Thursday, 21 October 2010
(#108: 25 March 1972, 4 weeks)
Track listing: Meet Me On The Corner/Alright On The Night/Uncle Sam/Together Forever/January Song/Peter Brophy Don’t Care/City Song/Passing Ghosts/Train In G Major/Fog On The Tyne
Many of you will recall the seventies British situation comedy Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. In their original sixties incarnations Rodney Bewes’ Bob Ferris and James Bolam’s Terry Collier were appropriately laddish swingers of the Men Behaving Badly variety, but when they returned in a different decade they found that their world had changed. Bob had moved steadily upward into the white-collared middle classes of Newcastle, but Terry had been away in the Army and comprehended almost nothing about the city and the people to which he had returned. Things hadn’t really worked out for Terry, but he seemed infinitely more assured (and resigned) about his current station in life than his ostensibly better-off mate.
Much of the comedic content of the series has not endured; it is largely typical fear-of-mother slapstick which has dated badly. But the elements which have remained with me are the lengthy, non-comedic interludes where Bob and Terry walk around their city, watching the haunts of their younger days, the buildings and things they assumed would always be there, being demolished and destroyed, with nothing much (as yet) to rise in their place. The feeling would be familiar to almost any British city dweller of the period but the remembrances are auburn and rueful; where are our roots now, where exactly do we go from here? The British economy was in almost as bad a state as now, and familiar mutterings about cuts to public services were in effect. Is anything, you wonder while watching these virtual documentaries, going to survive?
I say this because it may go some way towards understanding why Lindisfarne – on the face of it, an unpretentious, good-time folk-rock group from Newcastle – became so popular during this period. Folk music is about the most difficult of musics to categorise, since there is a different strain of folk which applies to every different village, and in some cases every different street. But something about Lindisfarne seemed to brush the rawest of nerves in many British people of this time. I’m not sure who might qualify for the present day title of “people’s band” in Britain – the Arctic Monkeys briefly came nearest to qualifying, and Mumford and Sons most certainly do not qualify (do you hear their songs being hummed on the bus, or in the pub?) – but Lindisfarne assumed the role of people’s band over the period 1971-2; Fog On The Tyne was one of the largest-selling albums by any British act released in 1971, and took its time climbing to the top (reviving its previously uncharted predecessor Slightly Out Of Tune in the process). The sepia-pink cover struck its own chord; an engraving – real or fake, it doesn’t matter – of Newcastle as its inhabitants might have known it in the days of Jane Austen, a peaceful but defiantly working-class city, and there is that same air of quiet defiance about the group’s music.
“Meet Me On The Corner” was the album’s big hit single, set in a square bass drum and harmonica dance pattern, and musically slightly reminiscent of “Mrs Robinson.” Singer and mandolinist Ray Jackson – you may remember his vital contributions to entry #99 – speaks to us about dream sellers (because “dreams are all I believe”), ways not of escaping but ways of examining his own reality far more happily (“Lay down your bundles of rags and reminders/And spread your wares on the ground”). The harmonies on the choruses, as elsewhere, are strongly predicative of the Electric Light Orchestra, but Alan Hull’s staccato Gilbert O’Sullivan piano intensifying the song’s harmonies on its first chorus takes us decidedly back down to earth, Jackson’s harmonica puffing ceaselessly like the most determined of trains.
“Alright On The Night” is far more intense, however, as one would expect from its writer, Alan Hull (generally, Hull writes the album’s darker songs and Rod Clements the lighter ones); he shares vocal duties with Jackson and Si Cowe and is palpably angry: “Can you tell me exactly what it is about me that’s so unclean?” he protests over a deceptively laidback “Maggie May” setting. “Take that stupid look off your face,” he continues, “Everything I say I mean.” He is not trying to repel his accuser, but instead inviting him to join him in his world (“Come and live with me in a cave”) – drummer Ray Laidlaw’s triple cowbells after the first chorus are like golden hammers striking an unknowing head. The choruses promise a straightforward good time, come out for a drink on Friday, that’s all we ask of you. The song’s subtle rhetoric persists – the guitar/mandolin interlude after the second chorus, Clements’ bass roving around the periphery of the men. The mood is almost one of a pastoral, provincial Stones, but there is another unexpected comparison which comes to mind (and with which Lena came up) – to which I will return shortly.
“Uncle Sam” is Cowe’s song – his first – which Jackson sings in muted breath over quiet guitar, mandolin and organ. Words such as volunteers, uniform, frail, jail, hang and blacklist make it abundantly clear what world we’re in – the war is still going on – and Laidlaw’s drums circle the song briefly before landing, together with harmonica and piano, to set up a Band-like midtempo mourn. “Well, I’m goin’ across the border,” Jackson tells us – to Canada? Or is he in 1746, in his own doomed-to-be-repeated history? – and after his “Watch what happens to me,” there is a short pause before Laidlaw’s drums rain down on his head; he’ll be on the road if anyone wants him, and one reflects on how huge and inescapable a shadow The Band are continuing to cast over unexpected regions of music at this point; the multi-vocal/instrumental approach, the deliberate archaism (masking an unanticipated newness) – but even this anti-Vietnam song could only have stemmed from the docks of the North-East.
