I can’t begin to describe the feeling of ecstasy that arises whenever the blonde part of my brain manages to work its way through the cotton candy and realizes what was already obvious in the first place.
Since I began my American boycott, I’ve been editing my lengthy Excel workbook of review possibilities, cutting the yanks from the active roster and pasting them in a separate spreadsheet labeled “DISABLED LIST.” I will admit that cutting and pasting Elmore James, Fugazi, The Replacements, Lou Reed, John Coltrane and (sniff) Thelonious Monk into oblivion was heart-wrenching but absolutely necessary for my mental and emotional health.
I can’t begin to describe the feeling of ecstasy that arises when I get through a whole day without encountering a single media reference to Donald Trump, Evangelical Christians and The Republican Party.
The sense of loss has been more than mitigated by the doors opened through the act of excluding artists from The Evil Empire. The possibilities are endless! I’ve felt like a pervert in a leather shop–wait—I am a pervert who hangs out in leather shops—fuck it, I’ll just use the cliché—a kid in a candy store, bouncing around between British blues, Malian kora music, French alternative, Brazilian jazz, calypso-influenced soul and several other styles and sub-genres.
I finally forced myself to stop pussying around and commit to a schedule, and chose Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns to kick things off. I always start a review by researching the era and re-familiarizing myself with the artist’s history, and during my labors I happened upon a piece covering Joni’s early career. I was struck by one passage where the author described how Joni used to share songs with another budding songwriter by the name of Neil Young.
The blonde part of the brain felt a twinge. Neil Young. Something about Neil Young. What was it?
I thought about his work with Buffalo Springfield. I always liked his songs the best. No, that wasn’t it. Then he did the thing with Crazy Horse, then there was After The Gold Rush . . . the “ditch” albums. I liked the edginess of those records. Too bad I had to put old Neil and all those albums I intended to review on the disabled list but OH MY FUCKING GOD YOU’RE SUCH AN IDIOT! NEIL YOUNG ISN’T AMERICAN! NEIL YOUNG IS CANADIAN! CANADIAN! OH, THE ECSTASY! YES! YES! I FEEL LIKE A SONG!
Needless to say, I’ve re-edited my list and rescued Neil Young from altrockchick oblivion. Mes excuses. Joni will have to wait a week or two.
The story behind Neil Young’s second album is pretty well-known, but I’ll summarize it quickly. The three most prominent songs were written while Neil was suffering from a 103 °F (39.5 °C) fever. The album was recorded in two weeks with a backing band originally called The Rockets who thought the gig was a temp job, and that after the tour they would go their merry way. They had obviously never encountered an artistic force with the intensity of Neil Young, and soon found themselves absorbed into his gravitational pull, rebranded as Crazy Horse.
I don’t know whether it was the fever, the less than stellar first solo effort or the fear of permanent banishment to fourth place behind Crosby, Stills and Nash, but there’s a sense of urgency about Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, as if Neil had to get the music out before it vanished or was co-opted into something out of his control. And while many works emanating from that motivation turn out to be stinkers, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere remains a highly influential and engaging listening experience almost fifty years after its release. The album is not without its flaws, some more serious than others, but it certainly managed to establish Neil Young as an artist with exceptional potential.
You’re drawn in immediately by one of the most compelling riffs ever composed, the guitar duet in double-drop D tuning punctuated by hand claps and a pounding snare that introduces “Cinnamon Girl.” There are dozens of sites devoted to teaching the home-schooled guitar player how to pull off a solo version; my favorite is from David Hodge at Guitar Noise, who patiently takes you through the first guitar part (the high strings), then comments, “Right away, you begin to see both the fun and the problems. First, this riff definitely sounds like ‘Cinnamon Girl.’ And yet, it’s not totally spot on.” He then reveals that the original version features two guitarists, and gives you some friendly advice on how to deal with any snobs in the crowd who might dis your solo attempt: “No one who knows ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is going to not know what you’re playing. If anyone does give you grief, you can always say, ‘This is how Neil played it at a private invitation-only acoustic show he did in Williamstown in 1973’ and see what happens.” Even if you’re not a guitarist, the riff is intensely alluring, stimulating body and soul in a way that firmly holds your attention.
The double-drop D tuning isn’t just a clever gimmick but the compositional foundation of the piece. Stripped away of the happy accidental chords you get from alternative tunings, the core of the song is a simple drone in D. When you get to the surprisingly melodic first verse, the chords are pretty simple (D-Am-C-G) but if you’re playing in standard tuning you have to remember add the D note to the Am and C to get the right sound and keep the drone alive. The bridge sounds like a break in the action, but the D note centering still holds all the way through the bridge until the final Am7. That tiny moment where we lose the D sets up a tension, a hunger for resolution—and the insistence on the continuity of the drone truly bears fruit when the first solo begins and Neil firmly plants his finger on the D note and picks away while the band carries the chord pattern and hints of the melody. It’s a brilliant move that gives me the shivers whenever I hear it.
Wanna improve your compositional skills? Catch something that will give you a 103 ° fever. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.
“Cinnamon Girl” is largely a lyrical poem, so there isn’t much in the way of narrative: the imagery is what counts. We should be very thankful that Neil altered the fever-induced original opening line, “I wish to marry a cinnamon girl,” a turn towards tradition that was out-of-sync with the era’s growing tendency towards contract-free cohabitation and would have wrecked the song by shifting the narrator’s perspective from a romantic flight of fancy to a strategy to acquire a prized possession (thank you, Neil Young Archives, for that information and more). The charm of the imagery is enhanced by the choice to sing it as a duet with Neil taking the main melody and Danny Whitten handling the high notes. I just love the way this verse sounds—lyrically and phonetically—and the images it inspires:
A dreamer of pictures
I run in the night
You see us together
Chasing the moonlight
My cinnamon girl
The bridge is also something of a mystery, for the character singing the lyrics could be the dream-ridden narrator or the cinnamon girl herself (“You see your baby loves to dance”). I don’t care one way or another: the melodic shift in the bridge adds additional variation and sets up the tension described above. And I love the song’s fade, with sustained distortion opening up to the brief but explosive guitar solo—a touch of blessed ambiguity instead of a fake happy ending. Although Neil Young would go on to write more complex songs with more powerful imagery, “Cinnamon Girl” isn’t designed for heaviness—it’s an engaging musical experience that allows your troubles to fade into oblivion.
Had the title track been released in the early 21st Century, critics would have rushed to label it “alt-country,” the genre applied to artists like Neko Case who infuse country sounds and styles with an alternative rock edginess and more substantive, socially-aware lyrics than you hear from the mainstream Nashville crowd. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” takes the trite story of the country boy who finds the big city isn’t to his liking and makes it more interesting by turning the tale into a conspiracy of silence (everybody knows they exist in a rat’s maze but no one wants to admit it) and through chord changes rarely heard in country. While the verse lopes along happily in G major with an occasional C major punctuation, things get really interesting the shift to Em followed by the emphatic A major power chords, communicating strong intent. That mood is immediately tempered by a move to Cmaj7 to enhance the sense of underlying uncertainty and near gloom. The cascade of shifting moods reflects a narrator who desperately wants to get out but can’t quite commit to leaving. “I wish I could be there” makes the disgust expressed in the line “everybody knows this is nowhere” seem less credible. While it may be the shortest piece on the album, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is a model of poetic and musical economy.
