The Ink Is Black, The Paint Is White

It would be very safe to say that I’m a Neil Young fan, although I wouldn’t hesitate to add that there are spans in his career that are just, in my eyes, unlistenable. It’s these weak spans, though, that actually make me like him more, if that makes any sense at all. Let me try to explain.

Neil Young answers to nobody except Neil Young. He has never sold a song to a corporation. He has, arguably, never let dollars get in the way of art. He has never let anyone – anyone – dictate his next move. Just ask Steven Stills. In 1976, Young and Stills recorded the relatively strong Long May You Run and a subsequent tour was all booked, the band ready to go. A couple of dates were played, then Young suddenly disappeared, the lone correspondance on the issue being a telegram he sent to Stills which said, “Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil.”

This story makes it rather obvious that Young has angered many over the years with antics like that, but it’s that never-ending devotion to following his muse and his muse only that people seem to latch onto. The more he follows it, leaving whatever wake remains, the more people attach to him. Fascinating. His music speaks for itself, but his actions are, without a doubt, the exception to the norm. There aren’t many like him. I respect immensely that a musician with his exposure has never bent to spur album sales. I mean, have you ever heard Trans? The key to my respect for Young is his lack of fear to do something different. It doesn’t always work, but that’s not the point. When it works, though, holy hell does it ever work. His performance of Helpless with The Band on The Last Waltz movie is stirring. Years later, he sat at a piano for the September 11th concert telethon and belted out John Lennon’s “Imagine” with sincere emotion and severe chops. I can’t think of another artist, really, who has had it both ways as much as Neil Young has and still emerged unscathed, all the while maintaining the level of respect that remains.

Where is all this leading? Tonight I sat down and finally watched some of the recently released movie Heart of Gold, which is a concert movie shot at Nashville’s beautiful Ryman Auditorium just prior to the 2005 release of “Prarie Wind.” That Young and his band sound terrific is of no real surprise. Any artist at that level will almost always have a fairly stunning group of musicians behind him and the Ryman is world renowned for its superb acoustics. A good combination indeed. What makes this movie so compelling (so far) is the spectacular, intimate way in which it is filmed and the circumstances surrounding the show itself. Young had recently had a brain aneurysm and it couldn’t have been more obvious that this played heavily in his mind on this night and in the lyrics on Prarie Wind as well. Based on some of the very personal comments he was making during the show – comments that Young really never makes in those environments – the spectator finally gets a little welcomed insight into the muse. When Young mentions the recent loss of his father prior to performing the title track and follows it up with a charming story about him, you honestly feel that. At least I did. Young has never taken me there like that.

I guess it shows a man who is finally, at least in this phase, looking back on his life, his age and his mortality and finally putting it all out there. That we never really had this before makes it all the sweeter and that it’s probably just another phase, so I’m appreciating it even more, because this particular phase appears to already be over, evidenced by the recent “Living With War” album. I can honestly say you don’t need to be a huge Neil Young fan to really appreciate this film, because it almost plays like a movie with a plot, which is damn near impossible for a concert film, yet it still seems that way.

Final ironic note: I turned off the movie halfway through (Steph went to bed and she wanted to see the rest) and started flipping channels for a while, when I ran into a video of the 10th annual Ozzfest concert. The original Black Sabbath had just launched into “War Pigs” and there stood the inexplicably alive Ozzy Osborne, all 58 years of him, caked in mascara, his colored hair as long as ever and that crazed look in his eye – the look that was real in 1981, but is now just show business. Anyway, you’ve got to admire the guy – his energy is still there, but I must say, it’s horribly misplaced. He does a lot of running, only it looks like he has an enormous dump in his pants the way he shuffles his feet, one foot very shortly in front of the other. I mean, he’s 58…..Ozzy should really spend his energy doing something else. His attempts at firing up a crowd are now painfully cliche – look no further than him telling the crowd at least ten times how much he loved them and also repeatedly encouraging them to “go fucking crazy.” Ah, well. Good to see he’s still enjoying himself, I suppose. Neil Young said more to me in one three minute song tonight than Ozzy ever will.

Anyway, I knew I wouldn’t be getting “Fairies Wear Boots” from the Sabbath (hey, I’ve always like the Ozzy-era Sabbath, just not a concert in 2005 where Tony Iommi looks like my grandmother with black hair), so I turned off the television and dove back into the Harry Truman biography. I’m now at page 897, arriving at the end of yet another fascinating life in our times, the story of another person whose detractors and supporters never got in the way of deep personal resolve.

I’m not goin’ back
to Woodstock for a while,
Though I long to hear
that lonesome hippie smile.
I’m a million miles away
from that helicopter day
No, I don’t believe
I’ll be goin’ back that way.

