When Johnny and I first moved into our house, our friend, bassist Rick DeVol, and his wife brought us a house warming gift. It was a tiny Russian Sage plant with lace foliage and delicate purple flowers upon pale stalks. Rick told us that Russian Sage would do well here. It was the first plant in our garden.
A few months ago I read a glowing review of Neil Young’s new album “Americana.” A friend, musician Melody Walker, considered this of the genre: is Americana a Canadian invention?
In five years we’ve planted many, many plants in the garden. Yet, the Russian Sage was always the star of the show. That is, until this year. Where she used to get bright sunshine, the curly willow’s twisting canopy now reigns. Where she used to grow tall, the sprawling red reach of the nine bark now covers. The Russian Sage needed to be moved.
Exclaim! Magazine, Canada’s national indie rag, gutted Neil Young’s newest record, “Americana.” The reviewer said something to the effect of (and I’m paraphrasing here) in many cases, Young’s treatment of the songs is just plain wrong. It went on, for the most part, the record sounds like a bunch of pros sitting around blowing an afternoon.
Plants die. Many times they die as the result of transplanting. See, no matter how quickly, smoothly, and lovingly you transplant a plant, sometimes they die. It just happens. Of course, when you’re transplanting little starts from the nursery, meh, you win some you lose some. But when you are transplanting a well-established, beautiful Russian Sage that was the first plant you ever planted in the first home you ever owned from one of your lovely musician friends, well, it’s a bit of a bigger deal. I turned the new earth for days prior to the event, waiting for just the right time. I watered religiously, prepping the soil for the gift that it was to receive. Early one morning, it was nice and cool, so I dug the new hole. I readied the hose. I walked to the Russian Sage. I took a breath. I sunk my spade.
At one of our song-circle get-togethers, NewSong finalist (and No Depression darling) Jeffrey Martin told one of our friends, W, that he had been listening to Neil Young and thought that W should learn “One of These Days.” W said no. He said that he listened to the song and didn’t care for it. As a matter of fact, W went on, he hasn’t cared much for Neil since 1972. Now granted, I haven’t been around long enough to have followed Neil’s career as it was unfolding but I love what I am familiar with. I jumped in: “that is a great song! What don’t you like about it?”
“I don’t know,” W replied, “I just can’t connect with him anymore.”
I hit a root and I heard it snap. Tension release. I placed the shovel further from the sage and tried it again. Again, tension release. I knew the plant was well established but I didn’t know how deep the roots. I tried again, and again, and every damn time I hit a root. Tension release. I stopped. I thought about what I was doing. Does she really need to move? I mean, she would be a bit scraggly and unhappy if she stayed, but she wouldn’t be dead. Then again, she would eventually die from unhappiness if I didn’t move her. I backed up. I looked at my girl. Even if she had one good root, she could make it. I buried the shovel in the earth. Just release.
“Come on,” Jeffrey said. He wouldn’t let go. “It’s Neil Young, man. It’s Neil fuckin Young. Are you trying to say that Neil Young hasn’t put out anything good since 1972?”
“I don’t know if he has or hasn’t. I just haven’t cared for much of it since then.”
Someone else chimed in: “He’s an artist. That’s what’s great about him. He doesn’t do something because it’s successful, he does something because he wants to hear it.”
“He can afford to do that,” said Jeffrey. All the songwriters laughed and drank.
“True. But what happened with CSNY when they got successful? Neil bailed. He fired Crazy Horse. He hired Crazy Horse. He fired em again! He does what he wants. That’s the beauty. He takes risks in the name of integrity and creativity.”
“Ok.” Said W, “but I still don’t like his newer shit.”
I plunked the old girl down in her new home. I tucked her in. I watered her. I said a few encouraging words. And then I waited.
We went around the circle once. Everyone played their new song. A few late-comers arrived, including Dee.
“Hey, you know what song that sounds like?” Jeffrey asked W after W finished playing a his tune. “this Neil Young song called ‘One of These Days’. You should think about covering it.”
“Neil Young?” said Dee as she sat down, “I just heard a new song of his on the radio. It was terrible! I thought, dude, you can do better than that.” W cheered. Dee went on: “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I used to worship at the alter of ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ but seriously. I just can’t get into him anymore.”
I touched a lacy leaf. It fell into my hand. I worked it into a powder between my fingers and let it sift to the ground. The flowers were dust grey. I kept watering.
The day after song circle, I bought “Americana.” Susanna. Susanna. Susanna. A week ago I got out my banjo.
I watered today and saw a tiny green lace sprig growing beneath the pale stalks.
Susanna. Susanna. Susanna. I taught my students the Stephen Foster version years ago. I’m gonna teach em this new version now.
Her three-foot tall stalks are hollow and silty. The oldest part of the Russian Sage will be cut down soon. I figure that if we just worry about the roots, the new stuff will grow. Sometimes if you just nurture the roots, even if they are damaged, and even if they are moved, and even if you have to get rid of some of the old stuff, and even if you’re not sure it’s a good idea, and even if a part of it dies, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it for the sake of the new stuff. You’ve got to risk it all for that precious new stuff. The sprigs. The next generation.
But what then do we do with the old stuff?
I’m gonna let those kids decide for themselves which version they like better. I bet that some will like the new one and some will like the old one and some won’t like either so they will make up their own. But it won’t really matter who likes what cause we’re gonna sing em all. I’m gonna play the banjo. And just like Neil Young, everyone will be burning sage.