Artwork by Steven Fiche
FACES is Consequence of Sound’s new quarterly literary magazine. Each volume will focus on an artist whose scope of creativity and cultural impact defies simple categorization. Through a blend of original artwork and a variety of writings, we hope to both shed light upon and celebrate the artists who continually inspire us to put pen to paper.
The music industry—journalists, like us, included—is fond of creating labels and categories. Little, odd-shaped boxes into which we can cram artists, sounds, and emotions in order to better tell you what we think or feel about music—admittedly, not the easiest task. In the essay collection 31 Songs, novelist and critic Nick Hornby comically explains the frustration when words prove an inadequate tool for expressing the more numinous qualities found in music: “As a writer, I don’t normally have much patience for the ineffable – I ought to think that everything’s effing effable, otherwise what’s the point?” So, our solution as an industry is to cheat, just a little. To try and make the ineffable slightly more effing effable.
Consequently, Neil Young is the type of artist who comes along and leaves us looking lazy and foolish. I mean, which box do you tick when describing him? Folkie or “Godfather of Grunge”? Solo artist or band member? American or Canadian? Friend of the planet or friend of the small farmer? Philanthropist or savior of high-quality recorded sound? You can check “all of the above” and eat up your entire column space in the process, or, like us, you can humbly select small slivers of Young’s career that have intrigued you the most.
We ended up finding several more boxes in the process. Henry Hauser’s “& Young” explores Young as an outsider and afterthought while a member of Buffalo Springfield and CSNY. “Neil, Transformer Man”, by Zach Schonfeld, identifies the frustration of a loving father at the core of Young’s most maligned album. Michael Madden’s essay, “Not So Out of the Blue”, takes a look at the varied role politics has played throughout Young’s career.
In the spirit of his Shelf Life column, Ryan Bray’s “A Look in the Mirror Ball” traces the impact of Young’s influence on both the grunge boom and his own musical upbringing. My own essay, “Old Man, Look at Your Life”, muses about what Young’s 21st century work might tell us about aging as an artist. Dan Caffrey’s short play, “A Seed”, loosely based on the lyrics of “After the Gold Rush”, demonstrates how art often begets more art. And all of these pieces are strung together beautifully by the creative artwork of Steven Fiche.
These are the boxes we ticked. There are plenty more out there, which means that Mr. Young will keep us all busy for a long time to come. In the meantime, we happily present a few of the many faces of Neil Young.
Table of Contents:
— “& Young”, an essay by Henry Hauser
— “Neil, Transformer Man”, an essay by Zach Schonfeld
— “Not So Out of the Blue”, an essay by Michael Madden
— “A Look in the Mirror Ball”, an essay by Ryan Bray
— “Old Man, Look at Your Life”, an essay by Matt Melis
— “A Seed”, a short play by Dan Caffrey
— All original artwork by Steven Fiche
By Henry Hauser
Artwork by Steven Fiche
Before the age of 25, Neil Young had already presided over the collapse of two now legendary bands: Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Despite the power plays, drug busts, and megalomaniac meltdowns that destroyed both groups, Young and his erstwhile bandmates crafted some of the most penetrating and iconic tunes of the late ‘60s. Toxic chemistry notwithstanding, these bands also provided Young with important vehicles through which to experiment and grow as a songwriter. From Buffalo Springfield’s debut single, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”, to “Ohio”, Young’s last contribution to CSNY before the quartet dissolved in ‘70, Young leveraged the diverse talents of his collaborators to fashion fuller, more elaborate songs. Young’s early releases anticipate a wide range of his subsequent solo work, especially when it comes to surreal lyrics and tightly interwoven guitar riffs.
Though five Neil Young tracks appear on Buffalo Springfield’s eponymous debut, he only sang lead on two: “Burned” and “Out of My Mind”. The other three were sung by Richie Furay, whose resounding voice infused these tracks with a rich, lush vibe. All five sound spectacular on the LP, but Young felt slighted by the outsourcing of his tunes. This stubborn stance on creative control has always been a major facet of his personality, and his time with Buffalo Springfield was no exception.