Lush, naturally reverberating dual acoustic guitars greet us when “Round & Round [It Won’t Be Long]” fills the headphones. While I love the vocal duet on “Cinnamon Girl,” the mingling of singer-songwriter Robin Lane’s voice with Neil Young’s results in the most purely gorgeous song on the album. Danny Whitten adds his falsetto voice to the choruses to intensify the forlorn mood of a song that deals with the self-destructive impact of individual pride in the context of an intimate relationship. What amazes me about human nature is exactly what is presented in this song: people don’t know when to quit, know when to fold ’em, walk away and get the fuck out of a relationship headed absolutely nowhere. “How slow and slow and slow it goes/To mend the tear that always shows” is an accurate depiction the life-draining impact on people hanging on to a relationship for silly reasons like pride, convenience, financial security, what-will-my-friends-say, what-will-my-parents-say, yada, yada, yada. While all relationships are characterized by ups-and-downs and persistent miscommunication, when you keep revisiting the same shit over and over and over again, you should have split on the second “over” and kicked yourself in the ass for getting to “over again.” I think “Round & Round” should be required study for couples thinking of living together in whatever form they choose—the piercing sadness of the song might cut through the romantic fancy long enough to remind the happy pair to avoid the tendency to see the other person as the person we would like them to be rather than the person they are.
Now we’ve arrived at the second fever song, “Down by the River,” a song that evokes a strong reaction in me just by hearing someone mention the title.
The “ugh” isn’t so much about the song as about the topic. I don’t like songs about people shooting and killing other people. I want to see guns banned from the face of the earth. Actually, I’d like to see all weapons banned from the face of the earth. Let the old men duke it out in the ring instead of sending young people to ultimately meaningless deaths in the name of god, country or whatever ism you’ve got. I tend to focus more on guns because of my thirty-two years of life experience in the gun-crazy United States.
Neil Young offered two different explanations for the lyrics, one offered shortly after the song became something of an AOR classic, and one fifteen years later. The first explanation is horseshit. The second is the one that fits the lyrics:
- “There’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick.” Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
- The song is about a man “who had a lot of trouble controlling himself.” Bingo.
I think Neil came up with the bullshit answer to appease the largely non-violent listening audience who dreamed of Graham Nash-painted futures with two cats in the yard. Had the song come out today, a perceptive critic might say, “‘Down by the River’ is an insightful exposure of toxic masculinity, a tale of how the male psyche can turn tender feelings into feelings of entitlement and possession that ultimately result in domestic violence, with murder serving as the ultimate statement of male control over the objectified woman.”
The music is built around a two-chord pattern, a trope that Neil frequently uses (as does Pink Floyd) to set up a meditative structure that leaves room for extended instrumental passages, largely guitar solos in Neil’s case. The instrumental sections in “Down by the River” are fairly sparse for the most part; the highlight of the first instrumental passage features another one-note solo with exceptional bite and bitterness reflecting the narrator’s single-minded evil intent. The tones and attack on both solos anticipate the grunge of the early 90’s, integrating distortion with manic bursts of fretboard rage. I don’t mind the length of the song—these are not pointless jams but music that reflects the core instability of the man who shot his baby dead. What I do mind are the “ooh-la-la” harmonies introduced in the lead-up to the chorus; it’s like transposing “You Won’t See Me” onto “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and even the dysfunctional group we hear on Abbey Road would have unanimously agreed that such a juxtaposition qualifies as a terrible idea. I don’t particularly “like” “Down by the River,” but I do appreciate the brilliance of the arrangement and Neil Young’s ability to explore the ugly side of masculinity with artistic detachment.
Neil allows us to recover from the trauma of “Down by the River” by placing the more traditional country feel of “The Losing End [When You’re On]” in the follow-up slot. The song has some interesting structural features, like extended opening lines in the verses to allow for greater exposition and a longer and more varied chorus, but in the end it’s an inoffensive listening experience and little more (though I loathe the silly “pick it Wilson” encouragement before the solo). It’s followed by “Running Dry [Requiem for the Rockets],” which features a melody reminiscent of too many English folk tunes (like “Scarborough Fair”) to hold my interest for very long.
The trace of traditionalism revealed in the altered first line of “Cinnamon Girl” becomes outright sexist bullshit in the third fever song and closing piece, “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Neil gets a double “Oh, for fuck’s sake” for writing this crapola:
Old enough now to change your name,
When so many love you is it the same?
It’s the woman in you that makes you want to play this game.
“Ahem,” she responds, in preparation for one of her rants.
