Neil Young News
NOTE: Article from the Rolling Stone book of "Illustrated History of Rock" on influential rockers dated sometime '79 or '80. This chapter has subsequently been deleted from revised editions. It is unclear why Rolling Stone editors deleted Marsh's chapter. One theory is that time and Young's stature has rendered Marsh's opinions as invalid. Nevertheless, critic Dave Marsh raises several interesting points regarding Bob Dylan and Neil Young's contributions and impact on folk and rock & roll - Thrasher.
Here's a passionate rebuttal on Cognomen of Marsh's harsh critique.
Bob Dylan changed rock fundamentally. He gave it a
sense of tradition, rooted in white folk music and high culture. He showed a
distrust for the very technology it exploited, a disdain for conventional
celebrity, a brooding lyrical seriousness and a yearning for high art
Neil Young is Dylan's greatest disciple, not only
because of a shared sound-a wracked voice, an inability to stay in one
stylistic space for long-but also because of a shared cunning: Young
has mastered Dylan's greatest trick, the art of self-mythology.
There is one difference. While Dylan shaped his
legend through indirection and enigma, Neil Young has scripted his own
myth boldly, in the song selection and liner notes to a succession of
retrospective albums. The most important of these, the three record
anthology called Decade, represents nothing less than his claim to be
considered the preeminent American rock performer of his generation.
That this claim is called into question by
scrutiny of his work is part of the point: by emphasizing certain highlights
and disregarding the rest, Young has managed to avoid close analysis,
leaving most critics gaping in awe of an image greater than the work that
supports it--the ultimate Dylanesque trick.
What's oddest about Young's self-mythologizing
is that the shape of his career is, for the most part, fairly ordinary.
He grew up in Canada, where he played both in rock bands and on the folk
circuit, coming to Southern California in 1966, when he was 21. In Los
Angeles, he helped form the Buffalo Springfield, a band in which he is never
the dominant figure, taking a back seat to Stephen Stills and Richie Furay,
atleast partly because of his eccentric singing. Yet Springfield was the
first of the Seventies-style California bands, in which a group didn't
try to create one sound but instead served as a vehicle for the individual
ideas of its principles. Young's role was to play lead guitar, write a
few songs (most notably "Mr.Soul") and conduct a few experiments in recording
montage ("Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow"). Meanwhile, he and Stills
feuded. By the end of '68, Springfield was finished for good.
Young headed for a Topanga Canyon ranch, withdrawing
from the Los Angeles pop scene altogether. There, he made his first solo
album, an extension of his pop montage experiments. But that album was
nobody's idea of a sucess, and by mid-1969, Young had two new projects:
a collaboration with the California rock band the Rockets, and a joint venture
with the rechristened Crosby,Stills,Nash and Young. With the Rockets, rechri-
stened as Crazy Horse, Young made an excellent rock record, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. With
CSNY, he again took a back seat, although the songs he contributed to the
only studio album the quartet made, Deja Vu, are its best, particularly
"Helpless", the loveliest of his nostalgic ballads.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere became one of the original classics of
"underground" FM radio, while CSNY propelled Young onto AM pop radio for
the first time. His next two albums, After The Goldrush and Harvest, consolidated these
sucesses--Harvest produced his only Top Ten hit, "Heart of Gold". But in
making the transformation from an underground cult artist to a mainstream
(if still idiosyncratic) one, Young became blander. After The Goldrush, recorded with
Crazy Horse, still had some fine moments("After The Goldrush", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"). But Harvest was pure
formula product, the kind of commercially conservative record that came to
characterize too much of California pop rock in the Seventies.
Although Young had previously displayed flashes
of rock and roll ability, particularly on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with "Cowgirl in the
Sand" and "Cinnamon Girl", he had by now become singer/songwriter more
or less in the mold of James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. "Heart of Gold" was
a typical example of this kind of "soft rock".
What happened next may be the only surprising
thing in Neil Young's career. He produced an almost unwatchable movie
Journey Through The Past (the soundtrack is the first of Young's periodic retrospective
anthologies. He then toured, playing songs like "Heart of Gold" with a deafening
raucousness. The live album from the tour, Time Fades Away, was erratic, occasionally
explosive, flying in the face of soft rock convention with more screeching
guitars, scattered rhythms and a generally rowdy approach.
