You've never heard my favorite Neil Young anecdote.
A decade or more ago, my wife was in an elevator at Saks Fifth Avenue when two men stepped in – and, somewhat implausibly, one of them was Neil Young. Now, she and I frequently disagree about music, but in the Venn Diagram of our tastes, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" sits squarely in the middle of the intersection. So, when he turned toward her and asked, "do you have any idea where I could get a beret?," she didn't confuse him with Johnny Hallyday. Rather, she looked up at the posted guide, and coolly replied "I'd guess the sixth floor, for Men's Accessories and Furnishings – but are you sure that's a good idea?" The rock icon just looked at her. Then they all rode to the sixth floor in silence, where he got out.
Is there anyone more maddening than Neil Young? I mean, really. A beret? Or, have you heard his latest album, 2012's well-reviewed "Psychedelic Pill?" It opens with "Drifting Back," a 27 minute song that includes the lyrics "I used to dig Picasso / I used to dig Picasso / Hey now now, hey now now / I used to dig Picasso." Oh, Neil. Are you so sure those lyrics are a good idea?
And yet. I have a hard time thinking of any singer-songwriter for whom I have more respect and appreciation than Neil Young. The words for "Sugar Mountain" are pretty silly too, and yet they can still make me teary with appreciation. We wouldn't have Built to Spill, or Pearl Jam, or Wilco, or My Morning Jacket, or some alarming percentage of my entire iTunes library, without him. So when Young came to New York this week for a four night solo run at Carnegie Hall, it was off to StubHub for some pricey balcony tickets.
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As befits a solo show, the stage was pretty spare: a chair downstage center surrounded by about a dozen guitars; an upright honky-tonk piano off to stage right, a concert grand piano down left, and a pump organ on a raised platform, upstage center. Young came out from a side door, and the audience began to applaud earnestly, loudly, respectfully.
Huh. Well, it was complicated. This is a guy who has spent his life around crunching guitars, as have we all. But then, there we were in a high temple of music, with reports of a purely acoustic set list that would date to his golden, early-1970s period. And, the fact is, he IS 68 years old. Was this a rock concert, or a trip to a museum?
In fact, Neil Young has made a career of not worrying too much about what we think, beret or otherwise. His opening song, about an aging relationship that might not make it, contains the observation "The same thing that makes you live / Can kill you in the end." Think about most of the musicians you remember from the 1960s and 1970s: dead from drugs, or dead from the monotony of playing the same sound over and over again. There are certainly other musicians who are known for having reinvented themselves (e.g., David Bowie, Madonna, even Bob Dylan or U2), changing their sound to fit the times. But nobody ever uses the "R-word" with Neil Young, whether he is doing some shoegazey thing with Daniel Lanois ("Le Noise"), grunge ("Mirror Ball"), or veering back to pretty acoustic guitar melodies. He's doing this for himself, at least as much as this note is for you.
With each song, he would pick up a guitar and tell a story about it: "this one was given to me by Steven Stills. As you can see, it has been banged up a bit." And then he would launch into a song like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," with a wavering tenor that has become more natural with age. Placed together as a retrospective, these are stories of sadness and ambivalence which reflect his long strange trip, and our own. "What am I doing here?," he sings repeatedly in "Love In Mind." And you may ask yourself; how did we all get so old? After ten songs, three of which were from 1972's "Harvest," the lights came up, and he walked off stage for an intermission.
The second half of the show was a bit darker, and it contained more of the evening's surprises. Young started with the underrated "Goin' Back," which reminds us that "there's nowhere to stay" even if we could go home again. He shifted to "A Man Needs A Maid," a weird song made even weirder by the introduction of a very artificial-sounding synthesizer, placed atop the grand piano in lieu of the original orchestra. Then a pair of protest songs, reminding us how the world has changed, and how it hasn't. (I looked around at the heads nodding along during "Southern Man," and I didn't see a single African-American in the audience. Not a one.)
A pair of songs about addiction -- a cover of "Needle of Death," by the late Scottish folksinger Bert Jansch, followed by Young's own "The Needle and the Damage Done" – also took on new meaning with age. I've often wondered what it would be like to 'have to' sing such personal songs over and over again. Perhaps the answer is that songs change their meaning: become less personal, grief transmuted into sadness, and then history, and then wisdom.
My favorite was probably the dirge-like "Mr. Soul," which I didn't see coming: a blues harmonica intro that sent shivers down my back, and then the groaning of the pump organ. Compare this to 21-year-old Neil in buckskin fringe on the Hollywood Palace tv show – or to ourselves, when we first heard this music: same song, same singer, worlds apart.
Set List (Neil Young: Solo Show at Carnegie Hall, 7 Jan 2014):
 From "Harvest Moon," 1992
 From "Last Time Around" (Buffalo Springfield), 1968
 From "After The Gold Rush," 1970
 From "Time Fades Away," 1973 (released on vinyl only)
 From "Tonight's The Night," 1975
 From "Harvest," 1972
 From "Freedom," 1989
 From "Comes A Time," 1978
 From "Decade," 1977
 From "Buffalo Springfield Again" (Buffalo Springfield), 1967
 From "Buffalo Springfield" (Buffalo Springfield), 1966
 From "Long May You Run" (The Stills-Young Band), 1976