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Sunday, May 21, 2006

"The most beautiful and rewarding dubbing session"

shakeys-garage-war.jpg sxsw-2006-jim-plunkett.jpg

UPDATE: 5/22 - "Most remarkable reaction to any of my albums ever" - from a new Neil message scrolling at bottom of Neil's Garage.

Over on Neil's Garage, Shakey's official website, Neil has put together a timeline for recording "Living With War". He writes of the 12-hour recording session with the 100 voice choir:
"This is truly a day to remember. It is the most beautiful and rewarding dubbing session I have ever taken part in. Those singers are awe-inspiring."

On Rock Daily, a nice recap of all that has taken place over the past several weeks including the CNN interview where he was asked if he was concerned about being considered unpatriotic by people who might disagree with the album's sentiments.
"I'm not concerned about that in the least," Young replied. "I feel like I'm exercising my right of free speech, which is what our boys are fighting for the Iraqi people to have."

Also, news about the upcoming Freedom of Speech: CSNY 2006 Concert Tour. Graham Nash recently gave Rolling Stone a preview of what concertgoers can expect.
"There will be screens on either side of the stage with the lyrics playing," he revealed. "Neil wants people to be able to see the lyrics, to feel free to join in, so that our voices rise together."

And, likewise, Young says he's hoping that Living With War will inspire people to join together in expressing their opinions, regardless of their political differences.

Regarding the critical reaction from the left and right, Young responds to The Los Angeles Times in an on-line interview on his reason for laying bare the jabs as well as the plaudits his latest work has inspired:
"I found what people said about this music to be the real story, both pro and con.

I was surprised by the amount of positive reviews," Young wrote, "and the intensity of both the pros and cons."


At 5/22/2006 01:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Graham Nash:""There will be screens on either side of the stage with the lyrics playing," he revealed. "Neil wants people to be able to see the lyrics, to feel free to join in, so that our voices rise together."

Don't do it Neil! This is what I wanted YOU to do with either Cromwell/Rosas or Crazy Horse, not the 3 Stooges, AKA CSN.. Noooooo

Tom, Loyal Fan (but not of CSN- yechh)

At 5/22/2006 02:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can music help to end a war?
By: Keith C. Burris
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Neil Young has been making records, forming bands, and touring the United States and the world for almost 40 years. Now, at age 60, and in the space of just a few months, he has made two albums that deserve to be called art. One is a sweet and meditative series of reflections on health, illness, family, friendship, and mortality. The other is a fierce and raucous anti-war record - "folk metal protest," he calls it - in which Young has wrapped the spirit of the early Bob Dylan in the sound of a very good, and loud, garage band led by ... Neil Young.

Both records are amazing - full of soul, Young's unique literary style, and great musicality. Both records are essentially concertos, with each song representing a short movement tied to the next, rather than each song existing as a free-standing entity. In popular music this is sometimes called the "concept album," and some say it was invented by Sinatra. In any case, both records have to be heard as a whole.

"Prairie Wind," which came out in September, is carefully constructed, deeply considered, and deals with timeless subjects. "Living with War," released in CD form last week (though Young had been streaming it online for free for two weeks prior and continues to do so), was quickly put together and is clearly "of the moment." Young began work on it only at the end of March. But "Living with War" is no less significant. In fact, it could help to end the U.S. war on Iraq. It could light a fire under people who already oppose the war and get them voting and organizing. It might change the minds of others.


Young is usually called a rock star, or an "aging rock star," in the press. But that's really not what he is. To be sure, he has always played a lot of rock 'n' roll. But Young plays all sorts of music and has recorded as much in the country/folk genre as in the rock mode. Indeed, there are ardent Young fans who love his rock side and hate his folk side. And the reverse is also true. Nobody agrees about much where Neil Young is concerned. Some people listen to records like "Ragged Glory," with Crazy Horse, which is an album perfectly named and is Young at his most free-rock distorted and exuberant sound, and say it is his best work. They consider records like "Harvest Moon" dull. The Young folkies think "Harvest," "Harvest Moon," and "Silver and Gold" are his masterpieces. Some say his record with Pearl Jam, "Mirrorball," is inspired, and others say it is somehow incomplete. Some say Young has never matched the poetry of his youth. (His songs were a sort of soundtrack for a generation and that generation will never hear the new songs in the same way.) Others, like his friend and collaborator, filmmaker Jonathan Demme, say Young is at the peak of his powers right now.