Young's next three albums, On The Beach, Tonight's The Night and Zuma reflect
an increasing interest in hard rock. The songs evoke a sombre mood
somewhere between lunatic revenge on the world for making him famous and
bitter regret for having dragged himself into such a mess. Although they
have been characterized as visionary and brave hard rock, many of them seem
like nothing more than recycled riffs from Young's earlier work with Buffalo Springfield and
Crazy Horse. The music is often diffuse, with moments of high intensity alternating
with much longer stretches of overamplified and off-pitch indulgence. The
vision is nothing more than a rehash of images and themes that have
appeared in Young's work from the beginning: the conflicts between Indians
and cowboys, privacy and fame, youth and age, drug-soaked Utopianism
and drug-soaked disaster. The net effect can be transcendant ("Tonight's The Night","Cortez..")
or moving (the passages in Tonight's The Night where Neil Young sings about Bruce Barry, a roadie
for Crazy Horse who died of an overdose). But it can also be simply silly,espeically
in the quasi-apocalyptic "Revolution Blues" from On The Beach, where Armageddon
arrives by dune buggy. Not surprisingly, Young's audience began to
Still, these albums seemed to open the door for
the first great hard rock statement from the West Coast pop plutocracy
since the heyday of Buffalo Springfield itself. But even though his next albums--ASnB and
CAT--restored him to the top of the charts, they did so by betraying
the promise of Zuma. What made Young a hitmaker again was bathetic
country-pop in the manner of "Heart of Gold". His rock and roll, meanwhile, remained
stunted, the possibilities of "Cortez..." unexplored.
Young was held back this time, not by his voice,
which in a hard rock context could be an asset, but by his refusal to
commit himself to one style and develop it. As a guitrist he never
progressed beyond the simple folk strums he must have used in Toronto folk
coffeehouses, or beyond the rudimentary power-chording he'd developed
with Crazy Horse. As a writer, he never explored the contradictions between writing
a song about the evanesence of love, "Like a Hurricane", and then following
it with the doltish dope ditty, "Roll Another Number".
The post-Zuma albums alternated between the mediocre
and the tedious. Yet they were hailed as contemporary masterpieces;Young was
called the greatest artist of the Seventies by a variety of influential
critics. There were several reasons for his--Young had seemingly spurned
mainstream acceptance after Harvest; he was the last California folk-rock
figure with much hard rock vitality; Dylan's star was in eclipse, and
Young's work fit neatly into the vacuum; Decade is a well structured
argument of the case for his work, right down to the liner notes; which
make everything he has done seem the product of deliberation, no matter
how random his flitting about may have been. Finally, the very skeletal
ineptitude of some of young's playing had a natural appeal in a rock scene
then bursting with punk rock primitivism--here was a minimalist who
could write interesting lyrics, too.
An oeuvre which includes "Mr.Soul," "The Loner,"
"Cowgirl in The Sand," "Only love Can Break Your Heart," "Tonight's The Night," "Cortez.." and the best parts of Young's final
studio LP of the Seventies,Rust Never Sleeps, must somehow be reckoned with.
But Young's most apocalyptic songs are not
visionary; they remain the product of certain psychological quirks.
Nor does his dabbling with a variety of styles mark him as an eclectic,
like the Beatles. Rather it is symptomatic of that refusal to commit
himself fully, which is the bane of everything he's ever created. Instead
of a unified body of work, Neil Young has forged only a series of fragments, some
relatively inspired, some absolutely awful.
If he seems more important than he really is,
that's because Young has mastered that Dylanesque trick of selling
whatever he does as a major statement, no matter its inadequacies. Yet
if there is a major difference between Bob Dylan and Neil Young, it is that Dylan
has always managed to make each of his shifting perspectives seem final
and irrevocable, while Young makes each seem tentative and equivocal. He
hedges all his bets. This is not the mark of a major artist. But it does
explain why Neil Young is an archetypal rock star for the Seventies.
Here's a passionate rebuttal on Cognomen of Marsh's critique.