Young’s Buffalo Springfield tracks cover an array of deeply personal topics, from his efforts to understand women (“Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It”) to nostalgia (“Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”), drugs (“Burned”), and the shackles of fame (“Out of My Mind”). “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”, speckled with teardrop guitar flourishes, has Young poetically capturing the impossibility of healing a shattered heart: “City lights at a country fair/ Never shine but always glare/ If I’m bright enough to see you/ You’re just too dark to care.” And “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Sing” is infectious and timeless; meandering electric guitars and Young’s faint harmonica provide a silky smooth segue between chorus and verse.
On self-referential ballad “Out of My Mind”, he presents the dark side of celebrity. Set to a wilting, quivering guitar, Young confesses that the demands of stardom obscure his senses and threaten his sanity: “All I hear are screams from outside the limousines.” Jaunty rocker “Burned”, also drawn from the songwriter’s personal experience, illustrates the chilling duplicity of narcotics addiction by juxtaposing hopeless, bewildered lyrics against peppy instrumentation. Backed by a rickety piano and raucous strumming, Young harmonizes with Stills and Furay to decry the devastating lows of withdrawal (“I’ve learned that it’s painful comin’ down”).
Buffalo Springfield Again saw Young distancing himself from his peers. Of his three songs on the album, only “Mr. Soul” was recorded with the rest of the group. Both “Expecting to Fly” and trippy mind-bender “Broken Arrow” were originally written as solo tracks and recorded apart from the band. Unlike his more collaborative approach on Buffalo Springfield, this time around Young insisted that he sing lead vocal on all of his tracks.
“Mr. Soul”, an uptempo number that Young claims “took only five minutes to write,” describes the relationship between artist and fan. Backed by melodic, layered guitar lines, Young explores the impact of his songs on impressionable listeners: “I was raised by the praise of a fan/ Who said I upset her.” Contemplating whether the disquieting effect is a boon or a burden atop Stills’ distorted grooves, the singer ponders: “Is it strange?/ I should change?”
Psychedelic folk saga “Broken Arrow” is a schizophrenic cacophony of sound. There’s a piano, stand-up bass, jazzy clarinet, organ, military snare drum, guitars, audience applause from a Beatles concert, a bizarre calliope rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and the beating of a human heart. In this lengthy cut, Young references his own recent history with Buffalo Springfield, weighing the psychological costs of stardom (“They stood at the stage door and begged for a scream”) against its material benefits (“The agents had paid for the black limousine”). Orchestral pop number “Expecting to Fly”, arranged by producer Jack Nietzche, ushers in a lavish, luxuriant mood with bittersweet strings that stretch over buoyant horns and a crisp rhythm guitar.
Buffalo Springfield’s third and last album, Last Time Around, was essentially an afterthought. Bassist Bruce Palmer’s second deportation for drug possession, along with awful band chemistry and an increasingly absent Young, signaled impending collapse. To satisfy its contractual obligations, the band released an album of previously penned cuts that they had recorded without much participation from Young. Though serene, wistful swansong “I Am a Child” was a clear highlight, Young was distant and hostile toward his bandmates. The atmosphere was so tense that the Canadian singer-songwriter refused to pose for the album cover; his image was superimposed on a stock photo of the other four members. Young and Stills divorced on sour terms, presumptively never to work together again. That is, until Atlantic Records kingmaker Ahmet Ertegün chimed in.
The trio of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash was flying high after snagging the ‘69 Grammy for Best New Artist. Crosby had landed a great new gig following his dismissal from The Byrds, Stills emerged from the wreckage of Buffalo Springfield a bigger star than ever, and Nash was finally out of the shadow of The Hollies’ frontman Tony Hicks. But instead of allowing the supergroup to enjoy their newfound independence, Ertegün convinced them that what they really needed was another songwriter: Neil Young. After some initial resistance, Stills and Nash begrudgingly acquiesced.
Right from the get-go, CSNY was a volatile concoction. The four musicians fought constantly, bickering and wrestling for control. Stills blasted Young for wanting to “play folk music in a rock band,” and Young countered by skipping a slew of studio sessions. The recording process dragged on and on, with the band supposedly logging over 800 hours in the studio while recording Déjà Vu.
