I don't claim to be a die-hard Neil Young fan or anything. It's not like I've made any real effort to follow his career over the years. But I've always held three truths about him to be self-evident. Truth No. 1: He is a phenomenal song writer. Truth No. 2: He is a virtuoso guitar player. Truth No. 3: He can't sing worth a crap.
I never really cared for his bigger hits like "Heart of Gold" or "Old Man," but I found some of his other songs to be nothing short of brilliant -- both melodically and lyrically. Like "Needle and the Damage Done," "Southern Man" and "Ohio," for example. All genius, as far as I'm concerned.
Despite not being able to sing at all, Young has enjoyed a decades-long career -- with Buffalo Springfield, as a solo artist, as the front man of Crazy Horse, and as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
You know the common saying, "Two out of three ain't bad?" Neil Young is a living example of how if you're off-the-charts talented in two out of three categories, sometimes two out of three can be a whole lot better than "not bad" -- even when you really suck in the third category. That has always been the magic of Neil Young.
But if at least 50 percent of your success hinges on your phenomenal song writing skills -- and you depend on that skill to make up for your terrible singing -- then there's one thing that other musicians can get away with that you should never attempt: You can never merely cover other people's songs.
But on Neil Young and Crazy Horse's most recent album, Americana, he doesn't just break that rule he tortures it so brutally that even Dick Cheney would agree he crossed the line. And it's not just how he covers it -- although that's plenty bad enough -- it's what he covers.
Out of all the songs in the world, Neil Young chose to cover "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain." Listening to the song almost feels like he's testing whether we have the guts to call out the emperor for having no clothes. If that's what it takes to make him stop singing this song then I'd consider it my duty. Honestly, it's more of an uncontrollable reaction than a duty.
I understand that this song has spiritual roots that date back to the 1800s, but the fact is, most people know it as a children's song -- and not even a really good one like "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." If Neil Young were to cover that song, it would actually make some sense. In fact, you might think he really did know an old lady who swallowed a fly -- and it might have even been his old lady.
But "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" is uninspired and passé to the point that Barney the Dinosaur has already recorded it. And I for one believe that no serious musician should ever record a song that Barney the Dinosaur has already covered.
As I listened to Neil Young sing this song -- complete with the Crazy Horse back-up vocals and driving guitar -- I started to feel like I was being scammed. It was as if I had bought tickets to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance and then on the big night he just got on stage and ran through the Hokey Pokey a few times.
Actually, it's worse than that since Mikhail Baryshnikov can actually dance.
It's more like Jerry Seinfeld trying to pass off as funny a new show concept that features unscripted videos he's created of himself driving around in vintage cars, making small talk with a buddy about the minutia of their lives while going to get a cup of coffee. And then calling the show something like, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."
And since Jerry Seinfeld is actually doing this, my screed is now directed at him as well as Neil Young.
Seinfeld had his moment in the sun in the 1990s -- and that moment lasted almost a full decade. He was incredibly gifted at writing and acting in a TV sitcom about a character that was an aspiring comedian. But anyone who saw even a single episode recognized that the weakest part was the snippet of Jerry doing stand-up at the beginning and end of the show.
The truth was, Jerry was successful despite the fact that in real life he was an aspiring stand-up comedian with an annoying voice and a persnickety personality, not because of it. I don't know about your life, but in mine minutia is not in short supply. And although Seinfeld's minutia may best everyone else's in the thoroughly annoying and persnickety department, that's not a selling point.
When giants like Neil Young and Jerry Seinfeld try to sell us "work" that didn't require them to use any of their real talent to create, it feels like they are suffering from King Midas syndrome where they believe that everything they touch magically turns into gold.
Both Neil Young and Jerry Seinfeld got famous for good reason. They both are incredibly gifted. And they both have accomplished a lot in their careers. But if they want to stay in the game, they have to keep using their talent and not just phone it in. In Jerry's case, if he wants to have another show, he has to go to the trouble to write a script. In Neil Young's case, if he wants to record more songs, he has to actually write more songs and never, ever cover songs that Barney already has dibs on.
Neil Young doesn't have to put his crazy horse out to pasture. And Jerry Seinfeld can stay in the game all the way up until he's an old man. But there's a term for people who stop creating new work. It's called retired. Not that there's anything wrong with that.