He is certainly having a good year.

If I had to label Young, I would simply call him a musician (he plays the piano, the acoustic and electric guitars, the pipe organ, the harmonica, and the banjo) and a master songwriter.


Young wrote and recorded "Prairie Wind" after being diagnosed with a brain aneurysm last year. He was successfully treated and has made a full recovery. But his wife, Pegi Young, has said she thinks of the record as her husband's "life passing before his eyes." (Young has said he "had something on his mind.") The songs are about Young's father, who had recently passed away when Young began the work, Young's wife, his daughter, his friends, and Elvis. The songs are about growing up and beginning to grow old. They are about a brush with death and celebrating being alive.

Demme has made a documentary about Young and "Prairie Wind," which he calls "Neil Young, Heart of Gold." (It has played in New Haven and at Cinema City in Hartford and will be shown at Cinestudeo at Trinity College May 21, 22, and 23.) A friend of mine says it is the best film of this kind he has ever seen. "Heart of Gold" mostly consists of a magical concert Young staged, for the film, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. There was a full moon that night and Young and his forces - backup singers, strings, a brass combo, steel and bass guitar, and at times as many as 10 acoustic guitars, plus a gospel choir - were "on" that night. The performances are in country-Western costumes and there are homespun, specially painted backdrops. Young plays Hank Williams' old guitar.

The film has an amber quality and a dream-like feel, but the performances are finely crafted, just as the songs are. Young rehearsed the company for 10 days.

My three favorites from "Prairie Wind" are:

* "The Painter," which includes the quintessential Youngian line, "If you follow every dream you might get lost."

* "It's a Dream," which is an exercise in musical impressionism in which the poet combines images of a train leaving a station "that was really something in its day," an old man talking to a policeman as the wind blows the back of his overcoat away, and a boy fishing under a bridge as his bicycle leans on a post and the cars rumble over his head. It's a beautiful, beautiful tune with highly evocative lyrics.

* And finally, "This Old Guitar." The acoustic guitar Young is playing is "Hank's" guitar, which Young bought and has played for 30 years, except for a brief time when he loaned it to Bob Dylan. The thought is that Young is not its owner but its trustee, and it teaches him. It's also a lovely song, saved from the hint of saccharine by the Young edge, which is always there.

That's one of the interesting things about this artist: His most gentle music always has an undercurrent of buzz, of restless anger and angst, and his loudest and most anarchic music has a kindness, order, and empathy within it. People always talk about Young's contradictions, from the allegedly musical ones to the political ones. But what strikes me, when I listen to his music, is the consistency, and unity, of his vision.

The same with his politics. Young is an artist and feels no need to be true to a party or ideology. But he has always been true to himself. Some critics ask how Young could have seen something to admire in Ronald Reagan and be anti-war and anti-Bush. But that's a dumb question and betrays an ignorance of Young's work. Millions of Americans who voted for Reagan feel sick about this war. And Young has always been a peacenik and a greenie and a guy who does his own thinking. He didn't suddenly discoverer his own values: They are embedded in all his recordings. (His "rock novel," "Greendale," of a couple years ago - he also made a film of it - is an allegory for the loss of American ideals.) Young has never liked bigness, homogenization, the TV and Hollywood culture, the corporation man, or anything sold by experts and packagers, be it fast food or war or music. This is a conservative viewpoint. Young has always wanted to conserve the best of old ways and go back to the roots of our values - a radical viewpoint.

The last part of "Heart of Gold," the movie, is a sort of extended encore in which Neil Young performs some of his old songs, such as "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and "Harvest Moon." He picked songs from his acoustic catalogue, most of which were recorded in Nashville originally.

