“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.
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.