Young seems never to have fully accepted either his audience or his own role as one who speaks to an audience: even more than dread or nostalgia, doubt may be the constant in his music. The most fatalistic of rock and rollers, he somehow manages to make every album sound like a finale, a fitting last word. Then he pops up singing something merely harmless—“Long May You Run,” say, or most of Comes a Time—and follows two years or six months later with another massacre, another plague, another plunge into the sun. Yet he doesn’t look to have a mark on him.
Rust Never Sleeps seems like Neil Young’s best album (it isn’t; Tonight’s the Night is, and others have greater moments) because it’s his most balanced. The first side is Young solo, with acoustic guitar; the second, Crazy Horse rock. These extremes are well-placed, under control, which at first highlights their presence and after a time somewhat vitiates their power—or scrambles their terms.
The set opens with “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” a bitter, ironic ballad about the death of Elvis Presley, the flame-out of Johnny Rotten, and rock and roll entropy in general. “My my, hey hey/Rock and roll is here to stay,” Young sings; a few fans whoop, automatically, and then Young pulls the string on them. The music is both lovely and precise; the singing is very restrained. The set ends with “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” a bitter, ironic Crazy-Horse-as-Sex-Pistols grind through the death of Elvis Presley, the flame-out of Johnny Rotten, and rock and roll entropy in general. “Hey Hey, my my/Rock and roll will never die,” Young sings; the crowd can’t be heard over the band. The music sounds as if the amplifiers were being disassembled; the singing is strangled. Both performances (the only live recordings here) are dazzling, but after many listenings the folkish teeatment gains the edge—and that, to my mind anyway, is not the way the extremes of Neil Young’s music work.
The Crazy Horse take, I think, only appears to be extreme; the truth is, Young with Crazy Horse has made much rougher, more brutal music in his own style. For him to orchestrate the story of Johnny Rotten (or “a Johnny Rotten,” or “the Johnny Rotten”—the mythicization diminishes Rotten rather than pumping him up) with something like Rotten’s sound is a little too much like the trick of matching a lyric to a sound effect (the singer says, “You closed the door on my heart,” and the engineer dubs in the sound of a closing door). The music here is terrific—bloody—but you hear too much concept. With the acoustic take the story just unfolds; its brutality is in its starkness, and in the strange way Young pulls back slightly at the end of a line, as if the tale he’s telling is just too ugly to look at for more than a moment at a time. The very quietness of the performance seals it. There is no tougher music on the radio today than the Crazy Horse attack on this song, but that’s partly because the radio is not playing the Sex Pistols—or Young’s “Dangerbird,” his “Like a Hurricane,” his “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Except for “Sail Away,” a flat Nicolette Larson-accompanied leftover from Comes a Time, the acoustic material here seems stronger than the rock and roll—and the rock and roll is first-rate. “Welfare Mothers” (“Make better lovers!” screams the chorus, and it’s about time someone wrote a song off of all those bumper stickers) is Young at his most raucously funny; “Powderfinger” is a shadowy Old West ballad with signature electric guitar from Young: that string of ascending notes cut off by a deadly descending chord, fatalism in a phrase. All of this is reassuring and satisfying to someone who thinks Young is the most exciting guitar player left alive. But this time, the “folk songs”—“My My, Hey Hey,” “Thrasher,” “Ride My Llama,” and the wonderful “Pocahontas,” which ends with Young, Pocahontas, and Marlon Brando sitting around a campfire discussing Hollywood, the Astrodome, and the first tepee—seem more anxiously pursued. More seems to be riding on them, and they have more presence.
Rust Never Sleeps is a map of Neil Young’s music: it defines the territory he’s claimed without quite fixing its limits. As always, the sense of doubt is there—the two versions of the Johnny Rotten song call the whole enterprise into question, and fantasies like “Pocahontas” or rave-ups like “Welfare Mothers,” vital claims to the primacy of day-to-day life, are only day-to-day answers. As always, the extremes remain where they have been: the most idiosyncratic “folk music” and the most assaultive rock and roll, a belief in a receding past and a coming judgment. As the past recedes one realizes that things can never be as they were, that a certain harmony has vanished forever (Young kicked off this theme with the Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and has kept at it, mostly with songs about Indians, ever since); as the past recedes further, one may realize that things never were as they were, either (Pocahontas is probably telling Young and Brando just that). As for the coming judgment—the burden of the tracks that open and close this memorable album, and the source of the doom in “Powderfinger”—its violence is not in that it’s Armegeddon, because it isn’t. Judgment arrives only in pieces, choosing victims one by one, making others watch. Its violence is in the fact that it cuts the ground out from those who, having watched, feel the need to tell what they have seen, and leaves them no certainty that they are doing more than pissing in the wind. That, Young seems to be saying to us, is what the world said to Johnny Rotten; that is what a character in one of Young’s songs from On the Beach said to Young. Young’s response might be that when the wind is blowing, one’s alternatives are limited.
Village Voice, August 1979