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NEIL YOUNG'S - and Rock n' Roll's - Finest Moment

by Paul Williams

from Fi - The Magazine of Music & Sound (June, 1996)

At my local record store, I recently came across a videocassette which apparently had been available for a year, but which I'd never heard about, called Neil Young and Crazy Horse: The Complex Sessions. Bought it, brought it home, watched and listened and was absolutely astonished. Don't fall into the trap of believing that the great moments in rock and roll history are all in the past. This twenty-seven minute performance by one of rock's greatest and most enduring artists and bands is headline news. What rock and roll has always tried to achieve has never come any closer than this, or Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode, or Janis and Big Brother live in 1967, or Springsteen and E Street in 1975. You shoulda been there. And in this case, thanks to the miracle of recording technology, you can be. This videotape will wear out no faster than your all-time favorite 45, it is just as deserving of repeated plays, just as possibly able to continue to deepen its resonance through the rest of your lifetime. The best argument I've ever heard for owning a "home theater" setup with superior audio capabilities. The mix on this tape is so brilliant it even sounds good on a damn TV set, but I keep wanting to turn it up louder than the TV will go.

Quietly, without fanfare that I'm aware of, rock and roll has reached a significant new aestetic plateau, lead by an indefatigable explorer of the medium's possibilities, as a songwriter, as a live performer, as a recording artist, and even as a filmmaker. Leaving behind him an oeuvre, or a pile of "product," songs, albums, shows, and in this case a (wonderfully short) audio/video album. Four songs. A live recording by Neil and the three band members in the same studio where they had recently completed their fine album Sleeps With Angels. New, completely live performances, filmed by Jonathan Demme, who directed one of the absolute greatest rock and roll films ever made: Stop Making Sense. If you own that and Prince's Sign O'The Times and The Complex Sessions, you have the cornerstone works in this contemporary art form. Demme and Young and the Horse have now proved, like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson and Billie Holiday before them, that there is such a thing as perfection. And it can be experienced by anyone with access to A/V playback equipment.

The Complex Sessions seems to me to represent a pivotal moment in rock history (as, say, Smells Like Teen Spirit did), not only because it's so good but also because it is a breakthrough in the creative use of a medium (the long-form rock video as a work of art) that has defeated most supplicants, including Neil as often as not. On the other hand, it isn't selling many copies, and in our increasingly corrupt pop culture, that and inches of press coverage are the only measurements of "significance." Oh well. Great music is still great music. If a tree falls in the forest but nobody writes a review, did it make a sound?

This footage from the Complex Recording Studios in Los Angeles was shot October 3, 1994, six weeks before Neil's 49th birthday. By way of quick recapitulation, the Canadian singer-songwriter and guitar hero first came to the attention of the rock world as a member of Buffalo Springfield (I was fortunate enough to see them live at the Whisky in 1966 and L.A.'s Shrine and NYC's Ondine in 1967), with whom he recorded three albums. He also recorded three albums as a member of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and, between 1968 and 1996, has recorded some 32 albums under his own name. More than a third of those albums also feature Crazy Horse, who were called The Rockets when Neil met them in 1969 and renamed them and enticed them to perform on his (brilliant) second "solo" album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. One original member of The Rockets, Danny Whitten, died in 1975, and was replaced by Frank Sampedro. Neil Young has recorded with other musicians, including, in 1995, Pearl Jam, and his greatest commercial success came with the non-Crazy Horse album Harvest (1972), but a lot of critics and Neil fans believe he has done most of his best work in collaboration (performing live on stage or live in the studio) with Crazy Horse.

Neil's finest moment? Listen, I told you I saw Buffalo Springfield in the start of 1967 when Mr. Soul was much better live than it ever would be on record (just trying to establish my credential for making such a bold claim). And I saw/heard Neil sing Don't Be Denied live with CSN&Y in the summer of '74 (and it was great) on the day Nixon resigned, and I was present at the very show in San Francisco in '78 that was filmed for the Rust Never Sleeps movie. And have fallen absolutely and helplessly in love with his music again and again from Nowadays Clancy... to Cowgirl in the Sand to every note on the After the Gold Rush album, to much of Harvest and later all of Zuma and Tonight's the Night and also way back with Helpless and Ohio and onward through My My, Hey Hey and Rockin' in the Free World and Ragged Glory and Sleeps With Angels, so goddamn many masterpieces and unforgettable moments, music that truly touched and released my soul, and many more I haven't mentioned, even things so obscure and un-obvious and as utterly indispensable to me as Winterlong and Star of Bethlehem and Journey through the Past (live'71) and Ride My Llama and oh I could go on and on. So yes, I'm a very serious Neil Young fan. Very serious indeed, even though I am able to pull my attention away from some phases, and I do occasionally take a while before I really check out a new album (like, I still reserve judgement on Mirror Ball, but the enthusiasm of other folks means I'll at least give it another try).

