Quite a despair

"I think I fucked up. Let me just play the groove for a minute."
So says Neil Young at the beginning of "Downtown" before starting, then stopping suddenly, then just as quickly launching head-first into a guitar riff that doesn't sound too different from a guy in his garage repeating the same riff over and over again, usually because it's the only one he knows. The guitar part is so damned simple and so utterly familiar, not so special, but still Young charges ahead until the band kicks in. And now it sounds like any band in any rock club on any weekday night--sort of blues, sort of metal, half-sloppily chugging along as the happy-hour crowd piles in.

Then Young's voice joins the fray and the words only validate the sound: it's a song about a club downtown, a place "where the hippies all go/and they dance the Charleston/and they do the limbo." It's a place, Young sings, where the hippies congregate so they can be seen and dance their hypnotic dance; it's the kind of joint in which Jimi Hendrix still burns through his guitar in the back room and Led Zeppelin still gyrates on the main stage. And above them all twirls the mirrored disco ball, shooting its tiny beams of light all over the room like a "water-washed diamond in a river of sin."

Young, though, has no particular affection for this place. It is, as he says, "like a photograph"--an image taken from the past that never changes, never grows, and never feels, something best left in a scrapbook. It's a representation of what was and what will never be again; that downtown nightclub is only a "psychedelic dream" for Neil Young--not a museum to be visited in the daytime, but a place that now only exists in the darkness of night, buried deep inside a memory that never forgets.

The song itself, the first to be released from Mirror Ball (Young's 27th studio album), is not all that remarkable. Like so many near-bland songs on so many of Neil Young's greatest albums, it would disintegrate in lesser hands, and it sounds so fucked-up you hardly believe Young when he tells the band, "We know that one" as the last notes fade out. But its message sticks around, if only because it is so familiar in the work of Neil Young. No matter what words he uses, no matter which set of musicians he places behind him, Young always says the same thing: We must always look forward, because to peer behind us--to live in the past, to live a life of regret and ponder dreams unfulfilled and conflict unresolved--is to turn into a pillar of salt.

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It is a theme that has run constant throughout his best work; he is a man possessed by the past and obsessed with the future, using the fleeting moments of the present to figure out his place--our place--in this cruel and fragile and disappointing world. As he sings two songs into Mirror Ball, "The fruit of love was in the future/Around the corner and over the hill"--that past-tense "was" signifying a man who is always at conflict with himself, watching hope and life and happiness pass before his eyes but always clinging to the vestiges of what still might be or, more likely, what can be.

Young knows he can't ignore what has happened before--experiencing the death of close friends, watching as once-vital colleagues have become self-parodies, feeling heartbreak and defeat like any one--but always he seems to be a man trying to keep from letting that past catch up with him. He is on the run only from himself, barreling toward the unexpected--his music the frantic, harrowing, gorgeous, sometimes even frightening soundtrack to a race he can never win.

Two years ago, Rolling Stone concluded one of its semi-annual interviews with Neil Young with the musician telling writer Alan Light, "We're on the edge. I can feel it coming. It won't be long." Now, a year after his tragic and remarkable send-off to Kurt Cobain--the elegiac and forceful Sleeps with Angels--he has not only moved to the edge, but peered over it and fallen Fender-first into the abyss. He's like a man running so fast his forward motion carries him where he does not want to go: "I'm an accident," he sings on "I'm the Ocean." "I was driving way too fast/Couldn't stop though/So I let the moment last."

Only this time, he has taken his new back-up band, Pearl Jam, with him, plunging deeper into that unknown. When it was reported in January that Young and Pearl Jam were in a Los Angeles studio recording together, it not only seemed an inevitable announcement but one of destiny. They had performed together on various occasions--including the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards show, ripping through a raucous rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World"--and Pearl Jam lent their support last year to a benefit concert for the Bridge School for children suffering from cerebral palsy, which is run by Young's wife Pegi.  

Eddie Vedder and the boys had always proclaimed a deep love and admiration for Young, and he reciprocated by lending them his demons when Vedder's were not enough. In Pearl Jam, Young has found a group of musicians perfectly suited to his words--a younger Crazy Horse, less crazy perhaps but a band that can keep up with the master. Mirror Ball is a reckless and messy album--chords piled upon chords, guitar solos that devolve into dissonant heaps, a barreling and out-of-control train of sound that threatens to fly off the tracks around every bend.

It's as if Pearl Jam, perfectionists who sound tight and clean even when they try to come off garage-sloppy, listened to every Young album with Crazy Horse and felt the need to up the ante. It recalls Warren Zevon's 1987 "comeback" Sentimental Hygiene, which featured a Michael Stipe-less R.E.M. on backup. The album, on which Zevon also looked back without any regrets and pondered the mystery of life through death, was the musician's best album in years; he seemed rejuvenated by the young men behind him, and they seemed even more forceful in his presence.

