The name conjures up a jumble of images, a cornucopia of music
genres and sounds. Most will probably call up the image of the
lone troubadour, the flannel-shirted, long haired hippy Neil Young,
with torn jeans and an old guitar, singing old, familiar tunes
like "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and "Needle and The Damage Done,"
songs from his bestselling album "Harvest." Many will picture
a rock and roll pioneer, a masterful lead guitarist in bands like
the much loved but short lived Buffalo Springfield, and the still-chugging-along
supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Others still will see no one but the Neil Young of Neil Young
and Crazy Horse, the rocker who stomps around on stage with a
1953 black Gibson Les Paul, stalking his band mates and his amplifiers,
as if daring the music gods to bring it on as he beseeches us
to "keep on rockin' in the free world," or reminds us that "hey,
hey, my, my, rock and roll will never die," a line he can certainly
deliver with some credibility as he approaches the age of 60.
is also Neil Young the country singer, of Neil Young and the International
Harvesters, and Neil Young the fifties rocker, of Neil Young and
The Shocking Pinks, and Neil Young the blues man, of Neil Young
and The Blue Notes, and Neil Young the experimenter, of Neil Young
and The Trans Band, and Neil Young the filmmaker, of Journey through
the Past, Human Highway and Greendale fame or notoriety, depending
on your point of view, and even Neil Young the family man, married
to the same woman for some 27 years now, so attached to his family
that he hauls them the world over aboard his elaborate tour bus,
unwilling to venture very far these days without wife, kids and
even the family dog close behind.
And in Nashville
the other night, as he stood on stage at the Ryman Auditorium
looking like Hank Williams reincarnate in a white shirt, gray
suit and cowboy boots, indeed playing Hank's old Martin guitar,
Neil Young managed to be all of these people and more, putting
on a show that transcended musical genres, place and time. Fulfilling
a two-night stand which are the only scheduled live performances
of his forthcoming album "Prairie Wind" and which are to be the
subject of a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, the songwriter
only deepened the mystery that is Neil Young.
perhaps in spite of himself. The show at the Ryman Auditorium,
a former church and former seat of The Grand Ol' Opry, was steeped
in traditional, even old-fashioned Nashville in manner and feel,
with sparse sets consisting only of the building's own bare, stained
glass windowed wall and two simple backdrops, one a lonesome prairie
with a farm and a moving train off in the distance, the other
a larger than life, child-like drawing of hearth and home, the
players on stage dressed in what could only be called Nashville
costumes, the women in cowboy boots and shirt-waist, full-skirted
dresses and the men in varying hats and suits and boots much like
Young himself. (In other words, no ripped jeans or flannel shirts
It was clear that Mr. Young wanted to fully project the image
of Neil Young, Grand Ol' Opry singer, good ol' Nashville boy,
as he is wont to do. (Young is known for being an all or nothing
kind of performer, when he decided to go country and formed The
International Harvesters band in 1985, he declared that he would
play only this kind of music and state fair venues forevermore.)
Indeed, the Nashville Neil Young is not disingenuous.
Young's bestselling "Harvest" was recorded in Nashville in 1972,
and Mr. Young is clearly at this point in his long career every
bit the performing and songwriting legend as those one might more
typically associate with the Grand Ol' Opry, like Hank Williams
or Johnny Cash. But, and fortunately for the audience, Mr. Young
on these two nights could not avoid bringing his other many selves
into the room.
"Prairie Wind" was destined for a Nashville debut, having been
recorded in Nashville earlier this year and resonating with traditional
Nashville sound, with masterful pedal steel guitar provided by
Mr. Young's longtime friend and frequent collaborator Ben Keith
(introduced by Mr. Young as "my old friend"), and stunning backing
vocals by the Nashville queen herself, Ms. Emmylou Harris. (Graciously
introduced by Mr. Young as "someone who needs no introduction
here," and later "my friend" on the first night of Mr. Young's
two night stand, Mr. Young did look mildly surprised when on the
second night, after an exciting opening performance of his new
song "The Painter," the shout that came from the crowd was not
"Neil!" as so often happens, but "Emmylou! We love you!").
