Emerging from the idealism of the 1960s, Neil Young’s 1975 solemn and meditative masterpiece, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is a work of immense, but at the same time, subtle beauty borne out of a sense of loss and redemption. The warmth, humour and overriding sense of raw humanity and vulnerability depicted by Young’s rich lyricism, crackling vocals and the all-round brilliant but understated musicianship, touches the deep recesses of the psyche in a very profound way. This is arguably Neil Young’s most solidly consistent and most timeless work from his most creatively fertile period.
This is not to say that for every Tonight’s The Night or Rust Never Sleeps there are not an equal amount of duds among his prolific body of work. Nevertheless, the sheer quantity of brilliant songs that he has crafted over a fifty year period welded to his astounding musicianship and incredible insights and intuitions, means that Neil Young ranks among the greatest and most influential of singer-songwriters and artists in all of rock. Certainly, in my view, Neil can be added to an esteemed list that includes Bob Dylan, Lou Reed & the Velvet’s, The Doors, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Roxy Music, Kevin Ayers and Pink Floyd.
In my opinion, rarely do journalists and critics satisfactorily capture the essence of Neil Young’s art in all its contrarian complexity.
Aliens land. They’ve traveled from some distant planet with a specific mission: to find out what this ‘rock and roll’ stuff is all about. Through some curious coincidence, they find you. “What is rock and roll?” they demand, rayguns drawn. You begin to sweat. Still, there is really only one question you need to ask yourself:
“Which Neil Young album do I play them first?”
This is no hyperbole; Neil Young is the personification of rock and roll in human form. From his humble beginnings as a surf rocker in the Squires to his tenure in Hall Of Fame acts Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to his most recent blitzkrieg Psychedelic Pill, Neil has spent a career as the embodiment of artistry despite fierce resistance. This iron-willed devotion to the Muse has not come without a price, however: While Neil’s successes have mostly flown in the face of prevailing music biz wisdom, his uncompromising nature has earned him almost as many failures, failures that should have sunk him several times over. His unpredictability and star-chamber business practices have often made him a pariah; his impulsive spirit and mood swings would frequently estrange his fellow musicians and most ardent supporters. Even more than Dylan, Neil Young has made a career of being consistently inconsistent.
As an architect of what we now consider ‘underground music’ there is no peer: For every Great Indie Moment of the past thirty years, there is a Neil Young song correlative. Wanna hear ground zero for Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs? See “Journey Through The Past.” The raw-nerve humanity in the songs of Jason Molina? Check out “On The Beach.” The primary influence on J Mascis’s wild, feedback-laden guitar playing, or his reedy, cracked vocal style? That’d be “Cortez The Killer” and “Mellow My Mind,” respectively. Alt country? “Harvest.” I could do this all day. Of course, it works both ways: Neil Young’s decision to release 1991’s Arc, a 35-minute collage of feedback and noise, seems directly inspired by his run-ins with Sonic Youth, while the Pearl Jam-assisted Mirror Ball would find the newly-sired Godfather Of Grunge an awestruck but reluctant don of the alternative rock revolution.
Neil Young has never lent his music to a commercial. He was the Canadian hippie that publicly supported Reagan (despite the fact that he was not eligible to vote), only to record an entire album arguing for the impeachment of George W. Bush. He vainly made movies that made Cocksucker Blues look like Double Indemnity. His autobiography depicts a man more interested in model trains, vintage cars, and cutting-edge technology than his legacy as a rock star, which seems to bore and trouble him.
This, at least, is consistent: As early as 1966, the reluctant star penned “Out Of My Mind” for Buffalo Springfield’s debut album, a song containing the lyrics “All I hear are screams/ from outside the limousines/ that are taking me out of my mind.” He introduced himself to the world with songs about epileptic seizures, tormented small-town girls, and the rent that always seems to be due. His peers may have been enjoying the nectar of flower power, but Neil’s acute perception allowed him to see the darkness just below the surface.
