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
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
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
"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
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
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,
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
"Leave the Driving," a power chord anthem-like bruiser,
a central pathos in the work:
Try not to get too old
The more time you spend on earth
The more you see unfold.
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
the CD, which stars Young, his wife, and others, was made with "a
homespun earnestness that suits both Young’s zero tolerance for
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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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