The Big Lookback: Neil Young
From 1997, "Wasted on the Young," a survey of a vast catalogue that has only grown since then.
Since my number-one 2021 album Barn brought Neil Young back from what I calculate as a 12-year songwriting drought, this seemed a good time to remind readers that, capacious though robertchristgau.com may be, it doesn’t include 70-odd pieces from my 1998 Harvard University Press collection, Grown Up All Wrong, which climaxed or anyway bid farewell with an otherwise unpublished essay I for some reason called “Wasted on the Young” instead of the cornier but also apter “Forever Young.” I don’t remember why I changed the title except maybe to underline that Young was no longer writing for rock’s fabled “youth audience”—an audience I could only fathom at an informed distance even at 56. The collection’s introduction is pretty choice as well: “Rock critics weren’t just movie reviewers who processed records instead. In addition to making the world safe for the devotional fellatio and semiconsensual s&m popular music ‘coverage’ turned into, we were exceptionally well-situated to penetrate, exploit, and (if we kept our wits about us) rise above the hypocrisies and illusions of the so-called alternative press. That for all my pop bias the alternative press was where I felt at home is the paradox at the heart of all my criticism only if it’s a paradox at all.”
“Wasted on the Young” is at bottom a survey of a vast catalogue, although I wouldn’t have believed at the time—despite the alternate mixes and stealth song choices that were already starting to surface for anyone who paid closer attention to Young’s discography than workaday fans should need to—how perversely and elusively he would continue to fiddle with the details of the albums I hoped to pin down for the historical record. Thus I had an excuse to binge a little last weekend, but only a little—it would take well over 24 hours to play just the 36 Young CDs on my A shelves. But I couldn’t resist revisiting my faves. So of course I returned to After the Gold Rush, with the personal reasons “Wasted on the Young” references in play as always, and as a critic practiced in replicating objectivity under extenuating circumstances can reiterate my belief that it will always remain one of his best. My fondness for the obscure 1973 Time Fades Away (no, I do not own the 2016 remaster) is on the other hand an outlier, so I’ll pose my report as a dare: play “Don’t Be Denied” before you make up your mind to skip what looks like a live placeholder. I grant that “The Bridge,” which follows, is just that. But it gets us to “Last Dance,” so I dare you. Then there’s a song I hadn’t thought about since I reviewed Freedom, the racially redolent “Crime in the City,” which overpowered me in its live Weld form and held its own in its longer and calmer studio version.
Yes there was a drought, and Barn does indeed end it. But as I hear things, that drought began more than 10 years after “Wasted on the Young” was written. From Greendale to Prairie Wind to Living With War to Fork in the Road, Young continued to release albums of worthy new songs, songs that more often than not addressed the kind of political questions that are supposedly death on songwriting—and followed in 2011 with the barely noticed masterpiece Americana, cover versions that took the piss out of the nuevo-folkie sentimentality of the “movement” of the same name. True, Young’s political focus is less class than ecology, as it happens the life focus of his wife, Darryl Hannah. But ever since “Tonight’s the Night” and “Don’t Be Denied” he’s been an unusually class-conscious rock and roller as well. When he turns 77 in November, here’s betting he’ll do better with the “too late to stop now” idea than the guy who gave us that phrase has the brains or decency to imagine.
What makes Neil Young everybody’s favorite rock and roll survivor isn’t his famous changeability—folkie to rocker, choirboy to grunge daddy, earth-firster to technophile, dove to hawk to dove. It’s how stubbornly he sticks at what he does best. His true chameleon moves—the sci-fi voices of Trans, the rockabilly joke, the country record that was no such thing—came during his lost Reagan-Geffen years, and even then his music was all the same. Loud or soft, raw or cooked, impassioned or half-assed, smart or stupid, Young is always simple harmonically and melodically—classic when he’s on, dull when he’s off. The lyrics invariably mix literal clarity and obscure fancy. His soulful quaver has remained unmistakable as its eerie high end ages. Rick James and Booker T. connections notwithstanding, he’s as d’void of funk as any ex-folkie working. And although he unleashes his guitar only on the rockin’ tracks his alt fans prefer, most of his major albums, including After the Gold Rush (1970), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), and Freedom (1989), give equal time to his quiet/acoustic side.
