Saturday, October 25, 2014

Forever Young # 40: "Beach Front Property"

Song:  On the Beach
Album:  On the Beach
Released:  July, 1974

“ Now I’m livin’
out here on the beach
but those seagulls
are still out of reach ”

That’s it; just a few lines in the title track.  Other than these lyrics, there is no other discernable reference to the beach (or seagulls for that matter) in any song on the entire album that is ‘On the Beach’.   In fact, there is no mention of the ocean whatsoever.  And yet this song and album ooze a seaboard feel.   To be clear, I’m not talking a happy, sun-drenched, bikini, surfboard, volleyball sandy haven.  No, this is an entirely different kind of beach.  It’s a solitary, reflective, lonely beach.   It’s a beach at the crossroads.

Neil Young did indeed live on the beach during the making of this album; just north of Santa Monica, California to be specific.  This ‘living there’ is the feel I’m referring to, as a simple visit to where the sea and sand meet is not in line with the intensity of the aura that permeates ‘On the Beach’.  Day in and day out?  Off season?  A bachelor pad?  Reclusiveness?  Loss?  Coping (see Forever Young # 19)?  An enveloping darkness mixed with relentless waves and abundant stars by night?  Mist, fog and empty beach by day?   Margaritaville?

Yeah, that does the trick.  This is the essence of ‘On the Beach’.

Nothing brings out introspection quite like the beach.  Spend enough time there, and all that reflection can be life changing.  Those of us who have enjoyed significant stretches of time there know the beach to be an open palette:  A stroll alone at dawn or dusk being an entirely different experience than a midday swim.  Living close to the coastline just adds to these experiences; laughter and melancholy all mashed up into one big ball of emotion. 

‘On the Beach’ could have been critiqued as an all-time, upper-echelon rock album if Neil Young had gotten his way.  Young wanted side 2 to be side 1, which would have placed the title track first, but surprisingly he succumbed to the will of his record company (who were likely thinking the album would be better off to be led by its only up-tempo song, Walk On).  Listening to the album all week with side 2 leading the way, I can certainly relate to Young’s reasoning.  On the Beach (the song) is a stage setter.  Not only does it place you where Neil Young is, but where he wants to go.  This is made evident near the end of the song when he sings “get out of town, I think I’ll get out of town”.  Whether this is literal or figurative in meaning is not clear (though given that feel of the album, I choose the latter).  What is clear is that from this point on, Young embarks on a journey of the soul. 

Beaches have factored pretty significantly into Rock and Roll history.  “Here by the sea and sand, nothing ever goes as planned” sang Roger Daltrey on Pete Townshend’s magnum opus, ‘Quadrophenia’, an album heavy with beach analogy.  There was the Rolling Stones exile to the French Riviera. There was John Lennon’s “lost weekend” (that lasted over a year), much of which was spent on the West Coast with fellow lost soul (at the time) Harry Nilsson among others.   There was Keith Moon’s exploits on same coast with personal assistant Dougal Butler (including his infamous run-ins with beach neighbor Steve McQueen).  Butler wrote a book, ‘Moon the Loon’ on his years with the madcap Who drummer and stated in it that during that beach-front period they were the two loneliest guys on the face of the earth.  There was much of Dennis Wilson’s life and untimely drowning death at Marina Del Ray.  None of these stories are happy ones, but they all have something to say to us about where we retreat to get away from it all.  That edge of the earth zone where you can’t go any farther without wading: The beach as a metaphor for escapism.

Howard Hughes is probably the most renowned recluse, but Neil Young and other fellow musicians had their stretches of isolation from the crowds.  Bob Dylan went into seclusion after a motorcycle accident in the late 60s, not performing live again for years.  After that “lost weekend” escapade, John Lennon returned home to Yoko Ono and the Dakota Apartments on Central Park West, where he settled in as a “house husband” and a 5 year stretch completely out of the limelight (until releasing ‘Double Fantasy’ in 1980, just before his murder). 

Neil Young’s reclusive period was earlier in that decade, during which he performed infrequently and became a very elusive interview.   ‘On the Beach’ was released at the tail end of this public estrangement, in July of 1974. It was Young’s first studio album to be released since ‘Harvest’, 2 ½ years earlier.  This was a pretty unusual stretch to be idle for a successful musician of that era, especially at this time in his career.  But Neil Young was not idle per se.  He was simply turning inward; yet remaining extremely prolific in his creativity (for example ‘Tonight’s the Night’ was recorded in the interim but not released until later).  There was much reevaluation after the death of several close friends that brought this on.  You can hear it in ‘On the Beach’.

Bob Dylan appears to me to have been deeply inspired by ‘On the Beach’.  As written about before, his song Highlands makes reference to his fellow songsmith (“I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound.  Someone’s always yellin’, ‘turn him down’ “).  Highlands is the closing number to one of my all-time favorite Dylan albums, 1997’s ‘Time Out of Mind’.  It’s an album I’ve delved into a bit more than most Bob Dylan works (which, believe me, is saying something), and which I hope to write about more when I get around to Dylan in this blog some time down the road.  In a nutshell, I see ‘Time Out of Mind’ as a journey, much like ‘On the Beach’.  When I listen, I always get a sense as if it’s a personal story about Dylan making his way down the Mississippi River.  An alternative name for the album could have been ‘Highway 61, Revisited - Again’.   Dylan moves north to south, along Route 61, from his home state of Minnesota and nearby Chicago to New Orleans, a reverse direction of the bluesmen from the 30s and 40s (making their way up to the Windy City).   It’s an intense, heavy, riveting journey. 

But as stated above, I believe Neil Young’s journey in ‘On the Beach’ was of a different sort.  After the opening title track ( ), Young hits you from many angles and places:  The mountains (Motion Pictures), Dixieland (See the Sky About to Rain), Toronto and Woodstock (Ambulance Blues), among other locales, events and reflections.  And yet you still feel as if he’s on that lonely beach, staring out at the vast ocean and beyond.

It’s rare when a musician can be creative during solemn periods in their lives.  This is why I believe that many of us find albums like ‘On the Beach’, ‘Time Out of Mind’, ‘Empty Glass’, ‘Who By Numbers’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, and ‘Tonight’s the Night’ so fascinating.  These introspective and confessional albums depict a soul in crisis and allow us to share in their grief.  Many people tend to shy away from such an exclamation.  Isn’t music supposed to make you happy after all?  But there are some of us who gravitate to this mood in the midst of art, if only out of shear respect for what it must have taken to pull it off!

Neil Young decided on the title ‘On the Beach’ for a reason.  It must have come to him after the fact, perhaps while sitting on a storm wall alone after a long night, listening to the waves relentlessly beating against the shore.  In doing so, he spoke for many of us who have done the same, then finally wandering back to our homes and cottages… call it a day.

-          Pete

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