Posts Tagged ‘Neil Young’

In June I set out to review every album Prince ever made. I embarked on this project because I realized that, for me, Prince was embalmed in the ’80s – the guy I heard at clubs and parties. He was that sexy M.F. who could rock, croon, talk to God, talk for God, write weird erotic scenarios, and take goofy chances. I wanted a better idea of who he really was. There had to be more to the man than “Purple Rain” playing to a gang of us nerds in a hotel ballroom at a science fiction convention.

It’s easy to follow, album by album, a band that existed for fewer than 20 years – I’ve done that with The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pixies, The Clash, Creedence, and several others. It’s much harder to do with an artist who’s been playing and recording for 30 years or more. They change too much. They travel down side roads while you stick to the interstate. Or you change too much. It’s been a long time since I was punchin’ a clock and listening wide-eyed to Born to Run.

It’s also hard to follow an artist with a lengthy career because every artist, no matter how talented, eventually skids into the Bad Spot. That’s the rough patch where your Muse runs off with someone younger and prettier and you’re left to grit it out on craftsmanship alone.

In the 1970s, Neil Young dissected his soul on several awe-inspiring albums. Two that’ll slay you: On the Beach (1974) and Tonight’s the Night (1975). When the ’80s dawned, Neil took a long time getting out of bed. For example, Trans (1982), which might as well have been called Tron, and Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983), his fake Fabulous Fifties record. Neil didn’t make a good record until Freedom (1989), which you’ll recall for the stunning “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Bruce Springsteen did pretty well in the 1980s, at least until Tunnel of Love (1987). Then things went downhill. Or, in Springsteen terms, the mill closed, the state cops shut down all that street racing, and the D.A. couldn’t get no relief. After two subpar efforts, Human Touch and Lucky Town (both 1992), he recorded nothing of consequence until his reaction to 9/11, The Rising (2002), after which he reinvented himself as the Dark Knight of the 21st century.

I need a weatherman to explain to me what Bob Dylan was trying to do on Self Portrait (1970) and Dylan (1973).

David Bowie’s career after Scary Monsters (1980) is not the least bit scary.

Sadly, Michael Jackson’s career after Bad (1987) is not worth talking about.

Back to Prince. I made it through the first 14 albums. I rediscovered his ’70s disco discs. I relived my youth with Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain. I was struck as if by lightning by Sign O’ the Times.

By the time we got to the 1990s, the road Prince and I were driving developed some serious twists, the safety rails disappeared, and the paving got thinner. Loyal Reader Slave to the Garden warned me that in the ’90s, Prince, in his apocalyptic struggle with Warner Bros., dumped albums on the market that should’ve been dumped in the dump. We were approaching the Bad Spot.

The next one on my list, Come (1994), is what we critics like to call awful. I’d rather listen to a flock of trumpeter swans barking like dogs as they circle for a landing.

Prince’s 1987 bootleg, The Black Album, officially appeared in 1994. It’s not as good as black albums by Spinal Tap (1984), Metallica (1991), and Jay-Z (2003), though it’s probably better than the Marilyn Manson Black Album bootleg, if I could bring myself to listen to that one.

Looking at the rest of the ’90s, I see that Prince was either attacking the Warner Bros. Death Star or playing stuff that belongs in a galaxy far, far away. Well, what did I expect? How long can Prince go on being that sexy M.F.? (I can still pull it off, but only from a distance.) Artists have to change or they might as well be locked in a trophy cabinet. I’m convinced that Prince will emerge from this depressing era into some new and wonderful form, but I’m not going to follow every bread crumb until I catch up with him.

(There are two albums I definitely want to hear: The Girl 6 soundtrack, which is supposed to be a throwback to the ’80s, and the three-record Emancipation, both from 1996.)

What I’ve learned
Here’s what I can tell you about me: It’s hard to grow past the music that filled me with joy when I was young. Some of those artists are still recording, but they no longer speak to me. Or perhaps I can no longer hear them.

