Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why I love Neil Young.

A friend —who is not really of the classic rock mind, in even the most liberal sense— recently asked me what it is that draws me so much to Neil Young.

I admittedly had a bit of a tough time coming up with a solid and articulate reason why I like him so much. Sure, I do like him as a person and as a musician and I can tell you how much I appreciate him. But when trying to say why, I found myself stumbling over words and struggling to grasp at any solid description of what particularly it was that attracts me to his music.

After a bit of reflection the past few days, it finally hit me: the reason I can't articulate it very well is because it's a feeling. I'm sure somebody (who's much more knowledgeable about music theory) could pontificate and illustrate why I get the feeling from his music that I do because of the chords he plays and the progressions in which he arranges them in, but the bottom line here is: musically speaking, he is a master of 'less is more' philosophy.

I have a couple of guitar-playing friends that are not necessarily Neil fans, but through my efforts to turn them on to him, have remarked, "His playing is so simple, but so solid."

Those three or four simple chords he can bang out with seeming non-effort are arranged so perfectly to tug at your emotions. It's as if he's doing it that way on purpose to make anyone with a heart and two cents' worth of soul not really have a choice of whether or not to like it. You just hear it and it moves you. End of story.

Take "Long May You Run" for example. It's supposedly about a car. But listen to the words, that odd chord change in the bridge. Even the hardest nut to crack would have trouble not falling introspective after hearing the tune.

His performance of the tune on Conan O'Brien earlier this year illustrates this so well.

The song is thirty years old and he's probably played it so many times, he's sick of it. But he just puts it out there in his red and white Hawaiian shirt like it didn't matter if he sang it on the show or not. And the comment for Conan at the end is another reason why he's so great.

"Thank you for everything you've done for new music," he says to Conan.

Instead of dwelling on the fact that he's just presented what may very well be the single most heart-tugging, soul-warming and ultimately definitive version of the tune, he extends his gratitude to the court jester.

His influence is undeniable and equally incalculable. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of any other musician who has been equally as influential to so many different sub-styles simultaneously. I don't know of anyone else that could be seen as a progenitor of the Appleseed Cast and Wilco. And yet, there he is. Strumming away. Warm, fuzzy, distorted tones over a loping Ralph Molina backbeat or with his giant acoustic guitar. He's there and he probably did it —in some sort of way— before your favorite band.

That one sentiment of thanks to Conan says much more about Neil's personality in one sentence than probably even he realized. His unabashedly personal music throughout his career and his willingness to challenge his audience have never been a secret. He saw his best friends become junkies and ultimately victims of hard drugs, experimented to the point of implosion himself, divorced, saw his own son born with serious handicaps and ultimately exorcised his personal demons — all through his music. The most wonderful thing about his music, tunefullness or no (thankfully, he just so happens to write catchy ones), is that, through all of the unpredictable phases and seemingly toss-off in-jokes being passed off as records, the audience knew the artist. Like his latest record or not, you felt like you could still be cordial and have a beer with him after the show.

And that is essentially what connects us to him. His songs are his life. And, just a little bit of ours, too. As die-hard Neil Young fans, we've all heard "Heart of Gold" and it has resonated so much that it moves us to tears at some point in our lives. The words are poignant, but just general enough, to really hit a nerve with anybody who's ever been at a point in their lives where current things are unsure, but the goal is cemented. And plus, the pedal steel totally rules.

But this brings us to a conclusion of sorts. Neil was never anything but himself to his audience. He made the mistake all along of presenting himself, unadulterated at all times. Ultimately, wearing the dorky leather fringe jacket, playing staccato one-note guitar solos, constantly singing off key on live recordings (and some studio ones, too), idiosyncratically releasing seeming crap while simultaneously holding back rumored masterpieces, giving his audience exactly what they wanted exactly when they didn't want it and finally his ability to challenge his audience and congruently not take himself seriously at all is what made him the living legend he is today.

Long live that skinny Canadian playing his classic Gretsch White Falcon.

He is one of my Jesusses.

(did I just make up a very blasphemous word?)

Thanks to Dave, for inspiring these thoughts. I understand this is a very general sentiment put across here, but I hope it's a bit more of an appropriate answer.


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