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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

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

Thanks Greg!

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?.

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At 3/04/2009 09:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well stated, Greg!


At 3/04/2009 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...


At 3/04/2009 10:36:00 AM, Anonymous AK said...

so "true fan" has been replaced with "optimal fan".

uh....o.k. i still see an overt attempt to place one class of fan above another class. like a neil young fan's version of "animal farm".

way to bring people together!

At 3/04/2009 11:14:00 AM, Blogger Pinto (or Flounder) said...

That was a beautifully written comment. I really like the "optimal fan" concept. It is intellectually valid and I think provides the best description yet of the hearts of those who have been so adamant in their defense of Neil's most recent recordings.

(As an aside - as the one who wrote about the "extended period of substandard recordings" and the "mindless adoration" attached to same, I meant no disrespect to anyone other than the poster who seemed to equate his initial hate of Tonight's the Night with his love for current Neil. Tonight's the Night is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Not just my opinion, but that of pretty much everyone who has ever reviewed a rock n' roll record. I sincerely doubt that even the optimal fan will ever make the same claim for anything Neil has recorded recently. Doesn't mean it's bad or without artistic or historic merit.)

It has something to do, all of this verbiage and outpouring of emotion, I think, with how you approach the issue of great music and great artists.

My primary interest is in great music. I am a "fan" of Neil Young because he has written and recorded more great music than any other artist of my fifty-six year old lifetime. And that includes Dylan, because, though this might be heresy, I don't really think a lot of classic Dylan has held up that well apart from its historic value as being the first of its kind - the electric folk in particular. But that's just me. (I don't listen to Highway 61 anymore.)

In one thoughtful post, Mother Nature wrote about time as the ultimate determining factor in artistic evaluation. I happen to agree. For me, to be truly timeless, a song or recording has to carry meaning for me at age 56, regardless of how much meaning it carried at 18. The most objective criterion I can use for this is simply to look at whether or not I still listen to it.

So, in that context, I still listen to everything Neil recorded from Buffalo Springfield through Live Rust. I still listen to Trans, certain songs from Hawks & Doves and Life, all of Freedom and Ragged Glory and Sleeps with Angels and Greendale, the various live albums, and certain songs from Broken Arrow and Mirrorball (especially I'm the Ocean), Silver and Gold and even Are You Passionate. I don't listen to Prairie Wind or Chrome Dreams (like many of us, I had been listening to Ordinary People on boots for years, so I'm extracting it from the album as a special case) or Living with War. I did listen to them all, several times, but when it came time to set the Ipod for a trip, I eventually stopped playing them. So, for me, they are not 'great music" by the simple definition that I no longer want to hear them. And because they have come consecutively, and because there's no guarantee that another Freedom lies out there in the future, and because the lyrics and music of the new "car" songs do not strike any kind of responsive chord in my "great music" genes, and because none of Neil's peers, the great singer/songwriters of our time, Dylan and Paul Simon and John Fogerty and Springsteen and even McCartney and Jagger/Richards are producing a lot of music that makes me want to listen, I think it is fair to ask some of the questions that have been asked of late in regard to Neil without it coming across as disrespectful or antagonistic.

I don't know why the popular music creativity well seems to run dry. Novelists and painters seem to improve as they age, but I can't think of a popular songwriter (or band) whose work has gotten better as they have crossed the threshold of adolescence/early adulthood. If you read about the psychological aspects of dream theory, the best guess (because no one knows anything) is that dreaming somehow helps the mind to integrate one's fears and desires into the subconscious in a way that enables you to deal with them without being paralyzed.

I think, maybe, that for the geniuses who compose it, rock and roll songs may have some of the same effects, of resolving fear and desire and, in the universality of all our shared fears and desires, they help us to do the same.

As we finally reach adulthood, we may have achieved all the resolution we're going to get and the dreams fade. What stays behind is the permanent record of that resolution and Neil, regardless of whether or not he ever again records anything I want to hear, has helped me resolve more personal conflicts than all of his peers combined.

So thanks for that, Neil and God Bless.

At 3/04/2009 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...


To each his own, that's all he's saying. I don't see any hierarchy here at all.

I can see on the other hand, where you don't fit in anywhere in what he has written, which speaks volumes about who you are...

A true SOB'n maverick?

Sa-yo-na-ra, dude!

(((hugs to 2nd coolest kid in Montana)))

At 3/04/2009 05:39:00 PM, Anonymous dr dip said...

Its good to be an 'optimal' fan and not an 'optional' fan!

At 3/04/2009 05:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must admit I am a very regular visitor to this site, but not a poster and am sick of hearing from fans (true, optimal, or others) about whether they particularly like or dislike the new album ( as one example). I respect any persons right to say what they want - positive or negative.

However, the people who continue to write the same negative or positive position about the same thing over and over are just boring. This includes ticket pricing etc . You are (in many cases) just showboating and have egos bigger than the rock stars we talk about, and want to score cheap points in a pointless web chat. Every time one of these threads starts we go down the same path about the same issue. Visiting the site is becoming more of a downer. This is about 4th thread on the same thing in recent times.

I respect NY because in most cases he does what he wants when he wants. This means some crap you don’t like and others you do. If he did any other way we would still be listening Harvest version 30 and all is songs would be used to advertise lingerie. If this album is rubbish, it’s his rubbish, but it is what he was inspired to do at a given time. That's what artists do!



At 3/05/2009 05:34:00 AM, Anonymous hangman said...

optimal fan concept are u serious
another name for groupies ?

At 3/05/2009 06:34:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

Hey Mick, I think sometimes our passions override our self control. We're just human afterall.

At 3/05/2009 07:37:00 AM, Blogger Reelife Productions said...

to quote neil from his fantastically horribly wonderful album Landing on Water "take my advice, don't listen to me"...

At 3/06/2009 03:08:00 PM, Anonymous Keith Burris said...

Four quick points:

1: No one has to apologize for not liking something Neil Young does. Or for liking everything he does. Neil Young certainly does not have to apologize for being himself.

I personally like some of the “small” songs best. “Love is a Rose” maybe my favorite. Simple and classic? Or simplistic? “Blue bird” is a good song.

2: Songs like “When I hold you in my arms”, “Throw your hatred down”, or “The Painter” can stand next to any Neil Young song. But they haven’t had a chance to grow on their own, and may never get the chance because Neil is so prolific.

3: People have been calling Neil Young washed-up since “Harvest”. Mostly his music is never received well when it first comes out. But look at any recent set list. There are songs from every one of his “eras” and enthusiasms there. He will keep adding to that list.

4: For me, it’s “all one song” -- I listen for the voice of the poet, not just a song that I might like. As long as the poet is talking (singing), I’m interested.


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