The Godfather of Grunge Rock
Pulse! December 1991
"It's kinda like a zen thing-- if my focus is out of sorts, then the whole things a big mess. But as soon you can probably tell, it's in pretty good order right now." That's Neil Young speaking from atop the sprawling labor of that, methaphorically, parallels the creative peaks and valleys of his last 12 years: his model train set. A dizzyingly intricate assortment of totems, trinkets and treasures, the scaled-down panorama takes up the better part of Young's ranch-home-sized "train barn." A cursory walk around the barn puts everything in perspective and makes you realize that-- like the corrals, houses, car lots and recording studios-- it occupies but a sliver of ground of Young's 2,000- acre Broken Arrow Ranch, high in the mountains in northern California's San Mateo County. young stepes down from his handcrafted landscapes; the man who wrote "I Am a Child" then slides into a fragile state of near-relaxation. "It's quite a unit," Young says, his eyes agleam with something between a father's pride and a Doktor Frankenstein's mad glee. "The whole thing is all from the forest, and also from places I go. Like, if I go on the road or I take my family somewhere, wherever I go I take something that I find that will work well in any scale, and just bring it home. From rocks to stumps to a handful of pebbles. ..."
Look closer and you'll see a profusion of scenes within the whole, representations of the classic phases of Young's oeuvre. Surreal mountainscapes, carefully adorned with crystals and tiny toy birds, recall the heady orchestral psychedelic folk-rock of Buffalo Springfield, as well as the marriage of swirling string arrangements and country picking marked by Young's 1969 solo debut (not to mention the resemblance of that album's artwork to select areas of the trainscape). Sparring toy soldiers personalize the righteous indignation of After the Gold Rush's "Southern Man," "Ohio" from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's De'ja Vu, or the Young/Nash one-off single "War Song." Dioramas depicting country life with scale figurines of farm families and their animals harken back to the folkier flavors and passages of Everybody Knows This Is Novhere, Harvest and Comes a Time. The only evidence of Re-ac-tor or Trans, the early-'80s electro- dabblings that torturously addressed the communicative barriers between Young and his then newly born quadriplegic and mute son, Ben, are the stations through which the now-13-year-old can operate the trains with his head switch. As for the late-'70s punk-infused grunge of Young and Crazy Horse's Rust Never Sleeps and 1990's majestic Ragged Glory, well ...
Resplenden in a leather jaeket emblazoned with logos from Ragged Glory, and with hints of grey in his stringy tangles and bushy muttonchops, Neil Young in the flesh mirrors his ever-growing vista; he considers aloud the latest addition to the Horse's feedback-frenzied legacy: Arc/Weld. At a staggering length of nearly three hours, the initial 25,000 copies of the new release combine Weld, a two-CD collection of highlights from the Ragged Glory tour, with Arc, a 35-minute sonic collage of intros, outros, unaccompanied vocals and general aural overload excerpted from the same tour.
"It's just sounds," Young says. "That's the essence of it. It's like new age metal. You could play Arc in a heavy metal club as music between bands, and it wouldn't get in the way. It has no genre or attitude; it's not like it's coming from this place or that place. It's just metal. And it's exploding, it's molten, it's happening. It's a very cool thing as far as I'm concerned.
"The picture it presents [is] like, you're riding a motorcycle and you've got Arc blasting on your motor- cycle speakers? And someone pulls up and hears it, looks up and [they're] stuck at the light? If you don't like metal, if you don't like rock'n'roll or speed metal or whatever, then Arc is probably the most abrasive thing you could ever hear. You would go, 'Turn that off! What the hell is that?' It's made for people who want to hear it, who can envision themselves skiing downhill or something with this in their headphones, some kind of an experience of velocity. For people who run, where rhythm doesn't matter. There's no rhythm in Arc. It's 35 minutes without a beat anywhere. It just keeps changing all the time, instead of the music we've got nowadays, which is an hour of music all with programmed beats. All because somebody dialed it in. So it's refreshing in that way. It's completely free."
Weld and its companion video were made with no other goal than the audio verite representation of a 1990 Crazy Horse show. A simple enough proposition, in theory. In execution, however, Weld became an ordeal that called for a grueling examination of a tour's worth of two-hour sets.