Rock n Roll's finest moment? Yes, damn it, why do we listen to the stuff, what do we get out of it or hope to get out of it? Why is it so important in so many lives? Answer the questions as best you can, and I propose that what you talked about in your answer is what I find (and, I hope, perhaps you will also find) in this sight-and-sound recording The Complex Sessions. "I've been waiting for you, and you've been coming to me, for such a long time now..." Yeah, "here we are in the years." The good old days - if we want to open our hearts and ears and actually listen to this "Young" geezer already past his 30th rock'n'roll year - are here right now. And if my lyric quotes from his first album are too obscure for you, that's okay, it's quite possible to start as a Neil Young fan right now, with the songs and performances on this videotape. And if you're mostly into current, contemporary music, that's okay, most of the musicians you're listening to are already Neil Young fans. Start listening to Neil's opus and you'll notice how pervasive his influence is on so many different kinds of rock bands in the 1990s. But the best news is, that doesn't stop him from continuing to follow his own muse, wherever it takes him right now. What more do you want from a courageous and talented artist who's alive while you're alive? Still spitting. Though there were years when we had our doubts, this present-day Neil's not rusting at all.

What have we here? Turn on the video. When the unpleasant "intro music" Warner-Reprise sticks on the front of all of its v-tapes is over, the movie starts and almost immediately, and very handsomely, focuses on the singer's hands, beautiful hands, so rich in character, and caught in action, dancing, playing a keyboard, something like a harpsichord, so deliberately, those wonderful opening notes of My Heart that also open Sleeps with Angels, and we hear his voice while we see his fingers, and it is that extraordinary voice so full of feeling that has already given you gooseflesh on other favorite Neil Young performances. The intensity of feelings in this performance connects for me immediately. That's his gift, much of what makes this artist so special.

It's so unforgettably powerful, so moving, when it happens, and it doesn't always happen (just often enough to make it worthwhile to hang around). It's interesting for me to contrast, as I did today, this performance on The Complex Sessions with the Neil Young videotape you're most likely to come home with if you don't know better, Unplugged. Yes, Neil solo accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or piano can be absolutely transcendental, but not, to my taste, on this particular MTV Unplugged performance. He's got a nice voice, but who cares when he's giving such an emotionally flat performance? The contrast is fascinating, though, because looking at one tape and then the other you have the opportunity to see more clearly what the difference is between a great performer on a great night and the same guy making a sincere effort in a situation or at a moment that doesn't really inspire him. OK, he fakes it perfectly well. But there's no real pleasure for the listener in it. And such inescapable visceral pleasure (gooseflesh) as I watch/hear this other video! If I watch and experience these two tapes in sequence, can I perhaps learn a little more about what it is the performing artist does that touches me so deeply and arouses my spirit so completely? Wow, here it is absent and here it is present. As simple as that. And still so mysterious! See how the look in a man's eyes changes when he's truly present and (for whatever reason) inspired, and filled with conviction?

Anyway, it just happens that's also what the song's about.

"My heart, my heart, I've got to keep my heart.
It's not too late, it's not too late.
My love, I will give to you.
Although I'm not sure what love can do."
If he knew, maybe it would scare him so he wouldn't dare sing in public or with the tape and cameras rolling... Such power. If I remember right, that's also what Mr. Soul was about. The singer's fear of his voice, his power. But this song, anyway, is about the power of dreams ("in the night sky a star is falling down from someone's hand"), and is a brilliant, and gorgeously naked and authentic, re-statement of faith. And on this video, you can see it in his face (and hands) while you hear it in his voice. What? Well, many things, but sincerity more than anything else.

Let's say it's a powerful and rewarding (and very pleasingly musical) emotional experience. The kind that people are hoping to find again as they browse in the record store. What an amazing performer he is! As we will see again in quite different ways on each of the other three tracks. And what a gift he has for melody, and for chord patterns, especially minor chords I guess, and for matching words to melodies, so that fairly simple phrases can take on extraordinary ambiguity and grace and attractiveness.

"When dreams come crashing down like trees
I don't know what love can do
When life is hanging in the breeze
I don't know what love can do."
What a quatrain. So simple. But once you let yourself fall under its spell, will you ever be able to shake it?