Though steel guitar and backing vocals are commonplace in not
only country but also pop and rock songs today, if it weren't
for Nashville it might not be so. In the late 1920s, Sam McGee,
immortalized by Robert Service in his poem "The Cremation of Sam
McGee" ("now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton
blows and blows,"), was the first person to play electric
steel guitar on a broadcast of the Grand Ol' Opry, causing other
performers to try all kinds of tunings to try to achieve his new
sound before they learnt what he was really up to.
takes full advantage of the Nashville sound with "Prairie Wind,"
using to good effect not only the considerable talents of Ms.
Harris and Mr. Keith but also of a cadre of others to help him
to do so, with the various stagings of its live performances the
other night often taking the shape of an illustrated version of
a "Who's Who in Nashville" history book.
Included in the small army of talented musicians and singers on
stage were also: Spooner Oldham on keyboard, himself a longtime
friend and frequent collaborator of Mr. Young's, Rick Rosas on
electric bass, Karl Himmel and Chad Cromwell on drums, Wayne Jackson
and the Memphis Horns, The Nashville String Machine, and, on backing
vocals, not only the truly jaw-dropping sound of Ms. Harris but
also the entire chorus of The Fisk University Jubilee Singers
(who danced onto stage with some enthusiasm), and Diana Dewitt
and Pegi Young (Mr. Young's wife of many years). Anthony Crawford,
Gary Pigg, Grant Boatwright, Tom McGinley, Jimmy Sharp and Clinton
Gregory helped Mr. Young to fully realize his vision, and were
on hand to round out the Nashville sound for various songs.
standing and sometimes sitting with his old guitars, and with
his characteristic limbs-akimbo style going full steam ahead,
with feet tapping and legs moving about in such a way that it
makes you wonder what exactly it is that he is hearing in his
head, Mr. Young played only acoustic guitar as well as harmonica,
piano and banjo. Mr. Young's old familiar sound consisting of
simple melodies, driving rhythms and haunting vocals - a sound
that is uniquely his and seems to emerge from every one of his
records, no matter his genre or mood - was well suited to the
new songs, which all had a wistful, dream-like quality to them.
lyrically metaphorical like so many of Mr. Young's songs, and
sometimes more plain spoken, the songs were not only classic Nashville
but classic Neil Young. The opening song had an especially dream-like
feel lyrically and musically, but in its lyric pointed out the
danger of being too dreamy: "If you follow every dream you...
Might. Get. Lost." A later song with Mr. Young on piano and
the beautiful orchestral sound of the entire Nashville String
Machine also spoke about dreams, a common theme for Mr. Young:
"it's a dream and it's fading away, just a memory, with no way
revealed an emotional side with several songs, in one seeming
to be almost overwhelmed, even surprised, by the love so openly
shown to him during a recent health scare. Explaining that the
inspiration for the song came from a friend's voice-mail message
inquiring about Mr. Young's health and wanting to tell him how
he felt about him, joking that he wouldn't say who it was because
he did not share writing credit with anyone, Mr. Young used his
almost impossible-to-duplicate high voice for the chorus, which
had in this case the unexpected effect of breaking your heart:
"I send my best to you, I never thank you enough. I feel like
I'm fallin' off the face of the earth."
And, in what was clearly a tribute to his recently deceased father,
the Canadian sportswriter Scott Young, he told us how impressed
he was that when he was a young boy, seven or eight, maybe, he
thought, his father presented him with an Arthur Godfrey plastic
ukulele. But not only that, his father picked out a tune on it,
surprising the heck out of Young and leaving an indelible mark.
Singing "bury me out on the prairie where the buffalo roam,
you won't have to shed a tear for me 'cause then I won't be far
from home," Mr. Young was speaking perhaps not only of his
father but to his own family, his own mortality on his mind.
family is never far from him, and they often show up in his songs.
On "Prairie Wind," there is also a song for his daughter, who
he explained is off to college this year, leaving him an "empty
nester," saying "I never really knew what that meant, ya know,
'til I felt it."
Mr. Young told us how he "used to write all these love songs for
these young girls, ya know, especially in my Buffalo Springfield
days, but this is a different kind of love song," and then launched
into the plain spoken song for his youngest child and only daughter:
"yes I miss you but I never want to hold you down, you might
say I'm here for you." (Just as he was about to start the
song he stopped himself, and as an afterthought leaned into the
microphone to tell the audience "I think I still have a couple
of those other love songs in me though," thrilling fans of his
early, romantic love songs.)
