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

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