Monday, October 29, 2007
Vintage Neil Young, Still Working for the Muse
By JON PARELES
REDWOOD CITY, Calif.
NEIL Young was thrilled about an old car. Over chile verde at a Mexican restaurant near the landmark Fox Theater here, where he was rehearsing for his tour, Mr. Young’s grizzled face lit up as he described his Linc-Volt.
The car is a 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV, a 19-foot, two-ton behemoth. It was a commercial flop in the year of the massive tail fin, and in its original configuration the car is an ecological disaster, guzzling gas and leaving giant black exhaust spots on the ground as it starts up. That’s the Linc part. Volt is because Mr. Young is converting the car to battery power, with a biodiesel engine for backup, and he plans to drive it to its birthplace in Detroit to demonstrate the viability of electric cars. He’s making a movie about the trip. The film, “is so different from everything that I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s totally positive.”
The converted Linc-Volt will still barrel along a highway, but silently. It should get up to 100 miles per gallon of fuel, since it runs most of the time on electricity. “The car is really heavy,” Mr. Young said. “It’s got a lot of inertia. So that gives it more power.”
The Linc-Volt makes an irresistible metaphor for Mr. Young’s career: a memorable profile, the inertia of four decades and the latest new start, an old-fashioned exterior that’s been rejiggered within. His new album, “Chrome Dreams II” (Reprise), takes a slice through Mr. Young’s present and past, time-warping through his career. He is also reconfiguring his past with the small-theater tour that will bring him to the United Palace in New York for six shows, Dec. 12 to 19.
Mr. Young, 61, is no fashion plate. The Fox Theater, which he has often used for rehearsals in recent years, was built in 1929 as a vaudeville house and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. But Mr. Young could almost be mistaken for a stagehand. Over two days of rehearsal he wore T-shirts, jeans and an old sport jacket, as well as a paint-spattered railroad cap that may turn up onstage during the tour. He speaks the way he writes lyrics: in terse, unadorned cadences full of plain one-syllable words. As far as career goes, he says, “I work for the Muse.”
He operates by whim and intuition, veering every which way: from the homegrown rock opera “Greendale” in 2003, which was staged as Mr. Young’s most elaborate arena production; to the pensive, made-in-Nashville “Prairie Wind” (and a Jonathan Demme film of it, called “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”) in 2005; to the quickly recorded protest-song broadside “Living With War” in 2006. When making albums, “it’s not like you have a real idea what’s going on,” he said. “You just start, and sometimes it happens easier than other times.” For the new album, “the songs came pretty fast, and they weren’t there in the first place, and they were there when I was done.”
But Mr. Young has also regularly combed through his archives. Lately — after years of nearly releasing old recordings, only to decide that they needed to be remastered once more for newer, higher-fidelity technology — he has put out albums of galvanizing live shows from 1970 and 1971. He plans to release a 1976 concert from the Fox Theater in Atlanta, where, for some reason, he imagined himself talking to the ghost of Judy Garland.
“Chrome Dreams II” also glances back to the 1970s. It is named after “Chrome Dreams,” a 1977 album Mr. Young never released. That album, widely bootlegged, would have introduced some of his best songs, among them “Like a Hurricane,” “Too Far Gone” and “Powderfinger.” The cover had been designed, and the album had been mastered, but it never appeared.
Why not? “Sometimes there isn’t a good reason,” he said. “It just passed me by. I did it, I got to a certain place, and then something would happen and distract me, and I would get into something else and forget what I was doing before. That’s happened a lot.”
The anchor of “Chrome Dreams II” is “Ordinary People,” an 18-minute song he recorded in 1988. Those people include drug dealers, factory workers, boxers, gun runners, vigilantes and models. “The people were real to me,” he said. “They’re all in there. I don’t know where they came from. I can’t make them go away. I didn’t invite them.”
Mr. Young recorded “Ordinary People” with his R&B-flavored Bluenotes band, in one take. “There is no Take 2,” he said. He considered the song too hefty to include on an album until now. (Ever the contrarian, Mr. Young is also releasing the full 18-minute song as a single. On vinyl.) Yet the main giveaway of the song’s age is a lyric mentioning Lee Iacocca, the Chrysler executive. “Ordinary People” sits easily alongside the rest of “Chrome Dreams II”; it uses three of the album’s core musicians and the same engineer in the same truck. When Mr. Young finds collaborators, he keeps them on call.
The band on the album, which is also his touring band, brings together musicians he has worked with in separate projects. Ralph Molina, from Crazy Horse, is on drums. Ben Keith, who has been in Mr. Young’s country-flavored bands since “Harvest,” is on guitar and pedal steel guitar. And Rick Rosas, who has backed Mr. Young in projects from the Bluenotes to “Living With War,” is on bass. Mr. Young’s wife, Pegi, is the opening act; she and her keyboardist, Anthony Crawford, sometimes join Mr. Young’s band during the set.
