Rust Never Sleeps

by Neil Young

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Neil Young's 1979 "Rust Never Sleeps" marked a major shift in artistic direction for both Young and the entire music industry. "Rust Never Sleeps" signaled Young's recognition that that there was new force in music -- namely punk -- and that the face of Rock-n-Roll would change forever.

The album also represented a concious recognition that Young's music had to evolve or he would become extinct. The lyrics of songs like "Hey Hey, My My" with the chorus "Rock-n-Roll will Never Die" signify Young's desire to remain a vital part of the music scene. Even the album's title phrase "Rust Never Sleeps" embodies the spirit of punk music and the embrace of the new at the expense of the old. Much as The Who sang "Hope I die before I get old", Young is saying that he would rather "burn out than fade away".

The lyrics "It's better to burn out than fade away" were tragically misinterpreted by Kurt Cobain which he quoted in his suicide note.

The opening acoustic track "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" and the closing electric track "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" continue a theme of bookending albums with a "plugged" and "unplugged" version. Young pioneered this approach with the bookends of 1973's Tonight's The Night with the title track which opening acoustic and concluding electric. This unplugged and plugged approach was used again on 1989's Freedom's "Rockin In The Free World" acoustic and electric version. The unplugged theme would later become a phenomenon in the 1990's with MTV's Unplugged series where artists showcased their "acoustic" versions of well known electric hits. It was considered quite clever back then. Of course, Neil had moved on by then and when he was asked to perform on MTV's Unplugged a running joke was that Neil would probably plug in his acoustic tunes.

"Rust Never Sleeps" is considered to be a favorite among fans and was voted as the top album in a poll published in Broken Arrow magazine no. 55, from May, 1994. The album is the source of some of Neil's most beloved songs such as "Powderfinger" and "Thrasher" which have yielded countless interpretations of their lyrics.

There are several urban legends revolving around the album title's origins. Rumor has it that the group Devo came up with the slogan as part of an advertising campaign for the product Rustoleum, a rust inhibitor. Neil has confirmed that he got the phrase "Rust Never Sleeps" from Devo but whether it was ever seriously created for an ad campaign is unknown.

Ironically, one of Young's most signature phrases was not actually written by him. The song "Hey Hey, My My" has a co-writer credit to Jeff Blackburn. Blackburn was in a band that opened for the legendary 1977 The Ducks California bar tour and wrote a song containing the key lyric "It's better to burn out than it is to rust."

The meaning of the phrase "Rust Never Sleeps" is quite ambiguous. Some consider the term to be a metaphor for artistic vitality. In other words, by staying the same, one is vulnerable to the corrosive effects of aging and obsolescence. By moving forward and innovating, one can try and stay ahead of the relentless onslaught of time, remain vital and "rust free".

In many ways, grunge music was to the 90's what punk was to 70's. Both grunge and punk were relatively short lived musical genres that had a much greater impact than their sales, radio play, and concert performances would indicate. However, critically, both genres were both hailed and disparaged as either the future of rock or an indication that rock was dead.

In a Funhouse! review by Richard Dubourg, the significance of Rust Never Sleeps' statement on the music scene is spot on:

From Greil Marcus' 1993 book "Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music" on selecting "Rust Never Sleeps" as the most imporatant album of 1979:

An interview with Young in Spin Magazine (June 1988), Neil was asked about the lyrics to the song "Pocahontas" that go "If you were a trapper, would you give a 1000 pelts to sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt?"

Oh well, so much for lyrical insight. There has been a great deal of speculation about the lines "Pocahontas, Marlon Brando and me". The connection between Pocahontas, Marlon Brando and Neil Young is the Native American Indian. Pocahontas was a famous Indian who "saved" the first "white man" to arrive in America Captain John Smith in Virginia. Brando was renowned for his support of the plight of native Americans. Brando once refused to accept an Oscar and instead sent an Indian woman to read a short speech on the native American tragedy. Finally, Neil has a long history of supporting Indian rights.

Also, here's a collection of album reviews and commentary of Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps. More on the film and followup album Live Rust below.

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Reviews of Neil Young Albums

Neil Young Archives - Thrasher's Wheat