A Man of Ideas | Features
Even in the late sixties, a speculator wouldn’t have been out of line in saying that Neil Young would end his career as one of rock’s most influential singer-songwriters.
With Buffalo Springfield, he’d penned classics such as ‘Mr Soul’, ‘I Am A Child’ and ‘On The Way Home’ and he’d written a few more, like ‘Helpless’, for Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young. But his greatest output has been his solo material and even five years into this career, there was no need to speculate about what his stature would be at the time of his retirement.
At 64, Young is still active as a musician, director and environmental activist. He has released eight albums in this decade, released two films, and this year he will also be in a documentary about his 1959 Lincoln Continental, a car he has retooled to work on alternative energy. Those who’ve paid no attention to him will find this surprising, but this is the behaviour we’ve come to expect from him – prolific, pro-active and politically involved.
As a solo artist, he is a part of that upper rung made up of only a few musicians whose legacies are far lengthier than their Greatest Hits package. In the past 45 years, his career has been characterised by his willingness to constantly reinvent himself, at which only Bob Dylan and (arguably) David Bowie succeed him. Nonetheless, at successful reinvention, he beats both of them.
Apart from playing over 10 instruments onstage, Young has shown an interest in swing, jazz, rockabilly, blues and electronic, country, rock and pop. For his contributions to distorted guitar rock, he has even come to be known as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’.
Yet, Young is no virtuoso on guitar. While this is apparent even today, according to Tim Bachman, “Randy (Bachman) used to try and give Neil guitar lessons because Neil couldn't precisely copy the top 40 tunes back then. Neil was Neil and that was it. Randy kicked him out of our house and told him to quit the business, be something else! A year later to the day, we received the first Buffalo Springfield album in the mail. On the back in the liner notes was a thank you from Neil to Randy for kicking him out of Winnipeg.” But technically, precision has never got in his way. On the strength of his ideas alone, Young has sailed past several virtuosos.
The simple but melodic guitar phrasing on ‘For What It’s Worth’ is his construction, while songs on Rust Never Sleeps feature some of the most superfluous use (the hallmark of grunge) of distortion ever.
This facility of ideas wasn’t always lauded widely, though. All that people were certain of was his unpredictability, but not of his ability to change lanes while fashioning good tunes. His Ditch Trilogy, which he released after the #1 album Harvest, wasn’t well received in the seventies, even by commercial publications. Now, though, it is widely-accepted as some of his best work.
In 1979, he released Rust Never Sleeps, his best-known album with Crazy Horse. Rolling Stone named him Artist of The Year, while Village Voice named him artist of the decade. But the next albums he released – Trans, Hawks & Doves, Old Ways – were once again badly received. Trans, which contains robotic elements, baffled fans, Hawkes & Doves was seen as an inferior product, while Old Ways caused him to leave his record label.
This long run of unfavourable reviews ended with Freedom in 1990, after a whole decade of unsuccessful records. Since then, the previous records (once again) have received favourable treatment. Rolling Stone even ignored some of his ’80s work, but recently, gave even Landing On Water – the most experimental of the ’80s works – a 4-star rating.
Maybe critics and fans were just too slow to latch on to these changes. But that didn’t stop him from making them. And no one can claim that they weren’t informed that he would be making them. In ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, he expressed his intentions most clearly in the line ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”