Saturday, December 27, 2014

Forever Young # 48: "Just About Out of Superlatives"

Song:  Cortez the Killer
Album:  Zuma
Released:  August, 1975

Alas, I’ve reached the end of the road in this ‘Forever Young’ year, 2014, which included 48 blog entries centered on the music of Neil Young.   Along with the 2 ‘Gem Music Video of the Week’ (GMVW) entries from ~ six years ago (GMVW # 32, August, 2008 and GMVW # 67, April, 2009), that’s an even 50, which is the same as what I did for the Rolling Stones in 2012 (the ‘Stepping Stones’).  It’s been fun.  It’s been real.  But there is a lot of other music out there, much of which has been set aside for an entire calendar year (a pretty substantial chunk of time to dedicate to one artist if you think about it).  And so it is time to move on.

I have dug deep into the music of Neil Young this year, which was the intention from the get-go.  This musician is one of a handful who I have determined to be on my top shelf, and therefore deserving of a broader connection in these weekly musings than my earlier writings.  The original GMVW series (100 in all) focused on a different musician practically every week.  Those entries were centered on the linked videos (hence the title of the series) - much of which was concert footage, some MTV-like - and the thoughts those videos stirred up in me.  The intent with ‘Stepping Stones’ and ‘Forever Young’ (and hopefully future series centered on the Who, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles) is to flesh out my broader interest in these musicians through all of their albums, allowing me to build new thoughts, old memories and deeper insights upon.  I hope that has come across in the writing. 

So, what did I learn from this ‘Forever Young’ year?  Well, I’m more convinced than ever that Neil Young marches to the beat of his own drum more than any other musician I enjoy listening to.  This has led to an amazing diversity of sound.  For example, other than the vocals, it can be difficult to connect the guy who penned Speakin’ Out with the guy who penned Walks Like a Giant or Transformer Man or People on the Street or Powderfinger or the entirety of ‘Greendale’.  Yes, this singer/songwriter is all over the map.  I don’t believe he has ever been swayed by the critics or his fans.  In many respects, this is what defines an artist.  Rock and Roll needed this attitude to help it climb to the pinnacle of respectability:  It needed Neil Young even more than Young needed it.

In 1986, Rolling Stone Magazine aired a 20th anniversary documentary on prime time television.  It was an excellent program with a number of high profile musicians interviewed for it.  This was the heart of the 80s and many of the interviewees, including Mick Jagger and David Bowie had the period-piece fluffed up hairdos.  Neil Young on the other hand (as well as Jerry Garcia) made no fashion statement.  He didn’t even attempt to look presentable, and was actually slouched his whole interview, with a ragged, shaggy look about him.  But his comments were clear, concise and riveting.  I was drawn in.  I’m sure a number of future grunge-band leaders were too.

Neil Young is a very personal writer, but I believe this is the case because he feels his life relates to all of us and that it’s his duty to make as strong of a connection as he can with the gifts he has been given.  The ‘ditch trilogy’ of the early 70s (‘Time Fades Away’, ‘On the Beach’, and ‘Tonight’s the Night’) alone bears this out.  There is dissolution and despair on the music of these albums that is palpable.  But somehow, it’s all reassuring because it’s all so human.  This had me coming back for more to that period throughout the year despite the downcast mood and subject matter.  The fact that Neil Young stuck with this mood (or was stuck with it) for a good half decade is impressive; he lay prone on that psychiatrist couch until there was nothing left to say.  He faced his (and his 60’s contemporaries) demons head on, so that by the time ‘Zuma’ was released, there was a natural feeling of uplift.  Any premature attempt to do this would have likely sounded contrived.   Thankfully, we will never know that sound.

Neil Young has done a lot of great work with a lot of great musicians, but I believe it’s his band Crazy Horse that has emboldened him most.  Perhaps it’s because 2014 was the Chinese Year of the Horse, but I found myself turning to the Crazy Horse albums when I needed a bit of creative spark in my writing from time to time.  That simple, driving, relentless beat of this faithful band can be hypnotizing.  I’ve had the opportunity to see it live on a handful of occasions (most recently, 2013) and this year I finally dedicated time to listen to their deeper cuts.  I was not disappointed.  Heck, T-Bone was the centerpiece to one of my ‘Forever Young’ blog entries.  That alone should be testament enough to my admiration.

A few songs in Young’s catalog hit me like a ton of bricks this year.  There was Lookout Joe off of ‘Tonight’s the Night’, and Truth Be Known off of ‘Mirror Ball’ and Love and War off ‘Le Noise’ and the title track off ‘Time Fades Away’ and Barstool Blues off ‘Zuma’.  These songs stared out at me in the past, but they entered another level of my consciousness this time around.  I got the same boost with a number of Rolling Stones songs several years ago.  It’s a bonus to this intense process I suppose.  These gems now stand hand in hand with other Neil Young songs that were already masterpieces to me, including Ordinary People, Harvest, Walks Like a Giant, Long May You Run, Powderfinger, Someday, Wrecking Ball, Horseshoe Man, Razor Love and Change Your Mind.  When you feel a song to the degree that I have felt these songs, you know there is something special there.  For that feeling alone, which hit me blindside on these handfuls of occasions, I believe this process was worthwhile.

