Neil Young: A Timely, and Timeless, Appeal

"The end of this war? The end of this war is when we solve the energy problem. This war is going on for a long, long time. This war will not go away until we figure out what we're doing here on the planet. This is a bad war."

Neil Young
'The Charlie Rose Show'
July 17, 2008

Even as his quirky yet essential place in the rock music pantheon was affirmed this month by his thunderously successful appearances at Desert Trip -- the massive, ultra-expensive mega-festival outside Palm Springs, California for classic rock aficionados, which also featured the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, and Bob Dylan -- recent events had also affirmed Young's sociopolitical relevance.

Earlier in the year, Young, a staunch backer of Bernie Sanders, feuded ferociously with Donald Trump over the climate change denier and racism inciter's insistence on using Young's corrosively anti-corporate 'Rockin' in the Free World' as his incongruous campaign song. After Young shouted "Fuck you, Donald Trump!" at one of his shows, the song ended up used only by Sanders.

Then, earlier this month, Wikileaks revealed that Hillary Clinton had been promoting fracking -- the best argument for which is to achieve US energy independence from foreign sources -- in countries around the world. But in reality, Young, once a very hopeful Barack Obama backer, had already revealed Hillary's international fracking moves a few years back during interviews.

Now, with America seemingly ready to settle for another Clinton Presidency, and in the wake of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature providing a fresh new dollop of global cultural legitimacy to the North American singer-songwriter tradition (see my archive link below), this is a good time to assess one of our biggest and most enduring musical legends.

Neil Young presented his 'Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)' in epic Hendrixesque electric guitar form at Farm Aid.

And, while Young's performances this year suggest he will be around for a great many moons to come, the passing of Tom Hayden reminds that it is important to assess and recognize icons, imperfect though they may be, while they are very much with us. I'll have a lot more about Tom Hayden, my old friend and sometime colleague, at another time.

Neil Young is a quintessential iconoclast, not a politician pop star like U2's Bono. Beyond a certain point, he doesn't care if he is liked or not. He doesn't hang around conferences or, usually, get involved with electoral politics. He lays out what he thinks in both his art and his pronouncements and tries in his own way to lead by example. As with his demonstration project of an alternatively fueled classic car.

As a result, in this time of long wars, ever so halting progress on preserving the planet's habitability, and rising racial discord and economic inequality, all subjects of concern throughout his career since he emerged in LA's legendary Buffalo Springfield back in the '60s, the man who wrote and recorded the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young epic 'Ohio' in immediate response to the National Guard killing of four peaceful anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State is as politically engaged a music superstar as we have.

But we already knew that when Young and his sometime bandmates Crosby, Stills & Nash waited in vain for younger musicians to protest the Iraq War before undertaking their controversial 2006 anti-war tour in support of Young's album 'Living with War.'

"We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand
We got department stores
and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes
for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people,
says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn,
got roads to drive.

"Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.

"Got a water cannon for the standing man
Got misinformation from the corporation
In the endless search for a drop of oil
People's lives get shattered while we suck it from the soil
Gotta show the children
We just don't care
So we keep on burnin' it
And put it in the air

"Keep on rockin' in the free world ..."

Donald Trump thought that was his campaign theme song??!!

Neil Young joined Pearl Jam for their anniversary concert closer 'Rockin' in the Free World' a few years ago in Toronto.

Neil Young has always followed his own path during his long history as one of our most powerful and not infrequently surprising musical legends. While it's taken him up and down and all around some awkward zig zags on occasion, it's also kept him to a true course as a champion of the environment, opponent of injustice, and generally fascinating cultural figure.

By all accounts one of the very strongest performers at the massive Desert Trip festival this month in the Southern California desert outside Palm Springs, Young is regarded as one of the top singer-songwriters of all time.

Only Bob Dylan, whose brand-new Nobel Prize for Literature lends fresh legitimacy to the scene and, arguably fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell are regarded by many experts as being better than Young in the singer-songwriter field.

Yet Young is not just a singer-songwriter. Indeed, his two sets at Desert Trip showcased the breadth of his career, starting out with him in solo acoustic troubadour mode on 'After the Gold Rush' and 'Heart of Gold,' building through his extensive songbook, including a few from his forthcoming acoustic album then climaxing in massive rock guitar jams with his much younger bandmates, Promise of the Real's (and Willie Nelson's sons) Lukas and Micah Nelson.

Of course, not everything Young does in his very prolific output works out quite so swimmingly.

