Comment of the Moment: "Optimal" Neil Young Fans
The last thing that we want to do here is somehow divide Neil Young's fans into camps like "true" fans, "fair weather fans" or "optimal" fans.
We all like Neil's music so can we all just get along?
The Comment of the Moment is from Yonder Stands The Sinner by Greg M.:
Well, I guess it’s my turn to join the “rejoinders”. A lot of people made a lot of good points, which set me to rethinking and trying to expand my perspective about what I wrote and why I wrote it. I agree that it’s not a good idea to demand lockstep devotion to anyone who we think can do no wrong, which you should at least admit I took the time to point out. To restate myself, doing some “wrong” is what you get from an artist who works without a net. I don’t see this as a negative. I also agree that it’s not a subject anyone should get bent out of shape about, and that we could all “take a page out of Neil’s book” and just go on about our business. I don’t think I’m bent out of shape, just interested in adding my point of view now and then. You can take it or leave it, and it won’t bother me, so long as we can retain a civil tone. As to the need to “grow up”, I think it’s fair to say that we all have our problems, even those of us of advanced ages, but that this should not preclude our joining in the conversation as long as we are not “obsessed and have nothing else to live for.” So let me try to imperfectly make a few more points to make what I wrote hopefully a little clearer, even though I’m sure I’ll only muddy the waters still more here and there.
I did not write in defense of Neil. I think a lot of people made a great point that Neil is basically impervious to criticism. He knows it’s out there, and remains unapologetic and undeterred- just another in a long train of admirable qualities that I appreciate about the man. In any event, I feel certain that he would find any such “defense” laughable, and a waste of time. Likewise, I don’t think taking into consideration even constructive criticism from blogs such as this would alter the result of the muses’ next visit. I don’t think Neil questions it too closely, and therefore neither should we. If you doubt this, then consider that Neil went off on his own many times despite a pointed lack of support from David Briggs.
I wrote in defense of my own frustration at what I saw as short sighted opinions in terms of Neil’s perceived motivations, and some perceived intolerance that Neil’s music of late does not conform with what I consider to be unfair expectations, given the nature of the artist and the man. My frustration stems from expressions of criticism, which no one is immune to, not even Neil, from points of view that in my eyes couldn’t possibly take into consideration the whole picture. There are certain things that even “sycophants” can legitimately recognize as red flags in terms of a basic lack of understanding, e.g. that he ever puts out a record or goes out on tour for the motivation of making money. Does he enjoy the money and the opportunities it affords him? I have no doubt, but that’s not why he does it, and that’s where I start to stray toward the definition of a “true” fan. A “true” fan would never make this mistake.
One of the things I unsuccessfully tried to say is that it is alright to criticize, but only if you know what you’re talking about, and only if you’ve given the music a fair chance, rather than relegating it to your first impression. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a good percentage of Neil’s music does not lend itself to first impressions. It can be a little like a wine that needs time to age. In the end you may still feel it tastes like shit, but you’ll never really know for sure unless you’ve given it the requisite time to develop. Beyond this, relative to parts of Neil’s catalogue which don’t “rise” to the heights of what some people think they should, I don’t care. I still love it because it’s Neil being Neil. I know that there’s “more to the picture than meets the eye.”
I think it’s fair to dispute the either/or notion of what it means to be a fan. Since it was me who made the mistake of using the term, and in the spirit of intellectual honesty, let me define what I think a “true” Neil Young fan is, and then opt out of the mistake, by using a better term- maybe the “optimal” Neil Young fan- all the time acknowledging that there are all sorts of Neil fans who don’t fit this description. A “true” Neil Young fan does not view the music as the only criteria for being a fan. In the case of Neil, the “optimal” fan recognizes that any Neil Young work represents multiple other things beyond simple musicality: muse, the need to communicate something personal, honesty, fertile ground to experiment, discover and rediscover, the presentation of “snapshot” moments in his life, obsessions which need to be seen through to there logical conclusions, and many other things like the unique ability to express things in a musical form. When I was much younger, I climbed a huge rock with some friends. After we got up to a certain height, we realized that we were far enough from the ground that any fall would probably be curtains for us. It was the first time I understood the concept. We all had an interesting story to tell for sure, but when Neil had a brush with death we got Prairie Wind. I remember the braying about that one too, just another disappointment for “fans” who wanted another Rust Never Sleeps or Zuma. Has the appreciation for the artist’s ability to paint a musical picture of a personal perspective evaporated because the music doesn’t sound a certain way? O.K., you appreciate it, but you just don’t like how it sounds at first. Can you be open to letting it grow on you a little, and let time reveal a different perspective? Maybe I’m just a sycophant, but it’s always worked for me.
When I was in school, I took a class on public art, and was very critical of some of the examples we studied. After a while the teacher pointed out that until I knew what the intent behind the commission for the project was, what the parameters were, that it was ignorant to make a judgment. But you appreciate the intent you say, you just don’t like that it’s not melodic enough. Here’s where the “optimal” fan and some other fans depart ways. The “optimal” fan knows that the intent is always there, and that like as not it resulted from some form of immediacy, be it muse or a newspaper article or a relationship breakup or scenes of body bags in the dark of night. Next, we know that sometimes the music is more accessible than not, and vice versa. Finally, we know that the intent and the music link up in haphazard ways. Sometimes you get a Philadelphia, sometimes you get a Fork In The Road. But the “optimal” fan doesn’t care, because we got something that we didn’t have before, something that has the mark of a man who cares. I’m sure I’m mangling the metaphor, but to me it’s a classic case of a “rose by any other name”. It may look or sound different, but it’s still Neil.
As to an “extended period of sub-standard recordings” that require extended listening to facilitate a “mindless adoration”, I think this is at once disrespectful to the music and the listener. Neil once commented in defense of his Geffen years that he liked the albums despite everything, and likened them to the period pieces of an artist. They represent something even if that is not immediately apparent to the viewer. Likewise, it is not “mindless adoration” to make the attempt to appreciate something from someone who has so often rewarded us for our efforts in the past. Besides, who’s to say what “sucks” and what doesn’t? So what if it doesn’t “sound” good, or isn’t “deep” enough? Who’s to say? Anyway, some people are going to like the new stuff, and others won’t, and that’s o.k. As one post said: “Saying that one "didn't like Tonight's The Night" and thinks it's great now doesn't mean that not liking some of the current songs makes them great. That line of thinking is totally illogical.” Point well taken, but I’m still going to bide my time and give the new stuff the chance it deserves.
One post summed up a lot for me in describing the latest music as a “current moment”, akin to being “into something that is capturing our attention and efforts… You’re captured, or at least you should be.” Beautifully said. As regards Neil’s newest stuff, why not be captured by Neil being captured? And there’s the rub. Different degrees of fans place demands on the music that it must conform to their own taste. The art must be more about the audience than the artist. I remember the Greendale concert I attended at the Rosemont outside Chicago. I was talking to the couple next to me who didn’t know much about Neil, and even less about Greendale. After giving a loose description of the project, and admitting to my own uncertainty, they asked me if I was expecting to like the show or not. I replied that I was going to love the show because I love Neil. And there’s the bottom line, really. The “optimal” fan is very rarely disappointed or surprised by anything Neil does because we know what he’s doing. He’s giving us a glimpse of himself and a unique perspective about the world around us in a very cool way, through his music. To the extent that I react to my frustration (as opposed to racing to the defense of Neil), it is because too often people don’t take much of what I’m saying into account when they make their comments. That’s o.k., only don’t take offense when it is pointed out that these comments are diminished by the absence of the larger perspective which “optimal” fans have a clearer understanding of.
I hope all of you who wrote such great comments can appreciate my sometimes tongue in cheek approach.
All the best to all of you Neil Young fans.
- Greg M
More on the contretemps of Neil Young fans on Yonder Stands The Sinner and A Battle Raged on the Open Page: Can You Change Your Mind?.