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Young the restless

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Years ago, I sat in a small club in San Francisco and watched Gary U.S. Bonds mark 20 years in show business with yet another night in a half-filled room. The crowd was desultory--too many had come on the off chance that a big Bonds fan named Bruce Springsteen might show up--but Bonds was a pro, and things were finally beginning to get moving when he stepped up to the microphone with a sly smile.

"Hey now," he said, "does anyone out there know what time it is?"

Now when Gary U.S. Bonds steps up to the mike and asks you what time it is, there's exactly one thing you do: you whoop, stand up on your chair, and yelp, "It's Quarter to Three! It's Quarter to Three!"--that being the title of Bonds's trademark song, and one of the great moments of early-60s non-Motown American soul music. So we and a few other people with similar inclinations stood on our chairs and howled. A bunch of others got the point and joined in. The rest of the room, aware that a climax was about to be hit, chimed out a counterpoint of expectation.

Gary U.S. Bonds, the pro, grinned again, and I can't say I saw anything but a pro's glint in his eye as he said his next words.

"It's Miller time . . ."

It's now a good eight years later, and things have gone far enough that a relatively major star--Neil Young has had a hit of sorts with a slight but funny anti-rock-merchandising song, "This Note's for You." Surprised by the song's appeal, perhaps, Young has nonetheless run with it, embarking on a "Sponsored by Nobody" tour and making the most out of the "controversies" surrounding the song. (For a while MTV refused to air the video because it trashed too many of the channel's advertisers.) As a result, this song was the high point of Young's recent show at Poplar Creek for the vast majority of the fans there: the crowd rushed the stage as the first words--"Ain't singing for Pepsi"--came out of Young's mouth.

That Neil Young, a longtime loose cannon, could manufacture a minor comeback out of such stuff is ironic on a number of levels, but let's talk about that in a minute. Mostly, I was interested in the crowd--a crowd dotted with older fans but made up mostly of youngish suburban kids who had the money and stamina to endure the Poplar Creek experience: the $20 or so for tickets, the hour-long drive, the $5 parking fee, the $2.50 Cokes, and the hellish traffic jam at concert's end. Surprisingly, however, this bunch cheered not only wildly for "This Note's for You," but also crazily for "Hey Hey," which features the repeated line, "Get off that couch / Turn off that MTV." I want to think--that is, it confirms my prejudices to think--that this enthusiasm is a happy sign of a growing disenchantment with rock 'n' roll songs being used to market everything from Valvoline to sandwich joints. It could mean that there's a nascent backlash growing, and that Young--who in his pre-loose-cannon days was an inspiring and formidable figure--might lead the charge.

I'd like to think that. But the crowd last week seemed a pretty indiscriminate one, in an average rock fan way--the sort that could cheer a put-down of Spuds MacKenzie one minute and order up a round of Bud Lights the next. (The same metaphysical duality was embodied in the guy who sat behind me; throughout Young's quiet, acoustic reading of "After the Gold Rush," he screamed, repeatedly, "I can't believe he's playing 'After the Gold Rush'!") I don't understand, for example, the cheers that followed the "Turn off that MTV" line: is MTV no longer cool? My problems with it are strictly qualitative, not philosophical; it could be a lot better, but on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis, I personally have found no other TV' station that plays anything better than 24 hours of rock music each day. What's Neil's problem with it? That it doesn't play his videos? (This particular song predates his recent censorship problem.) Well, radio doesn't play him either, and a lot of times music magazines ignore his releases as well.

Young has always had a moral streak in his work--think of the sentiments of "Heart of Gold" or the elegiac pain that underlies Tonight's the Night, his dark tribute to two dead friends--but as he's got older and drifted into the nearly decade-long slump we've seen of late, he has adopted a low-level puritanism as well. During a period of relative unpopularity in the mid-70s, Young nevertheless churned out one succes d'estime after another: On the Beach, Tonight's the Night, Zuma. He was the epitome of the uncompromising cult artist whose single-mindedness paid off. Today he's similarly unstructured, but somehow unconvincing: Young himself seems to be the only person who thinks "This Note's for You" is anything but a fluke, and his new album, which takes its name from that song, has little to recommend it besides a cartoony energy and brisk, unpretentious arrangements. Little at the show or on the record suggests that Young will be breaking out of his slump anytime soon.

