Neil Young’s Psychedelic Anthems
Six years ago Neil Young brought his CSN homies through town imploring the country to impeach the president for lying, this week he began the next leg of his tour with Crazy Horse with a straight-faced version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” A political evolution? You decide. Neil Young always does what he wants and leaves it to others to draw the conclusions.
For the past 45 years Young has been one of our most varied, confounding and prolific musical voices, but his recent multimedia product blitz is astounding. It began in the spring with Americana, a punked-up version of traditional tunes that qualified as one more of his eccentric sojourns. It was followed by a weighty autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, followed by the DVD release of Journeys, the final chapter in a Jonathan Demme-directed trilogy of value-added concert films and Psychedelic Pill, a sprawling two disc set that represents the rejuvenation of his partnership with Crazy Horse. In parallel, Neil and the Horse have embarked on a worldwide tour (for the next dates go here).
After the national anthem ended and some wiseass yelled “play ball” the Horse followed with anthems of their own, including two new songs that seemed to last forever but still disappointed when they finally came crashing to a close. “Walk Like a Giant” was a slam in the head, ending with five minutes of plodding noise that convinced you that a giant was about to stomp the building to shreds. Feedback abounded as the giant got nearer.
Listening to this my mind wanders, knowing that many of those in my acquaintance might interpret these sounds as noise. I accept this, an anthem for one person may be anathema to another. And not everyone gets Neil.
Throughout, the musicians were dwarfed by giant fake amps and a 20-foot tall prop microphone. The requisite giant screens were on either side of the stage while the road crew dressed in lab coats milled around. Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, those Crazy Horseman, provided a steady counterpoint to Young’s improvisation. They are also having a tremendous amount of fun, with Sampedro challenging Young during “F*!#In’ Up” in a mock brawl echoing playground arguments everywhere. “You’re fucked up.” “No, you’re fucked up.” Over and over.
For this, Crazy Horse could be the greatest band in the world. They play these anthems, old and new, night after night. But there is never a hint of boredom or ennui. They love playing “Cinnamon Girl” and “Mr. Soul.” simple songs that have attained anthemic status, as if it were the first time.
Americana, the first manifestation of this year’s journey, at first seems like one of Young’s random little projects. An imagining of what it might sound like if a dedicated garage band decided to tackle some of our best known folk songs it wasn’t really popular among a lot of Young fans. First impressions were that it was another gimmick, a left turn taken until he did something real. So we ignored Americana in favor of waiting for the “real” Crazy Horse album that was supposedly imminent.
Psychedelic Pill is that album, and it fulfills all expectations and has pushed Americana to the background. We ignore it at our own peril. A lot of Young’s left turns that were once dismissed now sound quite fresh. Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’ and This Note’s For You, ridiculed at release, now sound great. Maybe it takes us a while to catch up.
Young wrote Waging Heavy Peace himself and it shows, I mean that in the nicest way. There must have been an editor involved so its nonlinear structure is intentional. He jumps from one topic to the next and back again, omitting the biographical details and skipping through his various obsessions about trains, electric cars and a quest to improve digital sound. Young’s father was a professional writer of some note and apparently advised his son to write in the same way he spoke.
So reading Waging Heavy Peace is most like what you would hear in a lecture hall, should Young take this book on the road. Or you can visualize it in someone’s living room where Young sits by the fire and talks about his life as people around the room have a drink or smoke a bowl. At the end you wouldn’t care that he wasn’t taking any questions.
Except this one: The book was written about a year ago after Young had quit drinking and getting high after years of indulgence. He states this increased his mental clarity but had been unable to write any songs since jumping on the wagon, wondering whether he’d be able to write when the time came. Psychedelic Pill proves that, he overcame songwriter’s block. But did he stay sober? We’re curious, only because the album’s opening track, “Driftin’ Back,” is so trippy.
Journeys is for those who haven’t had enough of Young after reading Waging Heavy Peace. It’s meant to be a candid look at Young with mixed results. The backstage footage is often enlightening, and scenes of Young in his natural habitat provide that view. On the other hand, a shot of a solo live “Down By The River” that literally goes up Young’s nose is a little too much information, even for the most dedicated.
An obsessive Neil fan has to have all of this and I succumbed. I saved a bit of money getting the book on Kindle and renting Journeys from iTunes, but I pretty much ate the whole enchilada this time. Young’s output is diverse and it’s rare to find someone who loves every one of his albums. Let’s go a step further: It’s rare to find someone who’s heard every one his albums.
But this night, standing in toward the back of the general admission section at Key Arena in Seattle with the monster video screens in equidistant view, something clicks. In the middle of “Ramada Inn,” an astounding track from Psychedelic Pill, the auditory thrill reminds me why I bought into all this stuff. It’s the music, stupid. The extraordinary noise that occurs when Neil makes when he brings some of his friends to play in your town. These sounds make everything else superfluous. If not for this music he’d be just another scraggly guy on YouTube singing “Down By the River” to the mirror and the book would be a waste of time.
Young’s unpredictability and variety is what makes him most interesting, you never know what to expect. Even so, there is a notion that for all his left turns into country, techno, big band, solo electric and whatever else he may try his work with Crazy Horse represents the peak of a vast musical mountain he has built throughout the years. Assign any superlative you want. For me this represents the Holy Grail of Rock and Roll, representing the most astounding , exhilarating noise I’ll hear for some time.
For you, it could be just noise.
Set List: Love and Only Love/Powderfinger/Born in Ontario/Walk Like a Giant/Needle and the Damage Done/Twisted Road/Singer Without A Song/Ramada Inn/Cinnamon Girl/F*!#In’ Up/Mr. Soul/Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)/Tonight’s the Night.
Charlie Bermant has written about music since forever, and has collected the best of his interviews in A Serious Hobby, which is available here.