Thursday, December 18, 2008

Neil Young

“But only love can break your heart / Try to be sure right from the start.”

If only, as a teenager, I had heeded these words. The fact is, I heard them, but I did not register their meaning. That may seems strange, but it was in the nature of popular music that you got into a song without really caring too much about the message.

I’ve been racking my brain trying to recall where I first heard this song. It must have been a popular seven single, but also appeared on a compilation album we had. I recall our friend from schooldays, Nolan “Jakkals” Rath, singing this song in what we used to term a “white coloured” accent, while “slatting his buck”, his lank hair not dissimilar to Neil Young’s, although he often joked that he was “beautiful like a woman”.

Neil Young. Not just a formidable member of Buffalo Springfield. Not just an exciting appendage to the firm of Crosby Stills & Nash. No Neil Young proved, from the late 1960s, through the 1970s, and even in the 1980s, that he was a composer and performer without peer; a unique once-off phenomenon who has left this world an infinitely richer place through his work. And so what if his second name was Percival.

Neil Percival Young, Wikipedia tells us, was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on November 12, 1945. The war was over, and in the fields of post-war opportunity, it was time to plough, sow and reap the rewards.

In its typically dispassionate way the web encyclopaedia says his work is “characterised by deeply personal lyrics, distinctive guitar work, and an instantly recognisable nasal tenor (and frequently alto) singing voice”. While experimenting with various music styles, “his best known work usually falls into either of two distinct styles: folk-esque acoustic rock (Heart Of Gold, Harvest Moon, Old Man) and hard rock, in songs like Cinnamon Girl, Rockin’ In The Free World and Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”. The website adds that grunge was “profoundly influenced and created due to his own style of playing”.

What I did not know was that he has directed or co-directed several films, under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, such as Journey Through The Past (1973), Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and Greendale (2003). He also, it says, is an advocate for environmental issues and small farmers, having co-founded the benefit concert Farm Aid.

Young’s literary side can probably be traced to the fact that his dad, Scott, was a sportswriter and novelist. His early years were spent in Omemee, a small town in Ontario, which is the “town in north Ontario” he mentions in Helpless.

But did you know he was afflicted by a bout of polio? It happened when he was just six, and, says Wikipedia, it left him with a weakened left side, the cause of a slight limp when he walks. Soon afterwards he became an American for a while, moving with his mother, Rassy Ragland Young, to Florida to recover for a year. His parents divorced when he was 12 and he moved with his mother to the family home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It is here, says Wikipedia auspiciously, that “his music career began”.

While at high school, he played in instrumental rock bands. One, the Squires, had a local hit called, The Sultan. In a career path which in a way echoes that of Bob Dylan, we learn that he worked the folk clubs of Winnipeg, where he befriended Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell. Summers were spent playing the clubs of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Buffalo Springfield

Failing to secure a record deal, he and bass player Bruce Palmer moved from Toronto to Los Angeles, where they joined up with Stills, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin to form Buffalo Springfield. With Stills and Young on lead guitars, the band tapped into the folk, country, psychedelia and rock scene. Their eponymous first album from 1967, as noted earlier, became a hit thanks largely to the success of Stills’s hit song, For What It’s Worth. Indicative of the fact that Young was always something of a “loner”, two of his three contributions to their second album, Buffalo Sprinfield Again, released in late 1967, were solo tracks. But the band wouldn’t last.

The Wikipedia authors see great significance in those three tracks which “all share deeply personal, almost idiosyncratic lyrics”, but also present “three very different musical approaches to the arrangement of what is essentially an original folk song”. On Mr Soul all five perform, whereas Broken Arrow “was confessional folk rock of a kind that would characterise much of the music that emerged from the singer-songwriter movement”. The innovative Young starts the song with a sound bite of Dewey Martin singing Mr Soul and closes it with a thumping heartbeat. Expecting To Fly is a “lushly produced ballad featuring a string arrangement that Young’s co-producer for the track, Jack Nitzsche, would dub ‘symphonic pop’.” And to think he was now only in his early twenties and just launching his career, and he had such gems under his belt!

He was to produce another gem for a contractual obligation album by the disbanded band, Last Time Around, released in 1968 and comprising mainly recordings made earlier that year. I Am A Child is one of his all-time classics from this album, which also features his On The Way Home. It is perhaps appropriate at this stage to check out what Wikipedia says about those specific albums.

While there is not much gen on the first album, Wikipedia does note that the band was “generally unhappy with the sound of the album and felt that it didn’t reflect the intensity of their live shows”. Although Stills dominated the songwriting on this album, Young chipped in with Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, Flying On The Ground Is Wrong, Burned (which would become a long-standing Young classic), Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It, and Out Of My Mind.

Their second album, Buffalo Springfield Again, says Wikipedia is “generally considered the group’s finest work”. And, I note, they point out that Richie Foray would later find fame in the band Poco. Young, we are told, was often absent during the recording session, which featured several LA session players. Wikipedia says Mr Soul, off the album, is “a variation on the Rolling Stones’ I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. We’ll have to explore that later. The “orchestral experiments” on Young’s Expecting To Fly and Broken Arrow, are also notable.

Thanks to these, and several Stills classics, in 2003 the album was ranked 188 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums.

Significantly, on their last album, Last Time Around, on no track do all five members perform together, says Wikipedia.

Neil Young

Having worked some magic with I Am A Child, Young, now signed as a solo artist with Reprise Records, again teamed up with Nitzsche to work on his first solo album, Neil Young (November 1968). Wikipedia says it received “mixed reviews”. Even he said in 1970 that it had been “overdubbed rather than played”. It does feature at least one track that would remain a staple of his live shows, The Loner. The album featured a colourful portrait of Young on the cover, and at least one other song that has stood the test of time, The Old Laughing Lady, which he did on an Unplugged concert many years later. Interestingly, I see Ry Cooder is among the guitarists featured on the album. And Jack Nitzsche was not only the producer. While Young wrote all the other songs, String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill, was written by Nitsche, who also plays electric piano on the album. One Gracia Nitzsche is among the backing vocalists. Young, for the record, plays guitar, piano, electric piano, harpsichord, pipe organ and obviously sings. And if you have the original November 1968 album, you may be sitting on a goldmine. Wikipedia says the album was re-released in January 1969, partially remixed and with the “Neil Young” header added. Originally it only had the portrait.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Then, for his next album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (released on May 14, 1969), Crazy Horse was born. Wikipedia says he recruited Danny Whitten on guitar, Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums. The band is named after a leader in the Sioux Wars of the 1860s and ’70s. I have, however, been unable to find references to Young’s apparent Native American heritage. Anyway, the album is credited to “Neil Young with Crazy Horse”. This is Young in his prime. The album took just two weeks to record, this alone being a positive sign. It features such classics as Cinnamon Girl, Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand, which was such a hit on the CSN&Y album, Four Way Street. The lengthy jams on Cowgirl and Down By The River feature Young’s “idiosyncratic guitar soloing” – another case of Americans verbing English, I’m afraid. With a cover featuring Yung leaning against a tree with a dog beside him, this album was ranked No 208 on that Rolling Stone list. Wikipedia notes that Young wrote Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand with a 39,5C fever. In February and March of 1970, he and Crazy Horse went on tour to support the album. Live At The Fillmore East, released only in 2006, features performances from what must have been a cracking tour. It was also guitarist Danny Whitten’s Crazy Horse swansong. There are only seven tracks on the album, all Young originals, with those two jam-session tracks each running to about 10 minutes. The album reached No 34 in the US, with Cinnamon Girl peaking at 55 on the singles charts.

Then, as noted earlier, Young teamed up with Stills, Nash and Crosby and they did the whole CSN&Y thing. The song Ohio, I see, Young refused to perform life at later concerts because he felt it was timebound, marking as it did the 1970 Kent State massacre. However, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, he revived the song, dedicating it to the Chinese students killed in that brutal act of repression.

After The Gold Rush

Young’s third solo album, After The Gold Rush, was released in 1970, and features the likes of Nils Lofgren, Stills and CSNY bassist Greg Reeves. On the back of CSNY’s success, it was a commercial breakthrough, says Wikipedia, and features “some of his best known work”. And, of course, among those “best known” songs is the one that probably first introduced Young to us as a solo artist: Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Released in the wake of CSN&Ys success with Déjà Vu, the album reached No 8 on the US charts, while Only Love Can Break Your Heart made it to No 33 on the singles charts, and When You Dance I Can Really Love to 93.

It would be wrong to say Young was at the peak of his creative powers at this time, because he would emulate this productivity on and off for years to come. But this was the young Young setting out to do what came naturally: make great music. In less than a year he recorded two solo albums and Déjà Vu, and again here he struck the right chord with a mixture of folk- and country-based acoustic songs and heavier rock. I have to confess that I really only caught up with Young’s work in the mid to late seventies – through the next album, Harvest, and the compilation album, Decade. We did not have After The Goldrush, but it’s absence was conspicuous, since many friends did have it. Wikipedia tells us most of the album was recorded in “a makeshift basement studio at Young’s modest Topanga Canyon home during the spring of 1970”. An 18-year-old piano whiz, Nils Lofgren added a special touch – and would go on to perform in Bruce Springsteen’s band. But apparently the critics were sceptical, with Rolling Stone saying “none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface”. Now, however, says Wikipedia, the album is considered “a milestone in Young’s recording career”.  In 2003, Rolling Stone named it the 71st greatest album of all time.

The album was inspired by the Dean Stockwell-Herb Berman screenplay, After the Goldrush, for which Young was asked to provide the soundtrack. The film never materialised, but the album did. Young said in the biography, Shakey, by Jimmy McDonogh, that only the title track and Cripple Creak Ferry were directly inspired by the script. Stockwell would work again with Young on his film, Human Highway.  Strangely, Only Love Can Break Your Heart does not appear on Decade, which was a triple album released in 1978. But most Youngphiles will know the tune if not backwards then at least very well forwards. But what was that lesson I should have learnt? Well, it’s all about the male libido really, and that desperate urge to get laid, again and again. But ideally you’d want that to happen with a woman who is not only physically attractive, but also someone with whom you are broadly compatible. If she’s into heavy drugs and booze and you prefer getting high on nature, no matter how sexy she is, it is perhaps wise to give her a wide berth. If she places the pursuit of wealth above all else and you’re a laid-back hippie type bent on enjoying the here and now, ditto. So, as Young implores, try to be sure right from the start, or love will break your heart. What else does he say in that song? Well, firstly, remember how that song started. It had a magical appeal you could not ignore: “When you were young / and on your own / How did it feel / to be alone? / I was always thinking / of games that I was playing. / Trying to make / the best of my time.” And then that chorus: “But only love / can break your heart / Try to be sure / right from the start / Yes only love / can break your heart / What if your world / should fall apart?” Certainly many a world did fall apart, mine included, for a while, after a failed marriage in the early eighties. “I have a friend / I’ve never seen / He hides his head / inside a dream / Someone should call him / and see if he can come out. / Try to lose / the down that he’s found.” And then back into that chorus. These are the sort of words one did not really hear at the time. “Lose the down that he’s found” is loose language, but makes sense in the context of a depressed, lovelorn lad. But that song really got me hooked on Neil Young’s music, along with what I heard of him on Four Way Street.

Other very familiar tracks on Gold Rush include Southern Man and Don’t Let It Bring You Down (which both are featured on Four Way Street) and Tell Me Why. Till The Morning Comes, Oh, Lonesome Me (a Don Gibson composition and the only non-Young original on the album), Birds, I Believe In You and Cripple Creek Ferry make up the rest of the album.

Wikipedia says the title track contains “dream-like lyrics that run a gamut of subjects from drugs and interpersonal relationships to environmental concerns”. We’ll take a closer inspection when we look at the Decade compilation album, a copy of which I have on CD.                 


Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that Young’s “controversial and acerbic condemnation of racism”, Southern Man, along with a later song, Alabama (off Harvest), later prompted Lynyrd Skynyrd to “decry Young by name in the lyrics to Sweet Home Alabama”, which is another personal favourite.

Harvest was the first Young solo album that become a truly must-have commodity in our neck of the woods – East London, South Africa, in the mid-1970s. With Crazy Horse now history, Young drew on a group of country-music session musicians, says Wikipedia, and christened them The Stray Gators. The worked with him on Harvest (1972), which from its title and cover design, has a strong country feel, echoing in a way Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, although the Young album still contains a rich diversity of styles. The album sleeve, like those of the early Stephen Stills albums, was an integral part of the appeal. In a shadowed, curlicued font, the words Harvest and Neil Young are written over a simple orange sun against a plain buff background. The back of the gatefold album has a black and white photograph of Young, on the far right playing electric guitar, just his nose and forehead visible in profile behind his long black hair. The rest of the band, most of them with eyes on him, are shown on the left of a crowded stage. Inside, Young is shown in a country setting, reflected on the shiny surface of a brass doorknob. I notice from the sleeve notes on the USA pressing I picked up at my favourite second-hand record shop, that the album was recorded at the home of country, Nashville, as well as in California and London. Indeed, there are useful notes accompanying each track.

My best associations with this album are a couple of months’ frenzied courting of a young woman, then still in senior high school, in Nahoon, the surfing suburb of East London, in the mid-1970s. It fizzled out in the end, but this was one of the albums we would listen to in the hot room beside her mother’s pool (I never asked what became of her father, but was just relieved there wasn’t one around, though her elder brother seemed to have assumed that role, from what I saw). Oh and the first track, Out On The Weekend, was immortalised for us by our friends Dave Tarr and Trevor Promnitz, who were performing at the Hobnob bar at the Bonza Bay Hotel around 1976. My brother Alistair and I, along with several other guys, had managed to get ourselves arrested for drinking in public after we rushed out of the Hobnob one Friday evening to investigate “reports” that the police drug squad were harassing one of our friends. We intervened when we saw one of these plain-clothed thugs pushing a slender student girl around. After spending that night, still pished, and the next day (hung over) in the Cambridge police cells, we were bailed out in the afternoon and returned to the “scene of the crime” on the Saturday night. As we entered, the observant Trevor announced: “We’d like to do a song for the Bentleys. It’s called In On The Weekend.” Which I thought was a very clever touch. And it was this song, along with the even more popular Heart Of Gold, that helped make this album a mega-hit. Well let’s see if Wikipedia concurs.

Yeah, Harvest was “a massive hit (especially with the country-music crowd) and Heart Of Gold became a number one single”. And how could I have forgotten: “Another notable song was The Needle And The Damage Done, a lament for, in Young’s own words, ‘all the great art that never got out because of heroin’”. I’ll get back to these songs shortly, but just a little nostalgia. I learnt a semblance of the chords for this song on the guitar, and recall when I was conscripted and forced to spend three months on the Namibian border with the SA Defence Force in 1983, plucking away at this song on an acoustic guitar someone had brought. Even more influential, on that trip, was a copy of another Young album which someone managed to get played every so often in the mess. But more of that later. Elsewhere, Wikipedia says the song “chronicled Danny Whitten’s descent into herion addiction”. So it was based on a very real and no doubt traumatic experience close to Young’s heart.

Oh and then of course there was another big hit, Old Man, which reached No 31 in the US. It, too, was very popular in SA at the time, which is probably why this album, despite less accessible fare like A Man Needs A Maid, was such a huge hit.

Typically, Young eschewed the fame that Harvest brought. Wikipedia says his first instinct was to “back away from stardom”. In his handwritten liner notes to Decade, he says Heart Of Gold “put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there”. Lovely! Tragically, Young and actress Carrie Snodgress’s son, Zeke, was born on September 8, 1972, with cerebral palsy. A rough road indeed.

But let’s give the album a spin (it may well be a bit scratched) and relive those heady days from the mid-1970s. Yes-no, as they say in Afrikaans. Ja-nee. It is clear that Young did, in a sense, sell out to commercialism for this album. I suspect he’d liked to have made some of these songs differently, but when it came to production they upped the bass and made the songs more rhythm-driven than he’d probably like.

This becomes evident from the first track, Out On The Weekend, where the opening acoustic guitar is almost lost behind that heavy bass. The use of the harmonica is also not altogether a Young trait, and seems to be an attempt to echo Dylan’s success in this arena. But of course at the time we couldn’t get enough of this sound, even the very country pedal steel guitar, which admittedly had worked wonders for CSN&Y on Déjà Vu. Was there much depth in the lyrics? This being Neil Young, there had to be. “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up / Take it down to L.A. / Find a place to call my own and try to fix up. / Start a brand new day.” So he’s moving to town. “The woman I’m thinking of, she loved me all up / But I’m so down today / She’s so fine, she’s in my mind. / I hear her callin.” Then those distinctive strummed guitar chords before the chorus: “See the lonely boy, out on the weekend / Trying to make it pay. / Can’t relate to joy, he tries to speak and / Can’t begin to say.” The lines are typically enigmatic. I loved the image of this relationship which had already reached her bed, at a time when that was obviously a major goal. “She got pictures on the wall, they make me look up / From her big brass bed. / Now I’m running down the road trying to stay up / Somewhere in her head.” This muddled, confused world of romance is where so many of us must have been at. We drank ourselves into oblivion in pubs, chatting to girls, but rarely going beyond flirting – unless you were one of the lucky gigolos, or rather reputed gigolos, for most were less than truthful in this arena.

The title track was also very popular. It starts at a gentle, walking pace, with John Harris on piano. The inevitable steel guitar sidles up and insinuates itself alongside Young’s voice early on. I think I detected a bit of slide as well here. This was one of those songs that people sang along to, so the lyrics became part of local lore. “Did I see you down / in a young girl’s town / With your mother in so much pain? / I was almost there / at the top of the stairs / With her screamin’ in the rain.” The chorus: “Did she wake you up / to tell you that / It was only a change of plan? / Dream up, dream up, / let me fill your cup / With the promise of a man.” The reason for a reference to race in the next verse is again unclear: “Did I see you walking with the boys / Though it was not hand in hand? / And was some black face / in a lonely place / When you could understand?” The title of the song, and album, comes from the final verse: “Will I see you give / more than I can take? / Will I only harvest some? / As the days fly past / will we lose our grasp / Or fuse it in the sun?” I’m note sure I heard “Will” at the start of that verse. I thought it was “Well”, but I was no doubt wrong.

Young tried something quite daring on the next track, though of course several top UK groups had already experimented with orchestras. A Man Needs A Maid starts with quiet piano, which trips along as Young opens with the quiet words: “My life is changing / in so many ways / I don’t know who / to trust anymore / There’s a shadow running / thru my days / Like a beggar going / from door to door.” That’s a good few lines there. The tale continues: “I was thinking that / maybe I’d get a maid / Find a place nearby / for her to stay. / Just someone / to keep my house clean, / Fix my meals and go away.” It’s a bit of a chauvinistic approach. A kept woman, and she doesn’t even service his more basic needs… Anyway, at this point, as he builds up for the chorus, the strings and other instruments kick in: “A maid. A man needs a maid. / A maid.” Then, as things subside: “It’s hard to make that change / When life and love

turns strange. / And old.” Then there was a bit of philosophy: “To give a love, / you gotta live a love. / To live a love, / you gotta be ‘part of’ / When will I see you again?” The orchestral manoeuvres continue as he proceeds in narrative style: “A while ago somewhere / I don’t know when / I was watching / a movie with a friend. / I fell in love with the actress. / She was playing a part / that I could understand.” This vignette seems to have little bearing on his one key need: “A maid. A man needs a maid. / A maid. … When will I see you again?”

Track 4 was the big one. The strummed guitar on Heart Of Gold must have been attempted by thousands of teenagers at the time. Driven by heavy bass it is one of the most recognisable starts to a song ever. After some more harmonica, Young voices the immortal opening lines: “I want to live, / I want to give / I’ve been a miner / for a heart of gold. / It’s these expressions / I never give / That keep me searching / for a heart of gold / And I’m getting old.” Followed by that distinctive riff: da-da-da-da. “Keeps me searching / for a heart of gold / And I’m getting old.” It was catchy stuff, but certainly not great poetry. Instead, Young seemed to just be after simple, accessible rhymes. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. “I’ve been to Hollywood / I've been to Redwood / I crossed the ocean / for a heart of gold / I’ve been in my mind, / it’s such a fine line / That keeps me searching / for a heart of gold / And I’m getting old ...” Da-da-da-da. “Keeps me searching / for a heart of gold / And I'm getting old.”

A far more interesting use of the slide guitar is evident on Are You Ready For The Country. Here stop-start piano finally settles into a rhythm, and we’re away: “Slipping and a-sliding / and playing domino / Lefting and then Righting, / it’s not a crime you know. / You gotta tell your story boy, / before it’s time to go.” That slide guitar really comes nicely to the fore on the chorus: “Are you ready for the country / because it’s time to go? /Are you ready for the country / because it’s time to go?” Again, I’m not sure what to make of the last verse: “I was talkin’ to the preacher, / said God was on my side / Then I ran into the hangman, / he said it’s time to die / You gotta tell your story boy, / you know the reason why.”

This album certainly had a formula for success, with the first track on Side 2, Old Man, again proving very popular. Here quiet, understated acoustic guitar and bass get the thing rolling. “Old man look at my life, / I’m a lot like you were. / Old man look at my life, / I’m a lot like you were.” Again, the lyrics are vague. “Old man look at my life, / Twenty four / and there’s so much more / Live alone in a paradise / That makes me think of two.” So he’s 24, and seems to be thinking that he needs a partner. “Love lost, such a cost, / Give me things / that don’t get lost. / Like a coin that won’t get tossed / Rolling home to you.” And then he pulls a master stroke and introduces beautifully plucked banjo notes, with even a little slide guitar for luck. “Old man take a look at my life / I’m a lot like you / I need someone to love me / the whole day through / Ah, one look in my eyes / and you can tell that’s true.” It is interesting to look at the lyrics objectively, without the surrounding music. “Lullabies, look in your eyes, / Run around the same old town. / Doesn’t mean that much to me / To mean that much to you.” Here is a guy really wrestling with the idea of loving someone. “I’ve been first and last / Look at how the time goes past. / But I’m all alone at last. / Rolling home to you.” Of course the additional vocals of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt do help to give the choruses a rounded quality.

And so Neil Young went to Barking Town Hall in London and teamed up with the London Symphony Orchestra, as he also did on A Man Needs A Maid. This time, with the orchestra again directed by David Meecham, and the score arranged by Young’s old mate Jack Nitzschke, There’s A World came into being. It starts with strings and those big, booming bass drums, boom-boom, before quietening. Even the trickle of a harp can be heard. I remember how, on the famous Springbok Radio drama, No Place To Hide, featuring Mark Saxon and Sergei, they would use those harp sounds to evoke a sense of travelling back or forward in time. It was very effective and still, to this day, whenever I hear a harp played in that way, it is that feeling that arises. But what was this track about? It certainly wasn’t commercial, but was clearly something Young needed to do: “There’s a world you’re living in / No one else has your part / All God’s children in the wind / Take it in and blow hard.” It is about here that the harp trickles in, changing the mood, flattening it out. “Look around it, have you found it / Walking down the avenue? / See what it brings, / could be good things / In the air for you.” The anthemic nature of the song intensifies: “We are leaving. We are gone. / Come with us to all alone. / Never worry. Never moan. / We will leave you all alone.” Enigmatic as ever, the song continues: “In the mountains, in the cities, / You can see the dream. / Look around you. Has it found you? / Is it what it seems?” The song concludes with a repeat of the opening verse.

