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.

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky