Yes, I know the correct lyric is "repay", but that doesn't make a lick of sense. The above is the way I always heard it since the record first came out, which I totally understood: old enough that you could arguably use a fresh coat of paint, but still young enough that people are interested in what you have to offer. That's 60-something Neil Young in a nutshell. Hey, he's still young enough to sell us two unbelievably expensive tickets to see his solo show at Oakland's Fox Theater on July 12.
Do I regret it? Naaaahhh. I never saw Neil Young before, though I've liked his records since I was a tad. In between, he's had his ups and downs, the worst of which may have been his bizarre brain fart of outspoken Republicanism in the 80s (which I'll forgive; a great many "classic-rock" artists became unbelievably useless in the post-punk years, but a lot of them got over it later in fine style, Neil included).
But the first decade of the 21st century has been an interesting one for Young. The fascinating biography Shakey by Jimmy McDonough paints a portrait of a passive-aggressive guy who's burnt many of his bridges, lost his essential producer/collaborator David Briggs, and didn't look likely to contribute anything new and important in the future. What happens after the book comes out? Neil Young releases Greendale, a sweet, eccentric, moving, heartfelt multimedia piece (album, movie, performance, and soon-to-be comic book) that revived the socially conscious (especially when it comes to the environment) side of his art. And who's that playing Grandpa in the movie? None other than Ben Keith, the wonderful pedal steel guitarist who McDonough portrayed as having been so let down by Neil that he would never work with him again. Goes to show that life is a process, and while we may be caught up in our grievances in any given moment, tomorrow may bring new opportunities, new revelations, and new priorities.
Later in the decade, Neil puts out a very blunt album of protest songs called Living With War, coerces Crosby, Stills, and Nash into a tour where they are required to delve into their most confrontational anti-war songs and bring them to venues that aren't ready to greet them with warm nostalgia, and makes a film about the whole thing. Clearly, old age has brought out the fire in this guy, and resting on his laurels is the last thing on his mind. I haven't heard the much-maligned album Fork In The Road, which was apparently a whole album about how we need to switch to electric cars, but I guarantee that, like everything this guy does, there have to be at least two songs that are as good as his intentions. Because that's how Neil Young rolls.
This year, it's all about the "Twisted Road" tour: solo shows, mostly electric, lots of new songs. Fans have been moaning that he's been using the same set list every night, to which I say, WHO ON EARTH can afford to go to more than one, maybe two, of these gigs? If it's got to be this expensive, I appreciate that he's thought very hard about his program and what he wants to put across, and he's not just winging it.
Bert Jansch, a legend in his own right, opened the show. Sensuous acoustic guitar, purring vocals, thick accent I could barely understand, the music went down like a hot toddy. I would have liked it if people had talked less during his set. He was personable and enthusiastic, and his music was sublime.
Neil Young got down to business, starting with some oldies like "My My, Hey Hey" and (as quoted up above) "Tell Me Why". He tended to favor songs from the early 70s, especially from After The Gold Rush, but the real point of the show seemed to be the eight unrecorded (I'd say "new", but some of them apparently go back a while) songs. Every single one of these was striking.
I noticed the big difference between old Neil Young songs and new ones; in the 60s and 70s, his lyrics were primal, subconscious and random, like mad non sequitur fever dreams that evoked strange emotions but never added up to anything logical. The songs were wide-eyed, delirious, enigmatic, sometimes downright insane. Can you tell me what is going on in "Down By The River"? Do you even want to know?
The new songs are nothing of the sort. They are as strikingly direct as the old ones are strikingly mysterious. Neil Young is taking you aside, confiding in you, cracking jokes, and telling you exactly what's on his mind. And he's got a lot of interesting things to say, whether he's reflecting on a deceased friend, the themes of his own writing over the years and what more can be said about "Love And War", or a very straightforward cataloging of his drug experiences and how they made sense at the time and how he moved on. Once a poet, now a storyteller. If he doesn't change his fickle mind and goes ahead and records this batch of great new songs, this could be the best new Neil Young album in quite a while.
You have to acknowledge this guy for the stubborn bastard he is. He will not budge an inch from where he thinks his muse is leading him at any given moment. At the same time, he will change direction on a dime and leave everyone around him high and dry if his intuition tells him that's what he must do. I'm sure it makes him hard to work with, but if you read between the lines in Shakey, what makes this artist tick is so obvious even his biographer misses it: not only is Neil Young an intense, curious, creative person, but he is also an epileptic. When he was younger, playing with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, he was plagued with horrible seizures, often while he was onstage. It makes sense that rather than going the way of Ian Curtis, he decided long ago when he had achieved a certain level of success that he was not going to subject his nervous system to any stress by doing anything other than what is fulfilling him at this exact moment. This is how he functions. The rest of us either like what he's doing or we don't, but we don't have a say in what that is. We can only choose whether or not we want to witness his process. He's certainly done his part by keeping things interesting most of the time. Long may he run.