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FACES: Neil Young

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Artwork by Steven Fiche

FACES is Consequence of Sound’s new quarterly literary magazine. Each volume will focus on an artist whose scope of creativity and cultural impact defies simple categorization. Through a blend of original artwork and a variety of writings, we hope to both shed light upon and celebrate the artists who continually inspire us to put pen to paper.

The music industry—journalists, like us, included—is fond of creating labels and categories. Little, odd-shaped boxes into which we can cram artists, sounds, and emotions in order to better tell you what we think or feel about music—admittedly, not the easiest task. In the essay collection 31 Songs, novelist and critic Nick Hornby comically explains the frustration when words prove an inadequate tool for expressing the more numinous qualities found in music: “As a writer, I don’t normally have much patience for the ineffable – I ought to think that everything’s effing effable, otherwise what’s the point?” So, our solution as an industry is to cheat, just a little. To try and make the ineffable slightly more effing effable.

Consequently, Neil Young is the type of artist who comes along and leaves us looking lazy and foolish. I mean, which box do you tick when describing him? Folkie or “Godfather of Grunge”? Solo artist or band member? American or Canadian? Friend of the planet or friend of the small farmer? Philanthropist or savior of high-quality recorded sound? You can check “all of the above” and eat up your entire column space in the process, or, like us, you can humbly select small slivers of Young’s career that have intrigued you the most.

We ended up finding several more boxes in the process. Henry Hauser’s “& Young” explores Young as an outsider and afterthought while a member of Buffalo Springfield and CSNY. “Neil, Transformer Man”, by Zach Schonfeld, identifies the frustration of a loving father at the core of Young’s most maligned album. Michael Madden’s essay, “Not So Out of the Blue”, takes a look at the varied role politics has played throughout Young’s career.

In the spirit of his Shelf Life column, Ryan Bray’s “A Look in the Mirror Ball” traces the impact of Young’s influence on both the grunge boom and his own musical upbringing. My own essay, “Old Man, Look at Your Life”, muses about what Young’s 21st century work might tell us about aging as an artist. Dan Caffrey’s short play, “A Seed”, loosely based on the lyrics of “After the Gold Rush”, demonstrates how art often begets more art. And all of these pieces are strung together beautifully by the creative artwork of Steven Fiche.

These are the boxes we ticked. There are plenty more out there, which means that Mr. Young will keep us all busy for a long time to come. In the meantime, we happily present a few of the many faces of Neil Young.

–Matt Melis
Senior Editor

Table of Contents:

— “& Young”, an essay by Henry Hauser
— “Neil, Transformer Man”, an essay by Zach Schonfeld
— “Not So Out of the Blue”, an essay by Michael Madden
— “A Look in the Mirror Ball”, an essay by Ryan Bray
— “Old Man, Look at Your Life”, an essay by Matt Melis
— “A Seed”, a short play by Dan Caffrey
— All original artwork by Steven Fiche

& Young

By Henry Hauser

FACES_01_Bands

Artwork by Steven Fiche

Before the age of 25, Neil Young had already presided over the collapse of two now legendary bands: Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Despite the power plays, drug busts, and megalomaniac meltdowns that destroyed both groups, Young and his erstwhile bandmates crafted some of the most penetrating and iconic tunes of the late ‘60s. Toxic chemistry notwithstanding, these bands also provided Young with important vehicles through which to experiment and grow as a songwriter. From Buffalo Springfield’s debut single, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”, to “Ohio”, Young’s last contribution to CSNY before the quartet dissolved in ‘70, Young leveraged the diverse talents of his collaborators to fashion fuller, more elaborate songs. Young’s early releases anticipate a wide range of his subsequent solo work, especially when it comes to surreal lyrics and tightly interwoven guitar riffs.

Though five Neil Young tracks appear on Buffalo Springfield’s eponymous debut, he only sang lead on two: “Burned” and “Out of My Mind”. The other three were sung by Richie Furay, whose resounding voice infused these tracks with a rich, lush vibe. All five sound spectacular on the LP, but Young felt slighted by the outsourcing of his tunes. This stubborn stance on creative control has always been a major facet of his personality, and his time with Buffalo Springfield was no exception.

Young’s Buffalo Springfield tracks cover an array of deeply personal topics, from his efforts to understand women (“Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It”) to nostalgia (“Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”), drugs (“Burned”), and the shackles of fame (“Out of My Mind”). “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”, speckled with teardrop guitar flourishes, has Young poetically capturing the impossibility of healing a shattered heart: “City lights at a country fair/ Never shine but always glare/ If I’m bright enough to see you/ You’re just too dark to care.” And “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Sing” is infectious and timeless; meandering electric guitars and Young’s faint harmonica provide a silky smooth segue between chorus and verse.

On self-referential ballad “Out of My Mind”, he presents the dark side of celebrity. Set to a wilting, quivering guitar, Young confesses that the demands of stardom obscure his senses and threaten his sanity: “All I hear are screams from outside the limousines.” Jaunty rocker “Burned”, also drawn from the songwriter’s personal experience, illustrates the chilling duplicity of narcotics addiction by juxtaposing hopeless, bewildered lyrics against peppy instrumentation. Backed by a rickety piano and raucous strumming, Young harmonizes with Stills and Furay to decry the devastating lows of withdrawal (“I’ve learned that it’s painful comin’ down”).

