terça-feira, janeiro 31, 2006
Era uma vez, no final dos anos 70, uma loja de discos bem descolada no Santa Monica Boulevard, em Los Angeles, Califórnia.
Essa loja atendia clientes que procuravam avidamente por relíquias dos anos 50 e 60, discos de comédia e singles antigos, e apanhava para conseguir essas relíquias para eles, a peso de ouro.
Um belo dia, eles se tocaram que, se alí em Los Angeles havia tanto público para essas velharias maravilhosas, deveria haver muito mais no resto da América e do mundo.
Daí fundaram a Rhino Records, uma gravadora com uma proposta completamente anarquista, que se especializaria em licenciar material esquecido de grandes gravadoras para lançar em edições limitadas, para um público bem específico.
Montaram um departamento jurídico para cuidar da burocracia ligada ao licenciamento, e propuseram às gravadoras proprietárias dos fonogramas que tanto interessavam a eles uma espécie de permuta: eles não pagariam nada pelos fonogramas, mas em troca devolveriam às gravadoras esses mesmos fonogramas restaurados digitalmente – um processo muito caro na época, final dos anos 70, mas muito simples nos dias de hoje.
As gravadoras toparam, e foi assim que começou toda essa onda de relançar no mercado discos antigos remasterizados para digital, que hoje inundam as lojas.
Hoje, quase 30 anos mais tarde, o catálogo da Rhino só não é gigantesco porquê muitas edições esgotaram e não foram renegociadas com as gravadoras originais.
Mas a Rhino não ficou estagnada nesse segmento. Tratou de diversificar suas áreas de atuação, produzindo alguns de seus próprios lançamentos e comprando o acervo de algumas pequenas gravadoras que faliram.
Quase capotaram 15 anos atrás, quando as gravadoras grandes cresceram o olho para seu filão de mercado e pararam de licenciar as obras esquecidas de seus artistas com eles. Mas então, assinaram um acordo operacional com a Warner Bros. Records, e agora trabalham esclusivamente em reedições carinhosas do fabuloso catálogo internacional da WEA.
Querem saber qual o motivo dessa historinha?
Simples. As grandes gravadoras brasileiras, que há mais de 20 anos só querem saber de vender os “discos da estação”, finalmente descobriram que vale muito a pena relançar no mercado em cd velhos lps gravados originalmente nos anos 60 e 70, que sumiram das lojas há muitos anos.
De quebra, constataram o óbvio: que o custo de lançamento desses discos é quase zero, e que os piratas de esquina não demonstram ter o menor interesse nesses discos – e, portanto, eles só estão disponíveis para venda nas lojas e em sites na internet.
Ou seja, descobriram finalmente o que o pessoal da Rhino, aquela loja de discos de Santa Monica da nossa historinha, já havia sacado 25 anos atrás, e aplicado com ótimos resultados de mercado.
Isso tudo revela claramente a que ponto chega a falta de sensibildade de mercado desses executivos da nossa indústria fonográfica.
Não seria uma boa idéia a indústria contratar alguns desses lojistas descolados e transformá-los em executivos? Quem sabe assim elas conseguem sair do vermelho, e parar de praguejar contra a pirataria, os programas de troca de arquivos e outros fantasmas que eles não conseguem combater dos escritórios panorâmicos onde passam seus dias, bem distantes do público consumidor.
segunda-feira, janeiro 23, 2006
A evolução da música brasileira nas últimas décadas se confunde com a trajetória desses dois senhores de cabelos brancos. São personagens da história popular (e pop) do nosso som. Ezequiel Neves, Zeca para os íntimos, foi mentor do Barão Vermelho e de Cazuza. Agora, afastado da produção musical, ouve seus velhos e bons CDs. E ponto. Nelson Motta, além de compositor de sucessos, lançou no mercado, entre muitos, Lulu Santos e Marisa Monte. Agora escreve livros, tem coluna em jornal, programa de rádio e lançou um site, o Sintonia Fina (www.sintoniafina.com.br). Eles não se falavam há anos. A Revista Oi juntou os amigos de longa data para um reencontro emocionado e um papo sobre as transformações no pop-rock brasileiro. Sempre ecléticos, falam sobre bossa nova, rock, pop e hip hop. E, como bons caciques da música nacional, lançam sinais de fumaça rumo ao futuro.