Here’s what I can tell you about Prince: Overall, no performer in the history of popular music is as talented as Prince. Some people sing better or write better or dance better, some people see deeper into the human or the national psyche. Some people are more economical (Prince does not know when to end a song).

But no one can do everything that this gentleman does at such a consistently high level. No male performer is as insistently sexy without also being sickeningly misogynistic. Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Bowie, Young, and Dylan are as prolific, but even those guys never released three discs of original material on the same day.

There’s much more to Prince than “Purple Rain.” I just don’t need it.

[Editor’s note: It’s at least twice as difficult for a female singer/songwriter to survive in a decades-long career as it is for a male. It’s much easier to find male counterparts to Prince, so I stuck with the men.]

I started out liking Prince, but after listening to the first 14 albums I really like Prince. I want to keep liking Prince. So I’ll stop here. Thanks as always for reading along.

A couple of days ago I spent an afternoon listening to Pink Floyd and Justin Timberlake. I got nothing out of that. This afternoon I’m listening to Chuck Berry. Until next time, enjoy this insane video from the Neil Young of the Everybody’s Rockin’ era.

 

Prince
Prince
1979

I believe I missed Prince’s second album when it was released, as I was occupied with punk and the theory that it would be easier to initiate sexual relations with punk girls compared with disco girls. (No.) Too bad, because this is a fine disco disc. The one lasting number on it is “Sexy Dancer,” but it should last awhile, and the other songs would be popular if played as a unit at a party…if you could go back and host that party in 1979.

The album’s closer, “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” shows some emotional depth in its story of a break-up. One verse hints at something much deeper:

I betcha thatcha never knew
That in my dreams you are the star
The only bummer is that you always want to leave
Who do you think you are?

Prince was 21 when he released this record, his second, and you can hear him struggling with the disco/smooth-R&B straitjacket – just as you can hear the 24-year-old Bruce Springsteen struggling to break out of folk-music prison on his second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1974).

On Prince, you can’t tell if Prince wants to be Lionel Ritchie, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, or some kind of disco conglomeration. They’ve even photographed him on the album cover to look like Ritchie. But on his third album all hell will break loose, just as it did with Springsteen.

What I was doing at 21: Living in Boston, writing bad science fiction. This is already getting old.

Rolling Stones’ best albums of 1979: The Rolling Stone critics got lazy that year. They gave Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps album-of-the-year honors and cited no runners-up.

It’s not as if they had a small pool of candidates: How about Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The B-52s’ The B-52s, The Clash’s The Clash, Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, The Police’s Reggatta de Blanc (the Coldplay of their day), Donna Summer’s Bad Girls, The Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, or even Sister Sledge’s We Are Family? And look at all the crap, led by Foghat, Foreigner, and The Captain & Tenille?

They called Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” the single of the year. What where they smoking, and can I have some?

Those critics better shape up for 1980.

Random Pick of the Day (but it was close)
Various artists, Day Tripper: Jazz Greats Meet The Beatles Volume 1 (2009)
Two standouts, both on piano: Ramsey Lewis’ “Day Tripper” and McCoy Tyner’s “She’s Leaving Home.” Guitarist Wes Montgomery gives “A Day in the Life” the atmosphere of listening to records at midnight with the lights off. Unfortunately, at the 4-minute mark of this 6-minute song he gets up to get a drink and trips over The Moody Blues.

The rest of this disk explains why there was no Volume 2.

Random Pan of the Day
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1962)
Recorded in 1959 for the French film, but not released in the USA until 1962. “No Problem” is a terrific tune. Unfortunately, you get four versions of it on this disc, as well as two versions each of two lesser songs, “Prelude in Blue” and “Valmontana.” There are only 10 tracks on Les Liaisons Dangereuses and eight of them are variations of each other. The repetition wore me down.

 

Special D and I have just returned from a week on the East Coast, visiting our families and old friends from Portland and Seattle. This is a review blog, meaning I have a duty to review the 17 people we corraled in eight action-packed days. But this is a music review blog, meaning I can escape the oath I took to the International House of Critics and save my own life. I’ll simply say, then, that on our journey we encountered all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, and all things wise and wonderful. Yep, the Lord God made the lot.