His latest album 'Earth,' released in June, which you can sample here on Tidal, sees the 70-year old working with Promise of the Real, presenting a mostly live album from their 2015 tour decrying corporate despoilment of the global environment and food chain. For added impact, Young decided to include the sounds of nature itself. It seems a little weird at first blush, but it is very safe to say that Young's never been too concerned about seeming a little weird. The birds and various critters and the wind in the oak and pine end up making the electric guitar-heavy album even more flavorful.

Yet, it fell flat commercially, at least in the US, where it was one of his lowest charting albums, not cracking the Top 100. It did much better in Europe, however. Of course, he was touring Europe at the time. He didn't get back to North America until just before the Desert Trip mega-festival.

The business-minded Economist, of all magazines, had some very approving things to say about Young as this summer began. "A hurricane has blown through rock music since the 1960s and its name is Neil," the magazine noted during Young's smash European tour.

Young's 'Rockin' in the Free World' music video. Again, the Trump campaign theme song? What was Trump taking?

"He sounds like a frazzled survivor from one of Margaret Atwood's post-apocalyptic novels. Has he changed at all since the 1970s? Has he needed to? Mr. Young is the crank in the forest who knew it all. He shouts with such conviction that you cannot fail to listen and wonder whether eventually he just might have been right."

Actually, I think it's safe to say that he would like to be proved wrong, by the avoidance of apocalypse.

I've met Young, have never hung out with him, but used to study him as I study, say, Vladimir Putin today. Helping get Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to reunite for presidential candidate Gary Hart's 1988 general election campaign was one of my holy grail projects. Of course, there was someone close to Young who I did hang out with in the '80s, his fellow Buffalo Springfield and CSNY lead guitarist Stephen Stills.

I'd met Stills on the LA music benefit circuit some years before Hart's first presidential campaign in 1984. The brilliant if at times mercurial Stills, who'd helped elect Hart to the U.S. Senate after he restlessly semi-relocated to Colorado in the '70s, knew all about his beloved and perhaps even more mercurial bandmate.

Stills, as the man himself noted, had "wanted to be in the Beatles" -- or maybe at times to be all the Beatles, as he wasn't known as "Captain Manyhands" for nothing -- while Young "had wanted to be Bob Dylan."

Yet the two, who hit it off when they met on the Canadian rock and folk circuit in 1965, quickly joined forces when they met again by sheer chance in LA the following year. Stills and Richie Furay were driving one way down Sunset when Stills spotted an old hearse heading in the opposite direction. "Hey, I bet that's this guy Neil Young," Stills exclaimed to the startled Furay as he popped a U-turn and caught up with the oddly familiar oddball vehicle.

Sure enough, it was Neil Young, accompanied by a moody, talented fellow Canadian named Bruce Palmer who played a mean bass. Young and Palmer had been in a band called the Mynah Birds -- fronted by future funkmaster Rick James -- that was about to cut an album for Motown Records. But James got busted as a Navy deserter and the record deal was canceled. So we never got to see Neil Young's lead guitar work featured in a racially integrated soul band a year before Sly and the Family Stone emerged in San Francisco.

Less than a week after their chance meeting, Stills and Young added drummer Dewey Martin and they had a band. Stills also added the name of a steamroller parked just down the street from where he was crashing. And a few weeks later, Buffalo Springfield debuted at the legendary Troubadour.

Here is a hidden Young gem with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 'Pushed It Over the End,' from the 1974 stadium tour and the epic 'CSNY 1974.'

With Stills and Young largely dominating the talented band, the Springfield rose quickly in LA, wowing the industry during a lengthy home stand at the Whisky a Go Go and putting out their first album before the end of the year. A good thing that they rose fast, since they were only together two years before falling apart, with Young, who quit the band several times, the most volatile element.

But in that time, though they had only one smash hit, Stills's now familiar classic 'For What It's Worth,' the band made a big impact, serving as key pioneers of folk rock, country rock and even some incipient world music in their brief yet Rock & Roll Hall of Fame run.

Young went on to pursue a solo career. His first, self-titled, album, which featured his apt tune 'The Loner,' was well-regarded but didn't make the national charts. His next album, 1969's 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,' added some hard-crunching rock to the sensitive troubadour approach, bringing in his decades-long collaborators Crazy Horse for the first time. This album was a lot bigger, making it almost to the Top 30.

It turned out that superstardom for Young, which seemed in the offing though off in the distance, was a lot closer than anyone had guessed.

While Young was moving on the solo front, Stills, nurturing a passle of killer group-oriented songs, pursued his fraught relationship with singing sensation Judy Collins and looked to form a new band.

He was already jamming with ex-Byrd David Crosby, who'd taken Young's place at the epic Monterey Pop Festival during one of the times Young quit the Springfield.

