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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Comment of the Moment: TRANS: A Little Bit of Essential Neil Young


"Transformer Man"
Neil Young w/ TRANS Band - In Berlin, 1982

Recently here on Thrasher's Wheat, we have been re-visiting and reassessing some of Neil Young's 1980's releases on Geffen Records, such as, TRANS: A Little Bit of Essential Neil Young.

The Comment of the Moment is from TRANS: A Little Bit of Essential Neil Young | Rocket 88 by Scotsman:
Neil on Trans: [via Shakey book]

"I thought it was really good shit. The only thing wrong with it is that I tried to hide it a bit by putting the things from Hawaii in there...I coulda put out the Trans EP with only the vocoder shit, and that would have been a cooler thing. But I wasn't really thinking clearly. Geffen wouldn't give the money to put out a video for Trans because videos were just starting....Would (that) have made a difference? Oh, yeah, definitely. I wanted to do a video album to go with Trans".

And:

"To me, Trans is one of my highest moments. Forget the acoustic things on it, get rid of those, get those OUT. Disregard EVERYTHING except that computer thing".

I generally agree with Neil's comments on this record. It's obviously something he has put a lot of consideration into, what "might have been". At the time, no one knew about his young son Ben's disability, or the challenges this presented in communication. And so the audience really had nothing to relate to, nothing to connect with. With some complex albums like this one, some context is necessary.

And I too think it would have worked better as an edgier EP. The end result is something that is trying to go in too many directions and not really getting anywhere. Jack of all trades, master of none. An EP would have made more of a statement and got noticed more.

I think some of you need to remind yourselves what a GREAT Neil Young record actually is. To be clear, a great IDEA that ends up getting scrambled by inconsistent songwriting, flat production, unremarkable performances, and record company interference is NOT a great album (though of course it may still be something worthy of admiration). That's an insult to an artist who created something like On The Beach, for instance, which did not allow itself to submerged by any of these problems and achieves greatness on pretty much every level (even down to the cover artwork).

There's a lot to admire on Trans, but I think the finished product (as a complete album) is very flawed. Perhaps with the changes Neil proposed it would have been a piece with a lot more impact.

Producer David Briggs on the Transband:

"It was a loadful working with those guys. They had to be so f**king drunk and stoned just to walk out onstage....I thought their performances sucked. It was always awful. Only Nils played great every night".

And:

"Can you imagine: Ralph and a bongo player? How would you like to play with a f**king bongo player? Neil knows nothing about chemistry or producing - he knows how to play and sing and write. Anytime he tries to do anything else, that band is how it turns out".

Jimmy McDonough adds an anecdote to this: in the nineties, Joel Bernstein listened to the soundboard tapes of the tour and didn't find a single performance fit for inclusion on the Archives.

I think in some ways the disaster of the tour rubbed off onto associated memories of the studio album, which despite it's defiencies, was more successful. The McDonough book is a good read on the Trans period (in the studio). He presents quite a sympathetic and balanced view of what could have easily been quickly and unfairly written off. Rogan's book is also good.

Scotsman.
Thanks Scotsman for all of the research as always. You are a true Neil scholar!

More on TRANS: A Little Bit of Essential Neil Young | Rocket 88 .


Year 1982 - Neil Young Pulled from the Future into the Past
(Out of the Blue, Into the Black)

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11 Comments:

At 2/25/2017 08:32:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

Judging by all the comments throughout the years on this blog, there were lotsa "17 year olds" attending Neil's concerts in the 1980s who were really turned on to "Trans." "Trans" rolled in naturally with the wave of artists already experimenting with synthesizers, vocoders, and metal tape on violin bows. So, yes, in retrospect, it turned out to be a success because it attracted a new generation of fans for him. Personally, I don't think anyone has ever walked away disappointed from a Neil Young concert, no matter how much he deviates from your expectation, he does not disappoint. He's a snake charmer when it comes to his music.

 
At 2/25/2017 09:03:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

@TW - the late 70s & early 80s are a blur but I do remember the highlights.

You know, when I read Briggs's comment in "gospel according to Jimmy" about that tour and output of music, I tihought he verified Geffen's suit against Neil for not making music characteristic of his brand.