With “Together Forever” – written by the great St Andrews folk musician Rab Noakes – the group moves back towards good-time mode, but there is a deeper tinge of true happiness; they’re sitting on top of the bus, in the front (“watchin’ the people who don’t look like us”), they have no money, but what do they care? Jackson sings the song truthfully and moderately lustily, and the band cruises along behind him like the most becalmed yet confident passengers, even offering an ascending music hall guitar signoff; they are perfectly happy being who they are and what they are, where they are, and are keen to let you know this.
Hull’s “January Song” leaks back into wistfulness with its acoustic guitar and roving bass, or at least pretends to do so; yet Hull’s own voice veers between several strips of agonised – there is an unavoidable Dylan tinge to his tone but the guitar appears to turn to acid behind him; The Modern Man, losing his way, unable to reach out and touch anyone or anything, and Hull’s blanching beg for him to rediscover what he’s supposed to be here for (“I sometimes feel the fear/That the reason for the meaning/Will even disappear”). The song drifts into an extended chant of “You need me need you need him need everyone” – should that “him” be spelt with a capital “H”? – as Laidlaw’s drums finally kick in and Jackson’s mandolin strums its vivid way into the picture. It is immensely moving.
But Hull’s gloom scarcely lifts. I have been unable to find out exactly who Peter Brophy was (or still is) but again it hardly matters; he could be singing about T Dan Smith or John Poulson – central and crooked figures in the demolition of old Newcastle – or simply The Man; but Hull puts every shade and nuance of emotion, disbelief, grief and hurt into his multiple “You don’t care”s. His voice becomes steadily more animated and dissolute, crescending into rage before falling back into simple regret; the lyrics are post-“I Am The Walrus” cod-surrealism but the anger does not fade (unlike the near-sibilant harmonica which cushions Hull’s quieting fury at fadeout); is this what we came through the sixties for?
With “City Song,” Hull finally cracks; he has had it with “the city” as he is compelled to know it (“I’ve been too long travelling on your train”) and sends modernity (as he thinks it) towards damnation; “Your tatty tricks to me/Are now really rather lame,” he sings, and later adds, “Your music doesn’t speak – it swears.” From most other people this would come across as crass reactionism but he is clearly attempting to grasp for something deeper, a slipped loss he is trying to regain. “Back to the garden,” “country lady,” “magic children” – it remains so hard, so impossible, to run from the sixties. The harmonies come in on the second chorus and fill up the song like semi-distilled nectar. In “Passing Ghosts” – the ghosts get thicker with every song; this is supposed to be a good-time band? – Hull’s voice and melodic construct are strikingly similar to those of his contemporary Bill Fay (his “sleep with we,” for instance) and he ends by resorting to the phrase/incantation “Come together” (upon which drums and bass make a very belated entry), Jackson’s rivulet of mandolin tinkling behind his despair. His grave might be ready (and still), but in the meantime he wants to pass the time, like a pewter mug of beer, between himself and his fellow human beings. That might be all he ever wanted.
“Train In G Major,” another Clements tune, is sprightlier. If the Dylan comparisons are inescapable (Bob Johnston produced the record), with the train indeed coming slowly, the record’s central message is as red as its boiler; “Take me to some better place to be...Awwww, wow, tell me baby!” Hull essays a brief “Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde” piano quotation. The harmonica provides the engine, the walking bass lays down the tracks, and electric guitar offers rays of sunshine shivers towards song’s end. We’re finally getting out of “here” – and it might not be a geographical “here.”
No, because the title track, which closes the album, says strongly and proudly that they’re staying right where they are, Hull’s spirit finally satisfied and approaching modest euphoria (he shares vocals with Jackson and Cowe). “Think I’ll sign off the dole!” he exclaims (with two wake-up cowbells in response). The verse/chorus sequences work on tension and release; is this the first song in this tale to deploy the word “presently”? But again they tell us that this is what they want – the crappy sausage rolls, the pub, themselves and their own kind; it’s what they know and clearly what much of their audience knew and craved. Harmonica, fiddle, piano and mandolin patiently work the song up towards a satisfying, mantra-like climax. Understand us, they are saying, and you might understand yourselves. And indeed, turning back to “Alright On The Night,” its lyrics and general melodic structure, if set to a different tempo and different instrumentation – not to mention a different decade – remind us of a Newcastle teenager who at the time was playing in a folk group called Dust. His name was Neil Tennant. “Everything I say I mean”? Whatever was going to happen to the likelier lads of Tyneside in times to come, this record, entirely lacking in side or irony, tells the people who needed to hear and know it: we are still all in this together, and in a much more touchable and workable sense.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:35
Tuesday, 12 October 2010
(#107: 18 March 1972, 1 week)
Track listing: Mother And Child Reunion/Duncan/Everything Put Together Falls Apart/Run That Body Down/Armistice Day/Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard/Peace Like A River/Papa Hobo/Hobo’s Blues/Paranoia Blues/Congratulations
”Reality but reality grimly seen/And spoken in paradisical parlance new.”
(Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening In New Haven,” Section XII)
Or: Spiro Agnew Stole My Chinese Food.
Paul Simon’s first solo album is the ideal, mechanical twin to Harvest. He may be scooting and quietly howling around the encased claustrophobia of Manhattan rather than blowing down wildly open roads, but the story is the same. More than anything else on the record, “Paranoia Blues” gives his game away, and in it he’s on the brink of giving his city away. It helps that musically (as elsewhere on the record) he is in the same place as the recent Stones, with Stefan Grossman’s unquestionably authentic bottleneck and Hal Blaine and Simon’s deadpan Sonny Boy Williamson beats. You can love a city as much as you like, but when you turn around and someone’s run off with your Chinese food then you know it’s time to go. The dreading of the interrogations in the little room at JFK Airport assumes an equal force to the Lin’s Chow Fun abstracter. “Whose side are you on?” he keeps asking, and the overall mood (“I got some so-called friends/They’ll smile right to my face/But when my back is turned/They’d like to stick it to me”) anticipates the O’Jays’ ostensibly scarier “Backstabbers.” Simon’s “oh no”s sound like sobs, the horn section resembles an incontinent kazoo convention; there’s a quick, wriggling pause – should he stay or should he go? – before the thump picks up again and Simon wails with the forlorn brow of a man who knows, just like the protagonist of “The Boxer,” that he may never get out of here.
Most of the emotions on Paul Simon centre around the idea of things coming to an end – “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” being but the most explicit expression and aptest summation of the notion - and if the record comes over as a sophomore-level tour of New York then it speeds through its streets in the knowledge that the city as it stands in 1972 is reaching something of a nadir, as proved to be the case, and that either the city needs to get out of itself or the author does. Or at least do something else; Simon spent most of 1971 teaching songwriting (his students included the Roches and Melissa Manchester) and if the record stands as a final, queerly euphoric sneak out of the need for Art Garfunkel - without the requirement for two-part harmonies, Simon's songs manifestly speed up in both construction and delivery - there is a sense of loss and discontent that his supposed new freedom cannot quite mask.
For instance, the record begins with a death and another Chinese meal, which is what a Mother and Child Reunion actually is (fittingly, it is a combination of chicken and egg), with a song recorded in Jamaica under the supervision of the great producer Leslie Kong (who, like Paul Simon's family dog, would not live to see 1972). "No, I would not give you false hope/On this strange and mournful day," Simon immediately warns us, although the warm spirit of the music - he is accompanied by most of the Maytals (including the staccato, single-note lead guitar work of Huks Brown which makes the song sound like a mutation of early sixties Drifters), as well as the subtly indispensable piano of Larry Knetchel (he tumbles, like the singer's soul, down from the second verse towards the chorus) and a quartet of backing singers which includes Cissy Houston - gives the misleading impression of happiness. In fact the mourning was due, as intimated above, to the death of the Simon family dog (he is seen on the sleeve sitting, alternately solemnly and laughingly, with what presumably was the new dog).
Still, the song isn't just about the death of a dog and the eating of a Chinese meal to cheer up the mourner; one always has to watch out for Simon's symbols. "I know they say let it be," he mentions in a direct reference to the Beatles, but adds that "the course of a lifetime runs over and over again," and all of a sudden the song reveals itself as a quiet snub to death and impermanence, as seemingly carefree as Bolan's "Cosmic Dancer" with its unending womb/tomb cycles. "The mother and child reunion/Is only a motion away," may be in part a reference to "Hey Jude" but fundamentally the symbolism is to do with regeneration, rebirth, returning to the original source - peace like a river indeed.
But if you want to get out of New York, where else is there to go? "Duncan" is a lighter fusion of "The Boxer" (in its Band-influenced storytelling) and "El Condor Pasa" (Los Incas are back with their charango and flutes) and thus lightens up the darkish road of its tale; Lincoln Duncan is a fisherman's son in Nova Scotia, gets bored and decides to up and move down to New England. He describes being penniless and rootless, stuck in a thin-walled motel while his neighbours fuck for the Olympics ("Bound to win a prize/They've been going at it all night long"), losing his innocence to a street preacher in a tent in the woods and relishing the memory (his "oo-wee"s and "oh-oh"s) - "Just thanking the Lord/For my fingers," and he doesn't just mean the ability to play his guitar. Behind Simon's unusually expressive voice (although the rest of the record will prove that it's not that unusual), the Andeans hover in the middle distance like the suspended lights of Interstate 95.