Anyway, the movie (OK, twenty-seven minute videotape) starts with a solo performance, just like Young's best previous film, Rust Never Sleeps, and then after three quick minutes the singer gains a band. This is an astonishingly gratifying concert film visually, and combined with Stop Making Sense leaves me convinced Jonathan Demme must be a genius (without even talking about that scary movie that won him an Oscar), how many zillion directors have shot rock bands in action and almost never this intelligently or gracefully or pleasingly? He makes authenticity look easy, while almost every other director involved with rock films and videos make it seem impossible, else why would they fail so consistently? Let them study Demme's two masterpieces. This is rock and roll! Notice for example how wonderful Neil looks, and how terrific each Crazy Horse member and all four musicians together look all the time, as though they were cast for this film so perfectly that again you wonder why almost no other rock filmmaker ever got it so right before? A lovely cinematic touch, for example, is the way drummer Ralph Molina's face opens (as he counts off) and closes (as he seems to perform the very silence with his non-drumming presence) Prime of Life. And the way the singers (Poncho and Billy, or Billy and Neil) stand and sing together, or the way the guitar players combine visually on stage as we hear them combining musically, yes indeed, this is the visual and musical equivalent of that extraordinary interaction between musicians that Buffalo Springfield represented from the very beginning. The way the pieces of the music fit together. The groove. The voices. The personalities. The guitars bouncing off each other. To make a whole somehow greater than the sum of the parts. Yes, much greater, even though Neil the writer singer leader is only one those parts. Neil Young and Crazy Horse are more than he is, or as much as he is alone at his utterly transcendent moments (1971 solo concert bootleg or the opening song of Complex).

Prime of Life is a soft-rock raveup, in the best possible sense, so pleasing, and so ecstatic when its ecstasy moment is reached (very well-represented visually, as we see and hear the guitars and guitar-holders all at once, at natural but odd angles to each other). This is it. I've been waiting since I was in knee pants for them, someone to make records or movies like this. More please. I like this art form.

And so we come to the center of the video. One song makes up more than half its length. The jam, Change Your Mind. The perfect jam, visually and musically. The piece is so consciously related to Cowgirl in the Sand, and less obviously but very directly related to three decades of Young and Crazy Horse jams, from Down by the River to Like a Hurricane to Love to Burn and so many others, including such peculiar and non-Crazy Horse Young excursions as Natural Beauty and Like an Inca. And as wonderful as the performance on the Sleeps with Angels album is, this take beneftis from the group's familiarity with the studio they're playing in and the opportunities they've had to do this jam together over and over, notably in public the day before this session, at Neil's 1994 Bridge Benefit concert extravaganza. Like Cowgirl in the Sand it's a song that likes to be played, and its texture just gets richer the more chance the musicians have to explore it. Anyway, a superb performance, and what an incredible opportunity the intimacy of the seeing-eye camera turns out to be for us, the viewers/listeners. Again we see as well as hear the personalities bouncing off each other. The development of the rhythmic and melodic and emotional themes. All orchestrated by God. Not a show-offy spontaneity. Something better. The real thing. We can feel it. Feel our own minds and hearts changing.

Fifteen minutes of rock and roll trance. A journey. An experience filled with pleasure and feeling and beauty. And in addition an opportunity to see into the process of a rock and roll band creating and playing together (all the more visible because of the simplicity of the rhythm and chords and words and structure), really a very rare opportunity to see so far into the mechanism, and so clearly. A rock and roll education. And appropriately, an education that's fun to experience. Rockin'. And isn't Neil's voice beautiful on that final ("the morning comes") verse? Return of the vocal, with those words, strongly suggesting awakening or anyway getting up and stretching after a long night (fairly explicitly, a long night of love). And somehow this incredible centerpiece, Change Your Mind, manages not to dwarf the rest of the film, each song is so pleasing in its own way, and the four flow into each other and go together so well, that no single track is my favorite or even the one I notice the most. A good trick, when a super-long rock track sits so well with the rest of the album.

Anyway, a bit of Falstaffian comic relief, the most muscular rock music of the whole tape, closes the album, invigorating, hilarious, and again and in still another way so very very pleasing. Piece of Crap. You gotta love these guys. And so alive that Neil even sings lyrics that aren't on the SWA album:

"Went to buy an LP,
the guy only had CDs,
so digitally clean,
it was a piece of crap!"
Makes me shout along, every time, every chorus. This videotape is great rock and roll, a superb work of art like Satisfaction or Hey Jude or any single creation, production, performance, work of rock art. Also available on laserdisc. A milestone. Not a heavy one. Lighter than air. Rock on. "Rock and roll will never die..." Not as long as it leaves recording like this where future listeners/viewers can find them. Hey, even if some huge disaster wipes out our civilization, if this and a few other high points survive and our descendants find some way to retrieve 'em and play 'em back, they'll be starting their own rock bands, and breeding their own singer-songwriters, before long. "There's more to the picture than meets the eye." Usually that's true. But Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Jonathan Demme have here created a masterpiece in which everything they put into it does meet the eye and ear, again and again as you watch and listen some more.

The Complex Sessions is a work of art. And a thing of beauty. And proof that rock and roll not only isn't dead, it's just hitting its stride. Where can we go from here?

. . . . . --- PAUL WILLIAMS

Paul Williams has been the Popular Music Editor for Fi magazine, but he's now resigned. He still publishes Crawdaddy and has other projects. He will still be contributing to Fi. It's a nice magazine, check it out.

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