Buffalo Springfield Again saw Young distancing himself from his peers. Of his three songs on the album, only “Mr. Soul” was recorded with the rest of the group. Both “Expecting to Fly” and trippy mind-bender “Broken Arrow” were originally written as solo tracks and recorded apart from the band. Unlike his more collaborative approach on Buffalo Springfield, this time around Young insisted that he sing lead vocal on all of his tracks.

“Mr. Soul”, an uptempo number that Young claims “took only five minutes to write,” describes the relationship between artist and fan. Backed by melodic, layered guitar lines, Young explores the impact of his songs on impressionable listeners: “I was raised by the praise of a fan/ Who said I upset her.” Contemplating whether the disquieting effect is a boon or a burden atop Stills’ distorted grooves, the singer ponders: “Is it strange?/ I should change?”

Psychedelic folk saga “Broken Arrow” is a schizophrenic cacophony of sound. There’s a piano, stand-up bass, jazzy clarinet, organ, military snare drum, guitars, audience applause from a Beatles concert, a bizarre calliope rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and the beating of a human heart. In this lengthy cut, Young references his own recent history with Buffalo Springfield, weighing the psychological costs of stardom (“They stood at the stage door and begged for a scream”) against its material benefits (“The agents had paid for the black limousine”). Orchestral pop number “Expecting to Fly”, arranged by producer Jack Nietzche, ushers in a lavish, luxuriant mood with bittersweet strings that stretch over buoyant horns and a crisp rhythm guitar.

buffalo springfield

Buffalo Springfield’s third and last album, Last Time Around, was essentially an afterthought. Bassist Bruce Palmer’s second deportation for drug possession, along with awful band chemistry and an increasingly absent Young, signaled impending collapse. To satisfy its contractual obligations, the band released an album of previously penned cuts that they had recorded without much participation from Young. Though serene, wistful swansong “I Am a Child” was a clear highlight, Young was distant and hostile toward his bandmates. The atmosphere was so tense that the Canadian singer-songwriter refused to pose for the album cover; his image was superimposed on a stock photo of the other four members. Young and Stills divorced on sour terms, presumptively never to work together again. That is, until Atlantic Records kingmaker Ahmet Ertegün chimed in.

The trio of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash was flying high after snagging the ‘69 Grammy for Best New Artist. Crosby had landed a great new gig following his dismissal from The Byrds, Stills emerged from the wreckage of Buffalo Springfield a bigger star than ever, and Nash was finally out of the shadow of The Hollies’ frontman Tony Hicks. But instead of allowing the supergroup to enjoy their newfound independence, Ertegün convinced them that what they really needed was another songwriter: Neil Young. After some initial resistance, Stills and Nash begrudgingly acquiesced.

Right from the get-go, CSNY was a volatile concoction. The four musicians fought constantly, bickering and wrestling for control. Stills blasted Young for wanting to “play folk music in a rock band,” and Young countered by skipping a slew of studio sessions. The recording process dragged on and on, with the band supposedly logging over 800 hours in the studio while recording Déjà Vu.

Fortunately, the results were extraordinary. Every track is tight and meaningful; the contributions of all four members can be plainly felt. “Helpless” pairs surreal imagery (“Big birds flying across the sky/ Throwing shadows on our eyes”) with soothing harmonies and a plaintive piano. In this wistful ballad, Young evokes the sensation of time slowly receding into history. He reminds us that whatever comforts we may find in our adult lives, nothing can compare to the nourishing shelter of childhood. Once we’ve relinquished that idyllic state of mind, we can never reclaim it. All we can do is gasp at thinning strands of memory. Singing in a lachrymal, quivering timbre, he whispers, “And in my mind/ I still need a place to go.”

Young’s biggest hit with CNSY was folk protest ditty “Ohio”. Inspired by the Kent State massacre and played as a menacing military march, the topical track decries the death of four innocent students at the hands of the Ohio National Guard. Warning of imminent bloodshed (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming”), the singer howls in righteous rage. After Stills and Young unleash a wave of scalding electric guitar licks, the quartet harmonizes beautifully during the wounded, somber chorus.

While working with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, Neil Young grew tremendously as a songwriter. In addition to exploring a range of intimately personal issues, including celebrity, addiction, betrayal, and lost innocence, he experimented with surrealist lyrics (“Helpless”), trippy effects (“Broken Arrows”), and melodically interwoven guitar lines (“Ohio”) that would underpin his subsequent solo work. Though neither Buffalo Springfield nor CSNY lasted more than three years before disbanding, both are among the most influential rock bands of all time thanks in no small part to Mr. Young. Short-lived, about as sweet as parsley, but indisputably important.

Neil, Transformer Man

By Zach Schonfeld

FACES_02_SoloArtwork by Steven Fiche

“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things that I didn’t understand—for getting involved in something that I shouldn’t have been involved in. Well, fuck them.”

—Neil Young, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (2003)

“Sometimes in a bar, you will hear someone try to defend Neil Young’s Eighties albums. This is technically known as a ‘desperate cry for help.’”

—Rob Sheffield, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004)

A process server arrived at Neil Young’s door in early November 1983. It was several days shy of the artist’s birthday and he was visiting on behalf of Geffen Records, but he wasn’t there to deliver royalties. That’s not how royalties are delivered, and that’s not what process servers do. He was there to serve Neil Young with a $3.3 million lawsuit, and in that moment, Neil Young became the first artist ever to be sued for not sounding enough like himself.