Contrast this with "Papa Hobo," where Simon's protagonist is sufficiently desperate to quit New York that he dreams of Detroit ("It's carbon and monoxide/That ol' Detroit perfume.../Detroit, Detroit/Got a hell of a hockey team") and working on the motor assembly line. Charlie McCoy's raspberry bass harmonica is back from "The Boxer" (blowing a particularly ripe one in response to Simon's "Sweep up!"). Knetchel offers a careful continuo on harmonium and the song moves into a McCartney daydream - "And the weatherman lied" - before Simon scats out to fade; is he singing "Never go to heaven"? This leads into one of the record's few escape hatches, or perhaps it's just his ripest daydream; "Hobo's Blues" is a quick, snappy instrumental jaunt for Simon's coffeehouse guitar and Stephane Grappelli's immediately recognisable violin, almost heartbreaking in its brief revelation of the wider world concealed beneath the shell of urban stress - and we remember that the term "hobo" was originally an abbreviation of "homeward bound."
Elsewhere it's about misadventures and mishaps and what the hell is this day supposed to look like; "Run That Body Down" is a lateral meditation on the legacy, if any, of the sixties - his doctor tells him to stop the abuse, he in turn tells his then-wife Peg to do the same. At the title there are four rapid smashes of acoustic guitar chords (played by Simon and David Spinozza); Simon's "Who you foolin'?" falsetto and his "IIIIIIIIIII" sustenati go almost into the airy abstract. Jerry Hahn's seagull-like wah-wah electric moves the song into a more contemplative quarter but the message is unabated; how long can any of us go on pretending that it's still as it was five years ago - the war's still on, people we know have died; how much longer?
Ah, yes, the war that was still on, and the ineffable weariness of a nation which Simon articulates so perfectly on "Armistice Day"; he's down in Washington DC looking to speak to his Congressman but he's still waiting and getting tired. The symbolism here is clear and abject, but note the unorthodox chords which greet the revelation "She was there," backed by Airto Moreira's tick-tock percussion. Simon and the group hold on that last chord and turn the song into a modal drone, featuring the horns and Hahn's energetic electric guitar which steadily gets funkier and more inventive. Again there is an unexpected feeling of the Delta about the piece; where does that "When I needed a friend she was there/Just like an easy chair" come in? He's tired but he's also playing away ("Oh Congresswoman/Won't you tell that Congressman?") - you do what you have to do in order to live, as well as exist, while you're waiting; look, he says, how far down I have been dragged.
"Peace Like A River," however, is the closest that Simon has ever got to an explicit protest song, or as explicit as he wishes it to be; the mood is bluesy, patrolled by Joe Osborn's strolling bass, and as the song progresses the work of the three musicians (Simon on guitar, Osborn, and drummer Victor Montanez) moves more towards Timbuktu; at times we could almost be listening to Ali Farka Touré. But then Simon's guitar fills out into a background chorale for the choruses; they have been waiting, this crowd, for something to happen, or to be delivered - they are not quite free yet and expect more pain before the final freedom happens, but they will not be deterred; "You can beat us with wires/You can beat us with chains/You can run out your rules," sings Simon in the most atypical chorus he ever wrote, "But you know you can't outrun the history train." Once more, the grain of Simon's improvising voice is remarkable; his breathing "Aaaaaaah"s, his fluttering "Oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh"s, his no longer weary "four in the morning." Christgau has referred to this song as Walter Carlos Williams after the repression but to me Wallace Stevens (despite being markedly more of a political conservative than Williams, or for that matter Simon) is a more fitting comparison point; Stevens understood that reality had to form itself out of dreams before it could become real and that perspective and emotion, and the poet and reader's relationship to both, were what counted. Over and over in his work Stevens questions himself, his art, his tools of imagination, but it is all put in the service of a successful and revelatory consummation of desire and action.
Thus it doesn't really matter what the (imprisoned? About to be released?) audience of "Peace Like A River" are waiting for, just as it doesn't matter what misdemeanours have caused him and Julio to make a run for it; Airto's whooping percussion on "Schoolyard" remains a delight, but this song (even with its whistling) is not free of grenades; the "radical priest" who gets the kids out of jail and onto the cover of Newsweek has to be one of the Berrigans, two of the most vocal opposers of Vietnam and of Nixon (remember Daniel Ellsberg and that Ray Conniff concert?). "Well I'm on my way," sings Simon. "I don't know where I'm going.../I'm taking my time." Are we all ready for the country, in either sense?
