All-Neil Young Edition
Since last fall, Neil Young has released the massive box set, Neil Young Archives, Vol. II (1972-1976), Way Down In The Rust Bucket (a live album with Crazy Horse, recorded in 1990), and Young Shakespeare (a solo live album recorded in 1971). Crazy Horse wins the day. I don’t know what it is, other than Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) being both rocksteady and loose as gravel, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro’s electric guitar shadowing Young’s while still having a personality, or their ragged “we’re not Crosby, Stills, and Nash and that’s a good thing” backing vocals, but Young always seems at his freest when he plays with Crazy Horse. That’s not to say there aren’t other finds to be found in what must be three hundred hours of music, give or take.
1. “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” (Way Down In The Rust Bucket; Live at The Catalyst, Santa Cruz, 1990)
On the nascent internet c. 1995 or so, I was trading for Neil Young bootlegs with faceless fans in Europe, and one of my first catches was this Nov. 13, 1990 show with Crazy Horse. Ragged Glory had just been released, and in need of a tune-up, the Horse + Young played a club in Santa Cruz called The Catalyst. One of the appeals of this 19-song set is the selection, and “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze,” the second song played, is maybe the best example. In 1995, I had been unable to find Re*ac*tor since it existed only on vinyl, so hearing this performance was like being shot down one of those water slide tubes coated with the greasy remnants of the suntan-oiled heathens who descended before you. Parse that as you will.
2. “Danger Bird” (Way Down In The Rust Bucket; Live at The Catalyst, Santa Cruz, 1990)
Hello, this song had never been played lived before. Hard to understand why that was. Before Low was slowing tunes down to a crawl, Young was not afraid to stalk through the countryside as a monolith. The guitar solos here defy an easy description, though I’m tempted to walk you through each goddamn phrase, each corrosive peal, the calm massiveness, the squelching pulloffs in the second solo. Doom sounds organic, even graceful.
3. “Ride My Llama” (Neil Young Archives, Vol. II: 8: Dume, 1975)
It’s all about the drums. One, two, three, four. Steady, relentless, the march around which the handclaps and every other rhythm spin. Recorded in May 1975 during the Zuma sessions, “Ride My Llama” reveals itself to be a perfectly good song for the Horse, and the band’s loping attack adds an edge of menace to the American mythologizing-meets-indigenous futurism, which is really a callback to the primal ascension of man’s mind into the cosmos or something like that. (Remember, when Neil sings “Like any other primitive would,” this is the highest praise. It’s a loaded phrase, still, but nonetheless a key to Young’s music: a hidden truth lost through the progress of so-called civilization. “It’s old but it’s good.” Yessir. Also, if your weed is old, you should still share it.) Like any Neil Young & Crazy Horse performance worth a damn, this feels like they learned the song yesterday and have known it since they were born.
4. “Stringman” (Neil Young Archives, Vol. II: 10: Odeon Budokan, 1976)
One of two live versions of this song, which I think was considered for American Stars ‘n’ Bars, and surfaced first on Young’s MTV Unplugged set in 1993, this “Stringman” was not recorded at the Odeon Budokan but at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in March 1976. After the first three songs, you’ll need a breather and a weeper, and “Stringman” is one of Young’s most evocative and compact lyrics. It begins by mourning the past, almost sentimental–Young’s tenor, sad and slow (and even when it’s howling) can’t help but sound vulnerable–but then you’ve got the vet who’s got a jones for the war he can never go back to and “the lovers on the blankets / that the city turned to whores,” and the knife digs in. I’ve always heard this as an elegy. It’s the Stringman’s whose wife has died, but Young, who knew a thing or two about losing friends by this point, sings as if the chaos of “all those strings” has won out. Here is the inverse of the Crazy Horse sound: instead of making noise so wide it points to the empty spaces, Young is disappearing into a hole.
5. “Tired Eyes” (Neil Young Archives, Vol. II: 4: Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live, 1976)
A ringer, already released, from a September 1973 show that sounds like no one made it home from the previous night’s show. After some business about taking off his sunglasses, Young says, “Welcome to Miami Beach, everything’s cheaper than it looks. Let’s have a little sun on that tree. We’re doing okay in the Seventies, we really are. This tree’s comin’ back. Everything’s okay. Spiro [Agnew] says it’s all right. I wonder if he’s sleeping so well tonight.” “I doubt it,” someone shouts. “That’s enough sun, man, this’s a sad song,” Young continues. “The sun’s gone down. Hope all the rest of you can do it, too.” And that’s pretty much the song.
6. “Like a Hurricane” (Way Down In The Rust Bucket; Live at The Catalyst, Santa Cruz, 1990)
More or less for the guitar moan at 3:16, and every guttural wail and shriek that follows. Young’s solos rarely sound phoned-in, but on “Like a Hurricane” and other songs on this set, you can tell he’s trying things out, looking for new phrases to rejuvenate the welltrod roads. The verses and choruses can seem like they exist solely to provide landmarks for the excursions on his Les Paul into ancient feedback. What’s the line again? “It’s old but it’s good.” The solos here reach back to the primitive, before words. Imagine black-and-white Jack Kirby art, prehistoric gods clashing with industrial modern gods, the wind of their punches driving a railroad spike through your chest.
You can find all this stuff at Young’s site or in various internet locales.