Filed by Geffen, which had signed Young less than two years prior, the lawsuit accused the artist of having produced albums deemed “not ‘commercial’ and … musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” His most recent flop had been Everybody’s Rockin’, a goofy-eyed 25-minute jaunt through the rockabilly ’50s. But the conflict really stemmed from a series of misadventures set in motion by Trans, the artist’s intensely bewildering excursion into Vocoder-voiced electronica, which then proved to be his most alienating release to date — literally. By that, I mean it sounded to most listeners as if Neil Young had replaced himself and his backing band with a small army of Martians, beaming his tunes down to Earth by way of some cosmic transmitter he had probably concocted on his California ranch, knowing him. Certainly that was what the campy, sci-fi album cover seemed to suggest.

No one at Geffen — or elsewhere, for that matter — could have known that Trans, in all its neon-tinted, spacey fancy, was an intensely heartfelt project for Young, one that he would later describe as “an expression of something deeply personal.”

How could they have? In the first of many strategic miscalculations, Young kept it all a secret.

* * *

Here’s how I discovered Trans: I couldn’t find it.

Thumbing through my father’s sizable collection of Neil Young vinyl as a teenager, I somehow noticed that Trans was missing. Pretty much everything else up to and including 1987’s Life was there and accounted for, as I recalled in a 2011 essay, even the forgotten Time Fades Away LP and the Journey Through the Past soundtrack, out-of-print rarities that have never been issued on CD and are more likely to be spotted in Graham Nash’s attic than at Amoeba Records. So, why not Trans? If not for my Musichound Essential Album Guide book, I probably wouldn’t have even known that Neil Young had released anything in 1982.

But he did, and as soon as I read some review or another referring to it, dismissively enough, as “Neil Young’s techno album,” I knew I’d end up tracking it down.

Neil Young - trans

So, I hunted it down. I found it used on Amazon, a dog-eared vinyl copy shipped from God knows where, and I was immediately charmed by the album’s geeky song titles, which read like Prince-speak poisoned by some digital totalitarian nightmare, as well as its eerie, synthetic veneer, which is never quite thick enough to obscure Young’s trademark melodicism. I was confused, probably, by the presence of three tracks that didn’t trade in Kraftwerk rhythms and bleepy textures, but maybe I didn’t mind the respite from the Sennheiser Vocoder VSM201 that otherwise swallowed up Young’s vocals whole.

I didn’t, at any rate, know about the son who had been unable to communicate verbally with Young because he had been born with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia, and so I didn’t know about the 15 hours a day Young and his wife Pegi spent in therapy programs, grueling work that would first channel into the pounding, repetitive crunch of 1981’s Re-ac-tor. I didn’t know that the synclavier and vocoder that subsume the record were meant to signify Ben Young’s inability to vocalize in ways comprehensible to those surrounding him 24 hours a day, and I didn’t read between the lines of songs like “Transformer Man”, in which alien-voiced Young bemoans that there are “so many things still left to do/ But we haven’t made it yet.” Nor did I know about the music video Young envisioned for the record, which, in Young’s words, would depict “a lot of scientists and doctors trying to unlock the secrets of a little being who had so much to say and no way to say it.” That video was never made.

I didn’t, in other words, realize that Trans was a concept album about messages lost in translation whose message had been lost in translation.

Not that its themes were entirely without precedent. Like so much of Shakey’s best songwriting, it concerns itself with a break in communication — but this time not with a love interest (“Will to Love”) or a dead junkie friend (“The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Tired Eyes”) or a shallow, posturing celebrity culture (“On the Beach”). It’s a failure to communicate, in the most literal of ways, with one’s young son, which somehow makes it all the more personal and all the more devastating. “That’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is,” Young would later explain to Mojo. “Well, that’s the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”

Except, of course, that the message was lost on pretty much everyone who heard it in 1982. That’s probably because the record was drowned by its own obsessions, an LP about miscommunication that happened to be garbled and choked on the way to its audience. Young used every instrumental tool at his disposal to channel disconnection to his listeners, and in 1982, those instrumental tools had become all too heady for a popular audience that had been weaned on the pastoral tones of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the even-footed country-folk of Harvest, an audience that thought Kraftwerk was a type of salami, not a musical outfit of any consequence. Too heady, too much, too soon.

That the artist responded to calls for a rock ‘n’ roll record in the most caustic and sneering possible manner — by throwing together a jokey ’50s-rock outing — did little to improve the glass wall that had emerged between Young, his audience, and his increasingly impatient record label.

But it made for a thrilling contrast. Everybody’s Rockin’, for all its grinning, old-timey spirit, turned out to sound a hell of a lot colder than the LP that was designed to sound like a bubble bath with robots. Trans, by comparison, was a disarmingly honest, if excessively weird, statement. Ignored by thousands and despised by many others, it contains some of the most unusual, inventive, and even catchy material of Young’s career.

* * *

So, here’s the thing. Neil Young was sued — made a “Prisoner of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, as he would joke on 1987’s Life LP — for making music deemed “not commercial and … musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” But it wasn’t. Well, sure, it was uncommercial. Of course it was. Synthpop hadn’t yet broken through to the mainstream, and even if it had, Young hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was supposed to sound like, a fact that gives Trans its distant, alien edge. But it wasn’t unrepresentative of the impulsive, follow-every-rabbit-hole spirit that had characterized the artist’s tireless and careening muse since well before 1980. Consider the ditch trilogy (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night) or the odd country excursion (Comes a Time).