In the middle of the week we drove from Washington, D.C. to Raleigh and back again, five hours each way through the cradle of the Civil War. We drove the back roads and we were lucky enough to catch and eat superb Virginia road food both ways.

On the way south we stopped at Payton’s Deli in the metropolis of Standardsville. Payton’s doesn’t look like much, but we were starved and couldn’t resist the sign that said “Greene County’s Best Chicken!” Our lunch, which was cooked up in the back of a store so old that the wooden floors undulated, wasn’t just the best fried chicken in the county, it might’ve been the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Best fried chicken in Greene County
Bliss.

On the way north we tried the Cruis-In Cafe in beautiful downtown Keysville. The Cruis-In appears to be run by expat New Yorkers with accents a mile deep. Sounded just like my mother’s family. I had the hamburger steak with whipped potatoes and gravy followed by some sort of ice cream cake and nearly swooned. I didn’t have to eat again until Monday.

Cruis-In Cafe
I want to emulate their décor in my living room.

Despite all this excessive fun, I’m happy to be home and I’m ready for summer! Hope you are too, unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere and you’re getting ready for winter. Bundle up and keep rockin’.

Random Pick of the Day
Slint, Spiderland (1991)
Dark dark dark dark dark. The opener, “Breadcrumbs,” is a purgative for your soul. “Washer” is mired in melancholy, except where it veers toward the apocalypse. The rest of Spiderland circles the same patch of ashen ground.

The singing is worse than what Nirvana dished out, and for one dreadful moment I thought I was listening to Black Sabbath. This was Slint’s last album, I assume because everyone in the band committed suicide.

Overall, though, Spiderland belongs on your late-night listening playlist. Very late night. Not your thing? Go back to bed.

Random Pan of the Day
Neil Young, A Letter Home (2014)
Neil, cut this shit out. A Letter Home was recorded inside a cramped 1948 Voice-O-Graph booth using cramped 1948 phone booth technology. (“Like talking on the phone,” the original ad said, “but a thousand times more thrilling!”) Next I guess he’ll stick his head inside a 1957 Schiaparelli hat box or maybe sing through tin cans tied together with string.

Neil gives his pre-Industrial Revolution, country treatment to Rod Stewart (“Reason to Believe”), Bruce Springsteen (“My Hometown”), Bob Dylan (“Girl From the North Country”), Willie Nelson (“On the Road Again”), Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), and you get the idea. The sound quality is, of course, abysmal, and many times I wondered if Neil’s heart was really in this.

If Gene Autry or Roy Rogers were still alive, would they shoot Neil full of holes? No – on the strength of one song, Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” Suddenly I heard the whole point of this project. For four minutes, in this strange acoustical environment, everything works. Is one song enough to recommend this disc? In other cases I’ve said yes, but A Letter Home is so strange that this time I must say no.

Neil Young is still a god. Write that down.

 

Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. (Colette)

When I was a pre-bar mitzvah sprout in Hebrew school, I was at the mercy of a teacher who came from the Old World with some old skool Old World characteristics, including teeth and fingernails yellow from chain-smoking and a tendency in any academic situation to fall back on his main teaching tool: violence.

I’m not going to tell you this man’s name, or the nickname we children gave him, or the songs we sang about him, because I don’t want his descendants to track me down and torture me the way he did. And anyway, maybe he behaved so badly because he had survived the Holocaust and journeyed to America and in his declining years ended up marooned in our declining, uninteresting city, teaching Hebrew to a bunch of youthful dumbshits. Whatever his motivations, when he called one of us up to the front of the class to recite and we couldn’t deliver, he always screamed, “Go back to your seat and study!!!”