The new songs
included two rockers, one with the chorus "Tryin' to remember
what daddy said, prairie wind blowin' through my head," the
lyric reminiscent of his 1974 "See the Sky About to Rain" from
"On the Beach" where he cried plaintively "whistle blowin'
through my brain," a song Mr. Young played on acoustic guitar
and harmonica that is hard not to move to.
Indeed, as he played it on Friday night I thought Mr. Young might
fall right off his chair he was rocking back and forth so aggressively.
The other brought to mind Mr. Young's Shocking Pinks days, as
Mr. Young had fun with a song he wrote about Elvis Presley, standing
and - almost - wiggling, singing "the last time I saw Elvis,"
and "He was the king!", even pulling off a couple of "thank
you, thank you very much" Elvis impersonations at the end.
the "Prairie Wind" songs show a more mature, more nostalgic than
brooding Neil Young, grappling with issues of mortality, and loss
of both parent and child (no longer is it the case that "all my
songs are so long, and my words so sad," as he once sang in the
still unreleased song "Love Art Blues," circa 1974) several of
the new songs show Young's classic, almost child-like sensibilities
"This Old Guitar," he said, was actually written, well, by the
guitar. And in someone else's hands the song might have become
just straight ahead country, or even hokey, but Young puts his
own indelible mark on it when he not only sings "when I get
drunk and seeing double it jumps behind the wheel and steers,"
but also "it's been a messenger in times of trouble, in times
of hope and fear." Sung with Emmylou Harris, the chorus of
"this old guitar" is so ethereal and haunting even the least imaginative
listener might start to wonder if the guitar did not indeed write
The closing song was "When God Made Me," the title and lyric so
plain spoken it might be the text of a child's Sunday school essay,
Mr. Young admitted was an "unusual song for me," looking down
at his hands as he sat at the piano, pointing out that the song
was particularly appropriate in the Ryman, itself a former church,
then going on to softly say "we all want to be close to God,"
quickly moving his fingers onto the piano keys as if maybe he
thought he had said too much.
Most of the
"Prairie Wind" songs are straightforward in their meaning, which
has not always been the case with Mr. Young. Indeed sometimes
the meaning of a Neil Young song eludes even his most poetic or
analytical listeners and even, if one is to believe the voice
of the narrator, Young himself (he once sang, in "Ambulance Blues,"
"it's hard to tell the meaning of this song.")
the feeling is there, even if the literal meaning is not immediately
(or ever) apparent. Herman Melville once wrote, in an 1851 letter
to Nathaniel Hawthorne regarding Moby Dick, "You did not care
a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood
the pervading thought that impelled the book - and that you praised.
Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect
body, and embrace the soul. Once you
heard the rushing
of the demon... and recognized the sound; for you have heard it
in your own solitudes." Even if we don't always know what Neil
Young is talking about, we recognize the sound, perhaps having
heard it in our own solitudes.
Wind" songs were performed in the order in which they will appear
on the recording, and indeed in the order in which they were written
and recorded. A small detail, but of interest perhaps to those
who are interested in how Mr. Young's mind works. Like the "rusties,"
an organized, tightly knit group of the most devoted Neil Young
fans, a fiercely loyal, obsessive and highly knowledgeable group
that takes its name from Mr. Young's popular "Rust Never Sleeps"
Created in 1992 with the advent of the Internet, the group now
consists of more than four thousand members from all over the
world, ranging in age from 13 to 62, the bulk of them in their
forties. Many follow Mr. Young around the world, hearing the same
concert again and again, all hoping to hear the rare, hardly-ever-played
song from a favorite album. And perhaps because most are firm
believers in the adage that "live music is better," a sentiment
often touted by Mr. Young and immortalized in his 1980 song "Union
Man" from the album "Hawks and Doves." (In the song, Mr. Young
takes on the persona of union president at a union meeting, and
the edict that gets passed is that "live music is better bumper
stickers should be issued!" The rusties did, in fact, issue them,
all proudly sporting them on car bumpers and old guitar cases
It can not
be said that the rusties' fierce devotion to their hero is encouraged
by the performer. Mr. Young's style is often to mumble only "how
ya doin'" to his audience midway through a concert, followed by
"thank you" or, if he is feeling chatty, "thanks, see ya down
the road" as he exits the stage. (The tables were turned when
his own "how ya doin'" was sent out from the audience to the performer
on the first of his two-night stand in Nashville, Mr. Young's
mumbled response: "I'm standin'.")