The irony I spoke of above has to do with Young's growing conservatism, which seems to have served as an umbrella of sorts for both his puritanism and his continuing erraticism. At the turn of the decade Young announced that Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal treaty and a need for America to "stand tall" again had convinced him to support Ronald Reagan. Around the same time, he released Hawks and Doves, a beautiful and interesting album, quite underrated, that saw Young beginning to probe in his lyrics some of the themes that underlay his political comments. He wrote about a country "coming apart at every nail," and sang approvingly, if elliptically, of the draft, and took a raucous cheap shot at labor unions. Another favorite theme has been the prevalence of these views among those who lived through the encompassing utopianism of the 60s. A couple of years ago, on the Landing on Water LP, Young sang, "But the wooden ships / Were just a hippie dream / Capsized in excess / If you know what I mean"--a pretty cold shot at former bandmates Crosby and Nash and at various members of the Jefferson Airplane, who together wrote the seminal 60s song "Wooden Ships." And on 1986's Life Young made similar pronouncements set against a background of surrealistic global superpolitics on songs like "Long Walk Home."

Throughout all this time, Young's plumbing of these themes--which, whether you agree with him or not, are at least interesting subjects--has been overwhelmed by his mercurial musical interests. In the 80s, Young has successively released albums of: country-folk (Hawks and Doves), very hard rock (Re-ac-tor), electronicvocoder rock (Trans), rockabilly (Everybody's Rockin'), straight country (Old Ways), pop (Landing on Water), rock (Life), and swing blues (This Note's for You). His musical and lyrical searching of the 70s, which sometimes occasioned swings of comparable strangeness, nonetheless seemed to be prompted by artistic yearnings that could only be respected. Neil led, and we followed. In the 80s, however, there's an opposite feeling--not that Young is pandering to an audience, exactly, but perhaps that he is feeding it. He wears his eclecticism like a badge; before, it didn't seem removable.

The Poplar Creek show, which as Young had promised lasted a good two and a half hours, did have some signs of life. His band, in keeping with the latest album's shtick, included a three-piece rhythm section and a six-piece horn ensemble: "Ten Men Working," the lead song of both album and concert, said it all. Young played most of his new record and another half-dozen new songs, tossing in two oldies ("After the Gold Rush" and "Tonight's the Night") as a sop to old fans. By the standards of most artists, such a set would be quite outre; by Young's, whose concert tours are traditionally challenging affairs, it was downright friendly: often he has refused to play any songs at all from his current record, brushing it off with a comment to the effect that he was "past all that."

The This Note's for You songs were efficient and fun: the record came into being about 18 months ago, as Young, billing the band solely as the "Blue Notes," played a hit-and-run series of shows at a club in Oakland, California, each featuring a pair of sets of the same eight songs, one acoustic and one electric. Those shows produced the album. The group now has the moves down so well that they can be loose and tight at the same time. At Poplar Creek there was a heavy stomp as a backbone, and Young's own guitar playing--as high and screechy as ever--kept things down to earth.

Still, "This Note's for You" is little more than a novelty tune, and while the rest of the record isn't as off-putting as, say, Old Ways or Landing on Water, it doesn't pretend to be more than a temporary stopping point, either. Most interesting last week was a series of new songs (look for them, if the past is any indication, on Young's next album). Actually, only one of them was really interesting. The others were a couple of quiet ballads, another end-of-the-hippie-dream number ("In the Days That Used to Be," which, to make its point, cops a melody from "Chimes of Freedom"), and an exhausting 15-minute opus with about four different parts and 89 stanzas, some sort of dream saga. that could have really, truly been left unsung. But the standout, named something like "Everyday People," was a comical epic tribute to workaday life with a terrific call-and-response chorus and a soaring verse melody. After each verse Young would step to the front of the stage and whip off one of those biting leads I spent my adolescence listening to. When he stomps about the stage like that, hair flying in the breeze of his ever-present stage fan, he looks like a proud, aging stallion; when such dramatic poses are combined with such exciting new, material (and be honest, when was the last time a new song by a performer got you on your feet?), we had a taste of the Young of, um, old, when an overlooked string of brilliant albums culminated with 1979's Rust Never Sleeps and one of the great hard-rock tours of all time. "Everyday People" seemed to have a forgiving, respectful philosophy and a cozy, hyperbolic humor; loud and fast, it also seemed to be an attempt to demythologize Young's (and, by extension, rock 'n' roll's) attitude toward the middle class.

Now that would be something. For the meantime however, Young seems content to let his silly muses chase him all over the map; those rarer and rarer moments when he seems to connect (Hawks and Doves, "Shots," "Everyday People") seem more and more the product of happenstance. Let's take them for that and let any further progress on Neil Young's part be an unexpected but welcome surprise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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