He sings "The Needle and the Damage Done" alone and unaccompanied on the stage, and, at the very end of the film as the credits roll, Young sings the, if possible, even more haunting "The Old Laughing Lady" the same way - only this time there is no audience either. It's just Neil Young and his guitar and his song. "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" he now sings from the perspective of an old man. "Heart of Gold" was written out of the yearning and angst of a young man. Now it is a kind of prayer.

He sings the gorgeous "Four Strong Winds" with perhaps 25 additional musicians, whom he calls, simply, "my friends."

"Heart of Gold" is a great "family" film, if you put aside the Disney notion of a family film. It's a celebration of fraternity and community; of nuclear and extended family. And "Prairie Wind" is a record that will last. I found a quote in an old Rolling Stone interview in which Young says, "I just hope people will be able to listen to my music in the years to come and get a picture of a soul moving through time." That's just what "Prairie Wind" is.

"Living with War," like "Greendale," is about America's soul.


Someone remarked after "Prairie Wind" and "Heart of Gold," "not to worry, the mellow Neil Young is usually followed by a smash and burn Neil Young"; the warm, even glow of contentment is not likely to be succeeded by more of the same. That just wouldn't be Neil Young. And Young said as much himself, telling a song-writing conference in Texas a few weeks back that he had begun to hear very high volume, distorted sounds in his head.

At the same conference, someone engaged him in a conversation on the song "Ohio" (about the shootings of four students at Kent State University in 1970 while the students were protesting the Vietnam War). Supposedly this questioner said, "We need another song, Mr. Young."

He got one.

We all got nine.

Other musicians have written songs of protest against the Iraq War. And the list is growing. Young has now written an entire album.

Though "Prairie Wind" was still fresh in the stores and Young was still promoting Demme's film, word began to leak out a few weeks ago, first as an Internet rumor or even hoax, that Young was working on a new album on the war. Turned out that he'd already done it. He'd written it, recorded it, dubbed, and mixed it all in a couple weeks of fevered inspiration. Now it's in stores.

This record is the polar opposite of "Prairie Wind." It is loud, very loud, and metallic. It is direct and economical. It is not contented but outraged. It is not a record of private reflections, but a public call to action. Its tone is not amber, but red - it is a rant against trust and ideals betrayed.

The songs are described briefly in the sidebar here. A word about the sound: Young's forces for this record are himself, a drummer, a bass-guitar player, plus a trumpet and a 100-voice choir. Young has been called the godfather of grunge. He might more properly be called the founding father of grunge. But to me Young's rock just sounds like classic 1960s rock. (At times I hear echoes of "Secret Agent Man" and "Little Red Riding Hood" but I also hear "Powderfinger" and "Cinnamon Girl" and all of "Zuma.") The key thing about this music is that it is raw and has force. Even though, in this case, the subject is solemn, Young's rock is the kind that makes you feel good to be alive.

And the medium fits the urgency of the message here. Young's eloquent indictment of George Bush's war screams and kicks within the power chords. "Living with War" has a directness, sincerity, and lack of veneer that really wallops you.

Yet "Living with War" also steps back from the rave to reflect. The whole record is written from the standpoint of a fellow citizen, a friend, or a family member. It is an exercise in empathy. Young is actually a Canadian citizen but has lived in the United States since the 1960s. His wife and kids are U.S. citizens and he has paid a lot of taxes here. It's clear he loves this country, for he writes with great love and not a trace of condescension. He told Rolling Stone he began the album in earnest, with the song "Families," after he saw a newspaper photo of a military cargo plane converted to a flying hospital. The caption said that the injuries of U.S. soldiers in Iraq were leading to new medical breakthroughs. (That song, written from the viewpoint of families who have someone in Iraq brought a thank-you note to Young, posted online, from a lady whose husband has twice had his tour extended.)

In "Living with War" Young assails but still feels; he manages to combine compassion with his passion. So, though his voice is raised, it is with the voice of one who still has faith.

