forever Young # 32: "Hidden Treasure"

Song:  Truth Be Known
Album:  Mirror Ball
Released:  June, 1995

How is it that some songs have a way of hiding out for a while?  Early reviews don’t catch them, as the critical focus ends up being on other tunes off the same album be they a single, a hit, a controversy or a new twist.  It’s not until sometime later when more insight sinks in, that the song gets it’s just rewards. 

One explanation is too much of a good thing.  Musician can at times be victims of their own success.  Put together a string of great albums, and expectations begin to go off the charts.  Often, the tunes that slip under the radar are on albums that come at the tail end of a series of classics.  Good examples are songs off Bob Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’ (i.e. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, Dear Landlord) and ‘New Morning’ (The Man in Me), the Who’s ‘Who by Numbers’ (Slip Kid, Dreaming From the Waist), REM’s ‘Up’ (Lotus, Daysleeper) and the Stones ‘Exile on Main Street’ (pick’em) .  You could even make a case for the Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ (Oh! Darling, Because).  In all these examples, the album was overwhelmed by its predecessors at the time of release, but eventually climbed out from under their shadow, and in some cases rose above them. 

Another reason may be that certain songs and albums are a perfect barometer of the times, and it’s not until a historical perspective for those times kicks in that we can get a similar perspective for the music.  I say this as I think of these classic references above (for example, ‘Abbey Road does a pretty darn good job representing both the end of the Beatles and the end of the 60s), but what really intrigues me to this end is the Neil Young discography, particularly his mid-90s albums ‘Sleeps with Angels' (1994) and it’s follow up ‘Mirror Ball’ (1995).  In these albums I see a perfect convergence of factors that would allow a great song to come out of the gate with a low profile. 

‘Sleeps With Angels’ and ‘Mirror Ball’ came on the heels of 3 critically acclaimed Neil Young albums:  ‘Freedom’ (1989), ‘Ragged Glory’ (1990) and ‘Harvest Moon’ (1992).  The natural reaction for critics and many fans in these circumstances is to, at least temporarily, move on.  Most of us have an inclination to test new waters; see what else is out there.  It’s not as common to stay the course.  So when there’s a levelling off, or even a slight dip in quality, it’s not all that surprising that we can tend to miss something; some hidden treasure.

With all this in mind, Baby Boomers were finally facing the reality of their own mortality in the 90s and so searching for a legacy of sorts.  There was very little interest in understanding and observing ‘Generation X’.  But Neil Young was reaching out, connecting with both members of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, as well as other ‘X’ bands.  It was a fascinating union.  Young (and a few other 60s musicians, including Pete Townshend, who was connecting with Brit equivalents like Paul Weller) represented precisely what these bands were looking for.  Grunge brought something new and ultimately lasting to the table.  Where Punk lashed out at excess, phonies, and the abandonment of idealism, Grunge went further and tried to explain why.  Young was seen by this new rock and roll crowd as a kindred soul, and in turn an elder statesman.  He was real to them.  Neil Young in turn found companionship in a youth movement.  Who could ask for more?

Anyhow, several seminal songs of Young’s were victimized by this convergence of factors.  First there was Change Your Mind off Neil Young’s 1994’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’, which I wrote about 6 years ago (see GMVW # 32, Oct, 2008).  At the time of release it barely caught a blip on the radar, but it has gained traction over the ensuing decades, and I predict that it will one day be one of the cornerstones of Young’s legacy.   The second victim from my point of view is Truth Be Known off ‘Mirror Ball’, this week’s Forever Young entry.  For anyone who loves ‘Maximum Rhythm and Blues’ this song is for you.  Oh, to see it live.

Truth Be Known ( ) is an indictment of leaving your roots behind; forgetting what got you to where you are.  Here are the opening lyrics:

Saw your friend working in this hotel
Says he used to know you when
And your dreams lucky as they seemed
They all turned their back on him
Truth be known

Wow!  There’s no beating around the bush here, and that’s what the Grunge movement was all about.  Pearl Jam does a masterful job backing Neil Young in this song.  I love Jeff Ament’s bass playing: Solid, steady, and melodic.  Neil Young’s vocals are very impressive.  The high-pitched backing vocals are equally so.  Altogether, there is a steady driving force that propels the song forward.  If this were a Crazy Horse song, it would have probably been twice as long.  But Pearl Jam works with Young to drive the concept home within normal timespan for a rock song (4:39). 

