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

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