“Don’t Let it Bring You Down” is my third favorite Neil Young song.
For a long time, my favorite was “Down by the River,” but that was before I owned the debut, which I first heard in the dorm room of a guy I can’t recall who insisted I listen to “Last Trip to Tulsa.” And then I’d hear “Emperor of Wyoming” now and again and it would catch my ear and after learning it was Mr. Young I’d start to listen for it, kinda like “Peaches en Regalia,” which didn’t sound like the Zappa I expected. But really, it’s what comes thereafter, the second song on the debut, my second favorite Neil Young song, “The Loner.”
Fifty years of classic rock radio have made it so most Neil Young fans, and some who are not, are aware of “The Loner,” but the truth is back in the early seventies most people started with “After the Gold Rush”…and stopped with “Harvest.”
I guess that’s an artist, leaving the successful Buffalo Springfield with no name recognition to go solo, which is one of the reasons “Neil Young” was such a stiff when it came out.
And the truth is “The Loner” doesn’t sound like anything Neil cut thereafter, with its organ intro and direct optimistic feel, in counterpoint to the lyrics.
But my favorite Neil Young song is also on the debut, a couple of tracks later…
“I’ve Been Waiting for You”…FOR SUCH A LONG TIME!
“There was a woman he knew
About a year or so ago
She had something
That he needed
And he pleaded with her not to go
On the day that she left
He died but it did not show”
He was a loner and he finally connected, and now she’s gone and he’s DEVASTATED! That’s the truth of the loner, he’s so introverted, so diffident, but he wants to be rescued, he wants to connect, he yearns to share his stories and be known.
And the intro of “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is also unique in Young’s canon. A blast of distortion, multiple guitars and even an “ahhh” and then…
“I’ve been looking for a woman to save my life Not to beg or to borrow A woman with the feeling of losing once or twice Who knows how it could be tomorrow”
In “I’ve Been Waiting for You” Neil is not just singing about the loner, HE IS THE LONER! He’s expressing his desire, his inner thoughts, and even though millions were ultimately exposed to his call the truth is the song is so personal.
And it’s all about the move, when you take the risk, which too often fails. There are some men who hit on women indiscriminately, and then there are others who get fixated on a girl for a long time and have to dig deep for the gumption to talk to them.
“I’ve been waiting for you
And you’ve been coming to me
For such a long time now
Such a long time now”
For some love comes easily. Usually it’s because of their good looks, sometimes their open personality, but most men are average, they struggle, they fantasize there’s someone just like them who will understand them, who is shy in life but will become awake and alive once they connect with him.
I didn’t know “Young Shakespeare” came out last Friday. I’d read all the hype about February’s archival live release, “Way Down in the Rust Bucket,” but that’s not really the Neil Young sound I’m enamored of. I’ve got all those albums, hell, I even bought “Trans,” but when Neil’s on stage with the persona that endeared him to the Gen-X’ers, the Pearl Jam generation, I smile, but I’m not riveted. For me, the song has to outshine the solos, the playing, and it seems that the live Crazy Horse stuff is the opposite. I know there are people who want their music loud and edgy, and truthfully sometimes I like it that way too, something that squeezes all other thoughts out of my brain, but it’s the melody and the riff that hook me most. This is my problem with most of today’s music on the Active Rock format. It grew out of Metallica, not Led Zeppelin. One and done for me on “Way Down in the Rust Bucket.” But “Young Shakespeare”? I could listen to it FOREVER!
You’ve got to know, once upon a time Neil Young was not a god, never mind the only credible person left from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young supergroup. Neil needs to do it his own way, he may make mistakes, but he doesn’t sell out, and that’s the cause of his longevity. We’re drawn to the work of those who go their own way, who are less worried about satisfying the audience than satisfying themselves. All this is to say when “After the Gold Rush” came out, most people had never heard of Neil Young, “Cinnamon Girl” was not ubiquitous, never mind “Down by the River.” And when you dropped the needle on this third solo album the first song you heard was “Tell Me Why.”
Like the opener of the debut, “Tell Me Why” started at full speed, it had no introduction, it needed none, it was like picking up a party line and listening in. And truthfully, it was never one of my favorites.
“Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself When you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell”
These were the memorable lyrics of “Tell Me Why.” And in time everybody knew them. Suddenly, the protests were over, the war was still going on, but we licked our wounds, went back to the land and moved on, we were suddenly old. It happened in a matter of months. “Ohio” was in May, “Tell Me Why” was only the following September. Of 1970.
“Look at mother nature on the run
In the 1970s”
The change from the sixties to the seventies has been lost to the sands of time, but it was quite dramatic. You felt the change, things were not the same like they were with the millennium. We were worn out, the sixties could not go on, but now what?
“After the Gold Rush.” It was the first pure seventies album, in not only tone and sound but lyrically. Neil called the year out, what was gonna happen in the 1970s, with the land, the country, US!
So “Young Shakespeare” starts off with…
And then picking, it’s “Tell Me Why,” but it’s solo acoustic, the notes are still there, but Neil’s vocal dominates, and the sound is pure, assuming you’re listening on a good system you’re jetted right back to the era, when a good system was everything, when we needed to get closer to the music. It’s fifty years later, but Neil is right there in the speakers, as if not a day has gone by.
But it’s the second song, a left turn, a new one, that makes you realize this project is different, memorable. Neil gives an intro, an explanation, in an era before you could excavate the meaning of all these songs, but if you were in the hall… “Old Man” is intimate, in all iterations, but especially here, sans the penumbra, stripped down to just the core elements, A YEAR BEFORE IT WAS COMMERCIALLY RELEASED! You’re listening, wondering what it was like being in the venue. Sure, most people see new music as anathema, but there’s a thin layer of artists, a very thin layer, who can pull it off, draw your attention and keep it. And one of those is Neil Young. Here “Old Man” is a song, not a statement. Long before it emanated from everybody’s speakers throughout campus.
But the real surprise is “Ohio,” which we always saw as a record, not a song, something that was of a time and place, the spring of 1970, not 1971, when this version was performed. And I’m listening and I’m thinking how much worse things are today, how we never could have predicted this, how back then if you were a music fan, if you listened to Neil Young, if you were a boomer, you shared a mind-set. The thought of rednecks, conservatives loving this music? IMPOSSIBLE! We had an army, and we all belonged. And it wasn’t so much Woodstock itself, but the movie and the triple album set nearly a year later, in April 1970, that made us realize we were more than a tribe, that we were the dominant force.
And if you bought “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” you knew the concomitant track to “Down by the River” on the second side, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” with a memorable melody and lyrics, but it was the instrumental interludes that made it stick out, don’t forget, this was when the Allman Brothers were starting to stretch out.
Even more interesting than “Old Man” is the medley of “A Man Needs a Maid and “Heart of Gold,” once again a year before they were released commercially. I’m sitting here thinking how you can’t say that anymore, that a man needs a maid, whatever your intention might be, it just sounds bad. And “A Man Needs a Maid” is the opposite of today’s music, it’s heavy and meaningful, that’s one of the main reasons you listened to “Harvest,” to marinate in not only the sound, but the words, this was a personal statement and it was clear that not only did we need to listen to it, we had to embrace it. AM music was disposable, FM music was not. And the funny thing is sans the strings, all that production, “A Man Needs a Maid” is just as heavy, just as meaningful, but more direct, there’s no scrim between the performer and the listener, it’s all up front and personal.
The closing track on “Young Shakespeare” is “Sugar Mountain.” Neil says he didn’t put it on an album because he didn’t like it that much, but… Once Neil hit, “Sugar Mountain” was all over the radio, it was a treat, kind of like “Thriller” in 1984 on MTV, but with a totally different feel and meaning.
And the second song from the end is the one and only “Down by the River.” I played that on the guitar, back before anybody even knew what it was. I was working at a summer camp and had everybody singing along, it’s got such a dramatic, direct chorus.
And before “Down by the River” it’s “Helpless,” from “Deja Vu,” released a year previously, when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the biggest band in the land, before they broke up. And the truth is I never cottoned to the song, I was more of a Stills and Crosby guy, I knew they needed Neil for his guitarwork live, but his sound, his vocal, didn’t fit in with the rest, what the band was selling, although I did like “Country Girl.”