Neil Young is very careful with his lyrics in Truth Be Known.  One line where this stands out is in that opening salvo; “And your dreams lucky as they seemed”.  It’s the use of the words ‘lucky’ and ‘seemed’ that catches me here.  Whoever Young is singing about (this could even be himself) believes there was a bit of luck involved in their success, which is a noble and humble trait. Use of the word ‘seemed’ however, throws a crowbar into the picture.  It implies that there really was not success, because in the process, there was abandonment, and you simply can’t have one without the other. 

The middle lyrics appear to be about the victimized friend and the mistakes he/she has made; pretty straightforward, but nonetheless masterful that Young and crew would scope this angle out.  The closing lyrics go back to the self-centered fool who has moved on:

When the fire that once was your friend
Burns your fingers to the bone
And your song meets a sudden end
Echoing through right and wrong
Truth be known

The insinuation here is that creativity withers on the vine when a wrong has occurred.  Not that I’m an expert with Grunge, but I have a sense that this type of emphasis is at the heart of that genera, which puts it solidly in the camp of masterful, innovative rock and roll.  This is because at its core, the rock music I have had a life-long fascination with is always searching for truth in one form or another.  It may deviate.  It may self-incriminate.  It may even implode on itself on occasion. 

But if it continues searching, I’m all ears.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Forever Young # 31: "Closure"

Song:  Wrecking Ball
Album:  Freedom
Released:  October, 1989

Changes were afoot within my circles in the late 80s.  Many of us were getting married, buying homes, establishing careers and soon enough having children.  Going off to school earlier in the decade was a considerable primer for dealing with change in our lives. These new experiences intensified and cemented the deal. 

The late 80s were interesting times in terms of connecting with our youth.  Some of my peers dropped out.  Others moved on.  But for most of us, these were not options.  Severing ties with the friendships and experiences of our younger selves would have been akin to razing our childhood homes.  Still it could be difficult on occasion to reconnect with the past.  I vividly recall going back to my hometown of Franklin one evening around this period and walking into the Uptown Pub.  This watering hole was never a favorite haunt, but on that night it felt worse; strange even.  I felt out of place and out of sorts.  It was a feeling of trying to keep something going which was no longer there.  Around then I realized that with change, you have to leave a part of you behind.  There’s no avoiding it. 

And yet…..

And yet, there is always that quest lingering within.  That search for recapturing or revisiting something that was.  Or maybe it’s the notion of closure.   When you’re older and presumably wiser, you look at the world from a broader context:  “If I only knew then what I know now”.  And so, when nostalgia kicks in, which inevitably happens from time to time, there is an urge to go back.  Back to those simpler days when the highs seemed easier to achieve, being as there were not so many layers to filter through to get there.

I had planned on tackling Wrecking Ball ( ) near the beginning of this Forever Young blog series.  It is such a magnificent song, and I’ve loved it ever since first listening to ‘Freedom’ upon release.  But back in January, I wasn’t quite ready to revisit Wrecking Ball.  Those original emotions had not stirred back up.  And so, I sat on it and gave it another go this past week.  This time, I was rewarded. 

There was a wrecking ball in downtown Franklin many years ago.  It must have been 1975 or so.  I watched it tear down a large section of a 3-level brick building across from Franklin News on Main Street.  Prior it was an old, mostly vacant complex for a number of years.  I do recall a dance studio on the top level that was easily accessible via a large fire escape.  For kids who loved to explore, like my friends and I, there was access to the inside from several alleyway doors and crawl spaces.  Machinery and tools were sprawled about on the 1st level; a legacy of a bygone era of blue-collar work in the heart of town.   This was one of many places we investigated.  Dean Junior College, just up the road, was another.  There were all sorts of tucked away spaces there; nooks and crannies that only ourselves - and possibly a custodian or two - would know of.  There were also a variety of barns, industrial buildings and other structures we would check out.  The rooftops were not out of bounds either. We never stole anything.  Curiosity was the driving force; a desire to take the path less trodden.