Fortunately, the results were extraordinary. Every track is tight and meaningful; the contributions of all four members can be plainly felt. “Helpless” pairs surreal imagery (“Big birds flying across the sky/ Throwing shadows on our eyes”) with soothing harmonies and a plaintive piano. In this wistful ballad, Young evokes the sensation of time slowly receding into history. He reminds us that whatever comforts we may find in our adult lives, nothing can compare to the nourishing shelter of childhood. Once we’ve relinquished that idyllic state of mind, we can never reclaim it. All we can do is gasp at thinning strands of memory. Singing in a lachrymal, quivering timbre, he whispers, “And in my mind/ I still need a place to go.”
Young’s biggest hit with CNSY was folk protest ditty “Ohio”. Inspired by the Kent State massacre and played as a menacing military march, the topical track decries the death of four innocent students at the hands of the Ohio National Guard. Warning of imminent bloodshed (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming”), the singer howls in righteous rage. After Stills and Young unleash a wave of scalding electric guitar licks, the quartet harmonizes beautifully during the wounded, somber chorus.
While working with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, Neil Young grew tremendously as a songwriter. In addition to exploring a range of intimately personal issues, including celebrity, addiction, betrayal, and lost innocence, he experimented with surrealist lyrics (“Helpless”), trippy effects (“Broken Arrows”), and melodically interwoven guitar lines (“Ohio”) that would underpin his subsequent solo work. Though neither Buffalo Springfield nor CSNY lasted more than three years before disbanding, both are among the most influential rock bands of all time thanks in no small part to Mr. Young. Short-lived, about as sweet as parsley, but indisputably important.
Neil, Transformer Man
By Zach Schonfeld
Artwork by Steven Fiche
“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things that I didn’t understand—for getting involved in something that I shouldn’t have been involved in. Well, fuck them.”
—Neil Young, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (2003)
“Sometimes in a bar, you will hear someone try to defend Neil Young’s Eighties albums. This is technically known as a ‘desperate cry for help.’”
—Rob Sheffield, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004)
A process server arrived at Neil Young’s door in early November 1983. It was several days shy of the artist’s birthday and he was visiting on behalf of Geffen Records, but he wasn’t there to deliver royalties. That’s not how royalties are delivered, and that’s not what process servers do. He was there to serve Neil Young with a $3.3 million lawsuit, and in that moment, Neil Young became the first artist ever to be sued for not sounding enough like himself.
Filed by Geffen, which had signed Young less than two years prior, the lawsuit accused the artist of having produced albums deemed “not ‘commercial’ and … musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” His most recent flop had been Everybody’s Rockin’, a goofy-eyed 25-minute jaunt through the rockabilly ’50s. But the conflict really stemmed from a series of misadventures set in motion by Trans, the artist’s intensely bewildering excursion into Vocoder-voiced electronica, which then proved to be his most alienating release to date — literally. By that, I mean it sounded to most listeners as if Neil Young had replaced himself and his backing band with a small army of Martians, beaming his tunes down to Earth by way of some cosmic transmitter he had probably concocted on his California ranch, knowing him. Certainly that was what the campy, sci-fi album cover seemed to suggest.
No one at Geffen — or elsewhere, for that matter — could have known that Trans, in all its neon-tinted, spacey fancy, was an intensely heartfelt project for Young, one that he would later describe as “an expression of something deeply personal.”
How could they have? In the first of many strategic miscalculations, Young kept it all a secret.
* * *
Here’s how I discovered Trans: I couldn’t find it.
Thumbing through my father’s sizable collection of Neil Young vinyl as a teenager, I somehow noticed that Trans was missing. Pretty much everything else up to and including 1987’s Life was there and accounted for, as I recalled in a 2011 essay, even the forgotten Time Fades Away LP and the Journey Through the Past soundtrack, out-of-print rarities that have never been issued on CD and are more likely to be spotted in Graham Nash’s attic than at Amoeba Records. So, why not Trans? If not for my Musichound Essential Album Guide book, I probably wouldn’t have even known that Neil Young had released anything in 1982.
