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 needIf 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.
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...
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.