Thursday, July 26, 2007

Neil Young; Life

by Bart Bull
(published in SPIN)

I don't know about you, but when I'm looking for trenchant analysis of one or another of today's unutterably complex political issues, I reach for the latest record by some rock star. Like Neil Young, for instance. As far back as "Southern Man," Neil was offering thoughtful solutions to our nation's centuries-old racial conflict:

Southern man, better keep your head
Don't forget what your good book said . . .

Of course, Neil's a lot older now, and he's smoked a lot more pot. A lot more. A lot. A lot more pot. What were we talking about? Ok, so, like, Neil Young. He's got another new album out -- that makes maybe 26 or 27 for this decade alone -- and on it he daringly dives head first into some of the more baffling international issues of our day. Ever see somebody dive head first into a swimming pool they thought was full of water, only it turns out it wasn't?

Neil's not exactly all that sure what it is he wants to say about the Middle East , but he goes ahead and says it just the same. He's big on being enigmatic anyway, and it sure sounds profound -- he uses more gunfire for percussion on his first two songs than you'd ordinarily find on an entire Big Audio Dynamite lp. On "Long Walk Home," he sort of gathers it all up into one big epiphanous nutshell:

From Vietnam to old Beirut
If we are searching for the truth
Why do we feel that double-edged blade
Cutting through our hand?
America, America
[a comparatively small mortar round explosion here]
Where have we gone?

Okay, I would admit that Neil's not at his absolute best here, that it kind of makes Little Steven seem listenable, that it's not all that likely to be reprinted verbatim in The Nation or The New Republic. (Then again, I've seen stuff in those places about rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and David Byrne too silly to be printed on a Neil Young lyric sheet. And that's real silly.) But there are actually some areas that Neil can be said to know some actual something about, like what it's like to be the first rock star to be sued by his own record company for being an uncommercial weirdo. That's a subject Neil ought to be able to gnaw on with some considerable authority, right? So here goes:

People tell us that we play too loud
But they don't know what our music's about
We never listen to the record company man
They try to change us and ruin our band
That's why we don't wanna be good

Well, something that Neil really knows a lot about is being lonely, and all the rest of the songs are about just that. They're maybe not the best lonely songs Neil's ever done, they're maybe not even in the upper fiftieth percentile of the three or four hundred songs that Neil's done that have the word lonely in them. But they do sound just like Neil Young singing about being lonely, and if there weren't some kind of market for that kind of thing, I can't imagine record company men would keep giving the guy record contracts, considering what an uncommercial weirdo he is. Besides, Neil's always been somewhat of a hit-or-miss kind of guy. He brings out an album or two that's pretty good, has a couple of songs on it that are real good. Then he brings out a dozen or two of the other kind. Like this one.

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