Neil Young, Friends & Relatives
Alabama Ass Whuppin'
By Michaelangelo Matos
Live rock albums that accidentally function as comedy records have a long history. The classic of the genre is arguably the notorious Lou Reed Live, from 1975, on which the punk godfather spends more time taking shots at his critics than making music that might shut them up. ("I'm gonna quote a line from Yeats: 'The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.' Now you figure out where I am.") Bob Dylan's unctuous introductions ("I wanna play this song for you") and desecrations of his own classics on At Budokan can also elicit laughter, albeit the queasy kind. And let us not forget Having Fun With Elvis on Stage, 37 minutes of between-song patter that's arguably the biggest exploitation the Presley industry ever pulled off.
Not counting Rhino's nine-CD Richard Pryor box set, the best comedy albums of recent months come from a pair of unrepentant rock outfits: upstart Georgia honky-punks the Drive-By Truckers and evergreen road warrior Neil Young. Road Rock, credited to "Neil Young, Friends & Relatives" and recorded during his fall tour, falls squarely into the accidental ha-ha category. The packaging makes it look like a compilation you'd pick up at a truckstop or buy off late-night TV. The track lengths as noted on the cover and as seen on my changer are not the same--"Motorcycle Mama," for instance, is advertised as 5:30 but lasts only 4:12. Not that I'm complaining--and hey, timing is everything in comedy, right? A witty sticker on the cover announces that "Fool for Your Love," which dates from the 70s, is previously unreleased--and after one listen you'll understand why.
Mostly, though, the chuckles Road Rock inspires depend on a familiarity with the rest of Young's oeuvre--of his endlessly circling career path and his string of seemingly pointless live albums and his insistence on hoeing his row as vigorously as ever. Take the opener, "Cowgirl in the Sand." Young first recorded the song more than 30 years ago, and he's probably played it at least 2,000 times since. Yet this version is reminiscent of an especially brutal segment of When Animals Attack. When the roil winds down, the audience cheers, as much for the memories the song invokes as for this specific treatment of it.
But wait! He's not done! He revs it up again, playing the same gouging guitar figures he's just spent 14 and a half minutes reiterating! Ha--is he kidding? Apparently not--and that just makes the routine even funnier. Unfortunately, no other music on Road Rock is the equal of "Cowgirl," though a spooky "Tonight's the Night" and a duet of "All Along the Watchtower" with Chrissie Hynde are mildly diverting. Not so the ragged "Words," which wasn't that good to begin with and is even less good at 11 minutes. The joke here is on you--this really is just another pointless Neil Young live album.
The Drive-By Truckers comedic MO is far less oblique. Front man Patterson Hood, the son of Muscle Shoals session bassist David Hood, tells rambling, sharply detailed stories about the dead-end lives of dirt-poor southerners, including himself, with punch lines broad enough for a WB sitcom. The Truckers give their studio albums titles like Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance. Their blazing new live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin' (ha! but they're from Georgia!), opens with the lyric, "Them stories that you tell me are so hard to swallow / You said 'Go to hell' but I know you'd just follow," from "Why Henry Drinks." In "Buttholeville," Hood uses his deep accent to force every line to rhyme with the title: "Working down at Billy Bob's Bar & Grill / The food here tastes the way I feel."
The songwriting on Alabama Ass Whuppin' is strong enough that a chaotic treatment of Jim Carroll's classic "People Who Died" fits right in. But the real fun starts when the singing stops and the talking begins. Hood introduces "18 Wheels of Love" with a how-I-wrote-this-song howler about the singer's mother finding true love with a truck-driving Vietnam veteran and marrying him at Dollywood. ("And every last goddamned word of it is true," he yells before launching into the song.) "The Avon Lady" is less a song than a stand-up routine with background music, in which the neighborhood cosmetics dealer wheedles a six-year-old Hood out of his lunch money so he can "prove to my mom how much I love her." And reportedly the band's next project will be a southern-rock opera about growing up on Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hood not only tells better redneck jokes than Jeff Foxworthy--he's got his own drummer to do the rim shots.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Coston.