Sunday, January 30, 2022

Neil Young, Time Fades Away (Classic Albums)

Neil Young is in the news this week with his stand against Spotify's propagation of anti-vaccine propaganda in the form of Joe Rogan. Young's willingness to cut against the grain of expectations has always been one of his defining features and one of my favorite things about him. After all, this is a man who was sued by his own label in the 80s for not making "representative" albums!

His first major bucking of expectations is one of my favorite albums of his: Time Fades Away. It came right after Young hit the big time with Harvest, his 1972 record full of catchy hits like "Heart of Gold" that embodied the spirit of the whole Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter thing. According to a famous statement of his, Young decided to move from the middle of the road into "the ditch." His ditch albums of the seventies began with Time Fades Away, a strange live album without the hits documenting a difficult tour. It was out of print for decades, embargoed by Young himself. I got my copy on LP, purchased by my wife off of eBay before Young finally released it from the vault. 

The Time Fades Away tour came after both original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry died of drug overdoses. Whitten was supposed to be on the tour but was let go because his substance abuse left him in no condition to play. He died soon after, on the cusp of the tour, which had to have weighed heavy on Young. If Harvest represented the mellowing of the hippie dream into relaxing folk-pop music, Time Fades Away was an angry obituary for the failed counterculture, a running theme in the "Ditch Trilogy" that also included On the Beach and Tonight's the Night.

The album's cover implies this elegiac tone with its sepia-colored photograph of a rock show audience. The children of the Aquarian Age are there to commune and be groovy, but that looks like an artifact of the distant past even in 1973. The kid flashing the peace sign in front has no clue what's about to hit him when an angry and grieving Young hits the stage. There will be no good vibes to be had. 

Being a live album, Young's disenchantment hits the listener with more immediacy on Time Fades Away. It starts with the title song, a rocking ragged number that sounds like a bad hangover come to life. The feel and title set the tone for what's to follow. The hippie world of being forever young and carefree was a lie. Time comes for us all, even the dreamers. When it does, it's ugly. 

After that comes the tender piano ballad of "Journey Through the Past." Here the passage of time brings nostalgia rather than despair. It's a song of going home to a place you've left long ago and it's always resonated with me. Like Young, I grew up in a small town and moved far away but always kept it in my heart even though it seems like a strange place whenever I return. We all need these memory palaces to make life bearable. Arthur Schopenhauer, a ridiculously pessimistic philosopher, felt that our few chances at happiness depended on our being able to reflect on the good times we do manage to wrest out of this difficult existence. 

Young does not let the listener stay in this reverie, however. Next up comes "Yonder Stands the Sinner." We are back to the desperate hangover sound of the title track, complete with cracking voice and junk-sick blue notes. It sounds positively happy compared to "L.A.," an able entry in the Los Angeles as Hell genre. I myself fancy Southern California, but it seems in the 70s many rock musicians who came there left a bit worse for wear. (I think here of David Bowie going into cocaine psychosis and weighing a hundred pounds and The Stooges' seven minute cry for help "LA Blues.") Ben Keith's steel guitar, which made Harvest so mellow, pierces here. We aren't in rural Ontario anymore. 

Side one ends deceptively with "Love in Mind," a song recorded two years early in 1971 before Young migrated over to the Ditch. It has the same sad wistfulness of "Journey Through the Past" but feels a lot less tired. Knowing that fact helps you hear the desperation in the rest of the album. 

Like all good albums, side one has a soft landing and side two begins with a shift in tone. "Don't Be Denied" is a song of youth and memory, but looking back in anger. The small town of "Journey Through the Past" has become a trap, a place to be escaped. I too understand the dialectic of leaving the small town. The memories of the intimacy and simplicity of childhood in such a place clash with the memories of the small-mindedness and narrow horizons that arise from the same circumstances. It's a loud dirge, vocals straining and guitars screeching. Easy so see from this how Young was a grunge godfather.