Toting up his canon, most would fill out that short list with the demented Tonight’s the Night (recorded 1973, including “four or five songs on the first side all in a row” one drunken Crazy Horse night, released 1975) and then add a few favorites from among Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), Zuma (1975), Comes a Time (1978), Ragged Glory (1991), and Mirror Ball (1995). Except for Comes a Time, these are all guitar showcases, rockinger than anything on the short list, which some would claim should feature Ragged Glory rather than Freedom anyway. They’re all fine records, too. Yet although I know Neil Young is the source of Thurston Moore/Kurt Cobain industrial avant-primitivism and thus of the Roar—the loud, rhythmic, bone-drenching electric-guitar drone that was grunge’s gift to our brains, our earholes, and our bodies themselves—and although I live for out-of-body experiences like the tidal wave that was “Like a Hurricane” at the Palladium in 1976 or the twenty-minute serial explosion that was “Down by the River” at the Pier in 1985, I take my recorded fix from the finale of Live Rust (1979) or perhaps the two-CD Weld (1991). Canonwise, I prefer Comes a Time—or better still, nothing, since with Neil Young even more than most rock and rollers the notion of a canon is a kind of desecration, an insult to a lifetime of principled mess. If there’s anything wrong with Freedom and the nineties albums that followed, it’s their consistency, even their quality. They’re not weird enough, and they suggest the possibility that weirdness is now beyond him.
Emerging from the swamps of Reaganism just as Bush the Yalie replaced Ron the cowboy, Young was hailed as a respected elder in Alternative Nation, where eccentricity wasn’t just tolerated but expected. Thus his chance of crossing the line into formal unacceptability dipped radically—even 1991’s Arc, a precise equivalent to Lou Reed’s intensely controversial Metal Machine Music, barely raised an eyebrow. Political unacceptability might come easier—it would be surprising if in some part of himself Young wasn’t sympathetic to survivalist compounds, Internet revolutionaries, and bank robbers on a mission, although his shock at the Gulf War suggests that he could never hack, for instance, terrorist bombings. In the alt environment, where pop is a bad word and the crude blues-based materials Young championed against seventies progressivism were finally showing stretch marks, an environment that respected out-and-out crazies like Hasil Adkins and Daniel Johnston and professional neurotics like Lydia Lunch and Genesis P-Orridge and avant-gardists in good standing like Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock, an environment where provocateurs like Primus and Nine Inch Nails were mainstream while the incorrigibly self-involved Stephen Malkmus and Polly Jean Harvey reigned as critics’ darlings, an environment that supported Neilkins from Ira Kaplan to Howe Gelb, Young himself seems stuck—normalized.
Although I love all the albums on the short list, my very favorite is sentimental in more ways than one—the folky and/or country-rock After the Gold Rush, which was where I first fell for Neil and which will always remind me of a year of stoned solitude in LA, the morning sunshine warming my melancholy without dispersing it. After that, Rust Never Sleeps—for the survivalist “Powderfinger” and the lumpen-lovin’ “Welfare Mothers” above all—and then Tonight’s the Night, as influential and definitive as it was unconventional, and well behind that Freedom, a triumphant return that will always mean more to young alternarockers who’d never fallen for a new Neil Young album than to the oldsters whose life and lives it validated. But well ahead of Freedom, maybe of everything but After the Gold Rush, the Neil Young records I reaccess with the sharpest pleasure are all out-of-print vinyl obscurities, although the first three will assuredly be reissued just as soon as the master remasters them, conceivably in this millennium: Time Fades Away (1973) and On the Beach (1974), Hawks and Doves (1980) and Trans (1982). The first pair—released between the heroin deaths that inspired Tonight’s the Night and the cult enthusiasm that greeted it, enthusiasm that set Young gallumphing toward his Comes a Time-Rust Never Sleeps-Live Rust trifecta—address existential failure. And in the wake of that trifecta, the second pair sidestep artistic success. Instead they muse on the miasmas of American politics and grope primitive computer technology, greasing Young’s slide into a confusion they render tuneful along the way. The first pair transcend mess, the second neatness; the first pair inspire passionate advocates, the second sane defenders. But none of the four are canonical—at least not yet. And without question that adds to their charm.