I’ve read on Wikipedia that Alabama was a “rehash of Southern Man”, but think that is really harsh. It’s like saying you can only deal with the issue of racism once, as an artist. Yet racism doesn’t miraculously go away after that first time. The electric guitar on the song is slow and deliberate, making for a tight bit of bluesy rock. Crosby and Stills, I notice, are among the backing vocalists. But let’s check the lyrics. Don’t expect explicit, in your face, logical, straight-forward, plain and simple, prosaic language. Young was a poet, and his songs are poetry set to music, so the lyrics are generally nuanced, which only serves to make the message even more powerful when he expresses it straight out. “Oh Alabama / The devil fools / with the best laid plan. / Swing low Alabama / You got spare change / You got to feel strange / And now the moment / is all that it meant.” Having not quite understood that, there arrives the thumping, assertive chorus: “Alabama, you got / the weight on your shoulders / That’s breaking your back. / Your Cadillac / has got a wheel in the ditch / And a wheel on the track.” This seems to be about evoking a place, a series of memories, a milieu. “Oh Alabama / Banjos playing / through the broken glass / Windows down in Alabama. / See the old folks / tied in white ropes / Hear the banjo. / Don’t it take you down home?” After the chorus, the final verse. “Oh Alabama. / Can I see you / and shake your hand. / Make friends down in Alabama. / I’m from a new land / I come to you / and see all this ruin / What are you doing Alabama? / You got the rest of the union / to help you along / What’s going wrong?” As an uninitiated non-American, I need some help here. Of course there is information aplenty on Songfacts. Firstly, just to observe that Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t anti-Neil Young. It seems Sweet Home Alabama was a “good-natured answer” to Alabama, explaining the positive things about the state. The line that mentions Young in the song goes: “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow”.

According to Songfacts, Young came up with the chord progression while on the toilet in the Fillmore East dressing room in 1970. In his liner notes on Decade, Young wrote: “This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch Gone With The Wind at a local theatre.” Sadly, the site doesn’t seem to address the actual motivation for Young writing it, as it degenerates into a South versus North diatribe. All I can glean is that the song is a protest at the treatment of slaves in the old South and also at the racism which still pervaded the area in 1970.

Just like Stephen Stills was often at his best solo on stage, with just an acoustic guitar, so too many would argue that Young is most effective communicating in this way. So when he took to the stage of the Royce Hall at the University of California in LA and laid The Needle And The Damage Done on them, it was with rapt attention that the students heard this sobering message about the deadly effects of drug addiction. Wikipedia says the song “chronicled Danny Whitten’s descent into heroin addiction”. There was certainly nothing heroic about heroin, just the opposite in fact. Indeed, was this not a brave message for someone to be singing at that time? Though Lennon had already declared that “the drug scene is over”, many, including ourselves, continued to experiment with narcotics in the early 1970s, though I limited myself to marijuana. Unlike the other tracks on this album, the acoustic guitar work on this track is bold and assertive. As I noted earlier, it is one thing to have the chords, but another entirely to master the sort of finger control necessary to achieve the complex note sequences Young achieves here. After a few introductory bars, Young launches into the song: “I caught you knockin’ / at my cellar door / I love you, baby, / can I have some more / Ooh, ooh, the damage done.” The reality of seeing a friend and band member taken by drugs must have been painful indeed. “I hit the city and / I lost my band / I watched the needle / take another man / Gone, gone, the damage done.” It becomes even more heartfelt: “I sing the song / because I love the man / I know that some of you don’t understand / Milk-blood / to keep from running out.” And then, just to ensure the message gets through: “I’ve seen the needle / and the damage done / A little part of it in everyone / But every junkie’s / like a settin’ sun.”

Young pulls out all the stops on the concluding track, Words (Between The Lines Of Age), which at nearly 7 minutes is the longest song on the album. A slow, bluesy rock, Young slashes across the rhythm section with his electric guitar. “Someone and someone / were down by the pond / Looking for something / to plant in the lawn. / Out in the fields they / were turning the soil / I’m sitting here hoping / this water will boil / When I look through the windows / and out on the road / They’re bringing me presents / and saying hello.” Stills and Nash help out on the vocals as the chorus kicks in: “Singing words, words / between the lines of age. / Words, words / between the lines of age.” Again, it is obscure, a poetic construct that invites you to dwell on the words, and make of it whatever meaning you please. At this point the song slows to an interesting jam featuring that inimitable Young guitar and some understated piano, before picking up for the last assault: “If I was a junkman / selling you cars, / Washing your windows / and shining your stars, / Thinking your mind /was my own in a dream / What would you wonder / and how would it seem? / Living in castles / a bit at a time / The King started laughing / and talking in rhyme…” And then that chorus again. This song contains something of the texture one has come to expect from Young, and in no way panders to commercial constraints. It is for that reason a fitting way to end an album that almost set Neil Young off on a tangent he may never have left, no matter how much we enjoyed the album at the time. Despite my reservations, Rolling Stone named Harvest the 78th greatest album of all time in 2003.

Just how poignant the loss of Whitten to drugs was emerges when Wikipedia notes that, with a new tour planned to follow up on the success of Harvest, “it became apparent during rehearsals that Whitten could not function due to drug abuse. On November 18, 1972, shortly after he was fired from the tour preparations, Whitten was found dead of an overdose.” Young later told Rolling Stone, in 1975, of how he had been forced to fire Whitten because “he just couldn’t cut it – he couldn’t remember anything”. Whitten had said he had “nowhere else to go”. When he heard of Danny Whitten’s death, he said it “blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and … insecure”.

Time Fades Away

Not surprisingly, the follow-up album to Harvest, Time Fades Away (1973), was coloured by the death of Danny Whitten. Young calls it his “least favourite record”, says Wikipeida. It was recorded live. Young’s voice was failing. It was later described as the first of three “low” albums known as the Ditch Trilogy, and even the Doom Trilogy. But this album is now clearly a collector’s item, since it was never put on CD. Many, says, Wikipedia, deem it the Holy Grail of Young albums. By late 2006, a petition of 10 000 was requesting it be released on CD. Most of the songs were recorded in 1973, during a 62-date tour. Evidently Young himself “grew mentally unstable as the tour progressed”, as he drowned his sorrows with tequila. Drummer Kenneth Buttrey quit and was replaced by Johnny Barbata, formerly with CSNY. Even when David Crosby and Graham Nash were called in to help out on vocals, the mood remained low. Wikipedia says one reason the album has not been re-released (as of the time of writing), was a technical one. The way it was recorded meant its current “murky sound” could not be remixed. I would love to hear this album to see how many of the tracks are familiar. With Young you generally find you’ve heard the songs somewhere, sometime, even if you don’t recognise the title. And they stay with you.

Tonight’s the Night

In late 1973, Young formed The Santa Monica Flyers, bringing in Nils Lofgren on guitar. With roadie Bruce Berry also having died a drug-induced death, the album Tonight’s the Night is a “dark, brooding record of unrestrained blues and out-of-tune ballads that Reprise did not see fit to release until two years later (1975) and only after being pressured by Young to do so”. Yet, while it received mixed reviews at the time, today it is regarded as a precursor of punk rock and, says Wikipedia, Young considers it the closest he has ever come to art. The middle album of the trilogy, On The Beach, was recorded in 1974 and dealt with, says, Wikipedia, “the downside of fame and the Californian lifestyle”. I don’t know it, but it evidently later also became a “critical favourite, presenting some of Young’s most original music”. Wikipedia says the title track may have been inspired by the novel, and later movie, On the Beach. As the first studio follow-up to Harvest, fans were evidently shocked at the “album’s bleakness and crude production”, says Wikipedia. While critics disliked the air of despair, others saw it as a turning point after Tonight’s the Night. While again not a commercial success at the time, it too has “attained both a cult following and high critical regard”. Evidently, the drugs and drink were still flowing during recording. It became much sought after, and in 2003 it was finally released on CD.

Again, the album seems strongly autobiographical. One track, Revolution Bues, was, says Wikipedia, “inspired by Charles Manson, whom Young had met in his Topanga Canyon days”. There is an attack on the oil industry on Vampire Blues, while On The Beach is a “bluesy meditation on the downside of fame”.

Tonight’s The Night is as famous a Young song as you’re likely to get. But what else was on that album, which was withheld for two years? Wikipedia says the album was “a startlingly direct expression of grief”, following the two deaths. Indeed, ever wondered what the opening lines to the title track were about. Roadie Bruce Berry is mentioned by name on this song. Berry died of a drug overdose just months before the song was written. Well the song actually starts with the line, “Tonight’s the night”, repeated about eight times, before Young launches into verse one: “Bruce Berry was a working man / He used to load that Econoline van. / A sparkle was in his eye / But his life was in his hands.” Now I firstly thought he sang Bruce Ferry, and never really heard Econoline van. If you’re not American, such things elude you. The song continues: “Well, late at night / when the people were gone / He used to pick up my guitar / And sing a song in a shaky voice / That was real as the day was long.” After the chorus, the sad eulogy continues: “Early in the mornin’ / at the break of day / He used to sleep / until the afternoon. / If you never heard him sing / I guess you won’t too soon.” Young clearly enjoyed this man’s singing: “’Cause people let me tell you / It sent a chill / up and down my spine / When I picked up the telephone / And heard that he’d died / out on the mainline.” The song ends with a repeat of the chorus and the first verse – and has to be one of Young’s most accessible, intelligible and honest pieces of writing.

Apart from the title track, the only other familiar title on this album appears to be World On A String. It is here that Young includes the bizarre liner notes, which contain the apology: “I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you.” Which is hardly the way to treat your fan base. The album sleeve was full of other oddities, including a long rock magazine article in Dutch, while scratched onto the run-out grooves on either side were the words, Hello Waterface and Goodbye Waterface, apparently a Young alter-ego. Again, another Young album that would be great to hear in its entirety. Despite, or maybe because of its “sloppy, unarranged (but decidedly structured) feeling”, the album was ranked 331 on Rolling Stone’s top 500 list. It also reached No 25 on the US album charts.


At the time of writing, we in South Africa are faced with the prospect of a man called Zuma, Jacob Zuma, a polygamous Zulu who is facing fraud and corruption charges but nevertheless was elected leader of the party of Nelson Mandela, becoming our next president. Zuma was the title of Young’s next album, completed using a reformed Crazy Horse with Frank Sampedro on guitar. The album, which we did not have, includes the epic Cortez The Killer which, while ostensibly about the Spanish conquest of Mexico from the perspective of the Aztecs, can also be seen, says Wikipedia, as “an allegory of love lost”. It was also banned in General Franco’s fascist Spain.

The album, says Wikipedia, was named after Zuma Beach in Malibu, and has an “overall more upbeat atmosphere” than its three predecessors”. An interesting snippet about Cortez The Killer is that the song suddenly fades out because the original cut “stopped abruptly due to recording tape running out before the band had finished playing”, says Wikipedia. It also claims that the song LA  Girls And Ocean Boys is said to be Lou Reed’s favourite song. Clearly, this is an album that needs to be heard. I’ll look at Cortez later when I deal with the Decade album.

