BOOK EXCERPT: "Confronting Neil Young” - The Flowers Lied by Michael Goldberg
The Flowers Lied
by Michael Goldberg
Way back in the days of crazy-wild, we came across an early music blog called Addicted to Noise, which made pioneering attempts to be an internet music magazine back in the web's infancy of the mid-90's.
Addicted to Noise live blogged DISPATCHES FROM THE FIELD: Pearl Jam and Neil Young at the Polo Field, San Francisco, CA on June 24, 1995 by editor Michael Goldberg. One of Goldberg's latest projects is writing a rock 'n' roll trilogy. The first trilogy instalment, we touched on in Time Tripping Back to 1970 with Neil Young: “Live at the Cellar Door” | DAYS OF THE CRAZY-WILD By Michael Goldberg .
Well, Michael Goldberg now has published his second novel of his rock 'n' roll trilogy called The Flowers Lied.
The Flowers Lied includes a long chapter in which the narrator attends a Neil Young concert, ends up having a confrontation backstage with Neil and is tossed out by Bill Graham’s crew. It's all a rather semi-hallucinogenic take on the authentic promise of getting really real -- which we can whole heartedly relate to here at Thrasher's Wheat.
Because there once was a time when music was the voice and pulse of a generation. Goldberg's rock 'n' roll trilogy is an innovative coming-of-age experience tracing love and music-of-an-era. While nostalgic, it's a beautiful evocation of a distant soundtrack still reverberating across the moonbeams like a lost Jack Kerouac in a 21st century Twitterverse with a kind of staccato amphetamine grammar that is fractured, deranged, unsettling yet compelling. A Catcher in the Rye 50+ years on, Holden Caulfield is now a hipster-hippie on a trip of misadventures in a counterculture world that's more counter than culture where the Summer of Love turns into a Winter of War. Our hero "Writerman" careens through the haze and confusion to the true high of finding redemption and transformation.
A gonzo, fever dream of a novel, flashbacking intimate portraits of adolescent excess and youthful eccentricity navigating the terrain between love and lust, loyalty and betrayal. The novel focuses on Writerman (Michael Stein) a sophomore at The University, which is located in Northern California on a hill above a beach town not unlike Santa Cruz. He’s a music freak and wannabe writer – he struggles with a Captain Beefheart album review, and tries and fails to type a single word of the Great American Novel he is so desperate to write. He pursues a hip but traumatized 18-year-old artist named Elise, who introduces him to tequila and Almaden Red. And he becomes best friends with Jim AKA Thee Freakster Bro, the over-the-top, gregarious writer/poet/music obsessive stoner he first meets in “True Love Scars.”
Writerman is a serious Neil Young fan. In this excerpt from “The Flowers Lied,” he drags Jim to a Neil Young concert in the fall of 1972, a concert where Young plays songs that will end up on Time Fades Away. In the real world, Young did a serious of concerts at which live recordings were made that ended up on Time Fades Away, but they took place in early 1973. “The Flowers Lied” is not a historical novel, and the author has felt free to fuck with reality.
An excerpt from "Confronting Neil Young” chapter of The Flowers Lied by Michael Goldberg where our hero narrator "Writerman" attends a Neil Young concert, tries to bootleg film the concert and ends up having a memorable evening encountering Neil, his bus, and his Manager Elliot Roberts:
We turn the corner, me first, and it’s same as we step into a surreal painting, a gigantic diorama made by Dali and Disney. Neil’s silver tour bus parked back there emerges from the thick-ass fog lit up by bright bright overhead security lights bathing the scene in a glowing mist.
The bus is a custom job, and through the mist I see an awesome Indian scene airbrushed on the side, a dreamlike tableau summoned forth by Silver Fox and Coyote who sing the world into being. Redwoods, sagebrush, and mountains. Teepees, a fire circle and a waterfall. An Indian chief holding a bow and arrow, a woman and child by his side, and a big-ass big moose, head held high. Flying across intense orange-yellow sunset sky, huge-ass American Eagle.
Above the windshield where the destination should be, where Kesey’s bus said “Furthur,” Young’s says, “Cortez the Killer.”
Stand there take in the glory. And the truth of it, nothing in my mind other than that bus. Not even Elise.
“Neil’s bus, man!” I say. “Holy Grail, Rosetta Stone and Rosebud, fuck yeah.”
“Most of us have outgrown cowboys and Indians,” Jim says.
“Neil’s gonna cool out in there,” I say. “Smoke a doobie between sets.”
“So naïve, Writerman,” Jim says. “That’s where he counts his doubloons.”
I have a plan, always a plan, always.
“I gotta tell Neil what gone down, man,” and I give Jim the dotted-lines eyes, only he doesn’t get it, and that’s the limitation of a plan I formulate on the spot.