And before “Helpless,” comes…
“Don’t Let it Bring You Down.”
The second side of “After the Gold Rush” starts with the dirgey “Oh, Lonesome Me,” which I liked more than “Helpless,” but oftentimes I found myself lifting the needle and skipping the track.
Where the first side is obvious, the second side of “After the Gold Rush” is more subtle, darker, less in your face It’s after dark, it’s only Neil and you, it’s a personal experience, Ronnie Van Zant was not gonna complain about “Don’t Let it Bring You Down.”
“Old man sitting by the side of the road With the lorries rolling by Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load And the buildings scrape the sky”
You have no problem envisioning this in 2021, with homeless people in every city and burg, but back then hobos were a thing of the past, you rarely saw a homeless person on the street, and if you did, it was clear they were mentally ill, they claimed they were God or something.
“Cold wind ripping down the alley at dawn And the morning paper flies Dead man lying by the side of the road With the daylight in his eyes”
The musicians may have been worldly, sophisticated, but the listeners were not, we were protected by our suburban bubbles, the thought of someone throwing the newspaper to the front porch at dawn…we’d experienced that. But what’s up with the dead man lying by the side of the road?
“Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around”
Now wait just a minute, we were supposed to ignore it, it was irrelevant, then again maybe we just weren’t clued-in, we weren’t hip enough, there was a deeper meaning, if only we could find the people who knew it. Like Bob Dylan, Neil Young was planting a signpost, but we had to figure it out for ourselves.
Americans ignore the bad stuff. Like Bush who told us to shop after 9/11. They want to do their dirty work while we’re not paying attention. Then again, back then it was the youth against the establishment, today the boomers are the establishment, hating on technology like their parents did with rock and roll, believing it’s the cause of all evil.
So you’d be sitting in your dorm room. And back then we didn’t multitask, at mostly we read while listening, and when this eerie song filled the room it was hard to ignore its message.
And as heavy as the original recording is, when you strip it down its essence shines ever brighter, that something is happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear and you’d better pay attention!
Hard to think that music was once scarce, where if you didn’t own it you couldn’t hear it. They sold live albums back then, usually as doubles, a career retrospective, a cheap dash for cash. But unreleased live recordings? Those were gold! Maybe you snuck your cassette deck into the gig, but there was no trading online, to have a recording of what once was…was nearly unfathomable. And “Young Shakespeare” is like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the past come to life. Not only was this show recorded, unlike with the scrolls, the sound is pristine, better than most records today! It’s not squashed, the bandwidth is not filled up with detritus to the point it’s impenetrable, “Young Shakespeare” is naked! Despite all the social media platforms, that’s what we’re looking for today, the stripped-down version, the raw truth, not for cash, but because it must be told. We don’t want endless memoirs in search of notoriety, we don’t want people online testifying to how bad they have it, what we’re looking for is someone not so dissimilar to ourselves laying out their truth, and we can listen or not, it’s our choice. That’s how music was back then, you were either in the know or you weren’t. Then again, albums like “Harvest” changed that paradigm.
But “Young Shakespeare” was recorded before “Harvest.”
How can something so old be so new? I guess that’s what happens when you lose your way, see the goal as being a brand as opposed to an artist.
But if you were around back then…
Pull up “Young Shakespeare.” Even cherry-pick the tracks. You’ll be stunned they’re all there, in faithful renditions.
And we listened to these songs so much back then we knew them by heart, not only the hits, but the album tracks, listen for the applause of recognition on these cuts. There are few things better than when you’re at the show and the act plays your favorite, you think they’re doing it just for you, you beam, you glow, you want the experience to last, but it does not.
But this show we were unaware occurred has been unearthed and it’s just like being there way back when.
And this album ain’t going to the top of the chart, nothing is gonna happen with it, it’s just for you, you either care or you don’t.
And if you do…
You yearn for the experience of yore, when it was just you and the music, that was all you needed, and when you push play, that’s where you’ll go, back to that seventies cocoon, when music drove the culture, when it was everything. Don’t let it bring you down, as long as these recordings are hiding in plain sight there’s a chance young people will be inspired and go down the road less taken, deliver ubiquity through the personal, satiate us, make life worth living.