It is easy to view Neil as a cranky contrarian who takes his gifts and fortunes for granted, but this is an oversimplification. It is equally tempting to define him alongside similarly protean artists from Bowie to Gaga, but this, too, is specious. The genre experiments of other artists often indicate an identity crisis, or an attempt to recreate oneself in the hopes of appealing to increasingly fickle market forces. It could be argued that Neil’s shape-shifting is motivated by the exact opposite reasons: trends, expectations, and market forces be damned, he doesn’t feel like making another country-rock record right now. Whether his imagination leads him to Greendale or to Goldrush, it’s all the same to Neil Young. This is why even his most seemingly impersonal, comically overambitious leaps of faith contain, at their core, an honesty — a humanity.
His music may be frequently peevish and outwardly rebellious, but at heart, Neil’s a moralist. His fierce loyalty to talented-but-toxic characters like Bruce Palmer, Rusty Kershaw and Danny Whitten is an example of a probity that undermines a reputation for hardness. Other examples can be found within the songs themselves, full of lessons: Sooner or later it all gets real. Only love can break your heart. Don’t be denied. Don’t wait till the break of day. Time fades away. I feel I must disclose that Neil Young has created some of the most important music of my life. A tattoo on my right wrist reads ‘WWNYD,’ elevating Neil to the status of Jesus Christ, and a promotional poster of Neil at Massey Hall hangs over my writing desk. In some ways, this makes me both the best and worst person for the job of ranking Neil’s albums; I am, and shall always be, a Neil Young apologist.
Piero Scaruffi wrote this insightful analysis about Neil:
“Perhaps no other artist in the history of rock music has produced so many distinguished works in so many different styles and over so many years as Neil Young. The spectral landscape of Last Trip To Tulsa, off his debut album, Neil Young (1968) Introduced a minstrel lost in an unexplored moral universe. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) elaborated on that theme and achieved a formidable synthesis of “voices “in stately, extended, psychedelic, hard-folk ballads such as Cowgirl In The Sand and Down By The River.
The mellow and melodic folk-rock and country-rock of After The Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest (1972) lent musical credibility to the apocalyptic angst of Tonight’s the Night (1975), recorded in 1973 and On The Beach (1974). The former, perhaps his masterpiece, was the ultimate testament of the post-hippy depression, an elegiac concept that sounded like a mass for the dead. The electrifying lyricism of Zuma (1975) and Like A Hurricane (1977), the anthemic hysteria of Rust Never Sleeps (1979), the company fresh collapsing values of Freedom (1989) and the obscure meditation of Sleeps With Angels (1994) continued his life-long moral crusade.
Neil Young constitutes with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen the great triad of “moral” voices of American popular music. As is the case with the other two, Young’s art is, first and foremost, a fusion of music and words that identifies with his era’s zeitgeist. Unlike the others, though, Young is unique in targeting the inner chaos of the individual that followed the outer chaos of society [My emphasis]. While Dylan “transfers” his era’s events into a metaphysical universe, and Springsteen relates the epic sense of ordinary life, Young carries out through more complex psychological operations that, basically, bridges the idealism of the hippy communes and the neuroses of the urban population.
His voice, lyrics, melodies and his guitar style, compose a message of suffering and redemption that, at its best, transcends in hallucination, mystical vision, philosophical enlightenment, while still grounded in a context that is fundamentally a hell on earth [My emphasis]. The various aspects of Young’s career (the bucolic folk-singer, the liberal militant, the post-hippie moralist, the apocalyptic guru, the universal pessimist, the melancholy loner, the alienated rocker) are merely stages of a long calvary, which is both individual and collective. Young did to the lyrical song what Dylan did to the protest song. Just like Dylan wed the emphasis of Whitman’s poetry and the optimism of Kennedy’s era with the themes of public life, Young wed Emerson’s humanism and the pessimism of the post Kennedy era with the themes of private life.
On top of this, Young invented the distorted, cacophonous, nightmarish style of guitar playing that would influence the grunge generation. Young’s angst is unique in his schizophrenia, which runs at several levels. First and foremost, one has to deal with the live / studio dichotomy of his career.
Charged with the sonic equivalent of a nuclear reaction, the “live” Young albums seem to come from a different artist, a musical terrorist, a true punk. Within the studio albums, one has to deal with another dichotomy: the pretty, linear, smooth country-inspired ballad, and the ugly, noisy, acid-inspired jam. These two modes rarely coexist: they alternate, they compete for control of Young’s career (and mind?), Each studio album being dominated by either of the two.