Long May You Run

The Stills-Young Band was a short-lived affair which spawned the album, Long May You Run in 1976. The title track is the most famous. But did you ever wonder what it was about? I thought it had echoes of Springsteen’s Born To Run, but no, it seems it was an elegy for Young’s 1953 Pontiac hearse, in which he arrived in California from Toronto in the mid-1960s. Interestingly, the version of the title track included on Decade includes the vocals of David Crosby and Graham Nash, who had joined the band at one point, but then fell out with their former mates, leading to their vocals being removed from the final product. This led to a long-time rift between the guys. But, it seems, Decade gives a sample of that one actual CSNY track.

Wikipedia says the album per se is marred by “mainly mediocre songs, overblown arrangements and slick ’70s production”. With Stills and Young rarely together in the studio, the project seemed ill-fated. But it did give us that key title track.

The Last Waltz

Ah, now here’s something to conjure with, or with which to conjure. Wikipedia tells us that in 1976 Young performed with The Band, Joni Mitchell and other rock musicians in a high-profile concert, The Last Waltz. This album – and later the DVD – became a firm favourite in our family, though I haven’t heard if for years. Bizarrely, Martin Scorsese’s movie of the concert was delayed for a year, says Wikipedia, because he unwillingly had to re-edit it to fudge a lump of cocaine hanging from Young’s nose during his performance of Helpless. Yech! Young apparently later said he wasn’t “proud of that”.

American Stars ’n Bars

American Stars ’n Bars, from 1977, was another album that we never really got into. It again uses Crazy Horse as backing, and vocalists Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Nicolette Larson. And of course it had its big hit: Like A Hurricane. While critics bemoaned its “hodge-podge” nature, with country-tinged material on one side, and songs ranging from folk to heavy rock on the other, this seems par for the course for Young. Indeed, I’d like to hear this precisely for those attributes. All, however, seem to agree that Like A Hurricane was a humdinger, one of Young’s classic hard rock songs. I’ll look at it along with the other Young classics on Decade.


Released in 1977, Decade was, says Wikipedia, “a personally selected career summary of material spanning every aspect of his various interests and affiliations, including a handful of unreleased songs”. It is an album which became a fixture in our home in the late 1970s, as my three brothers and I increasingly got caught up in the rigours of military conscription. To counter-balance that, we worked steadily, and voluntarily, for the opposition Progressive Party (later the Progressive Reform Party, the Progressive Federal Party, the Democratic Party and then Democratic Alliance, which today is still the official opposition to the ANC). I recall my brother Ian driving myself and a gentleman in the Mandela mould called Kidwell Gija to a rural hamlet called Mgwali, outside Queenstown. It was faced with destruction and forced removal by the apartheid government. We helped in a campaign I am happy to say was successful in preventing this one bit of apartheid madness being carried out. As we drove back to East London, having dropped Kidwell off with his family, I recall listening to Decade on his car tape player. It was a fixture. With tracks ranging from 1966 to 1976, we encounter Young in his country rock, folk rock and rock personas. A triple album, there are 35 tracks, five of them having not been released before. It peaked at No 43 in the US. The only two albums not represented here from the period are Four Way Street and Time Fades Away. Incredibly, the Buffalo Springfield version of Down To The Wire, with New Orleans pianist Dr John, was from a shelved album, Stampede.

I’ve just given the first of the two CDs comprising Decade a fresh listen – and was blown away all over again. Nearly three decades after these songs were our musical bread and butter, how pleasant indeed to listen with an objective ear – if that’s possible – and really appreciate what Neil Young achieved. Because, mark my words, this album has to constitute one of the high points in the history of modern rock music. It is simply jam-packed with goodies, with the Buffalo Springfield fare showing just how aesthetically advanced Young was for his time.

Unlike 30 years ago, I now have the added benefit of lyrics accessible on a myriad websites, which means that it is finally possible to reflect on the deeper intentions of Young when he made these songs. Could there have been a better choice to kick off the album than Down To The Wire? Just the title conjures up a sense of moment, like we are starting on a journey of discovery that will indeed take us down to the wire. The journey metaphor is in fact suggested by the sleeve photography, which shows a guitar case bedecked with travel stickers, the end of which rests on the head of a blonde woman, her naked arms outstretched. Previously unreleased, this Buffalo Springfield track evidently also features Dr John on piano, though I failed to hear much piano. What I did hear at the outset was some interesting lead guitar and thumping rhythm section, before Young launches into those immortal first words in a voice that grows on you more every time you hear it: “Every time you touch her / sets your hands on fire, / And every thing you’ve got / is all that she requires. / And you hang on, hang on, hang on / to the words of a liar. / You can feel it getting / down to the wire.” How I’ve dwelt on those opening lines over the years. Isn’t that the perfect way of describing the inflamed passions of young love – the physical sensation that, when you touch her, it “sets your hands on fire”? But this is clearly about a love that is beset and bedevilled by deceit. “All the hurt you thought was gone / has now returned, / And every thing she’s laughing at / is all you learned. / And you let go, let go, let go, / ’cause you know / you’re getting tired. / Can you feel it getting / down to the wire?” Where is this heading? All I know is that there are lovely changes of tempo and some brittle, edgy guitar guitar work, as Young’s voice takes you along for the ride: “Take the time to close your / eyes and look around, / ’Cause anyone who helped you out / can let you down. / And look out, look out, look out, / the voice is now the choir. / Can you feel it getting / down to the wire?” Naturally, as with life generally, there are no clear-cut solutions. But Young does seem to implore one to be receptive, to hang on, let go, and look out, rather than act precipitously.

Track two, Burned, was apparently recorded by Buffalo Springfield in late 1966, and is one of the first Young vocals ever taped. If Wikipedia is correct, then it is an incredible fact that he comes across as such a consummate professional. A quick tempo, strong piano and lead guitar, driving bass and great harmonies guarantee another great track. “Been burned / and with both feet / on the ground, / I’ve learned / that it’s painful / comin’ down.” What a great little stanza with which to start a song. You’re immediately interested, as the chorus – including great harmonising by other band members – kicks in: “No use runnin’ away, / and there’s no time left to stay. / Now I’m finding out that it’s so confusin’, / No time left / and I know I’m losin’.” It was here that I thought I heard the word “heart”, but instead it seems he next sings “Flashed / and I think / I’m fallin’ down, / Crashed, / and my ears / can’t hear a sound.” The chorus and first verse are then repeated.

Is there a song more emblematic of the Young genius than Mr Soul? The song starts with those famous opening lead guitars, which bristle and cajole, before the bass provides a platform for The Voice: “Oh, hello Mr. Soul, / I dropped by / to pick up a reason / For the thought that I caught / that my head / is the event of the season / Why in crowds just a trace / of my face / could seem so pleasin’ / I’ll cop out to the change, / but a stranger / is putting the tease on.” Suitably mysterious, the song continues: “I was down on a frown / when the messenger / brought me a letter / I was raised by the praise / of a fan / who said I upset her / Any girl in the world / could have easily / known me better / She said, You’re strange, / but don’t change, / and I let her.” While these lyrics may be deemed brilliant or simply bizarre, all I know is that at the time they became part of our souls, with Young the legend, the shaman, who brought them to us. “In a while will the smile / on my face / turn to plaster? / Stick around while the clown / who is sick / does the trick of disaster / For the race of my head / and my face  / is moving much faster / Is it strange I should change? / I don’t know, / why don’t you ask her?” Remember this is all happening within the most sublime rock music format, with the lead guitar – presumably played by Young – emitting an amazing array of fizzy, fuzzy sounds, all beautifully understated and controlled. But, as the song ends, one wonders why there is no applause, since it was evidently recorded live in New York City. Then a bit of the Young innovation kicks in, as the song returns against a backdrop of wild applause … only for the whole thing to seque, that word again, into Track 4, the incredible Broken Arrow.

This, another Buffalo Springfield track, is the first on the album where the acoustic guitar plays an obvious foundation role, as a gentle rock sound gets under way, backed by piano, bass, drums. “The lights turned on / and the curtain fell down, / And when it was over / it felt like a dream, / They stood at the stage door / and begged for a scream, / The agents had paid / for the black limousine / That waited outside in the rain.” Again, the stage is set, literally, for a Neil Young tour de force. This is emphasised as the famous da-dumm! notes are sounded, heralding the chorus: “Did you see them, / did you see them? / Did you see them in the river? / They were there to wave to you. / Could you tell that / the empty quivered, / Brown skinned Indian on the banks / That were crowded and narrow, / Held a broken arrow?” I’m not fully sure this version of the lyrics is spot-on, but have to go with it. It is hard to translate mere words into song, where syllables can be stretched or truncated by the expert vocalist. “Eighteen years of American dream, / He saw that his brother / had sworn on the wall. / He hung up his eyelids / and ran down the hall, / His mother had told him / a trip was a fall, / And don’t mention babies at all. / Did you see him, did you see him? / Did you see him in the river? / He was there to wave to you. / Could you tell that / the empty quivered, / Brown skinned Indian on the banks / That were crowded and narrow, / Held a broken arrow?” Here I thought I heard “held onto a broken arrow”. A series of drums rolls herald a new phase, still slow and laid back, Young’s voice sounds pure and energised: “The streets were lined / for the wedding parade, / The Queen wore the white gloves, / the county of song, / The black covered caisson / her horses had drawn / Protected her King / from the sun rays / of dawn. / They married for peace / and were gone.” An orchestral backing takes the song to a new dimension as a moody, jazzy interlude features what sounds like a clarinet solo and then some skilful piano. Reverberating heart-beat thumps then fade into a final sea of sound (electronic and orchestral?) … and before you know it, you’re into Track 5.

If someone said Expecting To Fly I would not have been able to recall the song. But having again listened to it, I realise it too is one of the great, iconic Young tracks. Another Buffalo Sprinfield recording, this is gentle, flowing acoustic-based folk-rock. And what a lovely opening image: “There you stood / on the edge of your feather, / Expecting to fly. / While I laughed, / I wondered whether / I could wave goodbye, / Knowin’ that you’d gone. / By the summer it was healing, / We had said goodbye. / All the years / we’d spent with feeling / Ended with a cry, / Babe, ended with a cry, / Babe, ended with a cry.” One heard those sad lines nearly 30 years ago and never really thought about them. But the man who wrote them felt deeply about this emotional time, so it is fitting we pay tribute to that sensibility. This is one of Young’s most beautiful and evocative songs: “I tried so hard to stand / As I stumbled / and fell to the ground. / So hard to laugh as I fumbled / And reached for the love I found, / Knowin’ it was gone. / If I never lived without you, / Now you know I’d die. / If I never said I loved you, / Now you know I’d try, / Babe, now you know I’d try. / Babe, now you know I’d try, / Babe.”

The spell of that three-song assemblage finally is broken, but only by the superb acoustic guitar solo which introduces Sugar Mountain, which Wikipedia says was a home recording made shortly after Young left Buffalo Springfield. On second thoughts, isn’t this the definitive Neil Young song? There seems to be no end to them. This is simply a beautifully executed folk song, but with all the hallmarks of Young’s fresh new approach: “Oh, to live on sugar mountain / With the barkers and the colored balloons, / You can’t be twenty on sugar mountain / Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon, / You’re leaving there too soon.” Again, this song had me scratching my head. Who or what are the barkers? Is it a capitalised or lower-case sugar mountain? Who really cared, it was the song that mattered, the beauty of it: “It’s so noisy at the fair / But all your friends are there / And the candy floss you had / And your mother and your dad.” If you had to write a poem about early loves and relationships, with parents about, could you ever have done better? Consider this verse: “There’s a girl just down the aisle, / Oh, to turn and see her smile. / You can hear the words she wrote / As you read the hidden note.” It is the sublime frisson of youthful infatuation. “Now you’re underneath the stairs / And you’re givin’ back some glares / To the people who you met / And its your first cigarette.” All these verses are little gems, little vignettes of observation. “Now you say you’re leavin’ home / cause you want to be alone. / Ain’t it funny how you feel / When you’re findin’ out its real?”

