Neil Young: The Fugitive
When entering the studio to record his first solo album, Neil Young had the world at his feet. Canadian from Toronto, born on November 12th 1945, he arrived in California (illegally: he obtained the green card only in 1970) to join the great era of Utopia and Rock in 1966 with his friend and bassist Bruce Palmer. Within only a few short months he left an indelible mark in music.
Young’s unique talent as a composer became evident from the start with Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin were the other members) along with a natural and prolific songwriting style and a feeling perfectly in tune with the spirit of the times, pretending antimilitarist hymns and visionary acid trips from the hippies of rock.
Despite the help of Jack Nitzche (who also produced Buffalo Springfield), David Briggs and Ry Cooder, Young’s debut album sounds a little messy. Anyways, the uncertain progression of Neil Young (1968) guarantees some highlights: the long wheeze of The Last Trip To Tulsa (a road-movie trip that anticipates the free-form style Hollywood adapted in the following decade) and the booming manifesto of The Loner. These two songs foreshadow the extremes the artist’s poetry will be revolving around: the vocation for burning and lopsided rides along with an incredible mastery in melodic immediacy.
Just a year later, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere caught almost everyone off guard: after recruiting The Rockets, Young embarks on a research for an electric groove based on the glitzy and minimalist repetition of chords and on the hypnotic magnetism of guitar solos. For the occasion The Rockets become Crazy Horse and, even if the band was formed by musicians who were totally unknown at the time (Danny Whitten on guitar, Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums later joined by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro in ’75), they were Neil’s most essential and efficient backing-band ever and they also released many solo albums.
After joining the super-group starring Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield), David Crosby (Byrds) and Graham Nash (Hollies) (a sort of holy trinity of the West Coast folk-rock), Neil Young brings some genuine bluntness and an iconographic western-movie touch on Déjà Vu (’70) and the following After The Gold Rush (’70) seems to rise from these ashes.
Even if in Neil’s own words CSN always represented his own Beatles and Crazy Horse his own Rolling Stones, After The Gold Rush and Harvest (’72) (though still influenced by CSN’s harmony vocals and taste in polishing arrangements) sound like folk-rock frescos where the sensations of pastoral purity, sweet nostalgia and tenderness evoke an impending tragedy: The Needle And The Damage Done clearly tells about Danny Whitten’s highway to hell because of his heroin addiction.
But despite these gloomy and sad considerations Young had to go on, he gave instructions to Stray Gators, a group of country session men that performed with him on many occasions, and he shot a movie under the moniker “Bernard Shakey” (one of the many pseudonyms he will use when working on parallel projects to “hide” his identity like “Phil Perspective”, “Joe Yankee”, “Clyde Coil” or “Joe Canuck”) entitled Journey Through The Past (’73): it’s a mess, as much funny as meaningless, built around a collection of statements about ecology, political slogans, extracts from live performances belonging to previous experiences, biographic cues and mysterious frames of cavaliers running about on a beach in what could be interpreted as a reference to Klu-Klux-Klan, but the author talks about a “parody of Lawrence of Arabia” (!!!).
And then, suddenly, a call from Los Angeles: it’s November 18th, 1972 and there’s a police detective on the phone and he’s investigating to determine the exact circumstances of Danny Whitten’s death. Young stares into space: Danny’s dead? But Young knows about it. He knows that he deliberately avoided to focus on such a possibility and cannot hide from himself that he knew that sooner or later a phone call like that one would have come knocking on his door.
Interviewed by Cameron Crowe, Young described the incident to Rolling Stone: ”[We] were rehearsing with him and he just couldn’t cut it. He couldn’t remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to L.A. ‘It’s not happening, man. You’re not together enough.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?’ And he split. That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he’d OD’d. That blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and … insecure.”
A few months later Bruce Barry (a roadie who worked for everyone of the four CSNY) also passed away due to an overdose. Here we are. That’s the point when Neil Young fades away and Shackey steps up. A rougher and drawled pronunciation of “shaky”, just like the difference between “whiskey” and “whisky”: the first one is American–Irish slang to drink like a shot while the second is correct and more refined in the blend. There couldn’t have been a better moniker for Neil Young. Diabetic since he was a child, affected by polio when he was 6 (that’s why he still shakes on the left side of his body) and then shortly afterwards by epilepsy. This one of a kind couldn’t help but have an oblique point of view on things.
He always frames reality into elusive surroundings, and through this process Young finds his own vision. Wonderful songs like Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, Expecting To Fly, On The Way Home, Ohio or Southern Man are portrayed with great precision and are clearly on focus, they are folkie epics sometimes crossed by dust bowls from the Old West, they are sketches on memoirs, high pitched protest sermons, radiographies of a soul that is both conservative and reactionary. Instead, from now on, Neil Young becomes incomprehensible. He becomes like a Ralph Waldo Emerson mixed with Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman escaping from the surrounding reality: wounded, humiliated, and offended.
He escapes because the only way to feel safe, the only way to rescue a mind that has just “blown away” is to go on an infinite trip in quest of an Eden where friends are still alive, bodies have not been already corroded by illness and men have not turned all creation in a trash can. The point, obviously, is not the (abstract and elusive) destination but the idea of the trip itself. Movement is life. Time is an illusion.