“Chrome Dreams II” is a miscellany, as “Chrome Dreams” was. It has distorted-guitar Crazy Horse-style stompers like the 14-minute “No Hidden Path”; it has wistful country-folk songs like “Beautiful Bluebird” (an old song finally getting a studio recording) and “Ever After”; it even has a 1950s-tinged ballad, “Shining Light.”
Many of the album’s songs revolve around a “spiritual quest,” Mr. Young said. “There’s a lot of thinking going on in the record, pondering and kind of searching for the experience that enlightens you in some way.” In “Ever After” he sings, with characteristic simplicity, “The world is full of questions/Some are answered, some are not/The only faith you’re keepin’/Is the faith that you still got.”
The album ends with “The Way,” a waltz featuring a children’s choir. “So many lost highways that used to lead home/But now they seem used up and gone,” he sings by himself; then the children promise, “We know the way.” He said that he told them: “You have to pretend that you’re singing to your parents and you know how to have world peace. They don’t. You have to tell them while they’re sleeping, so they know when they wake up, but you can’t tell them too loud or they’ll wake up.”
For Mr. Young, faith doesn’t involve organized religion. It’s about walking among the trees on his Northern California ranch, “trying to figure things out,” he said. “How did I get to where I am? I mean, what happened? Where’s the guy who wrote the other songs? Where’s the guy who wrote a lot of the early songs? There are some songs I can’t even sing. I don’t even know who wrote them. But I know I did. When I listen to myself, I go, ’O.K., but I can’t do that now.’“
On tour Mr. Young will be playing a solo set followed by a set with the band. “I want every song to be coming from me, not coming from who I was or who I’m trying to be or who people think I am or who they want me to be,” he said. “All those things are out. It’s just got to be: ‘Is this going to flow like water through me? Can I swim in this sound?’”
The solo set is something like the solo tour he did in 1992 for “Harvest Moon.” He brought back that tour’s lighting designers and has his old Univox electric organ, with angel wings, that can be lowered to the stage from overhead. The set lists are built from “Chrome Dreams II,” a few of Mr. Young’s best-known songs and many rarities. Among them are “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” a song cut from “Harvest,” and a mid-1970s song, “No One Seems to Know,” that says “time is better spent searching than in finding.”
“Some of them went right under the radar,” he said. “Some of them never came out. I’ll be doing a lot of songs that are only on collectors’ albums that are not my albums, that are bootlegs.” He continued, “It’s like if you were in a gallery and all the paintings were upside down or piled in a corner, and the ones that you knew, that you’d seen in the magazines, were all really. ...” He paused. “I want to know what’s in the corner. Put them on the wall for a while.”
For a man whose hair usually looks windblown and whose shirt is perpetually untucked, Mr. Young is surprisingly persnickety. He chose every theater on this tour. “I want to control the environment,” he said. “They have to be auditoriums. The audio part is very important. I prefer that they be old. I prefer that they be in cities. I prefer that the outside elements are totally blocked out. There’s no sunshine coming in through a window; I don’t want any of that. I don’t want to have anything to do with the real world while you’re in there. It’s not where we’re going.”
He had further stipulations. The stage lighting will be incandescent — no arc lights or halogens — and not automated or computerized. A spotlight will be operated by hand; changing the color of a light will involve replacing a gel. The equipment is vintage, like Mr. Young’s guitars — he has one he calls Hank, which once belonged to Hank Williams — or it has been made in the same way for decades.
Under the Art Deco Revival ceiling of the Fox, under those incandescent lights, the band sounded vintage. Mr. Young was still auditioning songs for the tour. There were keepers like “Cortez the Killer” and “The Loner”; there were possibilities like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” After a run-through of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” Mr. Young decided it had no life left. “Something else in that neighborhood would be good,” he said.
Through the years Mr. Young’s music has usually sounded rough-hewn, but it has never been haphazard. Backstage Mr. Molina — the drummer in Crazy Horse since 1969 — said that he still gets nervous every time he plays, trying to live up to Mr. Young’s standards. The band socked out the new “Spirit Road,” a chunky two-chord rocker, and it had the old Crazy Horse thrust: the slow, steady trudge of someone walking directly into a perpetual high wind. From the seats it sounded good.
When it was over, Mr. Young looked disgusted. “We’re going to do this again,” he said. “We’re going to fix this now.” He demanded better backup vocals, a different monitor mix, more attentiveness from the whole band and crew. And on the next run-through the song was twice as strong. “We’ll get it,” Mr. Young said. But he still didn’t look satisfied.
The New York Times Company