Corrections or additions?

This article by Peter Mladineo was prepared for the September 3, 2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Neil Young: Godfather of Grunge & Greendale

For Neil Young, quirkiness, dramatic appeal, the

reputation

of a recluse, and his beloved loose edges give him a mystique shared

by few other musicians. (On second thought, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen,

or Johnny Cash come to mind.) But after more than 35 years in the

music business, Young’s latest offering "Greendale" gives

him another distinction — that of a Rock Impressionist, with lots

of distortion to boot.

Dubbed the "Godfather of Grunge" since his 1990s practice

of touring with hard-rock alternative (i.e. "grunge") bands,

Young’s career began in the mid-’60s with the short-lived Buffalo

Springfield; after only 19 months (and Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame

recognition)

he and the other band members, including Stephen Stills, went on to

bigger and better things such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Young’s own parade of classic rock hits like "Down by the

River,"

"Rockin’ in the Free World," "Heart of Gold," and

"Ohio" brought him his own Hall of Fame entry in 1995. They’re

enough to make most recording artists sit up straight.

But when Young comes to the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel on Friday,

September 12, with his long-time accomplices of sonic thuddery Crazy

Horse, expect another sensation: that your ears will ring. After

30-years

together, the Crazy Horse trio — Billy Talbot, Frank Sampedro,

and Ralph Molina — is the engine that drives the Neil Young sound.

Onstage the 57-year-old Canadian-born enigma looks indeed like some

kind of wizened grungemeister — his flannel shirts, his long hair

glowing under the lights; his inscrutable presence shining while his

unmistakable guitar-driven sound entrances his fans. The survivor

of childhood polio and epilepsy is now reborn as some kind of jaded

bard, using storytelling and political observation to paint a sad

relief portrait of the American reality.

The New York Times calls "Greendale" "a rock opera for

lack of a better word." This theme album is described by his

label,

Reprise, as "a musical panorama of modern American life (that)

harks back to Young’s own childhood."

"Greendale" is a fictional coastal town on Highway One along

the Pacific Coast in Northern California. Its characters are mainly

members of the hard-bitten and eccentric Green family. Earl Green

is a psychedelic artist who never sold a painting (his complete art

portfolio can be seen at the "Greendale" website,

www.neilyoung.com).

His son Jed is a drug-running rebel, in jail for killing a cop. The

Devil also lives in the jail, but comes and goes as he pleases, and

Grandpa dies after a media blitz chases him out of his house. Or

something

like that.

"Leave the Driving," a power chord anthem-like bruiser,

conveys

a central pathos in the work:

Try not to get too old

The more time you spend on earth

The more you see unfold.

But unfold it Young does. By the time the album’s last distorted

chord drones into oblivion, "Greendale" has transformed from

a grim and painful landscape of the mundane into a grainy mood of

reconciliation with a slim measure of hope.

Rolling Stone reports that "`Greendale’ has a tattered, buzzing,

demon-like sound, rude as any Young has put out." The film

accompanying

the CD, which stars Young, his wife, and others, was made with "a

homespun earnestness that suits both Young’s zero tolerance for

slickness

and the urgent truth inside his sprawling tale: America is in deep

crisis but not beyond redemption," the magazine adds.

Young has a significant philanthropic streak — he and wife Pegi

Young co-founded the Bridge School for handicapped children (their

son Ben has cerebral palsy). Young, known for a fondness for electric

train sets, also started a company that makes useful devices for the

disabled and high-tech toys.

To critics, Young can be repetitious, sloppy, off-pitch, and sometimes

plain out in left field. His lyrics can lack coherence and his songs

sometimes resemble smoked-out jam sessions in the barn, seemingly

endless but full of feeling. His concepts sometimes fall under the

art for art’s sake category and his is unapologetic about the lack

direction on "Greendale." In the album’s narrative, Young

writes, "I made it up and I don’t know what the hell is goin’

on, so don’t feel bad if you feel a little left out of it with

this."

