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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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mrc68TbyywU ).  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’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS1HIThPcz8 ).  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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN5vhvIAqY8 ).  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

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