Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Classic Albums: Neil Young, On The Beach

Winter has come. The leaves as gone, and the morning air has a hardness in it. It is not the best backdrop for contemplating the horrors that the next four years are about to bring us. As always, I turn to music during times of seasonal change, both political and climatological.

I have found comfort in Neil Young's "ditch trilogy" of albums from the mid-1970s. (After going to the middle of the road with Harvest, he steered things into rougher territory for a bit.) 1974's On The Beach in particular stands out. For a long time this album was out of print due to Young's insistence, which has always baffled me, since it's so good, and copies of the likes of Landing On Water and This Note's For You were always easy to find when On The Beach was languishing in the vaults. Perhaps it's because this album is a too raw reminder of a tough time in his life, but then again, the more harrowing Tonight's The Night was never swept under the rug.

The ditch trilogy began with the live album Time Fades Away, from 1973, a chronicle of Young's difficult tour that year. It started right after Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was kicked out of his band, after which he soon died of a drug overdose. That came on the eve of the tour, and really set the tone. After hitting it big with mellow songs like "Heart Of Gold," Young was playing to stadium audiences of new fans expecting a laid back 70s folkie vibe, not the blast of chaotic noise on songs he hadn't yet released. After that he recorded the aforementioned Tonight's the Night, a supremely dark album that he shelved until 1975.

On The Beach was recorded last, but was released in the middle. In a lot of ways, it is an album of recovery. After two years of personal turmoil, Young was beginning to find perspective. In the past I have listened to this album in times of personal crisis, since it seems to show that even the worst storms can be braved, even if you take some permanent damage from them. I've recently been listening to it again as I contemplate our nation's own crisis.

It starts with "Walk On." If they ever make a biopic of my life I'd want this song playing over the opening credits. It's bouncy and sunny, like no other song on the album, which is why it's weird to hear it first. It's a song about going through a bad patch and coming out alive, and being a lot less concerned about what people think of you. I know in my own personal crisis in my mid-30s I came out of it stronger, but also far less trusting of others and their opinions of me. "Sooner or later/ It all gets real." No kidding.

Next up comes "See The Sky About To Rain," what I think of as the weakest song on the album, mostly due to the lyrics. As much as I love Young, his overindulgence in the hippie weed leads to some over-baked words. The first lines of the song are "See the sky about to rain/ Broken clouds and rain." He rhymes rain with rain, for crying out loud! I do have to say that it has a nice little vibe, and imparts the feeling of a dreary rainy day, especially the great Ben Keith's weeping steel guitar. His work on songs like "Old Man" was one of the best things about Harvest, and he's definitely the highlight on this track. This song is a leftover from that period, and it shows.

The mood changes on "Revolution Blues," where we are plunged into a deep dark canyon for the rest of the album. It's obviously inspired by Charles Manson, and is sung from the perspective of him or someone a lot like him. The groove is sinister but it swings, too, which makes sense because Band stalwarts Rick Danko and Levon Helm are on bass and drums. The former's melodic tones and the latter's back on the beat funk perfectly compliment the wails Neil gets from Old Black. One theme of On The Beach, named for an apocalyptic film, is the death of the sixties, which Manson so perfectly symbolized. The narrator of the song talks of killing "famous stars" in Laurel Canyon, home of so many of the singer-songwriter troubadors that emerged from the previous decade, including much of Young' circle. In that respect it's a kind of death wish.

The bleakness continues on the fourth track, "For The Turnstiles." The electricity and funk of the last song is suddenly gone, with only the darkness left. There's a plucking banjo, and Young singing so high that his voice breaks, the kind of raw embellishment that would show up a lot on the ditch trilogy records. This song is very countrified, with the banjo joined later by dobro in something that sounds like a hootenany in the middle of a Samuel Beckett play. The first side ends with a sloppy blues number, "Vampire Blues." It's about oil companies, and the only political song on the album. The clumsiness of its directness (so typical of Young) works because the loose feel works as a bit of comic relief amidst some harrowing stuff. Plus it's always good to have something wacky closing out side one.

Side two, however, takes absolutely no prisoners. "On The Beach" kicks things off with a long, spare, repetitive dirge that is the sound of dread personified. "Though my problems are meaningless/ That don't make them go away" pretty much sums up depression in a nutshell. He talks about needing a crowd but not "day to day" and radio interviews, referring to the drudgery of touring. This is the sound of someone who is just about at the end of their tether.

"Motion Pictures" has a twangier and more hopeful feel to it. It is a song of longing and love, and wanting to come home. (It's dedicated to "Carrie," which I assume refers to his wife at the time, Carrie Snodgrass.) It's a tour song, but one where the comforts of home feel like they are almost within sight. The whole album has a feeling of homesickness to it, less for a place than for a feeling of emotional comfort. That kind of spiritual homesickness is also pretty familiar to depressives.

Side two is pretty spare, and it ends with "Ambulance Blues," the sound of someone who after reaching the end of their rope has found a way to go on. I almost feel like "Walk On" should be played twice on the album, at both the beginning and the end, because this song is the prequel to "Walk On." Long, sparse, and meandering with an ominous title, you can hear Young working out the emotional wreckage of the previous year of his life. It's folkie at the start, and Young immediately starts recalling his folk singing youth, as if it is a time of innocence beyond all comprehension. The country fiddle that comes in has a mournful, elegiac quality to it. Like the other songs on side two, there's no drums, only understated bongos. He suddenly opines that "it's easy to get buried in the past" with the tone of voice of a man who is desperate to put a bad past behind him but also carrying around the crushing weight of memories of simpler times, of people and places that are gone and are never coming back. Perhaps that's why the album was left in the vaults for too long, it's far too personal.

In any case, his admonition that "you're all just pissin' in the wind" seems aimed at the whole hippie thing. What started as peace, love, and art in the "folkie days" had curdled into addiction and bullshit. He says that it's a good friend who tells you you're pissing in the wind, implying that Young knows that he needs to take a new direction in life. That's the kind of crisis I was in five and a half years ago, one that I wouldn't wish on anyone. But if you find yourself there, give On The Beach a listen.

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