"It's been a pretty fast release for Weld," Young says. "I finished Weld around the beginning of September, something like that. We were working on the artwork and everything at the same time. I really liked that project, but it really took a lot out of me. It was probably the hardest album I ever had to make--Weld and Arc together--because of the actual time. The album's two hours long, without Arc, so it's like a concert.
"This isn't just what we thought was good to put on a record. This is everything that we did during the whol show. Nothing's missing. It's the highlights of each song's best performance out of maybe 10 to 12 shows that were recorded. On the video, it's the same thing. It's all the best versions. It's almost always the same version that's on the CD.
From first listen, Crazy Horse imbues every selection on Arc/Weld with a newfound urgency, something more than the acceleration in tempo that typifies so many live recordings (several tunes are, in fact, slower than their original incarnations, Ragged Glory's "Love to Burn" being a prime example). Young's voice is crackling and cracking with more raw passion than ever, and on mainstays "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" and "Cortez the Killer," his corrosive guitar interplay with Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, Billy Talbot's rumbling bass and Ralph Molina's pounding drums are entropically supercharged to the point of making Ragged Glory sound clean. Young attributes Arc/Weld's unprecedented levels of white heat to the onset of the Persian Gulf war.
"The war started basically the day we started," he recalls. "So everything changed right away. There was a shift in the set list after the first show in Minneapolis, and then we went to Milwaukee. Then basically, by the time we got to Milwaukee, it was happening. So the whole thing kinda was inspired by the war. That was the spirit of the thing. That's where all the energy was coming from, all the people, the way they were treating it, the way they were reacting to it. The emotions of the audience.... It was outrageous."
That fact is perhaps most evident on Arc/Weld's version of "Blowin' in the Wind." With due respect to Dylan's halcyon days, Young dusts off the old protest standard and gives it new relevance as a pastiche of single-note feedback and vocal anguish.
"Yeah, well, I had planned to do something along those lines," he says. "I was gonna do something off Ragged Glory that's almost the same, 'Mother Earth.' But I didn't really want to do 'Mother Earth.' I didn't think it was gonna make it to the concert. We were rehearsing 'Blowin' in the Wind' before the war and the tour started. Basically, the songs took on the ambience of the times. That's all we do--we just reflect what's going on. It just seems like we go out and it all comes from the audience; we just pick it up and send it back. So whatever's happening, there's no reason to just go out and entertain. Entertainment, all by itself, is great; it's a great thing to do. But when something like [the war] is happening, certain songs just seem trite. Why bother doing 'em? It's just natural that the songs reflect what was happening in the country. You'd see it in people's faces as they came in and out of the concert--the slogans they had on the signs they were holding.
"But there's room for everybody," Young adds, after a moment's reflection. "Some people might want to forget about the war. Some people might not."
For anyone who bought Arc/Weld thinking it's some live documentation of the sprawling Young oeuvre ... forget it. First off, he refuses to make Crazy Horse cover material on which the band didn't originaIly play (although "Crime in the City" and "Rockin' in the Free World," both originally from 1989's Horse-less Freedom, are definite highlights of the new set). Second, the above- mentioned project is already underway, with Young exploring a massive database of unreleased material for an archival series, with the first set due in late 1992.
(apparently a couple of lines are missing here, sorry! -Kimmo)
period, where he meandered around his native Canada with bands like the Squires and Mynah Birds, these annual four-CD volumes will, foreseeably, progress through unreleased Buffalo Springfield to early Crazy Horse recorded live at the Fillmore East, and will possibly include an alternate take of Ragged Glory's "Fuckin' Up" from a Saturday Night Live rehearsal ("We all came in and just wailed the shit outta that song.... I don't know if that tape still exists, but if it does it'll be on there"). The first volume, he says, should cover 1964 to 1970, ending right before he electrified Crosby, Stills and Nash on Dejd Vu.
"There's so much stuff," Young says. "[It's] everything I can find that I like or I think has any merit to it. It's going to be a different kind of project, really, than a Decade 11. It goes back before Decade started, to the very beginning of my recording experience, back to a group called the Squires in Canada. We have four songs by the Squires, then it goes into a folk period that I was in around '64. It comes out of that into unreleased Buffalo Springfield stuff, unreleased songs of mine from that period. There's almost as much unreleased material, in some cases more unreleased material, from every era of about a 26-year period, than there is released stuff.
