Friday, May 19, 2006

Rock and Roll Will Never Die

If you had happened to be driving down Milltown Road between Lovettsville and Waterford this afternoon at about four, you would have been treated to a memorable sight coming at you in the opposite direction.

A small black pickup truck swerved and slalomed on the narrow road. Its driver, his face contorted in a rock-n-roll grimace, pounded the dashboard mercilessly, shaking his hair in the wind and howling along with the music on his CD player.

If you'd cocked your ear carefully to hear what was crackling and distorting his speakers, the Doppler Effect lowering the key a minor third as he whizzed past trying his best to break his own steering wheel in time to the snare-cracks, you might have picked up a snatch of a lyric:
Don't need no ad machine telling me what I need
Don't need no Madison Avenue war
Don't need no more boxes I can't see
Covered in flags
But I can't see 'em on TV
Don't need no more lies
Don't need no more lies
Don't need no more lies
Don't need no more lies...
If you were a particularly plugged-in sort, you'd have thought to yourself, "Well, I see young Jingo's gone and fallen hard for Neil Young's new album, Living with War," and you'd be one hundred percent correct. "Wish he'd quit being such a goddamned leadfoot," you might have added, and again you'd get full marks.

There was once an idea current, along about Kent State and Neil's answer song "Ohio," that rock music might serve, in the newly minted Global Village, as a sort of alternative to what we now call the MSM. The corporate news, it was thought -- charmingly naively, given all the nuance and complexity that has muddied the waters since those days -- was a daily compendium of rank bullshit in service to the War Machine, the propaganda wing of the Loveless Ones who sent young men to die for a lie. "Ohio," written and recorded and released within weeks of the events that inspired it, presented the interpretation not of the powerful men who had precipitated the killings, but of the victims.

The idea wasn't new, of course. Woodie Guthrie saw himself as a kind of alternative to the newspapers, who were in bed with the bosses, printing lies about the labor movement. The Wobblies' Little Red Songbook was without question seen this way by the people who sang its songs as they marched and struck for worker dignity. Earlier, Aristide Bruant, now known as the subject of Toulouse Lautrec's most celebrated posters, was among many European singers who enjoyed enormous popularity as purveyors of alternative news through music.

But what was new in 1970 was the idea that songs of protest and polemic could proliferate themselves using the very same media distribution streams monopolized by the MSM of those days: radio, record sales, television, film. The oral tradition of the "folk" song became instantly antiquated then, when these powerful tools for one-to-many dissemination replaced the one-to-one methods of antiquity. When "Ohio's" magnificently shambolic guitar riff and hastily recorded arrangement went out over the airwaves and burrowed its way into millions of ears, the System itself was subverted.

"Living with War" is a wondrous echo of that heady time. It too is a hasty record, with loose ends hanging out all over it -- raw, unrefined, organic. Chad Cromwell's drums sound exactly the way drums sound when you're standing three feet away from a guy playing drums, which in these overprocessed, homogenized times feels strangely unnatural. There is an absolutely bare minimum of overdubs -- some, like the occasionally obstreperous trumpet, that I feel sure Neil will regret later. I can hear Neil's amp buzzing at the end of "Shock and Awe," but the buzz feels uncalculated, unplanned -- unlike, for example, on a Matthew Sweet record, where amp buzz is played up as an ultimately inauthentic signifier of authenticity.

We no longer have leisure for that kind of academic parlor-game. After "Living with War," the only question I have for any artist is, Which Side Are You On?

This record is not considered. It is not urbane. It is not refined. It is completely raw. Its lyrics refer to things that happened a month ago. The songs were written on the day they were recorded. Young has made a record that quite deliberately is not aimed at enduring forever, but instead at addressing the exact moment in which you and I and he live now. It's news, news we're not getting from the News.

The war in Iraq is real. People are dying. Making a refined piece of art when people are dying and our leaders lie about it is immoral. We are not living in a TV show or a fucking video game or something that doesn't interrupt the miserable goddamned "American Idol" season pissing finale.

It cannot be said enough or too often: LIVE NOW.

I talked about this with Bobby Lightfoot earlier today, and he asked an interesting question: What would Lennon being doing now? The obvious answer is, exactly what Neil Young just did.

Neil rubs our noses in it, kicking us in the ribs and oinking his magnificent distorted guitar into our ears, hoping for Christ's sake we notice.

You can stream the album here.


Will Divide said...