All of which is to say, Trans wasn’t “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings,” not really, not unless you focus only on the bewildering sonic properties that overwhelm the songs, which is a preposterous distinction to make because of course you are going to focus on the bewildering sonic properties that overwhelm the songs; that was all anyone focused on in 1983, how could it not be, who the hell am I to suggest otherwise?

Look: Imagine you are the process server guy made to serve papers to Neil Young in 1983, the hapless nobody tasked with rapping on a Real Live Rock Star’s door and meekly informing him that he is in trouble — label trouble and maybe also legal trouble — because his records are getting too freaky. Imagine being that guy. He must have known who he was speaking to, what sort of bewildering message he was delivering. How do you do that? Did he prepare for this meeting, rehearsing his lines in front of a mirror? Did he take a mental inventory of the look on Neil Young’s face, the artist slack-jawed, waving a joint, let’s imagine, smoke curling in circles around his flannel shirt, and did he carry it with him for three decades so that someday he might relate it to his grandchildren? “I was the one,” he might boast, “who put Neil Young under arrest” — come on, you have to exaggerate when you are talking to children — “for not sounding enough like Neil Young.”

Now imagine that the case wasn’t settled and here we are in court and I am the defense attorney. I am the one who goes before the judge and endeavors to defend Trans — not Everybody’s Rockin’, only Trans — against charges of uncommercial villainy and treason or whatever. I don’t have to prove that it is perfect, because of course it’s flawed; it’s a messy and confusing record, but that never was the impetus for the lawsuit. I just have to prove that it isn’t altogether uncharacteristic of Young’s career, that beneath the alien-voiced specter lies genuine melodicism and heart, that some of its songs might even contain traces of what might modestly be called commercial potential.

Anyway, that’s sort of what this essay is. So, here we are. The defense rests his case.

Not So Out of the Blue

By Michael Madden

FACES_06_Politics

Artwork by Steven Fiche

The day before Neil Young released his George W. Bush-bashing “Let’s Impeach the President” in 2006, Fox News leaked the lyrics. Here is a quick refresher: “Let’s impeach the president for lyin’,” “Let’s impeach the president for spyin’.” Et cetera.

Between the pundits of the newly minted blogosphere and the slit-eyed, heavily Texas-accented impersonations, Bush and his administration were criticized in ways old and new during both terms. Direct though it was, Young’s song cut deeper than much of the vitriol. The spying part lingers pungently today in light of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing, while the sarcastic final verse, which references Bush’s supposedly hypocritical cracking down on steroids in baseball, was a sneering closing argument. Young, leaning left as usual, commanded attention and got it. Given his lifelong vocation, it hasn’t always been so simple.

Growing up in Ontario, the first politician Young was familiar with (unless he started thinking about these things at an unbelievably young age) was Louis St. Laurent, the late-blooming liberal sworn in as the 12th Prime Minister of Canada in 1948. By 1963, when a passionate progressive conservative from Ontario named John Diefenbaker unseated St. Laurent, Young was just getting familiar with a referee of sorts named Bob Dylan. Still, after Dylan showed us another side of his songwriting and fled the political spotlight, it was with great ambition that Young embarked for L.A. with a few friends (including Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer), a valiant quantity of weed, and plans to stay. It was 1966.

Four years later, Young wrote Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s churning “Ohio” after seeing TIME‘s photos of the May 1970 Kent State massacre, in which the Ohio National Guard prematurely opened fire on a gathering of 500 or so students protesting Richard Nixon’s military incursion into Cambodia. Four dead, nine injured. “Ohio” was a veritable counterculture anthem, however foreign the concept seems today. Given the First Amendment-celebrating spirit of the times, though – whether it’s reflected in Mario Savio’s mesmerizing howling at UC Berkeley or, more symbolically, in Jimi Hendrix’s soulsonic rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – perhaps it’s surprising Young hadn’t already spoken up about one atrocity or another.

Or maybe not. In his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, Young wrote that, even in light of “Ohio”‘s success, he felt too many had written him off as some naïve kid. Earlier this month, with the death of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, we were reminded that Dylan’s 1975 “Hurricane” spurred the process of the middleweight boxer’s eventual release after nearly 20 years behind bars for his alleged involvement in a 1966 triple murder. But when “Ohio” was released, five years before Dylan’s eight-and-a-half-minute strummer, the condescending view of rock as mere youth culture could still thwart such an initiative.

Things would be different for Young two decades later, when he was halfway through his 40s, the father of two children with cerebral palsy and another with epilepsy. In 1989, after Ronald Reagan left office and George H. W. Bush began his single term, Young released Freedom, which included two versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World”. His own freedom, however you define the term, wasn’t something he took for granted. Compared to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” five years earlier, “Rockin’ in the Free World” is less easily misconstrued, even though it’s not exactly straight-up – the “thousand points of light” verse, inspired by a phrase in the elder Bush’s inaugural address, indeed satirizes right-wing tendencies.

After 2005’s elegant, humble Prairie Wind – the calm before the storm – Young recorded Living with War, still his most political album by far. It was the year following the death of Hunter S. Thompson, a different sort of righteously embittered rock star, and Young’s own exclamations about the Iraq War were welcomed. On the album’s third-to-last song, “Lookin’ for a Leader”, Young named Illinois senator Barack Obama as a possible POTUS. Well, we know how that turned out. By 2012, though, with roughly 2,000 American troops killed in Afghanistan alone since 9/11, Young had a different stance on war. As he told NPR’s Fresh Air in June of that year:

War to one person may mean a justified thing that’s happening for a very good reason, and another person may think that’s a terrible thing and never should have happened. And another person will be thinking that he lost his sister or his brother or his mother in the war, and it was a waste of time. And another person could be thinking the exact opposite: that his brother went to war and gave his life for our country. So, you can’t really have an opinion, although I have opinions, and I’ve had them, and I’ve made very loud statements about things.

