It must have been fun to work at Warner/Reprise in 1969. There were so many great groups on their roster: Joni Mitchell, Van Dyke Parks, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, the Kinks, the Grateful Dead… They were the cool label. Selling those records to all the hip kids must have been a piece of cake.
Or maybe not.
Because when it came time to come up with a campaign to promote Neil Young’s first album with his new band Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, they ended up with a novel idea: free dirt. That’s not a euphemism for anything. You could send in a form and they’d mail you a baggie of dirt from Topanga Canyon. No self-addressed stamped envelope or anything!
“Miss Penny in shipping has demanded tranquilizers, overtime, and an Easter bonus for her boys if they have to bag dirt. But what the hell. Nobody understood Galileo either. Read on.”
If I am being honest, I am just as guilty as anyone—maybe more so. I see “legacy” acts touring and think, “Why bother? They can’t be as good as in their prime.” Sometimes I’ve been proven right when a band that hasn’t spoken in 20 years gets together for a tour only to realize they stopped speaking for a reason and should leave us all out if it. But sometimes I am proven wrong; gloriously wrong.
Graham Nash has always been the secret ingredient. His harmonies are unmatched, and that’s evident in the work he’s done from The Hollies, to CSN(Y), and anything else he’s lent that magical voice to. It’s a high harmony, which is a big responsibility to hold in a singing group because those are the notes everyone really hears. Guys like David Crosby and Chris Hillman have a special gift for the harder to find middle parts, but they can also hide a little easier. With Nash, it’s right out there hovering over the entire song. That means his voice needs to be in top form, lest we all walk away just a little disappointed.
While the idea that artists can make music that is not what people, fans, mainly, think or expect them to make and yet that music has as much validity as anything that they may have previously recorded or performed raised in this recent entry about Elvis Costello, it has come to my attention that this isn’t some philosophical rabbit hole, but potentially something that could have crippling consequences for the performer in question.
That is, back in the 1980s, when Neil Young was signed to David Geffen’s label, Geffen sued Young for $3-million, with the suit claiming that the music that Young was putting out—Trans and then Everybody’s Rockin’—were “unrepresentative” of, well, presumably Neil Young music.
The suit was dropped, but consider what the existence of the suit in the first place meant.
Neil Young was signed to a label presumably because there was something that was considered to be “Neil Young Music.” Prior to that point in time, Young had put out a rather robust body of work, a collection that could be considered, to put it modestly, eclectic.
Does, say, Harvest (’72) have much similarity to Rust Never Sleeps (’79)?
Yet Geffen seems to have thought that there was Neil Young Music and there was something that was Not Neil Young Music. He had paid for NYM. He was getting what he perceived to be NNYM. And so he wanted his money back.
If you went to an ice cream store and ordered a banana split and they gave you a hot fudge sundae, you’d probably want a redo, at the very least. Arguably some of the components of the banana split are like those of the hot fudge sundae, but that’s not what you had in mind.
And Geffen didn’t have, apparently, Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’ in mind, either.
So who’s right? Who decides? The artist/performer or the person paying for the product? (Yes, “product” is a loaded word, but most musicians are not involved in personal not-for-profit undertakings, because when they go to the ice cream store for that hot fudge sundae, the person behind the counter expects money, not a song.)
I love Neil, but my biggest issue with him lately is that ever since his longtime producer David Briggs died in 1995 Neil has favored a spontaneous type of songwriting and recording that has all but buried any sense of craftsmanship. Neil’s best moments have always felt “off the cuff” while never taking the easy or obvious route.
The intro of “Oh Susanna” sounds like the first time they ran through the song, which it probably was because that’s how Neil likes to record these days. Yes, as it goes on it gets into a good, funky groove. And that’s all Neil seems to strive for in his golden years.
But is that enough? Neil Young has written more gut wrenching, mind blowing, heart breaking material than anybody else in his generation. He’s an old man now, and let’s face it: he’s gotten lazy. At least when it comes to recording new material. Apologists can justify it all they want but it’s become clear that Neil simply does not want to put in the effort to make great records anymore.
Granted, he’s still doing more interesting stuff than any of his contemporaries. Who even comes close? McCartney? No. Dylan? Eh. Leonard Cohen? Maybe.
What’s certain is that Neil Young is continuing his 45 year long tradition of doing exactly what he wants, following that bipolar fucking muse wherever she leads him, consequences be damned. I just wish his muse would encourage him to sit down and write some lyrics. And then read them back and edit them. And not just say whatever pops into his head first because usually that’s pretty insipid. Work on the songs. And work harder.
When Neil was 25 he was able to come up with “Ohio” in twenty minutes, according to legend. Those days are long gone.
Since his latest album Americana contains covers of “classic, American folk songs,” the spotlight on his songwriting will be averted for now. But pay attention to the arrangements and the recordings. Of all the musicians Neil has worked with over the years, the Horse has proven most capable of pulling off the spontaneity. And the more I listen to “Oh Susanna” the more I like its funky charms.
Let’s hope the rest of Americana succeeds as well at rising above the amount of effort put into it.
“The world can be split into two camps: people that like Neil Young and people that don’t. And the people that don’t are fucking idiots. Mind you, I wish he’d spend more than a week making an album.”
–Noel Gallagher, Mojo Magazine, September 2011
After he released the video for “Angry World” last week, Neil Young has put out three more videos from Le Noise, his upcoming solo album produced by Daniel Lanois. (Ha, as I was typing that just now I realized for the first time that “le noise” is a mispronunciation of “Lanois.” Oh Neil, you jokester!) I’m really liking the way these songs sound.
Aww yeah, Neil’s getting weird again. The first thing you hear is a vocal loop, then two crunchy Gretsch parts from a distorted White Falcon, and then Neil’s voice: “Some see life as a broken promise / Some see life as an endless fight / They think they live in the age of darkness / They think they live in the age of light / It’s an angry world and everything is going to be alright.” No drums, no bass, nothing but Neil. The lyrics aren’t as subtle as we could hope for, but at least they’re not stupid. I’m excited about the new album, Le Noise, due September 28 on Reprise (WMG).
The fine folks at the Fork have been uncovering all kinds of new music for you to check out. But it’s impossible for anybody to listen to everything, so we handpick the best mp3s just for you. Listen for yourself and let us know what you think.
Here’s our roundup of stuff that Pitchfork posted from May through July on their Forkcast:
From a new post on Neil Young‘s N Y Times, we learn that work on the second volume of the Archives project is well underway. Volume 2 is said to contain “even more content than Volume 1, with many unreleased tracks.” Included will be “rebuilt” versions of three unreleased studio albums: Chrome Dreams (1977), Homegrown (1975), and Oceanside-Countryside (???), as well as “Odeon-Budokan live.” Before Volume 2 hits the shelves, all four of these albums will be “released in vinyl from analog masters as they originally were created for that format.” Interesting…
Chrome Dreams and Homegrown are both fairly well documented with many of their songs trickling out across Zuma, American Stars ‘N Bars, Rust Never Sleeps, Hawks & Doves, and Decade. Oceanside-Countryside is rumored to include the pre-overdub versions of material that ended up on Comes a Time.
Odeon-Budokan Live was a live Crazy Horse album produced by David Briggs and Tim Mulligan but never released. These shows from March 1976 in Japan and London were professionally filmed as well. See the complete set lists below…