Neil Young: What It’s Worth (08/69)

Neil Young used to be number one or number two man with the Buffalo Springfield, depending on your taste; after the group broke up for various reasons, one of which was lack of commercial success (they never really had a hit after “For What It’s Worth,” though the continuing validity of that song was demonstrated once again during the People’s Park Memorial Day March—everyone in Berkeley seemed to have it on their turntable), Neil Young signed up with Warner Brothers Reprise and cut an album on his own.

Then he made yet another, and a couple of weeks after that was released it was announced he’s now to join Crosby Stills & Nash. The Best of the Buffalo Springfield in person as well as on record. Since a phase in the career of one of rock and roll’s most talented performers is at an end, it might not be a bad time to take a look at what he’s done so far.

Neil Young doesn’t know where the limits are—he goes too far, blows it, overdoes it. He takes risks with his music, his lyrics, his voice his guitar. Because he takes risks he gets a lot farther, sometimes, than those with more talent and better sense. Steve Stills, for example, never makes a mistake important enough to mar anything he does; never goes so far that he can’t scramble back real quick to where the ground’s a bit firmer. The only word I have for Stills’ music is “perfect”. Young isn’t like that. He blows it quite often. And his failures are often more impressive and more capable of moving a listener than the successes of many another artist.

It’s easy to notice an odd quality in the early music of Neil Young, the songs he wrote for that first Buffalo Springfield album. The quality is fear and a paranoia. In one of the most touching, depressing songs ever written, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” Young told the story of a kid he’d gone to school with up in Canada. They boy used to spend his time making up songs and signing them right out loud, not caring who heard them, or perhaps it’s the other way around—wanting everyone to hear them. I wouldn’t know. But the kids in the town banded together and teased this boy, shamed him, scared him, made him afraid of himself and his own natural impulse to express himself with the little melodies he gathered up throughout the day. Working with the marvelous abilities of the early Buffalo Springfield, Young’s composition threaded its way over all sorts of changes of mood and instrumentation, each of the group’s three guitars talking to each other in a soft sense of compassion and friendship. It was a rare song—a song about friendship. It shows just how scary and cruel childhood can be.

It was another cut that I like to think of as truly representing what Neil Young is all about, though that’s no doubt wrong. “Out of My Mind” is just one side of Neil Young, but it is the most gripping, compelling side, one that can’t be ignored and cannot be minimized. It’s not the idea as much as the music. Groups don’t come up with this sort of performance every time out—and the Springfield’s performance of “Out of My Mind” makes their other material seem trivial and childish by comparison. With guitars tuned to a pitch that somehow brings them to within an inch of hell and fire and torture, the musicians count out a matrix for lyrics that, thankfully, are not too common:

All I hear are screams
From outside the limousines
(shiny limousines)
That are taking me
Out of my mind

When I first heard this song it struck me as the tale of a mental hospital. Young’s later “Mr. Soul,” which used exactly the same images to tell the story of the rock and roll star besieged by girls, managers, and other fears, indicated that “Out of My Mind” was a matter of Young’s new role as a star as well. The first impression of a mental hospital might not be too far off—just an asylum playing one-night stands.

The Buffalo Springfield was managed by Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, two of the most insidious of all LA rock’n’roll entrepreneurs. They made Lou Adler look like St. Francis of Assisi. I remember watching the two of them being interviewed on the David Susskind show some years ago, as they described how they liked to tool around in their chauffeur-driven limousine with two-way glass or whatever it was that it was equipped with, watching the kids on the strip who couldn’t look in at them, listening to Greene and Stone deny that this funny new rock’n’roll music (well, it was new to David Susskind) had anything to do with drugs, sex, politics, or anything bad. They talked about it as if it was a healthy outlet for dumb kids, like masturbation or Little League baseball. Remembering good ol’ Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, it wasn’t hard to see it from Young’s point of view—except that his visions of cruelty and terror far transcended a shit manager, the fatigue of going on the road, or the day-to-day hassles of the celebrity. There was a lot more there.

Young’s most notable contribution to the Springfield’s second album was a long cut called “Broken Arrow,” presumably inspired by the movie of the same name. It was an extremely complicated song, musically and lyrically, a song that cried out for interpretation and analysis, and it was this quality of over-structuring that weakened the composition. Yet one couldn’t ignore the force of Young’s voice, the obvious pain of the lyrics and the arrangement, even if one wasn’t interested in figuring out their “deeper meanings.” Along with “Mr. Soul,” Young seemed deeply enmeshed in a web of fear and vague terror. It didn’t exactly fit with the “Good Time Boy” song on the same album. Only the fact that Steve Stills was fast becoming the best songwriter in the West kept Young’s material from once again overshadowing the rest of the group.

