As we had stayed in County Cork long past our expected return, I was developing a serious hankering for Moroccan cuisine. My mother was smart enough to know that sooner or later we would miss eating the food we normally eat at home, so she wisely packed the pot and all the ingredients for chicken tajine and surprised us with my favorite meal one night last week.
The food and the wine put us all in a convivial mood, and though my father was just about to ruin the occasion by starting a conversation about American politics, the three women at the table groaned in perfect harmony and asked him to select another topic.
“Okay, how about this? Best guitar album ever.”
“Dad, you know damn well I don’t do ‘best of’ crap. Make it “‘favorites’ and I’ll play.”
Maman immediately named The Indispensable Django Reinhardt and Alicia quickly followed with The Art of Segovia. Dad seemed baffled by their selections.
“I was thinking ‘rock guitar,'” he said sheepishly.
“Nobody’s stopping you. What’s your pick?”
“Tough one. I’ll have to go with Are You Experienced? because of its influence. Your turn.”
Although I was the one who insisted on “favorites,” the truth is my favorites change depending on my mood. Sometimes my favorite Beatles song is “A Hard Day’s Night,” tomorrow it might be “Norwegian Wood” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” next week. Had it not been for a certain coincidence, I might have spent hours trying to answer the “favorite guitar album” question.
As luck would have it, I had recently immersed myself in an album where the guitars evoked a wide range of emotions beyond the usual thrills. I loved the sounds created by those guitars on every single track.
“Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young and Crazy Horse,” I finally replied.
It’s too bad that Harvest remains Neil Young’s best-selling album and is still referred to as his “signature” work. That’s the kind of thinking that drives the Grammies and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—your “best” work is the one that brought in the most dough and improved the industry’s profit margins. Fortunately for posterity, Neil Young experienced something of an epiphany when “Heart of Gold” hit the top of the charts, as recorded in the liner notes for the compilation album Decade: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
A rough ride indeed. The interlude following Harvest was a chaotic period when albums were recorded and temporarily shelved, when Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry died from drug overdoses, when Neil and Carrie Snodgress decided to go their separate ways and when the lightness of Harvest gave way to the darkness of the “ditch trilogy.” Neil Young seemed to be going out of his way to give the people what they didn’t want in an earnest attempt to redefine himself as anything but a successful rock star. Neil’s comments on Time Fades Away in the Decade liner notes speak volumes about his post-Harvest artistic intent:
Time Fades Away. No songs from this album are included here. It was recorded on my biggest tour ever, 65 [sic] shows in 90 days. Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while. I was becoming more interested in an audio verite approach than satisfying the public demands for a repetition of Harvest.
Sometimes artists go through phases when they feel the overwhelming urge to blow things up and start all over. Depending on your source, Picasso went through anywhere from seven to eighteen periods of deconstruction and revival. Freaked out by the massive success of OK Computer, Thom Yorke suffered a nervous breakdown and went into isolation. When he finally reconnected with his Radiohead mates, he announced that he wanted to abandon the guitar-heavy arrangements that had brought them worldwide acclaim.
Kid A was Radiohead’s blow-up moment; Neil Young’s was the “ditch trilogy”. Both u-turns initially baffled their respective audiences; both are now revered by critics and fans alike.
The significance of the “ditch trilogy” is that Neil Young decided he was going to do things his way or not at all, expectations be damned. In the years between the trilogy and Rust Never Sleeps, he rebuilt Crazy Horse, recorded an album with Stephen Stills (and abandoned him mid-tour), appeared in The Last Waltz, pieced together an album of previously recorded work, then released the lovely acoustic folk album Comes a Time featuring vocal duets with Nicolette Larson. By this time, fans had learned not to anticipate what Neil was going to do next and began to embrace his stubborn artistry.
Neil had experimented with introducing new songs on a live album with Time Fades Away, an approach successfully employed by the Grateful Dead in Europe ’72. What he failed to take into account was that his fan base had little in common with Deadheads, who expected the Dead to experiment with new stuff and re-interpret classic songs in unexpected ways. Fans showed up at Neil’s concerts wanting to hear Harvest, the cherished hits from After the Gold Rush and maybe a CSNY tune or two, not a flood of unfamiliar songs poorly played by the cobbled-together Stray Gators. Figuring that in the intervening six years he had managed to rid the fan base of nostalgic expectations, he gave it another shot with Rust Never Sleeps, mixing seven live performances with two studio tracks, placing the acoustic performances on side one and the electric pieces on side two.
This time it worked like a charm. Rust Never Sleeps appeared at the top or near the top of “Best Album of the Year” lists and returned Neil Young to the Top 10. The commercial acceptance was nice, but the artistic achievement was even more impressive. Rust Never Sleeps was one of those increasingly rare events where chart success aligned with artistry.
