Neil Young proves life in rock & roll can begin again at fortysomething.
"Did you see Dracula?"
Neil Young breaks into a wide grin over a bowl of postconcert fruit salad. "Man, they got some wind in Dracula that's scary," he says. "It's beautiful."
Later that night, on his vintage 1970 tour bus parked outside a Chicago hotel, a discussion about growing up in Canada quickly leads back, somehow, to thoughts of Transylvania. "I can't get it out of my mind!" Young exclaims, shaking his shaggy head. "I got to go back and see it again."
Though his hair and the massive mutton chops might seem to indicate more of an affinity for the Wolf Man, Neil Young and Count Dracula actually have a surprising amount in common. Both spend much of their time underground, occasionally surfacing with surprising, even shocking results. Both can change style and persona to get their work done. And – most significantly – both seem not to grow older as the years go by.
At forty-seven, Young has turned the clock back a full twenty years with his new album, Harvest Moon. Recapturing the sweeping melodies and lush harmonies of 1972's Harvest, still his most popular release, Harvest Moon represents Young's first appearance in the Top Twenty in almost ten years.
But Harvest Moon is more complicated than a simple nostalgia trip or a remake. Beneath the pedal steels and dulcet tones of Harvest, the twenty-six-year-old Young sounded wizened beyond his years as he first confronted aging and mortality. "As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp?" he asked in his eerie, pinched voice on the title track; on "Are You Ready for the Country?" he sang, "I ran into the hangman, and he said, 'It's time to die.' " Even "Heart of Gold," Young's only Number One single, ended each verse with the tag "and I'm getting old."
Harvest Moon, on the other hand, is a chronicle of survival, focusing on loss and compromise and the ultimate triumphs of being a married father approaching fifty. It's full of bittersweet tributes to lost friends, dead hounds and love grown old. "What this album is about is this feeling, this ability to survive and continue and grow and get higher than you were before," says Young. "Not just maintain, not just feel well. Not just 'I'm still alive at forty-five.' You can be more alive."
It hasn't been an easy ride these two decades for Young. He has suffered through the deaths of several musicians close to him, from Danny Whitten (guitarist in Crazy Horse, Young's frequent garage-rock collaborator) in 1972 to the passing in 1991 of Steve Lawrence, saxophonist in his bluesy big-band project the Bluenotes. Young went through a controversial, contentious period artistically throughout the 1980s, ending up in a surreal court battle with Geffen Records, his label at the time, for making what the company called "unrepresentative" albums – for making albums that didn't sound like Neil Young albums, whatever that could possibly mean. Most harrowing, he has two sons, by two different women, both of whom were born with cerebral palsy (he also has an eight-year-old daughter who does not have the condition).
Yet Young has managed to produce the most consistently compelling body of work of any musician of his generation. Who else has remained so relevant, so vital, so influential in so many musical genres? The last few years in particular – beginning with Freedom, in 1989, through the cataclysmic Ragged Glory (1990) and his subsequent tour with Crazy Horse, and continuing with his soaring, show-stealing performance at the Bob Dylan tribute last October and the release of Harvest Moon – have seen Young at an artistic peak, following his own muse as always and resolutely refusing to fall into the "oldies act" category that has beset virtually all of his contemporaries.
"If you're charged up and have all this experience, what else is there?" Young says of his amazingly graceful rock rock & roll maturation. "When you're young, you don't have any experience – you're charged up, but you're out of control. And if you're old and you're not charged up, then all you have is memories. But if you're charged and stimulated by what's going on around you and you also have experience, you know what to appreciate and what to pass by. And then you're really cruising."
The head of corporate marketing for WTTW-TV, Chicago's PBS affiliate, strides to the front of the room in the station's studios. Neil Young is about to tape the first installment of Center Stage, a new series coproduced by WTTW and VH-1. The station rep welcomes the small crowd, filled with industry weasels and local music-biz types, and makes one request of the 200 or so invited guests.
"Anybody who's got a tie on or is looking too corporate," he says, "could you please take them off? It's important that this look like a Neil Young crowd."
The next night, though, at an actual Neil Young concert in front of actual Neil Young fans, there are quite a few ties in the house. Their owners are seated next to kids in frayed flannel shirts, next to preppie types in Docksiders, next to rockers in leather jackets. Garth Brooks listeners mingle with Nirvana-heads. Woodstock meets Lollapalooza. An aging hipster in a linen jacket shares a joint in the men's room with a fresh-scrubbed teen.
"Can we get it together, can we still stand side by side?" Young sings in Harvest Moon's "From Hank to Hendrix." With the continuing fragmentation of the pop-music audience, a Neil Young solo concert is as close to a rock & roll consensus as you're going to find.
"They come from everywhere for the acoustic thing," Young says. "They won't meet anywhere else. But once I define it with a band, I lose half of them and bring in a bunch more extremists from one place or another."
The acoustic thing. Young has been touring off and on for the past year with just a fleet of guitars, a couple of pianos and a banjo or two, hitting two or three cities at a time and then retreating – vampirelike – to his ranch in California for a few weeks. The one consistent element in these shows is his refusal to use a set list at any time – much to the chagrin of the Center Stage film crew, which scrambles to shoot Young as he wanders from instrument to instrument, scratching his head and figuring out what he wants to play next.
"There's a lot I get out of doing this acoustic thing that I don't get any other way," Young says. "It opens up the music and the songs and what they're about. Being able to pick things out and change them around. A band can cover that stuff up. There's nothing worse than walking out and knowing exactly what you're going to do. At this time of my life, I don't need that."
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