Friday, November 28, 2014

Forever Young # 44: "Stretching It Out Some"

Song:  Cowgirl in the Sand
Album:  Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released:  May, 1969

Back in 1992, Nancy and I mapped out a vacation that eventually connected us with all 5 of the Great Lakes (including a circumvention of Lake Superior).  To date, it remains one of my favorite road trips and I recommend this extremely underrated region to anyone who loves to explore.  Destinations are endless, and include Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Isle Royale, Pukaskwa National Park (Canada), Mackinac Island, the Apostle Islands, Tettegouche, Wawa, Niagara Falls, the Point Abino Lighthouse (and numerous others), Bruce Peninsula National Park (Canada), Thousand Islands, Georgian Bay, Manitoulin, Superior National Forest (USA) and so much more:  Simply magnificent. 

One stop we made along the way was in the village of Grand Portage, on the Minnesota / Ontario border.  It was there where we witnessed a Native American powwow.  The tribe was of Chippewa decent and a feature of their powwow was a lengthy ‘jingle’ dance.  We had been driving quite a bit that day and were pretty burned out by the time we arrived, but this dance chilled us out.  We kicked back and soaked it in. 

By 1992 I had been to a handful of Neil Young concerts, and as a consequence, I could not help but make a connection.  This event we were taking in on the remote Northwest side of Lake Superior was almost trance-like, and for that matter, so were the Neil Young w/Crazy Horse shows I had been to that point.  The similarities were most pronounced when comparing the chanting (on the Chippewa end) and extended jams (on the Crazy Horse end). 

I discussed jams briefly last week in the context of improvisation.  This week I’d like to get in a bit deeper.  What makes a great extended jam?  What mood does it set?  How does it highlight a show?  If there’s any subject that should be fleshed out more in regards to Neil Young, it’s this one, as I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything that attempts to do this.  Yes, concert reviews and the like will mention the extraordinary moments of shows, including the jams, but other than a comment here or there about  Young’s guitar playing, there’s little beef there; at least from what I have read.

I suppose it’s all a bit out of the realm of standard journalism.  What I’m talking about here delves more into the personal journey; what goes on in your own head when you are taking in a musical moment.  But folks who attend live events collectively know when they are spectators of something exceptional.  They talk about it after, and good write ups usually capture those moments too.  In general, how do we know when something is very good versus so-so?

When a jam is done right it brings you deeper into the song.  Most rock/pop songs are short ditties, three to five minutes on average.  Often when a good short song ends you are left wanting more.  Neil Young and others in the Rock realm realized this in the 60’s and figured they would do something about it.  Songs like Down By the River, Change Your Mind, Cortez the Killer, and this week’s focus, Cowgirl in the Sand were stretched out musically in-between the lyrics.  This gave us listeners a chance to think.  A pop-quiz became an essay.  The Confucius in us was satiated.  The urge for a re-listen (though still tempting) was subdued.

In honoring the reasoning behind extended jams, I’ve decided to devote the remainder of this entry to a stream of consciousness thought process as I listen to Cowgirl in the Sand.  I’ve played it repeatedly, as I can’t always type as fast as I can think.  At 10 minutes a pop, that’s a good solid hour after only 6 listens:  ( ). 