But this was not the last of the Buffalo Sprinfield era on the album. Track 7 is another all-time favourite. Harmonica comes in over the acoustic guitar, as drums and bass produce an upbeat rhythm for a cheerful song about a child. I love the underlying humour: “I am a child, I’ll / last a while. / You can’t conceive / of the pleasure in my smile. / You hold my hand, / rough up my hair, / It’s lots of fun / to have you there.” What a lovely image of a child lapping up parental love. “I gave to you, / now, you give to me, / I’d like to know / what you learned. / The sky is blue / and so is the sea. / What is the colour, / when black is burned? / What is the colour?” This delightful scene continues. It’s as if you’re privy to the most intimate domestic scene, a child with a parent: “You are a man, you / understand. / You pick me up / and you lay me / down again. / You make the rules, / you say what’s fair, / It’s lots of fun / to have you there.” The song concludes with the chorus and first verse repeated. Soothing, Peaceful. Delightful.

Track 8, Loner, may be classified as heavy rock, with aggressive lead guitar, but it retains that element of control and nuance which is such a key part of Young’s approach. But doesn’t he make that guitar buzz and fizz, squeal and wail? And what were those lyrics about? It seems to be about your worst nightmare. A loner and a stalker, possibly a psycho … or maybe just a very sad and lonely guy. “He’s a perfect stranger, / Like a cross / of himself and a fox. / He’s a feeling arranger / And a changer of the ways he talks. / He’s the unforeseen danger / The keeper of / the key to the locks.” Then the chorus: “Know when you see him, / Nothing can free him. / Step aside, open wide, / It’s the loner.” Daa da daa da-da, daa da daa da-da. “If you see him in the subway, / He’ll be down / at the end of the car. / Watching you move / Until he knows / he knows who you are. / When you get off / at your station alone, / He’ll know that you are…” Then  that haunting chorus, before his demise: “There was a woman he knew / About a year or so ago. / She had something / that he needed / And he pleaded / with her not to go. / On the day that she left, / He died, / but it did not show…” And then that chorus again, as another man falls victim, it seems, to a broken relationship.

Another odd character seems to be the focus of the next track, The Old Laughing Lady, from that 1968 album, Neil Young. It is a slow, bluesy, almost soulful song featuring acoustic and electric guitars, apparently an electric piano and some lovely bass and strings. The vocal harmonies have an African American spiritual feel at one point as the women whee! and whao! “Don’t call pretty Peggy, / she can’t hear you no more / Don’t leave no message / ’round her back door. / They say the old laughing lady / been here before / She don’t keep time, / she don’t count score.” It is an eerie construct. “You can’t have a cupboard / if there ain’t no wall. / You got to move there’s / no time left to stall. / They say the old laughing lady / dropped by to call / And when she leaves, / she leaves nothing at all.” I think it’s at this point that those women unleash a bit of ululating. “See the drunkard of the village / falling on the street. / Can’t tell his ankles / from the rest of his feet. / He loves his old laughing lady / ’cause her taste is so sweet. / But his laughing lady’s loving / ain’t the kind he can keep.” What this was all about, only Neil Young probably really knows. “There’s a fever on the freeway, / blacks out the night. / There’s a slipping on the stairway, / just don’t feel right / And there’s a rumbling in the bedroom / and a flashing of light / There’s the old laughing lady, / everything is all right.” It is a weird and wonderful song, melancholy and reserved. But not so the next track.

Cinnamon Girl is unashamed hard rock, with lead and rhythm guitars providing a lovely, fuzzily distorted impetus. “I wanna live / with a cinnamon girl / I could be happy / the rest of my life / With a cinnamon girl.” I wonder if this is the female biscuit equivalent of a gingerbread man? Or is she just a beautiful girl with lovely cinnamon-coloured skin? “A dreamer of pictures / I run in the night / You see us together, / chasing the moonlight, / My cinnamon girl.” She sounds like she belongs on sandy beaches, splashing among the waves. “Ten silver saxes, / a bass with a bow / The drummer relaxes / and waits between shows / For his cinnamon girl.” And a boyfriend who plays in an interesting band. “Pa sent me money now / I’m gonna make it somehow / I need another chance / You see your baby loves to dance / Yeah...yeah...yeah.”

That song was great, but it doesn’t fully prepare you for the full, spectacular beauty of Down By The River – all nine minutes of it. A slow blues, with lead and rhythm guitars interacting from the outset, this is one of the great songs in the history of rock. It starts off insouciantly, with no great fireworks promised. “Be on my side, / I’ll be on your side, / baby / There is no reason / for you to hide / It’s so hard for me / staying here all alone / When you could be / taking me for a ride.” I love his use of repetition for effect, underscoring that all relationships are reciprocal undertakings. And so the story unfolds as he picks up a bit of momentum to lament: “Yeah, she could drag me / over the rainbow, / send me away / Down by the river / I shot my baby / Down by the river, / Dead, oh, shot her dead.” This sudden injection of an admission of murder comes as a surprise. It gets you thinking: what brought matters to this pass? “You take my hand, / I’ll take your hand / Together we may get away / This much madness / is too much sorrow / It’s impossible / to make it today.” Young is brilliant at setting moods, at using words almost randomly which coalesce to form a pattern of pain, or pleasure. This time, I fear it is one of violence following rejection. But the real strength of this song lies in its construction as a vehicle for some wonderful guitar work, with the lead guitar often taking on Hendrix-like proportions as it ricochets notes off the steadily expressive rhythm guitar. There is also a Doors-like quality to the understated, considered nature of the guitar solos, which build up steadily between verses and choruses. This is Neil Young at his prime, both in terms of the songwriting concept and his execution. His vocals are sublime.

Banish thoughts of Four Way Street. Cowgirl In The Sand on that album was a gentle, folk-based acoustic number. Here it has cutting edge thanks to the heavy rock chords and notes, at times fuzzy at others searingly sparse, of the electric guitar. Interesting too is the echoed repeat of the opening line: “Hello cowgirl in the sand – hello cowgirl in the sand …” Yet for all it being a rock song, Young retains the simple beauty of the folk version. And again this offers the launch pad for a wonderful jam session, with the rhythm and lead guitars again working their magic. Spunky and spicy, I don’t believe even Hendrix achieved the variety of sounds, of moods, which come through on these guitar solos. It is grungy, fuzzy, funky and a whole lot more. But each time it threatens to become hackneyed, he pulls you back by returning to the lyrics, his voice at its crispest and clearest. Then it is more incredibly improvisation, but like the best jazz bands, everything just works so well it sounds incredibly well rehearsed.

The words I Believe In You, instantly evoke in me the lines of a Bob Dylan song. But in this wonderfully gentle song, the line is almost dropped in subliminally, giving the next track its title. With acoustic and electric guitars working sublimely together, accompanied by some superb harmonies, this song is the equal of the best of the Beatles. “Now that you found yourself / losing your mind / Are you here again? / Finding that what you once / thought was real / Is gone, and changing?” There is a lovely melody running through this chorus: “Now that you made yourself / love me / Do you think / I can change it in a day? / How can I place you above me? / Am I lying to you when I say / That I believe in you / I believe in you.” Young must have looked back at this in later years, when he put together this album and marvelled at how it had come together so well. “Coming to you at night / I see my questions / I feel my doubts / Wishing that maybe / in a year or two / We could laugh / and let it all out…” The verse ends on the air, demanding progression to the higher plane of the chorus: “Now that you made / yourself love me / Do you think / I can change it in a day? / How can I place you above me? / Am I lying to you when I say / That I believe in you / I believe in you.”

How many classics can you get on an album? Clearly, Neil Young knew that he had to go to three vinyl discs to do justice to that first decade. Because where would the album have been without After The Gold Rush? I noted earlier that Wikipedia said the song contains “dream-like lyrics that run a gamut of subjects from drugs and interpersonal relationships to environmental concerns”. Slow piano is the way this song starts, with Young’s voice becoming, again, the lead instrument. Has the opening verse of a song ever been more purposefully articulated? “Well, I dreamed I saw the knights / in armour coming, / Saying something about a queen. / There were peasants singing and / Drummers drumming / And the archer split the tree. / There was a fanfare blowing / To the sun / That was floating on the breeze. / Look at Mother Nature on the run / In the nineteen seventies / Look at Mother Nature on the run /

In the nineteen seventies.” Phew! And it just gets better and better, as the narrative takes on almost biblical proportions. “I was lying in a burned out basement / With the full moon in my eyes. / I was hoping for replacement / When the sun burst thru the sky. / There was a band playing in my head / And I felt like getting high. / I was thinking about what a / Friend had said  / I was hoping it was a lie. / Thinking about what a / Friend had said  /I was hoping it was a lie.” You’re sucked into the story by now, wondering if there will be redemption, salvation. “Well, I dreamed I saw the silver / Space ships flying / In the yellow haze of the sun, / There were children crying / And colours flying / All around the chosen ones. / All in a dream, all in a dream / The loading had begun. / They were flying Mother Nature’s / Silver seed to a new home in the sun. / Flying Mother Nature’s / Silver seed to a new home.” As I write, I have just read a piece from The Times New Service in our local paper, The Herald, in which it is reported that ten tons of seeds have been deposited inside a frozen mountain in Norway as part of a scheme to preserve all the world’s crops from the ravages of global warming and whatever else we throw at them. But here I believe the seed Young refers to is perhaps human, and that the space ships will one day have to take a few “chosen ones” to find a new planet to live on … and eventually destroy as well, no doubt.

Southern Man, which got a lengthy airing on Four Way Street, is again given full rein here, Young’s imploring voice capturing the outrage which civilised people must always feel at racial injustice. Again, the song is peppered with a series of extravagant lead solos.

The advent of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, whose version of Helpless is the final track on the album, is almost an anti-climax. Make no error, it is a beautiful song, but that pedal steel guitar and country feel battle to cut it in the wake of the glorious fare which precedes it on this album. I suspect that some of the tracks on the second CD from the more commercial album, Harvest, may detract slightly, but there is clearly a wealth to look forward to here, not least Cortez The Killer.

Disc 2. How does one assess 19 seemingly diverse tracks? One thread running through most of the songs is a certain melancholy cynicism. There are songs here about the loss of a friend, about the dangers of drugs, about police brutality and assassination and many other deep issues besides. Which is why four songs off the Harvest album, while obviously enjoyable, do seem a little incongruous. But we’ll get to that later. The side starts with Ohio, that Young tribute to the protesting university students who were shot down by police, performed by CSN and Young. Listening to it again, I was still struck by the awkward ambiguity inherent in that line, “should have been done long ago”, which inadvertently seems to refer to the preceding line, “soldier are cutting us down”, when in fact it is talking about the line “got to get down to it”, ie, protests and demonstrations. That aside, this was still an incredibly powerful protest song.

Now if I said the word Soldier, capitalised, would you be able to recall the Neil Young song by that name? Part of his genius is that he can turn one thought, one idea, into an interesting, well-executed song. Accompanied by slow, bluesy piano, Young hauntingly stares into the soul of a soldier and inquires: “Soldier, your eyes, / they shine like the sun / I wonder why.” Then, as if he can’t believe what he sees, he repeats, more imploringly: “Soldier, your eyes / shine like the sun / I wonder why.” Having been forced by military conscription to share space with professional soldiers, I think I know why. But let’s see where Young takes us: “Jesus, I saw you / walkin’ on the river / I don’t believe you. / You can’t deliver right away / I wonder why.” Ouch! Our Calvinistic apartheid government would have cried foul at that one, had anyone been alert enough in the corridors of power to pick it up. “Jesus, your eyes / shine like the sun / I wonder why.” I guess this short poem has had the experts scratching their heads. I’m at a loss, but might hazard at the link between religion and wars which has been the cause of so much suffering.