The first three songs were recorded live at The Boarding House in San Francisco in May 1978. I’d never heard of the joint until I started researching this album, so I asked my father about it. “We didn’t go there much, as it was kind of out of the way. We were in Europe when Neil did his thing, but I remember seeing Dan Hicks and a very young Robin Williams there. For a long time it was a place for the smaller theatre companies, then it switched over to comedy, jazz and folk until it burned down in the 80’s.”
With a sly grin on his face, my dad ended his soliloquy with, “You might want to look it up on a map.”
Always a sucker for a mystery, I obtained the address, looked it up on Apple Maps and found the spot on Bush Street in Lower Nob Hill. I didn’t see much of interest other than the location was a couple of blocks down from Grace Cathedral but when my eyes drifted a couple of blocks to the west, I felt a surge of excitement when I saw St. Francis Memorial Hospital.
I can now say I was born two-and-one-half blocks from where Neil Young did his acoustic set for Rest Never Sleeps. My first claim to fame!
Side One: The Acoustic Side
“My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)”: What I love most about the live acoustic numbers is the complete absence of guitar pretentiousness. The sound that emerges from Neil’s guitar is the sound you would hear in a campfire sing-a-long or a song-trading session among good friends in someone’s living room. There’s something about the simple combination of guitar and vocalist that has the potential to create an intimate bond between performer and listener if the performer puts his heart and soul into the song, and it’s obvious that even with the post-production dampening of audience reaction that the crowd at The Boarding House was hanging on Neil’s every strum, arpeggio and word.
I’ll take the magic fingers of a great acoustic guitarist over AI any day.
The audience reaction is most noticeable during the immortal first verse:
My my, hey hey
Rock and roll is here to stay
It’s better to burn out than to fade away
My my, hey hey
Here Neil plays the role of songwriter-as-assembler, lifting a line from a Danny and the Juniors hit and ethically borrowing the key line “It’s better to burnout than to fade away” from former bandmate Jeff Blackburn, who received co-writer credit. That line sent John Lennon into crazy rant mode, bitching about Sid Vicious (who isn’t even mentioned in the song) and implying that Neil Young was nothing more than a death worshipper. The songwriter responded with more class than I could ever muster:
“The rock’n’roll spirit is not survival. Of course the people who play rock’n’roll should survive. But the essence of the rock’n’roll spirit to me, is that it’s better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity. Even though if you look at it in a mature way, you’ll think, “well, yes … you should decay off into infinity, and keep going along”. Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t look that far ahead. Rock ‘n’ roll is right now. What’s happening right this second. Is it bright? Or is it dim because it’s waiting for tomorrow – that’s what people want to know. And that’s why I say that.”
The line gained even more notoriety when Kurt Cobain included it in his suicide note. When asked about it in a 2005 interview with Time, Neil again responded thoughtfully, echoing similar feelings regarding fame and artistic control that he had struggled with:
The fact that he left the lyrics to my song right there with him when he killed himself left a profound feeling on me, but I don’t think he was saying I have to kill myself because I don’t want to fade away. I don’t think he was interpreting the song in a negative way. It’s a song about artistic survival, and I think he had a problem with the fact that he thought he was selling out, and he didn’t know how to stop it. He was forced to do tours when he didn’t want to, forced into all kinds of stuff. I was trying to get a hold of him – because I had heard some of the things he was doing to himself – just to tell him it’s OK not to tour, it’s OK not to do these things, just take control of your life and make your music. Or, hey, don’t make music. But as soon as you feel like you’re out there pretending, you’re fucked.
The line is not repeated in the electric version on side two, as Neil chose to use rougher guitars to emphasize the rust metaphor that gave the album its title. The fundamental difference between the two is that the acoustic version takes on a certain mournful color when Neil sings about the relatively recent passing of one of his most revered heroes:
The King is gone but he’s not forgotten
This is the story of a Johnny Rotten
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust
The King is gone but he’s not forgotten
I was surprised to hear appreciative hoots from the crowd at the mention of Johnny Rotten, as many Baby Boomers thought the whole punk thing was a bunch of crap. Neil was open-minded enough to appreciate the jolt of energy that punk provided and perceptive enough to recognize Elvis Presley as the original punk.
One last thing: Neil adds a touch of diversity to the mix with two harmonica solos. The first is so-so, but the solo on the fade is heartfelt heat.