Look. The Pill evened the playing field by giving women the same reproductive freedom men had enjoyed since the beginning of human civilization. The feminist movement freed women to seriously consider life possibilities beyond a trip to the altar. Sure, there are women who play games, but it’s not the woman in us that causes that—all human beings, regardless of gender, are fully capable of existing in a self-generated world of lies and deceit with the intent of manipulating others to give them what they want. And Neil, we don’t want to be the woman of your dreams, especially if your dream objectifies us, robs us of our choices and diminishes our basic human rights. And fuck the Wikipedia contributor who said that the song deals with a “promiscuous woman,” and fuck all the male reviewers like Matthew Greenwald who also used the pejorative “promiscuous” label and called the song “one of Neil Young’s most lasting contributions” and “a true classic.”
Although the lyrics make me want to puke, the melody is indeed captivating and the extended guitar passages form a fascinating meditation combining short passages of sweetness with longer passages stringing together gritty bursts of distortion that make the heart skip a beat. The guitar work on this song is worthy of deep study by budding guitarists who can learn a lot from the off-beat phrasing, sudden shifts from manic to minimal, and Danny Whitten’s rhythm guitar response. On the musical downside, I think the in-verse transition from bash to “tone it down, fellas” is poorly executed, rescued only by the stinging burst of guitar that introduces the deeply offensive lyrics listed above. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was 49 years ago and men should be forgiven for their childish sins of obliviousness, but timelessness is one measure of the value of art—and the lyrics to “Cowgirl in the Sand” make the song as dated as bell-bottom trousers.
Although that one song hit one of my hot buttons, I would still give the album a thumbs-up if I offered such a service. The guitar work alone is worth the price of admission, and an instrumental-only version would indeed be a “true classic.” The lyrics vary from brilliant to bad, but we already know through the virtue of hindsight that Neil Young would significantly and consistently improve his lyrical contributions. One other thing I find odd about listening to Neil Young is to discover how unexpectedly catchy is melodies are. I say “unexpectedly” because he doesn’t have a particularly melodic voice (like McCartney). Still, whenever I put on this record or After the Gold Rush or Tonight’s the Night, I find myself humming his tunes for days.
Hmm. Maybe the surprising melodic strength of Neil Young’s songs is really an insidious Canadian experiment in mind control! Maybe the whole “Canadians are nice people” belief is a myth, and they’re using their outwardly pleasant demeanors and catchy music to lull us to sleep while they take over the whole world! And hey! Didn’t Joni Mitchell and Neil Young take up long-term residency in Los Angeles, California, US of A? Are they really spies, like Phillip and Elizabeth in The Americans, seeking to undermine American sovereignty?
Then again, if one country seriously needs to be taken over by the Canadians, it’s the United States of America. This could work out.
I’m planning to review The Hissing of Summer Lawns and After the Gold Rush in the next few weeks, so in the meantime, if you hear I’ve opened a conspiracy-oriented website, you’ll know I’m onto something.
Excellent review. I’m wondering if your objection to the lyrics of Down By the River applies to the entire tradition of murder ballads. And is it just a personal distaste or would you prefer that certain depths never be mined in song (art?)?
Excellent question! I think my comments on the song formed a confession of sorts—-that I’m currently unable to properly evaluate murder ballads in the historical context. I learned of this limitation last year when I was considering reviewing the collections of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers and arrived at a point when I just couldn’t bear the shoot-em-up songs anymore. Rather than do the reviews through that lens I put them aside for another day. I do think Neil Young’s character has the redeeming quality of regretting his actions as opposed to the casual attitude of Rodgers, but it was a challenging song for me nonetheless. I went through my earlier blues reviews and didn’t find the same level of trepidation (then again, “Boom Boom” is about sex, not violence).
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I think this is the only review of this LP or Neil Young Era that deals with the problematic lyrics on the two long jam songs, so appreciation for that. And Cinnamon Girl’s amazing riff and sound can’t be praised enough, but you came as close as any!