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Friday, February 24, 2017

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

Neil Young - TRANS (1982)
Cropped Album Cover

Well, we had such a splendid reaction to running a review of a Neil Young album that came out 30 years ago, that we decided to dredge another review from the TW archives.

There was much, much discussion recently by those who think that Neil Young's 1986 album Landing on Water is incredibly underrated.

So what about Neil Young's TRANS album from 1982? Could there still be love for TRANS? Was there ever love?

From the TW WAYBACKMACHINE, here's A Little Bit of Essential Neil Young | Rocket 88:
Here is an extract on a track titled ‘Sample And Hold’, from the much derided Neil Young album, Trans, which was released almost exactly 30 years ago.

‘Dinosaurs in the computer age.’ Thus spake Neil Young for his Transband at the end of several concerts on the European tour of 1982, the first live concert journey that Young had undertaken since Rust Never Sleeps four years earlier. The decision to choose Europe could be explained thus: Young’s European fans had missed out then and Europe in general, and Germany in particular, where the tour climaxed, was the home of the computerized sound that was to dominate his creativity during this Trans-sitional time.

The musical influence of the visionary Dusseldorf outfit Kraftwerk cannot be underestimated here. The band formed by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider and three cohorts in Dusseldorf in 1969 had dented the US album charts in May of 1981 with Computer World, a clear homage to which was to appear on Trans, Young’s first album for his new label Geffen, in his song Computer Age. Kraftwerk’s status in pop history is substantial: between Autobahn in 1974 and The Mix in 1991, Hutter and Schneider developed a method where music wasn’t so much created as constructed. By the late 1990s their influence on modern music encompassed everything from electro and techno to house and ambient, and the output of everyone from Portishead, Orbital, Inner City, Leftfield and Prodigy, to LFO and Underworld.

Kraftwerk’s influence is at the musical heart of Trans, which is dominated by five tracks all employing computerized effects and the vocal distortions of the vocoder, a small machine attached to a microphone wire which could feed the human voice into a computer and allow it both the freedom of a four-octave range and the perfection and elongation of machine-made sound. In August 1981, Young bought himself a vocoder and started to record a group of songs that were to eventually appear on Trans, initially in his own upgraded studio, improved to take into account the restrictions in his professional life imposed by his son Ben’s learning disabilities. Here, then, we have another and more poignant link to Young’s thinking at the time: unsatisfied with some of the tracks he was laying down for the eventually discarded Islands In The Sun album, clearly nervous about being left behind as a 1970s rock dinosaur, looking for a new musical direction, what was more natural than to follow one integral to his early attempts to communicate with his son?

Young has said that the vocoder, with its ethereal, inhuman distortions reminiscent of Sparky’s Magic Piano, had allowed him to communicate with Ben, hence the hidden meanings behind a track like Transformer Man, where the computer literally electrifies the listener. If you have any doubts, try playing Transformer Man to a group of small children and watch their faces light up. Amazingly, Like A Hurricane doesn’t have the same effect.

The 1980s did mark a massive advance in computer technology in all fields, from air travel and home entertainment (VCRs, video games) to movies and medicine; and Trans, with its own take on an alien yet familiar computer-robot world, is surely influenced by Young’s experiences in hospital where so many doctors and paramedics were walking around just so ‘this kid could push a button’. As well as the statement of intent that is Computer Age, and the distinctive and personal Transformer Man, Young recorded three other vocoderized tracks for Trans, plus a halfway house retake on Mr Soul in which he sings a synthesized duet with his own natural voice. We R In Control is very much a homage to his old pals from Akron, Ohio, Devo, with its repeated slogans and jerky, rather threatening tempo, by far the least benign take on the invasion of machines. Computer Cowboy (aka Skycrusher) is an oddball, amusing retread of Frankie Laine country and western terrain, reminiscent not only of Young’s efforts on the soundtrack of the moribund film, Where The Buffalo Roams (1980), but of the 1973 mega-hit flick, Westworld, with its powerful image of Yul Brynner’s animatronic gunslinger on his own route to murderous mayhem. It has one of the funniest moments in the Young canon in its eery, synthesized cowboy chant: ‘Come a ky ky yippee yi yippee yi ay’.

