Sunday, July 18, 2010

Old enough to repaint, but young enough to sell

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.


Davis Jones said...

Wow! What a wonderful and insightful critique of the Neil Young concert. I think you hit the nail on the head and I bet (or hope) he gets to read this and respond.

Do you think it will stress him out?

That may be a factor in whether he will read anything,huh?

This kind of bold analysis, from the historical mindfield called you, is fresh, informative, and directly appropriate for someone like Neil to bask in, methinks!

It explains away my complaint that the concert had so little of Neil in it that I might as well listen to a record.....

He is introspective, and protective of himself, while seating himself directly in the limelight that for most would cause the stress he is trying to avoid.

How does he manage to perform and be introspective or protective at the same time, and be honored for the strong communication of his non verbal presence?

He hardly said a word about anything other than the title of the song. I expected to get some inspiration and "all the young dudes carrying the news" revelations, being someone who can really make an impact.

Was he challenged to keep it low keyed and focused? Or was he protecting himself? Or is this just old age? I recently watched Rust Never Sleeps and the Greendale concert DVD and thought I would get the same for my dollars... but I didn't. I enjoyed seeing him but I wanted him to enjoy us as well.

So your post helps me to have a deeper understanding of this performer and what we just saw.

I wish him well. I wish we could know him better. I wish we could interview him, after inviting him to dinner.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Sounds cool. Is he playing solo or with a band?

Saw him with Crazy Horse several years ago in a barn in Milwaukee, with Social Distortion and Sonic Youth opening. It was a very noisy night, and the boomers who wanted to hear the folk-rock troubadour that classic rock radio had conditioned them to expect were a bit put out.

J Neo Marvin said...

He played totally solo, but mostly using loud electric guitar, sometimes grand piano, tack piano, or pipe organ (on After The Gold Rush--sounded pretty cool), a little acoustic at the start. But mostly loud electric guitar.

We have some dear friends who saw the Ragged Glory tour with Sonic Youth. They did NOT get Sonic Youth at all. Meanwhile I'm thinking, oh damn I wish I'd been there.

Ian Schultz said...

I was highly surprised you hadn't seen Neil Young live before... how much were the extremely expensive tickets by the way?

J Neo Marvin said...

For two people with service charges and tax, $342.55! Even Leonard Cohen was cheaper.

ian Schultz said...

I think the most i've paid for a gig was like £38, which is like '$70 and that was like David Byrne, The Stooges/Suicide and I think Devo

J Neo Marvin said...

Yeah well, it was that or not see him at all, and we felt like doing it.

Wow, the Stooges and Suicide played together? That's almost too much charisma for one night.

ian Schultz said...

Suicide supported The Stooges, Suicide did all a insanely loud fucked up attempt at the first and best album, it was either one of the best performances i have ever seen or one of the worst, I'm certain i got hearing loss because of the gig, The Stooges did all the songs from Raw Power (not in order) + some old classics 1969, I Wanna Be Your Dog, Fun House and Kill City stuff and I Got a Right etc, probably the most amazing gig i've been too

J Neo Marvin said...

Hmmmm, I hope Rev held back a little for "Girl", so Alan Vega could do it justice.

Ian Schultz said...

No, it was just a complete wall of pounding noise with Rev just punching his synth for about a hour with
Vega screaming on top of it

J Neo Marvin said...

That'd work for "Frankie Teardrop", not so much for some of the others. But Suicide do like to challenge the audience.

Now that they're pretty much universally revered, maybe they miss the days when people hated them and would throw things.