This evening at the end of my Write-a-thon hour I wanted to send myself back to my seat to study. What I wrote was definitely not worth reciting at the front of a classroom or anywhere else. There’s a character I have yet to understand, and my subconscious writer brain refuses to let him walk through these pages as valiant, virtuous, and virtually flawless. Unlike my former Hebrew school teacher, who is long gone, I can figure out what makes this guy tick and why anyone should care.

Maybe that was my old teacher’s real problem. He cared too much.

The 10-year-old inside me just ducked and covered.

Random Pick of the Day
Three Dog Night, Cyan (1973)
Loyal Reader Accused of Lurking has pointed out my math error. Before I so blithely skipped to the Dave Clark Five, I should’ve stopped at Three Dog Night! I also skipped 4 Non Blondes. I’m rectifying the first error tonight.

I find Three Dog Night interesting because almost everything they sang was written by someone else. The original was practically unrecognizable after 3DN finished rearranging it. Look at their first record, Three Dog Night (1969). The composers on this disc include Tim Hardin, Stevie Winwood, Harry Nilsson, Lennon & McCartney, Randy Newman, Neil Young, and Johnnie “Guitar” Watson. Their second album, Suitable for Framing (also 1969), adds Laura Nyro, Dave Mason, Sam Cooke, and Elton John. I wish 3DN had lasted as far as 1980 because I would’ve loved to have heard what they did with songs by, for example, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Joan Armatrading, and Michael Jackson.

Other than the fact that I flee from any room where “Black & White” or “Joy to the World” is playing (the latter being the “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” song, which Hoyt Axton wrote to showcase the melody – the lyrics were a nonsensical placeholder), I’m OK with this band. They fit well on a road trip in-between the harder stuff. My favorite 3DN songs are “One” (Nilsson), “Eli’s Coming” (Nyro), “Easy to Be Hard” (the team that wrote Hair), and “Liar” (Russ Ballard). Except for “Easy to Be Hard,” these treatments are tougher than usual for them. They’re all from the first two albums.

Cyan (which includes the hit “Shambala”) is not 3DN’s best album (that would be their debut), but it’s their closest to the blue-eyed soul of Rare Earth. There’s also a gospel flavor to some of these tracks. (“Celebrate,” from Suitable for Framing, could easily have appeared on a Rare Earth album exactly as it is.)

For a few years back there in our rearview mirror, Three Dog Night was more powerful than the Van Allen radiation belt. According to Google, they ran up a string of 21 hit singles from 1969 through 1975. I’d rather revisit their music than that of their contemporaries Grand Funk Railroad, a band that rocks very hard for very little reason.

In 1986 I spent six glorious summer weeks at the Clarion West Writers Workshop. I went to class Monday through Friday to study with six science fiction and fantasy writers and editors: Ed Bryant, Suzy McKee Charnas, Particia McKillip, Joan Vinge, Norman Spinrad, and David Hartwell. (I had to quit my job to go.) From this experience I learned that I had little future as a science fiction and fantasy writer, so I fell back on Plan B, which was to grow up to become John Updike.

That didn’t work either, but I still treasure my Clarion experience. (Loyal Reader Linda was one of the logistical wizards who ran Clarion that year, so let me thank you again, Loyal Reader Linda, for your most excellent work.) Clarion runs a Write-a-thon along the lines of National Novel Writing Month to help raise money for the workshop. This event is also a good way to force yourself to write faster, dammit.

I just signed up for this year’s Write-a-thon, which runs from June 23 to August 2 (concurrently with the workshop). Here’s my Write-a-thon site. Contribute if you feel like supporting literature, or just follow along. I’ll report my progress in this blog.

No, I am not writing a science fiction or fantasy novel. It’s not something Updike would’ve written, either, as I’ve replaced all the sex with trains. Just kidding. All the sex is on a train. With aliens. Which reminds of a class I took two years ago in how to write erotica. The instructor, a woman, wrote supernatural/science fiction erotica. She told me that the number-one question she received after reading a story in public (usually at a sex shop) was, “Did that really happen to you?” She had to restrain herself from saying something like, “Why yes, my boyfriend is a centaur.”