But the highlight of this album, which is fatally diluted by some of the remaining tracks, is Sample And Hold, a very fine pop song in its own right, released as a disco 12-inch single with Mr Soul on the reverse, the disco version much heavier on drum machine and bass but with a nice trickle of churning, gruff guitar midway through. Sample And Hold has a superb, instantly catchy riff, heralded by Young’s one-string guitar invocation and features some splendidly theatrical vocal interplay on vocoders between Young and Nils Lofgren. Most splendidly, Sample And Hold is a very funny song, dealing with computer dating, not the kind where humans feed names and details into a machine but where the machines are the obscure objects of desire themselves. ‘I need a unit to sample and hold,’ Young demands in a dramatically deepened voice, thus showing why the computer sound of Trans is as much about distortion as about clarity, about language as a barrier as much as an avenue of communication.

Young has admitted in interview that at this time he was as interested in hiding his true state of mind behind his music as in revealing it to his fans
. In four different versions of this song that I’ve heard, two recorded, two live, the words change subtly: Young doesn’t want an ‘angry’, ‘lonely’, lovely’, or could it be ‘hungry’ model; in concert in West Berlin he added ‘jealous’ to the range of adjectives. And is it a model which ‘you desire’, ‘you designed’, or simply ‘a new design’? This is a deceptively clever song which reminds me both of Paul Verhoeven’s classic film Robocop (admittedly not to be released for another five years!) and Bryan Forbes’ 1974 The Stepford Wives. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed in every detail,’ promises Lofgren’s dehumanized, angelic voice. ‘We know you’ll be happy,’ the manufacturers promise, unconvincingly but sincerely.

There’s a paradox here: computerized sound as a perfect musical method, love as a perfect state, but despite the good intentions of all concerned, happiness is unattainable merely through the consumer’s specifications. In Robocop (1987), Peter Weller’s robot law enforcer breaks down when he realizes he has known love and happiness in an earlier human form, and Sample And Hold shows the unbreachable gap between the slick world of technological precision and the complex reality of human relations. That isn’t to again say its awesome, but it is still has a potent appeal as an easily addictive piece of early 1980s pop funk.
So. TRANS. "Easily addictive piece of early 1980s pop funk." Or not?

Neil Young w/ TRANS Band, "Sample And Hold" - In Berlin, 1982

If still undecided, try The Secret Behind Neil Young’s Out Of Print 1982 Album (TRANS) Will Melt Your Heart.

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At 2/24/2017 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Pinto (or Flounder) said...

I've always loved Trans. I only ever wished he'd done the whole album with the electronics instead of hedging his bets with the poppier songs.

At 2/24/2017 09:41:00 AM, Blogger Tom said...

Say what you will about Trans, but it's the only record in my collection that I can put on for friends (NY fans or not) and guarantee they will sit and listen to it and try to absorb it. Maybe it's just because it's so different, yet it's Neil so it's still a little familiar, maybe it's just novelty, but Trans is a record that music fans and non music fans will ACTIVELY listen to. To be totally fair, some of them come away saying: "that was awful", but more often than not people say "that's totally different" or "that's pretty cool".

Side note, I totally agree with the author that Sample and Hold is the highlight of the album. Here are two things to listen for if you've not already heard them.

1. Matt Mays cover version of Sample and Hold on the Neil Young Tribute album Borrowed Tunes II. This version is pretty true to the original but Matt Mays is a tequila hangover rocker who brings a Neil circa Tonight's the Night touch to most things he does. This version is no exception.

2. Unplugged Transformer Man. Of course most readers of this blog know about this version, but it bears repeating, this is a great song and it totally stands out on that collection when put up against some of the highest standards in Neil's catalogue. Quite a feat.

I don't think Trans is Neil's best album, but it sure is worth a listen every now and then and it sure is cool to listen to.

Neil wouldn't be who he is without stuff like Trans. Have a great weekend!

At 2/24/2017 10:52:00 AM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

I was working in the record business when Trans came out and I was the only one in the store who loved it. Years later some of those folks eventually came to love with it as well. It really came out of left field at the time and some folks just didn't get it, but time passed and it revealed it's charms. Much like many of his resent albums, they will age well and be heard with new ears.... in time.


At 2/24/2017 10:59:00 AM, Blogger Hbheel said...

Your articles on Landing on Water made me revisit it and YES it really is good!!!!
At the time I thought it was off the wall...but now looking back it sounded GREAT!!!!
Thanks for the idea....Neil is the MAN!!!!!