Young seemed to move out of the colder landscapes on the Springfield’s last album; not writing much, he wrote and sang a song that once again reached a kind of sentiment that no one else in rock’n’roll has ever approached, ever really bothered with in fact. What is it like to be a little boy? “I am a child / I last a while / You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.”

Young’s first album on his own, Neil Young, was a triumph. He seemed to be almost toying with the listener, grasping gracious, tantalizing riffs and then abandoning them, throwing away what most would be happy to use for a whole career. The songs, again, were scary and at times virtually maudlin, creepy, almost a horror show. The soul chorus that backed him on masterpieces like “The Old Laughing Lady” approached a feeling something like that which one might expect from the Brides of Dracula. But it was never ludicrous—eminently melodic and creative, the album found its own place in the life of whoever listened to it. Young’s fears, again, were focused on those things that most other songwriters simply couldn’t bother with: “Well I was driving down the freeway when my car ran out of gas / I pulled into the station / But I was afraid to ask.” If that sort of experience is foreign it would be pointless to listen to Neil Young: if it is even a bit familiar you’ll find that Young takes the trivial and endows it with a significance that trivializes all around it. He has that much power.

Young has released a new album, called Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. I can’t “review” it; most of it somehow has no drawing power and just never gets to my rock-shriveled hearing. This is not a record review, anyway; it’s a piece of writing about music, a suggestion about things to listen to at someone’s house, in a record store, on the radio, whatever. There is a song on this album called “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and if you never hear it, you are missing something important. This will most likely be Young’s last burst of real musical freedom, at least until Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young break up, and it is one of the songs of the year, in a year when, so far at least, the pickings have been thin. Along with Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” this composition will be part of whatever is meant to live through 1969.

“Cowgirl in the Sand” is hard rock, but it isn’t “classic” hard rock—it owes nothing to Elvis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins. It is very hard to play hard rock without the boost of a quick tempo and a snappy four-four beat on the drum. Most attempts end up sounding something like Jerry Lee Lewis getting out of bed. Great hero he may be but he still drags himself out and looks gritty just like the rest of us.

The key to it is tension and drama. Musicians have to appear to be fighting each other when in fact they are at their most sympathetic; notes have to come at points where no ear would expect them, destroying old assumptions and getting the listener ready for something he’s not quite prepared for. “Cowgirl in the Sand” begins with a quiet fingering of a guitar, almost subliminally accompanied by drops of rain from a rhythm instruments, setting a mood like that of the opening notes of “Paint It, Black.” Silence, a long silence, and then a crash of a band that suddenly rises up and takes that mood away, not destroying it, but stealing it. Young takes over on guitar. He takes over, but only because he’s so fucking good. The rhythm guitarist is a rhythm guitarist in name only, for his lines are as creative and as individual as anything Young plays. He plays rhythm like Ginger Baker played drums and Jack Bruce played bass to Eric Clapton’s guitar, except that he’s more effective than Bruce or Baker, and Young is more gripping than Clapton.

Young moves off on long, entrancing voyages, accompanied by slashes of the second guitar, a loose, winding beat, the bass and drums pounding with the steady, gritty energy of a man pulling a bucket out of a well hand over hand. Anyone who dug Young’s guitar on “Mr. Soul” or “Out of My Mind” will simply dive into this song. Like Robbie Robertson, Young used to be quite sparing in what he’d give to the listener—but here he gives it all. On and on he goes, winding his way through passages and alleyways, his guitar really talking in a way that the guitars of only the very best bluesmen (B.B. King and Robert Johnson) talk, in a way that only the guitar of Keith Richard of the Stones can talk. I say that the guitar talks because when this miracle happens there is simply no alienation between the artist and his instrument. Try to draw the line, and it can’t be done. The man seems to be speaking with his fingers, with the strings, like a deaf and dumb boy communicating with signals.

This realization becomes overwhelming when Young sings the brief verses to this ten minute song. His singing is fine, effective, but it is just nothing compared to the guitar he plays at the same time. It is as if his voice is merely a melodic device meant to intensify his guitar. Young plays so hard one can almost feel the pain in his fingers, as he draws out notes with a sound that might remind one of a man taking his own blood with a knife. With his guitar Young communicates as powerfully as Dylan did with words on “Memphis Blues Again.” With his guitar he achieves a musician’s freedom in the same way that Mick Jagger achieved a singer’s freedom with “Goin’ Home.” Danny Whitten, on second guitar, literally destroys the old idea of the rhythm guitar for any rock and roll music that has any pretensions to free from. If one wants to know how this panorama of truly revolutionary music was captured on the record, one must ask the muse. She’s the only one who’d know.

Good Times, August 1969


2 thoughts on “Neil Young: What It’s Worth (08/69)

  1. Pingback: Limits | dadbeat

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