If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

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(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. A quarter-century ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live.I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

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Hurricane Music, Sandy Style (Two Years Later)

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Let’s just get right into it.

Some of Young’s finest blistering guitar fury. Led Zep may have had the hammer of the gods, but there were four of them; Neil is like the lone Viking, hacking and snarling his way to Valhalla.

If you’ve never seen this live footage before, don’t thank me. Thank whatever forces there are for letting us share Stevie for even a short while. Hearing, as always, is believing, but SEEING is beyond belief.

Calming it down considerably, and shifting from one of the most physical, overpowering guitarists (SRV) to perhaps our most cerebral axe masters, Robert Fripp. The subtlety and refined nuances displayed throughout this song continue to astonish me, three decades after I first heard it. (The double vocals and the sax/flute interplay also are deeply, indelibly affecting.)

Speaking of Fripp…add the master, and true genius ensues. When Gabriel is at his best (and he manages this often), nobody else can come close to him.

(That link above will take you to some love for each of those men, and the bands that they made famous –and vice versa– in the early days of the prog rock apotheosis.)

Coltrane again? Of course. As ever, anyone wondering: What is all the hype about? THIS is what all the hype is about. It’s okay if you can’t handle this truth.

Eddie Hazel made history with Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, anyone?), but he also kept it more than slightly real before, during and after. He remains the best guitarist entirely too many people have never heard of. RECOGNIZE!

If it’s gonna’ rain, well, by God, make it RAIN.

(A bit more on the album this comes from, which you should get into your world as soon as possible:

Remember 2004? Seriously. No matter what side of the political fence you were on, that was a year when America (inevitably, belatedly) realized it could not impose its will with impunity, that oil was not going to cost less (indeed it was going to cost a hell of a lot more in a hurry–go figure), and that lots of lives were being lost because of our idiotic overseas adventure. Flashback to the year before: we had surrender monkeys, Liberal Traitors, With-Us-Or-Against-Us and Mission Accomplished. Things changed in a hurry, as they tend to do. The fact that it was predictable (and predicted) only exacerbated the pain.

What does any of this claptrap have to do with Tom Waits, the fine wine of modern music, who becomes deeper and more indispensable as he (and we) gets older? Well, for my money, no album inhabited the tenor of that time as indelibly as Real Gone (the title was both a barometer and a judgment). Of course, the critic associates the sounds of a particular time with the time he heard those sounds, because he was hearing those sounds during that particular time. That is natural, but in the instance of Real Gone, it’s much more than that. Yes, I am transported to how I felt and what I was thinking when this album came out, but one listen brings it all back. Of course, I would do this great artist a serious disservice to imply that this album is merely an anti-war screed or a sociopolitical statement (although it is, at times, both of those and quite convincingly so): it is, like most Tom Waits albums (and all great pieces of music) bigger and deeper than the here-and-now, or even what the artist intended. The transmission of feeling into sound elevates the artifice and the audience: then something significant happens. The true magic is that, with every listen, it continues to happen.)

Neko. Perfection.

(More on this song, this album and the notion of perfection in art, HERE. Scroll down to number one, because that is where I ranked this one, above everything else made last decade.

A taste:

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

It ain’t a hurricane until the big, bad WOLF says it is. R.I.P. to the Human Hurricane.

(Click on that link for more. Here is a taste: Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.)

Full cirlcle, back to Neil. Here is what I had to say about this song (and the man who provided those drums, R.I.P. Levon!):

There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place.

Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

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Mellow My Mind Or, A Lesson in Life Imitating Art

muff

Check this out.

i.

Baby mellow my mind,
Make me feel like a
Schoolboy on good time…

Summer 1989: I was that guy. Like many other lost causes, I decided to work at a place I spent all my money, the local record store. Back in the day when people worked in record stores. Back in the day when there still were record stores. Back in the day when people listened to records and it was neither nostalgic nor ironic.

My boss, the guy who used to collect my money like a street dealer, now handed me my barely-above-minimum wage paychecks. I wasn’t working there for the money; I was working there for the discount. And it was close to home. And I had nothing better to do. If I was going to listen to records all day, I may as well get paid barely-above-minimum wage to do it.

My boss was not much older than me, but he was old school. He tolerated my obsession with progressive rock, and took pity on my undeveloped appreciation for contemporary music. I thought I knew a thing or two. He revealed, among many other things, how deficient my not-inconsiderable record collection was.

I had, for instance, more than a handful of Neil Young albums and was rather pleased with this fact. How many more do I need to own? I did not ask. A lot more, he did not say. He was a show, don’t tell kind of guy. He showed me that if you want to comprehend, and appreciate, Neil Young, you needed to own everything. Especially Tonight’s the Night.

It is an ugly album recorded during an ugly time in Neil Young’s life. As such, it’s a perfect album for anyone who is either ugly or going through an ugly time in his own life. As a nineteen year old, I qualified on both counts. This is one you need to listen to at night (look at the title), but we played it during the day. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.

A woman (I’d have called her middle-aged, then, but twenty-five years later I’d be inclined to say she was early middle-age) strolled into the store halfway through side one. You could see her credulity being strained, then her patience being defied. Finally the last song played and while some of us could comprehend—and appreciate—that pain on display, even during the light of day (Vampire Blues, we might have said), she was inevitably pressed beyond her threshold and looked at me with a combination of disgust and disbelief.

“Put him out of his misery,” she said.

You talkin’ to me? I did not say.

ii

There’s something so hard to find
A situation that can casualize your mind…

Every so often I can’t help hoping that there will be a knock on my door and when I open it, who is there but my sexy soul mate, a beautiful woman who heard the music every time she walked by, and wondered if, according to her own fantasy, a sensitive, erudite dude had been right there all along, waiting for her, waiting for happily ever after. And after a while, she could no longer ignore the siren song escaping the small space under the front door and came knocking.

Of course, this illusion presupposes three things, in descending order of unlikelihood: one, that there are such things as soul mates; two, that my soul mate happens to live in my building; and three, that anyone actually listens to—much less enjoys—this kind of music.

iii

I’ve been down the road and I’ve come back
Lonesome whistle on the railroad track
Ain’t got nothing on those feelings that I had…

Doesn’t that make me sad?

No. In fact, exactly the opposite; it helps. Life might leave a mark, but music is always medicinal. Make me sad? No; happy movies make me sad. Manufactured moments sold on shelves are too easy to see through. Sparkly-toothed simpletons who tell us how to live leave me cold. Too-cool commercials give me cancer. And, of course, the ingenious march of a million soulless pixels remind everyone of everything they’ll never obtain.

Reality is never enough, so sometimes anything approximating art will suffice.

Neil Young could comprehend this.

I can appreciate it.

Baby mellow my mind, he said.

Put him out of his misery, she said.

But he’s not miserable, I say.

You might not comprehend that, but you can appreciate it.

Can’t you?

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Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and Me (Revisited)

littlefeather1

And the Oscar goes to…

Who cares?

Okay, okay: I’ll resist the urge to be a sourpuss and let it suffice that I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way –by not watching.

I watch the movies, of course; I even write about some of them. I just can’t help but be appalled anew, each year, the way we elevate these preening peacocks, and clamor like serfs before royalty at what outfits they are wearing, who is sleeping with whom, and what they will say if their peers determine their act of make believe rose above the rest.

I think George C. Scott said it best when, after returning his gold statue for his work in Patton, he remarked “the whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.” (Also: while his performance as Patton is considered one of the best, ever, I always feel obliged to loudly celebrate his scene-devouring turn as another General, “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, a movie that, pound for pound, may have some of the finest performances in any movie. Even more so than The Godfather.)

Speaking of The Godfather, Marlon Brando’s performance as Don Corleone is generally considered, along with Scott’s Patton, one of the handful of all-time greats. This time each year it is inevitable that The Godfather (and The Godfather Part II) is invoked. Also inevitable are the snarky, sorority-girl assessments of the best and worst Oscar speeches, etc. The sweaty and self-loving (yet still courageous) Michael Moore’s beatdown of Bush’s “fiction” in 2003 will, of course, live in infamy. Of course, as tends to happen with the truth, the same idiots in the audience who hooted and booed would likely be more willing to speak out, now that’s safe (and now that the then-controversial, yet indisputable reality that Bush and his boys got us involved in our Iraq imbroglio on false pretenses is the official story line). Cheers to Moore for using his few seconds on stage to talk about something more meaningful than his love of Hollywood, praise to God for letting him win, or serving up the obligatory obsequiousness that the occassion generally demands.

 

At least Moore showed up; there is lingering –and understandable, considering the frail feelings of those involved– disdain for Brando, who not only refused his Oscar (the horror!), but sent an Apache named Sacheen Littlefeather to speak out on behalf of Native Americans. The backstory of Brando’s involvement in, and then-novel advocacy for awareness regarding the historical treatment of Native Americans is summarized here. The full speech Brando never delivered is here. Of course, to contemporary eyes, the sentiment –and the manner in which it is expressed– seems naive and too hectoring by half. However, we have come quite a long way in the last few decades in terms of our acknowledgment of the very issues Brando was calling attention to, and as with Moore, time has only enhanced the legitimacy of his scorn.