And so Mirror Ball is Tonight's the Night and Zuma and Ragged Glory turned up even louder--a howl instead of a yell, defiance instead of anger, a man whose fixation on death always gives way to a struggle for life. The songs, hastily recorded in two two-day sessions earlier this year, usually begin where most songs end--at the exploding climax, at the place where instruments and voice blend together into an indecipherable buzz, everything melting into this gorgeous, raging beast.

This is music meant to be heard loud, so deafening is it even when played low. If nothing else, Young has remained the most consistent rocker of his--or any other generation--because he loves the power of this music, the sheer and inexorable pleasure caused by such ear-shattering and all-consuming pain. To listen to Young's music is to understand he doesn't adhere to the cliche of finding beauty in chaos because he believes beauty and chaos to be interchangeable terms.

Mirror Ball picks up where Tonight's the Night (released 20 years ago) and Sleeps with Angels left off, with Young again seizing death and despair by the neck, exorcising the anguish of loss and hopelessness with a sound loud enough to scare off any lingering demons. Only for Young, those demons are in his heart and head forever; it's a battle always fought but never won, with album after album delving deep into an unspecified pain that keeps resurfacing just when you thought it was beaten.

As he once told Rolling Stone, he writes songs "about the ability to survive and continue and grow and get higher than you were before, not just maintain, not just feel well. Not just, 'I'm alive at 45.'" He is among a handful of veterans who not only sustained a viable career, but never lacked something to say. Like Richard Thompson and Zevon, Young has persevered because he knows it's not enough to survive anymore; leave that to the hacks and buffoons who ply their wares on the nostalgia-act circuit, the washed-up recreating old glories for the burned-out.

No, Young has done more than survive--he has lived, an act made even harder when you are surrounded by death and the "holy wars" of which he sings on Mirror Ball. He has lived for his children, two of whom suffer from cerebral palsy, and for similarly inflicted children at the Bridge School; he has lived for his wife. He has lived for those fellow travelers who seek answers to the same questions and solace in the same answers; and he has lived, most of all, for himself--even when, at times, it seemed so easy to give up.

Young has stayed true to himself even when the truth was painful (Tonight's the Night, Sleeps with Angels); he has believed in his vision even when it was blurry (the cold and bloodless Trans, the rockabilly knock-off Everybody's Rockin'). He has never relented: he has watched as friends (Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, roadie Bruce Berry), heroes (Elvis), and young men he admired and respected (Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain) have gone to sleep with angels--victims of drug overdoses and suicides, riding "out on the mainline," as he sang on Tonight's the Night.

Young--who suffered childhood bouts with polio, epilepsy, and diabetes--always ponders how he made it through, but never with the self-serving "Why did I make it?"; rather, it's more like a defiant and strong, "Why the fuck not?" For Young, the past is a place for which he holds great affection, profound sadness, and also tremendous disdain: he would rather march onward into a new day carrying his guitar in one hand and an old amp in the other, drowning out the echoes of the past with yet another unapologetic guitar solo that lasts forever--and even then it's not long enough.  

Though it lasts only a few seconds, "What Happened Yesterday" lays out Neil Young's declaration of intent. It's a simple song with Young accompanying himself on a pump organ, his voice that familiar falsetto of his "folk" material, but it is haunting and cleansing all at once: "Can't forget what happened yesterday/Though all my friends say don't look back/I can feel it coming through me/Like an echo/Like a photograph." Those are the song's only words, and like that he has wiped clean the slate. Young is a man who finds no refuge in memories, only in the knowledge the bad ones can be replaced every day by better ones.

But it's appropriate he should follow "Yesterday" with the ranting, anthemic "Peace and Love"--the only song to which Vedder contributed lyrics, and the only one on which he shares lead vocals. Its lyrics conjure John Lennon explicitly and Kurt Cobain implicitly: "Peace and love/Flying so high/Peace and love/Too young to die," Young sings at the onset, pleading with the listener to hold on for the sake of the children, though Kurt did not. Instead, Cobain believed his "strength was gone," he felt as though he was "dying inside," and so he made his peace through his own death. We're "deserted by heroes," Young shrugs, "strangers in your own land."

Mirror Ball, like so many of Young's albums, is populated with people who gave up or gave in--the walking wounded who are "looking at the grave," fallen angels who "move like waves behind the beat," boys and girls who march down "the road to never." He presents a desolate portrait of an America where hate ravages us all and freedom comes at the cost of the heart; it's a place filled with people who need human contact and are greeted instead by gravestones and blaring TV sets. We are nothing but "media image slaves," Young intones, desperately seeking heroes and inexplicably surprised and disappointed when we find there aren't any.

Young himself doesn't want to be a hero: "If you want to take a hero home/I'll stay behind," he warns. He only wants to find love and hope in this land of "constant strangers," and not even for him--but, as always, for everyone, which is what makes Young so special. After all this time, he still does not judge, he only observes; he does not even interpret, he only hears. And he continues to lead the search, to light the path and shout the questions over an enormous roar. We are forced to find our own answers, and damned if some of them aren't right there on Mirror Ball itself.

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