But then there is "Everything Put Together Falls Apart," the record's equivalent to "The Needle And The Damage Done" and musically as stark, even if Knetchel's harmonium and Fender Rhodes express alienation in a language that the Manhattan wine bar would understand; the song strolls cautiously through myriad chambers of unexpected chord changes as Simon effortlessly repositions Young's howls in the city. "Taking downs to get off to sleep/And ups to start you on your way/After a while they'll change your ways," he warns, before breaking into an inexpressible falsetto ("Ooo-oo-oo-ooh") on the heels of the starkest last couplet of any songs upon which this tale has thus far stumbled: "But when it's done and the police come, and they lay you down for dead/Just remember what I said," following which Simon's acoustic stings and Knetchel takes the song out on a horrifically ironic barrelhouse of keyboards. This is not the reason why we did and believed all that stuff, you remember...or do you?
The record itself closes with "Congratulations"; Knetchel's electric piano shivers like a trapped eel through the centre of the song's bridge (all those bridges, all this trouble) before switching to stately, spiritual organ. Hal Blaine's drums are a literal heartbeat, meeting Osborn's rising bass. Meanwhile Simon has had enough; he takes his world and the immediate past to pieces ("Ohhhhhhh, and I don't know when" - the exhausted cry of a defeated urbanite); what did those sixties, that supposed love, get for us, or where did it get us? "I notice so many people/Slipping away" - their numbers get fewer by the day - "And many more waiting in the lines/In the courthouse today...in the courthouse today"; the unions divorcing, the splits rendered. "Love is not a game, love is not a toy," he says, exasperated, and finally, as all of the lights go out, Simon concludes, alone and utterly apart, with a final, exhausted question: "Can a man and woman/Live together in peace?" before issuing a last plea, the simplest of all pleas - "Oh, live together in peace." Knechtel's piano escorts us from the scene.
There were of course other accounts of collapsing society to account for at the time - not least, There's A Riot Goin' On - and although Simon is less obviously in pain than Sly Stone, the aura of imminent extinction remains high, and this album sets Simon's lines against as unapologetically real a background and environment as they ever found; it is hardly surprising that Simon never quite managed to stare reality this starkly in its face again - the following year's There Goes Rhymin' Simon was necessarily a happier affair, but his attitude towards what was real and not became more equivocal ("Kodachrome"); and despite many fine records of variable popularity in the interim, it isn't until the rueful maturity of 1983's Hearts And Bones that Simon really gets back to this territory and speak to it as directly as he does here ("The Late Great Johnny Ace" remains the wisest and calmest response to Lennon's passing expressed by anyone in popular music). As 1972 moved into its uncertain spring, Simon tells it as he thinks it is - and the world was as near to his thoughts as it dared, or could bear, to get.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:42
Tuesday, 5 October 2010
(#106: 11 March 1972, 1 week)
Track listing: Out On The Weekend/Harvest/A Man Needs A Maid/Heart Of Gold/Are You Ready For The Country/Old Man/There’s A World/Alabama/The Needle And The Damage Done/Words (Between The Lines Of Age)
It might be a cliché to speak of Canadian music in terms of its immense space, but then a cliché has to mean something in order to become a cliché, and regardless of whether it’s the jazz-rock of Lighthouse, or the powering pop of Sloan, or the blue neologisms of Joni Mitchell, or the rambling collectivist coherence of Broken Social Scene – or even the ostensibly heavier likes of The Guess Who or Rush, or the monolithically quiet likes of Glenn Gould – Canada’s music can be distinguished instantly from that of the United States. As with the country, there is less of a rush, less urban squeezing-in, more consideration, a fundamentally different hue; one thinks of dark pastoral roads, in places perhaps illuminated only by the snowed-in product of six-month winters. In those long winters there is little actively to do; one is left to ponder, to reconstruct a world.
Given the greater degree of consideration, it is possibly also true that Canadians are capable of seeing others in greater depth (because of the distance, and not just geographically) than they themselves are able to do. They also tend to be far more single-minded, albeit in a good way; less content to fall for hypes, to slot themselves into convenient categories, to do as they please, all the better to tell their stories. Their musicians have a pronounced tendency to turn from style to style, to alter their approach constantly, in order best to illustrate what they are trying to communicate. If Neil Young, for instance, wanted to record a New Pop/Vocoder album to speak with his son (Trans, 1982), then nobody, especially not record label bosses, was going to tell him otherwise. Contemplative country, feedback-laden improv, rock ‘n’ roll covers, multimedia dramas; he’s done them all, and while he might continue with political flip-flopping, it is all part of his inner being; what does this world mean for me, and to me, he continually asks himself, and us, where and how best can I construct a path through it?
And how come I can see through you with such alienating clarity? Only a Canadian could have conceived and performed the following words, from “Alabama”:
“I’m from a new land.
I come to you,
And see all this ruin.”
Everybody else was loving everybody else in early seventies Laurel Canyon, but Young, as always, kept his distance. If his only British number one album represented the closest he ever came to anything resembling a mainstream, that is not to assume that Harvest is, as too many have assumed over the decades, a sellout, a blanding out of his art, a nigglingly neutral commercial record. Bear in mind that Young had already offered us the groaning grinds of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with its ravenous setpieces (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” “Cowgirl In The Sand”) and Harvest’s predecessor, After The Gold Rush, a record almost unique for its period (almost? What’s Going On?) in that it was authentically angry but astute enough to disguise its rage in some of the prettiest tunes Young was capable of creating – the title track, gradually widening out from burned-out basement to spaceships, the Toronto coffeehouse Bacharach of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” the inescapable boil of “Southern Man” being its most celebrated. Many at the time felt Harvest an ironed-out replay of Gold Rush but the smoothness is not always visible and the patience needs to be understood; he is using the singer-songwriter format gently to hammer home profounder truths.
Consider that the album begins with a deliberate nod at the old teenage rock ‘n’ roll escape route before shutting it down – “Out On The Weekend”’s opening gambit of “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up/Take it down to L.A.” could in itself have come straight from Chuck Berry’s notebook, before the slow sadness kicks in – and, after wandering through just about every style Young could have wandered through in ’71-2, it culminates in the observation: “It’s just words, words.” Songs pause seemingly at random to allow sampled Richard Nixon speeches (“Alabama”) and studio chatter (“Words”), but it’s more indicative of a lack of inclination to rush through Young’s message than of art (although the latter is far from absent); he wants you to understand what he is trying to say (from “Weekend” again: “He tries to speak and can’t begin to say”) but you as his listener have to be prepared to understand him very slowly. The gatefold sleeve – and, once more, well-weathered vinyl is the truest way to listen to this record – features on its cover what could be the sign on the side of a fruit truck; inside there is a huge close-up of a doorknob, to the barn in Nashville where much of the record was made, in which we see the indistinct reflection of Young, standing in the empty sunshine; and on the rear there is a shot of Young at work inside the same barn with his pick-up band the Stray Gators, but he is hiding from us, face away from the camera stage right, head down, concentrating on his guitar. He wants to tell you things but also wishes to remind you that you can’t pin him down; he’s there but he isn’t really there, or he might be in the studio in L.A., or on the stage of UCLA’s Royce Hall, or even encased in the improbable surroundings of Barking Town Hall (where the two tracks with the London Symphony Orchestra were recorded) – you think you’ve caught him? Why, he’s flown off again, and while his flight path might be straighter than that of a Dylan, you still have no hope of catching up with him.
What of the record itself? “Weekend” sets up the album’s central theme of habitual restlessness, of the impermanence of “home”; after its moderately hopeful introductory lines, we learn that there once was a woman, and that he loved her, but that she’s not there any more. “She got pictures on the wall/They make me look up/From my big brass bed” – a sombre reflection of “Lay Lady Lay” – puts this relationship into question, and when he’s “runnin’ down the road/Tryin’ to stay up,” is he fleeing her as desperately as the young boy who runs as far as he can from Madame George? The Stray Gators give nothing away; Kenny Buttrey’s drums are rhetorical (particularly succeeding Young’s “Can’t relate to joy”), Ben Keith’s pedal steel is simultaneously outer space, angel and foghorn (“I hear her callin’,” followed by five emphatic chimes from the whole band), Tim Drummond’s bass busily (but not in the way of a grasping panhandler) joining up the emotions. The band know enough to crouch down to virtual silence for the title track, where Young is addressing another girl, not knowing whether he wants to save her or vice versa; he sees her “walking with the boys,” his mother “screamin’ in the rain,” and maybe craves to take her out of this place altogether, but then he runs up against his own limitations (“Will I see you give more than I can take?/Will I only harvest some?”). When he repeatedly urges “let me fill your cup with the promise of a man,” it still sounds like a question, and not one to which the singer is expecting a prompt reply.
He is scratching around; there are people he knows, but does he want to be with any of them? Is he the one whose cup needs filling? Where does one place a song as deliberately immense as “A Man Needs A Maid”? Well, one could consider Carrie Snodgrass, the actress (“I was watching a movie with a friend/I fell in love with the actress”) who nursed Young after he sustained a back injury, but the pain expressed here runs far deeper and redder; he is lost, as lost as any rock musician of his time could expect to be, he is grasping at straws. To begin there is simply Young at the piano, singing about his life changing, the absence of trust, the lengthening shadows in which alms might be mistaken for arms; he slows down to allow the London Symphony Orchestra, under conductor David Meacham and playing Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement, to enter – first brass, then strings – for the lamenting Lear of the chorus. Bells and glockenspiel toll forebodingly – Nitzsche approaches the song like an autumnal Spector – as Young tries to work out what he wants, disguising his hurting three-in-the-morning plea. At “It’s hard to make that change” the orchestral storm gives way to a simple oboe, pursued by the first of two heart-shattering “When will I see you again?”s. With the first of these, Young is embraced by an enormous hug from the string-led orchestra, and I reflect on how the young Anne Dudley would have been affected by that puncturing moment, since she would replicate its gestures a decade later as the coda to ABC’s “All Of My Heart” – itself the coda of an extended pretence of searching for anything that isn’t love. What, whom, does he want? “Someone to keep my house clean/Fix my meals and go away.” He’s been hurt and unwilling to dip a toe into the pool of love once more – “To give a love, you gotta live a love/To live a love, you gotta be ‘part of,’” and woe betide those too hurt, too re-infantilised (because that’s what tragedy does to you, winds you right back again to being twelve, naïve and stupid); this is anything but an unreconstituted chauvinist song, rather an agonised cry to want to be a full human being again. At “Playing a part that I could understand,” the LSO rises to a climax of stalagmites and thunder – and then we’re back with the piano and his soul and that second, hanging-on-life-by-the-slenderest-of-threads, silently screaming to be held, to be cherished, “When will I see you again?” The coda is as quiet as deep art will allow.