 
At 2/25/2017 11:15:00 PM, Blogger (D.) Ian Kertis said...

Again (as with LOW), Neil seems to have a healthy perspective on his own work. I'd agree almost word for word with his statements on Trans, and I would have loved to see that video album happen. Hearing/reading Neil reflect, years after the fact, on his '80s records makes one wonder how he'd view his more recent works, given time to distance himself from them and allow hindsight to kick in.


At the end of the day, I'm not one to rank things, to say this is "great", but that's only "good", and so on. Value judgements are inherently relative and subjective: each person comes with a unique critical lens or method of assessing stuff. If we even have to discuss what "great" means, that suggests it connotes different things to different people. We each use varying criteria or ways of assigning value. It also gets tricky because, in cases such as Trans, some parts may resonate powerfully with while others seem to fall flat. You don't want to shortchange the parts of the album that feel like they're really on to something, but at the same time, there's the challenge of accounting for the flabbier bits and putting it all in a context of Neil's other works--or, hell, why not contextualize within the frame of all recorded music? You can try to give up making comparative judgments altogether, but I'm not even sure that's humanly possible. When one judges something, by definition a judgment is a measurement against some totem or standard, whether that's another work(s), or just your abstract idea of what the thing in question should be like/should make you feel like.

My point is, there are many approaches to determining what may or may not be great, so I'm not one to put tremendous stock in such critical language. I don't know what other people see as "great", but the closest notion I can conceive is transcendence. And to expect a state of transcendence to be achieved and maintain throughout an entire album is setting quite a high bar. Unrealistic, I would say. I do think Trans has moments of transcendence, while other moments are less resonant. It's much the same thing as picking a handful of berries from a bush. They all came from the same bush, but while some are succulent and divine, others may not have been so fully developed, making them smaller or less flavorful. That doesn't necessarily dilute the dilute the experience of the really excellent berries, does it, unless you allow it to?

I don't care too much about classifications. I'm more interested in the flavor of the berry.

 
At 2/26/2017 06:29:00 AM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

Ian:

Sure, and we could take it to the extreme and say "music is really just meaningless noise, therefore it is all of the same value". But in that case I think you would throw the baby out with the bath water.

Or in other words, you wouldn't sell many records or inspire many people to listen to them!

Scotsman.

 
At 2/26/2017 06:48:00 AM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

Worth bearing in mind that good artists also hold themselves to standards of greatness. That's why we bother listening to them. They DO care about putting out the best record they can, producing a work of consistent quality. They rise to the challenge, like any other professional.

And at the same time, they can't allow those high standards to hold them back. In life you will inevitably go through peaks and troughs, and in order to get to those quality works, you will doubtless create some that are less effective than others. Anyone here who has done anything artistic for a sustained period of time will be able to relate to that.

And it's a fragile thing. Sometimes outside forces combine to scramble these attempts; sometimes the inner fire just isn't there; and sometimes experiments fail. Sometimes the artist creates something great and then ruins it with over-production, or second-guesses himself and pointlessly rewrites it. Or he creates something mediocre and DOESN'T rewrite it! Finishes too early, finishes too late.

So it's not easy; any number of things can go wrong and reduce the potency of the artwork.

And I think it's fair to say quite a few things went wrong during the eighties!


Scotsman.

 
At 2/26/2017 09:26:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

@ (D.) Ian Kertis, there is an interview with online somewhere you'd really like where he goes into detail about Trans. P.s. I can tell by looking at the size, color, shape of the berry if it's ready for tasting. I know you can, too.

 
At 2/26/2017 12:22:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...


Perhaps transcendence is only possible when chemistry and imperfection meet at the exact same moment. Without the human element (which is never perfect) and the chemistry of time, space, and the right mix of people in the perfect environment is transcendence achievable.

I'm reading a book on The Beatles called The Story Behind Every Song, and the authors have placed these little blurbs in little yellow box's noting things like, Ringo's drum beat speeds up through a song, or George hits a wrong note, or you can hear bleeding from a previous take. They seem to insinuate that these anomalies are defects, but I think they completely miss the point. Every one of those imperfections is exactly what created a masterpiece. Without the human element music would have no soul, as you can experience when listening to electronic drum machines.

