Friday, September 12, 2014

Forever Young # 34: "A Clash of Worlds"

Song:  Mideast Vacation
Album:  Life
Released:  July, 1987

I ended up having to wait a few extra weeks to wrap up my blog focus on Neil Young’s 80s music, which started in June (five in all, including this one, which were otherwise presented every other week).  As with all my entries, the selected songs were done within the context of the album they were on.  Approaching things this way has given me a much broader perspective of both the times the tune was penned and what may have been going on in Young’s mind during that period (not to mention mine).  This last one, off of the ’87 album ‘Life’, was harder to track down than I thought it would be.  I’ve had the vinyl copy since release, but for over a decade now, no turntable to play it on.  After working the phone, I finally tracked a compact disc version in Boston, and longtime tried/true friend Mac picked it up and shipped it off.  Thanks Mac!

The first time I heard Mideast Vacation ( ) , the opening cut off of ‘Life’, was live at Great Woods in the fall of 1986 with another close friend, Bob Bouvier (who this Forever Young series is dedicated to). The version on the album, which came out less than a year later, sounded exactly as I recall it from that magical late-summer afternoon, which leads me to believe that the song was recorded right around this time or not soon after.  And the photograph of Young on the album cover was just how I remember him too:  Foot thrusting forward in full jam, flannel shirt regalia, looking as if he could withstand a head-on category-5 hurricane (or better yet, create one).  * Side Note:  The album cover also has a more obscure image of a pair of hands holding prison bars with the number 5 visible on the back wall (symbolized by tally marks).  It’s been suggested that this was a statement to Geffen Records that his five contractually-obligated albums to date equated to being locked up and counting down the days.

I could relate to Mideast Vacation – all songs on side one of ‘Life’ for that matter – which collectively viewed human folly through the wary eyes of someone who understands cause and effect in a historical context (making the album title all that more poignant).  This connection that I made was partially due to being a history major myself.  But it was even more due to the fact that song, album and concert had all come on the heels of a summer travelling through Europe with yet another great old friend, Bob Mainguy.  It was an interesting summer to be travelling abroad as an American.  Not many US citizens were…at least across the Atlantic.  A Berlin discotheque full of US soldiers had been bombed that April.  Fingers were pointed at Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and the retaliatory air bombing ended up killing a number of people close to him, including his daughter.  Vengeance was in the air. All of this was not many years after the Iran Hostage Crisis.  Security was unlike it is today (a debatable good/bad thing), and since the US government could not guarantee safety for travelers overseas, they tended to dissuade us from doing so.  I wasn’t having it.  Besides, I was young and cocky, believing I did a pretty good job in those days of blending in with the crowd, which is not so hard to do when you’re a grub prancing around with long hair, a beard, and a backpack. 

Thinking back on all this it’s sad to digest that American tension with extremists in the Islamic world has been at high intensity for about 35 years now.  This week was the 13th anniversary of 911.  The week also marked yet another intervention in Iraq and Syria, punctuated by President Obama’s announcement of renewed offensives against insurgents in those 2 countries.   How did it come to all this?  There’s no denying you have to go back to colonialism and the resentment that ensued.  It’s been recommended by my insightful and enlightened boss to read ‘Lawrence in Arabia’ by Scott Anderson, published last year, which apparently makes a convincing argument along these lines.  Yet any way you slice it, there seems to be no end in sight to all this madness.

Neil Young has been wrapped up in writing and singing about the Western vs. Middle East conflict from the release of ‘Life’ onward.  There was 89’s (Keep on) Rockin’ in the Free World (which was born through Young’s realization he could not tour safely in the Middle East).  Later you had chunks of 2012’s ‘Are You Passionate’ (see last week’s Forever Young entry), which was later followed by ‘Living With War’ in 2006.  Yes, there has been a considerable amount of Neil Young’s focus put into this modern-day scourge. 

So, back to 1986 and that glorious backpacking trip through Europe with Bob.  I’ve not talked much about this multi-month adventure in all these entries, but it was a transcendent experience for me.  I still recall something said by the millionaire owner I bartended for at the Pub Dennis in Milford Massachusetts just after I gave my 2-week notice immediately before my travels (to save up for the trip, I worked several jobs including this one, since my career path wasn’t quite covering my income needs  just yet).  He rarely said two words to me during my stint there (though in this man’s defense, his infrequent visits were a factor, considering he owned at least three other Pub Dennis locations in Rhode Island), but the day I left, he approached me and broached the subject that I was quitting to travel Europe.  He then looked me in the eye and stated “I’m wealthy because I worked hard and never stopped, but if I had to do it all over again, I would do what you are doing”. 

He was right.  I would realize this more and more over the next few months and beyond.

My travels in Europe were eye opening on many accounts (as they would be again 3 years later with Nancy).  Our explorations touched on 15 countries, ranging from above the Arctic Circle in the North to the edge of the Iron Curtain in the East to the western-most tip of Ireland, to the southern extent of the Iberian Peninsula, and all World Cup, Medieval, Alpine, Bavarian and Running of the Bulls experiences in between.  Of all this, it was in southern Spain that I felt closest to a clash of cultures.  There was a strong Middle East presence there (of which there is a long, 500 year history).  And the region had a distinct ‘Old World’ feel in those years, recovering slowly from the heavy-hand 40 year dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who by all account at this time was still dead!). 

All of this was fascinating to me.  But I knew instinctually that I had to keep a low profile, which was hard to pull off:  Tourism was practically non-existent in this region that year.  The most telling sign was Torremolinos.  It felt as if Bob and I had this tourist village on the Mediterranean all to ourselves, which was a bit eerie.  And the ancient city of Grenada was positively Muslim.  Sections we walked through could have easily been mistaken for Algiers. 

But there was only one time on the entire trip that I had a sense of genuine fear.  On the overnight train to the Mediterranean coast (Torremolinos), Bob and I were late boarding the train. Our many overnights on Eurail were godsend to that point; bunk booths being a cheap way to both sleep and get from one point to another.  This night was different.  We poked our heads into a handful of booths (4 beds in each), only to find they were all full.  Finally, we came to a booth with 2 empty beds.  Turned out there was a reason for this.  One of the two guys was a Libyan (the other was a Muslim from another country) and he had….some anger issues. 

We didn’t know it right off, but we soon found out, with early greetings escalating in bizarre negative fashion.  I’d like to think I’m a pretty open minded and adaptable person, but here, one misunderstanding lead to another, and before we knew it there was plenty of tension in the air.  And so, after using the bathrooms, we found our backpacks and sleeping bags tossed out into the walkway.  We wanted to confront the guy, but he was not someone you could reason with, and besides, how would we get any sleep in this circumstance?  We decided to pick up our stuff and head to the very back of the train.  Awaiting us, amazingly, was an empty caboose.   However, we remained vigilant the rest of the night (believe me, there was reason for this) and ended up getting our sleep the next morning on the sands of a Mediterranean beach (which was my introduction to this vast Sea). 

Mideast Vacation is much underrated because it’s one of Young’s most atmospheric songs.  I feel the weight of the world here, much due to my experiences in Southern Spain in the summer of ‘86.

-          Pete

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