Nashville represented Mr. Young's first scheduled live shows since
he experienced double vision after performing at the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame in New York in March, sending him immediately
to the hospital. (He was quoted as saying "I saw a lot of doctors
real fast.") Resulting tests revealed a brain aneurysm. Before
having surgery and treatment, Mr. Young chose to return to Nashville
for a week to record "Prairie Wind," perhaps unsure of the surgery's
relationship with his fans goes even further than simply ignoring
them, and has often crossed into downright hostility. One famously
bootlegged concert from early in his career is referred to by
fans as the "Shut up or I'll Split" show, where the singer, increasingly
irritated by the chatter in the club, says angrily "I am not together
enough tonight to put up with any shit, so just shut up or I'll
split." The audience falls silent.
More recently, in March of 2004 as Neil Young and Crazy Horse
performed their "Greendale" show during a three-night stand at
Radio City Music Hall in New York, Mr. Young grew increasingly
annoyed (and presumably insulted) that two audience members in
the front row were not only not paying attention to the show but
chatting to each other and then, quite rudely, talking on their
cell phones. After stalking back and forth in front of them for
a bit and deploying his legendary glare to no effect, he decided
to spit at them. He had their attention at last, and they made
a hasty exit.
the man is well loved by his fans, his most ardent always defending
his hostile behavior, pointing out that it is always provoked
by an unruly and inappropriate audience member.
Indeed, on many bootlegged concert tapes you can hear a shout
for "Southern man!" or "Ohio!" followed up immediately by the
devotees telling the yellers in the oft-used vernacular of their
hero to "Shut up, Asshole," themselves a small, protective army
scattered throughout the venue, deployed by no one but themselves.
(A rustie would never harass the performer by yelling out for
a favorite song, especially not during an acoustic set, perhaps
fearful that Mr. Young would, in fact, split and they would be
out of a show, but more likely out of intense respect for the
It must be said that Mr. Young may have mellowed a bit of late,
not reacting to an aggressive fan with a request list at his solo
acoustic concert in Berkeley, California last September.
As Mr. Young played, a fan approached the stage, and had the incredible
gall to place a piece of paper, presumably a request or two, at
Mr. Young's feet as he played. Mr. Young consummately ignored
him, and those familiar with Mr. Young's habits breathed a sigh
of relief. But then, and at this point everyone had to be wondering
what this guy was thinking, the fan approached again, pushing
the piece of paper directly under Mr. Young's foot as it tapped
up and down. Did he think he hadn't seen him the first time? Mr.
Young did not look up, but did restart the song, grumbling and
mumbling something about forgetting the words, and then with much
grace went on without so much as a glance at the paper on the
floor. It was still there when he left the stage at the end of
fans all over the world were shocked recently, though, to see
a link on Mr. Young's website entitled "Dear Friends," with one
click revealing a letter from Mr. Young directly to his fans,
thanking them for their love and support through the years and
during his recent health scare.
A nod to the fans after all these years left some even more concerned
about what had happened to their hero's brain during the surgery,
but minds were put to rest when, as suddenly as it appeared, the
link was gone, leaving fans chuckling as they imagined a grumbling
Neil Young thinking better of the whole thing and demanding the
link be removed. (Neil Young's website, at neilyoung.com, is called
"Neil's Garage," a reference to the fact that the musician is
also a fan and collector of vintage automobiles, mostly American
cars from the 1950's. Mr. Young was quoted in "Shakey," a biography
by Jimmy McDonough, as saying with some scorn "I don't have a
website," and then soon thereafter created one.)
Mr. Young's letter to his fans included an assurance that he had
been promised a full and complete recovery by his doctors, many
were eager to see for themselves. Rumor of a Nashville show created
a flurry of excitement among his followers, who were crushed to
learn that in the end the two-night concert was to be "invitation
only." Given Mr. Young's relationship with his fans to date, an
invitation seemed unlikely. Still, rusties materialized in Nashville,
some with a remote connection or two, most on a wing and a prayer,
hoping against hope to get in to see the show.
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