But he did, and as soon as I read some review or another referring to it, dismissively enough, as “Neil Young’s techno album,” I knew I’d end up tracking it down.
So, I hunted it down. I found it used on Amazon, a dog-eared vinyl copy shipped from God knows where, and I was immediately charmed by the album’s geeky song titles, which read like Prince-speak poisoned by some digital totalitarian nightmare, as well as its eerie, synthetic veneer, which is never quite thick enough to obscure Young’s trademark melodicism. I was confused, probably, by the presence of three tracks that didn’t trade in Kraftwerk rhythms and bleepy textures, but maybe I didn’t mind the respite from the Sennheiser Vocoder VSM201 that otherwise swallowed up Young’s vocals whole.
I didn’t, at any rate, know about the son who had been unable to communicate verbally with Young because he had been born with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia, and so I didn’t know about the 15 hours a day Young and his wife Pegi spent in therapy programs, grueling work that would first channel into the pounding, repetitive crunch of 1981’s Re-ac-tor. I didn’t know that the synclavier and vocoder that subsume the record were meant to signify Ben Young’s inability to vocalize in ways comprehensible to those surrounding him 24 hours a day, and I didn’t read between the lines of songs like “Transformer Man”, in which alien-voiced Young bemoans that there are “so many things still left to do/ But we haven’t made it yet.” Nor did I know about the music video Young envisioned for the record, which, in Young’s words, would depict “a lot of scientists and doctors trying to unlock the secrets of a little being who had so much to say and no way to say it.” That video was never made.
I didn’t, in other words, realize that Trans was a concept album about messages lost in translation whose message had been lost in translation.
Not that its themes were entirely without precedent. Like so much of Shakey’s best songwriting, it concerns itself with a break in communication — but this time not with a love interest (“Will to Love”) or a dead junkie friend (“The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Tired Eyes”) or a shallow, posturing celebrity culture (“On the Beach”). It’s a failure to communicate, in the most literal of ways, with one’s young son, which somehow makes it all the more personal and all the more devastating. “That’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is,” Young would later explain to Mojo. “Well, that’s the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”
Except, of course, that the message was lost on pretty much everyone who heard it in 1982. That’s probably because the record was drowned by its own obsessions, an LP about miscommunication that happened to be garbled and choked on the way to its audience. Young used every instrumental tool at his disposal to channel disconnection to his listeners, and in 1982, those instrumental tools had become all too heady for a popular audience that had been weaned on the pastoral tones of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the even-footed country-folk of Harvest, an audience that thought Kraftwerk was a type of salami, not a musical outfit of any consequence. Too heady, too much, too soon.
That the artist responded to calls for a rock ‘n’ roll record in the most caustic and sneering possible manner — by throwing together a jokey ’50s-rock outing — did little to improve the glass wall that had emerged between Young, his audience, and his increasingly impatient record label.
But it made for a thrilling contrast. Everybody’s Rockin’, for all its grinning, old-timey spirit, turned out to sound a hell of a lot colder than the LP that was designed to sound like a bubble bath with robots. Trans, by comparison, was a disarmingly honest, if excessively weird, statement. Ignored by thousands and despised by many others, it contains some of the most unusual, inventive, and even catchy material of Young’s career.
* * *
So, here’s the thing. Neil Young was sued — made a “Prisoner of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, as he would joke on 1987’s Life LP — for making music deemed “not commercial and … musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” But it wasn’t. Well, sure, it was uncommercial. Of course it was. Synthpop hadn’t yet broken through to the mainstream, and even if it had, Young hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was supposed to sound like, a fact that gives Trans its distant, alien edge. But it wasn’t unrepresentative of the impulsive, follow-every-rabbit-hole spirit that had characterized the artist’s tireless and careening muse since well before 1980. Consider the ditch trilogy (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night) or the odd country excursion (Comes a Time).