Time Fades Away rejected the slickness of the seventies as forcefully as Tonight’s the Night, only no one took it seriously. Young wasn’t the first to package selected concert recordings of new songs in a world where live albums are supposed to exploit catalogue—compare the MC-5’s Kick Out the Jams. But the tactic was widely regarded as cynical and lazy until Young translated it to the “studio,” where the rough bar-band aesthetic of the home-recorded Tonight’s the Night proved so compelling that in retrospect it sounds solid, even pretty—especially up against the wiry caterwaul of Time Fades Away’s Stray Gators, a defter bunch than Crazy Horse whose country tinge was, as usual with Young, considerably less Nashville than other area codes believed. For Crazy Horse’s irreplaceable wild-ass conviction it substitutes the ragged glory of crack musicians who sense they’re in on something but aren’t sure it’s worth the pain. Their prize is a display of the same postcountercultural drug-casualty despair that fuels Tonight’s the Night, explicitly compounded by the addled anxieties of a stone loner—with visions of stardom he acknowledges and disparages in so many words—who’s somehow reached a mass audience via “Heart of Gold,” Harvest, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Sardonic and harrowing when it invokes the cultural moment and the woes ordained to follow, Time Fades Away is fond and clear-eyed when it turns to the lost past and the love in which it seeks solace. It peaks with the wavery pitches and obsessive repetitions of “Don't Be Denied,” a warmly inspirational piece of chin-upsmanship that runs aground on the cultural moment, and then, on the other side of “The Bridge,” “Last Dance,” which exploits and exposes the deep, useless relief of getting lost in rhythm—even, or especially, a whomp as primal as that of Turtle-turned-Gator Johnny Barbata and the kindly sasquatch in the patched jeans. Both songs address the fans all live albums assume on an uncommonly direct, one-to-one level—not as cheering section cum power supply or commodifying threat to artistic freedom, but as kids whose dreams of success Young knows well enough to worry about. If those dreams come true, if “a pauper in a naked disguise” becomes “a millionaire through a businessman’s eyes,” love and friendship will get wasted. But if they don’t, it’s even worse, because instead of “Working on your own time/Laid back and laughing,” you get stuck on a freeway treadmill of job and home, job and home. In case anyone’s missed the point, the final track ends with Neil and occasional Gators repeating the word “no” sixty-eight times, in groups of three with one quintuplet for variety. When he’s done he hollers “Last dance”—the title’s first and only appearance.
Succumbing to this despair, the private, nakedly self-indulgent On the Beach shrank from the audience Times Fades Away reached out to. Basted together by drop-ins from Crazy Horse, the Gators, the Band, even CSNY, its homemade rock invited comparison to Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves, a David Geffen kissoff that preceded Young’s weirdnesses by nearly a decade, and also Skip Spence’s Oar, in which the Moby Grape acid casualty got so casual he fell off the edge of the record. And though loyalists bought it anyway—it was the only one of the five standard issues between Harvest and Comes a Time to make top twenty—it seemed ominously disoriented and forlorn. But now that Young has demonstrated that his season of rue didn’t signal a descent into autism, we can hear it instead as one of those rare instances when a slop bucket holds a mess of pottage. Back then I admired the self-knowledge of two lines: “Though my problems are meaningless that don’t make them go away” (from the whiny “On the Beach”) and “It’s hard to say the meaning of this song” (from the wacked-out “Ambulance Blues”). Now I’m impressed that even in his despondency Young never lost his grip, because On the Beach lets us empathize with the depths he’d sunk to, with clear and specific attention to his fame.
“I need a crowd of people,” the loner admits, “but I can’t face them every day.” So in “For the Turnstiles” he compares himself to a bush-leaguer hung out to dry, an explorer going to his granite reward, a sailor serenading his seasick mama as a pimp charges ten at the door. How does such pain measure up against the nine-to-five drag of “Last Dance”? Like heaven. But Young is still the one who has to get up and fill that laid-back time when he doesn’t have a thing to laugh about, compelled to unloose some power within that will help a prisoner of the freeway get home. He has a right to mewl about the “good old days”—“Then the money was not so good/But we still did the best we could.” And his means to that power is his El Lay buddies, who fashion their homemades with such ingrained skill and traditionalism that On the Beach sounds in retrospect like a found picking session from some psychedelic Appalachian-Sierra outback—miles, eras, eons from the alt meanderings of Palace, early Sebadoh, even Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand, beholden to and adoring of Neil Young though all may be.
Over the next few years, Young made up with Steve Stills, birthed the recognizable Zuma and American Stars ‘n Bars, and compiled the three-LP Decade, with its famous annotation favoring the ditch over “Heart of Gold”’s middle of the road. In the wake of these accommodations, Comes a Time seems like the record he wishes Harvest had been: the most assured folk music anyone save fellow Canadians Kate & Anna McGarrigle managed after Blood on the Tracks ended Bob Dylan’s commitment to quality in 1975. And just as Dylan had in 1965, Young immediately trumped himself by honoring the most radical rock and roll in the air without compromising his sense of the fundamentals—except that where Dylan risked lynching when he went electric, Young’s rhetorical rapprochement with punk only strengthened his hold on fans who by then cheered his iconoclasm. And having defeated fame’s great bogey, the fear that a public identity will induce you to do the thing that is not-yourself, he started feeling around for how far he could go.
