Earlier this year I reviewed the brand new Neil Young album another live record from him, another weird one from Uncle Neil. Only Neil Young could give up smoking marijuana and then release a live album where he replaced the audience applause with animal noises.
When I was writing that review I thought that Neil Young should probably be the next instalment in the Heroes Live series. (Recently I wrote about Paul Simon, the first in what I hope is an ongoing series where I’m aiming simply to celebrate the musicians that have had a huge impact – while they’re still alive!)
Growing up I knew a bit about Neil Young, it turned out I knew more of his material than I realised. That sunk in when listening to Decade one of the finest career-overviews I know. The triple-record set covers just the first decade of Neil’s professional career, featuring plenty of rarities and unreleased songs, live renditions and singles and album tracks from his solo career as well as his work with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young and Buffalo Springfield.
What sent me to Decade was seeing Neil Young perform a song called Mother Earth on some televised tribute. Here was every pop star of the day sending out platitudes and scripted warm wishes while plugging their new single. Old Neil gets up and beats down on the strings of the acoustic guitar and sends Rockin’ In The Free World out with all the heart and anger he can give. And then plays Mother Earth – an imagined anthem that’s been an enduring part of his live shows across the last quarter century. Most often he sits at the piano or pump organ and delivers it, sermon-like, a wheeze of harmonica filtered through. But there were early versions where he revved up the electric guitar, standing behind it as if it were a leaf-blower, spraying that sound right at his audience.
This was at the time of Ragged Glory – the first Neil Young album I ever heard right through. I bought that and Freedom and then the Decade compilation served me well. But I was hooked. I bought everything.
In recent years there have been plenty of Neil Young albums that I only need to hear once or twice right now – but I know I’ll listen to them again down the road. Because there’s always something there, always something he’s prepared to try. He released some downright baffling albums in the 1980s – but even the alleged duds (like Re-Act-Or) have at least one good song. Okay, okay, there are a couple of Neil Young albums I don’t ever need to hear again. But given he’s released close to 50 albums (has up to a dozen unreleased – that we know about) and appears to be getting more prolific with age, if anything, I’ll afford him one or two absolute stinkers. He long ago earned the right to release whatever he wants. To be cantankerous enough to just plough on. To release what he wants – when he wants. He not only long ago earned that right, he was going to always do it anyway.
Some days I couldn’t name just one favourite Neil Young album – I’d say it was On The Beach one minute, then I’d quickly want to add Tonight’s The Night and Time Fades Away and Zuma and Comes A Time and the two I mentioned up at the top and his soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man and After The Gold Rush and, well, it then even gets hard picking a favourite live album by Neil Young.
They’re all a mess and almost all wonderful. That’s largely true of the studio records too.
I saw some of Neil Young’s Big Day Out set – but spent most of it dictating a review down the phone from a room inside the venue but away from the stage. That, I thought, was my one chance to see one of my biggest musical heroes. And I wasn’t quite present. I was working. Lucky to be there. Unlucky at the same time, in a sense.
And it was glorious. I love Neil Young no matter what he’s doing and who he’s working with – his current band, The Promise of The Real, is fantastic. And there have been so many groups he’s created or stumbled across. The Stray Gators, The International Harvesters. The reunions with CSN. But there’s always been something about Neil Young rocking with the Horse. Maybe they’re not the best musicians – technically. But they make a sound no one else can quite create. And they allow a side of Neil Young that is particularly special. They help him to make a sound he never quite makes with anyone else.
Since then Neil has written two utterly bonkers memoirs. He’s released a small handful of records too. None of them essential but all of them with something that no one else would do – maybe for better and worse.
He just thumbs out on that musical highway and keeps going. He not only ain’t singing for Pepsi or Coke – as he said in This Note’s For You (from the 1988 album of the same name) – he’s also not singing for money and he isn’t (really) singing for you. He’s like the musical equivalent of a blogger: turning up, jotting something down, maybe it sticks, maybe it doesn’t. But he’ll turn up again. And keep trying. Some days you wonder if he really was trying, other days you wonder how on earth he managed something so good so quickly, so (seemingly) simply. If the new Neil Young album isn’t for you maybe the one coming up will be. Maybe there’s two dozen in the can waiting for you or just one or two really great special ones. Either way Neil’s going to keep hitting out on that highway of song.
I’ve come to admire that most about the man.
In the 70s like so many of the songwriters of the time he was singing his diaries. He’s kept going, kept journaling, started blogging…there’s something consistent about Neil even in his waywardness, even when he’s inconsistent.
He had a pretty good chat on Marc Maron’s podcast just recently. He’s never been an easy interview subject, so this was as close to revealing (and comfortable) as Neil gets.
There’s no one else quite like Neil Young – acoustic folkie, country musician, feedback-swirling rock god, piano balladeer, you never quite know which version is going to turn up. And you get the feeling he doesn’t know sometimes either. Just when you’ve got him pegged, convinced of the cycle, he does something else entirely or combines the elements in a different fashion to make something yet again new. Or he repeats himself – and that happens to be at a time you never expected it too.
You can never depend on Neil Young to do what you want. You can always rely on him to please himself.