"Decade should stand on its own. This is a different thing. There are so many songs. It's going to come out in volumes over a period of years. Each volume is gonna be four CDs. It'll have a box you can get with it or later, 'cause there'll be empty spaces in the box for the other pieces as they come along. I've been working on it for almost two years. I would really anticipate volume one to be ready by this time next year--a complete book and four CDs.
"So there's a lot of unreleased stuff and I need to feel that I've saved it all. I'm kinda like a freak for saving things. It was all haphazard, but now I've organized it all, got it all on computers."
The gradual release of this archival series is set to provide further testimony to Young's ongoing legacy of integrity and innovation. In bringing experimental noise- rock vanguards Sonic Youth and post-punk warhorse Social Distortion out on the Arc/Weld tour, Young turned more than a few older heads and lowered a few upturned younger noses to the ever-precognitive nature of his vision. Anyone still intent on casting aspersions on Young's credibility and foresight, consider, for instance, the alienated "video ranger" of "The Loner"--a figure so perfectly illustrative of the increasingly detached '70s/'80s generational cusp that embraced its incarnation on the cathartic Live Rust--originally surfaced some 10 years earlier on 1969's Neil Young.
"Yeah, a lot of my old fans hated Sonic Youth," Young says. "They had no fuckin' idea what Sonic Youth was about. And yet, a lot of people who'd listened to my harder stuff were going, 'Hey, these guys are pretty good out there.' So I introduced Sonic Youth to a whole new audience and it didn't hurt them. Everything's fine. Some of my audience thought I was crazy, some of them thought it was kinda cool. I really don't care. It's nice. If they keep coming, it's great."
It should be no surprise to Young aficionados that he should strike up a symbiotic relationship with innovators from more recent musical eras. In 1982, Roxy Music took a chance with "Like a Hurricane," and found that its heart- rending paean to the unattainable struck an undeniably universal chord. As the Frejus, France, crowd roared through the version on Roxy's live The Hige Road EP (later reissued as part of the posthumous Heart Still Beating live collection), the song became a staple of the band's live set, and scraggly ol' Neil was pulling one over on the dapper young Roxy generation. Half a decade later, Caroline Records' The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young saw a roll call of late-'80s fringe-rock deities--Dinosaur Jr., Loop, Pixies, Soul Asylum, Bongwater and Nick Cave, among others-- rallying to aid the Bridge Foundation, the institute founded by Young and wife Pegi to help challenged children like their cerebral-palsy-afflicted Ben (Zeke, Young's l9-year- old-son from his previous marriage with actress Carrie Snodgrass, was also born with cerebral palsy; Young and Pegi's daughter, Amber, now six, was not).
Sonic Youth's version of "Computer Age" on The Bridge concretely marked the genesis of a mutually influential relationship: one that would ultimately find Sonic guitarist Thurston Moore instrumental in the conceptualization of Arc. "Oh yeah--Sonic Youth!" Young exclaims. "They were a big influence on us, and we were an influence on them. That's rock'n'roll. That's the way it should be. As a matter of fact, how Arc started was ... something I heard in my head were these parts of the songs that I wanted to isolate. Because, to me, we'd been playing the songs great. We'd been playing Arc-type instru- mentals for the last five or six years. We really enjoyed the hell outta that. That was really good. Eventually what it became was, we'd play the song, but the essence of the song was in the ending. Just the passion of the song, only.
"So I did a tour with Crazy Horse back in '86," Young says, "and I made a movie of it myself. It's like a home movie that I shot myself on Super 8 film. [Producer] David Briggs shot a lot, too. It was a video of the tour of Europe that Crazy Horse did back in '85 or '86. That was a terrible fuckin' tour. We sold shit for tickets. A lot of places had to cancel the shows. It was a disaster. I went over there and found out that no one knew that I'd put out any records at all since Harvest or something. It was like, 'What the hell is going on here?' No one knew any of the records that I put out on Geffen. There was not one record that anyone knew. And that had been the last six years of my life, so people were [asking], 'Where've you been? What have you been doing?' And I'm like, 'What the fuck is going on here?' "It was a terrible tour, which made for a very interesting video. And it wasn't like it was all terrible--some of the music was good, but still we were having problems. But during the movie itself was when we started doing these long endings and beginnings. So the soundtrack is all that--it's just noise and distortion, a bunch of traveling shots where the zoom is going in and out, and weird things are happening that I was doing on my camera. After the shows every night, I'd set up in the front of the bus and we'd cruise down the road through these cities, and I'd be shooting with my power-zoom and all this shit. It could never be released for real; it's not HBO or anything like that, thank God. It is what it is. Somehow it'll be made available one of these days.
