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A family album

Neil Young's risky new project traces a fictional clan's story in song.

May 21, 2003|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

London — London

Sitting on a stool amid a half-circle of racked guitars, two pianos and a pipe organ, lit by candles and an overhead spotlight that casts his craggy face in shadows, Neil Young hunches over the microphone to confide in the 4,000 fans at the Hammersmith Apollo: "When I was about 3, my dad was working at his typewriter and I said, 'What are you doing?'

"My dad said, 'Writing, son.' I said, "What are you writing?' He said 'I dunno.' "

Boy and man, Young gnawed on that enigma, he says, until last year, when the "Greendale" album project came to him and he finally understood what his father (Scott Young, a well-known Toronto journalist and novelist) meant.

Young had no plan, certainly no "concept" when he embarked on the project, but one song arrived, then another, and soon an album was growing before his eyes.

It tells the fictional story of the Green family and its small town on the Northern California coast -- picket fences, drug dealing, cop killing, media invasions, corporate destruction of the environment and infringement of basic freedoms via the Patriot Act (not to mention the devil, who happens to be a local resident, doing his worst on all fronts).

"I'd never written songs like this before," he tells the audience. "I'd bring 'em into the studio day by day. I have no idea how this came along."

With a shrug, Young bends over his guitar again to press on with playing the new album start to finish, interleaved with narrative discourses outlining the latest dramatic developments in Greendale.

It's a high-risk venture.

As Elliot Roberts, Young's manager since 1968, said in an interview, "He's a challenge guy." And to answer this one -- the certain prospect of getting no radio play at all for the project, Young and Roberts decided on a combination of ancient and modern means to reach people.

The plan is to introduce the album gradually, long before its August release by Reprise Records. So although the album features backing by the rock outfit Crazy Horse, the songs were introduced on a 22-date solo acoustic tour of Europe.

Already this has set Internet reports and rumors by Young fans rippling round the globe. Then from June 15, while Young tours the U.S. with Crazy Horse (they'll be at the Greek Theatre July 22, 23 and 25), his Web site, neilyoung.com , will carry a track a week with background on the whole world of Greendale, including character biographies and family trees.

"So we'll have prepped people a good deal," says Roberts. The climax of the campaign will be the release of the album and a DVD film of the whole story directed by Young (there's no dialogue, though the characters occasionally mime to his vocals).

On Saturday at Hammersmith, however, most of the crowd has no clue what's to come as Young strums the gently rambling first song, "Falling From Above." Grandpa Green's on the porch grumbling about life and humanity "rolling through the fighting, the religious wars." Then he remembers, in a chorus elevated above sweet homily by Young's high, tremulous vocal, that "a little love and affection in everything you do / Will make the world a better place."

There's a full-throated roar of appreciation from the crowd. Encouraged, Young explains himself, and this night's open-minded congregation settles in for the latest adventure in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member's grand, always evolving artistic journey.

The "Greendale" plot is a tangle with many a loose end left untied. Vietnam veteran Earl Green gets the devil's help in selling his psychedelic paintings. His drug-dealing son, Jed, shoots a policeman and goes to jail. The policeman is mourned but turns out to be no angel. Grandpa dies -- "trying to be anonymous" -- when TV reporters mass on his doorstep. Earl's daughter Sun blooms into an eco-warrior chained to a statue of the American eagle and hollering, "Save the planet for another day / Hey big oil, whaddya say?"

Beyond the ineffable Young moments of beauty and ferocious moments of anger, sometimes his imaginative leaps from small-town saga to global politics overburden the music. "Leave the Driving," for example, works better in the film, where a quick-cut from the murder in Greendale to war footage from a Middle East street elucidates the lyric's perfunctory reference to an "explosion" overseas.

Again, sometimes the relentless acoustic guitar with an occasional wail of harmonica wears thin. Yet for the most part enough color and emotional charge to hold the crowd rapt are provided by Young's double-decker voice, ranging from rough growl to tender tenor, and by the changes he rings on guitar, with adroit picking and a driving twangy bass-string bottom line.

For light relief, after a fashion, Young concludes with a short set of favorites, not party-time but familiar, including "Lotta Love" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down" from his '70s work, as well as "War of Man" and "Harvest Moon" from the '90s.

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