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Neil Young Returns to the Harvest

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The flip side of that, of course, is not knowing what the audience is going to make of any given Neil Young show. The Center Stage taping is spectacular, with Young compensating for his concerns about the bright lights of TV by delving even deeper into the songs. He ends up playing twenty songs, almost two hours, for a show that will run only a half-hour (an hour-long version will appear on PBS next summer). A painfully intense rendition of 1977's "Like a Hurricane" on the pipe organ is the highlight – Young would later refer to it as "the Transylvania version," though it actually felt closer to Phantom of the Opera. (Too lunatic for VH-1, apparently: The song didn't make the cut for the show.)

The following night's concert at the gorgeously restored, turn-of-the-century Chicago Theater, however, is not such a pretty sight. The crowd is boisterous and vocal from the opening minutes. Several times, Young starts to play a song only to cut it short, claiming that he can't hear himself. "Don't think I'm fucking with you, okay?" he pleads from the stage. "But some of you guys who drink a lot of beer, you know how loud you can be compared to this."

Finally, Young delivers a brief, good-natured greatest-hits set, cutting off after about seventy-five minutes. "Tonight was the opposite of what I like to do on a musical level – tonight was survival," he says after the show. "But you have to be able to read it and roll with it. I don't have to play a sensitive song while people are yelling. I play the songs for myself, and if I'm distracted by the audience, I'll just stop."

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Neil Young

Young bears no malice for this segment of his following, the beer-swilling guys in Allman Brothers T-shirts who turned last winter's performances at New York's Beacon Theater into a nasty, heated battle between his desire to play unreleased new songs and their calls for his familiar rock & roll raveups. "Don't you have a lot of friends like that?" he asks. "Big outgoing guys who have a few drinks and just get blown out, but if they aren't drinking, their soulful side comes out and they're actually real sensitive? They just get so high, they feel it so much, that they think they're alone in their van listening to the songs."

Harvest Moon might seem like the ultimate concession to Young's old fans, but he sees it as a valid, even experimental enterprise. "People had been asking me to do it for twenty years, and I never could figure out what it was in the first place," he says. But when he wrote a batch of new songs and finished some old ones last summer in Colorado, the Harvest sound was what he heard in his head. "That's when I discovered what the hell I was doing, but only because the songs made me do it," he says. "It just happened again, whatever it was that happened back then."

The track "You and Me," a quiet paean to domesticity that quotes from the Harvest hit "Old Man," is the musical link between the albums, according to Young: "That song was started in 1975, but I never finished it. In 1976, [bassist] Tim Drummond heard it and said: 'You've got to finish that, man. That's like Harvest stuff, let's do that.' And that kinda freaked me out, I got spooked by it, because it was like someone said what it was before we did it. I don't want to feel like I'm just filling in the numbers." But along with this new batch of compositions came a new intro and last verse, and the twenty-year-long jump was completed.

In the notes to his 1978 anthology Decade, Young wrote: " 'Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." He still expresses ambivalence about Harvest: "When people start asking you to do the same thing over and over again, that's when you know you're way too close to something that you don't want to be near. I can't hold that against [Harvest], which I did; it's certainly got the depth of the other records. But it took a while to get to that. I just didn't want to do the obvious thing, because it didn't feel right."

Obviousness or predictability would be the last things of which Neil Young could be accused. Young asserts that all the disparate styles he has explored – from his Sixties work with folk-rock pioneer Buffalo Springfield to the altered electro-vocals of Trans (1982) to the rockabilly of Everybody's Rockin' (1983) – are related, that the relevance his listeners find in the more accessible records is of a piece with the weirder, sometimes patently incomprehensible stuff. "Deep inside [the Rockin' band] the Shocking Pinks or Trans is the same stuff that people are hearing now," he says. "It's just buried; it's not on the surface. And some of it is more intense than what people are hearing now."

Nor has Young ever turned his back on any part of his musical past. His tour bus, after all, still has Buffalo Springfield emblazoned on the back (making it hard to miss parked outside the stage door after a show). He doesn't even rule out another go-round with his cohorts Crosby, Stills and Nash. "I'm good friends with all of them, and we could literally be making music together anytime," Young says. "If we had the songs and the circumstances were right, we could do something great. I think the potential's still there."

Driven, open, restless (he even named the band he took to Europe after Freedom Young and the Restless), Young's primitive guitar screech and yowling voice have served as lasting inspiration for wandering souls and fuck-ups of several generations now. In the 1990s, Neil Young is simply so anachronistic that he's cutting edge.

"I like to walk," he says when asked what he does during a typical day on tour after a lifetime in the rock & roll business. "A lot of times, I'll stop the bus and walk for three or four miles and then let the bus catch up with me on the road."

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