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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Comment of the Moment: Remembering Ben Keith

Making Greendale
Ben Keith as "Grandpa" in Greendale as filmed by Neil Young - 2002
(Eric Johnson as "Jed", center)

The Comment of the Moment is from Remembering Ben Keith by the always oh-so eloquent BIGCHIEF:

Word's fail to describe the beauty and grace that Ben's pedal steel contributed to the sound on the recordings and live performances associated with Neil Young.

Although 'country rock' was already a genre in progress, the success of 'Harvest' made it acceptable to combine the elements of country music with the ears of the rock-n-roll community during a period in which there were no established boundaries restricting artists to the confines of a creative 'box'. As long as an artist's creativity in deviating from the norm translated into album sales and success at the box office, the record company execs. didn't place any unnecessary 'barriers' restricting an artist from his or her's creative process.

Such was the case with Harvest.

Released on the heel's of the success of his prior release, After The Gold Rush, Neil had already established himself as an artist who wasn't easily confined to a particular style. His previous recordings dating back to his day's in the Buffalo Springfield had already fused elements of Folk and Rock along with obvious hints of country influence in his roots. It wasn't until the release of Harvest, however, with the addition of Ben Keith's masterful pedal steel guitar playing, that allowed Neil Young to express his country sentiments while at the same time not having to sacrifice his R-N-R edge.

Ben Keith completed Neil Young.

Although the many years that would follow the success of those Nashville sessions would find Neil changing musical directions as a moth in a lampshade, it was almost predictable that from time to time the 'muse' would summons Neil to call on 'Brother Ben' to get back to the country and make more of that sweet, familiar 'country flavored magic' that will forever be preserved in our hearts and minds by the 'tracks in the sound' they left for us.

In addition, I would add that the greatness of Ben Keith shouldn't cast a shadow on the other great players who have contributed to Neil's success over the years. When I think of the arsenal of musicians and producers that Neil has had the fortune of working with through the years, it's no small wonder what he has been able to achieve.

The frantic pace in which Neil is driven to create his art must surely place a heavy burden on those who are called upon to support him regardless of the manner in which they are compensated. It appears that loyalty even trumps musical abilities to remain a lifelong member in good standing as a part of Neil's camp. As Nils Lofgren would tell you , as an established guitarist called upon to play piano with little experience, you don't second guess the boss. Playing the role your called upon to do will usually result in being called upon again someday in Neil's world.

Most of his associates from before the Woodstock era are still with him to this day. The 'new guy' in Crazy Horse began some 38 years ago. While the loss of Ben Keith left a void unlikely to be filled, that still doesn't minimize the loss of other members of the 'family' along the way. The technical ability to play an instrument cannot replace the love, trust, and emotional experiences that develop over several years.

While there are plenty of Cajun Fiddlers around, you would be hard pressed to find one with the stage presence as Rufus Thibodeaux. It would be impossible to list those those who fell along the way 'laying their tracks in the sound' while accompanying Neil on his journey. While survival is mans basic instinct, the downside is that along the way there will be those who lose their place along this journey earlier than others. An unfortunate fact of life that we are reminded of each time we lose another one of those who gave us so much pleasure in the beautiful noise they shared with us.

As we grow older and hopefully wiser, we take those whom we care for less for granted, hopefully, and in the case of those who contributed their talents to the music we love so much, we have a document in sound of memories we can cherish forever.

Thanks -- as always -- BIGCHIEF for the Ben Keith tribute.

More on Remembering Ben Keith.


At 3/14/2012 09:27:00 AM, Blogger SONY said...

When I think of Ben Keith, I can hear "Albuquerque' in my head all day. Among the sweetest strings I've ever heard.

At 3/14/2012 02:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outside of those five incredible tracks from HARVEST, in my own mind, the first thing I love about the sound of Brother Ben is his soaring, celestial pedal steel, flying higher than a B-52 through the stratosphere over NY's two-chord skronk-stomp on "War Song" from the same year. Immaculate, unmatched, sublime... God bless Brother Ben.

At 3/14/2012 02:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

... I meant to add THE MYSTERIOUSLY-DELETED (after only three months) "War Song"...


-- Eric

At 3/14/2012 05:32:00 PM, Blogger Sandy Horne said...

Ah yes, BigChief... As always, you "get it". Love reading your thoughtful posts!! Don't Stop!!

At 3/14/2012 07:35:00 PM, Blogger BIGCHIEF said...

I remember the 'War Song' got quite a lot of air play around here in the Detroit area when it was released, although anything C.S.N.Y. related was Hot at the time. Then in was relegated to obscurity. I believe it may have been the B-Side to Needle And The Damage Done ... I expected it to appear on Decade since it was never released on an album. Finally saw the light of day on Archives. After nearly 40 yrs of never hearing it again, the groove was burnt in my head note for note when I finally heard it again!

At 3/14/2012 08:51:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

Come to think of it, this has been in my head all day.....

don't see him on telecaster much, maybe that's original to it

At 3/14/2012 10:43:00 PM, Blogger Greg Mantho said...