There’s nothing else to do but abandon hopes and the only way Young could do it was writing three unforgettable albums – Time Fades Away (’73), On The Beach (’74), Tonight’s The Night (’75) – known collectively as the “Ditch Trilogy” that sound gloomy like sobbing dispatches coming from an apocalypse that has already taken place: the apocalypse of the flesh, the apocalypse of fondness. The terminally ill melancholy of Don’t Be Denied, Ambulance Blues, See The Sky About To Rain and Tired Eyes wrap the desperate vanishing of dreams and illusions belonging not only to the youth of the artist, but also to an entire era.
“Thirteen junkies / too weak to work / One sells diamonds, / for what they’re worth / Down on pain street
/ disappointment lurks. / Son, don’t be home too late / Try to get back by eight, eight / Son, don’t wait / till the break of day / ‘Cause you know / how time fades away. / Time fades away / You know how time fades away.”;
and as long as time fades away maybe it’s worth killing it, throwing it off the track with the hard bark of the rock ballads of Zuma (’75), the heartland-rock of American Stars’n’Bars (’77), the alienated folk-rock of Hawks & Doves (’80) and the metallic extracts and sound effects of Re-Ac-Tor (’81).
Otherwise – why not – with the country-folk comeback of Comes A Time (’78), where Young covers the idol of his youth, the same Ian Tyson who wrote Four Strong Winds. Rust Never Sleeps (’79) accepts the role of “Godfather of punk” bringing the bucolic folk narration in the eye of a never-seen-before electric hurricane. The mistreated and objectively indefensible album released during the Geffen period are a part of the same cosmic mosaic of jokes that pervades everyone’s life. The same cruel script that wants Young to endorse Ronald Reagan during the ‘80s just to reappear almost 20 years later to ask for the impeachment of president George W. Bush (it happens in the mess of the raw Living With War [’06]).
The forerunner of grunge? Yes? The nervy guy who played rockabilly and rhytm’n’blues just the minute before washes away the entire Seattle scene that would have exploded soon. And he does it with the iconoclast fury of an EP (“terrible” in the words of Graham Nash) entitled Eldorado (’89), released only in Japan and Germany and only 30 minutes long.
It’s true, ladies and gentlemen, this time Neil can perform this role, spanning (as if it were the easiest thing in the world) from the corrosive folk-rockin’ of Freedom (’89) to the blue-collar punk of Ragged Glory (’91), up to the furious live Weld (’91) and his twin Arc (30 minutes of feedback, pirouettes and guitar scratches that could pale into insignificance even Sonic Youth). And he can also wave goodbye on the edge of a psychic collapse to the angels who watch over Kurt Cobain (Sleeps With Angels [‘94]) or get lost in a ghostly meditation on the West following Jim Jarmush’s camera riding on a postmodern elegy (Dead Man soundtrack [‘96]).
History repeats, they say: therefore there’s nothing wrong in making up for the lost time searching through old memoirs and nostalgia for the Prairie Wind (’05), or just to sweeten the image of the long gone days spent along with Buffalo Springfield. Or just to say a sentimental prayer that, behind a thin coat of courteous complicity between two old lovers (“From Hank to Hendrix / I’ll walk these streets with you / Here I am with this old guitar / Doin’ what I do / I always expected / That you would see me through / I never believed in much / But I believed in you / I found myself singin’ / Like a long-lost friend / The same thing that makes you live / Can kill you in the end”) hides a terrible remark on his enduring sense of inadequacy in a universe stuck with hate and abuses.
Neil Young found himself wearing many different masks, slipping out of the image, surrendering to shakey photos. Never definitive. He knows there’s no lost Heaven to aspire to, no order to reconstruct together , no flame to keep burning a part from the one that struggles for existence. Maybe one can protect himself respecting the environment, avoiding to take part to a war for no reason. Releasing great concerts and then including them again in a (disappointing) box the fans were dreaming about for a long time.
The only important thing is that the frame – the whole picture – remains out of focus. Roland Barthes said that some photos hold a starting point for research or for a voyage to the past. Besides, some American Indian tribes (one of Neil’s fixations) considered the art photography on the same level as a trick of the devil, capable of stealing the soul of the portrayed person.
If it’s impossible to deny that Fork In The Road (’09) is a useless and botched work, it’s certain that Neil Young is giving 100%. The distraught man looking from the front cover – Young himself – understood that it’s no more necessary to chose between “burn out” or “fade away.” It’s just enough to keep on moving. And Shakey’s soul is, once again, safe.
1966, Buffalo Springfield (Atco) 8
1967, Buffalo Springfield Again (Atco) 8.5
1968, Last Time Around (Atco) 7.5
1973, Buffalo Springfield [gh] (Atco) 8.5
2001, Buffalo Springfield [box-set] (Rhino) 8.5
CROSBY, STILLS & NASH (& YOUNG)
1969, Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic) 8
1970, Déjà Vu (Atlantic) 8
1971, 4-Way Street [live] (Atlantic) 8.5
1974, So Far (Atlantic) 8
1977, CSN (Atlantic) 7
1980, Replay [gh+outtakes] (Atlantic) 7
1982, Daylight Again (Atlantic) 6
1983, Allies [live] (Atlantic) 6.5
1988, American Dream (Atlantic) 5
1990, Live It Up (Atlantic) 4
1991, CSN [box-set] (Atlantic) 9
1994, After The Storm (Atlantic) 4
1999, Looking Forward (Reprise) 6.5
2008, Déjà Vu Live [live] (Reprise) 6
2009, Demos [outtakes] (Rhino) 6.5
THE STILLS-YOUNG BAND
1976, Long May You Run (Reprise) 7
1968, Neil Young (Reprise) 7
1969, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [w/ Crazy Horse](Reprise) 10
1970, After The Gold Rush (Reprise) 8.5
1972, Harvest [w/ Stray Gators](Reprise) 7.5
1972, Journey Through The Past [w/ Stray Gators, soundtrack] (Reprise) 7.5
1973, Time Fades Away [w/ Stray Gators, live] (Reprise) 9
1974, On The Beach (Reprise) 9.5
1975, Tonight’s The Night (Reprise) 9
1975, Zuma [w/ Crazy Horse](Reprise) 9.5
1977, American Stars’n’Bars (Warner Bros) 8
1977, Decade [gh+outtakes] (Reprise) 8.5
1978, Comes A Time (Reprise) 7
1979, Rust Never Sleeps [w/ Crazy Horse](Reprise) 10
1979, Live Rust [w/ Crazy Horse, live] (Reprise) 9
1980, Hawks & Doves (Reprise) 7.5
1981, Re-Ac-Tor [w/ Crazy Horse](Reprise) 7
1982, Trans (Geffen) 5
1982, Human Highway [movie] (Wea) 5
1983, Everybody’s Rockin’ [w/ Shocking Pinks](Geffen) 4
1985, Old Ways (Geffen) 4
1986, Landing On Water (Geffen) 2
1986, In Berlin [live, vhs] (Rhino) 6
1987, Life [w/ Crazy Horse](Geffen) 6
1988, This Note’s For You [w/ The Bluenotes](Reprise) 6.5
1989, Eldorado [w/ The Restless, ep] (Reprise) 8.5
1989, Freedom (Reprise) 8
1990, Freedom [live, vhs] (Warner Bros) 7.5
1990, Ragged Glory [w/ Crazy Horse](Reprise) 8
1991, Ragged Glory [w/ Crazy Horse, vhs] (Warner Bros) 7
1991, Weld [w/ Crazy Horse, live] (Reprise) 9
1991, Arc [w/ Crazy Horse, live] 7.5
1992, Harvest Moon [w/ Stray Gators](Reprise) 8
1993, Lucky Thirteen [gh+outtakes] (Geffen) 6.5
1993, Unplugged [live] (Reprise) 7.5
1994, Sleeps With Angels [w/ Crazy Horse](Reprise) 8.5
1995, The Complex Sessions [live, vhs] (Warner Bros) 8
1995, Mirror Ball [w/ Pearl Jam] (Reprise) 7
1996, Dead Man [soundtrack] (Reprise) 8
1996, Broken Arrow [w/ Crazy Horse] (Reprise) 7.5
1997, Year Of The Horse [live, soundtrack] (Reprise) 8.5
2000, Silver & Gold (Reprise) 8
2000, Silver & Gold [live, dvd] (Warner Bros) 8
2000, Road Rock Vol. 1 [live] (Reprise) 8
2000, Friends + Relatives – Red Rocks Live [live, dvd] (Warner Bros) 8
2002, Are You Passionate? (Reprise) 7.5
2003, Greendale [w/ Crazy Horse] (Warner Bros) 7
2004, Greendale [movie] (Sanctuary) 5
2005, Prairie Wind (Reprise) 7.5
2006, Living With War (Reprise) 7
2006, Live At The Fillmore 1970 [w/ Crazy Horse, live] 9
2006, Living With War – In The Beginning (Reprise) 6.5
2007, Live At Massey Hall 1971 [live] (Reprise) 9
2007, Chrome Dreams II (Reprise) 7
2008, Sugar Mountain – Live At Carnegie Hall 1968 [live] (Reprise) 8
2008, Rust Never Sleeps [movie, dvd] (Sanctuary) 7.5
2009, Fork In The Road (Reprise) 5
2009, Archives Vol.1 – 1963/1972 [box-set] (Reprise) 7
2009, Dreamin’ Man – Live ’92 [live] (Reprise) 8
2010, Le Noise (Reprise) 7
1971, Crazy Horse (Reprise) 8
1972, Loose (Reprise) 7
1972, At Crooked Lake (Epic) 6.5
1978, Crazy Moon (One Way) 7.5
1989, Left For Dead (Capitol) 7.5
2005, Scratchy – The Complete Reprise Recordings (Rhino Handmade) 8
BILLY TALBOT BAND
2004, Alive In The Spirit World (Sanctuary) 7
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