At 2/24/2017 11:12:00 AM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

1982 Trans Tour I think Neil played Wembley (not stadium) 3 nights on the bounce - it was half empty - the live in Berlin film is a good snapshot with the great Nils Lofgren in tow. It's not a great Neil Young record but one of his diversions that's worth retracing. It also contains Like An Inca played live was tremendous, it was adventurous and innovative I just wish he still that had that in him instead of the sloppiness of recent releases. Trans shows Neil experimenting and still writing great songs - I also love the poppy opener A Little Thing Called Love.

At 2/24/2017 11:36:00 AM, Blogger Hambone said...

Andy I well remember the Wembley gigs - my first live Neil experience.
The thing that got me most was that every time he strapped on the vocoder half the crowd started to boo. I on the other hand was thrilled and realised that I was now definitely in the right place listening to the right man.
Oh and I can still pull on the tour t-shirt 35 years on....

At 2/24/2017 01:19:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Pinto (or Flounder) - well now, it's been awhile hasn't it?

Can you imagine if Neil had done the whole album with the electronics? As it stood at the time, Neil lost a few folks he'd been travelling with.

@ Tom - interesting experiment. thanks for sharing results. Maybe you can make a video like the PONO experience promo?

Also, thanks on the note on the cover version. Maybe drop a link if handy? We can always use a good tequila hangover rocker.

As for Unplugged Transformer Man, that's an obscurity these days also.

@ Dan - ahh, the record business in the '80's. You probably have a few stories there...

@ Hunter - glad you enjoyed the Landing on Water wayback review. With Neil on sabbatical, we're scrounging through the Archives. Fun stuff and nice to re-visit the back catalog.

@ Andy - yes, the clip above demonstrates the great Nils and Neil chemistry. Really something to watch. A real time capsule that Berlin recording. Sure glad it was captured and released.

@ Hambone - We recall the vocoder reaction as well. No boos that we recall, but more of disbelief among many. Literally people saying hey I thought this was a Neil Young concert?!

ps - any relation to T-Bone???

At 2/24/2017 01:57:00 PM, Blogger Acoustic FeedBack said...

My first concert was Neil Young Solo Trans on Superbowl Sunday, 1983. I think January 30 in St. Louis Keil Auditorium. I was 17 at the time. So I really love Trans. The solo shows were great too. I remember that Neil had all the instruments for a full band set up on stage but played solo for 2 1/2 hours, then he "built" the songs from Trans right before our eyes then jammed with himself on a big screen. Totally great stuff.

At 2/24/2017 03:37:00 PM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

Acoustic Feedback, that was my first Neil show too but Neil hadn't played in St Louis for something like 9 years so it was probably the first for a lot of the crowd. I had a blast

At 2/24/2017 03:57:00 PM, Blogger Acoustic FeedBack said...

Peacelover, are you still around the St. Louis area?

At 2/24/2017 05:43:00 PM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

@ Hambone I'm guessing you bought XXL ? Did you keep the tour programme? It was 26th, 27th & 28th Sept @ Wembley Arena. Neil started with a stunning version of 'One The Way Home'.

At 2/24/2017 06:01:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

When TRANS was released I couldnt stop playing it . Its still a " go to " lp for me . I saw the tour in New Jersey and had a blast ! Its Neil being Neil and doing what he wanted . Its not nearly as computerized as everyone says it is . Like An Inca and Hold On To Your Love are 2 of my favorite Neil songs .

At 2/24/2017 06:20:00 PM, Blogger Columella said...

"Trans" is not a good Neil Young album. Nope. Not by a mile. It is a great NY album. I've always liked Trans, and never really understood the fuss about it. Sure, the vocoder, sure the synths, but really they don't detract or distract from excellent songcraft and music but rather give Neil a new, and to my ears, interesting spin. Plus, there's the great, great song "Like an Inca", which could fit easily on numerous other "normal" Neil albums. Frankly, I like the whole thing. And, the updated Mr. Soul is better than the original (heresy!).

At 2/24/2017 08:19:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

I have the "for promotional use only" maxi-single (45 rpm) "Sample and Hold" with Mr. Soul on flip side. Nice cover art. I have a lot of bootleg vinyl from earlier concerts.

At 2/24/2017 10:23:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

@Mother Nature, I have that as well! Came across it fairly recently at a record store near Philadelphia. I think it also has a longer "dance" mix of Mr. Soul. It's a neat collector's item and I'm not sure how many are around.

