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Young And His 'Garage Rock'--keeping The Flame Burning

November 16, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

CHICAGO — Signs of the rejuvenated Neil Young's "garage rock" instincts are seen at every turn on his current U.S. concert tour. Before the start of each show, a vintage Rolling Stones album is played over the sound system. The snarling music is an enduring vinyl definition of the garage-rock style--the kind of raw, spirited rock 'n' roll blasted out by enthusiastic young bands in their makeshift rehearsal rooms.

The mural that hangs over the front of the stage as the audience files in adds to the spirit: a painting of a battered garage door, complete with nicks and broken windows. The mural is lifted to reveal oversized items associated with a run-down garage: discarded tires, old license plates, cockroaches.

The concert itself--reuniting Young with his fierce Crazy Horse band--takes the form of a rehearsal, complete with such interruptions as an exterminator spraying for bugs, a neighbor complaining about the godawful noise and, finally, a squad car arriving to call the whole thing to a close.

This is a risky concept for the 41-year-old musician, because it requires Young to perform with the intensity and desire of a young, hungry musician--or look ludicrous trying to be a garage-rocker.

But Young and Crazy Horse live up to the best garage-rock tradition. Their polish and craft certainly distinguish the band from a group of new, aspiring performers, yet they play new and old material with a passion that is frequently inspiring. Young bounces across the stage with the vitality of a cheerleader, then centers himself with a punishingly primal guitar solo.

This tour, which includes stops Monday through Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, is a triumphant return to form for Young, one of the most gifted and enigmatic figures ever in rock; a man whose artistic independence rivals that of Bob Dylan, one of his most powerful influences.

After experimental sidesteps into country music, rockabilly and techno-rock, Young has returned to the grueling and haunting terrain that he explored in such albums as "Tonight's the Night" in 1975 and "Rust Never Sleeps" in 1979.

The latter contained a controversial line that has been widely debated in rock: "It's better to burn out than to rust." Some punk and heavy-metal rockers have adopted it as a slogan--a justification for reckless or extreme behavior. Yet John Lennon rejected its literal message. Nothing is worth killing yourself for, said Lennon, especially rock 'n' roll.

On the afternoon of a concert here, Young sat in his customized tour bus, which was parked in the hotel lot. He spoke at length about his renewed rock spirit, his improved health and the "better-to-burn-out-than-rust" line.

"This tour is like a rebirth of something that's real," Young said. "I haven't played straight rock 'n' roll since 1978, except for a little bit on 'Reactor.' I held back everything for so long. Now I have the energy. It's like you've (stored it) and suddenly have this massive impulse to release it. I always knew it would come back. I just didn't know when."

Here's a portion of the 90-minute interview with Young:

Do you still think it is better to burn out than to rust?

Yeah, the essence of rock 'n' roll is the flame burning. If you go out there and (ration) yourself, you are just maintaining, and you're not a rock 'n' roller anymore. That's why I don't do (a tour like this) every year. You have to get (in shape) . . . prepare yourself the same way you would for a championship fight, so that you can give your all on stage. . . .

Look at Bruce Springsteen. He goes to the edge of the burnout in his shows and says, "Here I am. I'm in great shape. . . . I'm pushing myself as far as I can . . . and I'm going to do it every night." I feel that way, too. I'm going to stay in your face (on stage) until I'm finished and then I'll be gone and if I blow up, then that's the way I want to go. It's not because I don't respect myself. It's because this is where I want to be and where my pride tells me I have to be.

But you and Bruce are both very concerned with maintaining your health, very anti-drugs. Some people seem to think "burn out" means living out some tragic life style.

That's not the way it is put forth in the song. I couldn't do this show. . . . I couldn't put that much energy into it if I didn't take care of myself physically. The reason I'm moving about so much on this tour is that I'm in the best shape of my life.

What made you so conscious of health?

I had polio when I was 6 and I (experienced) post-polio syndrome a few years ago. I woke up one morning and my hands were numb and everything was messed up. I figured maybe I was just getting old. Then it got to the point where I couldn't even pick up the guitar with my hand. So I started considering some type of surgery.

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