Then, through the good offices of Cass Elliott and Joni Mitchell, a third refugee from a future Hall of Fame band entered the mix, Englishman Graham Nash. It soon became apparent -- either in Joni Mitchell's living room or Cass Elliot's dining room, with most saying the former -- that Crosby, Stills and Nash made an incredible vocal trio. Nash quit the Hollies, who had eschewed his socially conscious songs in favor of their trademark Brit power pop, and joined his new bandmates in LA to set about making the eponymous album 'Crosby, Stills & Nash.'

The album proved a groundbreaking sensation, an instantly classic new sound in a time of blues-based electric guitar bands. As Eagles founder Glenn Frey, as shrewd an observer of the culture as there was, told me a few decades ago: "CSN hung the moon. Then when they made their sound bigger by bringing in Neil, they were the new Beatles. For a while."

Neil Young's first appearance on film as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was in 'Celebration at Big Sur,' the documentary of the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival held outside Monterey, California shortly after Woodstock. Here CSNY, with the Pacific as their backdrop (at the place where Don Draper's journey ends in 'Mad Men'), plays Young's 'Down By the River.' CSNY headlined Woodstock but Young would not allow filming of himself for the subsequent hit movie, vehemently objecting to what he saw as the intrusiveness of the cameras on stage.

For the thing was, Stills had played almost all the instrumental parts in the studio on 'Crosby, Stills & Nash.' CSN needed somebody else to make it work in concert. After looking at the possibilities of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Winwood, they turned to Stills's old bandmate, Neil Young. As CSNY, they wowed Woodstock, rolled out the classic album 'Deja Vu,' recorded this time in San Francisco, where Crosby and Stills were friends with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, and another #1 hit with the live album of their smash concert tour, 'Four Way Street.' And of course, they broke up.

But Young's next solo album, the timeless 'After the Gold Rush,' shot into the Top 10. And his 1972 follow-up, 'Harvest,' was the biggest album of the year.

Neil Young was suddenly the biggest single act in rock music on the planet.

If CSNY coming together and, more frequently, breaking up and staying apart, was one lasting pattern established in that seminal period, so too was the pattern of Young attaining the heights of great popularity and then subverting it to maintain his own sense of authenticity.

The prolific Young proceeded to put out a string of a half-dozen mostly downbeat albums which were still intriguing hits but took care of that pesky problem of near universal popularity.

After he'd passed from the middle of the road to the ditch, as he phrased it, Young then put out a late '70s album returning him to the Top 10 and the sensitive troubadour mode most casual fans preferred.

But, of course, he then went on his merry way again, trying a number of different directions. It was actually 20 years before he did a proper follow-up to 'Harvest.'

By then, he'd become the "Godfather of Grunge" and inspiration to other indie rockers as well as a pioneer of the Americana music scene.

He continues on the same unique path today.

Young took 20 years to do a follow-up to his massive 1972 hit album 'Harvest.' Here on 'Harvest Moon' he shows his great ability to provide a seemingly effortless and gorgeous melody with casually wonderful Americana ambience.

Young also continues curating and rather deliberately releasing key portions of his voluminous musical and film archives. 'The Archives, Vol.1' in particular is state-of-the-art immersive stuff, essentially a multi-media autobiography through 1972.

One thing I hope he gets to with his sometime and, I fear now, former bandmates is the fabled unreleased CSNY album 'Human Highway.' The group started and stopped on it several times in the '70s. It really is a missing link in their legacy, an obvious hole in the discography.

Meanwhile, CSNY bootleg collectors have put together versions of the projected album, based on various recordings of the likely songs. And Nash himself gave a cassette of the in-the-works album to Oscar-winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe during his Rolling Stone writer days. Only for Crowe to then mistakenly pull the tape out of his bag during an urgent interview situation and record over the music! (I know, journalists ...)

The magnificence of 2014's Nash-produced 'CSNY 1974,' a massive recreation of the 40-plus song shows on rock's first big stadium tour -- replete with a few previously unreleased Young gems -- showcased the group's wealth of intelligent songwriting, glorious harmonies, and thunderous guitars.

And reminded me again of Young's timeless appeal.

He has a new album coming out the first weekend of December. Called 'Peace Trail,' it's evidently a largely acoustic affair with just Young accompanied by a bass player and drummer. I haven't noticed anyone else mention it yet, so I'll say it. The new release coincides with the same week in December 50 years ago in which 'Buffalo Springfield' was released.

Young had just turned 21 when the Springfield's first album came out, yet the five songs he contributed to the album (Stills accounted for the other seven) already show him in deceptively sophisticated and poignant form.

It might be very interesting to compare and contrast Young on his first album, 50 years ago, with Young on his latest.

Long may he run.

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