All this was written while listening in my living room on headphones next to a crackling fire, volume turned up to eleven:
> The slow introduction to this song is a welcome touch; the two guitarists getting in tune and in the process creating a mood for the familiar licks that follow.  That familiarity kicks in with a burst, as all 4 instruments (guitars, bass, and drums) chime in simultaneously at the 33 second mark.  An attention-grabber if there ever was one.
Nice having these headphones on to clearly distinguish Neil Young’s guitar licks (left side) from Danny Whitten’s (right).  Of course, this can be reversed by flipping the headphone.  After doing this I can’t determine if listening to rhythm guitar on the right side of the brain (vs lead guitar) is any different than the left.  This will take some time.
Hello ruby in the dust.  Has your band begun to rust?  Interesting line.  I believe it’s the first reference to ‘rust’ in a Neil Young song (to be followed 10 years later by ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”.  Neil Young clearly realizes what he has with this new band, Crazy Horse, and wants to emphasize right up front that none of it should be taken for granted. 
Billy Talbot’s bass keeps the beat.  Steady and strong
And so the story goes that this song (along with Cinnamon Girl and Down By the River) was written by Neil Young while in the midst of a flu and a 103 temperature.  The story also goes that all 3 songs were about a brief encounter Young had with a Toronto girl in the mid-60s.  Fate would have it that a rendezvous would never happen because the girl of Young’s desires got ill and was never able to reconnect downtown at the agreed on time (the fact that each of them got ill at key moments speaks to the legend of these songs).  Without an exchange of phone numbers, they were never able to reconnect.
This song was produced in Hollywood.  Thinking of a good number of my classmates that made the exodus to California after high school graduation. What became of them?  Thinking of Nancy and I venturing to the region for the first time after winning tickets to a Roy Orbison Tribute show in 1989, driving the Sunset Strip and the Hollywood Hills and the nearby beaches.  The region had a certain aura about it that you do not feel in New England.  Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s sound fits the bill.  It’s the feel of discovery.
The guitars, bass and drums on their own come across as simplistic, but collectively you have a unique, powerful sound.  How does this happen?  I think it’s related to how this band can build up the intensity and then scale back.  It’s all about timing and tempo.
Something to chew on:  My generation heaps praise on rock musicians when they become successful.  Yet it is often the case that the success came thru risk or desperation or both, including dropping out of school or hitting the road with little or nothing but a pocket full of hope.  These are not traits parents typically look for in their kids, but from afar, it’s something we admire.  It’s a strange thing.
I’ve been stuck on the album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ for 2 weeks now.  This is partly due to the short work week this week and the travelling last week, but it’s also due to this album being loaded with ‘Forever Young’ qualifiers, and I am simply not going to be able to get to all of them (including the title track and Down By the River).  This is a groundbreaking album and a path you want to point someone toward if they want to connect with Neil Young’s music.  There’s much to ponder when listening.
> Man, those Patriots have been playing great this past month.  Wait, I have to refocus!
> I read a review one time that had an interesting take on how Neil Young plays his electric guitar ‘Old Black’.  The reviewer stated that it is as if he is fighting the instrument, trying to get the most out of it.  It’s a one on one battle and you can picture this being the case when you see him play live with Crazy Horse.  The guitar wants to be lazy and call it a day early on, and Neil will have nothing of it.  Hilarious and heavy at the same time.  I envision this going on here on Cowgirl in the Sand. 

Hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving.
-          Pete

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Forever Young # 43: “Alright Wilson, Pick it!”

Song:  Losing End
Album:  Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released:  May, 1969

Over the course of these blog writings, my primary hope has been that I find a way to explain why it is I choose the songs I do for each entry.   In every case, the overriding factor is that I consider these selections to be top drawer in terms of listenability.  The tough part is then fleshing out the ‘why’.   There are many reasons, and they cover a whole range of topics from the visceral to the cerebral.  In a nutshell, music can be difficult to critique, but if you love a song, there is something there to tease out, be it on the critical or personal level; or both. 

Although it is the rare entry where the insights come fast and furious, finding the explanation behind this particular week’s selection was even less clairvoyant than usual, despite swinging back to the song on several occasions over the year.  It’s crunch time, however.  I’m near the end of this ‘Forever Young’ series; just a handful of songs remaining on the to-do list.  There’s simply no more wiggle room.  It’s either shit or get off the pot.

So, feeling the heat to get it all down, allow me to wade in slowly here.  The biggest factor that makes it difficult to offer up a distinct critique on the song Losing End is that there’s nothing all that revolutionary about the music or lyrics.  In fact, I don’t think the lyrics could be any simpler:  A straight-up love-lost song for the most part.  A start-up band would most likely be turned away at the record company door if they presented a demo of this sob story to the producers, which could have been the case here considering the fact that at that stage in the game, Neil Young’s collaboration with Crazy Horse was in its infancy.  This rough, hard-edged (and often out of tune) sound was a novel one to most ears, and said sound was still being tweaked.  Success was far from a foregone conclusion. 

