“It wasn’t The Beatles breaking up and it wasn’t Kent State. No, I knew the 60’s were over and done the first time I heard After the Gold Rush.”
My dad shared those thoughts when I visited him in the hospital a couple of weeks ago. I thought the best way to keep his spirits up would be to listen to his thoughts on the music of his time, so I brought my laptop along and together we worked down the list of 60’s-70’s albums on my to-do spreadsheet.
“I don’t hear that on the album, dad. I would have thought you’d pick Lennon’s ‘God’ as the 60’s death knell.”
“It’s not in the words or the music. It’s in the mood. Even with all the shit that went down in the 60’s, there was still hope. After that, there was just this . . . sense of despair. I know you’re going to tell me I’m idealizing and simplifying, but the 60’s were light, the 70’s were darkness, and I think Neil Young sensed that. It’s the dividing line between the 60’s and the 70’s.”
I still wasn’t entirely convinced, but I had no other credible explanation for the enduring power of After the Gold Rush, which still tops most of the Best of Neil Young lists thirty-four albums later. It’s a quiet album full of sparse arrangements and only a few moments of flash. Neil himself admits that some of the lyrics make no sense at all, but some of those songs are revered to this day. The project itself was initially inspired by a screenplay that never made it to the big screen, and perhaps the influence of this “sort of an end-of-the world movie,” explains the sadness that permeates the album. Even a couple of the happier songs sound sad, as if Neil is trying to lift the spirits of a group of mourners in a funeral parlor. Despite the gloom, I also detect a kind of tenderness as well, like the gentle hand placed on the shoulder of a person who has suffered the loss of a loved one.
Critical reaction at the time of release was more along the lines of a yawn than a round of huzzahs. Though I’d heard After the Gold Rush frequently while growing up, I too was not impressed the first time I devoted an evening to really listen to the album. I felt it lacked the coherence and power of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, found the minimalistic arrangements dull and unimaginative and thought Neil’s vocals rather lazy and ragged. There were a few songs I liked, but in the end I concluded that the admiration for After the Gold Rush had more to do with nostalgia than musical excellence, and when I started the blog, I didn’t even bother to list the album as a possibility. The combination of my American boycott and my review of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere led me to add more Neil Young to the list . . . and that meant I’d have to listen to more albums to develop a fuller picture of the artist . . . and sooner or later I’d have to revisit the curiosity that is After the Gold Rush.
Whether it was my own sense of impending Armaggedon now that racism, sexism and nationalism have come into vogue, or my father’s recent health issues, listening to After the Gold Rush at this point in my life was a far more rewarding experience. While it may not have been his conscious intent, and is certainly not his best work, Neil Young created a work that captured the mood of his time by compiling a set of songs that dealt with the eternal human experiences of loss, loneliness and grief. The moods range from wistfulness to outrage, covering many of the seven stages of grief described by Kubler-Ross, with more emphasis on the earlier stages (shock, denial, guilt, anger and depression) than the exit stages of acceptance and reconstruction. As much as we would like to deny and forget about those experiences, they are part and parcel of the human story, and made After the Gold Rush unique in its time.
“Tell Me Why” establishes the mood by posing the ultimate and often unanswerable question in the human endeavor to make sense of life. In James McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, the author labels the famous chorus (“Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you’re old enough to repay and young enough to sell”) “convoluted hippie doublespeak,” and lo and behold, the songwriter agreed with his assessment: “It sounds like gibberish to me. I stopped singing this song because when I get to that line, I go, ‘What the f–k am I talking about?'” What saves the song, ironically, is that the lyrics don’t make sense, as our answers to the question “Tell me why?” often result in gibberish or in outlandish speculations that fall into the category of utter nonsense (i. e., JFK assassination theories, antivaxxers, stars out of alignment, etc.). Additional saving graces come in the form of the Crazy Horse harmonies in the chorus and the carefully-designed acoustic guitar duet featuring Neil and Nils Lofgren that handles both rhythm and counterpoint. The choice to drop the standard guitar tuning one step combine with the minor and major seventh chords to reflect the sense of melancholy unfulfillment expressed in the lyrics.
I’ll turn the mike over to a more experienced songwriter for an explanation of the title track:
Randy Newman found the song’s charms more inexplicable. “I can’t believe I liked ‘After the Gold Rush,’ because it doesn’t hold up to analysis. I can’t stand that sort of ‘meadow rock’ thing—Neil’s doing it, and writing about a big issue in a simplistic way, but I still like it. I love it. It just sounds good. There’s some kind of alchemy going on. It’s an artless type of thing—not to imply that Neil’s some kind of idiot savant, he’s certainly shrewder than that—but you have to listen to the records to realize how really great he is. “You can’t put those lyrics down on the page and say, ‘Look! This guy’s great!’ They lay there like a turd … if you look at it close, his songwriting seems so artless. It’s very simple—‘bad’ rhymes with ‘sad,’ ‘mad’ and ‘glad,’ and he’ll do it again in the third verse—it’s like a child grabbin’ around and pickin’ the first thing he finds. But between those grabs there’s a high IQ at work, making it all turn out.
McDonough, Jimmy. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (p. 340). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The lyrics are certainly tantalizing and contain evocative imagery, but once again, the author of those lyrics admits the meaning is elusive at best:
When Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt recorded it in 1999 for their collaboration Trio II, they got some unique insight into the song from the man who wrote it. Said Parton: “When we were doing the Trio album, I asked Linda and Emmy what it meant, and they didn’t know. So we called Neil Young, and he didn’t know. We asked him, flat-out, what it meant, and he said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.'”
The three scenes depicted in the song (medieval times, modern war, futuristic space travel) give the author an opportunity for a powerful compare-and-contrast historical narrative, but apparently that possibility never crossed the author’s mind. With a little imagination and a running jump past the second verse, one could make the connection between the first verse’s “Look at mother nature on the run” and the third verse’s “flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun” and conclude that the song is a warning of an environmental disaster so vast that we’d have to leave the planet—but this fragment of stray meaning doesn’t sound any alarm bells. Like Randy Newman, I can’t explain why I like the song beyond the gentle piano and the introduction of a mournful horn to confirm the song’s essential melancholy, but somehow, it works in the context of the album’s prevailing themes of grief and loss.
Such an album would certainly have a place for a song titled, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and in the context of the times, the song can be interpreted as a subtle rejection of the 60’s ethic described best in “All You Need Is Love.” Unlike that song, which deals with love in the abstract, this song addresses the fundamental truth that all attempts to form loving relationships entail multiple risks. The first verse covers how most of us behave in our teens when we’re still trying to sort out our emotions: “I was always thinking of games that I was playing/Trying to make the best of my time.” The second verse tells the story of someone who quit the game because it’s much easier to think about love’s possibilities than the pain that often accompanies the experience:
I have a friend
I’ve never seen
He hides his head
Inside a dream
Someone should call him
And see if he can come out
Try to lose
The down that he’s found
The verse could also be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Lennon’s message, “The dream is over.” I love the perfect melding of acoustic guitar and piano rhythm, and the limited roles of bass and drums in reinforcing that rhythm. The harmonies are quite good, reflecting the care taken to perfect the arrangement.
The reflective melancholy of the first three songs is shattered by the introduction of bitter anger in the album’s most famous track, “Southern Man.” Having written “Ohio” only a few months before, the song gave listeners of the time reassurance that Neil Young had not abandoned the 60’s ethic of raising one’s voice in protest of injustice. According to his biography, the anger you hear in his voice has as much to do with an ongoing fight he was having with his then-wife as it does outrage over never-ending racism, but the lyrics contain anger to spare:
Your hair is golden brown
I’ve seen your black man comin’ round
Swear by God I’m gonna cut him down!
I heard screamin’
And bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?
In his recent autobiography, Neil said of the song, “I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.” I think he was more on-target in the McDonough biography: “‘Southern Man” is a strange song. I don’t sing it anymore. I don’t feel like it’s particularly relevant. It’s not ‘Southern Man’—it’s ‘White Man.’ Heh heh. It’s much bigger than ‘Southern Man.'” I can understand the anger, but I haven’t found any evidence that the song had any impact on his target audience, making it a relatively ineffective protest song. As a musical experience, it’s explosive. Neil’s mad ride across the fretboard in the extended solo has been lauded and criticized, but I think his emotionally-driven guitar style works incredibly well in this piece. “Man, I don’t play the guitar. I hit the guitar,” he told USA Weekend, indicating that he uses the instrument frequently for percussive attack and emotional expression, a style closer to Jackson Pollock than Eddie Van Halen. Nils Lofgren’s first shot at piano demonstrates his fundamental strength as a musician, adding just the right amount of acceleration at critical moments.
Needing a break from the intensity of “Southern Man” and the relentlessly down mood, the next song is the first of two light fragments used to wrap up each side of the album. “Till the Morning Comes” is truly an intermission piece, a scrap of pastel color in the midst of darker shades. If you’re really efficient, you might be able to take a leak, wash your hands and get back in time to turn over the record in the one minute and twenty-eight seconds it takes to finish.