Watching the old building come down that summer had an effect on me.   I realized at the time that new (a bank) would be replacing old.  Was this good, or not so good?  I struggled a bit with the thought.  I recall a sensation that a part of me was being torn down with it and that I’d never be able to go back to that place, aside from memory.  It wasn’t necessarily the structure either.  It was more the whole ball of wax, including the adventure and comradery….. that Stand By Me sort of feeling (the movie and the song).  Yes, that was what came crashing down in a heap of bricks and mortar in the summer of ’75.

Change can be tough, and that wrecking ball may have been the first inkling of it for me.  With each change in your life, though, the next one gets a little easier to swallow. And Franklin was a place where we saw a ton of it.  Development was rampant in Eastern Massachusetts in the 80s.  Franklin was in the crosshairs.  A final added chunk of rte. 495 in the late 70s gave equidistant access in all four directions: Cape Cod to the South, Providence to the West, Worcester to the North, and Boston to the East.  The rural feel disappeared as a variety of our backwoods hangouts suddenly became a thing of the past. And with residential development came the chain stores, leaving Mom and Pop places like Franklin Furniture, Jimmy’s Penny Candy, Kearney’s, Puritan Drugs, Brunelli’s, and Newberry’s in the dust.  In the process, Franklin lost much of its charm, luster, and character.  A large number of my concrete memories had become abstract ones.  The town was becoming just another chunk of flotsam in an endless sea of suburban sprawl.

As those life-changing events of career and family played out for me into the 90s, I know I reflected on all of this.  And it was not simply the development of that small town I grew up in.  It was all the loss that went with it.  Sure I had gained so much by focusing on what I needed to in order to make life work into adulthood, and I knew this to be good.   But I also realized that I had lost something in the process; a bit of innocence and adventure and discovery and exploration and opportunity and youthful exuberance.  The road ahead would be influential and groundbreaking in its own right, but now it would include the occasional glance into the rearview mirror, hoping to see something that would entice me to make a U-turn. 

Several of the songs that grabbed my attention at that juncture in my life were about this sense of loss.  There was Iris Dement’s transcendent song, Our Town (see Gem Music Video of the Week # 4, January, 2008).  There was Rick Danko’s rarity What a Town.  There was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers American Girl.  And of course there was Neil Young’s Wrecking Ball.  Where the other three songs are explicitly about a sense of loss from the perspective of youth and home, Wrecking Ball covers more ground.  Love and closure factor into the equation in all of these songs, but Young links past to present here, each verse describing some unique relationship, both long-lasting and fleeting.  In all these scenarios, the looming wrecking ball is the metaphor for closure to something that was, but can never be again.  There’s a link between them, but it’s left for the listener to interpret.

When I take a ride to Franklin these days, visiting family and friends still dwelling there, so much comes flooding back. Now, however, it’s more complex.  There are the old memories of my youth, yes.  But there are also recollections from that time of significant change in my life, when I was coming to the realization that……shit happens.  The wrecking ball is inevitable, and how you deal with it becomes the ultimate definition of one’s character.  But we need to save a space and time to connect with what was there beforehand, if only to get some closure.  It may seem counterintuitive, but this helps to define our character too.   Wrecking Ball appears to back this notion up.

-          Pete

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Forever Young # 30: "A Rebel With a Cause"

Song:  t-bone
Album:  Re-ac-tor
Released:  November, 1981

Despite Rock and Roll’s reputation as a rebellious forum, there is one common denominator that all the songwriters I greatly respect have:  None are rebels without a cause.  They all earn their keep, and most espouse on this part of the equation in one way or another, including Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, Roger Waters and Ray Davies.  When prompted by a listener of satellite radio's ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’ show several years ago to offer up his view on musicians who tour just for the money, Bob Dylan’s response was, in a nutshell, so what:  His point being that even if motivated just by the money, you still have to earn it, because nobody is going to want to see an act if they are not performing to task. 