– Neil Young

Lost Between Tomorrow & Yesterday, Between Now & Then

Originally uploaded by rustedrobot.

As Red Sox fans, most of us feel an unshakable bond with Cubs fans. For many, many years, both clubs suffered through bad teams, bad personalities, bad public relations and bad luck. Both teams experienced championship droughts that didn’t just span multiple years, it spanned multiple generations. We got the monkey off our back here in Boston in 2004, but those poor Cubs fans. For many years, the Cubs weren’t expected to win – they were just one of those teams who, when looking at the April 1st roster, you just knew weren’t going to challenge. The last few years, though, have got to be particularly trying. The Cubs should have advanced to the Series in ’03. They should have made the playoffs in ’04. They always “should have.” The picture above is a screen grab of Derek Lee’s day on Sunday, which is a microcosm of how 2006 is going for the Cubs. He singlehandedly left 10 men on base and struck out three times in six plate appearances and he’s missed half the season due to injury. The team is 34-54 and here at the All-Star break, they’re playing out the string. The time is now to blow the whole thing up and start over. Trade Prior and Wood to whomever will take them and build from the ground up. It’s time. I see more upside today for the Marlins than I do for the Cubs and that makes me sad. I love the Cubs.

Hey, check this out! Seems some dude from Canada started out with a paperclip and used Craigslist to barter many times over and ended up with a house! It sounds insane, but yes, I’ll say it again: he started with a paperclip and ended up with a house. How industrious! File that one under why the internet is awesome.

The other night after our hockey game, I had a brief conversation with a friend who was telling me that he’s going to see the band Asia in a few weeks. After getting over my disbelief that Asia is still together and touring, I started thinking about how drastically things have changed in the music business. Asia had 2 or 3 real hits, but they will always be filed into the one-hit wonder bin. Back then, that was the exception to the norm. One-hit wonders were a novelty. Most hits on the radio came from established acts with staying power. Today, we’ve seen a complete reversal. I can’t think of a single band that has launched their career in the last 5-10 years who has staying power. Now an established act is the exception to the norm. Why? Well, it’s all neatly laid out for you here. Many factors have contributed to the role music is playing today, but author Chris Anderson (he of “long tail” fame) puts it all together wonderfully in this must-read piece. Read it, won’t you?

The Reader(s) Sound Off

Last week I waxed about my lack of ideas for writing here lately. My idea generator is running low, but it will come back. Typical ebb-and-flow. Anyway, I had asked anyone reading the blog last week to post some recommended topics for a blog post. I got exactly one request and here it is, from Matt:

“I’d like to know of a band, or bands, that have come highly recommended to you or that a friend whose taste you trust has said is/are great that you just can’t get into, or you think is even downright bad.”

This is a pretty easy one for me, and many people often stare at me blankly when I tell them this, but I just can’t get into Elvis Costello. I have many music-crazed friends who can’t figure this one out. I’m a big fan of late-70s Brit music/pub rock – I love Nick Lowe, in fact. Lowe and Costello were true cronies back then, too, always working together on something. Yet, I still cannot find it in me to appreciate Costello’s work. Knowing full well my tastes in music, an old boss of mine made me copies of ALL Costello’s records, convinced that if I listened to the whole body of work, I’d convert. Didn’t happen. Couldn’t deal. One of my very best friends, whose taste nearly mirrors mine, worships Costello. Me? Can’t deal. Don’t know why.

Just the other day, in fact, that best friend I mention was sitting in a car with me at a local ice cream stand and Costello’s “Veronica” had come on the radio – and he freaked out! He cranked up the volume and started singing for word-for-word, professing yet again his love for Costello and telling me what the song was about (Costello’s grandmother, apparantly). I love when people do this, actually. It shows how powerful music can be in our lives. I do it at least daily, in fact. There’s no better way to rid yourself of stress than picking a song you love and just losing yourself in it.

So there we sat, my friend in his glory. All I could think, though, was that “Veronica” is not only one of my least favorite songs by Costello, but it’s one of my least favorite songs. Ever. I still love my friend, though. Just the way it is. I’m sure he’s thought the same thing about songs that I’ve flicked up the volume on.

So there you go. Question addressed, another satisfied reader. By the way, my offer still stands – if you want to post some blog topics and have me write about them, just leave a comment. I’ll do it.

The Bells (In Carolina) Ring No No No No No….