Neil Young’s cover of Don Gibson’s “O Lonesome Me” corrected the fundamental problem with the wildly popular original, which is played at almost twice the speed and sounds positively fucking jolly. You would have thought Don had consulted the Master of Lonesome about the proper way to deliver a lonesome song, but apparently Don was too busy trying to make the connection with teenage rockers to bother listening to Hank Williams. Look. When you’re lonesome, you don’t feel perky and you don’t feel chipper. You feel like shit! And if you’re blessed with poetic talent, you write words like these and sing them slowly and deliberately while wallowing in existential angst:
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry
While “O Lonesome Me” doesn’t come close to that level of poetry, Neil and the band capture the dreary experience of a lonesomeness that feels like it’s never going to end, like a sealed room with no visible exit. The decelerated tempo, Neil’s earnest voice, the lone prairie harmonica and the blues-tinged guitar all complement the lyrics and express the essential feeling far more effectively than the curiously-arranged original.
Jimmy McDonough succinctly summarized “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” thusly: “‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ is a doomy work with a mood that recurs throughout Young’s music: hope in the face of total despair, which somehow doesn’t sound like hope at all.” While that description is essentially accurate, it ignores the descriptive power carried in the imagery:
Old man lying by the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by
Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load
And the buildings scrape the sky
Cold wind ripping down the alley at dawn
And the morning paper flies
Dead man lying by the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes
Young wrote the piece while on tour in London with CSN&Y (hence the lorries), but the imagery applies to any urban environment where people are indifferent to the homeless and dismissive of the aged. The reference to “castles burning” in the chorus represent the dashed hope of anyone trying to imagine a better world (a la “castles in the air”), a state of mind that is so seventies. The music is based on the suspended chord produced through DADGAG open tuning, and while most of the band step back and allow the overtones to do their work, Greg Reeves takes more liberties on the bass, adding variation and interest.
I also think McDonough is also off-base in his preference for the Crazy Horse version of “Birds,” preferring the full band treatment to the stark piano arrangement of the album version. I don’t consider the piano version “overly polished,” but a version with fewer distractions to allow the listener to focus on the lovely melody and harmonies. In the sub-genre of end-of-the-relationship songs, it’s one of my favorites, both comforting and firm at the same time, and unusual for its clarity in expressing loss.
And I violently disagree with Randy Newman’s characterization of the song that most reflects the sound of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, “When You Dance, I Can Really Love.” “‘When you dance, I can really love’ – I mean, that’s a stupid thing to say to a girl. It’s really low-end IQ – it isn’t above 100 – and Neil is not a low-IQ guy. He did it on purpose. That’s funny.” Dancing is an act that allows people to let loose, to face the risk of looking silly and just fucking going for it, to get in touch with the physical self and feel the delightfully baser emotions of love imbued with lust. Dance helps rid body and soul of repressive tendencies and allows for free expression of feelings too often buried. I love to dance and feel I’m a better person for it. In reading reviews of the song, more attention is focused on Jack Nitzsche’s piano contributions in the fade, but if it was so fucking great, why is it buried so deep in the mix? I’ll let Neil tell you why: “That group actually didn’t work as well as I would’ve liked. It was nice havin’ Jack with us, but some of the stuff, he was in the way tonally.” You can probably tell that Nitzsche’s piano doesn’t exactly knock me out either, but this one particularly upbeat song on the record does.
However, “When You Dance I Can Really Love” is a departure from the essential mood of the album, and we downshift pretty quickly to “I Believe in You,” a supposed-to-be-a-love-song marked by doubts and insecurity. The inconsistency of the emotions expressed tells us that this is not a a garden-variety love song but an honest expression of the vulnerability and uncertainty that pervades many relationships at one time or another. The piano here is particularly lovely, managing to capture both the tenderness and fragility of human relationships.
The second side-closing fragment sounds more like the boys got together in the living room after a few beers and had a little fun picking away. “Cripple Creek Ferry” was one of the songs intended for the end-of-the-world movie, which makes no sense at all. Let’s just say it’s a nice light ending to an emotionally-challenging album that will make absolutely no one forget about The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.”
Mention of The Band brings up what is not unique about After the Gold Rush. The album was part of a massive shift in American-Canadian music in the late 60’s/early 70’s from rock to country, from psychedelic flourishes to more solid roots. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, John Wesley Harding, Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and Neil’s own Harvest reflected this shift. Though the shift produced some great music, it always felt to me like a surrender, a step backward, a retreat into the tried-and-true. And while the United States was the model of progress in the first two-and-a-half decades of the postwar era, the country took a step backwards in the 70’s, mired in oil crises, stagflation, Watergate and high crime.
So yes, there was definitely a shift, and whether After the Gold Rush is the best album to represent the change from 60’s light to 70’s darkness is up for debate, but I would say that its funereal mood makes it a pretty strong contender.