But…what about the fact that Littlefeather was an actress herself? Does this undermine the authenticity of Brando’s message? Of course not. Indeed, the more scripted it might have been, the better: what could be more appropriate at this orgy of onanistic self-approval than an actress punking a few hundred of the most famous and well-paid insiders?

A few years later, in a delicious instance of art imitating life imitating artistic life (et cetera), Neil Young paid homage to this occasion (either earnestly, tongue-in-cheek or, knowing Neil, a bit of both) in one of his best songs, “Pocahontas”.

Native Americans, Iraq and Oscar: someone should make a movie.

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If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

 

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Idiot

(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. Almost a quarter-century ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live. I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

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Hurricane Music, Sandy Style (One Year Later)

Let’s just get right into it.

Some of Young’s finest blistering guitar fury. Led Zep may have had the hammer of the gods, but there were four of them; Neil is like the lone Viking, hacking and snarling his way to Valhalla.

If you’ve never seen this live footage before, don’t thank me. Thank whatever forces there are for letting us share Stevie for even a short while. Hearing, as always, is believing, but SEEING is beyond belief.

Calming it down considerably, and shifting from one of the most physical, overpowering guitarists (SRV) to perhaps our most cerebral axe masters, Robert Fripp. The subtlety and refined nuances displayed throughout this song continue to astonish me, three decades after I first heard it. (The double vocals and the sax/flute interplay also are deeply, indelibly affecting.)

Speaking of Fripp…add the master, and true genius ensues. When Gabriel is at his best (and he manages this often), nobody else can come close to him.

(That link above will take you to some love for each of those men, and the bands that they made famous –and vice versa– in the early days of the prog rock apotheosis.)

Coltrane again? Of course. As ever, anyone wondering: What is all the hype about? THIS is what all the hype is about. It’s okay if you can’t handle this truth.

Eddie Hazel made history with Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, anyone?), but he also kept it more than slightly real before, during and after. He remains the best guitarist entirely too many people have never heard of. RECOGNIZE!

If it’s gonna’ rain, well, by God, make it RAIN.

(A bit more on the album this comes from, which you should get into your world as soon as possible:

Remember 2004? Seriously. No matter what side of the political fence you were on, that was a year when America (inevitably, belatedly) realized it could not impose its will with impunity, that oil was not going to cost less (indeed it was going to cost a hell of a lot more in a hurry–go figure), and that lots of lives were being lost because of our idiotic overseas adventure. Flashback to the year before: we had surrender monkeys, Liberal Traitors, With-Us-Or-Against-Us and Mission Accomplished. Things changed in a hurry, as they tend to do. The fact that it was predictable (and predicted) only exacerbated the pain.

What does any of this claptrap have to do with Tom Waits, the fine wine of modern music, who becomes deeper and more indispensable as he (and we) gets older? Well, for my money, no album inhabited the tenor of that time as indelibly as Real Gone (the title was both a barometer and a judgment). Of course, the critic associates the sounds of a particular time with the time he heard those sounds, because he was hearing those sounds during that particular time. That is natural, but in the instance of Real Gone, it’s much more than that. Yes, I am transported to how I felt and what I was thinking when this album came out, but one listen brings it all back. Of course, I would do this great artist a serious disservice to imply that this album is merely an anti-war screed or a sociopolitical statement (although it is, at times, both of those and quite convincingly so): it is, like most Tom Waits albums (and all great pieces of music) bigger and deeper than the here-and-now, or even what the artist intended. The transmission of feeling into sound elevates the artifice and the audience: then something significant happens. The true magic is that, with every listen, it continues to happen.)

Neko. Perfection.

(More on this song, this album and the notion of perfection in art, HERE. Scroll down to number one, because that is where I ranked this one, above everything else made last decade.

A taste:

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

It ain’t a hurricane until the big, bad WOLF says it is. R.I.P. to the Human Hurricane.

(Click on that link for more. Here is a taste: Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.)

 

Full cirlcle, back to Neil. Here is what I had to say about this song (and the man who provided those drums, R.I.P. Levon!):

There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place.

Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

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Deep Forbidden Lake

As the weather turns cool and increasingly crisp, there are certain artists that become (even more) right for the occasion.

Today, I offer up this gem from Neil Young: the voice, the melody, the pedal steel (!!!)…it lulls you, irresistibly, into a peaceful place. A languid nursery rhyme for adults.

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1492 B.C. (Before Columbus)

Before my annual anti-tribute, let me turn the spotlight to The Oatmeal. If you have not seen THIS yet, do so as soon as possible.