The bus has tinted windows, and the driver’s window is open. Some thick-necked geezer inside has a smoke hanging from his mouth playing blues riffs on an acoustic guitar. “Let’s go,” Jim says. “Want that gentleman to knock your teeth out?”
“Then split,” I say, and this is when the scene amps itself up. The back door of the Civic bangs open same as it’s been kicked, and Neil and some guy step out into the cold-ass night.
“How the fuck can I play, Elliot,” Neil says.
Oh man, Neil Young, right there, and those bright bright security lights, even with the fog, a halo of glowing mist surrounds him. He looks hellfuck bad. His matted grease brown hair parts in the middle hangs low-down past his shoulders. Weird ’cause Neil’s face is still boyish angelic same as the Buffalo Springfield days, only I can see his skin sickly pale—as if drugs and dark rooms paint it black.
“I know Neil,” Elliot says, and he’s gotta be Neil’s manager, I mean I read the liner notes. I know that kinda shit, of course I do.
“I understand completely,” Elliot says. “It’s wrong. We’re in agreement. Absolute agreement. I understand, Neil, I really do. I’ve already taken care of it. Just got off the phone, spoke to Bill himself. He was very apologetic. Extremely apologetic. I don’t think I can quite convey to you how apologetic the man was. He sent his regards. And you know what else he said? You’ll appreciate this. He said the only three solo artists he’ll listen to when he’s home are you, Dylan and Miles. His exact words. Neil and Bob and Miles are my favorite solo artists.”
Elliot glances at Neil, looks for reassurance, and he wants it bad, wants Neil to nod or smile or somehow indicate that all is well in the world of Neil Young. And that he, Elliot, has it under control. On his face, please please Neil, just a nod, that’s all I need. Only that doesn’t happen, and all is not well.
They walk toward the bus, Elliot agitated and hyped up, Neil calm and centered. Yeah, Neil’s mad, but keeps it in check. The power of silence, man.
So much I can learn, gotta keep my eyes and ears open, more important still, gotta keep the brain open. Take in the new info, and modify all the old ideas so they sync up with the new ones. Otherwise a human gets stuck in the past, stuck thinking the world is flat when the new info says for sure it’s round. Most people have the World-Is-Flat Syndrome.
Just trying to clue you in.
The both of them oblivious to me and Jim, and I hear the end of what Neil says, fuckin’ bad trip, and I walk slowmo towards them, and I’m close, maybe a car length away, and my voice loud in the empty space between the Civic and the silver tour bus.
“Neil,” I say. “Mr. Young.”
Elliot turns himself quick-like so his body is between me and Neil, and calls to the thick-necked geezer, “Bobby Lee, get your ass out here, pronto,” and to me he talks calm but firm, yeah he’s dealt with this trip a million times. “Neil’s tired, man. Maybe he’ll sign an autograph after the show,” and that’s a lie. I know it, Elliot knows it, and Neil knows it. Neil never signs autographs after a show. Never, man.
Elliot between me and Neil, between me and the bus.
“But—,” I say.
The thick-necked geezer comes fast, faster, faster still. “Sorry, kid,” Elliot says, and Neil’s gonna disappear into the bus, and Bobby Lee gonna send us up the alley, and that’ll be it, and later I’ll have an unsatisfying story to tell about the time I almost met Neil Young. Only that doesn’t happen. No, man, ’cause instead this is the moment.
The moment Jim stands tall. True blue freakster bro. Jim shouts it out, fuckin’ too too loud, which for once is the right amount of loud.
“Judas!” and he imitates Dylan. “I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!”
Neil stops and turns and there’s a peculiar look to his face, shock merged with recognition, and everything changes, and in that moment the world falls away. No Civic Auditorium, no silver tour bus, no thick-ass fog. Me, Jim and Neil Young, only three people on the planet, and there’s connection. It’s not two fan boys and one rock star anymore. No, man, three obsessive Dylan fans stand in the cold, all three of us know those words that come out of Jim’s mouth from listening to the greatest live album of all time, a bootleg recording of a 1966 Dylan performance at the Royal Albert Hall, only that word “performance” no way does justice to the cracked lightning bolt sound, and the anger in Dylan’s voice.
Dylan and The Hawks in England fueled by speed and alcohol. A rock ’n’ roll band using electric guitars, drums, organ, piano and that voice to tear the fuckin’ world to pieces. In the audience, a fan, one of many who in 1966 digs the old Dylan, and that fan yells “Judas!” at the new mod rock ’n’ roll Dylan, calls Dylan out for the betrayal he feels for Dylan selling out his folkie fans, trading in the purity of folk for the vulgarity of rock. Dylan doesn’t take it, he fights back, I don’t believe you. You’re a liar. And the band starts in, goes for it total heavy traffic to-the-jugular, and Dylan spits out his fucking indictment of the rich and privileged, “Like a Rolling Stone.” And more, ’cause Dylan is the role model for everything Neil has ever done. Dylan’s why Neil’s not afraid to follow his muse, change his whole trip when he feels like it. I mean here he is touring after the biggest album of his career, Harvest, and half of what he’s playing each night is an album’s worth of new songs that aren’t recorded yet.
When Jim says those words, “Judas! I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!,” Neil knows, he goddamn goddamn fucking knows. Oh man, and in that moment I see Jim for who he is, I see the best he’ll ever be. In that moment Jim stares Neil Young down. Jim a true blue freakster bro. Thee Freakster Bro, for sure. And in that moment our bullshit skins slide away, no skin, and me and Jim are there, blood and bones and brains and hearts, the best in Jim reaches out to me and in that moment I don’t feel alone.
Two freakster bros, man.
“Sugar Mountain my ass,” Jim says, and Elliot is stunned, no one ever talks that way to Neil. “My esteemed associate and good friend Writerman here is the guy the Bill Graham goon squad threw out of your show. He’s your biggest fan. And you don’t give a damn, Mr. Millionaire L.A. hippie. I always knew you were a fake.”
Oh man Jim angrier than how pissed he is at King Editor.
“All that bull about ‘your fans, your fans’ and peace and love and four shot dead in Ohio, like you care. You’re counting the money, smoking a doobie in your fancy bus while those thugs pick on your fans. They’re probably throwing another fan out right now. Writerman talked me into coming to your show. Swore if I saw you live, I’d understand. Well I understand.”
Elliot has way more extreme than the quizzical on his mug, can’t believe the words unleashed from Jim’s mouth, and oh he wants to shut Jim down only for once he can’t seem to take control, but when Jim stops to get air, well.
“Look, I don’t get your beef,” Elliot says, “but Neil has to cool out before the second set. Bobby Lee here will help you on your way.”
The vise grip of the thick-necked geezer, yeah he has my arm.
“Shut up, Elliot,” Neil says. “Let go of the guy, Bobby Lee. Get back in the bus. These are my fans. My fans, man.”
Neil looks to me, looks to Jim, and I know. “You’re missing it, Elliot,” Neil says. “They threw two of my fans, out of my concert.”
Neil Young, Neil fucking Young, unnerved.
“Hey man, this is not what I’m about,” he says, and he’s talking to all three of us, only he’s not talking to any of us. Neil Young talking to Neil Young, and even Neil Young has the mixed-up confusion. “I’m not one of them,” he says, and steps forward so Elliot isn't between us. “I leave the business to Elliot, he’s my manager, and sometimes things don’t go the way I want ’em to go.”
Oh man, Neil Young rationalizing his trip to me and Jim—who woulda thought such a thing could go down. “This is a tough business, this rock ’n’ roll game,” Neil says. “Hard to survive, not become yesterday’s papers. I’m not about money, man. Money’s no good, get rid of it. Turn it into jobs, turn it into happiness. The more people I employ, the happier I am. I care, man. And what I sing is real. It’s no jive.”
Jim takes it in, but he doesn’t just take it. “So why play for Bill Graham?” he says. “Everyone knows his security fucks with the fans. It’s a cop-out, like, hey, I’m the artist, I gotta let my manager deal with that shit. Is that who you are? The rock star who means well but doesn’t take control of his trip?”
“Oh man, you don’t get it,” Neil says, and he’s torn and frayed, yeah I can see the toll drugs and booze and night after night have taken. “I’ve played a lot of shows for a lot of promoters. They all suck. They rip you off right and left. You think these security goons are bad, check the scene in Jersey. It’s a shit hole business. I can’t reinvent the wheel. It’s too much, writing the songs, recording the albums, driving in this bus from show to show, getting out there for three hours.”
Elliot, he sputters, wheels turn but no traction. “Neil, we don’t have time for this.”
Only Neil does what he wants. “Let’s get on the bus,” he says. “I can use a beer. How about you guys?” and he walks side-by-side with me and Jim.
“Fuckin’ A!” Neil says, and he shakes his shaggy-ass head. “Threw you guys out!”
Michael Goldberg was in the thick of the punk scene in the mid-1970's, interviewing Patti Smith and The Ramones and the Talking Heads for stories that ran in the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He had some close calls. The Clash nearly threw him out of a San Francisco recording studio, the Sex Pistols tried to break his tape recorder, and Frank Zappa said if Michael Goldberg was one of his fans he was in big trouble.
The life of a rock journalist.
We can only imagine... ;)
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