Book Review: Neil Young’s Greendale
“Sing a song for freedom
Sing a song for love
Sing a song for depressed angels falling from above”
I should mention from the outset that this book and, consequently, this post will have little to do with music. Sure, Neil Young’s name is on the cover, it’s based on one of his albums, and Neil was even somewhat involved with the book’s production, but that does not change the fact that the music that inspired it is absent and music in general is rarely mentioned within the pages. This is simply a work of fiction based on a concept by one of our best singer-songwriters. If that sounds like something that interests you, then read on; if not then search the archives for Neil Young and I’m sure you will come up with some great stuff.
This book is in the graphic novel format and published by Vertigo, the adult division of DC Comics (the book’s back cover even states “Suggested for mature readers”). There are certain individuals within the academic and literary communities who hate graphic novels and while I disagree with that opinion and feel that great literature (like great music) can literally come from anywhere, I must admit that it is a format I rarely read. This review is a little out of my element (kinda like the guy from the comics website reviewing the next Neil Young album) and I will obviously not have the same perspective as a long-time collector, but to me Joshua Dysart’s story and dialogue are exceptional, Chris Chiang’s artwork did a great job of capturing the spirit of the characters and especially the town, and that Dave Stewart’s subtle dark-toned coloring gave the book just the right touch. If you own every Spiderman comic ever printed you may have a different opinion, but it worked for me.
Neil Young’s Greendale is based on….well, Neil Young’s Greendale, a 2003 concept album. It’s the sort of album that you either love or hate. Personally, with it’s political themes, rambling song structures, and novel-like lyrics of small town life, it ranks among my top five Young albums. Lines such as “He heard the sound of the future on a scratchy old 78” get to me every time. But I could easily see somebody who disliked the album (or never listened to it) enjoying this book.
Memorable characters make up the populace of the small California town of Greendale. There’s Arius Green, the Alzheimer-ridden retired railroad worker who exits the plot with a final heroic stand. There’s his son Earl, a struggling farmer and artist and Cousin Jed, a lonesome drug runner who bears a strong resemblance to Young himself, as does the mysterious “Stranger.” And then there’s Sun Green herself, our heroine and seemingly the all-American girl next door. In his text, Dysart calls her “a bona fide piece of California sunshine.” At the beginning of the story she is a cheerleader at her high school and helps her dad on the farm. But she is already showing a keen interest in politics, especially as it relates to the war in Iraq. By the end of the story, well…..you already know about that if you’ve heard the album, but basically she become’s every liberal’s dream girl.
When it comes down to it, regardless of the format, this is the type of book that I love to read: amazing characterization, great dialogue, and an excellent story. At times it is quite emotional, such as Sun’s final goodbye to her grandfather. At other times, such as when Sun, dressed in paramilitary regalia chains herself to a statue and begins a one-girl protest, it is surprisingly inspiring. The whole story has a cinematic flair to it and while the politics certainly play into that, they are only part of the larger story. In other words, it’s closer to Billy Jack than Michael Moore.
Of course, Neil Young was not involved with the actual writing and illustrating of the book in any official capacity, so those who were do use their artistic licenses from time to time. For example, the tracks “Sun Green” and “Be the Rain” occur gradually throughout the book, whereas they were at the end of the album. We see little of Carmichael’s wife who was one of my favorite characters on the album. And, most importantly, they add in a few supernatural elements. At the end of the book, there are hints that this will be the first in a series and, while that likely means even less involvement from Neil Young and his music, I still believe that this is a very good thing. Despite the intended audience, young people make up most of the readership of graphic novels and in the age of Paris Hilton they could use a hero like Sun Green.
As for music fans, Greendale the album is definitely worth checking out. You may like it and you may not, but to me it represents the most complete portrait of Neil the storyteller and Neil the activist. As for the book, it ain’t bad either, even if you can’t listen to it in your car.
“It ain’t an honor to be on TV
And it ain’t a duty either
The only good thing about TV
is shows like Leave it To Beaver
Shows with love and affection like mama used to say
A little Mayberry livin’ can go a long way”