All of which is to say, Trans wasn’t “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings,” not really, not unless you focus only on the bewildering sonic properties that overwhelm the songs, which is a preposterous distinction to make because of course you are going to focus on the bewildering sonic properties that overwhelm the songs; that was all anyone focused on in 1983, how could it not be, who the hell am I to suggest otherwise?
Look: Imagine you are the process server guy made to serve papers to Neil Young in 1983, the hapless nobody tasked with rapping on a Real Live Rock Star’s door and meekly informing him that he is in trouble — label trouble and maybe also legal trouble — because his records are getting too freaky. Imagine being that guy. He must have known who he was speaking to, what sort of bewildering message he was delivering. How do you do that? Did he prepare for this meeting, rehearsing his lines in front of a mirror? Did he take a mental inventory of the look on Neil Young’s face, the artist slack-jawed, waving a joint, let’s imagine, smoke curling in circles around his flannel shirt, and did he carry it with him for three decades so that someday he might relate it to his grandchildren? “I was the one,” he might boast, “who put Neil Young under arrest” — come on, you have to exaggerate when you are talking to children — “for not sounding enough like Neil Young.”
Now imagine that the case wasn’t settled and here we are in court and I am the defense attorney. I am the one who goes before the judge and endeavors to defend Trans — not Everybody’s Rockin’, only Trans — against charges of uncommercial villainy and treason or whatever. I don’t have to prove that it is perfect, because of course it’s flawed; it’s a messy and confusing record, but that never was the impetus for the lawsuit. I just have to prove that it isn’t altogether uncharacteristic of Young’s career, that beneath the alien-voiced specter lies genuine melodicism and heart, that some of its songs might even contain traces of what might modestly be called commercial potential.
Anyway, that’s sort of what this essay is. So, here we are. The defense rests his case.
Not So Out of the Blue
By Michael Madden
Artwork by Steven Fiche
The day before Neil Young released his George W. Bush-bashing “Let’s Impeach the President” in 2006, Fox News leaked the lyrics. Here is a quick refresher: “Let’s impeach the president for lyin’,” “Let’s impeach the president for spyin’.” Et cetera.
Between the pundits of the newly minted blogosphere and the slit-eyed, heavily Texas-accented impersonations, Bush and his administration were criticized in ways old and new during both terms. Direct though it was, Young’s song cut deeper than much of the vitriol. The spying part lingers pungently today in light of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing, while the sarcastic final verse, which references Bush’s supposedly hypocritical cracking down on steroids in baseball, was a sneering closing argument. Young, leaning left as usual, commanded attention and got it. Given his lifelong vocation, it hasn’t always been so simple.
Growing up in Ontario, the first politician Young was familiar with (unless he started thinking about these things at an unbelievably young age) was Louis St. Laurent, the late-blooming liberal sworn in as the 12th Prime Minister of Canada in 1948. By 1963, when a passionate progressive conservative from Ontario named John Diefenbaker unseated St. Laurent, Young was just getting familiar with a referee of sorts named Bob Dylan. Still, after Dylan showed us another side of his songwriting and fled the political spotlight, it was with great ambition that Young embarked for L.A. with a few friends (including Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer), a valiant quantity of weed, and plans to stay. It was 1966.
Four years later, Young wrote Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s churning “Ohio” after seeing TIME‘s photos of the May 1970 Kent State massacre, in which the Ohio National Guard prematurely opened fire on a gathering of 500 or so students protesting Richard Nixon’s military incursion into Cambodia. Four dead, nine injured. “Ohio” was a veritable counterculture anthem, however foreign the concept seems today. Given the First Amendment-celebrating spirit of the times, though – whether it’s reflected in Mario Savio’s mesmerizing howling at UC Berkeley or, more symbolically, in Jimi Hendrix’s soulsonic rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – perhaps it’s surprising Young hadn’t already spoken up about one atrocity or another.
Or maybe not. In his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, Young wrote that, even in light of “Ohio”‘s success, he felt too many had written him off as some naïve kid. Earlier this month, with the death of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, we were reminded that Dylan’s 1975 “Hurricane” spurred the process of the middleweight boxer’s eventual release after nearly 20 years behind bars for his alleged involvement in a 1966 triple murder. But when “Ohio” was released, five years before Dylan’s eight-and-a-half-minute strummer, the condescending view of rock as mere youth culture could still thwart such an initiative.