These seminal songwriters were often surrounded by rebels without a cause though, including their fellow musicians and roadies.  Danny Whitten, Keith Moon, Richard Manuel, Brian Jones, and Bruce Berry all gained this notoriety over their careers (side note:  A commonality of Neil Young and Pete Townsend has been a unique ability to straddle these 2 worlds).  This slacker-like mentality eventually proved Moon et al’s undoing.  For a number of reasons, I don’t think it all that surprising that the songwriters mentioned here have survived, while a number of their very talented sidekicks are no longer here.

The largest contingent of slackers, however, were a good chunk of the 70s fan base of these songwriters.  On occasion, this made it hard for these musicians to look out at their audience.  I’m sure the ‘slacker’ thought crossed their mind.  It certainly did for Waters, who infamously spit on a fan in the front row of a concert.  The incident would play out in Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, an album-title analogy that connotes the separation that inevitably happens between successful musicians and those who follow them. 

Neil Young’s own reaction to this separation comes out in the 1981 Crazy Horse album ‘Re-ac-tor’ (hence the title?).  It’s a very listenable album, but it has a drag-down, jaded feel about it.  Young was not touring at the turn of the decade.  This was partially due to a significant focus on his young son, Ben, diagnosed with a severe case of Cerebral palsy (see Forever Young # 26: “A Trans-formation”).  But I think there was more to it than that.  Hints of a jaded Neil are in his prior album ‘Hawks and Doves’, which, as the title would suggest, looks at the world through two different lenses.  Young was flirting with right-wing views, exemplified in his support for then-new President Ronald Reagan.  And yet although ‘Hawks and Doves’ is politically-charged, I’m of the belief that Young was trying to come to terms with the notion that Right and Left complement one another in a Yin/Yang duality sort of way. 

This carries over into ‘Re-ac-tor’, but here it looks as if his Right lobe was winning.  There are all sorts of veiled and overt hints, starting with the opening number opera star, a song about a rock-loving guy with a girlfriend who wants to go to the opera for a change.  But this guy wouldn’t be caught dead at an opera and tells her so.  At first, you would think this song is a rallying cry for the Rock and Roll lifestyle.  But the more I listen to it, the more I think it’s a put down.  Some things never change; they stay the way they are” Young sings, with Crazy Horse “Ho, Ho, Ho”-ing in the background.  Years earlier, John Lennon would comment on the need to connect with the musical interests of your spouse, no matter how offensive this would seem to your younger self.  Neil Young, just then recently married to his life-long partner Peggy, seems to be listening to this view here.

Next up, surf-er joe and the sleaze, the ultimate slacker song (keeping with the song titles on the album, all words are lower case and hyphenated between syllables > why this is, I have no idea).  Come on down for a pleasure cruise, plenty of woman, plenty of booze” he sings.  It appears both Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze have low standards in morality.  Neil may have known many characters like these when living in Florida (his ‘On the Beach’ years in the mid-70s), and perhaps for a while enjoyed their company.  Here, however, it seems he’s reevaluating.  There may also be some self-incrimination (in this song as well as in rap-id tran-sit).

The third song on ‘Re-ac-tor’, t-bone, is this weeks’ Forever Young entry, ( )a 10-minute diatribe with but 2 repeating lines: “Got mashed potatoes” and “Ain’t got no T-bone”.  This goes on and on and on, to the point of hilariousness, complete with rhythmic clapping and Will Ferrell-like cowbell (in general though, the music in t-bone is solid Crazy Horse).  At first I recall thinking; well perhaps Neil Young decided to release a song before adding true lyrics, simply to show where his head was at the time, kind of like if Paul McCartney had released ‘Yesterday’ with its original title ‘Scrambled Eggs’ ( ). 

Although this initial thought missed the mark, I don’t believe it does by much.  Peggy Young was a waitress when Neil met her at a restaurant, where the malcontent cook was known to blurt out “Ain’t got no T-bone!” any time a menu item would become unavailable (side note: Peggy Young is a vegetarian, which tosses another subplot into the mix, considering the lyrics).  I think Neil is making the same point to both his record producer and his fans here:  “I’m changing, and so don’t be expecting another ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ any time soon”.  What I find most interesting about this is that, unlike many artists, Young has always tried to work through his creative nadirs.  It’s all part of the process and t-bone bears this out.  The song is Neil Young’s answer to Revolution 9. 

