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RAGGED BUT GLORIOUS : Young Enough to Know What Counts, Neil Keeps Delivering Music and Message

September 09, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

I bought my first stereo because of Neil Young.

More specifically, I bought it because the contraption in my parents' house, a relic from the Eisenhower Administration, was for some reason incapable of reproducing the guitar solos on Young's album, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere."

I must have played that album a dozen times on the Ike-Fi, more than enough to fall in love with every song. Then I heard a track on the radio--it must have been "Down By the River" or "Cowgirl in the Sand"--and realized that I had been missing something.

Listening to "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" (still the one Neil Young album to buy if you're too broke to afford any of the nine or 10 others that are absolutely essential) without Young's epic guitar excursions was like watching a nature program about rainbows in black and white. I was mad enough to throw the Ike in the cellar and get a modular stereo with squat cylindrical speakers made of plastic. It wasn't audiophile equipment, but it got the job done on those guitar solos.

Those plastic speakers pumped out a lot of Neil Young for a while. No rock artist ever started a solo recording career with three better albums than "Neil Young," "Everybody Knows" and "After the Goldrush," Young's output in 1969-70.

I also caught up on his work with the excellent '60s band, Buffalo Springfield, and admired the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young stuff that, in retrospect, doesn't hold up too well unless they're playing one of Young's songs. I stuck with him through "Harvest," his fourth solo album--an uneven record, but good enough to play to death along with the others.

Then Young put out a film called "Journey Through the Past." I can't recall just how I came to see it; it might have been on late-night TV. Nor can I remember much of what was in it--I have fleeting mental images of Stephen Stills mumbling into a camera, and people running around in white Ku Klux Klan sheets. What I do recall vividly is how bored, befuddled and disappointed I was.

Now, you can expect certain things from a bored, befuddled, disappointed 17-year-old, but forgiveness isn't one of them. I went on to other things, like college and Mott the Hoople, and let ol' Neil slide.

Say what you will about the value of rock criticism, but it was a 1979 interview in Rolling Stone that put Young back in my good graces.

The interviewer asked Young at one point what he thought about "Sweet Home Alabama," the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that tore into Young for the anti-Southern attitude of two of his songs, "Southern Man" (self-righteous but on target concerning the South's racist legacy, and, at any rate, truly rockin'), and "Alabama" (an incredibly sanctimonious waste).

"Well, I hope Neil Young will remember, Southern man don't need him around, anyhow," Skynyrd sang.

And in the interview, Young admitted he had it coming and applauded those Southern boys for giving him hell.

A guy like that, I could no longer ignore. I bought "Rust Never Sleeps," the new release Young talked about in the interview. By now I had a fairly decent-sounding stereo, but I'd probably have loved "Rust" even if I was still stuck with the Ike. I gave Neil another shot at the movies, too: the "Rust Never Sleeps" concert film, which, with its giant props, quirky, dwarf-like cast of extras, and great performances, was tremendous fun.

Backtracking, I discovered that Young hadn't just gotten suddenly lucky with "Rust Never Sleeps." He was riding a five-year streak of great work--the masterpiece, "Tonight's the Night," an audio wake suffused with late-night weariness, played-out depression and faint-dawning hopes; the rough-hewn "Zuma," the solid and varied "American Stars and Bars" and the pretty, folk-flavored "Comes a Time."

Young devoted the '80s to musical tourism, with visits to techno-rock ("Trans"), neo-metal ("Re*ac*tor"), '50s roots ("Everybody's Rockin' "), country music ("Old Ways") and horn-band blues ("This Note's for You"), along with a couple of inconsistent straight-ahead rock albums, "Landing on Water" and "Life." A spotty and willfully eccentric decade, but each release had its mo ments.

Lately, Young has been on another of his sustained hot streaks. His last three studio albums, "Freedom," (1989) "Ragged Glory" (1991) and "Harvest Moon," (1992) form rock's best body of work during that span. And, as he works his way toward age 50 (Young turns 48 in November), he remains the most focused, committed performer on the rock concert circuit.

Whether storming it up on the "Ragged Glory" tour or turning in a comfortably mellow acoustic performance, as he did last year at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, it has been a pleasure to watch a musician who feels his songs and relishes playing them as few others do.

During his recent streak, Young has kept his songwriting focus on themes that matter: how people (or nations) either keep faith with or fall away from ideals and commitments.

Maybe some of the challenges in his own life have kept Young from getting sidetracked by the usual rock-star egotism and frivolity. (Young has never seemed to care much about image or record sales; only his current "MTV Unplugged" live album appears calculated to cash in on a popular trend. But, what the heck--the performances on it are fine).

Young grew up with epilepsy, and two of his three children have cerebral palsy--his younger son is severely handicapped by the disease. He has seen some of the troubles that chance can dish out, and one supposes that they have played a part in forging his power to make rock 'n' roll seem like something incredibly deep: a pondering of life's pitfalls, an aggravated assault upon its lousiness, a transcendent amplification of its beauty and its joy.

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