Where Neil Young seems to take his biggest risks are in his experiments with sound.  'Trans', 'Le Noise', 'A Letter Home' and ‘Landing on Water’ are all pivotal albums in this regard.  I tried explaining what I heard in this music, but occasionally it got difficult.  The echoing sounds of 'Le Noise' in particular brought me somewhere I could not put my finger on despite repeated listening.  I kept on thinking of Howard Blake’s Walking in the Air (from The Snowman), but the feelings I get from that are just as fascinatingly mysterious.  Several times I felt close to interpreting the feeling, but then it would wisp away in a flash.  As Iris Dement once sang, sometimes you just got to let the mystery be.  Most of the time however, I think I got what I was looking for in word. 

I found this year a bit more challenging than when I wrote about the Rolling Stones.  When I wrote about the Stones, I had a chance to bounce around some, seeing as my interest is almost equally divided among its members, present and past.  For the most part, Neil Young is known as a solo artist, despite the fact that he has accompaniment on most of his songs, and so topics and themes took a bit more effort as the entries mounted.  Perhaps I should have stopped at 30, although I believe I had a pretty good stretch there near the end that could have been missed otherwise.  Anyhow, this will also be a challenge for Bob Dylan, but that’s a subject for another time.

Neil Young has done an amazing job of avoiding hubris, which has brought down many in his field.  This is the key reason for his longevity.  Young was 34 when he toured ‘Rust Never Sleeps’.  In that footage, he looks as if he is 24.  He’s svelte and wiry.  By that time, many of his generation were looking their age and then some.  Neil Young is no angel and has consumed his fair share of substances.  But everyone who looks younger than their years has some secret.  For Young, it’s his ability to sidestep pride.  As is the case with Leonard Cohen, who just released a fantastic album at the age of 80, Neil Young could be producing quality for many years to come for this very reason. 

A general rule of mine with these blog writings has been to stay on the positive side of the ledger, but with Neil Young and his passion for singing about hot ticket items like contrived wars and global warming and racism and inequity, there was no avoiding my dipping into these issues.  It was somewhat easy to do, since I sympathize with most of Young’s protestations, but it still broke me out of the mold.  But like I said to my Mom a month or so ago, you can’t ignore what’s gnawing at you.  It’s got to come out.  So I wrote on these topics here and there.  Considering the central figure, it would have been a sham not to have.

A few potential entries will be left on the vine.  I flirted with songs like Stringman and Touch the Night and My Boy and Hitchhiker and Philadelphia and The Loner, but nothing beyond a few sentences ever materialized out of these.  They are all magnificent songs, as are so many others in Neil Young’s catalog that I had to pass on.  However, I believe the 50 songs chosen represent the broad swath of what this musician brings to the table. 

I’d like to thank everyone for their support, particularly my wife Nancy and my brother Fred.  Laying ones thoughts out on the line can on occasion feel as if you are out on a limb, so the support is much appreciated.  I’d also like to thank my good friend Jeff Strause, who gives me insights to the times that preceded my own formative years (late 60s and early 70s) as well as to what is happening now (I don’t  know of anyone that comes close to having attended the number of shows Jeff has in his lifetime).   And also Chris Brady, who sent me some great live Neil Young music, which definitely helped to stimulate ideas throughout the year. 

And finally, I’d like to make another nod to Bob Bouvier, who opened the door to my deeper interest and insights into Neil Young’s music, and to whom this ‘Forever Young’ series is dedicated to.  Cortez the Killer is chosen as the final entry with Bouv in mind ( )   .  Back in 1986, when I attended my first Crazy Horse show with Bob, it was this song that captivated us the most.  The self-dubbed “3rd best Garage Band in the World”, were immersed in piped-in ‘fog’, and Young came “dancing” out of it.  One could almost picture Cortez making his way on to North American soil for the first time, Montezuma awaiting, not yet realizing the implications.  Young blends history, myth and love into this song (“and I know she’s living there, and she loves me to this day”).   This can be said for many other songs in his catalog, (i.e. Southern Man, a story about lynching, which includes “Lily Belle, your hair is golden brown”).  It’s never simple with Neil Young.   There are always multiple levels and numerous possible entry points. 

I’ll close with the ending set of lyrics in Thrasher:

But me I'm not stopping there,
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line in the field of time
When the thrashers comes, I'll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I'll know the time has come
To give what's mine.

Neil Young has always set the bar high for himself, which comes through in these lyrics.  I hope that I followed his lead this year with these ‘Forever Young’ blog entries.

-          Pete

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