At 2/24/2017 10:40:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Re: Transformer Man. The "Unplugged" CD gets an occasional return visit, not least for the otherworldly quality of Like a Hurricane played on pump organ. I may be one of the few to get a kick from that.

I've sometimes thought it was a shame Unplugged came up when Neil was promoting Harvest Moon. The set list is a little heavy with songs from that album. And they're good songs. There's just not much to "unplug" them from, which sort of wastes the whole concept as I understand it. It would have been interesting to hear the Sleeps with Angels material in simple acoustic form. Imagine Driveby, Trans Am, Change Your Mind, A Dream that Can Last, Safeway Cart, or the title song as solo acoustic numbers.

Also, correction to previous post: my promotional maxi-single actually features two mixes of Sample and Hold, along with the regular vocoder version of Mr. Soul. The dance mix of S&H is almost 7 minutes, and there's an even longer mix that surfaced on Lucky 13 and the Trans CD reissue.

At 2/24/2017 11:29:00 PM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

A.F. Yes, I'm in unincorporated Jeff Co. High Ridge/House Springs & you?

At 2/25/2017 09:36:00 AM, Blogger Neil and Play said...

It should have been a total move to computer music. Imagine if Kraftwerk was in the mix! Saw that St. Louis show. "How many people think corporations should sponsor rock concerts"? Neil is the best!

At 2/25/2017 09:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil on Trans:

"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".


"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.


At 2/25/2017 10:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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".


"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.


At 2/25/2017 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

@(D.) Ian Kertis, I picked up mine at a radio station. Neil has always been experimental with his work. Looking back at his concerts and set lists, he throws his new stuff out there in between "Heart of Gold" and "Powderfinger" to breath life into it for a few years like he did with "Sample and Hold" & "Transformer Man." Those songs sprang out from a time when Bowie, Byrne, Cale, Eno, etc. were doing their thing so I think people (not necessarily Neil's diehard "Harvest" fans) were open to his new sound. I remember it came as a shock, to his diehard fans, because he generally doesn't follow trends. He created them like he did with his rock & country sound.

At 2/25/2017 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

The first thing that came to mind when I saw Neil's transformation on stage in the early 80s was "oh wow, he cut his hair really short!" after bringing out the electronics and using the vocoder. Next, I thought he'll never match the mesmerizing and brilliant intelligence and energy level from performing artist Laurie Anderson. Well, he came close although his concerts were less visual, less polished, and very static compared to Laurie's. He was still doing rock and roll and Laurie was on a different level entirely.

At 2/25/2017 02:10:00 PM, Blogger Hambone said...

@ Thrasher - as a vegetarian of 30-odd years I'm rarely seen near a T-bone!
The full surname's Hammond and Hambone was a my late uncle gave me many years ago.

@ Andy Walters - it's a Medium. When I turned 50 I retrained as a gym instructor and I'm svelt as f*ck.
And yes buried somewhere in the house is the tour programme.

@flyingscotsman + Acousticfeedback - yeah even as a first Neil gig I couldn't help but notice the Trans Band were a bit plodding at times - except for Nils. Like An Inca live was pretty dire.
I read reviews (ah the pre-internet days!) of the Solo Trans tour and got terribly jealous. Mind you I got top see the solo storytelling Greendale...

At 2/25/2017 02:54:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

It surprises me to find so many Neil fans here proclaiming allegiance to Trans because of their first Neil Young concert experience.

At 2/25/2017 05:05:00 PM, Blogger joe lookout said...

1982: first time of Neil in Italy. I am pretty sure Neil will recall those gigs ad a nightmare. Audience did not want to listen to Trans electronic songs so he was forced to change the setlist. My very first time I saw him was september'82 in Rome. More than 50,000 people ready to 'kill' him if not playing Harvest songs. People right under the stage started throwing bottles of water against him. Neil immediately stopped playing and told the organizer he would leave if that stupid thing had continued. Pegi tried to calm him down and the organizer convinced the audience to let him play 'in pesce'. At the end it was an incredible gig with a terrific hey hey my my......

At 2/25/2017 05:06:00 PM, Blogger joe lookout said...

*in peace*....

At 2/25/2017 05:09:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Acoustic FeedBack - great memories. Yes, we recall that the biggest crowd roar came when Neil jammed with his younger Buffalo Springfield self on a big screen. Absolute time travel in real time.

@ bob - "Like An Inca" is definitely a keeper. Have you the Promise of the REAL version? Smokin'.