Things would be different for Young two decades later, when he was halfway through his 40s, the father of two children with cerebral palsy and another with epilepsy. In 1989, after Ronald Reagan left office and George H. W. Bush began his single term, Young released Freedom, which included two versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World”. His own freedom, however you define the term, wasn’t something he took for granted. Compared to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” five years earlier, “Rockin’ in the Free World” is less easily misconstrued, even though it’s not exactly straight-up – the “thousand points of light” verse, inspired by a phrase in the elder Bush’s inaugural address, indeed satirizes right-wing tendencies.
After 2005’s elegant, humble Prairie Wind – the calm before the storm – Young recorded Living with War, still his most political album by far. It was the year following the death of Hunter S. Thompson, a different sort of righteously embittered rock star, and Young’s own exclamations about the Iraq War were welcomed. On the album’s third-to-last song, “Lookin’ for a Leader”, Young named Illinois senator Barack Obama as a possible POTUS. Well, we know how that turned out. By 2012, though, with roughly 2,000 American troops killed in Afghanistan alone since 9/11, Young had a different stance on war. As he told NPR’s Fresh Air in June of that year:
War to one person may mean a justified thing that’s happening for a very good reason, and another person may think that’s a terrible thing and never should have happened. And another person will be thinking that he lost his sister or his brother or his mother in the war, and it was a waste of time. And another person could be thinking the exact opposite: that his brother went to war and gave his life for our country. So, you can’t really have an opinion, although I have opinions, and I’ve had them, and I’ve made very loud statements about things.
Young has been outspoken just these last few months about Canada’s controversial oil sands (petroleum deposits increasing greenhouse gas emissions, among other effects), but generally, he hasn’t been so tenacious of late. True, he’ll always claim certain environmental concerns. 2009’s Fork in the Road highlighted his vision for LincVolt, the 1959 Lincoln Continental with which he aimed “to inspire a generation by creating a clean automobile propulsion technology that serves the needs of the 21st Century and delivers performance that is a reflection of the driver’s spirit.” That was all passion, and he continues to drive LincVolt today. Fast-forward to Waging Heavy Peace, though, and he spends an underwhelming number of pages talking about his politics. Of course, that can be such a calculated move itself. If he has more to say, he’ll make sure we hear him.
A Look in the Mirror Ball
By Ryan Bray
Artwork by Steven Fiche
We all bring our own baggage to the music we listen to. For instance, Neil Young has a catalog of iconic songs that stretch back almost five decades, but my own personal history with the singer began with Mirror Ball.
Actually, if we’re being technical about it (and let’s be), I first became aware of Neil Young in the fall of 1993. I raced home from Pop Warner football practice on a warm September night to catch what was left of the MTV Video Music Awards, and as was my luck, Pearl Jam was just being introduced to the stage. In an era where the world seemingly forced us to choose between Nirvana and Pearl Jam, I leaned more on Nirvana. Still, that’s not to say that “Jeremy” and “Alive” had any less impact on my impressionable, young musical mind. But little did I know that the band’s performance that night was going to be much less about Pearl Jam than the special guest joining them onstage.
I didn’t recognize the song or the older guy with the sideburns who was trading verses with Eddie Vedder, but I was intrigued with how this guy, some 20 years Pearl Jam’s senior, still managed to more than hold his own with the hottest band in the land. So, there you have it. My skewed chronology of Young’s career begins with the raucous guitar thrash of “Rockin’ in the Free World”, even if Young’s “Godfather of Grunge” phase came more or less at the midway point of his career. “Old Man”, “Heart of Gold”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, and all of Young’s other hallmark chestnuts would come to me in due time, but my first and lasting impression of Neil Young is that of the cranky guitar wizard, not the confessional folk-rock songsmith.
