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

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