“Thrasher”: Without Neil’s commentary on the song, the lyrics will seem like gibberish, so let’s clear that up tout suite: “‘Thrasher’ was pretty much me writing about my experiences with Crosby, Stills & Nash in the mid-’70s.” I always thought he was an odd fit for that band, but no matter how often he pissed them off, they welcomed him back into the fold more than a few times. I fully admit that I loathe CSN, so I shall refrain from cheering in response to Neil’s zingers and simply observe that the song confirms my suspicions that he really was a duck out of water:
They had the best selection
They were poisoned with protection
There was nothing that they needed
Nothing left to find
They were lost in rock formations
Or became park bench mutations
On the sidewalks and in the stations
They were waiting, waiting
So I got bored and left them there
They were just dead weight to me
Better down the road without that load
On the plus side, I adore the clean, bright tones of Neil’s guitar and his ability to deliver the vocals free of undue emotion. In the end, he concluded that he had “his own road left to hoe.”
“Ride My Llama”: According to co-producer David Briggs, Neil wrote this “extraterrestrial folk song” about meeting a man from Mars and riding a llama from Peru to Texarkana in about twenty minutes. Before you jump to the conclusion that this bit of whimsy is low-quality album filler, Briggs insisted that Neil wrote “Pocahontas” in about twenty minutes as well. “Ride My Llama” hardly qualifies as a masterpiece, but it does demonstrate the remarkable breadth of Neil Young’s creative mind.
I was able to locate a bootleg version recorded at The Boarding House, and it’s pretty obvious from listening to the bootleg and the original version that eventually appeared on 2017’s Hitchhiker that “Ride My Llama” received a healthy dose of overdubs in the studio. The two most obvious additions are the delightful thumb-finger plucks and the ethereal background vocals. Before you cry “FAKE!” allow me to point out that the vast majority of live albums are subject to more than a few touch-ups, whether you’re talking about Live at Leeds or Get Your Ya-Yas-Out. Even the Grateful Dead agreed to overdubs for Europe 72, as Jerry Garcia’s vocals were frequently a half-step off.
“Pocahontas“: The last two tracks on side one were recorded entirely in the studio, but “Pocahontas” had been recorded years before in the same session that yielded “Ride My Llama” and “Powderfinger,” all of which reached the light of day on Hitchhiker. The version that appears on Rust Never Sleeps was subject to overdubs; the Hitchhiker take is the true “original recording.” Though I have a slight preference for the original and Neil’s unadulterated vocal, the sheer evocative power of the song comes through in both takes.
Neil Young had expressed empathy for Native Americans as far back as “Broken Arrow,” but in “Pocahontas” his language is more direct, filled with searing imagery of the sheer brutality inherent in “Indian Removal” policies:
The icy sky at night
Paddles cut the water
In a long and hurried flight
From the white man to the fields of green
And the homeland we’ve never seen
They killed us in our teepees
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the fire sticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun
Both the United States and Canada embraced racist policies of assimilation and forced removal, but the implementation of those policies in the United States was far more sadistic. In the Wikipedia article on The Trail of Tears, the author notes that “The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their newly designated Indian reserve. Thousands died from disease before reaching their destinations or shortly after. Some historians have said that the event constituted a genocide, although this label has been rejected by others and remains a matter of debate.” It’s only a matter of debate in the United States, a nation whose history includes a constitutional embrace of slavery, court-sanctioned segregation, the internment of innocent Japanese citizens, the never-ending attempts to deny minorities simple justice and voting rights, and the disturbing emergence of the racist, anti-immigrant MAGA cult. The “land of the free” has always been infested with a stubborn strain of white supremacist racism.
In the third verse, Neil changes time and narrator to expand the scope of the song and illustrate the long-term impact of cultural destruction. The image of the man who has lost all connection to his cherished traditions is painted in stark, ugly colors:
They massacred the buffalo
Kitty corner from the bank
Taxis run across my feet
And my eyes have turned to blanks
In my little box at the top of the stairs
With my Indian rug and a pipe to share
Verse four was idiotically interpreted by Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone as Neil finding “an amusing new way to tackle his romanticized fantasies of the Indians.” Only a guy with a really bad case of white privilege could come up with such unmitigated bullshit. My take is that the trapper wanted to become one with Pocahontas to fully understand her loss, and the reference to the sexual act should be interpreted as a sacred melding of souls, not an opportunity to get his rocks off:
I wish a was a trapper
I would give a thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the mornin’ on the fields of green
In the homeland we’ve never seen
The closing “Marlon Brando” verse may seem somewhat superfluous if you haven’t heard Brando’s message to the Academy when he declined the Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Godfather: “The motion picture community has been as responsible as any,” Brando wrote, “for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil.” Naturally, the message seriously pissed off John Wayne, which only proves that Brando was right to use the opportunity to piss off the people who deserved it.