Fast-forward roughly a year and a half later, and the seeds of Young’s VMA collaboration with Pearl Jam had blossomed to give fruit to a proper studio record. Mirror Ball, released in 1995, bottled up the kinetic energy between Young and the band in the form of 11 hearty blasts of grunge goodness. The record, which was recorded in (where else?) Seattle, was banged out in a brisk two weeks with the same kind of raw immediacy that colored and defined the songs.
Young’s directive at the outset of album opener “Song X” to start things up with “no tuning, nothing” more or less defines the spirit of Mirror Ball. It’s a wonderfully unpolished exercise in primal efficiency, and Young and Pearl Jam knock out the tunes in short order as if they can’t wait to break free of the studio’s stuffy confines. Considering how Young had long been running for years with one of the world’s best backing bands in Crazy Horse, it’s kind of amazing that an album like Mirror Ball even happened to begin with. Why even bother with Pearl Jam or anyone else for that matter? But anyone familiar with Neil Young’s creative process knows that the question is less why and more why not? Young didn’t need to work with Pearl Jam; he wanted to. As with everything else Young has done throughout his career, that desire to do something wins out over all other considerations, and more often than not, including in Mirror Ball‘s case, sticking to his instincts works out.
Mirror Ball might be Young’s most honest stab at an all-out grunge record, with Freedom coming a close second. But Young’s penchant for raunchy guitar rock and hefty solos long predated both records. As early as 1975, Young was cutting loose with a crude-yet-mesmerizing guitar style that would go on to influence future generations of axemen. Zuma lets the guitar fuzz fly in a way his classic rock peers never really bothered to challenge. Songs like “Danger Bird”, “Drive Back”, and sprawling epic “Cortez the Killer” elevate the solo to an art form in and of itself. Young saw the value of a cranky guitar solo as a driving musical force in a way few others before him ever considered. For Young, it’s not a cheap effect or diversion, but rather every bit as integral to many of his songs as bass, drums, and anything else that’s in play. And at the end of the day, what is (or was) grunge other than a celebration of all the wild, ugly, and wonderful things you can do with a guitar? Young continues to indulge in idiosyncratic guitar fits when the mood strikes him, most recently on the Daniel Lanois-produced solo exercise Le Noise.
But Young’s grunge legacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When alternative rock dropped its bags and settled into the mainstream in the early ’90s, you had to fight off the bands who picked up on Young’s snarling guitar cues with a stick. Some, like Sonic Youth, took Young’s idea of guitar freedom to its furthest and most experimental extremes, while others, like Dinosaur Jr., welded squealing guitar solos into a denser, sludge punk formula. J. Mascis, a freakish guitar wunderkind in his own right, is perhaps Generation X’s heir apparent to Young’s long-standing guitar hero crown, coloring the best moments of classic Dinosaur Jr. records like You’re Living All Over Me and Bug with messy but virtuosic touches of guitar mastery. The band’s music streamlined a bit after Lou Barlow and Murph split, but the reunion of the original trio, now almost 10 years running, has brought the band back full circle to its fuzzy guitar rock glory.
Any discussion of Young’s guitar influence also would be incomplete without some acknowledgement of Built to Spill. Doug Martsch is a guy who knows a thing or two about sonic sprawl, and he’s never been afraid to take the band’s music out for long improvisational walks. More directly, the band’s cover of “Cortez the Killer” has been a welcome set staple in Built to Spill’s live show for years. More recently, Brooklyn’s The Men have grown in leaps and bounds since their origins as a fiery bar punk act. Records like Leave Home and Open Your Heart blitzed listeners eardrums while still keeping an open ear to melody, but more recent entries, such as 2013’s New Moon and this year’s Tomorrow’s Hits, continue to move in a more country and power pop-infused direction, with tasty nods to The Replacements, Big Star, and, yup, Neil Young.
But the most amazing thing about Young’s career is this: For as much as we’ve talked about his role as a proto-grunge visionary, it’s all but a sliver of his overarching influence. My eyes are glazing over having only digested his influence on grunge, but Young’s willingness to do anything, to see ahead of the curve, has allowed him to stake out new territory wherever his instincts take him, and his legions of followers are virtually limitless. Still, I’m just happy he took the time to show the way to countless bands who helped shape my musical upbringing.