Young has been outspoken just these last few months about Canada’s controversial oil sands (petroleum deposits increasing greenhouse gas emissions, among other effects), but generally, he hasn’t been so tenacious of late. True, he’ll always claim certain environmental concerns. 2009’s Fork in the Road highlighted his vision for LincVolt, the 1959 Lincoln Continental with which he aimed “to inspire a generation by creating a clean automobile propulsion technology that serves the needs of the 21st Century and delivers performance that is a reflection of the driver’s spirit.” That was all passion, and he continues to drive LincVolt today. Fast-forward to Waging Heavy Peace, though, and he spends an underwhelming number of pages talking about his politics. Of course, that can be such a calculated move itself. If he has more to say, he’ll make sure we hear him.

A Look in the Mirror Ball

By Ryan Bray

FACES_05_Grunge

Artwork by Steven Fiche

We all bring our own baggage to the music we listen to. For instance, Neil Young has a catalog of iconic songs that stretch back almost five decades, but my own personal history with the singer began with Mirror Ball.

Actually, if we’re being technical about it (and let’s be), I first became aware of Neil Young in the fall of 1993. I raced home from Pop Warner football practice on a warm September night to catch what was left of the MTV Video Music Awards, and as was my luck, Pearl Jam was just being introduced to the stage. In an era where the world seemingly forced us to choose between Nirvana and Pearl Jam, I leaned more on Nirvana. Still, that’s not to say that “Jeremy” and “Alive” had any less impact on my impressionable, young musical mind. But little did I know that the band’s performance that night was going to be much less about Pearl Jam than the special guest joining them onstage.

I didn’t recognize the song or the older guy with the sideburns who was trading verses with Eddie Vedder, but I was intrigued with how this guy, some 20 years Pearl Jam’s senior, still managed to more than hold his own with the hottest band in the land. So, there you have it. My skewed chronology of Young’s career begins with the raucous guitar thrash of “Rockin’ in the Free World”, even if Young’s “Godfather of Grunge” phase came more or less at the midway point of his career. “Old Man”, “Heart of Gold”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, and all of Young’s other hallmark chestnuts would come to me in due time, but my first and lasting impression of Neil Young is that of the cranky guitar wizard, not the confessional folk-rock songsmith.

Fast-forward roughly a year and a half later, and the seeds of Young’s VMA collaboration with Pearl Jam had blossomed to give fruit to a proper studio record. Mirror Ball, released in 1995, bottled up the kinetic energy between Young and the band in the form of 11 hearty blasts of grunge goodness. The record, which was recorded in (where else?) Seattle, was banged out in a brisk two weeks with the same kind of raw immediacy that colored and defined the songs.

Young’s directive at the outset of album opener “Song X” to start things up with “no tuning, nothing” more or less defines the spirit of Mirror Ball. It’s a wonderfully unpolished exercise in primal efficiency, and Young and Pearl Jam knock out the tunes in short order as if they can’t wait to break free of the studio’s stuffy confines. Considering how Young had long been running for years with one of the world’s best backing bands in Crazy Horse, it’s kind of amazing that an album like Mirror Ball even happened to begin with. Why even bother with Pearl Jam or anyone else for that matter? But anyone familiar with Neil Young’s creative process knows that the question is less why and more why not? Young didn’t need to work with Pearl Jam; he wanted to. As with everything else Young has done throughout his career, that desire to do something wins out over all other considerations, and more often than not, including in Mirror Ball‘s case, sticking to his instincts works out.

Mirror Ball might be Young’s most honest stab at an all-out grunge record, with Freedom coming a close second. But Young’s penchant for raunchy guitar rock and hefty solos long predated both records. As early as 1975, Young was cutting loose with a crude-yet-mesmerizing guitar style that would go on to influence future generations of axemen. Zuma lets the guitar fuzz fly in a way his classic rock peers never really bothered to challenge. Songs like “Danger Bird”, “Drive Back”, and sprawling epic “Cortez the Killer” elevate the solo to an art form in and of itself. Young saw the value of a cranky guitar solo as a driving musical force in a way few others before him ever considered. For Young, it’s not a cheap effect or diversion, but rather every bit as integral to many of his songs as bass, drums, and anything else that’s in play. And at the end of the day, what is (or was) grunge other than a celebration of all the wild, ugly, and wonderful things you can do with a guitar? Young continues to indulge in idiosyncratic guitar fits when the mood strikes him, most recently on the Daniel Lanois-produced solo exercise Le Noise.

But Young’s grunge legacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When alternative rock dropped its bags and settled into the mainstream in the early ’90s, you had to fight off the bands who picked up on Young’s snarling guitar cues with a stick. Some, like Sonic Youth, took Young’s idea of guitar freedom to its furthest and most experimental extremes, while others, like Dinosaur Jr., welded squealing guitar solos into a denser, sludge punk formula. J. Mascis, a freakish guitar wunderkind in his own right, is perhaps Generation X’s heir apparent to Young’s long-standing guitar hero crown, coloring the best moments of classic Dinosaur Jr. records like You’re Living All Over Me and Bug with messy but virtuosic touches of guitar mastery. The band’s music streamlined a bit after Lou Barlow and Murph split, but the reunion of the original trio, now almost 10 years running, has brought the band back full circle to its fuzzy guitar rock glory.