But you never know what a band is going to bring to the table until they are allowed to actually do it. Intangibles can play out in positive or negative ways.  If the unit is cohesive, things will click in the studio in ways that are not always predictable.  These are risks that a good record company (in this case, Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco) has to take on occasion.  And because these risks were taken in this circumstance, we all get to hear how a great song (on a phenomenal album) can play out from something seemingly average at best.   Neil Young’s contributions all around are virtuoso, as are Danny Whitten’s solid backing-vocal support, and Billy Talbot impassioned up-and-down-the-fret bass playing (a big reason why this was one of the first songs I learned on bass guitar). 

All these efforts help to distinguish Losing End from the pack, but where the passion and virtuosity really kick in is at the bridge. There is a subtle shift in tempo here… in the upbeat direction.  Something about the mood changes with it.  Where at the onset of the song the listener braces himself for a soup-to-nuts onslaught of maudlin, at the bridge we hear the singer (Young) beginning to come across as someone working his way through the pain of loss, with the hope of being transformed for the better.   By the last set of verses, the lyrics remain tear-jerker, but there is a sense that the protagonist has been emboldened. 

This is pretty impressive, considering the brevity by which any musician can make a statement in a song.  There is typically room for just one emotion.  Most tunes try to capture that singular emotion and ride it out for all it’s worth.  Not here.  Neil Young and company take a chance on changing the mood midway, and they succeed mightily in this endeavor.

How do they pull this off?  I believe it comes down to a spontaneous high-pitched shout-out by Young just before the bridge (at the 2:45 mark: ).  The exclamation “Alright Wilson, pick it!” throws the somber mood completely out of synch.   Was this the intention?  ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, produced in 1969, is one of the first releases in Neil Young’s solo career, and so there was not much to base such an observation on at that stage.  With hindsight being 20/20 all these years later, I’d say there is now plenty to work with in this regard.  Yes, Young is trying to shake things up, and in the process we all get to hear a monumental band begin to gel for the long haul.  This singular utterance may on its own drive to the heart of why I enjoy Neil Young’s music so much.

 If there is anything I appreciate in performance its spontaneity, those moments when you know there was nothing premeditated about it.  Think Ringo Starr’s “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” (closing the door on Helter Skelter) or Pete Townshend blurting out “I saw ya!” at the end of Happy Jack (in response to Keith Moon trying to sneak his backing vocals onto the track at the last second).  There’s the laughing at the start of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, and David Crosby sobbing the lyrics “How many more!” at the end of Ohio (see Forever Young # 27: “It’s Enough To Make a Grown Man Cry”). 

And there’s the music itself, including the spontaneous extended jam on the Rolling Stones Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, most noted for Mick Taylor’s seminal lead guitar playing (see ‘Stepping Stone’ # 19, May 2012).  The Grateful Dead, the Who, Neil Young and the Allman Brothers are all known for their extended improvised jamming, and I’ve been fortunate enough to witness all these acts on numerous occasions.  These jams were the moments that made the events memorable (I plan to write more on this topic in the upcoming weeks).

This sentiment carries into my viewing of other art forms as well.  Marty Feldman was a master of the ad lib, including hilarious bits of his contribution to the dinner table scene in the movie ‘Young Frankenstein’ ( ).  Gene Wilder looks as if he’s barely holding back the laughter.  Andy Kaufman had his numerous moments as well, including disrupting several scripts on Saturday Night Live ( ).  I caught a few of them at the time of the original broadcast.  They gave meaning to the “Live” part in the title of the show.   

This love of spontaneity carries into my own life.  My favorite memories are of the unexpected; those incidents that shook things up.  Marty Feldman’s dinner table takes in ‘Young Frankenstein’ were probably so funny to me because they reminded me of all the laughter around my family dinner table growing up.  Familiar comments often lead to something completely out of left field.  Those new twists would then be used as fodder for weeks on end:  Inside jokes that were virtually impossible to describe to someone who was not there.  Same goes for the family vacations.  Then there are the event shakeups.  A missed train in Bordeaux, France while travelling with Bob Mainguy in ’86 leads to a change of plans, making for a fantastic few days on the French Riviera.  A missed airline connection in Denver this past year leads to an eye-opening drive over the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City (where I had to give a presentation that next morning).  Sometimes you just gotta take what is thrown at you and run with it.

