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