Any discussion of Young’s guitar influence also would be incomplete without some acknowledgement of Built to Spill. Doug Martsch is a guy who knows a thing or two about sonic sprawl, and he’s never been afraid to take the band’s music out for long improvisational walks. More directly, the band’s cover of “Cortez the Killer” has been a welcome set staple in Built to Spill’s live show for years. More recently, Brooklyn’s The Men have grown in leaps and bounds since their origins as a fiery bar punk act. Records like Leave Home and Open Your Heart blitzed listeners eardrums while still keeping an open ear to melody, but more recent entries, such as 2013’s New Moon and this year’s Tomorrow’s Hits, continue to move in a more country and power pop-infused direction, with tasty nods to The Replacements, Big Star, and, yup, Neil Young.

But the most amazing thing about Young’s career is this: For as much as we’ve talked about his role as a proto-grunge visionary, it’s all but a sliver of his overarching influence. My eyes are glazing over having only digested his influence on grunge, but Young’s willingness to do anything, to see ahead of the curve, has allowed him to stake out new territory wherever his instincts take him, and his legions of followers are virtually limitless. Still, I’m just happy he took the time to show the way to countless bands who helped shape my musical upbringing.

Old Man, Look at Your Life

By Matt Melis

FACES_04_Recent

Artwork by Steven Fiche

The cure for writer’s block often comes from unlikely places. I had spent a fruitless few days kicking around ideas for this essay—assignment: 800 words on the last decade or so of Neil Young’s career—when Comic Book Men of all things, “Netflixing” in the background, intervened. One comic book store clerk asked another, “Do you think superheroes retire?” In other words, does there come a point when it’s time to hang up the mask and tights and reflect on a lifetime’s work?

After weeding through some tangential thoughts (e.g., If there was a rock and roll Justice League, Neil Young would probably be Batman), that epitomic geek question gradually steered me towards what strikes, or even awes, me about latter-day Young. Now, I’m by no means the type of Neil Young fan who can rattle off his discography in chronological order or hold my own for more than 15 seconds in a conversation about his deep cuts. I fall more into the category of fan who realizes that if you love rock and roll, it’s a safe bet you owe Young a debt of thanks for something or other. From what I do know, though, I can say this much: I can’t imagine Neil Young ever retiring.

Not a very profound revelation, but it’s a start. And something I had to unpack.

Certainly, 68, Young’s age, ain’t what it used to be—for rock stars or anyone else. A climate of middle-aged headliners and would-be AARP members who can still keep pace with their younger counterparts—at least onstage for a 90-minute set—has instilled newfound respect for our elders. It puts me in mind of the classic aging rock star joke in director Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. Square band manager Dennis Hope, played by a comically coiffed Jimmy Fallon, pitches his clients: “If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, you’re sadly, sadly mistaken.” It was a golden line when the flick came out in 2000 and gets better as the film ages alongside Jagger, who might still be strutting onstage at 80. And Jagger and Young are far from alone. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Leonard Cohen (the latter, despite onstage collapses) all carry on touring and recording, and it’s difficult to envision subsequent generational rock figureheads like Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, or Jack White hanging up their guitars in favor of dozing in and out to Family Feud each afternoon once they reach Young’s age. So, clearly, age alone doesn’t distinguish Young; rock’s become an old man’s game—such a far cry from “I hope I die before I get old”—and will likely remain so.

There’s a popular literary theory that American novelists produce their best work by 50 and what follows promises only diminishing returns. Despite rock and roll’s relative youth as an art form, we already more or less hold that belief about rock musicians and albums. Unfortunately, when an artist’s later work lacks the spark of earlier output, we often assume that the artist no longer has anything left to say—no fiery impetus to create anymore. While I won’t attempt to argue that 21st century outings such as Living with War or Le Noise can even begin to rival classic records like After the Gold Rush or Rust Never Sleeps, I’d be even more foolhardy to dismiss the former, a fed-up political polemic, and the latter, an experiment with a guitar, two amps, and dub sonics, as the work of an old man content to pass his time quietly and unnoticed.

No, Young doesn’t lack passions, muses, opinions, or messages. If anything, the difficulty for him might be finding enough outlets and time to say all he still wants to say. Think about it for a moment. Last week’s surprise release of A Letter Home marks the 12th studio album from Young since 2000. If we look beyond the recording studio over that same time frame, Young’s abbreviated résumé reads like this: a regular touring schedule (solo, with band, or as part of a reunion); a 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, sans ghost writer; two films directed by Young pseudonym Bernard Shakey; three starring roles in concert films by Jonathan Demme; an ongoing seat on the Farm Aid board of directors; annual organizer of the Bridge School Benefit alongside wife Pegi Young; partner on LincVolt and other eco-friendly projects; and, most recently, founder of Pono, his own digital music service.

