Saturday, June 18, 2011

Neil Young - Rust Never Sleeps

Awhile ago I wrote on one of my favorite Neil Young albums, On the Beach. I thought I’d step back into the time machine and look at another Neil Young gem. Rust Never Sleeps is one of those few albums that one gets to see two sides of Neil Young. One side is the acoustic folk hippie first encountered on Harvest. The other side is the future “Godfather of Grunge” with a little bit of punk thrown in for good measure. This album came out in June 1979, when vinyl was still king and there were two sides to an album. On Rust Never Sleeps, the two sides of Neil are neatly divided. Side 1 has all the acoustic songs, one of which was recorded circa 1975 [Pocahontas] and the other recorded with Nicolette Larson [RIP] during the Comes a Time period [Sail Away]. This is the second time where Neil uses the device of using the same song to begin and end the album [Tonight’s the Night being the first]. He’s use this device again with 1989’s Freedom [Rockin’ in the Free World]. The album begins with the acoustic My My, Hey Hey [Out of the Blue], and the electric version Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black]. Except for the aforementioned Pocahontas and Sail Away, the rest of Rust Never Sleeps was recorded live at various venues in 1978. The audiences were for the most part mixed out, but from time to time you can hear them.

In My My, Hey Hey [Out of the Blue] Neil has two rock icons on his mind – Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten. Elvis died only a year before these tracks were recorded [the King is gone but he’s not forgotten…], but with the advent of punk the torch had been passed to another generation [this is the story of Johnny Rotten…]. He laments its better to burn out like the punks than to fade away like Elvis. I’m not sure about Thrasher, but there does seem to be commentary on Crosby, Stills & Nash [they had the best selection, they were poisoned with protection, there was nothing that they needed, nothing left to find…so I got bored and left them there, they were just dead weight to me, better down the road without that load…]. Ride My Llama is just plain strange, with Neil playing guitars with aliens and then deciding to ride his llama from Peru to Texarkana. Pocahontas, one of Neil Young’s most enduring songs [and one of my favorites of his] is a track from the lost album Chrome Dreams. It is Neil’s lament on the condition of the American Indian, with references to American pop culture thrown in [Marlon Brando, the Astrodome, televisions, etc]. These days he plays the song with an electric arrangement. I like the acoustic treatment here much better. As he tells the Indians’ tale of woe he sings the song from the first-person point of view as if he was an Indian himself. Did he ever get to sleep with Pocahontas to see how she felt? He wonders if he and Pocahontas get to talk with Marlon Brando [he who sent an Indian actress to refuse his Oscar™ for The Godfather] around a campfire about TV and other stuff. I like Neil’s surrealism. J His use of the surreal is one of his enduring qualities. Its like he channels Salvador Dali at times. Sail Away is a lovely duet with Nicolette Larson. It would have fit in right along the songs from Comes a Time. That’s good enough for me.
Powderfinger kicks off Side 2. Neil’s lyrics immediately take us back to a distant time, perhaps right after the Civil War [look out Mama there’s a white boat comin’ up the river with a big red beacon and a flag and a man on the rail, I think you’d better call John cause it don’t look like he’s here to deliver the mail…and it’s less than a mile away, I hope they didn’t come to stay, it’s got numbers on the side and a gun and it’s makin’ big waves]. Whose white boat was it – the Feds? Again told from the first-person point of view [Daddy’s gone, my brothers out huntin’ in the mountain], the protagonist is the 22-year old guy left alone to do the thinking, only to find himself killed by the guys “when the first shot hit the dock.” Were Neil and his family moonshiners? The song doesn’t really say. This is another NY favorite of mine [two in one album!]. Welfare Mothers is very repetitious – the riff, the background vocals [Welfare Mothers make better lovers…]. What else are you going to do with a song about getting it on with divorced moms on welfare? It’s a bit of harmless fun. Sedan Delivery is more in the punk aesthetic. But it’s all stream of consciousness, meeting Caesar and Cleo in the Milky Way, getting away from it all, meeting a woman with varicose veins, etc. His sedan delivery job was really hard to find, as he tells us over and over again. It’s more harmless fun. The Ramones would be proud. The finale is Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black], the counterpoint to My My, Hey Hey [Out of the Blue]. End the album as begun, only with high volume, much distortion, phenobarbital riffs.
Back when Rolling Stone magazine was a music magazine and its editors’ opinions meant something to some people, they named Rust Never Sleeps their Album of the Year for 1979. After this and the live album Live Rust that came out four months later, Neil’s artistic output became both erratic and extremely frustrating to his fans. To wit, NY wouldn’t return to this standard of excellence until 1989’s Freedom. Regardless of what came later, Rust Never Sleeps is a testament to Neil Young’s validity in the face of the onslaught that was punk. A must have!

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