Neil Young has been doing this his whole career.  Often it’s the big picture where you see it:  A reaction to war (‘Living With War’) or the death of close friends (‘Tonight’s the Night’) or in response to a tragic clash of cultures (Ohio).  But occasionally we get to see it in the wisp of a moment.  “Alright Wison, pick it!” is a perfect example:  A quirky and seemingly out-of-context exclamation that takes a middle-of-the-road song to unexpected heights.

 -          Pete

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Forever Young # 42: "A Heart Transplant"

Song:  Pardon My Heart
Album:  Zuma
Released:  November, 1975

‘The Basement Tapes Complete’ was released this week, a significant portion of which had spent almost 50 years under wraps.  I hope to write much more on this astoundingly prolific period in Bob Dylan’s career when I get around to ‘Dylanology’ in this blog (although with 138 songs in all, it would take 3 years to write on this album alone, which ain’t gonna happen).  But for those who need a little primer, I’ll oblige, seeing as this story sets the stage for this week’s entry.   

In 1967, when the Beatles and many other musicians of the times were going all psychedelic on us, Bob Dylan and The Band holed themselves up in a tacky cookie-cutter pink house in Upstate New York and focused on American roots-style music.  They set up the basement of this home as a makeshift recording studio (unheard of in those days) and played daily for months on end.  There was never any intention to release any of the material they were recording, but over time it began to dribble out in one bootleg form after another.  In 1975, admitting defeat to some degree, The Band asked Dylan if they could release something official from the time (and include some of their own newer material in the process) which turned out to be a compilation of 24 songs dubbed ‘The Basement Tapes’ (one of my all-time favorite albums). 

For all the bootleg material that leaked out after those ‘Big Pink’ sessions, it’s amazing how much this new comprehensive release has to offer in terms of unheard music.  And this coming on the heels of ‘Another Self Portrait’ (the most fascinating thing about that revisit is that the unreleased music on it is far superior to what Dylan originally released on ‘Self Portrait’ and ‘New Morning’ back in the early 70s!  Why would he do this?  I have a few theories which I’ll share at some time down the road). 

Although Neil Young is not quite as prolific (which is no slight, just a recognition that Dylan is in a league all his own), he has recorded his share of hidden, unreleased gems over time.  In the era surrounding the mid to late-70s, he would actually record 3 albums that would never see the light of day:  ‘Homegrown’, ‘Chrome Dreams’, and the original ‘Old Ways’.  Some of the songs from these albums, however, would eventually find themselves on other releases, including this week’s entry, Pardon My Heart ( ) which was slated for ‘Homegrown’ and ended up on ‘Zuma’.

So, what is it that drives some of the best artists to hold back from releasing a significant achievement, or assume pseudonyms (i.e. Jack Frost, Bernard Shakey) instead of taking full credit for something?  Last week I wrote about Neil Young following his musical muse at the expense of continuity with fellow musicians, and often at the most inopportune of times.  This shakeup style also happens with projects.  Some are simply aborted, often at the tail end, after all the toil and trouble.  You would think that the momentum alone would close the deal.  Obviously, this is not always the case with artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. 

How can they bring themselves to do this?  When I start something, I need to envision the end game as having a real possibility of success.  A bit of recognition is always nice too.  If I’m to write a proposal at work for example, I don’t want it to be pie in the sky.  Proposals can be time consuming.  If there is little to no demand up front, I’m not all that inclined to put in the effort.  But some folks in my office can do this.  Maybe there’s a little desperation there, I don’t know.  I just consider it a waste of time.

But perhaps this is the character trait that drives to the core of the most brilliant among us.  Success, or the avoidance of failure, appears not to be the motivation for these individuals.  It’s all about the pursuit; the principle element that fuels the most creative of minds.  This is the well that never runs dry.  Most of us are capable of tapping into this source, but few actually do it on a regular basis.  Often, we get sidetracked by other more alluring results.  Not so the genius types.  And for the rest of us, this can be a treat to witness.  We soak in the ride for all it’s worth.  It’s what brings us to the museums and the opera houses and the theatres and the nightclubs and the bookstores.  It’s what has us listening to a handful of classic albums over and over again.

