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Neil Young, digital pioneer

His 'Archives: Vol. 1, 1963-1972' sets a new standard for career retrospectives over 10 Blu-ray discs, 10 DVDs or eight CDs.

May 31, 2009|Randy Lewis

Neil Young has spent the better part of a half-century as one of rock music's quintessential iconoclasts, a living, breathing, thinking, hard-rocking paradox.

On any given night in concert he can be the archetypal folk singer-songwriter, strumming an acoustic guitar while singing artfully poetic lyrics that course through the most delicate recesses of the human heart; on another, he'll happily make eardrums bleed with foot-stomping, rib-cage- and saber-rattling electrified rock.

The composer of eloquent tracts lionizing the beauty of the natural world or lamenting the corruption of the Native American way of life by Old World invaders can turn around and wax rhapsodic about the 20th century invention that arguably plundered the environment more than any other: the automobile.

The mercurial artist who has appeared to flit from one creative impulse to the next -- most famously during the '80s, ricocheting from electronic rock to rockabilly to country to blues and back to classic rock -- also spent much of two decades methodically fashioning a groundbreaking way for fans to explore his life's work.

That would be the long-delayed career retrospective finally set for release Tuesday, "Neil Young Archives: Volume 1, 1963-1972." This inaugural installment spans his first recordings with his high school band, the Squires, in Winnipeg, Canada, to his tenure in Los Angeles with the short-lived but widely influential Buffalo Springfield. It continues through his initial collaborations with Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and his first solo recordings, including his 1972 commercial breakthrough, "Harvest." It also marks the first home video release of his 1972 film, "Journey Through the Past."

The set is massive -- and just the first of what Young envisions ultimately as four or five volumes. Reprise Records, his longtime label, is putting it out in three formats, encompassing 10 discs on Blu-ray or DVD, or as an eight-CD set.

But don't get him started about the MP3 version.

"Apple has made music into wallpaper, so what can I tell you?" Young, 63, said last week, sitting on a couch in the Santa Monica office of his longtime manager, Elliot Roberts. "As a matter of fact, there's a thing that comes in the box where you can have this whole set on MP3 for nothing," he said, adding derisively: "It's worth it."

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Digital, his way

Young's mission extends beyond just an exhaustive documentation of his own music, imposing as that task alone would be for the artist, who even in his teens was socking away memorabilia from garage bands and mailing letters to himself containing his song lyrics and chord progressions to establish copyright protection.

He's come up with a way to redefine the way digital information is organized and retrieved in a manner that is likely to have widespread impact in the music community and beyond.

His lifelong proclivity for collecting and organizing has yielded "The Shakey Platform," named for his cinematic pseudonym, Bernard Shakey. It accommodates not just boatloads of music -- 128 tracks in the first volume, nearly half of them previously unreleased songs, alternate takes or different mixes -- but also reams of photos, press clippings, lyrics, audio and video interview clips and mini-films he's made over the decades.

In short, Young has cranked the boxed set to 11.

"I'm very jacked up about this," Young said, dressed typically casual in a black T-shirt and faded blue jeans. His sideburns might be graying at the edges, but his hazel eyes sparkle with devilish joy as he fiddles with the black game controller of the Sony Playstation 3 unit he's using to navigate one of the discs.

That's his preferred machine for the Blu-ray set, the version he's most enthusiastic about because of the advanced interactivity -- users can listen to music while exploring the other features -- and superior audio and video quality. It's also the priciest, at $299, compared to $199 for the DVD set and $99 for the CDs.

"You can click around on the photo gallery," he noted, stopping to point out a shot of his kindergarten class that shows, among other things, his penchant for plaid shirts was already in place at age 5. "That's me in the top row." Moving on, he's an entertaining tour guide: "There, she was my early girlfriend . . . That's my dad . . . It kind of just gives a background."

It's like leafing through a family scrapbook -- and there is a classy 238-book with the Blu-ray and DVD sets that gathers a lot of the material in tangible form -- albeit one with a soundtrack of some of the most distinctive, emotionally daring music of the rock era. It's a dense, richly illuminating package that traces with great fluidity the arc of Young's growth from starry-eyed kid to bona fide rock star and esteemed songwriter within a few short years.

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