"The Bridge" follows, swinging the pendulum back to ballad territory. At first it seems to be building a simple metaphor for love, but Young sings about the bridge falling under "lies" and trying to build it again. The plea for love and understanding here lies on a bed of pain. "Heart of Gold" had that kind of longing in it, but it's much harder to ignore here.

Things end with the hard rocking and appropriately named "Last Dance." It's a song about waking up on Monday morning facing yet another soul-sucking week of work. The riff stabs, Keith's steel guitar pierces again. This is the sound of our daily malaise personified, but the words promise the possibility of escape. Young's chant of "no no no" is a stirring rage against the dying of the light. By the end of the album we have gone full circle from the emotional wreckage of the failed hippie dream to a cry of resistance against giving into the daily malaise of modern life. 

This is not pretty-sounding music, but like a truly great live album it lets in a couple of bum notes and strained vocals so that a deeper, ecstatic truth emerges. It was too true for Young's taste, which is why he left it in the vault for so long. Who wants to be reminded of their darkest days? As we live through our own dark times this seeming curio of a legacy artist's career can be a balm for the soul. Neil Young may not be on Spotify anymore, but most of the time I was spinning this LP it was never meant to be heard, anyway. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, "Some Velvet Morning" (Track of the Week)

There's probably no more depressing time of year than late January. It's as cold as it will get, the days are still too short, the holidays are long past and the end of winter is still a long way off. In the time of COVID January also means sickness and death. 

This January is not as deadly as the last but the embers of hope stirring then are almost burned out. January 6th was a horrible shock, but the 20th brought an end to the Trump presidency. A year later the hopes I had on that day are pretty much dead. Republicans have not paid any political price for trying to overthrow democracy. Democrats are unable to pass legislation because two of their own Senators refuse to suspend the filibuster. This year will likely bring Republican control of Congress, and an end to any possible hope for the new birth of freedom this country desperately needs. 

I walk about my days this January with premonitions of doom and rumors of war in Eastern Europe. This country's death spiral has not been averted in any perceptible way. I don't really think there's much of a future for America. 

Apart from going to work every day and spending time with family and friends, I am not sure what else to do. I try to find solace as always in music. I have found that lush 1960s baroque pop soothes me like little else. I got introduced to this genre through the early Bee Gees, and last winter listened to Scott Walker non-stop. This year it's Lee Hazlewood. 

"Some Velvet Morning" with Nancy Sinatra has the doomy, ethereal sound of my soul at this particular moment in its grooves. Hazlewood doesn't really sing. He sort of intones in a deep voice while Nancy does ghostly background vocals. I am not sure what this song is even supposed to be about, but in it I hear the sounds of the crisis of the soul. God knows it's a resonant feeling with me right now. 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Reading War and Peace in the Time of COVID

This Charlie Brown special was how I first learned of Tolstoy

When quarantine began in the middle of March, 2020, I decided to order a couple of long nineteenth century novels I had been meaning to read for years. I love those old classic doorstops, which considering their serialized nature are like literary versions of a Netflix series. The more characters, the more side plots, the more philosophizing, the better. The two novels in question were Middlemarch and War and Peace. I started on the former and got over two hundred pages in, mostly because the start of quarantine coincided with my spring break. Then came the transition to fully remote teaching, which was so taxing and brutal that I could not spare the mental capacity for Middlemarch.

Months later, in the summer of 2020, I dug out War and Peace from my bedside book stack, and couldn't get into it. The same thing happened the next summer. It begins in the world of noble salons and drawing rooms, not exactly the most engrossing thing for me.

Fast forward to last week. My wife gave me a bunch of great books for Christmas, including Ruth Scurr's recent book about Napoleon telling his life through his experience with gardens (trust me, it really works!) I got into a serious Napoleonic mood after reading it, and the only relevant book readily available to me was Tolstoy's tome. 

This time it clicked with me, and after three days I am 150 pages in, despite my tired old eyes straining to read the small print of the footnotes whenever the French dialogue is being translated. This was partly because my mind was in the right Napoleonic frame to appreciate the world Tolstoy was recreating. However, it was mostly because I saw a connection between that once foreign salon world and myself.