Yeah raw, but a work of genius. He helps turn a page ("Back in the days of 'mission accomplished'"). The thoughts of different people come through his single voice ("Restless Consumer" is all Neil, "Families" - my favorite song - is from the point of view of someone the media presumes to talk down to).

He borrows, borrows, borrows, from Dylan, from himself, from Steve Goodman ("Let's impeach the president for lying." is sung to the same tune as "Riding on the City of New Orleans." Coincidence? I don't think so.)

And that trumpet, that stupid, spaghetti western trumpet; inane, and vainglorious. Perfect.

nash said...

I've never been a Neil Young fan, but I'm delighted to hear that he's come back to the light -- wasn't he a Bush-lover there for a while? -- and with an album that sounds like a raspberry in the face of the entire National Entertainment State Mighty Wurlitzer. (Have you ever seen Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse, Neddie? I'd be interested in reading your review of that. All I remember of it, I confess, is the general structure: interviews, band grunges along onstage, Neil strangles his guitar for about fifteen minutes, interviews, band grunges along, more extended guitar strangling, etc. All that stands out in my memory otherwise is the rhythm guitarist's persistent hostility to Jarmusch -- just about every time he's on camera, as I recall, he's taking nasty shots at the artsy-fartsy film guy with the punk hair. Jarmusch just lets the camera run and shrugs it all off in that dispassionate way of his. Anyway.) I may have to listen to the dang stream eventually.

It's nice how the internet has made possible a new kind of quick-response protest art, like "I'm the Decider, " Tom Tomorrow's Bush remix, and of course the multiple postings of Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner speech before it found a home at Google Video. Makes me glad I finally got broadband.

Categorical Aperitif

fgfdsg said...

It's strange that most of the MSM reviews have been criticising the album because of the 'here and now' factor, saying it will date horribly, (like a Brittany Spears song doesn't?) Makes me feel like they're missing the point.

I'll put this on my 'must buy' list.

roxtar said...

"Greendale" has been screening lately on one of the indie film networks. I recommend it highly.

Oh, still have hair?

Lucky bastid.......

Employee of the Month said...

Ned, meant to ask during its release, what was your first "wow" moment while tracking through the album?

Neddie said...

Will: "Flags of Freedom" is a whole Dylan tribute -- not only is he namechecked, but the line "These must be the flags of freedom flying" is directly analogous to Dylan's "We looked out on the chimes of freedom flashing." And of course, the flags are "blowing in the wind."

Naash: Haven't seen the Jarmusch flick, will look out for it.

Rox: I have plenty to beef about in the genetic-endowment arena, but not that. Bobby Lightfoot got the chiseled good looks and the six-foot rangy build; I got to keep my hair.

Wes: Um, the first three seconds? Neil's guitar tone on the whole album is just fuckin' magnificent, and his playing on "Shock and Awe" is as good as anything he's ever done -- you can really hear him digging in with his pick of flame during the breaks --they're not really solos, more like enraged stabbing at chords. But the opening bars of "After the Garden" are just so rich and meaty and beautiful.

Mike Kretzler said...

I've not been much of a Young fan, either (probably too much of that whiney voice in "Heart of Gold" on the radio), but I have to say that he's held on to his integrity and his creative heart. Rare.

Blue Wren said...

I, too, totally enjoyed Young's wonderful anti-war release. Timely and yes, just right. And thanks for explaining WHY it sounded like a garage band to me. To those of us who are musically-challenged, Ned, you're a godsend.

Oh ... and by the by --
Just caught THIS over at Tbogg's place in a post about the millions of our taxpayer dollars Blackwater security is rakin' in:

"In March Black represented Blackwater at a conference in Jordan, announcing that the company was seeking to broaden its role in even more conflict zones. Blackwater is rapidly expanding its operations, creating a new surveillance-blimp division, launching new training facilities in California and the Philippines, and increasingly setting its sights on the lucrative world of DHS contracts."

Facility, Jingo. Facility. Golly.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of picking this up w/ this next paycheck, and now I'm sure... the last *real* amp buzz I heard on a record was on SRV's take on "Little Wing" off The Sky is Crying...

An Upstep or a Downstep said...

spot on with the review. i particularly like the connection to guthrie.

the last two verses of "this land is your land" speak a great deal over the decades:

"As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me."

why is it that these verses don't make it into the school-child rendition?

it may make the autoritay's anxious.

karl rove has begun to offset neil's impudent protest with a new musical counter-offensive(something akin to christian rock):

Gitmo George and the Compassionate Killing Machine's new album:

Loving With War