Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Still Young after all these years, Part 2

Neil Young

In my previous post, I revealed my lifelong fascination with and appreciation for the music of Neil Young. I suggested that you can't really talk about Young's music apart from his person, or, perhaps more accurately, the persona he's created over the years through his life and music. I quoted a couple of assessments from Rolling Stone that, in describing Young's vocal and instrumental style, used words like lonely, unique, and desperate and suggested that these words provide windows through which to see Young's persona.  I'd now like to explore that persona, quoting from Young's lyrics and referring to some of his biography.

Loneliness is a persistent theme in Young's lyrics from his first solo album, which included the song, "The Loner":

There was a woman he knew
About a year or so ago.
She had something
that he needed
And he pleaded
with her not to go.
On the day that she left,
He died,
but it did not show.
Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
Step aside, open wide,
It's the loner.

In this final verse, Young addresses romantic love--a subject that is omnipresent in his early songs. And, as it so often is in his lyrics, it is failed or frustrated love.

"The Losing End," a song from Young's second solo album, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, continues the themes of isolation and failed romantic love in a simpler vein:

I went into town to see you
but you were not home.
So I talked to some old friends
for a while
before I wandered off alone.

It's so hard for me now
But I'll make it somehow,
Though I know I'll never be the same.
Won't you ever change your ways,
It's so hard to make love pay
When you're on the losing end,
And I feel that way again.

This song, with its country sound, is reminiscent of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Neil Young can do lost love, cryin' in your beer songs with the best of 'em.

This lonely, frustrated lover persona dominates Young's early work. Other notable examples include "Oh, I've Loved Her so Long," where Young assumes the courtly love posture of the man who admires his love from afar; "Tell Me Why" ("I am lonely but you can free me/All in the way that you smile"); and "Out on the Weekend" ("See the lonely boy/Out on the weekend/Tryin' to make it pay").

The subjects of Young's songs are not just lonely; they're emotionally vulnerable and filled with doubt--not just about love but about life. Typical is the lover in "I Believe in You," who wonders if he's lying when he says he believes in his love and speaks these tortured lines: "Coming to you at night/I see my questions/I feel my doubts." Also, the searcher from "Tell Me Why," who wonders why it's so "hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you're old enough to repay
but young enough to sell."

The main characters of Young's songs are trying to figure out who they are. They have a desperate need to connect with others, but that desire to connect is most often thwarted by their own self-doubt, introversion, and anxiety. In addition to being vulnerable, Young's heroes often have an innocence about them that allows them to feel deeply and appreciate fully but that can lead to trouble when encountering the real world. Representative songs here would include "I am a Child," and "Sugar Mountain," as well as the one who keeps on "searching for a heart of gold" but who is also "getting old." 

I always caution my literature students about leaping too quickly to the conclusion that a writer's poems are autobiographical. However, when you're reading Romantic poets (think Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman), it's hard to escape the conclusion that they are writing about themselves--or at least using the "I" in the poem as a symbol of some human truth or behavior. Young, who is nothing if not a romantic poet, writes about himself all the time.  And often the characters he creates end up looking very much like Neil Young.

If you look at Young's career as a musician, he's always been "The Loner." This in spite of collaborating successfully with groups. From Buffalo Springfield, to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to the Stray Gators, to Crazy Horse--these collaborations have been on again-off again affairs, usually more off than on. Before their summer release of Americana, it had been ten years since Young and Crazy Horse had played together. Apparently most members of the band just sit around waiting for Neil to call, and often there's a long interval between calls! 

People who write about Young attribute this to his ruthless pursuit of his unique musical vision. He's so intent on playing what he hears in his head or "following his muse," as he puts it, that he can't be tied one group of musicians--at least for very long.  

Young has also managed to create over the years a persona much like the innocent, vulnerable, overly sensitive hero of his songs. Maybe it's the voice or what one writer described as his "aw shucks" stage demeanor, but when I hear his songs, it's hard not to make the immediate connection to the writer. This is partly what creates the raw emotional impact of a song like "Helpless." Who else could ring so much emotion out of a song that pretty much repeats one word over and over--and over? 

Young's vulnerability and helplessness is not just emotional, however. He's experienced eplilectic seizures since childhood. His biography is titled "Shakey," a reference to the fear Young's early bandmates had that he might experience one of his episodes on stage (he never has). In a 1975 interview, Cameron Crowe asked him about his condition, and Young responded:

I don't know. Epilepsy is something nobody knows much about. It's just part of me. Part of my head, part of what's happening in there. Sometimes something in my brain triggers it off. Sometimes when I get really high it's a very psychedelic experience to have a seizure. You slip into some other world. Your body's flapping around and you're biting your tongue and batting your head on the ground but your mind is off somewhere else. The only scary thing about it is not going or being there, it's realizing you're totally comfortable in this...void. And that shocks you back into reality. It's a very disorienting experience. It's difficult to get a grip on yourself. The last time it happened, it took about an hour-and-a-half of just walking around the ranch with two of my friends to get it together.

Young has not let his disability stand in the way of his pursuit of his musical vision. Like his emotional doubts and insecurities, he incorporates it into his music. I think this willingness to put himself out there with all his imperfections is part of what makes Young a unique artist. 

Another aspect of Young as artist that most critics mention and that I admire is his adventurous spirit and creative genius that lead him to constantly change musical styles and genres. Young addressed his willingness to change in his interview with Crowe:

You gotta keep changing. . . I'd rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way. If that's the price, I'll pay it. I don't give a shit if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million. It doesn't make any difference to me. I'm convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it's coincidence. I just appreciate the freedom to put out an album.

In this way, Young is like Bob Dylan, who has pursued his own artistic vision even at the risk of losing fans who preferred a particular style or genre of music. Young talked about how this pursuit is a personal one for him:

Every one of my records, to me, is like an ongoing autobiography. I can't write the same book every time. There are artists that can. They put out three or four albums every year and everything fucking sounds the same. That's great. Somebody's trying to communicate to a lot of people and give them the kind of music that they know they want to hear. That isn't my trip. My trip is to express what's on my mind. I don't expect people to listen to my music all the time. Sometimes it's too intense. If you're gonna put a record on at 11:00 in the morning, don't put on Tonight's the Night. Put on the Doobie Brothers.

It's interesting that Young uses the term "autobiography" to describe his albums, lending further credibility to my suggestion that Young's poetic and personal persona are closely related.

Young's pursuit of his artistic vision have also led him outside the musical realm to other art forms. Over the years he's acted in and produced films, most notably a trilogy of movies with director Jonathan Demme (the third, Neil Young Journeys, will be released this fall). He's also become a writer, having just completed his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. He commented in a recent interview that writing a book is like writing songs--just without the melody.

"Desperate" is a final word I'd like to use to describe Neil Young. In my last post I quoted a writer from Rolling Stone who described Young's guitar playing:  "It's like he desperately wants to connect. Neil's playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience." I would like to apply that description more broadly and suggest that all of Young's art is a desperate attempt to connect--to connect with himself, with his friends and lovers, with his audience, and with his world. Herein lies a paradox, of course, since we've already heard Young say he doesn't give a shit about his audience. But he means that in the sense of not letting audience preference and tastes determine his artistic course. When he believes in something strongly, when he's passionate about it, Young wants nothing so much as to achieve that connection--to make his audience feel what he feels and see what he sees.

A final observation is that as Young has matured as a writer and person, he's transformed his early romantic love vision into a broader vision that includes his hope for a better and kinder world. Since he wrote "Ohio" as an anthem for anti-war protestors in the 60s, Young has always been passionate about pursuing peace and social justice. He has an entire album on the subject, Living with War, and in one of his more well-known songs, "Rockin' in the Free World," he paints a moving picture of the realities of poverty and drugs:

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away,
and she's gone to get a hit
She hates her life,
and what she's done to it
There's one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.

Young has always been an insightful commentator on social problems and politics. What is striking about his presentation of these problems for me is that he brings the same wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability to his treatments. We don't just see the problem; we see the problem through Young's eyes. We feel his profound disappointment as he looks for a world that could be but faces the one that exists. He longs passionately for a world of peace where people are not separated by race, religion, and economic status. He longs passionately for an earth that is protected and nourished by its inhabitants, and he reacts in horror when he sees what we've done to Mother Earth. In this Young is presenting what for me is a theological vision though he might not describe it in these term. It is most certainly a Shalom vision, and it's one of the features of his art that makes it so important to me. Notice how strongly this theological vision stands out in his song "Living with War":

I'm living with war everyday
I'm living with war in my heart everyday
I'm living with war right now

And when the dawn breaks I see my fellow man

And on the flat-screen we kill and we're killed again
And when the night falls, I pray for peace
Try to remember peace

I join the multitudes

I raise my hand in peace
I never bow to the laws of the thought police
I take a holy vow
To never kill again
To never kill again

This post has gone on much longer than I intended, but, as Neil says, sometimes you've got to follow your artistic vision and not care too much about what your audience thinks. To those few who have stayed with me this long, thanks for reading. I leave you with a video of Young and Pearl Jam doing an amazing rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World" at the MTV awards in the 90s. It's worth watching to see Young's passionate guitar playing--and to see Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam smashing guitars and microphones at the song's conclusion. Guess I forgot to mention that Neil Young has also been called the Godfather of Grunge.

Keep on rockin' in the free world.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Still Young after all these years, Part 1

Neil Young

When I was a freshman in college, I was at a talent show on campus when a guy got up with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and performed Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." This became a defining moment for me. I was impressed. I'd never seen anyone play the harmonica with one of those harmonica holders; plus, the student's name was Homer, which would have made him cool even without the talent.

The next day I went to a music store, bought a G-harp and one of those holder things (is there a name for those?), and proceeded to spend hours in my dorm room learning to play "Heart of Gold." (I'd like to offer belated apologies to my roommate.) Over the years, I've performed that song multiple times at church and college events. If you mention my name to students who attended Cascade College, they probably won't remember much about my writing and literature classes. They'll be more likely to say something like "Oh yeah, he's the guy that always played Neil Young and Bob Dylan songs." I later added a couple of Dylan tunes to my repertoire that allowed me to leverage my investment in the harmonica and holder, but my skill level with the harmonica never progressed beyond those few tunes.

What did progress was my fascination with the music of Neil Young. His songs have been faithful companions to me over many years, stretching from my high school days until the present. If someone wanted to make a video of my life and times (no one's offered so far), the songs of Neil Young would make the perfect soundtrack. I can visualize it.

The story would begin with my life as a shy and awkward teenager looking for love ("See the lonely boy/Out on the weekend/Tryin' to make it pay/Can't relate to joy/Tries to speak and/Can't begin to say"); proceed to the birth of political and social awareness in my twenties ("Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio"); capture my growing environmental awareness in my thirties ("Oh, Mother Earth with your fields of green/Once more laid down by the hungry hand/How long can you give and not receive/And feed this world ruled by greed"); reflect my appreciation for friends and family in my forties ("We've been through some things together/With trunks of memories still to come/We've found things to do in stormy weather/Long may you run"); and highlight my growing religious progressivism and political liberalism in my fifties ("Was he thinkin' about my country or the color of my skin?/Was he thinkin' 'bout my religion and the way I worshiped him?/Did he create just me in his image or every living thing?/When God made me").

But enough about me. What I really wanted to write about is Young's music and explore why this singer/songwriter has been such an influential figure in my life. But I've realized that you can't really write about Neil Young's music without writing about Neil Young the person (or perhaps the "persona" that he's created with his music).

I'm no music critic, but I think it's safe to say with Neil it all starts with the voice--that unmistakeable, haunting voice. A Rolling Stone writer put it this way:

An engineer at an early Neil Young studio session told him, "You're a good guitar player, kid, but you'll never make it as a singer." But Young soon proved himself able to convey emotional truths with a sound no one else could produce — a quavering, lonesome tenor that works equally well over the crazed distortion of Crazy Horse and the acoustic chords of his ballads. "It's very difficult for anyone else to sing his stuff," says David Crosby. "You go somewhere when Neil sings — you definitely don't just stay in your seat." Says Lucinda Williams, "That voice summons up something. It's ethereal, spooky, soulful, and completely unique to him." 

I remember loaning a Neil Young album to a college friend who attended another Christian university. Next time I saw him, he said he loved the album, but his suite mates wouldn't let him play it. Apparently Neil's piercing vocals and guitar solos on "Down by the River" didn't fit well with the Christian soft rock preferred by his fellow students.

Speaking of guitar solos, Young's guitar playing, like his voice, is unique. Again from Rolling Stone:

If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young's original "Down by the River" solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect. Neil's playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience.

The above descriptions of Young's vocals and his guitar playing provide some helpful windows into his persona.  Three words are especially telling: lonesome, unique, and desperate. I'll cover those in my next post.  Until then, you might want to relive the 70s with a little classic Neil Young:

I want to live,
I want to give
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.