Sunday, March 04, 2012

Top 50 Albums, #32 - "Rust Never Sleeps," Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Neil Young didn’t even merit a chapter in the first edition of “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll.” He got one in the second edition that was released in 1980 (the monumental first edition had come out in ’76), but if he read Dave Marsh’s essay, I doubt that he cared for it much. Marsh called Young “Dylan’s greatest disciple,” and concluded that “Young has mastered that Dylanesque trick of selling whatever he does as a major statement, no matter its inadequacies.”

But Marsh went even further than that – he wrote, “nor does his dabbling with a variety of styles mark him as an eclectic, like the Beatles. Rather it is symptomatic of that refusal to commit himself fully, which is the bane of everything he’s ever created. Instead of a unified body of work, Neil Young has forged only a series of fragments, some relatively inspired, some absolutely awful.”

Damning with faint praise, indeed.

Yet, Marsh has a point. And he wrote this before the most significant (and longest) fallow period of Young’s career, which (coincidentally or not) coincided with the 8 years of the Reagan Administration. During that 8-year period, Young released albums every year, and not a single one of them was memorable. So yes, Young’s lack of consistency has been maddening, sort of like that guy Marsh compared him to – what was his name? Oh yeah, Dylan.

Set the inconsistency aside for a moment, and consider the albums that Neil Young has recorded over the course of his career – some with Crazy Horse, some with the close-knit group of musicians he tends to use for his collections of softer songs, and some with both: “After the Gold Rush,” “Harvest,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Zuma,” “Comes A Time,” “Rust Never Sleeps,” “Freedom,” “Ragged Glory,” “Harvest Moon,” “Sleeps With Angels,” “Mirror Ball” (with Pearl Jam!), “Prairie Wind.” If you’re a Neil Young fan, you probably have a couple of others to throw in the pile. But right there you have a dozen albums that I’d call excellent or downright great, depending on my mood.

With “Rust Never Sleeps,” there is little doubt – it is a great album. And it provides the listener with a slice of both genres that Young has mastered so well – the acoustic ballad, and the screaming electric rocker. But even though the songs are acoustic, they’re hardly “soft” – the record is thematically unified, most strikingly through its first and last songs – “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” It’s the same song, first performed by an unaccompanied Young on acoustic guitar, and then with Crazy Horse at their hardest and loudest. The album depicts the journey from out of the blue and into the black, setting the tone with these words:

The king is gone but he’s not forgotten
This is the story of a Johnny Rotten
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust
The king is gone but he’s not forgotten

Remember, it had been just two years since the death of Elvis, and a little over a year since the Sex Pistols performed their final show at Winterland in San Francisco.

The entire first side is acoustic Neil, with the intricate ballad “Thrasher,” the odd little ditty “Ride My Llama,” and the transcendent “Pocahontas.” Some might suggest the latter is just another in the long line of Young songs decrying the fate of Native Americans, but this is one of the best, featuring these memorable lines:

I wish I was a trapper
I would give a thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the mornin’ on the fields of green
In the homeland we’ve never seen

The second side begins with the legendary “Powderfinger,” legendary because of its status as the song Young gave to Lynyrd Skynyrd just prior to the fiery plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines in the fall of 1977. Appropriately, it’s a song about death, the protagonist being a young man set to defend his homestead from (likely Yankee) invaders. The song sets up the boy to be a hero, but ends just as you might expect:

Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Just think of me as one you never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her

After the quite funny “Welfare Mothers” (yes, it is a joke) and the harrowing “Sedan Delivery,” the album reaches a climax with the guitars of Young and Frank Sampedro turned up real loud. This time, amidst screaming feedback, the words are a bit different:

The king is gone but he’s not forgotten
Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?
It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps
The king is gone but he’s not forgotten

And with that, the album completes its journey. And it’s one that should not be missed.

Rust Never Sleeps (1979) Produced by Neil Young, David Briggs and Tim Mulligan

My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)/Thrasher/Ride My Llama/Pocahontas/Sail Away/Powderfinger/Welfare Mothers/Sedan Delivery/Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)

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