Every now and again I rediscover an old favorite album that I'd let get way too dusty. About this time last year, just as I was preparing to leave Texas for New Jersey, Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps was a constant companion through the emotional ups of leaving a wretched work situation and the downs of saying good-bye to some truly wonderful friends. Rust Never Sleeps is tailor made for such conflicting emotions, in that it has a contemplative acoustic side, and one hard-rocking electric side. In fact, it's really the only Neil Young album to properly combine his two main modes: high-voiced introspective folkie and Jimi Hendrix by way of Kurt Cobain electric guitar wizard.
Strangely enough, I used to associate RNS with working in a factory. I bought it on cassette (yep, I'm that old) the summer after my first year of college, which I spent toiling in a rubber parts factory. I'd been inspired to buy it in the first place after hearing "My My Hey Hey" (this is the Live Rust version) on the classic rock station at work. As a 19-year old I was attracted to that song's seeming defiance in the lines "Rock and roll will never die" and "it's better to burn out than to fade away." I was also aware that the latter line had sadly been part of the aforementioned Cobain's suicide note.
Now that I am in my mid-30s, Young's age when he wrote the song, I hear the defiance differently. It is a defiance against the inevitable ravages of age, which I am now coming to grips with. My mind isn't as sharp, my energy wanes, gray hairs appear above my temples, and the confidence I once had that I could beat the odds has pretty well been beaten out of me by life. Young is taking Dylan Thomas' "rage against the dying of the light" and giving it a rock and roll twist. It still resonates with me, but in a much deeper way.
The second song, "Thrasher," (the link is to a slightly different version) has similarly revealed its deeper meaning to me with my advancing age. It's a very poetic story of taking a road trip early in the morning and seeing thrashers going out to take in the harvest. I used to think of the words as mysterious and abstract, but now that I'm older, I see that it's about the changes that come with the passage of time, including the biggest change of all: death. It's also obliquely about the passing of friendships, and leaving people behind on the road of life. The latter concern has been bugged me a lot last year as I prepared to get out of Dodge, which was sweet in its escape from a horrible work environment, but sad in that it tore me away from people I love. The song itself is more about the bitterness of abandoning false friends, but I think I'm within my rights to twist the song to my own purposes.
When I popped the tape into the cassette player of my car on the way to work at the factory in the morning, it always took me through the third song, "Ride my Llama," which has an admittedly stupid-sounding title. However, it has a certain foreboding, minor key feel, which suited my lack of ethusiasm over spending nine hours in devastating summer heat working on machines with plates heated to over 400 degrees. The next song, "Pocahontas," is an absolutely stunning meditation on the genocide of Native Americas and the hollowness of material progress. The last acoustic song, "Sail Away," is a bit of a folkie soft-rock throwaway in the best seventies style, but it is a much better than average example of the genre.
Flip the record over, and Neil hits the listener with, in my opinion, the all-time king #1 blockbuster showcase for his distinctive electric guitar playing: "Powderfinger." It sounds pretty glorious for a song about dying young from a misfiring rifle. The soaring breaks are reminiscent of a hawk being struck by lightning.
The next song, "Welfare Mothers," basically a bad joke encased in a killer riff, and probably the weakest song on the record. That being said, there are plenty of pyrotechnics.
Following "Welfare Mothers" is the more oblique, time-signature shifting "Sedan Delivery," which has lyrics about the sordid underbelly of life befitting a Tom Waits composition. It took a long time for this song to sink in, but now I must admit it has a kind of dirty beauty.
Young ends it all with "Hey Hey My My," an electric reprise of the opener. Instead of the mourful acoustic guitar, there's a absolutely brutal electric riff that practically stabs the listener's ear. This song pretty much explains why Sonic Youth would open for Young in the early 90s, despite differences of age and temperment. The cry to burn out rather than fade away is more powerful here, but also a little more desperate, too.
Like almost all albums except for a precious few, Rust Never Sleeps is not perfect, but it is much more than the sum of its parts. There are few albums that still contain a capacity to inspire and resonate thirty years later, and Rust Never Sleeps belongs in that rarified space, at least as far as I'm concerned.