Chemistry can't be captured on demand, it requires the right people working in the right environment at the right time. This is never always going to be the case when recording music, so these moments of transcendence remain elusive to even the most talented artists.

Trans contains moments of transcendence but not throughout the entire record, and this is true for most records but Neil has delivered more moments of transcendence than most of his peers during his career.

Just a thought to ponder I guess.

Peace.

 
At 2/26/2017 01:07:00 PM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

@ All - as usual, the TW readers demonstrate themselves to be some of the most knowledgable and insightful music fans around. Glad we can be part of your musical life.

@ Mother Nature on the Run - right, there's definitely a Neil demographic out there that the majority of the hardcore Neil fans are north of 50 and getting grayer.

That's great you feel no one has ever walked away disappointed from a Neil Young concert. You must have been with some good crowds. Or maybe you didn't attend Greendale shows? Boy was that a low point for us in terms of Neil concerts. We thought Greendale was mega awesome, of course, but our seatmates weren't too happy. After about the 4th song, the 2 guys behind us start going what is this shit and got up for beers. Anyways. we all have our Gdale memories.

As for Geffen's lawsuit legitimacy, we recall that Roberts in the PBS bio-pic on Geffen said something like Geffen realized he made a mistake and dropped it.

@ Ian - yes, music videos of TRANS would have been great esp since this was the dawn of MTV. Maybe it would have slowed down the rise of "music video actors" in the '80's. Our thoughts which we've shared before is that MTV did more to destroy the music industry than MP3 pirating ever did.

Agree on the ranking thing, but does seem to be some sort of natural human trait. As you say, making comparative judgements leads to all sorts of fallacies but is a process that should lead to better understandings -- if truly pursued objectively.

All art suffers this paradox.

Nice metaphor of berries from a bush... you gotta go for the flavor!

Again, we feel privileged and honored to have you as a reader and contributor. But most importantly, as a fellow Neil fan.

@ Scotsman same goes to you, our friend that we've never seen, who doesn't hide his head in a dream.

@ Dan - honourable mentions to you as well.

Any comment discussing transcendence always gets our attention as that Big Old Shift rolls on down the highway.

btw, thanks The Beatles book mention. cool. we'll try and add to our ever growing reading list.

ponder on in peace.

 
At 2/26/2017 01:27:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

Most of Neil's stuff was reworked in the studio by engineers before it went tk print. And Electronic drum machines require a human element to measure the beat that carries the rhythm that creates the song that either takes you there or not. KT Tunstall is a human percussionist much in the same way Neil is, but she records her beats to keep her rhythm going. If you haven't listened to her tribute to Dylan, you need to right now. She is amazing and she uses a lot of electronics.

 
At 2/27/2017 04:31:00 PM, Blogger (D.) Ian Kertis said...

@MOTR, Good point on the berry identification. You do need to know what you're picking, whether that's by taxonomy or less formal methods. The point being, we don't necessarily need rigid language or constructs to assess these things, and also, it seems to me that some will just never grow as big or as juicy, no matter how long you leave them there.

@Scotsman--Way too much I could dig into here. The whole notion of "meaning" can take us down countless rabbit holes. Who says sound is meaningless? "Noise" connotes something chaotic, unpleasant, ill-defined or indistinguishable, but that again is quite subjective. I will admit I have some tendencies toward aestheticism, leading me to read value into how something looks, sounds, tastes, smells, feels (physically or emotionally, that is), without always having to emphasize meaning or significance in more concrete yet sweeping ways (as through theme, intellectual content, etc.).

So I suppose what I'm getting at, or attempting to deconstruct a bit is, how do we assess value? What defines "meaning"? Are meaning and value the same thing (I'm not certain they are)? What differentiates meaningful from meaningless noise?

 
At 2/28/2017 03:24:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

@(D.) Ian Kertis, Both meaning and value have very different variables, but often times exist on the same tangent when it becomes transformative. When we find meaning in a song, painting, sculpture, and poetry, etc. we value the experience or encounter. When we find meaning in an act of kindness or compassion, we value the experience.

 

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