As the two year anniversary of quarantine approaches, I have been getting extremely vivid flashbacks to the earlier days of the pandemic. I am especially remembering its strange mesh of emotions. I was scared and mentally dislocated, but I was also optimistic and energized by the challenge ahead. I had no clue, of course, what really laid in store for me. I had no conception that the pandemic would still be affecting my life two years later, one year post vaccine. 

That's what Tolstoy is showing us with the salons and all their partying and gossip as war with Napoleon commences. The characters are preparing themselves for something they think is important, but they have no way of understanding just how momentous and life-altering the coming changes will be. They can only talk about it in the abstract before the brutal reality smacks them in the face. It feels good to dip into the past and find people like me being tossed on the waves of history desperately looking for a lifeboat. 

It's a shame that the epic social novel is a relic of the nineteenth century. I sometimes feel like the United States of the past six years would be great fodder for such a thing. While I know the present will always soon be the past, the recent years have felt more like living through history than any time in my life, including during the end of the Cold War and the years of the War on Terror. All that is solid melts into air nowadays, as a wise man of the nineteenth century once said. I increasingly feel like my individual will has zero bearing on my fate in a world being shaken by forces well beyond my control. Reading a masterful epic novel of the past makes those feelings more bearable. Maybe I will get to Middlemarch, too.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Read More Novels

I was lucky to get a whole bunch of great books from my wife for Christmas this year, including the novel The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Now I might be partial to it considering that a lot of the early parts take place in the corner of Nebraska where I grew up, and a lot of the rest of it takes place in the city where I work (New York), and in between there's life on the road, which is one of my favorite places to be. Even taking away those ingrained advantages, the book completely entranced me. I loved the multiple perspectives, the characters, and how it held me in suspense. Reading the book on the way to and from work on the train became a highlight of my day. Now that I am done with it, I feel an actual loss in my life, a hole in need of filling.

During the week and a half when I was reading the book I tried and failed to watch American prestige television. A really good novel truly CONSUMES me like nothing else, it dominates my thoughts in the day's idle moments. By comparison prestige TV felt far less vital, far less interesting, and far more formulaic. I tended to know which way things were going on the TV when The Lincoln Highway surprised me in every chapter. The characters felt two-dimensional, and I could never truly put myself in their heads. The beats and formulas of prestige television in the US are pretty well established. The thing is, if I want formula I would much rather read a spy novel or watch an old episode of The Rockford Files

Neither of those things pretend to be something that they aren't. They also do far less to waste my time. After an hour of The Rockford Files everything has been nicely resolved. The prestige TV format typically includes episodes that fill time and do little to drive the plot forward or even develop the characters. I have so little time in my day, and hearing someone say "you have to watch the first few episodes before it gets good" is the surest way to never get me to watch something. 

I should also add that this is a problem with American TV in particular. While I was reading the novel my wife and I watched the Swedish show Anxious People on Netflix, and I really enjoyed it. It was only six episodes and the first one left such a strong impact I definitely wanted more. It's also a show about LIFE, a topic one tends to find much more in literature than in American prestige television, which relies on some kind of high concept, even for the good shows. A mob boss who goes to therapy. A serial killer hunting serial killers. A chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. And so on and so on and so on. Yawn.

Not that I won't pick up a new show to watch. We just started Station Eleven, for example, and I like it a lot. It has even forced me to reckon with the losses of the pandemic in ways I tend to place out of my mind. At the same time, the story is taking forever to unfold and a lot of the beats feel overly familiar. 

There's another thing too: The Discourse. The Discourse has warped viewership of prestige TV to the point that I can't watch anything without feeling like it's been talked to death already. My expectations are too fully formed by the time I put on the first episode. Novel reading is not something beloved by the people participating in The Discourse, thank God. I can read a novel without thinking that reaction to it is taking some kind of side. Even better, it's something I don't talk about online with strangers, it's something I share with my friends. And let me tell you, they are far more fruitful conversations to be had with the latter group.  

