I’m a Neil Young fan. A fact I’ve never hidden. I write about him a lot here – and in other places. He’s been a source of fascination for me for over 30 years now. My jaw was on the ground when I first heard him. So part of processing him and his music is in the writing about it.
In fact, he’s a go-to guy when you’re review-writing and you need to chuck in someone (as a form of kudos). You can always pick Neil Young. You could be using him to point out an ugly/beautiful voice. You could be using him to convey guitar playing – again the ugly/beautiful varieties and for acoustic or electric flavours. You could be using the Neil Young comparison for songwriting. There’s a Neil Young for folkies, a country artist, and a rocker. In fact, there’s a bunch of each for all of those genres. Neil Young is handy like that.
But the thing I admire about Neil Young the most – and I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately – is that he does not care what you think. He really does not. He doesn’t care what any of us think. He’ll put on a good show – or maybe he won’t. I’m not saying he’s 100 per cent consistent; often he’s far from it. But he really does not care whether you like him or not. If you gush and rave about him – as some of you will perceive I am about to do here – he would probably treat that with more disdain than someone who claimed to be singularly unimpressed.
This is rare. This is an incredible level of confidence for a performing artist and writer to have.
Writers, musicians, actors – all types of artists – crave attention and demand feedback. Artists and writers want to be heard and read and watched; they want their product to be lapped up. Some might want to challenge and provoke. But if you’re a musician releasing albums and putting on shows, you want people to buy those albums and attend those shows. If you’re writing a book, you want it to sell. And you want it to be well-received and well-reviewed. People do want good reviews. You are kidding yourself if you think they don’t. They are kidding themselves if they say they don’t. They might claim to not care, but while they’re busy not caring they also prefer a rave review to a piece telling them to pack up and go home; to not bother ever again.
Heck, even I want feedback. I mean, I write these things for you to comment on, to dissect and possibly destroy. But I’m chuffed if someone out there suggests I’m doing a good job. I can tell you, hand on heart, I don’t do it for that. I’d be a mug if I did, given so much of the feedback and it’s tone. But of course, I’m pleased if I figure I’ve given you something, positive or negative, that you engaged with as a reader. I can’t do it every day – trust me, I know that better than you. But I still turn up and give it a go.
Neil Young is one of the few people releasing material that I honestly believe does not care what anyone thinks – he is his own filter. He doesn’t try to upset his audience. But he will mix it up – often in spite of his biggest fans; damn near to spite them.
Here’s a famous Neil Young quote which I’m sure many of you know:
“This song [Heart of Gold] put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I met more interesting people there.”
Hey, it’s a good quote – it gets mentioned often. And Young certainly backed it up; no way was he writing a Heart of Gold sequel (not when the band America had that plan anyway). He had already crossed genres and changed courses several times up to Heart of Gold; from there he built an audience by almost deliberately not catering to an audience.
Neil Young pleases himself – he does what he wants to do. He has the following and the respect to stay with a major label; they honour his releases. Although, famously, Geffen tried to sue Neil Young for not making Neil Young records. He was, apparently, not making albums that were representative of the albums he should make – work that out – when he released Old Ways.
Now I am not at all suggesting that every note Neil Young has committed to wax is worth it. Every word for the page or the stage has not hit its mark – and in the 1980s Neil Young’s records were so bad that the albums he released that people think are bad are not as bad as some of the other albums her released that decade. Yep, that’s how bad – pretty, pretty, pretty bad (apologies to Larry David).
Some people talk about Trans and Re*ac*tor and Old Ways as the bad albums; at least there were ideas there. At least there were jams – even if they were a bit tired and shapeless. Have you tried listening to Landing on Water? What the hell is that? And the following year’s Life is not really that much better – especially for a Crazy Horse album. That rockabilly pastiche, Everybody’s Rockin’, is god-awful also.
And while there’s still a Neil Young album every year or so – sometimes it’s an archival release (well, he has all those rejected/discarded albums – he’s ready to go back to some of those now) but he’s just as often creating new material still – there probably hasn’t needed to be a Neil Young album since Sleeps with Angels (all right, I’ll allow the Dead Man soundtrack as an interesting side project-type thing too).
But that’s the thing – his attitude of pleasing himself rather than his fans is what makes him win his fans over time and again. Go figure. But it works. Take an album like Broken Arrow – it did not need to happen. But then it’s got a couple of great songs on it, and in particular Slip Away. And I know that because I’m still part of the Neil Young audience; even when he’s not catering for me, he’s catering to me.
Recently I found a quote from Neil Young that I think tells even more of the story than his famous one about heading for the middle of the road. Admittedly it’s from more recently – so it covers more ground, explains more of his career choices. But I’m interested to know what you make of it. I wonder if you took the same ideas from it that I did. Let’s see:
“I don’t pay attention to it [whether an album is successful or not]. That’s what I’ve learned. I keep moving. Don’t bother to read it. If you do read it, don’t take it seriously. People are liking the records now, but I’ll have more peaks and valleys. I’ll put some other record out and people will say it’s a piece of s**t. They’ll laugh. It’s inevitable. It just goes up and down, and the tops are not really that much better than the bottoms. So long as you’re moving.”
There’s that idea of moving, of movement – the need to keep travelling; to keep creating, to keep seeking out ideas and styles and to not stay stuck in one place – the middle of the road or the ditch. But what I take from this – and I feel it’s something that Neil Young carries off with great conviction – is that he actually does not care what people think of his music. I mean, sure, there’s an indication that he’s aware – there needs to be that. That’s human. That’s what separates him from someone like Prince who also appeared to be pleasing himself first and foremost (when actually, Prince lived in a bubble and his detachment was superficial; he cared – he just separated himself from normal life in so many ways).
Neil Young chooses to see it all as superficial – what matters is the art, the need to create. Yes, he’s been afforded a nice lifestyle, but he’s worked hard for it. And he’s taken his fair share of knocks; they just don’t hurt as much if you keep moving. They’re easier to brush off.