“Heart Of Gold” was of course the album’s big hit, and sums up the record and its artist’s dilemma more succinctly and candidly: “I want to live/I want to give” and he’ll go wherever he can think he can find it (“I’ve been to Hollywood/I’ve been to Redwood” – where Young had just purchased some land – “I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold”) but (and remember, Young was still only twenty-six when he made this record) already aware of creeping mortality (“And I’m getting old”). When James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt’s harmonies enter the picture late in the song (all three turned up on the same edition of The Johnny Cash Show recorded in Nashville in mid-1971 and inspiring the notion of Harvest), the chordalities are thickened and made ambiguous; one marvels at how a song which in its determined quietude went so violently against the bleach-out-and-lay-back aura of its immediate surroundings managed to make number one on Billboard as a single. Buttrey’s drums again speak what Young can’t or won’t say, reinforcing the pronounced despair of the song’s final verse.
Side one ends with “Are You Ready For The Country?” – does he mean escape from the city, or face the nation? – introduced by Nitzsche’s staccato piano before unexpectedly settling into a McCartney-ish rural romp, although Buttrey’s reluctant parade-ground drumming suggests a deeper discontent. Crosby and Nash harmonise carefully (all three of CSN, plus the Y, turn up in different places throughout Harvest, never more than two at a time, and never the same two). Both Young and Keith’s guitars sound oddly detached, like leaves blowing around the abandoned town of The Last Picture Show. “Lefting and then Righting/It’s not a crime, you know!” says Young as he repeatedly tells us that “It’s time to go,” except when he encounters the hangman, who tells him “it’s time to DIEEE-EEEE!” Drummond’s subtly brilliant bass-playing reminds us why Harvest is one of Andy Rourke’s formative records; there is more than a premonition of the undertow of the Smiths in its chassis. But the message is delivered pretty clearly; get the fuck out of here, everyone.
Side two kicks off with “Old Man,” based on the man from whom Young had purchased the land in Redwood Park. Beginning with bass and acoustic guitar, before the entry of the drums, Young ponders about exactly how old anybody ought to be getting: “24 and there’s so much more.” Taylor and Ronstadt return on harmony vocals, and Taylor also contributes some uncredited banjo plucking, providing an anchor for Keith’s soaring pedal steel. The song shifts from its brooding minor key to a nearly triumphant major for its passionately harmonised chorus (“Old man, take a look at my life/I’m a lot like you”) before sinking down once more; and, once more, the message is expressed: “I need someone to love me the whole day through.” He is refusing to give up, to grow old, to die: “Old man, look at my life,” he states in his bitter coda, “I’m a lot like you were.” As with On The Beach, this is a sustained howl in favour of life, knowing that you have to slash through the stinging nettles of negativity before you can uncover and reclaim it.
The London Symphony Orchestra is back for “There’s A World” – at the same time, they were also occupied trying to work out, again under Meacham’s directions, the crossword Charles Ivesisms of Ornette’s Skies Of America, another patient unravelling of despair and its eclipse by initially cautious joy (the latter’s jolliest moment would later be revamped as “Theme From A Symphony,” the centrepiece of Coleman’s revolutionary Dancing In Your Head) – and, as with Ornette’s rainbows and churchy Sunday mornings, Young is trying to rise above the parapets, even over the roofs, to find somewhere and something better. Timpani, strings and bells usher him in; the darkness of the song’s brood (“Have you found it walking down the avenue?”) rising, via harp, to the airy lightness of “look around it.” That buoy marker of an oboe reappears before the song returns to Earth, just as Young is preparing to abandon it; “We are leaving, we are gone” (thus this becomes the true sequel to “Gold Rush,” the song). “We will leave you all alone,” he reassures, or threatens, us; a more gentle modulation back from lightness to dark ensues (“All God’s children in the wind/Take it in and blow hard”). The harp cuts the gravity dummy loose. “Will we lose our grasp/Or fuse it with the sun?” as Young had already asked on the song “Harvest.”