Seven years ago, daughter Charlotte sketched a brilliant booklet of nature scenes for my birthday.  A considerable effort went into those sketches, but a few days later in a huff and a dare she started ripping them up (when I could see she was serious, I managed to put a halt to the carnage before losing a bulk of her works) .  At the time I was mortified, but now I look back on it as part of a process:  As anyone who has seen Charlotte’s paintings of late, she got quite a talent (if I do say so myself).  Thinking back, I believe there was a part of me that knew then that Charlotte had what it took; a creative mindset.  Her willingness to ‘shed’ herself of a snapshot in her lifetime portfolio spoke to this.  We see similar acts play out all around us in the street painter and the sandcastle molder and the ice sculptor, and the cairn builder (Pat!), and even the guitar smasher.  These statements make an impression.  There are lessons to be learned there.

Projects come and projects go.  Some are destined to be completed and others look just fine in the foundation phase. Some are good to throw out there to see if they stick and others are meant to box up in the basement or attic, perhaps to be unearthed at a later date.  Neil Young appears to have always realized this.  It’s all part of the creative process.  The pieces held close to the vest just as important - if not more so -than the pieces shared.

Pardon My Heart starts off haunting and ends up hopeful; a splendid acoustic number about a romantic relationship on a roller coaster ride.  Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot offer up the backing vocals of the singer’s conscience.  “You brought it all on” they repeat.  “No, no, no, I don’t believe this song” fights back Neil Young in the first set of lyrics.  Later the same conscience-based backing-vocal refrain plays out in a positive, reassuring light.  Young’s guitar playing weaves its magic in.  It’s a love story compacted into 3 minutes and 48 seconds.

But let us not forget that Pardon My Heart has that other story behind it; a transplant that once belonged to something else.  It’s part of the fun of digging deep into an artist’s gallery.  You gain an understanding of what was for a short time, what could have been in the long term, and what became of it all as a consequence.  It’s enough to stir those creative juices within you as a fan.

Perhaps that was the intention all along.

-          Pete

Monday, November 3, 2014

Forever Young # 41: "Staying the Musical Course"

Song:  Don’t Be Denied
Album:  Time Fades Away
Released:  October, 1973

As is the case with several of his contemporaries, including Pete Townshend, John Lennon, and Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young is often at his best when overtly personal in his lyrics.  Few songs in Young’s vast catalog match this week’s Forever Young entry in this manner, which touches on key growing-pain moments in his life to that point (1973), each driven home with the declaration of those three words in the title.  Don’t Be Denied  is not one of Neil Young’s more popular tunes, but the song resonates with the core fan base, as well as with Young himself, which was made evident in the 2009 ‘American Masters’ documentary ( ) of the same name.  This film hinges the rock legend’s biographic storyline around the music and lyrics of the previously little known Don’t be Denied ( ).  It works wonders.

Parental divorce, uprooting, school-yard bullying (the receiving end) and hope in music are all the focus of verses in Don’t Be Denied.  But the key stanza is the closing one, which drives to the heart of Neil Young’s professional ideology:

Well, all that glitters isn't gold
I know you've heard
that story told.
And I'm a pauper
in a naked disguise
A millionaire
through a business man's eyes.
Oh friend of mine
Don't be denied.

Decades later, Neil Young complimented these lyrics while being interviewed in that ‘American Masters’ documentary.  After Stephen Stills, in a separate interview,  laments Young frequently quitting the Buffalo Springfield during their all-too brief formation, including two days before a highly anticipated appearance on the Johnny Carson Show in the late 60s (which would have been the first time a rock band performed on the show), his former bandmates response was: “My first job is to follow the musical course. It’s always to the detriment of everything.  Relationships, projects, they get derailed”.   Neil Young has never been swayed from this position.

