Neil Young:

Out Of The Black

by Ben Thompson


Out Of The Black by Ben Thompson

"Last night I dreamt I kissed Neil Young
If I was a boy I guess it would be fun."

-- Sonic Youth, Creme Brulee, 1992.

It`s not so much a moment with Neil: one song on which the needle goes down or the disc clicks in and your heart lifts, though he has recorded a hundred such songs. With Neil it`s more a feeling that the sound of him taps you into, a feeling at once thrilling and melancholy, of being completely distanced from the world and at the same time as being right in the middle of it.

The keeper of the flame; the guardian of the sacred flannel shirt; the living embodiment of everything about rock'n'roll which might be good: Neil Young is all these and more. Some people know this instinctively, others come to realise it only after an extended period of forcible indoctrination by better informed friends. Either way, for those born too late to experience his wayward genius as it happened the first time around, Young`s creative renaissance since the late `80s (five albums in as many years-stitch that Stephen Stills) has been a blessing from the skies.

Maybe he just didn`t want to be left out. It can`t be a coincidence that Neil came in from the cold just as a new generation of scruffy guitar bands were preparing to board a raft made out of his old furniture and sail into the mainstream. But the enticingly straightforward conventional wisdom about his return from self-imposed obscurity - a fog of personal tragedy and confusion lifts and the Godfather of Grunge emerges to get his respect - fails to do justice to the complexity of what happened.

Ironies abound in the Young comeback saga. The song which came to re-establish him in the eyes and ears of the american public was "This Note's For You," an infectiously simple-minded anti-commercial rant,whose success was built on a prmomtional video which MTV- one of the main objects of Young`s satirical intentions in the first place- first banned and then took to its steely heart.

The record compny which benefited most spectacularly from the Young inspired rvival was the one owned by former CS&N manager and ultimate post-hippy capitalist David Geffen, which Neil had to leave in order to get good again and which sued him for "making unrepresentive music." And the new band whose free spirit seemed most in tune with Young's, Nirvana, never publicly acknowledged his influence (though they were happy to rabbit on about the Melvins) until Kurt Cobain's suicide note quoted the now notorious lyrics from "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)": "It`s better to burn out than to fade away." Neil,whose career would seem to be living proof that it is possible to neither burn out nor fade away, and who tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Kurt shortly before his death, was left to sorrowfully strike the song from his set-list.

Growing up in England (and, at a guess, in America too) after punk, the image of Young as the ultimate old hippy was deeply ingrained. This was in fact grossly unfair, as Neil was actually the only antediluvian rocker to come out of punk with his integrity uncompromised - Johnny Rotten had angered Malcolm Mclaren by playing Neil Young records on Capitol Radio; in return Young signalled his empathy with "My My, Hey Hey" ("The king is gone but not forgotten/this is the story of Johnny Rotten") - but his early and mid-'80s recordings didn`t do much to shake this misapprehension. If punk rock took a decade to break in America, it took Neil Young the same time to pick up his marker.

While Neil spent the '80s wandering in the rockabilly electric wilderness, a new generation was cutting its musical teeth on second-hand copies of "Decade," perhaps the most persuasive argument ever made in favour of long hair and hanging around in the desert with your guitar case. Young's first reaction to 1989's tribute album, "The Bridge," which featured respectful assaults on his back catalogue by, among others, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies and Sonic Youth,was that he "wasn't ready to be embalmed." The savage and monumental five track EP "Eldorado" triumphantly proved his point, but- elusive as ever -Young released it on a Japanese import only,making it too expensive for any sane person to buy. Not having had a Top 20 album in 10 years he didn`t want to frighten people, so "Freedom," the record which finally emerged in 1989, was a compromise. But what a compromise! Between the madness of "Don`t Cry" and the beauty of "Hangin' On A Limb," a new world opened up, or rather, the old Young world opened up again.

"Rockin In The Free World" the theme song, which in familiar "Rust Never Sleeps fashion," opened and closed the album, even gave Neil an unlikely handle on the zeitgeis (he would later over-crank this spectaculary with his justly notorious Mandela concert feedback orgy). He played a brilliant one-off acoustic show at the Hammersmith Odeon,which had sold out before the date was even officially announced. I know because I was outside, desperately endeavouring to persuade members of the touting community that the stlg50 I had with me would make a fair exchange for two tickets. They were not convinced and, in retrospect, they were probably right.

1990's superb "Ragged Glory" saw Young regaining his dumb '60s garage roots, keeping company with the inspirationally clod-hopping Crazy Horse again, and shunning social comment to sing of the joy of multiple home-ownership, "Fuckin' Up" was a master stroke. And with a little help from the Gulf War, the Spinal Tap-rooted "Smell The Horse" tour was transformed into a sunning ambivalent apocalypse. The tour never came to Britain, but the very electric live album "Weld" did, and there was a bonus in the alarming shape of "Arc" - Young's cochlea-warping 35 minute compilation composition of feedback and shouting, released at the suggestion of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.

Perhaps realising that he could not go a lot further in this direction, Young made "Harvest Moon;" the fruitful, mellow successor to "Harvest" and "After The Gold Rush" which Reprise had waited 20 years for. I got to interview him. It was in no way a disappointment. Neil was wearing a horrendous, fringed brown leather jacket, a Harley Davidson T-Shirt, jeans and an outlandish pair of white sports shoes. He didn`t seem at all mad, just very affable in a grizzly kind of way. On the point of his most commercial album in several eons,his only concern was to rubbish the way it had been recorded." With analogue recording," he insisted, "the moment used to be captured. When they got digital they concentrated on removing all the flaws, and forgot about preserving the sound. You can reproduce it and it never loses its quality; the only problem is, it never had the quality in the first place."

When he finally got around to talking about "Harvest Moon" itself, he described it as, aptly, an album of "songs about hanging on and trying to make things last,and being able to reach back into the past and take it with you rather than having to abandon it. "This was exactly what Young himself was up to with 1993's "Unplugged"; not justgiving his back catalogue the once over for the sake of a new audience, but picking out landmarks familiar ("Like A Hurricane") and not so familiar ("Transformer Man", from the much feared "Trans"), and making them new and beautiful again.

In the summer of last year Young finally got round to playing Britain again, with a scratch band called Booker T and the MGs he'd picked up at 1992's Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute. Their "Dock Of The Bay," with Neil singing "I left my home in Canada, headed for the 'Frisco Bay" and hamming the whisling bit on his harmonica, was one of the loveliest things I have ever heard.


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