Little Roy:

Dead Man:

The Man in Black:

A two-fer from Neil Young (the first about Cortez, but six of one half dozen of another):

Old School:

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Levon Helm: So Real It Makes You Believe (One Year Later)

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.
There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.
It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.
Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes. From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.

It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.

I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section):

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand,
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the mud below my feet:
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…

The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive: (check it here.)

And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your heart does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:

Of course, you know a band has the goods when they sound even better live. Check them out in all their glory here (and yes, Helm is all over the place on that kit; good grief what an understated machine he was!):

It took me a while to come fully around to The Band. I always appreciated them (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See The Sky About To Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks –coincidentally or not– tapped into during the early-to-mid ’70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young –who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.

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Neil Young: Long May He Run

It’s better to burn out than to fade away.

When Neil Young sang that immortal line, he was 33 years old.

That was 35 years ago.

Neil Young is still making music.

More, Neil Young is still making music that moves and inspires fans spanning multiple generations.

More still, Neil Young might be the only musician past retirement age who is capable of creating brand new fans.

That last statement, upon reflection, is unbelievable and quite possibly miraculous in a way.

Upon further reflection, it is also inevitable. Neil Young does not do retirement, and fortunately for him, he picked the type of career that makes not retiring a possibility. That he is reaching audiences new and old is almost beside the point. Young, as anyone who knows anything about him can confirm, has never cared too much about what anyone else thinks about what he does. That makes him, at times, inscrutable and frustrating. Most of all, it is what makes him a genuine iconoclast, and one of the most important –and rewarding– artists of the last half-century.

Young, after all this time, is consistently inconsistent and entirely capable of being surprising.

An example: I could not believe how great Freedom was when it dropped in autumn 1989.

Crazy as it may sound over twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) decade the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how intractable Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before: utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. He reunited with Crazy Horse, his favorite band with whom he’s made some of his best music, for 1991’s Ragged Glory and while the entire album had uneven moments, its glorious sum far exceeded its unpolished aspects. In particular, two longer workouts, “Love to Burn” and “Love and Only Love” were instant classics, scorching ten minute epics with so much feedback and fury they practically dared –or at least willed– the grunge movement into being.

For me, it’s been an up and down ride ever since, with more bummers than stunners. (I am seemingly among the few who feels Harvest Moon was a tepid, mostly uninspired snoozefest, while the subsequent Sleeps With Angels is a minor masterpiece.) One of the more powerful and memorable tracks from Sleeps With Angels is the fourteen minute-plus “Change Your Mind”: it felt, at the time, and has seemed, ever since, like Young’s last epic, his final extended statement, a slow burn of repetition and resolve. Later, when the legendarily unreleased “Orindary People” saw the light of day (on 2007’s Chrome Dreams II) it was a revelation, but since it was recorded during the Freedom sessions, it could not be considered a return to form or a new landmark in the literal sense. It was sufficient that it was finally available.

It was hard to deny that Young was finding a third (fourth? fifth?) wind in recent years with the back-to-back successes (critically, commercially) of Le Noise and Americana. The fact that the two, released less than two years apart, sound so radically different is a testament to Young’s versatility. Or perversity. Or recalcitrance. Or integrity. Or all of the above, and more. While most of his balding, pre-and-post Woodstock-era compatriots were competing to see who could release another redundant greatest hits collection or milk another reunion tour, Neil continued to walk the proverbial walk that old fashioned way, putting one foot in front of the other. If he no longer hit the highs he could routinely reach in younger years, he had as much restless energy, productivity and purpose as any of his peers, and most of his protégés.

Which brings us to the here and now: on October 30, 2012 Young dropped his thirty-fifth studio album, Psychedelic Pill.

I’m not prepared to call it a masterpiece. Or a return to form (whatever that actually means, anyway, particularly with Young: as awe-inspiring as On The Beach was, it did not sound much like anything Neil had done before; it did not invoke Harvest or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and that was the whole point). What I am prepared to do is declare it important, engaging and an album I know I will be listening to more than many others (by him, by others). That is enough; it is more than enough.