So while I am enjoying Station Eleven, what I really want is a new novel, one as good as the last few that I've read. Something to consume me. Goodness knows I need it right now. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

New Order, "Procession" (Track of the Week)

Up until this week we have not had much of a winter here in New Jersey. The unseasonable warmth did not lift my spirits much because it only reminded me of climate change's harsh reality. This week's ice and freezing cold are thus ironically comforting.

As I often to admit on this blog, my music listening habits are extremely seasonal in nature. Just as the holidays give us comfort in their regularity and ritual, my soul demands that I listen to New Order in the dead of winter, especially their early singles and albums. The frosty synths, whispy melodica, and strangely melodic bass seem perfect for these bitter weeks of cold darkness. December is the bearable winter month because of all the holiday fun. Then comes January, with nothing to look forward to that isn't a long way away, with weeks of freezing purgatory to cross to get there.

"Procession" sets the tone right away with its layered synthesizers before Stephen Morris' famously spare drumming kicks things into gear. The first words are "There is no end to this," which is how winter can feel at this time of the year. The music's vibe reminds me of driving the back roads of Nebraska during a snowstorm, the flakes like the notes swirling about reflecting light and beauty. But like trying to drive in the snow on a rural road, there's a note of danger beneath it all. One wrong move and things can go off of the road and into the ditch. I must admit I have careened off of the road this time of year a few times in my life, both metaphorically and literally. 

In the midst of our second COVID winter my fight is gone. Instead of worrying I am just trying to embrace the things that give me comfort. This song is one of them. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Fear is the Mind Killer (A 1/6 Reflection)

I didn't get a chance to watch many movies in 2021, but one of them was Dune. I thought it was a great adaptation, and a timely one. As the famous line from the book goes, "fear is the mind-killer." By the time I saw the film in the fall, several months after January 6, it hit hard. 

In the immediate aftermath of the attack it seemed like the growth of fascism in America could no longer be denied. Here an armed mob, complete with Nazi gear and Confederate flags, tried to overthrow a democratic election with the assistance of the sitting president and several members of his party. Even after the smoke cleared a majority of House Republicans voted against certifying the election. Despite this, a lot of people who had stayed aloof finally took a side. Twitter banned Trump, for example. MLB players refused to have the All-Star Game in Georgia, which was restricting the right to vote.

This spirit did not last long. By springtime the media, centrists, and a lot of squishy liberals decided it was time to just get back to "normal." The Republicans who had openly declared their support for a coup went back to being treated as just regular politicians. In the minds of most voters the Republicans returned to being, in their minds, a center-right opposition party, not a vehicle for an extremist movement. Never mind that on the state level they were banning the teaching of the country's actual history and destroying reproduction rights. They even did well in the off year election, picking up a governor's seat in Virginia. It was as if nothing had happened.

In the meantime Congress failed to pass voting rights legislation, aided and abetted by Sinema and Manchin, supposed Democrats. Seeing democracy being threatened and the ostensible opponents of the wreckers refusing to do anything about it certainly raised my fear levels. At that point the voices of doom from the left resounded on Twitter, everyone trying to prove how smart they were by saying fascism was inevitable. Confused and fearful, the people who should be fighting the fascists have been in hiding.

Fear is indeed the mind killer.

It's time to start shaking this paralyzing fear. A year ago today on 1/6, before the mob stormed the Capitol, Warnock and Ossoff were confirmed as the winners in Georgia. That only happened because of the grassroots efforts to get out the vote and democratically alter what looked to be a set "red state" reality. That's the spirit I want to remember today. 

Bullies know they get the upper hand once their victims are afraid of them. At that point the bully gets to do whatever the hell they want. What ultimately breaks this dynamic is the victim showing that they won't put up with this shit anymore. I am sick and tired of the doom and defeatism. Nothing good comes from it. I will be damned if my children grow up in a fascist future. This 1/6 I am recommitting myself to fighting the fight, to not shy away from conflict but to relish it, and above all to not be afraid. There's no guaranteed victory, but nothing in life is guaranteed, especially if you give up.