But “Alabama” – routinely dismissed as a pallid “Southern Man” rewrite – represents an advance on its predecessor. Young’s guitar is far angrier here, the fury which has been quietly boiling throughout the record, so incensed that it almost explodes the harmonies’ partial cosiness (Crosby and Stills contribute the harmonies here, and indeed the record does momentarily turn into a CSNY disc). Young howls, “See the old folks/Tied in white robes” (or “ropes”?). He turns the South on its side, citing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and offering a full chorus of “God Bless America” before cutting in with the Nixon tapes – this record came out only a few months ahead of Watergate – before demanding to know why this country, which he tries so hard to love, should want to destroy itself so completely. “Your Cadillac,” he accuses Alabama, “has got a wheel in the ditch/And a wheel on the track.../Banjos playing through the broken glass.” Nitzsche’s piano moves to the forefront of the music, followed by Young’s guitar. “You got the rest of the Union to help you along,” runs the song’s climactic couplet, “What’s going wrong?” – and it’s That Other War once more, the Civil War which redefined America so utterly, and under whose consequences we still live, or suffer, today. “Can I see you and shake your hand?” asks Young. He wants to love this nation, but it makes doing so the hardest thing ever – I thought of what sort of an impact Harvest might have made had Young brought in Elvis to sing the songs, and remember how America breathes the air generated by its own refractions. But thenYoung has to be singing these songs as well as writing and playing them; yes, by any dullard conventional theory his range in both voice and guitar are limited and clumsy, but didn’t most of the same people say the same thing about Elvis a lifetime previously?
The record’s sanest and chilliest two minutes ensue; “The Needle And The Damage Done” bases itself on the Donovan/”Dear Prudence” trick of climbing up the scale when it sounds as though it’s descending (it runs from D major via E major seventh to G major and a nearly unbearable ascension to B flat), and it’s just Young, onstage at Royce Hall, and on his own (“I know that some of you don’t understand”), singing the record’s most painful lament, for a man he loves who he knows, can see with his own eyes only a few feet away from him, is dying; by extension it becomes one of its time’s most eloquent epitaphs for the increasingly remote sixties - this is where escape has led us? To a gifted man destroying himself? The song’s motor is the pain which in comparison even “Maid” only partially fills in the spaces – and for the greater part of its duration there is nothing in it except space, space for thought, for lament, for earnestly-contained anger. “Every junkie’s like a settin’ sun” he finishes, and he makes that “settin’ sun” sound like a “skeleton,” shaking and shivering in a manner more profound than that heard on “Cold Turkey” – how much emotion do you have to summon up to silence those screams, to turn all of those “oh no”s into “Ono”s? The sudden, roughly-edited burst of applause sounds like the last joke being played before entering the first five minutes of death.
The applause cuts straight into the closing “Words” (this time featuring Stills and Nash). The song meanders, but Young, I think, wants it to stand as an escape route, a relatively happy ending; he (and of course, being Canadian, he was always going to play the part of the Worried Man – the arteries of The Band run semi-wild throughout the record) is settled on his new land, tossing philosophies in his mind like pancakes, wondering what this is going to bring to him; but musically the song is restless; Nitzsche’s piano offers a grinding cyclical 11/4 riff out of which Young’s guitar climbs gingerly before becoming markedly more strident. Drummond’s bass begins to walk. Then the band cuts back to a funereal 4/4 tempo as Young’s voice re-enters. But after the last chorus, the song rears its stuck wheels as the piano riff will simply not disappear; the effect is one of a sonically lighter “I Want You/She’s So Heavy.” Young’s guitar becomes steadily more frenzied and acidic and appears finally ready to break free, but, as elsewhere on the album, his own storm abates, and Young lets Keith’s pedal steel drift gently back into the foreground before the song and album fade.
The mood would grow darker – or supposedly so, as Young, apparently horrified by Harvest’s overwhelming success, moved deliberately out of mainstream focus; but even something like Tonight’s The Night finally winds up on the side of life (how could it not when it details its deaths in such lurid detail?). And he has prevailed; he recognised Johnny Rotten when the rest of America hadn’t remotely worked out how, or whether, to deal with him, the immaculate sequence of records from Eldorado to Sleeps With Angels represents the greatest sustained Indian summer of any rock musician’s career (though it’s tempting to cast fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen as Young’s secret alter ego; at this period he’ll sing about slashing one’s wrists as though he were Allen Sherman, but with infinitely greater wit and fright), and even as the critical wind drifted away again he has continued to find new ways to illuminate the old ways, right up to the simple but radiant Lanois/Le Noise pun. Why? Because, as with Scott Walker and John Cale and Dylan and Cohen and you fill in the rest, he has kept moving because nobody told those pioneering sixties people that they ever had to stop. Think of The Suburbs - as this tale will do in the long term – and the green wood between the spaces, and what humanity you’d see fit to place somewhere in between them, or, if you’re lucky, beyond them.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:57