So this part of Decade launches into these deep, soul-searching songs, only to digress for four tracks from what was a real commercial detour, Harvest, namely Old Man, A Man Needs A Maid, Harvest and Heart Of Gold, all looked at earlier.

But things get firmly back on track with Star Of Bethlehem (off American Stars ’N Bars, 1977), which, my having not heard it for some time, I was wondering whether it perhaps took the biblical references of Soldier any further. Slow-paced acoustic guitar and bass, with a touch of slide guitar suck one into this song, in which, I felt, the real Neil Young reappears after the Harvest sojourn. “Ain’t it hard / when you wake up / in the morning / And you find out / that those other days / are gone? / All you have / is memories of happiness / Lingerin’ on.” Again, Young postulates a profound proposition, and begs the listener to find out the answer. “You might wonder / who can I turn to / On this cold / and chilly night of gloom / The answer to that question / Is nowhere in this room.” Are we in for a real Christian coming out here? “All your dreams / and your lovers / won’t protect you, / They’re only passing / through you in the end. / They’ll leave you / Stripped of all / that they can get to, / And wait for you / to come back again.” So where to now? He repeats the chorus: “You might wonder / who I can turn to /On this cold / and chilly night of gloom / The answer to that question / Is nowhere in this room.” And now the denoument? “Yet still a light is shining / From that lamp on down the hall. / Maybe the star of Bethlehem / Wasn’t a star at all.” Poetry professors, get your thinking caps on, pronto!

Track 8, The Needle And The Damage Done, is entirely appropriate here, since it fits in well with the theme of confronting our demons. As mentioned earlier, this was Young’s first, but not last, song about drug addiction. And, on giving it another listen, I can only reiterate that Neil Young is still arguably at his most sublime when simply accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.

It is no coincidence, though, that he followed this up with Tonight’s The Night, Part 1, which, as mentioned earlier, dealt with the death of his roadie, Bruce Ferry. But it was only now that I got to listen to this song, and isn’t it a humdinger. At the time we first heard it, it really didn’t occur that this was a lament, a dirge, a tribute to a close friend who died of a drug overdose. It was just classic Young, starting with that piano and guitar and those mournfully chanted lines: “Tonight’s the night!”, repeated over and over, each line punctuated by notes that no Youngphile won’t have heard. Then he lays into those lyrics, which clearly must have been difficult to write.

The intriguing thing about Young’s songs is to ascertain the significance of the title. Slow electric guitar based rhythms set him off in speaking mode on Tired Eyes, a song best remembered for the repeated line, “please take my advice”. But what is he advising? As soon as he starts with that soliloquy you realise this is another protest song, with drugs the source of the evil: “Well he shot four men / in a cocaine deal / And he left them / lyin’ in an open field / Full of old cars / with bullet holes / in the mirrors.” You have half a movie in a few lines. Then the mysterious “chorus”: “He tried to do his best / but he could not”, which leads to the equally enigmatic: “Please take my advice, / please take my advice / Please take my advice. / Open up the tired eyes, / Open up the tired eyes.” This is the sung part of the song, and carries Young’s typically heart-on-sleeve air of sincerity and concern. He continues: “Well, it wasn’t / supposed to go / down that way. / But they burned his brother, / you know, / And they left him lying / in the driveway. / They let him down with nothin’.” Not a pretty scene, but clearly the reality of drug wars. The chorus seems to be a desperate call on the authorities to open up their “tired eyes” and do something. The bizarre nature of the song is extended in the next spoken verse: “Well tell me more, / tell me more, / tell me more / I mean was he a heavy doper / or was he just a loser? / He was a friend of yours. / What do you mean, / he had bullet holes / in his mirrors? / He tried to do his best / but he could not.” The tone is one of a commiserating, empathetic friend.

It is about time, one feels, for a change of mood, and Walk On provides it. A spunky, upbeat rock number, this is vintage Young, uncluttered by overly introverted lyrics.

But just a few minutes later and we’re back with the best of Neil Young. Always one for interesting changes, this time he’s plucking a banjo, expertly. And, recalling the best of the Rolling Stones, it’s not long before this slow blues tune, For The Turnstiles, is embellished with some top-drawer slide-guitar work. There is also a nice male voice harmonising with Young. This is another classic Young track, where the significance of the title only emerges near the end. “All the sailors / with their seasick mamas / Hear the sirens on the shore, / Singin’ songs / for pimps with tailors / Who charge ten dollars / at the door.” Can’t you just hear the melody in the words? “You can really / learn a lot that way / It will change you / in the middle of the day. / Though your confidence / may be shattered, / It doesn’t matter.” That banjo, slide guitar combo just gets better and better. “All the great explorers / Are now in granite laid, / Under white sheets / for the great unveiling / At the big parade.” The irony drips as the song progresses. “You can really / learn a lot that way / It will change you / in the middle of the day. / Though your confidence / may be shattered, / It doesn’t matter.” Then comes the American sporting reference. Americans may be surprised to know that the rest of the world is, by and large, ignorant, and happily so, of the niceties of gridiron football, baseball and ice hockey. But if your life is steeped in these traditions, I guess they will crop up even in the best of songs. “All the bushleague batters / Are left to die / on the diamond. / In the stands / the home crowd scatters / For the turnstiles, / For the turnstiles, / For the turnstiles.” Again, lyrics for the aficionados to unravel. For us, then and now, it was sufficient that Young had made this song and we enjoyed it at face value.

Winterlong is the first of four previously unreleased songs on this album, each of which fully warrant inclusion in such a compilation. The opening lines are instant reminders of the melody: “I waited for you, Winterlong / You seem to be where I belong. / It’s all illusion anyway.”

But it is the next unreleased song, Deep Forbidden Lake, that is such a cracker, or more accurately, such a movingly full-bodied song. A complex melody is achieved on acoustic guitar early on, with the words almost audible in it before he even starts singing: “On the lake, / the deep forbidden lake, / The old boats go gliding by, / And the leaves / are falling from the trees / And landing on the logs and I / See the turtles / heading for the bog / And falling off the log. / They make the water splash, / And feeling no backlash, / They climb the happy banks.” This picture of bucolic bliss is accentuated by the gentle insertion of some steel guitar, and the strains of a viola. It’s a lovely image of country life, but what lurks beneath the façade? “On the boats, / the old and creaky boats, / The shoreline goes gliding by, / And the wind, / there was a dying breeze, / Is making the banners fly. / See the colours, / floating in the sky, / The pride of the captain’s eye, / As he glides / His slender craft inside / And opens up the door.” All still seems calm. “On the coast, / the long and tempting coast, / The cards on the table lie, / And a speech, / so eloquent in reach, / Was made by a passerby, / Passing by the way between / Here and left behind. / And it ripples through the crowds / Who run and cast their doubts / In the deep forbidden lake. / Yes, it echoes through the crowds / Who run and cast their doubts / In the deep forbidden lake.” Why is the lake forbidden? Does this eloquent passerby convince the crowds to throw off their doubts and follow him, or simply to assert their own independence, which is probably a far more beneficial form of leadership.

After that reflective, contemplative song, it is fitting that the tempo should transform with the advent of one of Neil Young’s all time classics, Like A Hurricane, off the American Stars ’N Bars album of 1977. A lead guitar soars then stalls and swoops down in a gravely, grungy descent, before tearing through the sky again. The rhythm is installed, and the lyrics come pouring forth: “Once I thought I saw you / in a crowded hazy bar, / Dancing on the light / from star to star. / Far across the moonbeam / I know that’s who you are, / I saw your brown eyes / turning once to fire.” Wow! Is that not an admission of being totally bowled over? If love is power, this woman was clearly dynamite. I’ve always loved the image in the chorus: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye. / And I’m getting’ blown away / To somewhere safer / where the feeling stays. / I want to love you but / I’m getting blown away.” And as the song progresses, it is this sense of being swept adrift ineluctably that keeps you intrigued. “I am just a dreamer, / but you are just a dream, / You could have been / anyone  / Before that moment / you touched my lips / That perfect feeling / when time just slips / Away between us / on our foggy trip.” When I heard that again, “when time just slips away”, I was taken to another time, another place: John Lennon’s Across The Universe. There is a similar mood of endless forward-driving momentum in both. Needless to say, this lengthy track, at 8:16 minutes, is packed with exciting guitar breaks which, in typical Young fashion, range from deep-fuzzed bass to piercing high-pitched notes. And, in a pattern common to all the great albums I’ve encountered so far, the next track is the ideal foil to what came before.

Another of those “previously unreleased” songs, Love Is A Rose is a whimsical little melody featuring some adroit work on the acoustic guitar and harmonica. Where, one wonders, does Young pluck these gems from; what mysterious muse threw these pearls his way? I would not be surprised, a hundred years from now, to see this little tune in a book of famous old folk songs, handed down through the generations. It’s that timeless: “Love is a rose / but you better not pick it / It only grows when it’s on the vine. / A handful of thorns and / you’ll know you’ve missed it / You lose your love when you say the word ‘mine’.” Isn’t that incredible song-writing? “I wanna see what’s never been seen, / I wanna live that age old dream. / Come on, lads, we can go together / Let’s take the best right now, / Take the best right now.” These lines are sung alongside a wonderful couple of acoustic bass notes, giving the song a deep, rich interlude, before the next verse: “I wanna go to an old hoe-down / Long ago in a western town. / Pick me up cause my feet are draggin’ / Give me a lift and I’ll hay your wagon.” Then that opening, brilliant first verse again, before the repeated metaphor. “Love is a rose, love is a rose. / Love is a rose, love is a rose.”

Slow, steady, deliberate, unyielding. Deep, fuzzy electric guitar chords stream out across the mists of time, as bass notes boom, reverberating ominously, leaving trails of sound that are filled with new layers of notes, as gradually a tune starts to emerge. Eventually, a veritable gunge overture has coalesced, and the whole panoply that is about to unfold is prefigured, impending… “He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and guns / Looking for the new world / In that palace in the sun.” The colonial interloper, Cortez The Killer, arrives, but whose world was he entering? “On the shore lay Montezuma / With his coca leaves and pearls / In his halls he often wondered / With the secrets of the worlds. / And his subjects / gathered ‘round him / Like the leaves around a tree / In their clothes of many colours / For the angry gods to see. / And the women all were beautiful / And the men stood / straight and strong / They offered life in sacrifice / So that others could go on.” It is a somewhat idealised image of the noble savage, but perhaps not as far from the truth as one would imagine. “Hate was just a legend / And war was never known / The people worked together / And they lifted many stones. / They carried them / to the flatlands / And they died along the way / But they built up / with their bare hands / What we still can’t do today.” Ancient Inca cities, which we still marvel at, built without machines. “And I know she’s living there / And she loves me to this day / I still can’t remember when / Or how I lost my way.” Now what is that about? Why the interjection of the rigours of romantic love? Is this another metaphor? This is a multi-faceted song, with the tempo at one stage dropping to a slow blues, while all the time electric guitars weave a magic spell. Indeed, I was reminded in a way of Mark Knopfler’s work on the Dire Straits lament, Brothers In Arms, which has a similar anthem-like quality.