Later in the album, there’s mo-tor cit-y, a lament on the decline of interest in American-made automobiles (“There’s already too many Datsun’s in this town”).  The song is patriotic, and reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Union Sundown off of 1983’s ‘Infidels’ (another album with Right-leaning convictions, including Zionism).  Then there’s the aforementioned rap-id transit, which comes across to me as a druggies veiled regret.  Was Neil Young flipping a mirror on his audience?  Was he flipping it on himself?  Two years earlier, The Band released ‘The Last Waltz’.  Young’s performance in this monumental event was erratic, cocaine fueled, and somewhat disturbing.  It must have had him second guessing his priorities, which is one of many things to consider - in terms of Young’s morphing character - during the time of the release of ‘Re-ac-tor’ as well as over the ensuing decade. 

What were the members of Crazy Horse thinking during all of this?  It must have been quite the jolt to see these changing convictions in their band leader.  The entire band’s performances would be uneven throughout the 80s (at times incredible, and at other times not so much).  However, if you focus on just the music on ‘Re-ac-tor’, it’s all clearly consistent with other Crazy Horse albums.  This must have been what they focused their energies on.  The next Neil Young album ‘Trans’ started as a Crazy Horse album but the band was eventually replaced by….. a vocorder.  Perhaps there was a mutually agreed upon temporary parting of ways; a regrouping of sorts. 

A few times this week I thought, am I the only person in the entire world listening intently to t-bone at the moment?  I may have been.  The song was never destined to have much shelf life, and would likely not be a part of a Neil Young time-capsule if ever one was conceived. But ‘Re-ac-tor’ in particular and t-bone specifically capture a moment in the ever-evolving mindset of Neil Young, and in turn the ever-evolving mindset of America itself.

-          Pete

Monday, August 4, 2014

Forever Young # 29: "Into the Mystic"

Song:  Prairie Wind
Album:  Prairie Wind
Released:  March, 2005

Back in early 2006, Nancy and I went to Landmark Theatres in Kendall Square, Cambridge, with close friends Madeline and Jeff to watch the limited-release Neil Young concert film “Heart of Gold”.  The film documents the live-version premiere of ‘Prairie Wind’, along with interviews and an extended set of songs from Young’s back catalog.  Given the high-definition quality of the theatre’s technology and the close-up footage, it’s about as intimate as most of us would ever want to get with Young and entourage.  Use of binoculars to witness a musician’s interactions with bandmates and the crowd is one thing.  Pixilation that captures a person’s nose hairs is on another level entirely. 

Aside from the high resolution, the aspect of the movie that stuck with me the most were several of the brief interludes between songs (oddly enough considering the great music) when Neil Young discussed the then-recent decline and passing of his Dad, Scott Young, to Alzheimer’s.  There was a poignant moment when Young mentioned to the Nashville crowd that he and they were now taking on a new role as elders, making the educated guess that most of those in attendance were contemporaries.  Another great moment was when Young tried to lighten his personal heartache with a funny anecdote about his Dad, who had temporarily snapped out of memory loss months before his death while sitting in the passenger seat of his son’s car as they were driving down the highway.  The elder Young spotted a vehicle behind a billboard, and, as Neil Young described it, his Dad snapped to attention and blurted out “Cop!”.  Telling this story, Young’s smirk belied the heavy emotions in his eyes.

From what I have read, Scott Young appears to have been a fascinating character in his own right.  He was a Canadian journalist in a variety of genera’s including as a professional hockey sportswriter.   One of his biggest claims to fame was standing up to the NHL in 1948 by writing an article in the Toronto-based Maclean’s Magazine titled “Hogtied Hockey”, which exposed the virtual lifelong servitude a hockey player in those days had with the team who discovered him, regardless of the number of years the player had initially agreed to in a contract.  Scott Young was ostracized by the powers that be in Toronto, but never let this stop him from doing what he believed to be honest journalism.