"So I said to Thurston, 'What do you think of this music?' Because I knew he was into that kind of stuff, all this fuckin' distortion. I had recorded it on my camera; I took [it] onstage and put it down on my amp. I'd shoot the audience. For the encore, I'd bring it out, shoot the audience, then put the camera down on my amp. It'd be shooting past me into the audience, off to one side or whatever, but vibrating. It was the sound of the entire band being sucked into this little limiter, being compressed and fuckin' distorted to hell. It was great. So anyway, that's the soundtrack.
"Then Thurston and I were taLking about it, and he said, 'Yeah, you ought to go ahead and put all of it out on a record.' He pushed me over the edge on that one. I looked at myself and said, 'That might be an idea, but how the hell could I do that?' Then the more I worked on Weld the more I realized that it was all there. I heard every version of every song from every night and I heard all these wild things. So, I made Arc. Thurston had something to do with that."
Although young admits he's amused by other artists' covers of his songs, he can't go into much detail about them, because he doesn't listen to them. Or anything else, really. It's a liberty he steadfastly denies himself for the sake of his own individuality.
"No, I don't listen to any of 'em," he says. "It's not because I don't want to. It's just that I don't get the tapes and I don't have the time. I'm writing my own songs and I need rest from music to get away from it. I stay away from everything. I always have. I loved Bob Dylan, and in my early recording years, I wouldn't listen to his records knew if I listened to his records I would become more of a Dylan clone than I already was. So stayed away from it.
"I base music on what I hear as I'm walking around. If I hear something on the radio and hear it again some other time, I'll recognize that I've already heard it. If I go in a club and a record's playing, whatever anybody else puts on ... I don't ever make the decision myself. My decision is usually just to turn it off or leave on. I got some tapes of Sonic Youth that I got from the road that I listen to. I checked 'em out. And I listened to The Bridge on the bus and I thought it was cool. But I'm not a music listener. I hear it all the time anyway in my head, basically, so l don't want to go out of my way to bring something else in. I'm into looking at things more than listening to things."
It's been said that Young is at his best when he turns his eyes inward, onto his personal suffering, his finest works ostensibly bearing the fruit of his misery. He certainly has a wealth to draw from--his own bouts with polio and epilepsy to the challenges of his children to the untimely deaths of beloved band and crew members. The fatal overdoses of ex-Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry certainly bear it out, coloring the dark and bleary strain of magnificent mid-'70s works On the Beach and Tonight's the Night. And the indispensable Zuma did follow on the heels of Young's breakup with Carrie Snodgrass. On the other hand, the muddled techno-tirades of Trans-- written and recorded in between 12-hour therapy sessions with Ben--certainly beg to differ, as do subsequent Geffen offerings such as the rockabilly fuck- off Everybody's Rockin' and the utterly bland Landing on Water, opting for progressive detachment from his troubles rather than spirited confrontation--or even fiery wallowing. Even Young's sole Geffen collaboration with Crazy Horse, Life, lacked the burn of past Horse rides.
"It was a reactionary period," says Young of his six-year tug-of-war with Geffen. "I just do what I feel like doing. I made the first Old Ways album--it was kind of a country album, the Old Ways that came out--this was another Old Ways album that I made with different songs. It was recorded right after Trans. I really loved it; I thought it was like Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways--the three were like trilogy, they went together great. I was knocked out. "I took it in [to Geffen] and they didn't want it. They didn't like it. They told me I should play some rock'n'roll. So I did Everybody's Rockin' [laughs].
"See, one thing leads to another. You could be creative with anything. And that's what I try to do, to make a positive creative statement based on what's happening, or a negative creative statement. One thing leads to another. I really don't have a plan for all of this.
