It was supposed to be something holy, for God’s sake, when old Ernie sat down at the piano . . . I swear to God, If I were a piano player, or an actor or something, and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me. People always clap at the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddamn closet.
HOLDEN CAUFIELD, The Catcher in the Rye
MY PARENTS OCCUPIED the bedroom directly above mine while I was growing up. Luckily they were heavy sleepers, and loud music late at night didn’t seem to bother them much – unless, of course, it was the high-pitched guitar or vocal work of Neil Young. On such occasions, my mother would trudge downstairs, rap at the door and stand there with a look that suggested the wrath of every deprived sleeper over the ages.
“Are we going to listen to this man baying at the moon all night?” she would invariably ask, on behalf of my father and herself.
There was a time, sure, when I tried to explain to them what it was to be a Neil Young fan. “How important is an in-tune vocal?” . . . “But it’s great when he hits the same note thirty-eight times in ‘Down By The River.’ ” Here was an artist, as opposed to an entertainer. Here was someone who would never turn up hawking his wares on some talk show.
Neil Young’s popularity would soon speak for itself. In 1972, my parents would hear “Heart of Gold” played in the supermarket, find it tuneful, and begin to see things differently. When Neil Young announced he would be playing San Diego, our hometown, on a rare concert tour, it became a family outing. My sister, my teenage cousins visiting from Kentucky, my parents and I all went to the show.
Neil Young appeared right on time, nervously walking out in front of the screaming crowd, one arm upraised. He looked skittish and tired as he picked up a guitar and began to sing an acoustic song, one of the first he ever wrote, called “Sugar Mountain.” The audience rushed the stage, shouted for the electric songs and Young called his band out onstage. But instead of Buffalo Springfield chestnuts and standards like “Down By The River,” they played a set of reckless new music, causing no small tension in the arena.
Then, during the final song of the evening, the pressure seemed to cause Neil Young to crack. He began to shout, “Wake up San Diego, Get up San Diego . . .” A few minutes later, the houselights were turned on and the hall was filled with an eerie silence.
“He acts like a drunken monkey,” said one of my cousins. The rest of the family didn’t say much. We didn’t talk about Neil Young for the next few years.
Recently, I found myself back in the same old room late one night, typing this article and listening to Neil Young records, when a familiar knock came at the door.
“Well,” said my mother with a note of sentimentality. “A survivor.”
THE FACT THAT NEIL YOUNG CAN barely relate to his successful current album, Comes a Time, is typical of his career, and perhaps one of the reasons he is a survivor. He’s thirty-three and he’s spent twelve years in the forefront of the most fickle of businesses, shattering expectations. “It’s in the middle of a soft place,” he says of the album. “It was made to come out a year ago and got hung up with pressing problems. I hear it on the radio and it sounds nice . . . But I’m somewhere else now. I’m into rock & roll.”
Held up because Young had approved a faulty test pressing of the album, and then bought back $160,000 worth of the already printed record because of his mistake, Comes a Time is a complacent Neil Young album. In the time that it took for the LP to come out, something in music changed. Much of the music made by artists who came to popularity in the Sixties and Seventies began to fall on deaf young ears.
“I first knew something was going on when we visited England a year and a half ago,” says Young. Sitting in the half-light of his ranch home in northern California after the end of his Rust Never Sleeps tour, Young speaks with an urgency. “Kids were tired of the rock stars and the limousines and the abusing of stage privileges as stars. There was new music the kids were listening to. As soon as I heard my contemporaries saying, ‘God, what the fuck is this . . . This is going to be over in three months,’ I knew it was a sure sign right there that they’re going to bite it if they don’t watch out. And a lot of them are biting it this year. People are not going to come back to see the same thing over and over again. It’s got to change. It’s the snake that eats itself. Punk music, New Wave. You call it what you want. It’s rock & roll to me, it’s still the basis of what’s going on.”