Write on!

Random Pick of the Week
The Charlottes, Things Come Apart (1991)
Includes their cover of “Venus.” You may remember from the original by Shocking Blue (who were Dutch) and the dynamite interpretation by Bananarama (English) that this is a voice-driven song. The Shocking Blue’s singer, Mariska Veres, had enough sex appeal to swamp Britney Spears, plus she was singing in a foreign language, plus she sounds like a man. Bananarama, of course, had those three pure-pop-voiced women.

Mariska Veres
Mariska Veres circa 1970

Bananarama
Bananarama circa 1986. In 1980 they sang back-up in concert for The Nipple Erectors.

The Charlottes (another English band) don’t even let their unnamed singer into the song for the first 50 seconds, and when she does join in she’s an island of calm. Or she’s lost at sea. You pick. They turn “Venus” into a guitar rally that stops cold around the 4-minute mark, then rises from the dead and moseys along for another 2 minutes. This song should be cut in half or doubled! The strangest thing of all is that I find myself air-drumming along rather than air-guitaring. The rest of these songs sound like outtakes from “Venus,” except for “Beautify,” which shows some restraint, and “By My Side,” which takes up almost 10 minutes of this odd album.

Random Pan of the Week
Various artists, Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity (2008)
The Neil Young presented here is frozen in the 1970s, with a heavy concentration on Harvest and After the Gold Rush. There’s not much you can do with marathons like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By the River” (basically the same song), though a couple of women try, one on the banjo. Nobody takes on “Cortez the Killer,” which I suppose was disqualified for its title.

Kate York’s “Comes a Time” and Louise Post’s “Sugar Mountain” stand out. (Post co-founded female alt-pioneers Veruca Salt.) The rest of these interpretations sound alike or are way too country for me, everyone strumming away and treating Mr. Young with reverence. As if he’d encourage that – this is the guy who was delighted when Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to “Southern Man.” For collectors only.

History: America’s Greatest Hits
1975
America

In 1972 I was one of the legions of musically jaded 16-year-olds who sneered at America’s “Horse with No Name” for this blatant imitation of Neil Young. Of course I played it when no one was around. It’s a drug trip, man! The narrator is wandering in the desert with no flight plan, on board a horse it never occurs to him to name. And the words – more than a hundred repetitions of “La”! What is he smoking, and can I have some?

You can’t outrun the song’s driving bass line. But if you stop mindlessly singing the lyrics and actually hear the words, you’ll be struck by America’s awesome powers of description:

On the first part of the journey,
I was looking at all the life.
There were plants and birds and rocks and things,
There was sand and hills and rings.

That’s a lotta nouns. “Things” pretty much covers everything that isn’t a plant, a bird, or a rock, but just to help us out they mention sand, hills, and rings. So this must be a drug trip because the guy is in the middle of a wasteland on a horse he can’t identify and he’s hallucinating about jewelry.

I could continue but this would lead us to the last line, “But the humans will give no love,” which I suspect they took from another song. I’ll instead point to their liberal use of prepositions in “’Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain,” which Bruce Springsteen echoed 15 years later in “Tunnel of Love” when he advised us “to ride on down in through this tunnel of love.”

Enough with the literary sneering. America’s oeuvre may showcase their way without words, but those boys knew how to write a pop song. “Ventura Highway,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “I Need You,” and “Lonely People” (which doesn’t make a lick of sense) make my brain freeze, but they are perfectly constructed pop numbers that will annoy snobs like me for another century. Unfortunately, America is guilty of salvaging the malodorous “Muskrat Love,” possibly from a garbage scow, and turning it into a hit. This led to another version, likewise a hit, by The Captain & Tennille! Surely this act of artistic cross-pollination violated some ban on chemical warfare.

Here’s the bottom line on America. One morning in my junior year, a bunch of us on the way to school sang “I went to school on a bus with no name/it felt good to outrun that old train.” We made up the lyrics as we went along and we were still laughing when we got to class. We had America to thank. We never did name the bus.