Politics. It started hundreds of years ago and has been with us through colonial times and in post-apartheid South Africa we see shenanigans and corruption possibly even worse, at times, than under the old regime. But at least, I suppose, the new leaders were elected by the majority of the people. They’ve given us what we deserve, or so goes the cynic’s view of politics. But the onus in any democracy is for the people to hold their leaders accountable – and vote them out when they abuse their power. Another of those unreleased tracks on this album is a gentle folk song, Campaigner, which has that memorable line, “even Richard Nixon has got soul”. This at a time when the US president was about to be or had already been impeached. “I am a lonely visitor. / I came too late to cause a stir, / Though I campaigned all my life / towards that goal. / I hardly slept the night you wept / Our secret’s safe and still well kept / Where even Richard Nixon has got soul. / Even Richard Nixon has got Soul.”  Then: “Traffic cops are all colour blind. / People steal from their own kind. / Evening comes too early for a stroll. / Down neon streets the streaker streaks. / The speaker speaks, / but the truth still leaks, / Where even Richard Nixon has got soul. / Even Richard Nixon has got it, / Soul.” And then: “The podium rocks in the crowded waves. / The speaker talks of the beautiful saves / That went down long before he played this role / For the hotel queens and the magazines, / Test tube genes and slot machines / Where even Richard Nixon got soul…” And finally: “Hospitals have made him cry, / But there’s always a free way in his eye, / Though his beach just got / too crowded for his stroll. / Roads stretch out like healthy veins, / And wild gift horses strain the reins, / Where even Richard Nixon has got soul. / Even Richard Nixon has got / Soul.” Again, it is acoustic guitar played superbly, the musical equivalent to an artist expressing himself through simple line drawings, with the minimum of clutter.

But what better way to end this album than with that all-time Neil Young benediction, Long May You Run, which was done by CSNY. Some lovely harmonica overlays upbeat electric rock: “Weve been through some things together / With trunks of memories still to come / We found things to do in stormy weather / Long may you run.” I love that: trunks of memories to come. The chorus, backed by the other CSNY lads, runs: “Long may you run. / Long may you run. / Although these changes have come / With your chrome heart shining in the sun / Long may you run.” Then a bit of history: “Well, it was back in blind river in 1962 / When I last saw you alive / But we missed that shift on the long decline / Long may you run.” This has to be about someone he knew. “Maybe the beach boys have got you now / With those waves singing caroline no / Rollin down that empty ocean road / Gettin to the surf on time.” My brother, Donald, would surely relate to that image, of getting to the surf on time, since you have to arrive before the waves are blown out as the wind picks up.

This triple album runs to a couple of hours, and it is simply one of the greatest pieces of rock music around. But incredibly, Neil Young still had a lot more to offer.                                               

Comes a Time

Hot on the heels of Decade came Comes a Time (1978), which Wikipedia categorises as a “return to the country/folk sound of Harvest”. Evidently it was originally meant to be a solo album, but Reprise executives persuaded Young to add rhythm tracks. While the website has little information on this album, it seems it was his “most commercially accessible album in quite some time, marked by a return to his folk roots”. Certainly one of my brothers had this album at some point, and I must have had a copy on tape because many of the songs seem familiar, including the title track, Look Out For My Love, Human Highway, Already One and Field of Opportunity. It is certainly an album I’d love to revisit. The fact that it reached No 7 on the US album charts attests to its popularity and accessibility, though I would argue that virtually all Young’s music is accessible. It may not all be commercial, thank heavens, but for anyone with an appreciation for great songwriting – and the unique genius that is Neil Young – there must be few albums that do not have an irresistible appeal.                                                    

Rust Never Sleeps

And it was in the late 1970s that Neil Young showed he was fully cogniscant of punk rock’s influence, and of the revolution it was precipitating. The Rust Never Sleeps tour was a lengthy one, Wikipedia tells us, with each concert divided into a solo acoustic set and an electric set with Crazy Horse. “Much of the electric set was later seen as a response to punk rock’s burgeoning popularity.” Indeed, Neil Young was savvy enough to make a song commenting on this new phenomenon, which would be featured on the album, Rust Never Sleeps, which is one of my favourites. Wikipedia tells us that Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) “compared the changing public perception of Johnny Rotten (leader of the Sex Pistols) with that of the recently deceased Elvis Presley, who himself had once been disparaged as a dangerous influence only to later become an icon”. Rotten “returned the favour”, says Wikipedia, by playing one of Young’s songs on a London radio show. I’ll return to that later when addressing the songs on that album. The ensuing album, Rust Never Sleeps (1979), comprises “new material culled from live recordings, but featuring studio overdubs”. This album, which I missed initially as military conscription finally caught up with me in July 1979, I was to encounter in 1983, of all places at the Concor base on the northern Namibian (South West African) border during a three-month stint which I was forced to do there, and where hearing this album in the mess one day helped alleviate some of the emotional torment I was enduring at the time. Young, I learn from Wikipedia, also released a film version of the album under the same title in 1979, while the album Live Rust combines older classics interspersed within the Rust Never Sleeps track list. But where did that term, rust never sleeps, come from. Wikipedia says it was borrowed from the slogan for Rustoleum paint, and suggested by Mark Mothersgaugh of the New Wave band Devo. The album was ranked No 350 in 2003 on that Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 greatest albums. Readers and critics of Rolling Stone had also voted Young artist of the year for 1979, along with The Who, with Rust Never Sleep voted album of the year. He was also voted male vocalist of the year.

Upon reflection, it wasn’t only in 1983 that I heard this album for the first time. My My, Hey Hey – and it’s electric equivalent, Hey Hey, My My – were with us during those turbulent times at the turn of the decade, when most of my brothers and friends were scattered about the country as conscription tore us apart. But we would always return to the Hobnob “ladies’ bar” as it was known in those bizarre days, at the Bonza Bay Hotel, and we’d booze like there was no tomorrow. And those songs, but more specifically Pocahontas, were great favourites among our group. One guy had even named his off-road motorbike Pocahontas. These are guys, great guys, whose names I have even forgotten now, nearly 30 years later. We were scattered like leaves in the wind by the vagaries of the apartheid military machine. Some fled into exile overseas, others to the nominally independent homeland of the Transkei. Others, like myself and my brothers, had to bite the bullet, as it were, and face the military head-on, or end up in prison. So those were fraught times, but all along there was the music to sustain us. And so when someone within the Kaffrarian Rifles played this album in about October 1983, in that military kitchen on the Namibian border, it was just another example of our attempting to escape the reality of our plight as conscripts by becoming absorbed in great progressive music.

Having just given Rust Never Sleeps a fresh listen, it remains for me a brilliant work, though perhaps without the diversity that characterises the sweep that is Decade. Side 1 is acoustic, Side 2 electric. And Young manages to pull off each type of sound with consummate ease. Who isn’t familiar with those opening chords on Hey Hey, My My (Into The Blue)? It’s the kind of guitarwork any aspiring guitarist would try to master. And, while each song doesn’t end with crowd applause, their presence can be heard during the song, as they clap appreciatively at various points. But what was that song really about? Certainly Elvis isn’t mentioned by name, with the Wikipedia critic assuming “the king” referred to in the song is him. Let’s take a closer look: “My my, hey hey / Rock and roll is here to stay / It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away / My my, hey hey.” I had always assumed this song was about Johnny Rotten’s death – of a heroin overdose on February 2, 1979. Which explains why it is “better to burn out than to fade away”. The chorus runs: “Out of the blue / and into the black / They give you this, / but you pay for that / And once you’re gone, / you can never come back / When you’re out of the blue / and into the black.” And when Young sang the next lines, I never associated it with Elvis, but rather with Rotten, or Lydon, which was his real name: “The king is gone / but he’s not forgotten / This is the story / of a Johnny Rotten.” The song concludes with the lines: “Hey hey, my my / Rock and roll can never die / There’s more to the picture / Than meets the eye. / Hey hey, my my.”

While this song dwelt with the whole punk rock thing, it was the next few songs which for me really made this album. What beautiful acoustic guitar work characterises the start of Thrasher, where a single harmonica note sets the song in motion. Harmonica, played with Dylanesque panache, punctuates a song which seems, on the surface, to be another forceful cry for the protection of the environment: “They were hiding behind hay bales, / They were planting in the full moon / They had given all they had for something new / But the light of day was on them, / They could see the thrashers coming / And the water shone like diamonds in the dew.” As usual, Young keeps you guessing. “And I was just getting up, hit the road before it’s light / Trying to catch an hour on the sun / When I saw those thrashers rolling by, / Looking more than two lanes wide / I was feelin’ like my day had just begun.” Is this a protest at mega-agriculture? Super-farms which render the small farmer obsolete given the economies of scale? “Where the eagle glides ascending / There’s an ancient river bending / Down the timeless gorge of changes / Where sleeplessness awaits / I searched out my companions, / Who were lost in crystal canyons / When the aimless blade of science / Slashed the pearly gates.” I’ve no real idea where this is heading, or indeed where it’s been. It just speaks of a hopelessness at the way scientific progress slashes the certainties and securities of the past. “It was then I knew I’d had enough, / Burned my credit card for fuel  / Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand / With a one-way ticket to the land of truth / And my suitcase in my hand  / How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.” Will he find absolution in the wilderness, and who were those friends he lost? “They had the best selection, / They were poisoned with protection / There was nothing that they needed, / Nothing left to find  / They were lost in rock formations / Or became park bench mutations / On the sidewalks and in the stations / They were waiting, waiting.” He seems disillusioned: “So I got bored and left them there, / They were just deadweight to me / Better down the road without that load / Brings back the time when I was eight or nine / I was watchin’ my mama’s T.V., / It was that great Grand Canyon rescue episode. / Where the vulture glides descending / On an asphalt highway bending / Thru libraries and museums, galaxies and stars / Down the windy halls of friendship / To the rose clipped by the bullwhip / The motel of lost companions / Waits with heated pool and bar.” Dylan would perhaps have enjoyed this literary, image-heavy ramble. “But me I’m not stopping there, / Got my own row left to hoe / Just another line in the field of time / When the thrashers come, I’ll be stuck in the sun / Like the dinosaurs in shrines / But I’ll know the time has come / To give what’s mine.” Eish! Neil Young, you make it so hard for us to understand. But again, it is the combination of these thoughts, expressed in song, that are part of the Young magic.

If I said Ride My Llama, how many would know the tune? Indeed this is the first time I’ve focused enough on the lyrics to discern the use of this word. Remember the opening notes on acoustic guitar? Da-da-daa da-daa. “Remember the Alamo / When help was on the way / It’s better here and now, / I feel that good today.” I know little of American history, but do know there was a military battle here, so let’s see how things went. First, mention must be made of the beautiful guitar work, especially on the chorus, with Young singing the same notes plucked on the guitar, down in the lower registers. “I’d like to take a walk (dum-dum!) /But not around the block / I really got some news / I met a man from Mars. / He picked up all my guitars / And played me travelling songs. / And when we got on ship / He brought out

something for the trip / And said, It’s old but it’s good / Like any other primitive would.” I’d always heard those words, but it’s nice to see them in black and white, with this Martian friend taking him “on ship”, while playing some songs. Why I never heard the word llama before, is that in South Africa we use flat vowel sounds. So when I heard the words, “I’m gonna ride my llama / From Peru to Texarkana / I wanna ride him good / In my old neighbourhood / I’m gonna ride him good / In my old neighbourhood,” I though, oddly, that he said “I’m gonna ride my lamb…”. Instead it was llama, which the way we speak rhymes with “embalmer”. So it was great to finally solve that little riddle.