So, here lies the premise to this week’s entry:  Is this stance defendable?   My take is… most definitely!  Here is a man who sticks to his principles.  But of more qualitative importance, Neil Young’s principles are of a virtuous nature, at least his professional ones.  Most of us have strong principles, but often they are misguided.  Stubborn and ideologue can be others terms associated with having strong principles, and so that ‘Don’t Be Denied’ declaration can take on a multitude of meanings.  Mr. Young’s principle stance on following his musical muse, regardless of popularity (and most anything else for that matter), is what has this musician standing out from the crowd.

I see this approach as being akin to abstract - vs concrete - reasoning.  Concrete reasoning needs to see the end game; you go to college to be a nurse or a doctor or a lawyer for example.  Abstract reasoning on the other hand relies far more on faith:  You follow your path with little understanding of where it’s taking you in the hope that it will play out in some uniquely wonderful fashion.  It’s a ‘leaping in blind’ approach that does not always work.  But when it does, it can be just as rewarding, if not more so than the safer, surer path.

This philosophy has worked for me, and it all started with my parents.  Mom and Dad gave me the freedom to make up my own mind on any number of things.  That’s not to say they weren’t guiding me; they were (and continue to do so).  It’s simply that they gave me the elbow room to figure out the details.  Their approach to parenthood played out when I went to college as my choice in a major ended up being related to what I was fascinated by, not what I needed to find a career in.  The resulting history/geography degree lead to a new, aspiring field called GIS (virtually unknown of when I entered university), which lead to the USGS, which lead to a career I could not have dreamed of as being any better than it has been.

I suppose it’s not too farfetched to say that these parental philosophies eventually lead me to the music of Neil Young beyond the rudimentary entry point.   In fact, I may have just connected the dots.  Old friend Bob Bouvier insisted I would enjoy that first ever Neil Young concert that he brought me to back in 1986. My upbringing helped to prove him correct not just for that heavy Crazy Horse show, but for all the versatility in the Neil Young shows that followed; the blues music, the folk, the theatrical, the conceptual, the grunge…. the muse.  This was a long-term investment, a connection that that could only be made with an understanding that change, experimentation, and faith are often fraught with missteps.  However, in such circumstances, with every step backwards there are soon sure enough to be two steps forward; and what an adventure in the process.

Ok, back to those closing lyrics and following a musical course.  The biggest loser in such a charted course is the lure of success.  Neil Young saw that lure as a trap, even in his younger days when success could easily be redefined as responsibility or even survival.  In the short term, bandmates were let down, opportunity was lost.  It must have been difficult to take on the criticism that had to have come with his unorthodox and untimely decisions.  What is interesting, however, is that when you look at it in historical context, there were never any permanent bridges burned with ex band mates.  In every case, Neil Young was able to loop back to the past to reconnect, rekindle, and recreate.  But it was only when the time was right to do so.   No sooner.  

That’s pretty impressive, considering all the lasting musical relationships in Young’s career.  When you think of feuding and tension in rock music, there is John Lennon vs Paul McCartney, Levon Helm vs Robbie Robertson, Ray vs Dave Davies, John vs Tom Fogerty, and Roger Waters vs David Gilmour among others.  What you don’t think of is Neil Young vs any musician he has performed with, be he/she Stephen Stills, Nils Lofgren, Peggy Young, David Crosby, Richie Furay, Ben Keith, Robin Lane, Jack Nitzsche, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, Graham Nash, Bruce Palmer, Tim Drummond, Linda Ronstadt, Pearl Jam, Nicolette Larson, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, Danny Whitten… the list goes on.  In all these cases, reunion was always in the cards.  Bridges remained unburned.  That is a testament to Young’s musical principles; of putting art ahead of stature; in taking a chance on the path unknown.

‘Don’t Be Denied’.  Yeah, we’ve all been there.  We all have our stories of facing adversity head on.  It’s those moments when we realize what we’re made of.  And yet, it’s not just about whether or not you pulled something off.  It’s even more about whether you can look back at those conquered hurdles years later knowing in your heart of hearts that your decisions were the correct ones.   

Given Neil Young’s musical longevity and the respect he’s garnered in the process, I think it’s safe to say his approach works.  Better yet, I’d go so far as to say it’s the model for staying the course with ones principles. 
-          Pete