“Heart of Gold” (the movie), as well as the album that spurred it, ‘Prairie Wind’, reveals Neil Young at a time when he was facing his own mortality.  Between his father’s passing, and reflections of 911 (which he sings about here on No Wonder, a song that has a Steve Earle Copperhead Road feel about it) and a bout with a brain aneurism, and the death of other close associations (including Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer and the mother of his first child, Carrie Snodgress), there is much that can be linked to the fragility of Young’s psyche and music during this period (the song It’s a Dream is enough to come to this conclusion).  And it sounds as if he’s reaching in directions he rarely had before, including explorations of faith (When God Made Me). 

But it’s the music of the inexplicable and mysterious that captures the imagination on ‘Prairie Wind’, none more so than the title track ( ), a song reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Cold Irons Bound in its rhythmic intensity.  This chugging pace kicks in immediately, and soon the lyrics turn things up a notch:

Trying to remember what my Daddy said
Before too much time took away his head
He said we’re going back and I’ll show you what I’m talking about
Back to Cypress River, back to the old farmhouse

The small town of Cypress River in Southwest, Manitoba is in the heart of prairie country, and was where Scott Young was born and raised, later moving to Ontario after meeting and marrying Neil’s Mom, Rassy.  After Neil’s parents split when he was in his teen years, he moved back to southern Manitoba (Winnipeg) with his Mom.  To this day, he considers this region his home.  The prairies capture the imagination of Neil Young in a handful of songs on ‘Prairie Wind’.  Here I see yet another connection with Dylan, in relation to the latter’s song Highlands, which has the feel of prairie longing as well.  Dylan’s reference is a bit obscure, as would be expected from the man.  With Neil Young, however, there is no ambiguity. 

What is it about the prairies, those vast expanses of open space where the sky is big and the tall grass is endless?  Neil Young dances with this question in Prairie Wind.  There is reference to Plains Indians, and to the “northern lights” (the Aurora Borealis), and the wind.  When I first heard the song I thought the refrain was “prairie wind blowing through my hair”, but it’s “head” not “hair”, which exponentially magnifies the meaning.  All of this revolves around his Dad’s roots, a concept which is always close at hand.  But the question asked at the beginning of the song is never answered; Neil trying but failing to recall what his Dad told him years earlier:

“There's a place on the prairie where evil and goodness play
Daddy told me all about it but I don't remember what he said
It might be afternoon and it might be the dead of night
But you'll know when you see it 'cause it sure is a hell of a sight”

This is where the song glides into inscrutable shaman territory.  Most artists would lose me here, but there are a few talented musicians that can be so convincing in these kinds of convictions, they keep me glued.  Van Morrison is one, with his numerous mystical examinations of his Irish homeland (hence the title of this blog entry).  Neil Young is another, and his connection with mysticism is mostly driven by his adopted Native American interests.  Which for me begs the question:  Was this interest the case with his Dad as well?  The lyrics to Prairie Wind certainly support this hypothesis. 

Neil Young has always presented himself and his music from a North American perspective, including as a Canadian, an American, and a Native American.  Its one reason he has a substantial fan base this side of The Pond; a base that crosses races, creeds, and political affiliations.  Young has seized these connections, traversing the continent and identifying with its treasures - both cultural and natural - in ways very few others have.  Apparently the prairies have factored in heavily to this identification.  It makes sense:  There is no equivalent anywhere else in the world.  The closest similarities are Patagonia in Argentina and the steppes of Central Russia.  But the prairie is a uniquely North American phenomenon.

Neil Young must have been quite young when his Dad took him back to Cypress River to partake in the experience described in Prairie Wind.  I say this because an older and wiser Neil would likely have clung on to every word uttered by his Dad during such an event.   But thinking back to our earliest memories most of us can easily slip up when trying to recall important moments that others (his Dad in this case) considered vital at the time. The other extreme end of the spectrum can bring the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia, the unfortunate ending to many people’s lives.  And so, forgetfulness at the beginning of life can come back full circle at the end.   

Is this the concept that is at the core of Prairie Wind?  It’s hard to say.  The song is wrapped up in so many mystiques.  Some questions you just have to leave hanging out there, tossing and turning, in the prairie wind.

-          Pete