The highlight and centerpiece of his latest work is “Driftin’ Back”, which opens the proceedings and clocks in at 27:36. As in, twenty-seven minutes, thirty-six seconds. Stop and consider that this is only ten minutes shorter than the entirety of 1975’s Zuma. Of course, Young is reunited with Crazy Horse, and when Neil reunites with Crazy Horse long songs tend to ensue. But how could anyone have guessed, or reasonably hoped for something this strong? It starts off slow, acoustic guitar almost lulling you to sleep, or at least into a false sense of security: Oh, it’s the older, wiser and gentler Neil, reminiscing and doing the grizzled old veteran thing. And then with an intentionally dream-like, distorted echo of the line “I’m driftin’ back” you realize he is about to take you on a trip (literally, figuratively, whatever): the band plugs in and away they go. First reaction: hearing Young energized reminds us how wonderful it is that he can reconnect with Crazy Horse, and how liberated and unrestrained they make him feel. After more than four decades (!) Young fronting Crazy Horse –the all-time best garage band– is like the rest of us drawing breath: it’s instinct and you never forget how to do it.

“Driftin’ Back” is a jam that never noodles; it’s obviously an improvised piece that maintains focus and purpose. Above all, at over twenty-seven minutes, it does not come close to running out of steam. Is it even possible to say the song is…too short? It is. At least for this listener. The song could have chugged along for another 600 ticks and I could care less. It is definitely the best thing Young has done since 1994 (and might be the best song since “Love to Burn”, which was almost a quarter-century ago). If Young had once been inclined, or tempted to say either/or to the burn out/fade away options, he is now declaring neither/nor.

Listen:

The music speaks for itself, and if it doesn’t speak to you, it’s likely you’ve never dug Neil Young, or at least Neil Young with Crazy Horse. (What’s the matter with you?)

You listen to the lyrics and…well, Neil has always picked his spots and at times been a keen eyewitness to life and illustrated, in bursts and spurts, an enviable ability to document them in writing. The rest of the time, let’s say his lyrics tend to be overshadowed by his voice and his guitar playing. But Neil is usually after feeling, anyway. All rock musicians are, ultimately, about feeling, or at least they should be. With Neil it’s as much a destination as a function of his limitations, which he seems to acknowledge if not embrace. It usually works in that pre-punk ethos where spontaneity, honesty and unguarded expression count for more than cleverness or even proficiency.

So yeah, the lyrics. As is so often the case you listen and find yourself wishing he employed an editor, or was able to restrain himself. (We writers know the rules: don’t write it once when it can be written a dozen times, and then let it sit, ignored, until it can be returned to with fresh eyes. In other words, an approach that is advisable for prose and often anathema for rock and roll.) You listen to all these songs, spilling into, around and over one another and can’t help, at times, thinking: if only Neil would –or could– keep his powder a bit more dry and wait until he had stronger material suitable for a more solid release, even if it resulted in fewer but more consistent albums. And then, hopefully, you realize (yet again): that’s not his job, that’s our job, to sift through the ever-expanding hay bail and find those needles while discarding the damage done.

And let’s face it, even before the Geffen years Young left a lot of filler in the ditch. He is not an OCD singles hitter, he is a slugger in batting practice, needing to hit his share of foul balls, line drive outs and pop flies in order to work up a sweat and get into a groove before he starts uncorking four-hundred foot bombs. Or else he is the painter who has to spray colors all over the canvas and it’s only once the white slate has turned into a kaleidoscope, which looks like a disjointed prism to anyone on the outside looking in, that he makes shapes and sense out of the mess, converting it into a cohesive whole. Consider a less than perfect album like Tonight’s The Night, which is perfect because of its imperfections. Indeed, it may be not merely the most perfect imperfect album (more so than, say, Exile on Main Street or London Calling or even The White Album), it is arguably the first –and best– record to make a kind of art out of purposeful imperfection. How else to explain a near spontaneous, sui generis treasure like “Tired Eyes” (or “Mellow My Mind” or “Albuquerque”)? It’s messy, awkward, occasionally embarrassing but always unashamed (and therefore brave); it’s a lot like the subconscious playing out in real time, being recorded.

Or how about this: Neil Young’s catalog could be considered an extended series of dreams that actually got remembered and written down. Only they are someone else’s dreams, and you pick through them to see what registers and what you remember. See what makes sense. And two things eventually occur: it’s inexorably the things that don’t register (immediately or ever) that surprise, then stick with you, and over time you make them part of you. Then, after a while, you realize he was talking about you all along. This is what art is. This is what art does.

So Neil keeps going. He has to get it all out. We can a learn a lot from this, whether or not we have a creative bone in our individual bodies. It’s a model for art, but it’s also a recipe for life. Young’s music is ceaselessly autobiographical not because he writes about himself so much as he is a part of everything he composes: it can be messy and it can be confounding but it is seldom safe and it’s rarely calculated. It might be difficult to deny that he has emphasized quantity above quality, but who can –or should– say which songs satisfy? That is the ragged glory of his life’s work, one that is very much still in progress. The fact that he is demonstrably far from done validates why he is still making music. Because he can. Because he has to.

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