Dreamin’ Man Live in ’92 by Neil Young
Dreamin’ Man Live in ’92
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
When Harvest Moon came out in 1992, interest in Neil Young was at an all time high. After spending the eighties woodshedding and trying on different personas, it came as a relief to many of his old fans to hear songs that sounded like ‘real’ Neil Young tunes.
Like Bob Dylan, Neil Young has always been a restless artist who has never shied away from running contrary to his audience’s expectations. Today, he is considered an icon who is all but untouchable, but time and fashion haven’t always been kind to Neil Young. Though it is now considered one of the essential albums in his canon, it’s important to remember that ‘Tonight’s the Night’ was reviled and castigated by journalists and fans the world over when it first came out in early 1975. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself throughout his career and reached a high point in the nineteen eighties.
When Young experimented with vocodors, synthesizers and electronic textures for 1982’s Trans his debut for Geffen Records, many people thought he was having a laugh and that it represented a blip in the road before returning to form. After all, he had followed ‘Tonight’s the Night’ only a few months later with ‘Zuma’, one of the most popular albums in his catalogue. But, instead, he followed up ‘Trans’ with ‘Everybody’s Rocking’ an homage to nineteen fifties rock and roll that left most of his listeners scratching their heads in dismay. Things got even more confusing as Young professed his admiration for Ronald Reagan’s vision of America and embraced country music aesthetics with 1985’s ‘Old Ways.’ It got truly weird after that as he continued to put out records like the synth laden ‘Landing on Water’ (1986) and the aimless guitar heavy meanderings of 1987’s ‘Life.’ Interest in Young’s music hit an all time low, so that even an inspired record like 1988’s R and B rave up, ‘This Notes for You’ didn’t receive nearly the level of attention it deserved.
With the passage of time, it’s more apparent that each of Neil Young’s albums from this period had some worthwhile moments, but the unpredictable nature of the music he recorded as well as his increasingly mercurial temperament, tried and tested the patience of even his most hardcore fans. Indeed, by the mid eighties he had baffled the general public to such a degree that he was all but forgotten or written off as a fading hippie joke. When he was subsequently dropped by Geffen records for producing deliberately ‘non-commercial’ records, many of his fellow recording artists – such as David Bowie – came out of the closet and expressed their admiration for Young’s bravery and uncompromising stance, but the general public had moved onto other artists and it seemed like Young was destined to become a marginal act.
Perversely, being freed from his contract with Geffen coincided with his decision to re-examine some of the benchmarks of his classic style and to return to making the kind of records that his fans loved and expected from him. So, when he released ‘Freedom’ in 1989, it was the first record in many years that had songs on it that were instantly recognizable as Neil Young tunes. Bookended by acoustic and electric versions of ‘Rocking in the Free World’, Young’s last release of the eighties was very reminiscent of 1979’s ‘Rust never sleeps’ with its two versions of ‘Hey, Hey, My, My’ and encouraged many lapsed fans back into the fold. With its gratifying mixture of acoustic ballads and expansive electric workouts, ‘Freedom’ was an instant critical and popular success. When ‘Ragged Glory’ came out the next year, it hit an immediate nerve and won Young a considerable legion of new fans that were drawn to his music due to his new mantle as ‘The Godfather of Grunge’ – a reference to the influence he had had on popular acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. At the time, Young joked about his return to the limelight by saying it was all just a matter of time and that ‘I’m so far out of fashion that now I’m on the cutting edge.” ‘Ragged Glory’ was the second album in a row that was both popular and critically well-received, but it was not the Neil record that a lot of his old fans were hoping and praying for.
For that, deliverance came in a year when he issued ‘Harvest Moon.’ For many of his old listeners, it was mellow Neil heaven and they couldn’t have been happier. It hearkened back in more than name to the ‘formula’ that made records like ‘After the Gold Rush’ and ‘Harvest’ such popular albums in the early seventies. But, instead of ignoring the new record as he was often wont to do at that time, Young got behind it, did interviews and talk shows, as well as embarking on a long solo tour.
When ‘Harvest Moon’ first came out, it hit me in entirely the wrong way. I had secretly loved following the train wreck that Neil Young’s career had become. I was one of the few people who loved all those weird eighties records simply because he was such an iconoclastic freak, and took ‘Harvest Moon’ as a kind of caving into pressure or extreme fatigue from being vilified for so long. I had never thought of Young as the kind of artist who would make a calculated money grab – as this record seemed when viewed with a certain cynicism. I was worried that it was the last ditch of a wayward, restless soul striving to be relevant. I felt he could make a record like Harvest Moon in his sleep.
I’ve continued to be a Neil Young fan since then and have found something to enjoy in almost all of his albums – though I’m convinced that ‘Fork in the Road’ was recorded simply to test my faith – and I haven’t looked back much and hadn’t heard ‘Harvest Moon’ in its entirety for several years before ‘Dreamin’ Man live in ‘92’ arrived in the mail last week.
In some ways, it’s been an unsettling return. Songs like ‘Such a Woman’, ‘Dreamin’ Man’ and ‘Natural Beauty’ that I found lacking when ‘Harvest Moon’ first came out, seem to have taken on a depth and majesty with the passage of time. Hearing Young on stage singing all of the songs from ‘Harvest Moon’ (presented in a different running order) has been a wonderful way to reassess the album. I’m not sure if the intervening years have made me soft in the head, or if – now that I have a family and growing kids of my own – I can relate to what he’s singing about more easily than I could before. The weariness of a man facing fifty with the twin responsibilities of marriage and children that songs like ‘From Hank to Hendrix’ and ‘Unknown Legend’ evoke resonate much more deeply with me now than they did in 1992. Taken as a group, the songs jostle with the distance between accepting the compromises of middle age and still trying to remain idealistic in the eye of life’s hurricane.
Presented in a solo acoustic format, without the yearning lap steel, sweet back up vocals and gentle percussions that decorated ‘Harvest Moon’, the songs assume more power on stage than they did in the studio. Beautifully played and sung with a rare passion, all of the versions of the ‘Harvest Moon’ songs are wonderful and sound as good as any Neil Young fan could hope for. Hell, even ‘Old King’, Young’s ditty about a departed family dog sounds elegiac and heartfelt on ‘Dreamin’ Man’. Though many of these songs were featured on 1993’s ‘Unplugged’ set, they don’t dig nearly as deeply or come anywhere close to the versions on offer here.
Released with little publicity and fanfare, ‘Dreamin’ Man’ is a perfect introduction to Neil Young’s music for those new to the artist. Or, if you’re a veteran, but your membership at the church of Neil has lapsed, there’s no better time than now to renew your faith and enjoy hearing the old man breathe new life into these classic tunes. ‘Dreamin’ Man’ is a gem and an unexpected treasure from one of popular music’s most enduring artists.