Ponder then that the seemingly lost Young's ecstatic reunion with Warner/Reprise would see the resurfacing of his acerbic wit on Young & the Bluenotes' 1988 This Note's for You, the title track of which made MTV history when it got banned for its intimidating lambasting of artists who endorse products, then got added to MTV's playlist, eventually winning Video of the Year! Or that a more content, increasingly focused Young's next move 1989's Freedom, would be hailed as yet another return to form. And what of the soul-wrenching "Fuckin' Up," its sublime Iyrical imagery--"Curves beneath your flowing gown/ Only I could bring you down ... Broken leashes all over the floor/ Keys left hangin' in a swingin' door" -- providing a centerpiece to Ragged Glory and Arc/Weld alike? It's surely a rock'n'roll masterpiece of emotional disarray and self- deprecation if there ever was one.
"Yeah, kind of," Young says. "But not really heavy. It's just a little bit more ... fucked up. Like, what did I do that for? I thought I was so right. I didn't think; I felt like this was the thing to do, so I did it. From where I am now, I can see that I was a jerk. But on the other hand, what are you gonna do? So I keep fuckin' up. Big deal. I try not to, but I know it's gonna happen again. I seems to be part of the deal. Live and learn--I guess that's the syndrome that's the opposite of 'Fuckin' Up.' 'Why do I keep fuckin' up? Live and learn.' But that wouldn't make a very good song! That's one for the reject list. 'Fuckin' Up' is a groove. It's a good song with the Horse playin' it."
A drive down the idyllic Broken Arrow Ranch in Young's 1950 Plymouth Deluxe further skews the Young-as-tortured-artist myth. Pointing out the hills that Zeke now navigates in his own Jeep Cherokee, a spectacular ocean view, and even the barn where the charred chords of Ragged Glory were captured on tape, Young couldn't seem happier. "It's great to be where I am, he says. "It's a beautiful thing. But you know what they say about too much of a good thing. So it's hard to say about that tortured artist thing."
Closing in on the barn, Young addresses his preparations for this year's Bridge concert, specif- ically the rehearsal about to begin inside. For over five years now, the annual series has continually united figureheads of rock's upper crust to raise funds for the Bridge School, with volunteers ranging from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello. True to his mercurial nature, Young has reassembled the Stray Gators--best known as the band accom- panying him on his most popular record, 1972's Harvest--for the 1991 Bridge show, with a record to follow.
"Yeah, this time I'm playing with the Stray Gators, he says. "I played it with Crazy Horse last year and it was great. But I have different songs and a different approach this year. It's more suited to the Stray Gators. They haven't played together in 20 years, so I put them together. It has a great feel; it's what I want to do--very easygoing and relaxed, very quiet. But it has a certain intensity to it. So, we've been making more tapes and we'll put out an album pretty soon, but that's still in progress.
"After doing something like Arc/Weld," Young continues, "you either stop or you change com- pletely, because you can't continue it. I gotta do something. I want to play music, but I actually couldn't do any more of that. I'd burned out on it, took so much I had to get away and wait for it to come back. Really, I was just burned to the max. So I do something completely different, completely disassociate myself from it, just do natural things. What you want is to get away to the quiet, to things that are so small and quiet, but when you get in on 'em, they're huge. It's like under a magnifying glass, instead of something so big that it blows the walls off. It's the opposite. I've gone to that extreme now. It's natural. It's a natural progression. It's comfortable for me; I enjoy working like that."
As for the future, Young offers, "I don't know what I'm gonna do next. Next winter, it'll have been a year since I toured with the Horse. I think I'm gonna go out by myself. I'm not going to go out with the rack or doing my Freedom stuff. I'm gonna go out and sit down in a chair with a circle of acoustic instruments--play some shows like that just to get back in touch with myself. I've got several songs waiting. So I can play all of them. Those are all things no one's heard before."