@ Columella - "heresy" is allowed and encouraged ... to a degree ;)

@ Mother Nature - The cover art was definitely a style departure -- not that there really is/was a Neil cover style.

@ Ian - good point on Unplugged and Harvest Moon songs. Yes, definitely interesting if there had been an Unplugged Sleeps with Angels! Trans Am unplugged would be awesome. Change Your Mind unplugged did happen at Bridge and it was epic.
@ Peacelover Doc - we'll stop by next time we're in the neighbourhood.

@ Neil and Play - didn't Neil say he was influenced by Kraftwerk with TRANS the result?

@ Scotsman - great quotes! Just posted as a CotM! Fresh wheat... sort of.

@MNOTR - you missed of missed the RNS tour in 78. That was the debut of short hair Neil. Interesting on the Laurie Anderson comparison. Never considered really. Except if you view Neil as an experimental artist (which is to a degree) but he's also pretty conventional straightforward as well.

@ Hambone - good to know. And you're eating healthy too!

At 2/25/2017 05:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


To my ears, there's just no chemistry to the sound, a bunch of guys on a different page to one another. Like pieces of a jigsaw that don't slot together.

Unfortunately I missed the Greendale tour, but the album is something special and seeing it on tour must have been a night to remember (either acoustic or with Crazy Horse). Solo Trans was okay (judging by the enjoyable concert film), but I think you really hit the jackpot with Greendale. Classic Neil Young.

Scotsman (from one vegetarian to another!).

At 2/25/2017 05:23:00 PM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

Let's not start on EMMERDALE

At 2/25/2017 09:40:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

@TW He was still pretty grungy for CH & RNS, but after Hawks & Doves, he starts looking like David Byrne in a reprised role "Stop Making Sense." Was he watching a lot of MTV?

@Lookout Joe, when in Rime...

At 2/26/2017 05:50:00 PM, Blogger rkennke said...

(D.) Ian Kertis: I found some of Sleeps with Angels stuff unplugged on a bootleg called "Collectors Heartland", it's a treat!

Trans has been one of my early NY CDs back in the 90s (when I was a teenager), and I always loved it. I've only know the versions of S&H on the Trans CD and the Lucky Thirteen CD, and when I bought the Trans LP on ebay a few years back, I was totally thrilled to hear a rather different mix of it. It comes over much more like a Crazy Horse rocker on the LP! Made me wonder why and who decided to put the more sterile mix on the CD?

At 2/26/2017 05:57:00 PM, Blogger rkennke said...

Oh and another observation. If my memory serves me well, Trans was, despite its digital sound and backdrop, the last album in a little more than a decade that was recorded and produced on analogue equipment. Everybody's Rockin' was his first produced digitally, and judging from the labels on the records it looks like Neil Young was pretty proud of it back then :-) That lasted until Harvest Moon or Sleeps with Angels when he started to get on this whole 'digital is evil' trip...

At 2/27/2017 04:20:00 PM, Blogger Acoustic FeedBack said...

Peacelover - Yeah live on Illinois side of town. Sparta IL.
email me if want

Maybe go catch some local Neilish acts.


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~~ Fannie Lou Hamer

Here Comes "The Big Shift"

Maybe everything you think you know is wrong? NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS
"It's all illusion anyway."

Propaganda = Mind Control
Guess what?
"Symbols Rule the World, not Words or Laws."
... and symbolism will be their downfall...

Brighter Planet's 350 Challenge
Be The Rain, Be The Change

the truth will set you free
This Machine Kills Fascists

"Children of Destiny" - THE Part of THE Solution

(Frame from Official Music Video)

war is not the answer
yet we are
Still Living With War

"greed is NOT good"
Hey Big Brother!
Stop Spying On Us!
Civic Duty Is Not Terrorism

The Achilles Heel
Orwell (and Grandpa) Was Right
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”
~~ Bob Marley

The Essence of "The Doubters"

Yes, There's Definitely A Hole in The Sky

Even Though The Music Died 50+ Years Ago
Open Up the "Tired Eyes" & Wake up!
"consciousness is near"
What's So Funny About
Peace, Love, & Understanding & Music?


Show Me A Sign

"Who is John Galt?"
To ask the question is to know the answer

"Whosoever shall give up his liberty for a temporary security
deserves neither liberty nor safety."

~~ Benjamin Franklin


(Between the lines of age)

And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make

~~ John & Paul

the zen of neil
the power of rust
the karma of the wheat