Young, at this point in his life, is utterly without pretense or mask. That's one reason why the album is so powerful. Anyone who has paid attention to his writing over the years, especially "Greendale," which most people hated and I think will be seen one day as a kind of masterpiece, will not be surprised at what he is saying in "War." Like George Orwell, Young has always believed the simple decencies have a better chance of saving us than the big ideas. On "Greendale," one of his characters says, "The only good thing about TV is shows like 'Leave It To Beaver,'" and he adds that "a little Mayberry living will go a long way."

He is celebrating the same values in all three of his most recent albums - the America of Frank Capra. The America Young thought Ronald Reagan believed in (Reagan thought so too). The America Young feels George Bush has manipulated, exploited, and betrayed.


Musical taste is so personal. It is as personal as romance. Who can say why something touches the heart of one person, and not another? I once had lunch with a fat English professor who announced that Mozart was "overrated." There are great classical musicians who cannot comprehend jazz. And there are people who prefer disco to Bob Dylan. Go figure.

Music uses both sides of the brain. Part of our response is mechanical, physical, and perhaps even rational. (Music, after all, divides time.) But it also has to do with that soundtrack in all our heads - sounds associated with our past or sounds that feel as if they were. They speak to us in ways we cannot fully explain. (Music also erases time.)

I can't fully explain why Neil Young's music touches me. I am even more mystified by those who are not touched. Johnny Cash said something like the same thing about Young. Cash made beautiful recordings of Young's songs "Pocahontas" and "Heart of Gold" in his last years. And if what Johnny Cash said and sang doesn't move you - or you listen to the song "Helpless," and hear nothing - I don't know what to say. Maybe you think Mozart is overrated.

My favorite quote about Neil Young comes from his late father, the eminent Canadian sports writer and author, Scott Young: "He sings in a way that twists my heart."

Anyone who listens to "Prairie Wind" will feel that. And most people who listen to "Living with War" will be struck with the notion that something has gone terribly wrong with our government and public life. Some will just feel sad, but others will feel the need to reaffirm the right to free speech, thought, and action. Art can sometimes have this power - it can galvanize our collective will.

Young has always believed that music can change lives. (If that makes him a goofy hippie, J.S. Bach was a goofy hippie too.) "Living with War" might help save lives.

Some artists build their art cumulatively. Both of these albums have the feel of a life that has found its center and its purpose.

Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor of the Journal Inquirer.

©Manchester (Ct. Journal Inquirer 2006

At 5/23/2006 04:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I can't fully explain why Neil Young's music touches me. I am even more mystified by those who are not touched."

Story of my life really, but boy does he touch the soul. It's one of the most mysterious wonders of existence.

A man who sounds like he can't sing or hardly play in tune or rythmn, whose lyrics can read infuriatingly simplistic, as if they've been cobbled together in a couple minutes (which they have) and don't mean a thing. And yet non-one quite touches my soul so deeply, comes closer to the source of all music or the eternal wisdom of existence.

Go figure, but please, Mr Young carry on doing whatever it is you do whichewer way you and shine on.

Great article Mr Burris.

At 5/24/2006 05:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How much songs can influence political change is questionable. Songs of protest have been around a long time and maybe they have made a difference. Or maybe they just become a soundtrack to unfolding world events and ultimately an historical reminder of past events. The ‘Living with War’ album has generated a lot of discussion and is getting people to question things which they might not otherwise question. That can only be a good thing. Music is a form of entertainment. It is there in an attempt to provide listening pleasure. If it can also make people think then that is a bonus. There is no doubting the conviction that Neil Young displays on this album. He is seriously riled. The guy genuinely cares. The music has a rushed and urgent feel to it and is utterly compelling. It makes for slightly uneasy listening. When I first heard that a single trumpet was being used I assumed a Last Post type of arrangement but the trumpet drives the melody on in almost defiance. I doubt if the US Government are unduly worried about ‘Living with War’ and the controversy it is creating. There is probably someone in the Government responsible for keeping a cursory eye on things. Probably Neil Young has been blacklisted. Don’t expect too many changes. They lead, we follow. More important is to elect someone for the top job who has a heart and can have a really positive influence on those around them.


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