It is this refusal of stasis--physical and artistic-- that keeps Neil Young so intensely contemporary. Where his would-be peers come off as bloated relics ready for Vegas/Tahoe/Trump City, Young continually holds his own, whether alongside Bob Dylan or Thurston Moore. "Well y'know, I really don't think Iive kept up," he counters. "I've kinda kept on. Kept on doing. I generally wasn't able to do anything other than what I wanted to do. That's kinda my governing thing in my music. If I feel like doing it, I'll do it. Then it'll be OK. Whatever it is, I've always felt that way. Over the years I've made some unacceptable records for one reason or another, commercially. But there were records I wanted to make that I knew weren't going to sell a lot--but I don't care. I've already sold a lot of records. And I'm not saying that I don't want to sell more records. It's great to sell records. But it's an accident. It should be an accident. For me it should be whenever things line up right then, bang! There it is. OK, there's one everybody likes. But the main thing is that I just keep on doing what I want to do. That's why it's different all the time. Although, there's nothing different about Weld--it's a completely straight-arrow-right-down-the-middle- of-the-road record. There's no ground breaking going on, except in actual energy."
And on other artists' lack of said energy, moreover, their inability to either "keep up" or "keep on?" "It's not their thing to do that," Young answers diplomatically. "It's not natural for them to do that. For me, it's natural to do this, so I'm doing it. But, for instance, you take a great artist like Van Morrison--now there's a genius. Great, great artist. Completely unrecognized for how great he really is, even as much as people know him. Here's a guy whose music is gonna last a long, long time. And it isn't that much different now than it was when he started. But it's just him. And me is what I do; I'm affected by what goes on around me to a great degree. I can be swayed one way or another. Whenever I'm doing something, I'm so into it that I won't do anything else. I'm very extreme. So I think if you just do what you believe in and keep being true to yourself and what you really wanna do, then everything's gonna be fine. You'll be able to keep on doing it. No matter what it is--building houses or whatever.
"We're real proud of what we've done with Arc/Weld as far as just the band goes. Together we did this. This is why Crazy Horse is Crazy Horse. If you don't like it, fine. If you do like it, you're gonna love it. It feels real good to have that record out there now, done Here we are with a product that there's no huge demand for, but it's a special one 'cause we put a lot into it--none of this trying to live up to the old recorded version of the songs. That's already been done. So we did the songs and we did a real good version on Weld of every one of them. Really good, in a lot of cases, I think, better than the originals, as far as just pounding.... And I don't say that to brag. I just say it 'cause I feel it. I feel, hey, we nailed a lot of stuff. And the rest of the band feels the same way. It's a real primitive thing and we nailed it and got it on record, which is very difficult to do. You can't overdub this shit. If you get it right, you get it."
With Arc/Weld out, new material with the Stray Gators in the of fing, and the archival series' proposed releases of the long-sought-after material such as the Japanese/Australian-only Eldorado EP, the exclusive=A3=AB=D0Times Squ= are sessions and more, Neil Young is coming full cirde once again. And if critics point out that doing so involves the extensive rerelease of material, as with Arc/Weld, Young could hardly care less. "Well, you don't need a critic to tell you that," he laughs. "This is made for the people who like us. That's why we made it. It's for us and them. If there's more of them or less of them than there was before, then that's another ball of wax. That doesn't have anything to do with it. Why should people who really like it not get it because the people who don't like it don't want it? That doesn't make any sense. So, I just do it for us. I feel good about it. There's a couple songs we didn't include for one reason or another--I can't think of what they are right now--that we left out. But they weren't ones we performed every night. They were the ones we performed once or twice, then they were on the final edit list, and then we got rid of 'em. I just wanted to make the record good. Obviously, if you don't dig this, there's no reason to listen to it, 'cause it's just a bunch of trash and noise. But it's good, y'know?"
A final, intimate tour of the area around the train set reveals a lake stocked with live fish (Young is elated at the sight of his white catfish, long thought to have gone the way of the Shocking Pinks), the moss and mulch handiwork of David Briggs, a purple quartz geode donated by manager Elliot Roberts, miniature billboards and coal mines, and several new views afforded by the waning sunlight of the later day.
"I collect clumps of moss from all over this place," Young says. "You'll probably see some on the road on your way out. David Briggs did this part over here. He's a producer [who] worked on some of my best records--my favorites, anyway. See those rocks there? My little girl brought 'em back from Lake Tahoe. My kids collect rocks and stuff for me all the time.
"They think I'm crazy," Young says about people's reactions to his Brobdingnagian train set. "Everybody thinks I'm crazy. Maybe they're right, but I have fun."
Steve Martin, former Agnostic Front guitarist, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Spin, Thrasher and various other music publications.