Young, who once spurned a Rolling Stone request for

an interview because he didn’t like the perfumed advertising inserts

the magazine carried, has a reputation for being suspicious of the

media. He also tried to block the publication of his own biography.

He lost.

After a series of lawsuits and countersuits, Random House published

last year "Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography" by Jimmy McDonough.

(Shakey is Young’s nickname.) Some critics complain that

700-something-page

book is too long and expends way too many pages on the minutiae of

the rocker’s early career. Yet pop critic Douglas Cruickshank writes

that McDonough "makes his admiration for the musician clear, but

he also calls him on his bullshit, his thoughtlessness, his

recklessness,

and his failures."

Young devotees admire him most when he returns — and eagerly —

to his fuzzbox roots, weaving together his trademark wailing solos,

metallic chord crunches, and Slim Whitman-range vocals with an added

note of countrified desperation. The music on "Greendale"

recalls some of the earlier, movingly dirty Crazy Horse masterpieces.

To the industry, Young has been at his best when he cranks up the

volume. In Bob Dylan’s epic 15-minute song "Highlands" that

closes his much-lauded 1997 album "Time Out of Mind," the

folk legend sings:

I’m listening to Neil Young

I gotta turn up the sound

Someone’s always yelling

turn it down.

That said, it was Young’s less guitar-saturated songs like

"Heart

of Gold," "Old Man," and "Harvest Moon" that have

helped earn him a wide audience. But to his hard-core fans, the Young

sound — brown, distorted, and bordering on mayhem — keeps

him pure, untainted from commercial gloss.

His heavy guitar-laden sound found a resurgence in his 1989 album

"Freedom", which was followed by a Crazy Horse reunion in

the record "Ragged Glory." Then came a collaboration with

alternative rockers Pearl Jam in 1995 called "Mirror Ball."

It was also in the mid-’90s when the Godfather signed on to the

H.O.R.D.E.

tour, a collection of alternative rock and grunge bands, many of whom

weren’t even born when Young, Stephen Stills, and company were still

raging at Richard Nixon. One current music e-zine even calls Young

"the coolest 50-something on the planet."

Another fan, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than

Paradise," "Ghost Dog"), persuaded Young to write the

score for his 1996 western fantasy "Dead Man" that starred

Johnny Depp as a hapless frontier-murderer William Black. Young then

became the subject of Jarmusch’s 1997 music documentary "Year

of the Horse: Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live." The film, which

features Young and his dad and all three of his 30-year Crazy Horse

collaborators, plays heavily on the band’s reckless, pot-head roots

and pays tribute to deceased members such as long-time producer Dave

Briggs and original guitarist Danny Whitten, who died of a heroin

overdose in 1972. The film reaped some critical success but not much

box office hullabaloo.

But perhaps the most poignant accolade in Young’s career comes from

the swamp of rock legend. Young’s 1970 "After the Gold Rush"

album, arriving on the heels of the civil rights movement, featured

"Southern Man," an emotional rip at prevailing racism in which

Young ranted:

Southern man better keep your head

Don’t forget what your good book said

Southern change gonna come at last

Now your crosses are burning fast.

As legend has it, the Jacksonville-based megaband Lynyrd Skynyrd

was offended by the song (as well as by Young’s "Alabama")

and countered with some Southern-fried payback in "Sweet Home

Alabama," crooning "I hope Neil Young will remember, a

Southern

man don’t need him around anyhow."

Later both Young and members of Lynyrd Skynyrd said that there were

no hard feelings between them and that the two camps were actually

working up plans to sing "Sweet Home Alabama" onstage

together.

But their detente was foiled by a cruel twist of fate in October,

1977, when three members of Skynyrd were killed when the band’s plane

crashed in Mississippi. Singer superstar Ronnie Van Zant was found

dead in the wreckage — wearing a Neil Young concert shirt.

— Peter Mladineo

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, PNC Bank Arts Center , Holmdel,

609-520-8383. The legendary Neil Young and his band, Crazy Horse.

His latest release is the musical novel "Greendale." $55 to

$85; lawn seats $27.50. Friday, September 12, 7 p.m.


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