I just this week listened to A Treasure for the first time (a late Christmas gift), and bam, there it was, the unmistakable sound of Ben Keith underneath the whole thing. Like you say Big Chief, even tho he is gone, the simple soulful sound that Ben left us “will forever be preserved in our hearts and minds”. You also nailed it by pointing out “the love, trust, and emotional experiences” that transcend the music. Two friends happy to be together, kindred spirits creating soulful music.

Can’t agree with you more Sony about Albuquerque, but maybe my favorite Ben Keith memory is him joining Neil on stage to play a few songs in the middle of a set (the Freedom tour?), with the highlight being For The Turnstiles. It was just so clear how joyful they were to be having that shared experience. Then, I can never get through Old Man without rewinding it to hear the seemingly effortless and sublime sounds coming from Ben. To think that he just sort of wandered into the studio and joined in, with both Neil and he wondering who the other one was, and Neil finally commenting to the effect of, “don’t know who you are, but just keep doing what you’re doing”- my favorite Ben Keith story.

But getting back to your comments Big Chief, it is comforting to “have a document in sound of memories we can cherish forever”. It’s comforting for me to play A Treasure, because the title all by itself recalls the story Neil relates about Ben listening to the International Harvester tapes, and saying simply “It’s a treasure, Neil”. I’ll always associate that in my mind. The whole presence of Ben from Harvest on is just so cool. For someone who seemed so quiet and gentle, someone who was always just there being himself, he sure created a big soft spot in all of our hearts. I call that success, and in this we’re the benefactors.

A Friend Of Yours

At 3/15/2012 01:34:00 AM, Blogger BIGCHIEF said...

Amen, Greg. Watching that video of Neil describing the players in that photo gallery to promote 'The Treasure'as he went from photo to photo describing the talents and contributions of each of the 'International Harvesters' was an emotional moment to watch but obviously even more so for Neil. You could see his eyes water up many times as he so eloquently took the time to detail the greatness of each member involved in the tour and subsequent album. While in the past he may have had a reputation of leaving a wake of destruction behind him in his quest for the muse, it seems that before our eye's we now see a Neil that the loss of these past players and friends are beginning to take it's toll as he seems to more then ever be counting the cost and acknowledging that these same players and friends have contributed to his greatness in a major way and that mortality is such a fragile, temporary thing. Hopefully there will be more 'Treasures' to come!

At 3/15/2012 11:43:00 AM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

Great bit of writing here, really captures how the early 70's was the flashpoint where Country rejoined Rock and Roll to create yet another uniquely American kind of music. Forty plus years later, we're still seeing this evolve. We owe it all to people like Ben, and as a tribute to him and many others I offer these two videos from First Aid Kit with performances of Emmylou.

This song has beautiful pedal steel, incredible harmonies, wonderful melodies and just the right kind of gallop. It's happy and sad...actually finding the happiness in sadness is a lot of what art is all about. And I like to think that right now Ben and Faron are somewhere together with Gram, Johnny and June, Sara and Maybelle, AP, Hank and all the other greats. They check in every so often and they are just so happy that the music they created is now loved by the whole world.

This first video was recorded at Joshua Tree and you can see the influence as well as hear it. The second video is a live version of the same song, this time more bare and direct with harmonies even more incredible.

The music lives on and there is so much to hope for with the generation coming up, especially when they have such masters to learn from. So keep your ears and your eyes open because there's lots of great stuff all around. Like the song says, if you ain't lovin' then you ain't livin'.

At 3/15/2012 05:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing Mr Henry! I really appreciate it. The girls are cool and what can I say about lyrics like "I'll be your Emmylou". That's really great! Always nice to hear some new music. I do prefer the second video. Don't know about the Joshua Tree thing. A little coffin looking like Gram? Went there some 15 years ago. Great place to stay in your tent for a couple of days. Something like forty coyotes looking at you when you had to pee outside the tent at 3 am. But somehow it ain't easy to capture the spirit of a place like this on a record or a video. Gram did a good job. And so did Neil. But hey, Neil is a great songwriter. Let's not forget he would have been nothing without people like Ben or Emmylou and last but not least the Horse. They really make the songwriter so much better. That's why I really appreciate the fact that our good friend Thrasher does pay attention to Ben. Thanks! "I'll be your Emmylou".

At 3/15/2012 09:43:00 PM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

You're welcome...glad that you like them so much! Sometimes I think "Oh they're just teenagers" and then I remember that Laura Nyro, Gregg Allman and many others wrote some of their best songs when they were teens.

Neil has truly been blessed with so many friends who also happen to be great musicians. Without them, collaborative Neil might not have reached such amazing heights and solo Neil would not have had such a Yin/Yang life to season all of his art and music.

And the coyotes in the desert story is very funny. I had similar experiences camping in the Smokies 30 years ago, when bears were milling around late at night. Anyway back to Neil!

At 3/16/2012 04:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben was my lost love-
Time ran out for us,I think of him every day.
His stories,kindness,love and friendship,these I will always have.


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