In Praise of Neil
The ultimate Neil Young career retrospective is finally here. Years in the making, months in the start-and-stop release, this first collection highlights the years 1963-1972 and features an unprecedented 10 Blu-ray discs-worth of Neil classics, previously unreleased material, alternate takes and live cuts, from his earliest days with the little-known band the Squires through his classic “Harvest” album. This series – the latter years edition(s) still to come – according to press material, is the “definitive, comprehensive, chronological survey of his entire body of work.” At a cost around $200, you will have to be the biggest of Neil fans to own it.
However, the release of the retrospective does present a good time to discuss Neil Young’s place in the pantheon of popular music.
He is, in my opinion, one of the top 5 songwriters in American pop music history. There is Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon, Springsteen. And then… Neil Young? He is surely right up there. I’m not talking about number of hit songs, but quality of output, longevity, versatility and passion.
His longevity alone qualifies him. Music lovers can recite with ease the stages of Neil’s career: folk-rock pioneer with Buffalo Springfield in the ’60s; the loner rocking in early ’70s; his on-again, off-again musical love affair with Crosby, Stills and Nash; his guitar-hero frenzy with power trio Crazy Horse; and his laid-back country acoustic side. In his four-decade past he’s compiled album upon album of songs now forever referred to as classic rock – from Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” to CSNY’s “Ohio” to “Tonight’s the Night” with Crazy Horse and “Like a Hurricane.”
These stages were not a bunch of side projects, but a full-blown part of Neil Young’s musical spirit. And each stage, no matter which he chose, felt like a perfect fit for his talents. Yes, his music took some unexpected turns. There was an electronica album (“Tron”), a rockabilly album (“Everybody’s Rockin’ ”), and a jump blues album (“This Note’s for You”). Each seemed like a detour down some dirt road to nowhere. But at the time, they were what felt right to him and he didn’t give a darn what anyone else thought. If he had to go the trip alone, so be it.
In the mid-’80s, I went to see him in concert during the “This Note’s for You” tour. In an interview beforehand, he warned his fans that he was only going to play his “blues stuff.” Yet those at the show came expecting to hear “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Hurricane,” etc. As promised he hardly played any of his hits, and the crowd was not pleased. Finally, as an encore, he played “Tonight’s the Night” and fans roared with approval.
That desire to follow his heart has lead Neil to some pretty tough places, including battles with CSN over commercial success, and with critics over perceived poor material. But that’s what makes Neil great. His whole musical existence is to play what moves him. Luckily a lot of what moves Neil, moves others as well.
His work with Crazy Horse on 1979’s “Rust Never Sleeps” through 1989’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” inspired the grunge movement so much that Pearl Jam basically made him an honorary member. In 1992, at a time when folks started to worry Neil might be washed up, he delivered a stellar acoustic sequel to his 1972 hit album “Harvest,” called “Harvest Moon, which sweetly celebrated of aging and his love for his wife.
In fact, the latter album’s song “You and Me” talks directly to the “Harvest” song “Old Man”: Old man sittin’ there/Touch of grey, but he don’t care /When he hears his children call. The song is sung with an elegant simplicity, yet it captures the phrasing and style of the original and echoes the tune without stealing from it. It’s genius songwriting.
Neil’s lyrics run the gamut from very personal, simple messages (“Only Love Will Break Your Heart”), to political rants (“Rockin’ in the Free World”), to complex story songs (“Cortez the Killer,” “Pocahontas”), each played with equal earnestness.
And Neil’s electric guitar playing, while not the most sophisticated or flashy, has reached legendary status for the way he maniacally hunches over his axe and stomps around the stage shooting out wailing solos. His acoustic playing is more subtle, but just as heart-filled. As he’s gotten older, he’s returned to genres he loves, with varying degrees of success. 2005’s “Prairie Wind,” made after Neil came back from a brain aneurysm. And just as we thought he might again be was slowing down, he followed that up with the scathing “Living With War,” which was filled with songs blasting George W. Bush in a fury of electric guitars. The former was praised by critics, while the latter was dubbed a Grumpy Old Neil album. Now at 63, he’s released another rocking album, “Fork in the Road,” inspired by his Linc Volt electric car. Like it or hate it, this is a perfectly fitting album for him. It’s about what he is absolutely passionate about: cars, politics, going green, and rock ’n’ roll.
As usual, if you don’t care to take the journey, he’s OK to go it alone.
Our favorite Neil songs, and the album the songs come from: 1. Needle and the Damage, Done, “Harvest” 2. Tonight’s the Night, “Tonight’s the Night” 3. Pocahontas, “Chrome Dreams” 4. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” 5. Down By the River, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” 6. Cortez the Killer, “Zuma” 7. Tired Eyes, “Tonight’s the Night” 8. The Loner, “Neil Young” 9. A Man Needs a Maid, “Harvest” 10. Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty), CSNY’s “Deja Vu” 11. Comes a Time, “Comes a Time” 12. Don’t Let It Bring You Down, “After the Goldrush” 13. Cowgirl in the Sand, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” 14. Helpless, CSNY’s “Deja Vu” 15. I Am a Child, Buffalo Springfield’s “Last Time Around”