Pocahontas is one of those songs you just want to play super loud. That strummed acoustic guitar and Young’s inimitable voice, not to mention the evocative lyrics, make this another all-time classic. It is also great to solve another riddle: that of the first two words. Young was clearly a star-gazer. “Aurora borealis / The icy sky at night / Paddles cut the water / In a long and hurried flight / From the white man / to the fields of green / And the homeland / we’ve never seen.” There is chanting between verses on this that I’ve only heard again once – on a television concert by Buffy Saint Marie, which I chanced to spot on a late-night slot on one of the local channels. Reinforcing the understanding that Young has Native American antecedents, this song addresses how the lives of the indigenous people were changed forever by the advent of the conquering white man – as he had dealt earlier with the arrival of Cortez further south. “They killed us in our tepee / And they cut our women down / They might have left some babies / Cryin’ on the ground / But the firesticks / and the wagons come / And the night falls / on the setting sun.” Even in the midst of such tragedy, he can muster great poetry, with the night falling on the setting sun. But the full story has to be told: “They massacred the buffalo / Kitty corner from the bank / The taxis run across my feet / And my eyes have turned to blanks / In my little box / at the top of the stairs / With my Indian rug / and a pipe to share.” Is this a descendant reflecting on the past, from his urban jungle home? “I wish a was a trapper / I would give a thousand pelts / To sleep with Pocahontas / And find out how she felt / In the mornin’ / on the fields of green / In the homeland / we’ve never seen.” Then the cult Western movie is shredded: “And maybe Marlon Brando / Will be there by the fire / We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood / And the good things there for hire / And the Astrodome / and the first tepee / Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me / Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me / Pocahontas.” I don’t know if my interpretation is correct. But this country has had to deal with the legacy of similar acts. But, whereas in the US and Canada, the whites emerged numerically vastly superior, in South Africa eventually, the black majority secured their victory. The key question for whites who’ve stayed on is will revenge be exacted. Already, various forms of “fair discrimination” – as described in our founding Constitution – are being practised against whites.

The final track on the side is far lighter in content, with harmonica and acoustic guitar again working wonders – and there remains a native American connection. “I could live inside a tepee / I could die / in Penthouse thirty-five / You could lose me on the freeway / But I would still / make it back alive.” A desire to escape the rat race seems to pervade this song. “As long as we can sail away / As long as we can sail away / There’ll be wind in the canyon / Moon on the rise / As long as we can sail away.” Young offers some lovely lines in the succeeding verses: “See the losers in the best bars / Meet the winners in the dives / Where the people are the real stars / All the rest of their lives.” And in the final verse: “There’s a road / stretched out between us / Like a ribbon on the high plain / Down from Phoenix through Salinas / ’Round the bend and back again.”

Following the acoustic set on Side 1 – where Young is only accompanied on Sail Away by bass, drums and vocals – on Side 2, with Crazy Horse’s support, he unleashes some of the meanest, heaviest rock going. Yet, even here, there is room for nuance and subtlety.

On Powderfinger, the by-now trademark fuzz guitar sound – a sort of reverberating, subterranean eruption – powers the song on. But, apart perhaps from those opening lines, who knows what this song was about? “Look out, Mama, / there’s a white boat / comin’ up the river / With a big red beacon, / and a flag, / and a man on the rail / I think you’d better call John, / ’Cause it don’t / look like they’re here / to deliver the mail. / And it’s less than a mile away / I hope they didn’t come to stay / It’s got numbers on the side / and a gun / And it’s makin’ big waves.” The scene is set. But for what? Certainly there is an air of wariness. “Daddy’s gone, / my brother’s out hunting / in the mountains / Big John’s been drinking / since the river took Emmy-Lou / So the powers that be / left me here / to do the thinkin’ / And I just turned twenty-two / I was wonderin’ what to do / And the closer they got, / The more those feelings grew.” A tragedy clearly beckons. “Daddy’s rifle in my hand / felt reassurin’ / He told me, / Red means run, son, / numbers add up to nothin’ / But when the first shot / hit the docks I / saw it comin’ / Raised my rifle to my eye / Never stopped to wonder why. / Then I saw black, / And my face splashed in the sky.” Is this good writing, or what? “Shelter me from the powder / and the finger / Cover me with the thought / that pulled the trigger / Think of me / as one you’d never figured / Would fade away so young / With so much left undone / Remember me to my love, / I know I'll miss her.”

I was reminded of The Who by the heavy lead guitar and hefty rock rhythm on track two, Welfare Mothers. But here again, the lyrics have always been a mystery. The staccato delivery doesn’t help matters, but one of numerous lyric sites offers the following: “People, pick up / on what I’m puttin’ down now / Welfare mothers / make better lovers / Down at every / Laundromat in town now / Welfare mothers / make better lovers / While they’re washin’ / you can hear this sound now / Welfare mothers / make better lovers / Divorcee!” What the implications are of the divorcee “curse” one can only imagine. Is it linked to Young’s mother’s own experiences, perhaps.

Sedan Dlivery is another equally heavy track, but here the lyrics are more memorable, especially the chanted lines, “hard to find, hard to find”. But what was it all about? “Last night I was cool / at the pool hall / Held the table for eleven games / Nothing was easier / than the first seven / I beat a woman with varicose veins.” A “hero”, then? “She stopped to see / herself in the mirror / Fix her hair and hide heir veins / And she lost the game.” Then, another day in the life. “Next day I went to the dentist / He pulled some teeth / and I lost some blood / We’d like to thank you / for the cards you sent us / My wives and I were all choked up.” And what to make of this! “I recall how Caesar and Cleo / Made love in the Milky Way / They needed boats / and armies to get there / I know there’s a better way.” Absurdist poetry, you’ve gotta love it. “I saw the movie and I read the book / But when it happened to me / I sure was glad I had what it took / To get away. / Gotta get away, gotta get away / Gotta get away, gotta get away.” It’s a long song, and still no mention of delivering that sedan. “I'm making another delivery / Of chemicals and sacred roots / I’ll hold what you have to give me / But I’ll use what I have to use.” We’re getting closer: “The lasers are in the lab / The old man / is dressed in white clothes / Everybody says he’s mad / No one knows / the things that he knows.” Then the chant: “No one knows, no one knows / No one knows, no one knows.” Finally: “I’m sleepin’ in every hallway / I just can’t accept the stares / I’m using too many covers / I’m warm now so I don’t care. / I’m thinkin’ of no one in my mind / Sedan delivery / is a job I know I’ll keep / It sure was hard to find.” Ah, and then: “Hard to find, hard to find / Hard to find, hard to find.”

The grunge father epithet that Young acquired has to relate to the final track, Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), which differs from the opening track not only by virtue of it being heavy electric-guitar-based rock, as opposed to acoustic rock, but also because it starts with two “heys” and not two “mys”. Here the wall of heavy electric rhythm guitar and the rest of the rhythm section is solid – a relentless barrage of feedback sound augmented every so often by offshoots of lead guitar.

This was a fine album, but my personal preference is for the first side. I believe he has done better electric rock, as evidenced on Decade.

Later on

I have again to confess that, apart from Rust Never Sleeps, and another live album I made a tape of nearly 20 years ago, the title of which I hope to pin down shortly, my interest in Neil Young’s contributions as he and I aged, waned. Of course there was much more to come, but would it, could it, ever match what he did in those first 15 years?

Wikipedia tells us the 1980s were “a lean time for Young both critically and commercially”. After the folk/country Hawks &  Doves (1980), Re-ac-tor (1981) was again with Crazy Horse and was “a façade of distortion and feedback obscuring a relatively weak selection of songs”. Come to think of it, this problem seems to have been hinted at on Side 2 of Rust Never Sleeps. Then in 1982, he recorded Trans, which Wikipedia calls “his strangest record of the decade”. It is recorded “almost entirely with vocoders, synthesizers and other devices that modify instruments and vocals with electronic effects”. A rockabilly-styled album, Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983) also went down like a lead zeppelin.

In 1985, there was a brief CSNY reunion for Live Aid in Philadelphia – their first in front of a paying audience since 1974.

And so on and so forth. Suffice to say that Young kept producing in the 1980s, but age, burn out, or just the jadedness which seemed to permeate the rock industry from the late 1980s, conspired to keep his music out of my zone of interest.

There was another brief CSNY reunion in 1988, and another, nationwide tour in 2000. And then, of course, there was grunge. I’m perhaps short-sighted, or short-changing myself, but I’ve yet to listen to Kurt Cobain’s music. Wikipedia says by 1990, grunge music was beginning to make its first inroads into the charts, with “many of its prime movers, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, citing Young as a major influence”. Naturally, Young responded to the fresh interest in his work by cutting Ragged Gory with Crazy Horse, “whose guitar riffs and feedback driven sound showed his new admirers he could still cut it”. He even went back on the road with an LA punk band, Social Distortion. Which, to me, is a travesty. Of course musicians have to live, but do icons like Neil Young have to kowtow to the whims of modern bands who, in terms of originality, couldn’t hold a candle to him?

Fortunately, he made something of a commercial comeback with Harvest Moon (1992), a sequel to Harvest, which included singers Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. He even entered my personal radar, with songs like From Hank To Hendrix and the title track, which was a minor hit. And it was his MTV Unplugged concert from 1993, which I was lucky to tape off the TV, that revived my interest in his work, and helped introduce my young sons to one of the rock world’s great legends.

Wikipedia cites an interesting, if apocryphal, tale of how Young’s lyrics, “it’s better to burn out that to fade away”, which apparently referred to Johnny Rotten, may have influenced Cobain’s decision to commit suicide. Sleeps with Angels, the title track of his 1994 album, tells the story of Cobain’s death. Young had evidently tried to contact Cobain prior to his death. His “alleged” suicide had quoted this line from My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue), which only goes to show you can’t take rock lyrics too seriously. Young later emphasised the line, “cause once you’re gone you can’t come back”, in live performances at the time, says Wikipedia.

Bizarelly, the nostalgia bandwagon still thrived as the century turned, with the CSNY tour of the US and Canada raking in $42-million, “making it the eighth largest grossing tour of 2000”, says Wikipedia.

And still Young kept churning out new albums in the new millennium, while his 2001 single, Let’s Roll, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks that year on the US, again saw him in the spotlight.

There was a concept album, Greendale, in 2003, which again offered him fresh impetus. Then in March, 2005, he was admitted to hospital with a brain aneurysm. A new album, Prairie Wind, deals with his near brush with death.

Remembering his protest roots, in 2006 he came out with Living With War, an album of protest songs, including one, Let’s Impeach The President, which was a rebuke of President George W Bush and the war in Iraq. The album was critically acclaimed.

And so, with further CSNY tours on the cards, and continued reworking of his rich legacy, Young has seen himself into old age with some aplomb. It cannot have been an easy journey, after that initial few years of mega-stardom.

Apart from that archive of incredible music, his list of achievements include being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1982, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – in 1995 for his solo work, and in 1997 as a member of Buffalo Springfield.

He has also staged the Bridge School Concerts for one weekend each October for nearly two decades. He and his wife Pegi host concerts which have featured big names like Bruce Springsteen, The Who, David Bowie and Paul McCartney. The proceeds fund the school, which develops advanced technologies to help instruction of children with disabilities. Both Young’s sons have cerebral palsy and his daughter, like himself, has epilepsy, says Wikipedia.

And while Springsteen won the 1994 Oscar for his song, Streets of Philadelphia, from the film, Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks, Young’s song, Philadelphia, from the same movie was also nominated.

Young owns a record company and a toy train and railroad manufacturer. He has two honorary doctorates. And his prowess as a guitarist has been recognised by the gurus, with Mojo magazine ranking him No 9 in its 1996 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him No 34 on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. Paste Magazine in 2006 ranked him second behind Dylan in its list of the greatest living songwriters – though one wonders where that left Paul McCartney. Well a quick Google search reveals McCartney at No 5, behind Springsteen and Tom Waits. Below him are Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Prince and Randy Newman. Then come Keith Richard, Mick Jagger and Paul Simon. Ah the list is long and rich, and worth a visit.

What a pleasure to have been an impressionable teenager at a time when Young was at the absolute height of his powers, playing some of his greatest material. Long may he run.

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