A cruise through this morning’s Globe and other randomness:

  • I knew bees were industrious and helpful for certain crops and all, but I had no idea that a) there’s such a worsening shortage of some of the best “workers” and b) that beekeeping is such a serious business. This very interesting piece in this morning’s paper provides interesting reading. I guess I always thought that beekeeping was just a hobby. I can tell you this much: I will never be a beekeeper, you can take that to the bank. Steph always has a good laugh about my reaction to bees. It’s a combination of running, extreme fear and that dance that Elaine Benes did on Seinfeld.
  • I may have to either watch or Tivo this tonight. It’s probably no secret that I’m not exactly a fan of the current administration in Washington, D.C., so I’m very interested in seeing what Frontline’s done with this. I do wish they’d devote some time to “the other side” just to see how they’d try to squirm their way out of some of the stuff that will come out of this, but oh well.
  • I played hockey last night, so I ended up starting Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals at about 10:30 pm via the DVR. By 12:15, the question was answered: the Carolina Hurricanes had won it. I’ll give you one guess who I was cheering for: NOT the Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, I like both teams, but seeing Glen Wesley lift the cup over his head, that hurts just a little. He probably deserves it and he’s probably a nice guy and all, but all I can ever think of when I see Glen Wesley is the gaping, wide open net he had in the first overtime of Game 1 of the 1990 Cup finals when he was with Boston – he missed it and the Bruins went on to lose in three overtimes. That image is burned in my mind forever.
  • Cool to see Britt Daniel (from Spoon) write about his top 12 EMusic albums this morning. I couldn’t agree more about Pavement’s “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.” In fact, we’re kindred souls on the comment he makes about “Unfair.” I distinctly remember playing that song over and over on many occasions.
  • I guess I’m glad I’m not this crazy about the World Cup. Although, that USA-Italy game on Saturday did have my rapt attention.

I Need A Dumptruck Mama To Unload My Head

Random thoughts:

  • The war of words between The New York Times and General Motors continues. If you remember, The Times published an op-ed last week that, among other things, labeled GM a “crack-dealer for America” in regards to its incentives to get the general public to buy more SUV’s and then The Times went on to accuse GM of buying votes in Congress. No small matter. GM responded on its blog right away and now GM has gone public in detailing the events of trying to get a letter published in the New York Times telling their side of the story. You would think it’s only fair, right? Alas, the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement on the final wording of the letter. It basically came down to one single word, in fact: “rubbish.” See the details as posted by GM’s Brian Akre, including a fairly amusing exchange via email that I am really glad GM made available to the public. I love the internet.
  • This morning’s Boston Globe ran a story about the digitally remastered albums being released today by the ’70s rock icons Boston. Their self-titled debut album, at the time, was the largest selling debut by any music act until Whitney Houston came along. Personally, I find much of Boston’s music is a little like hitting “repeat” on the CD player – it kind of all sounds the same to me, with the glaring exception of the big hit “More Than A Feeling,” which I believe to be one of the greatest “radio songs” of all time. Note I didn’t say “greatest songs of all time.” To me, there’s a large chasm between a “radio song” and a “song.” I don’t know about you, but if I ever hear “More Than A Feeling” on the radio, I turn that bitch up. Loud. And I sing along fanatically, without a prayer of ever hitting the notes the Brad Delp hits. However, I do not own the song in any format and I don’t believe I ever have. That, my friends, is a radio song. See the piece from this morning’s Globe here, an entertaining back-and-forth riff between Globe music writers Sarah Rodman and Joan Anderman, debating the merits of Boston.
  • I am so loving YouTube. Where else can you type in almost anything you want and get videos of it? I mean, who even knew that the Flying Burrito Brothers cut a video for “Older Guys?” My favorite part is the dude who pops out of the boat hatch for the “whooo-hooo-hooo” chorus, but the whole thing is a bit of a joy to watch. The Flying Burrito Brothers were a sadly overlooked entity. A few weeks ago, my left-coast friend Fort Miley blogged about this absolute gem from YouTube, which features R.E.M.’s first national television appearance on the David Letterman show, performing a song that was, according to bass player Mike Mills “too new to be named.” The song later went on to be a little ditty called “South Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” I get such a kick out of Micheal Stipe in this video, all of 21 or 22, being all aloof sitting in the background while Letterman does a one-minute chat with the band before the song. YouTube makes me want to get out a buy a video camera and post some vids.
  • Speaking of which, there’s no shortage on the amount of bizarre videos you can find on YouTube, too. In fact, you could spend all damn day wondering what the world is really doing with their lives. One thing that really had me cracking up, though, was a young Sloan performing “The Good In Everyone” – complete with a large monkey and uncomfortable adults, all dancing together on what I can only imagine is some kind of Canadian variety show. Classic.