Sunday, September 7, 2014

Forever Young # 33: "Faith Focus"

Song:  Two Old Friends
Album:  Are You Passionate?
Released:  April, 2002

Faith:  I’ve yet to delve deeply into this core virtue on this blog.  But if things go according to plan with the Who (Townshend), Bob Dylan and the Beatles (Harrison) following on the heels of these Neil Young and Rolling Stones entries of the past 3 years, I’ll have much more opportunity to discuss it.  Faith is one of those intangible qualities that make us human.  It requires that we step out of a certain comfort zone… that practical ‘Doubting Thomas’ persona in all of us.  Where’s the proof?  Seeing is believing!  Faith requires us to come to the realization that we can’t rationalize everything.   We all connect with it at one time or another.  Those who persevere and let faith guide their lives are typically the blessed ones.

 For the time being, a focus on faith appeared to be on the shelf in these pages.  Neil Young has built a reputation upon many things, but religious-based faith is not one of them.  And yet as I’ve listened more intently to his music this past year I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s more there than I thought a year ago (which was also the case with the Stones believe it or not, particularly a handful of cuts off ’Exile on Main Street’).   Faith-centered songs are scattered about in Neil’s catalog, most prominently in his post Y2K music, including the songs on ‘Chrome Dreams II’ and ‘Prairie Wind’. 

 For many, Rock n’ Roll in general does not inspire thoughts as a faith-based music genre; there are a number of adjectives that would be used to define it before this one.  I believe part of what fueled this reputation goes back to the transition rock music took in the 70s, becoming mega-successful and in turn, significantly more money driven.  The rock-music industry tended to look more for hits in this circumstance, and spiritually intense music in this day and age is not likely to be attracting the fair-weather fan.  And so, faith takes a back seat, which I believe would have an effect on the musician’s priorities on what to write about. 

 Personally, I’ve had many a spiritual moments listening to Rock music, rivalling even the connections I’ve made along these lines at Sunday Mass.  Songs that come to mind include Every Grain of Sand (Dylan) Keep Me Turning (Townshend), Empty Glass (Townshend), Beware of Darkness (Harrison), Bargain (The Who), I Believe in You (Dylan), Long, Long, Long (Beatles), I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (U2); Love Train (the O’Jays) and Astral Weeks (Van Morrison).  I’ve been hit broad side by all kinds of music over the years, focused on any number of subject matter, and these songs are right up there with the best of them.

Add Neil Young’s Two Old Friends ( ) to the list.  For this song - one of Neil Young’s deepest forays into faith focused lyrics - and the album it is on (‘Are You Passionate’) the chameleon-like Young ended up turning to a soul sound with Booker T and the MGs.  ‘Are You Passionate?’ was recorded before and after 911. You can feel the weight of 911 in Two Old Friends.  It’s heavy.  Far more so than Let’s Roll off the same album, which got some radio play upon release (the song’s title is a reference to what Todd Beamer said on United Flight 93 just before he and other passengers stormed the cockpit in an apparently successful effort to overtake the hijackers). 

The song title, Two Old Friends, refers to a discussion between a preacher and God.  The preacher is lamenting hatred in the world and asking God when there will be peace (personified in great live musical events).  God states that those times have already come to pass, noting the Band’s ‘Rock of Ages’ ‘72 tour specifically.  I believe the title is telling, as it may be revealing the ‘preacher’ as Neil himself, given God’s musical tastes in the song (which I agree with by the way).  Regardless, by the ending, the preacher is granted some peace of mind “in the way things are and the way things change”.

Recording with Booker T and the MGs must have been a dream-come-true for Neil Young.  The Stax Record icons first connected with Young when they were the house band for Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary show in 1992.  They backed Neil up as he performed the Dylan classics All Along the Watchtower and Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues.  Young’s performance was ok that evening (far more memorable was Ronnie Wood performing Seven Days with Cropper and crew).  I think both Young and the crowd were thrown off some by the Sinead O’Connor tirade which had immediately preceded his coming on stage (see GMVW # 76, June 2007, which explored this episode). 

 Neil Young made up for this by touring with Booker T and the MGs the following year.  Nancy and I got see this tour at Great Woods in Mansfield, MA.  What we heard was a solid rock/soul sound that had me hardly (if at all) missing Crazy Horse.   Yesterday, I tracked down the set list that evening.  Below is that list, along with what may have crossed my mind during the show:

Mr. Soul     > I clearly recall this opening number and thinking: “OK, this is going to be good”
The Loner    > Wow!  Two amazing songs to start off.  The band interaction (binoculars) is right on
Southern Man    > Make that 3.  Never heard this live before….is it rarely played live?
Helpless    > recalling Neil’s performance on The Last Waltz (disappointing).  Ready to move on
Like a Hurricane    > Can this match Crazy Horse.  ….. yes!
Motorcycle Mama     > see Forever Young # 16 in terms of what I was likely thinking
Separate Ways    > this is a rarity to be seeing live (it was)
Love to Burn   > yes, I do.   Slow, long burner that just keeps going and getting better
Only Love Can Break Your Heart   > solo, acoustic (I believe)…. and intense!
Heart of Gold   > Looking around at the crowd…..communal
Harvest Moon   > Mom and Dad
Unknown Legend    > what imagery!  Feel like I was there
The Needle and the Damage Done > trying to relate to something beyond me.  Still hitting me like a brick
Powderfinger   > Nancy’s loving this.  How’s Booker enjoying this? Cropper?  They look pumped.
Live to Ride  > Never heard this before.  What’s next?
Rockin’ in the Free World    > my goodness, Bush (senior) era revisited 1 year later
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay   > this version had a lot to do with why I love this song
All Along the Watchtower    > another cover?  Ok, this works.  Better than the Dylan 30th version

Eight years later, Neil Young reconnected with Booker T and the MGs and went all Van Morrison on us with ‘Are You Passionate?’  Make no mistake about it, this is a cover to cover soul album (with a couple of hiccups):  Nothing else of Young’s sounds like it.   Although I’m not particularly drawn to such music, if I were to write a blog consisting of several hundred Neil Young reviews, I would likely include a few other songs from ‘Are You Passionate’, including the first two tracks.  Your My Girl is a simple song about letting go of a growing daughter (a nice father/daughter wedding dance song), and Mr. Disappointment is about trying to overcome bad habits (not a nice father/daughter wedding dance song).  There is no greater contrast of Neil Young’s vocal range than these two songs.  Your My Girl reaches a bit too far into the soprano range and Mr. Disappointment gets its point across down in the baritone. 

However it came down to that faith focus for me as I zeroed in this week on what to write about.  It may have been 911 that brought this faith out, or it may have been just a natural progression for Neil Young.  But any way you slice it, this song works.  And as with all my discoveries of the Young legacy this past year, I’m all ears.

-          Pete

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