So inspired by whatever—Central America? Iran? Ron the cowboy?—Young proceeded to muck about with war and peace. Defined by Ben Keith's laconic dobro and Rufus Thibodeaux’s sawing fiddle, Hawks and Doves is as guarded and slight as any concept album ever. The supposed “doves” side takes off unsteadily on “Little Wing,” creaks into gear with a mind-bender starring a naked rider, a telephone booth, and some prehistoric birds, squeezes a bridge by a treated “munchkin” into another nutty song, and climaxes with a modern sea chantey about, it just may be, a yachtsman who as of “1971” (the year is named in full) still hasn’t gotten over a skirmish with “the Germans”—and “a young mariner” who hopes he can “kill good.” All pretty unsettling for peace. In fact, disregard the nuclear incident left playfully unspecified in “Comin’ Apart at Every Nail” and the uneventfulness of the five brief songs on the thirteen-minute “hawks” side comes as a relief—not Nashville, but Young’s straightest praise of true love and job-and-home life (especially if you take the union anthem literally: “Live music is better bumper stickers should be issued,” all right!). With its unambiguous parting words—“If you hate us, you just don’t know what you’re sayin’”—Hawks and Doves is either a defense of the ordinary Americans outside Young’s audience or a realistic appraisal of those in it. It’s no last word, but as with On the Beach, its fragile music and incomplete analysis have gained a cockeyed lyricism with the years, and the simple songs on side two are very strong. It was politically incorrect before there was any cachet in political incorrectness. It normalizes the weird and vice versa. It’s probably Young’s most underappreciated album.
We know now what inspired Trans two years later—not Devo or Kraftwerk, as was conjectured at the time, so much as a private struggle no one could call self-indulgent. Young’s second son was severely afflicted with cerebral palsy, requiring not only hours of exhausting work from his parents, but an intimacy with the computers Trans is still mindlessly believed to satirize. Although it’s remembered for masking Young’s all-too-human voice behind Vocoders and octave dividers, Trans is typically bifurcated, balancing three naturalistic Crazy Horse songs that include the decidedly unfuturist “Like an Inca” off against the computerized material. It’s also his most hummable album of the ‘80s. And while the likes of “Sample and Hold” and “Computer Cowboy” are certainly humorous, to call them satirical is to miss the benignly utopian goofiness with which they accept a digitalization whose limits they plainly perceive. Given what Young was going through, Trans is heroically lighthearted, a spiritual if not aesthetic achievement on a par with Tonight’s the Night itself. It’s probably Young’s most misunderstood album.
No one understood it worse than David Geffen, who didn’t steal Young from Warners so he could turn into some Chipmunks joke, and that, rather than Young’s disheartening turn to jingoism, may be why the oddball records leading back to Warner Bros. and Freedom leave so little taste in the mouth. But those days seem gone forever. From standards like “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “I’m the Ocean” and “Harvest Moon” and “Wrecking Ball” to personal favorites like “Safeway Cart” and “Piece of Crap” and “Downtown” and “Music Arcade” and the import-only-so-far “Cocaine Eyes,” the inductee who serenaded Rock & Roll Hall of Fame fat cats with “F*!#in' Up” and a song no one I asked had ever heard is classic-not-dull as a matter of habit. You might even wonder whether he hasn’t grown so confident in his aversion to complacency that he could play out his career as solidly and unmomentously as, say, Muddy Waters—never dismissed, but taken for granted. Who can say? No rock and roller has ever reached this place before. And while taken for granted is never enough, and no pitch of permanent vitality will ever answer the artist's eternal question of what to do for an encore, Young at fifty seems certain to keep unfurling what is already rock and roll’s vastest major body of work.
Yet awesome though it is in its way, this work is also totally modest. “They all sound the same,” shouts an audience dissident to introduce 1997’s Year of the Horse, inspiring the affable artist to explain, “It’s all one song.” Low on intellectual content if not verbal stimulation, it could be said to be about nothing but itself—a pure affirmation like gospel music, only with no room for the divine, a peculiar and telling absence in such a dreamy if not spiritual guy. Like the Rolling Stones, Young celebrates rock and roll as form. But because he has no use for the Stones’ meanness or professional precision, he makes that form seem incorrigibly democratic as they never do. Weirdness is his trademark in part because he’s pretty weird. But in part it’s his version of the Ramones’ gabba-gabba-hey. He accepts you he accepts you because you accept him you accept him, and round and round it goes, self-affirming and self-negating, a perfectly and completely inexplicit demonstration of why rock and roll means as much as Shakespearian tragedy or the contents of the Louvre to people who are supposed to know better—as well as the equally worthy people who aren’t.