Last night I had the great pleasure of seeing one of my StageIt staples, Will Dailey, perform live.
My first happy moment of the evening was discovering Septa now runs mid-hour trains in early evening. Hopping the first one that would get me into Philly at the reduced rate (I’m cheap where I can be) and walking the nine blocks to the Tin Angel, I arrived just a couple minutes before the doors opened. Perfect.
Then Will played, displaying even more passion and intensity than comes through in his online shows. And I clapped, loudly, even whooped a bit toward the end, realizing with an extra smile that those reactions actually mean something at a live show. (I’ve clapped to my computer screen to only my own delight.)
Following Will, Dante Bucci climbed on stage carrying backpack-like cases and brought out instruments I’ve never seen before—hand drums. He explained they’re steel drums turned inside out in order to be played with the hands. I was interested until I was astonished. The sound, in its precision of scaled notes, was rather unexpected, but his skill at playing them was almost inhuman.
After Dante and his ~UFOs departed, Linda Taylor came on and sound checked guitar after guitar, until four were set up on stage and she left again to bring out a soprano sax to set next to the keyboard already there. I wondered how big a band Maia Sharp had brought. It was just the two of them! Their musicality was evident in the well-blended harmonies and jovial riffing. I was especially entertained by a Ghostbusters reference, at which I was one of the few chucklers, until Maia followed it with the declaration that it dated her (and thus me). It’s a timeless classic, right?
I considered ducking out early, since Septa’s schedule going home is much less workable, but the show was so enjoyable I decided it was worth an hour at the train station to stay to the end. I’m so glad I did, because on my way out, I found Will unmobbed and had a chance to introduce myself and chat for a bit. I often buy a CD or vinyl at a show and ask for an autograph, but I already had all of Will’s albums on mp3 & will be getting a signed typewritten lyrics sheet as a PledgeMusic reward. (What a cool option!) So I superfanned it up and asked for a photo; I’m one of those people now. Talented musician, great guy, and a splendid evening all around.
“Hey Hey, My My” Neil Young & the Trans-generational Nature of Rock & Roll
In the early nineties after “Rockin’ in the Free World” Neil hit a spurt of critical and commercial rejuvenation. Freedom went Gold and Ragged Glory was voted album of the year in the 1990 Pazz & Jop critic’s poll. But it wasn’t just the boomers starting their new CD collection after finally resigning their records and tapes to attic status that led to this success, with validation from the successful grunge bands of the time Neil had effectively won over the flannel army. He had crossed over to Generation X. He played with Pearl Jam at the VMA’s, who were eager to tell you they were originally just “Pearl” but added “Jam” after seeing a Neil Young concert, and had been bestowed, “the godfather of grunge.” But as with his former commercial peak, it all ended with death. Kurt Cobain, the face of the grunge movement and supposed voice of Generation X famously, or rather infamously, quotes “Hey Hey, My My” in his suicide note, writing, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Neil was so touched he dedicated his next album to Kurt, entitled Sleeps With Angels.
This is an excerpt from Neil’s movie with Dennis Hopper, Human Highway. In his memoir Neil recounts this specific scene with some insightful commentary on cross generational cultural exchange writing, “During the filming of Human Highway when I played it (“Hey Hey, My My”) with Devo, Booji Boy sang it in his crib, pounding on a synthesizer. I played it on Old Black. I remember seeing the video of that, and the peace signs and doves on Old Black’s strap played against the visual of Booji Boy, and the image created a feeling I can’t describe. It was the feeling of the hippie generation and the new punk generation juxtaposed.”
In “Hey Hey, My My” Neil too juxtaposes trans-generationally comparing the old heroes of rock with the new in the line, “The King is gone but he’s not forgotten, is this the story of a Johnny Rotten?” Here he was passing the torch to the supposed enemy. The song begins with the aphorism from which it gets its namesake, “Hey hey, my my, rock and roll will never die.” It’s almost chintzy, like what could be a bumper sticker slogan. Instead though it’s metaphysical commentary, Theseus’s paradox. In Plutarch’s The Life of Theseus he asks if a ship that has been restored by replacing all of its different parts were still the same ship. Looking at rock and roll today in comparison to when it started it’s obviously completely different. It makes you wonder how blurry the parameters of genres can really be. Rock and roll never really dies, it simply changes or informs new branches of music, in the same way nothing really dies, its energy simply transfers into something else. So the energy of Neil and the hippie generation’s idea of “rock and roll,” transfers into Devo’s, and the Sex Pistols’ idea of “rock and roll”, but also Pearl Jam’s, and Nirvana’s. Walt Whitman writes in “Song of Myself”, “I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me belongs to you.” Rust never sleeps and death’s always at the backdoor, but rock and roll will never die, it just can’t.
Neil Young is often written off quickly as a forgettable debut of psychedelic folk-rock that did little to display the future career of the auteur which bears its name. It was critiqued for doing little to separate itself from the rest of the Californian folk scene the year between the summer of love and Woodstock, and Neil’s future greatest work would be predicated on existence in a post-Woodstock America. To this day whispers of “mulligan” hover over Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. However history shouldn’t be measuring this record in such black and white terms. For one Neil was always far grimmer than sunny sixties SoCal, you weren’t going to hear the Byrds or Mamas & the Papas singing “The Loner” or breathing out anything as frightened and suspicious as “Here We Are In The Years”, and Neil Young still displays a maturation in songwriting from his Buffalo Springfield work in further detailed lyricism and more evocative melodic turns.
The album’s crowning point comes on its closing track, “The Last Trip to Tulsa” where Neil paints a surrealist narrative complete with Native Americans, men eating pennies, and green gasoline. There are a lot of different things I love about this song like the supremely hilarious irony of a feminist pilot who lets a man fly her plane because, “it looked good for his pride,” closing sardonically, “I wonder what it’s like to be so far over my head” to the juxtaposition of regionalist and surrealist imagery as a reflection of hippie America. Unaccompanied acoustic songs traditionally function on melody and direct emotional exchange but “The Last Trip to Tulsa” unorthodoxly succeeds on mood centered instrumental vamping and lyrical abstraction, two traits that would come to define some of the best work he made in his career.
Neil’s peculiar and cryptic use of lyrical abstraction has always been one of the primary traits of his songwriting, using metaphor or allegory to comment on personal and social subjects. “The Last Trip to Tulsa” ends with an anecdote that seems to comment on Neil’s stubborn and often unmerciful dedication to following his artistic path despite what consequences it may place on his friends’ or his own career trajectory:
I was chopping down a palm tree when a friend dropped by to ask, if I would feel less lonely if he helped me swing the axe. I said, “no it’s not a case of being lonely we have here, I’ve been working on this palm tree for eighty-seven years.” He said, “go get lost!” and walked towards his Cadillac. I chopped down the palm tree and it landed on his back.
And in this way Neil is both paradoxically extremely self aware and also simultaneously distant and removed, avoiding all the usual cliche pitfalls of singer-songwriter music. For the rest of his career he would continue in this idiosyncratic struggle to chop down the palm tree, taking artistic risks and suffering both commercial and critical backlash. Neil Young is the Platonic ideal of the artist as an unaffected entity self driven by a primordial need within to create, comment, reflect, and express.
I’d like to thank Hendrik for having me on the blog this week and I’d also like to thank all of you who followed along with all my ramblings. In the future be sure to remember what we’ve learned, “only love can break your heart,” and “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” But above all remember to keep on rocking in the free world. Goodbye Waterface.
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