But why even bring up prolificacy when talking about art, about music—something that should defy simple numeration, notches, or tallies? Well, to begin with, it sets Young apart from many of his contemporaries who are also around retirement age. For all I know, David Bowie might wake up each morning, throw on the “Ashes to Ashes” clown suit, and record a new album, but I’ve never heard any of those hypothetical records. The only statement I have from Bowie over the last decade is The Next Day—that’s one record to love, loathe, or ignore. Whereas Young, for better or worse, in both sickness and in health, has been a pipeline of creativity through a variety of mediums. And that’s part of what intrigues me about him. Young’s recent creative flourish reminds me of a young person’s first fling with art—whether that be discovering you can write a song, paint a bit, or even blog about music. At that moment, every plate in the house—paper, cheap flatware, Grandma’s heirloom china—begins to spin, and rather than worry about gravity and what might come crashing down, you just keep spinning and searching for additional plates.

Really, if you were to write about Young’s career during his 50s and 60s, you could mimic Joseph Heller by tweaking James Joyce and call your book A Portrait of a Young Artist as an Old Man.

This idea of Young creating like a young artist goes beyond mere prolificacy or even variety of creative outlets. There’s also an undeniable youthful streak of unpredictability in him. Look no further than 2014 for evidence of that. His partially Kickstarter-funded Pono, which aims to restore original studio sound quality to digital formats, debuted its portable playing device and announced a launch date for October. How many 68-year-olds do you know who are hip to crowdsourcing and fighting technology with, gasp, even more cutting-edge technology? Well, at least one. Young’s new record, A Letter Home, features collaborations with Jack White, an artist 30 years his junior (not that Young needed the career-rejuvenating Icky Thump bump), and was recorded in, of all places, White’s 1947 Voice-o-Graph booth, a phone booth-sized space so cramped it would give Super Man second thoughts. And how did Young release this new album? That’s right. He pulled a Beyoncé, dropping it in our laps one day with no warning.

I think it’s that blend of tireless creativity and ability to still surprise us (and probably himself) that led to my initial thought: I can’t imagine Neil Young ever retiring. These aren’t the traits of a man ready to hang it up anytime soon, if ever. And if Neil Young doesn’t have to, why do we? It’s hopeful, isn’t it—the idea that art can be our lifelong companion, our personal fountain of youth? It’s the idea of “Forever Young”, “Young at Heart”, “He not busy being born is busy dying,” and “I had a guitar hanging just about waist high/ And I’m gonna play this thing until the day I die” all rolled into one. Young’s career gives us hope that we can remain passionate and untamed if not in our daily habits and actions, then at least in our art. Men grow old, but the artist never has to, never has to reach retirement age.

I still remember being on the pavilion lawn when Young rolled into my town and unapologetically played the entirety of his Greendale small-town rock opera for a crowd that wanted nothing but a greatest hits jukebox of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like a Hurricane”. That was my introduction to Neil Young. A decade later, he shows few signs of ever burning out and zero possibility of simply fading away.

A Seed

By Dan Caffrey

FACES_03_Play

Artwork by Steven Fiche

Editor’s Note: The following short play is loosely based on the lyrics from “After the Gold Rush”.

The wilderness. A BOY (late teens) wearing ragged clothes sits on the ground cross-legged, a beat up ammunition case in front of him. He opens it and removes a dried-out apple. He holds it for a while, then sets it on the ground. He turns his attention back to the ammo case, gazing at something else inside. A GIRL (also late teens) enters, dressed in the same fashion as the Boy. She carries a homemade bow and arrow. She watches him for a while.

GIRL: Whatcha looking at?

The Boy shuts the ammo case and gets to his feet.

BOY: Nothing.
GIRL: Doesn’t look like nothing.
BOY: Get outta here.
GIRL (RE: THE BOW AND ARROW): You see this?
BOY: ‘Course I see it.
GIRL: It’s a weapon.
BOY: I know what it is.
GIRL: You ever seen one?
BOY: Not up close. Maybe when I was little. Before I could remember stuff.
GIRL: Watch this.

She draws the bow and aims the arrow at the Boy.

GIRL: What do you think of that?
BOY: Go ahead. Doesn’t scare me.
GIRL: Show me what’s in that thing.
BOY: No.
GIRL: I’ll shoot.
BOY: This is my lunch pail. I found it myself, so you don’t get to look at it.

The Girl further draws back the arrow.

GIRL: I mean it.
BOY: Already told you. Go. Ahead.

The Girl keeps the arrow aimed at the Boy for a while. Her hands shake. She lowers the bow.

BOY: I knew it.
GIRL: You’re too scrawny to kill.
BOY: What, you wanna eat me?
GIRL: I’m from the Blood Tribes.
BOY: I don’t see no markings.
GIRL: It’s true.
BOY: Which tribe then?

Silence.

BOY: That’s what I thought. If you were from the tribes, I’d already be dead.

Pause.

GIRL: Made this bow and arrow myself.
BOY: Oh yeah?
GIRL: Yeah. For killing things.
BOY: You couldn’t kill nothing. Not even a bird.
GIRL: I’ve killed lots of birds.
BOY: How? There’s none left.
GIRL: Then why’d you bring them up?
BOY: To trick you.
GIRL: Oh.

Pause.

GIRL: That’s mean.
BOY: Worked, didn’t it?
GIRL: I guess.

Pause.

GIRL: Found a stag, though.
BOY: You did?
GIRL: Down in the ravine. It was dying on its side. So I finished it off. Look.

She shows the Boy the tip of her arrow.

BOY: I don’t see nothing.
GIRL: It’s blood. It’s just dry, so you can’t see it. Came over to see if you wanted some.
BOY: Some blood?
GIRL: Some meat, stupid. Haven’t cooked it yet.
BOY: You should. Otherwise, it’ll go bad.
GIRL: We could build a fire. You know how to build a fire?
BOY: I do.
GIRL: So how about it?