“Sail Away”: Neil brings Nicolette Larson back for an encore in this gentle acoustic number celebrating the need to always have an escape route from daily life. The acoustic guitar counterpoints are bright and lovely, imbuing the song with an irresistible but hardly cloying sweetness. The two voices meld together beautifully, making for a nice farewell to the acoustic side. My favorite verse is a scarcely disguised affirmation of Neil’s choice to move out of the mainstream and into a space with “more interesting people”:
See the losers in the best bars
Meet the winners in the dives
Where the people are the real stars
All the rest of their lives
Side Two: The Electric Side
“Powderfinger”: After the dreamy beauty of “Sail Away,” I think Neil made the right call to open the electric side with an arrangement that eases the listener into the change of soundscape rather than something that blasts eardrums. At first, the distorted guitars are barely noticeable, but over the course of the first verse the guitars begin to assert themselves in baby steps, eventually leading to the thrilling punctuation of the main riff, a beautifully designed electric guitar duet featuring Neil and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro of the rebuilt Crazy Horse.
The guitars are sinuous, sexy and hotter than a bitch in heat—just the way I like ’em. I love the way the two guitarists complement each other, trading licks and rhythmic support so seamlessly that I suspect they engaged in a Vulcan Mind Meld just before the performance. And I’m absolutely knocked out by Neil’s two solos, especially the second when he climbs up the fretboard and delivers a series of searing, soaring guitar riffs. The guitars are so compelling that I often find myself shutting out the lyrics and focusing entirely on the interplay.
That said, the lyrics are equally compelling, despite the surrounding mystery. From Songfacts:
There’s no small controversy over the meaning of this song. Some think it is set during the Civil War, with the attackers being Union soldiers. Others say that the “White Boat” is actually a Coast Guard Cutter, and the family being attacked are involved in drug running or operating an illegal distillation business.
Young himself might not know. He wrote two other songs around this time that were also filled with imagery from early America: “The Old Homestead” and “Captain Kennedy.” He told the New Musical Express: “Those songs are like a landscape, I don’t think with those songs – I get myself to a certain place, open up and they just come to me.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that the setting doesn’t matter and debating whether or not the attack depicted in the song was initiated by Union soldiers, Confederates or the DEA is nothing more than a distraction. The real story is about a young man who is forced to respond to an unexpected attack without guidance, help or much in the way of experience.
As the gunboat approaches, the kid is smart enough to realize that “it don’t look like they’re here to deliver the mail,” but that’s about it:
Daddy’s gone and my brother’s out hunting in the mountains
Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmy-Lou
So the powers that be left me here to do the thinkin’
And I just turned twenty-two
I was wondering what to do
And the closer they got
The more those feelings grew
His instincts tell him to defend himself, and holding the ultimate phallic symbol gives him some confidence (“Daddy’s rifle in my hand felt reassuring”). As soon as he utters that line, images of red shirts from the original Star Trek pop into my head and I know the kid just made the last mistake he’d make during his too-brief lifetime:
But when the first shot hit the dock I saw it coming
Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why
Then I saw black
And my face splashed in the sky
Neil allows him to write his own regret-filled epitaph, another life cut short by gun violence:
Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Just think of me as one you’d never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love
I know I’ll miss her
This song moves me in so many different ways that I can hardly identify all the emotions I feel when listening to it. I suppose my parting wish is that all of us receive shelter from the powder and the finger, as human lives are too precious to waste in senseless, pointless violence.
“Welfare Mothers”: I’m not entirely sure where Neil was coming from when he wrote this song and I’ve read a raft of conflicting interpretations. Some say the song honors women abandoned by heartless men who fail to pay child support; others argue that women who have been through tough times would of course make better lovers because their experience has given them a certain maturity; and a few argue that it’s another example of Neil Young’s “lack of lyrical sophistication.” I firmly believe that if there’s one group in our society in need of a reputational upgrade, it would be the welfare mothers who have long suffered from poverty, right-wing attacks and charges of sluttery.
My reluctance to make a call on the lyrics has to do with things Neil said in an interview with Melody Maker in 1985. Out of the blue (pun intended) he had become a supporter of Ronald Reagan and started spouting all kinds of disgusting right-wing bullshit. “You go to a supermarket and you see a faggot behind the fuckin’ cash register, you don’t want him to handle your potatoes” was bad enough, but not an uncommon response during the paranoiac height of the AIDS epidemic. In regards to people on welfare, he said, “Stop being supported by the government and get out and work. You have to make the weak stand up on one leg, or half a leg, whatever they’ve got.”
