Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Neil YOUNG: Harvest

(#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, a well-weathered LP edition 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.