Pause.

BOY: Think I’ll stick with this apple.
GIRL: That one on the ground?
BOY: You see any other apples?
GIRL: You can’t eat that. It’ll get you sick.
BOY: Maybe. But you shouldn’t be killing deer. There’s hardly any left.
GIRL: What does it matter? Thing was gonna die anyhow. Then they’ll all be gone soon. Same as the birds. Same as all the other creatures. Might as well eat ’em while we can.

Pause.

BOY: I am pretty hungry.
GIRL: Well come on then.

The Girl starts to leave. The Boy stays put, staring at the ammo case.

GIRL: You coming or not?
BOY: You wanna see it? What’s inside my pail?
GIRL: Sure.
BOY: I’ve been wanting to show someone. Probably would’ve shown you early on if you’d asked nicer. Even without the deer meat.
GIRL: Let’s see it.

Tell It
The Girl kneels down in the dirt with the Boy. The Boy opens his ammo case and slowly removes a grenade. They stare at it for a while.

GIRL: What is it?
BOY: Don’t know. I’ve never seen one.
GIRL: Where’d you find it?
BOY: The creek. Gets dryer every day, and I find new things on the bottom. Heavy things I’ve never seen before. But none as heavy as this. Wanna hold it?

The Girl nods. The Boy hands the grenade to her.

GIRL: I wonder what it does.
BOY: I think it might be a seed. See all those little squares? Maybe you bury it and it breaks apart and each one grows into a tree.
GIRL: I don’t know. I haven’t seen any trees in a while.
BOY: That’s why this is so special.
GIRL: And the ones I have seen don’t look like this.
BOY: Well this is just a seed.
GIRL: The ones I’ve seen are a different color. Black and wrinkly. They look like big skeleton hands sticking out the ground.
BOY: I saw a different kind once. Big healthy tree with lots of leaves on it. You could barely see the branches, there was so much green. Then the green turned orange. The orange turned brown and the brown turned to dead bark. Then it disappeared. My Dad told me that one day, all the trees took off. Flew into the sky like rocket ships to find a new home. Some place with more plants and animals.
GIRL: What’s a rocket ship?
BOY: Don’t know for sure. My Dad had never even seen one. Just read about them in books when he was little. They’re huge and silver and can fly. But that’s all he told me.
GIRL: We should ask him about this thing. Maybe he knows what it is.

The Boy shakes his head.

BOY: Can’t.
GIRL: Why not?
BOY: We just can’t, alright?

Pause.

GIRL: Oh.
BOY: It’s a seed. I’ve made up my mind. That’s what it is.
GIRL: Then we should plant it.

Pause.

BOY: Yeah?
GIRL: Yeah. We’ll plant it. Then we’ll go away for a while. Have some deer meat.
BOY: Is there really a deer?

Pause.

GIRL: No. But we could find one.
BOY: Maybe.
GIRL: We could. Together, we could. I’ve got this bow and arrow. And you seem to know a lot about nature. I’ll bet we’ll find a stag in no time.
BOY: That’d be nice. Haven’t had meat in a while.
GIRL: We’ll have a feast. And then we’ll come back here. There’ll be a hundred trees, each one with a different kind of fruit growing on it. We’ll eat some more, and when one’s ready to take off, we’ll climb into its branches and fly into the sun.
BOY: You think we could live on the sun?
GIRL: Probably. Why not?
BOY: It looks quiet up there. Bright too. No wonder all the trees flew away.

Pause.
renade-kids copyplain
GIRL: You got a shovel?
BOY: No. You?
GIRL: No.
BOY: Then we’ll use our hands. Like this.

He starts digging with his hands.

BOY: See? You try.

The Girl sets down the grenade and starts digging too. They dig for a while in silence.

BOY: There.
GIRL: Is that a big enough hole?
BOY: I think so. I’ve never planted anything before.
GIRL: Me neither.
BOY: But I’ll bet that’s deep enough.

The Girl picks up the grenade and holds it out to the Boy.

GIRL: Here.
BOY: You do it.
GIRL: Really?
BOY: Yeah.
GIRL: You’d let me do that?
BOY: I would.
GIRL: Wow. Thanks.
BOY: You’re welcome.

The Girl places the grenade in the hole.

BOY: Let’s fill it in.

They fill the hole with dirt.

BOY: We should pat it too.
GIRL: Why?
BOY: I don’t know. Just seems like the right thing to do.

They pat the soil.

GIRL: Now what?
BOY: We wait.
GIRL: You don’t wanna go find a deer?
BOY: Maybe we could just watch this for a little bit. See the first tree sprout.
GIRL: Alright.

They sit and stare at the filled in hole.

GIRL: What’s your name?
BOY: Don’t have one.
GIRL: Me neither.

Pause.

BOY: My Dad used to call me something, but I can’t remember what it is now.
GIRL: We could give each other new names.
BOY: Maybe.

They sit in silence for a while.

GIRL: I can hear it.
BOY: You can?
GIRL: A rumbling. Something starting to grow. Listen.

The Boy listens.

BOY: You’re right. I hear it too.

They continue to watch the ground. END.

“A Seed” comes from Tell It & Speak It & Think It & Breathe It: Short Plays Inspired by Great Lyrics, which was performed earlier this year with The Ruckus as part of Curious Theatre Branch’s 25th Annual Rhino Theatre Fest.

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