I’ll take a hard pass on the lyrics and focus on the music. “Welfare Mothers” is essentially a high-energy pre-grunge work featuring enthusiastically performed call-and-response lines from Neil and the entire Crazy Horse trio. The guitar sounds are so beautifully fucking nasty that they stand as undeniable proof of Neil’s influence on many grunge band guitarists.
“Sedan Delivery”: Neil and the boys cross the line between grunge and punk with distortion-riddled guitars over a rhythmic arrangement that flips between punk bash at relatively high speeds and a half-time interlude somewhere between soulful hard rock and grunge. Drummer Ralph Molina does a fabulous job driving the beat during the fast parts and throwing in a mix of fills that alternate between the majestic and gradual collapse in the slower section.
The music conveys a certain seediness that is also reflected in the main character—he’s on uppers during the fast parts when he’s trying to make a buck and downers on the slow parts as he considers his essentially shitty existence. The first verse serves as kind of a blueprint for the remaining verses:
(Fast): Last night, I was cool at the pool hall
Held the table for eleven games
Nothing was easier than the first seven
I beat a woman with varicose veins
(Slow): She stopped to see herself in the mirror
Fix her hair and hide her veins
And she lost the game
Next he heads for the dentist to have a few meth-corroded teeth pulled, admits to a strange fascination with Caesar and Cleopatra that results in an increase in testosterone levels and finally gets around to telling us about his “job.”
I’m making another delivery
Of chemicals and sacred roots
I’ll hold what you have to give me
But I’ll use what I have to use
I bet he will! In the end we find out that he took the sedan delivery job (describing the method of drug distribution, not the delivery of your brand new Buick) in part due to the ongoing recession, but something tells me that this guy couldn’t get a real job anywhere in the known world:
I’m sleepin’ in every hallway
I just can’t accept the stares
I’m using too many covers
I’m warm now so I don’t care
I’m thinkin’ of no one in my mind
Sedan delivery is a job I know I’ll keep
It sure was hard to find
Hard to find, hard to find a job
I feel bad about his homelessness but shit, this is a guy that takes advantage of older ladies with varicose veins so he can feed his drug habit, so he bears significant responsibility for being down on his luck. “Sedan Driver” is one of Neil’s best character sketches, painfully true and set to music that enhances the narrative.
“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”: Rust Never Sleeps goes full circle with a semi-reprise of the opening number with a modified title. This take is much darker than the acoustic version with heavy distortion and a chord pattern punctuated with two sets of three dissonant variations of the F chord. The sound is somewhere between metal, grunge and punk and I hear echoes of Black Sabbath in that dissonant chord attack. The shift to the more melodic third lines with the C-Em-Em7-Am-F chord pattern tempers the roughness a bit, but this piece is a no-doubt-about-it rock ‘n’ roll mini-orgy.
The most significant change in the lyrics is found in the third verse, where Neil took a suggestion from Mark Motherbaugh of Devo and used the Rust-Oleum slogan “Rust Never Sleeps” as a playful equivalent to “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
The King is gone but he’s not forgotten
Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?
It’s better to burn out ’cause rust never sleeps
The King is gone but he’s not forgotten
The mournful coloring of the acoustic version is completely banished in favor of an affirmative musical statement that shouts “You’re goddamn right rock ‘n’ roll will never die.” Neil’s decision to transform the line about Johnny Rotten into a question may indicate some ambivalence regarding the punk singer’s odds of leaving a lasting impression on the music scene in comparison to Elvis; on the other hand, it might indicate he sensed that the Sex Pistols would indeed burn out and die pretty quickly.
Super dickhead misogynist and former board member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Jann Wenner declared that rock ‘n’ roll was dead a few years ago, in large part because he wasn’t making any money trying to peddle rock music to the declining population of Baby Boomers. As was so often the case, he was completely full of shit. As reported by CNBC, the Beatles remain on top of the streaming charts and lo and behold, the 18 to 24 age group accounts for thirty percent of that massive number.
The media keeps telling us that two cherished aspects of world culture are on their last legs: democracy and rock ‘n’ roll. That perception is based on declining participation in the voting process in some countries and diminishing sales of rock ‘n’ roll music.
The media is also full of shit. Most of the people living in democracies want to stay that way, but they’re sick and tired of having to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Most of the people I know are equally disgusted with the current popular music scene and its embrace of empty music for the masses, but the Big 4 have essentially blocked the paths of many artists who might be able to revitalize the music scene if given the chance to do so.
The continuing cross-generational fascination with the Beatles, Stones, Elvis and other rock greats tells me that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t have to die. We just need more people like Neil Young who are willing to kick the rust off and embrace the never-say-die spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.