Neil Young: All My Changes Were There
EN ROUTE TO a record review, I stumbled over the fact that Neil Young has virtually scored, or at least composed significant passages for, the soundtrack to my life.
Records are like that, I suppose. Only the most deluded confuse artist with artifact; that said, it must be both a burden and a rush knowing millions out there consider you their friend. To grasp this one need merely consider the psychic devastation experienced by fans when Presley, Lennon and Cobain died.
In this world of diminishing returns, then, sometimes that big ol' twelve-inch hunk of black plastic (okay, okay; a four-and-three-quarter-inch chunk of shiny aluminum) is the only sure thing waiting for you at the end of the day. While I don't exactly plant my tired bones on the floor and pour out my troubles to my records, their conversations are reassuringly familiar.
What do they say? They can get precious and sentimental, as any good friend waxing nostalgic can. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which Neil recorded with Crazy Horse in 1969, recalls the events of one summer when I wanted desperately to impress my best buddy's female cousin, who was visiting our small southern town. Having a crush at age 14 was bad enough; giving her a name like "Cowgirl In The Sand" guaranteed she'd remain out of reach.
Or they can turn bizarrely cryptic--again, as pals enjoy a good taunt. 1973's Time Fades Away is scarred beyond repair from too many spins on my girlfriend's parents' ancient turntable (tracking force: five grams); what accounts for the pattern of white paint drips and the circular indentations on the sleeve? Perhaps one of her numerous art projects back then...
In the autumn of '78 I was trying to finish off college when I heard the news that terminal adolescent Who drummer Keith Moon had died. See Elvis/Lennon/Cobain notation above: a chunk of me died, too. Was it time to think about growing up? A few months later Rust Never Sleeps was released. In "Powderfinger" Neil's character said, "And I'd just turned 22/ I was wondering what to do." Close enough. I veered off the planned trajectory (law school) and into an uncertain world, publishing punk/new wave fanzines and, of course, living and breathing rock 'n' roll. Neil, of course, had also set his personal matters straight, boiling over with those famous sarcastic lines, "It's better to burn out/ Than to fade away." (Those of you presently experiencing discomfort at this reminiscence have Neil Young to thank.)
I'm looking at the album sleeves from the early '80s and they're oddly silent. Can't really blame Re-ac-tor, 1981: with that hideous red and black geometric design, he's an ugly bastard. Trans, who came into the world the next year as a document of Neil and his wife's struggle with their kid's cruel disability, seems totally numb. Only when I'm playing that elegiac acoustic version of "Transformer Man" from Neil's more recent Unplugged does Trans even stir. Lord knows what's on the mind of Everybody's Rockin'. In '83 he was the garish, pink-suited, rockabilly-fixated redneck cousin that the family had tried hard to overlook.
The '90s slowly yawned, as if the costume ball of the decade just ending was all part of an elaborate cosmic joke played on those of us who couldn't recognize one another, much less ourselves. I went dressed as a commission-hungry shoe salesman.
It's old hat among writers now to cite Freedom and Ragged Glory as Neil's return to form. The more accurate view is that he was finally settling in for the long haul. "Rockin' In The Free World," admittedly a terrific song, as terrific musically as "Satisfaction" or "All Along The Watchtower," tends to be cited as a personal manifesto. Sorry, no dice, as you know if you've logged the man's sense of irony. Consider, instead, the conclusion of "Eldorado," a colorful little Southwestern fable, in which a "great bullfighter" comes out into the ring: "He kills the bull/ And lives another day."
In short order: I visited Tucson for the first time in the fall of '90 and caught the Neil/Crazy Horse "Don't Spook The Horse Tour" the following spring. That tour's live document Weld offered a surging, epochal version of "Cortez The Killer" to play over and over in the car deck as reassurance that the sight of a new world was no mirage. That yeah-but-it's-dry heat sure tasted good when the wife, the cats and I washed up on the shores of Tucson in the summer of '92.
Harvest Moon, Unplugged, Sleeps With Angels and Mirror Ball are kinda leering at me now. The latter, especially, has a satisfied smirk on his sepia-toned mug. Maybe his life, like mine, is imperfect and full full of fits and stalls, but contains the kind of goofy self-assuredness one gets from knowing rock and roll on a first-name basis.
It's last year's Sleeps With Angels, though, that really gets under my skin. During "Change Your Mind" there's an airless moment when just snare and bass creep around like burglars on the back stairs. Young murmurs with a hint of unspecified dread, "You hear the sound/ You wait around and get the word/ You see the picture/ Changing everything you've heard." Right on cue the guitars crash down with finality: "Destroying you with this/ Must be the one you love/ Must be the one whose magic touch/ Can change your mind."
This extraordinary song not only restates Young's as-ever central lyrical theme (you need love to live), but works on another level as a sonic metaphor for (you guessed it) life. Not a bluesrock jam but a series of elliptical jazz extrapolations, it features Neil and Crazy Horse interacting through sheer metaphysical intuition. It's not surprising that they arrived at this point after a quarter-century together; what is unique is the sheer joy they seem to get from still doing it together. Then again, loyalty and intuition are Neil's trademarks.
And I guess those are lessons I've learned from Neil: when things conspire to cloud your mind, trust your instincts. Maybe I'll get to thank my friend for that one day.
The Music Menu:
(1) A Dreamer Of Pictures by David Downing (Bloomsbury, UK) is an easy-to-read history, up to '93, that offers loads of historical trivia and some well-reasoned analysis of the music (such as how Young tends to write/record in discernible cycles). Rock bios can be pretty stiff; this one's not.
(2) Speaking of which, writer Nick Kent has assembled a slew of essays and interviews in The Dark Stuff (Penguin, UK). A huge chapter on Young concludes with a quote from the transformer man himself: "In a sense, it's all about running away. I've been running all my life. Where I'm going... Who the fuck knows? But... the point is just to see how long you can keep going strong."
(3) The Neil Young Appreciation Society has a quarterly magazine called Broken Arrow. Write 'em at 2A Llynfi Street, Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, CF31 1SY, Wales. There's plenty of info, from concert reviews to insider interviews, plus regular coverage of bootlegs.
(4) Speaking of which, allow me to recommend to the copyright mavericks in the room: Rockin' With Angels, from Oct. 22, 1994 in Sedona, a good audience recording CD featuring Neil and the Horse doing most of Sleeps With Angels (20 minutes' worth of "Change Your Mind"); and Farmyard Connection, a disc that collects his Farm Aid 3 and 5 appearances, and more, with pristine sound quality no less.
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