Ezequiel Neves: A gente se conheceu em 72, Nelsinho.
Nelson Motta: Eu me lembro, no Teatro Opinião.
Ezequiel Neves: Eu fazia teatro. E naquela peça se encerrou toda a minha carreira de ator. Vi que não tinha nada a ver. Eu me mudei para o Rio para fazer a (edição brasileira da) revista Rolling Stone e também escrevia para o Jornal da Tarde. Você tinha uma seção no Globo.
Nelson Motta: Eu tinha uma coluna diária de música. E um escritório onde produzia meia página de jornal todo santo dia. Era um entra-e-sai naquele escritório, muita história. Você, Zeca, viu bem de perto essa transformação do rock no Brasil, que foi uma coisa heróica. Como é que se pode ter rock’n’roll com censura e ditadura?
Ezequiel Neves: Era uma loucura. Na década de 70, era realmente muito perigoso ser roqueiro. Cruzei aqui com o Made in Brazil e fui para São Paulo trabalhar com eles.
Nelson Motta: E foi uma das primeiras bandas de rock tipicamente brasileiro.
Ezequiel Neves: Foi a época em que estourou também o Secos & Molhados. E foi um rastilho de pólvora. Aquele estouro todo, e acabaram logo no segundo disco.
Nelson Motta: Foi um impacto incrível. Era o auge da ditadura, uma repressão pavorosa. De repente aparece o Ney de bunda de fora, rebolando no palco, falando obscenidades.
Ezequiel Neves: Era um desbunde.
Nelson Motta: Um desbunde total. E foi importantíssimo, uma das poucas respiradas que a juventude teve no Brasil. Uma outra coisa: o mundo inteiro teve uma revolução de rock, um movimento a partir de 69. O Brasil já estava no AI-5. O país só veio a ter nos anos 80 o que todo mundo teve no início dos anos 70. Você não podia pedir para os censores liberarem a sua música, não dava para ser meio rebelde.
Ezequiel Neves: Mas sabe o que eu fazia? O Barão surgiu em 82. E antes de mandar as músicas do Cazuza para a censura, eu já censurava. Na hora de gravar, ele gravava a versão original, sem cortes. Eles não iam esmiuçar, eles eram burocratas. Depois veio o Rock Brasil. E aquilo era um movimento. Tinha Barão, Paralamas, Kid Abelha, Lobão. Tinha o Júlio Barroso fazendo a Gang 90 e as Absurdetes.
Nelson Motta: Que é um grupo precursor. Ali foi um momento de grande transformação, que a gente viveu intensamente. No nascimento do Rock Brasil, os artistas eram heróis. Não tinha dinheiro, público, cultura de rock no Brasil. Não podia importar instrumento, era uma repressão pavorosa. Era quase impossível você fazer um grande festival de rock. Só quando isso já estava fora de moda no mundo é que teve o Rock in Rio.
Ezequiel Neves: E só os perseverantes sobraram. Os Paralamas, o Barão. Porque o Barão com o Cazuza era uma coisa, sem ele era outra. As pessoas queriam o Cazuza. E o Barão venceu isso. Eu admiro grupos como o Kid Abelha, os Paralamas, os Titãs. Gosto muito do Skank. E agora eu gosto de um grupo chamado Detonautas. Tem os Los Hermanos... Mas eu acho um pouco mauricinho demais.
Nelson Motta: Eu acho interessantíssimo. Na música deles tem tanto da Jovem Guarda, de bossa nova, de samba tradicional, de rock brasileiro, tanto de coisa mais regional... É realmente um amálgama de todas essas formas. Da Bossa Nova para cá, tem tudo nos Los Hermanos.
Ezequiel Neves: Sabe, Nelson, eu não quero mais produzir ninguém. Eu sou procurado ainda, mas não quero. A meninada é muito ansiosa. Não vou fazer milagre. E eles já querem acontecer, imediatamente.
Nelson Motta: Eu também não tenho a menor vontade. Produzir disco de um artista novo não é só produzir um disco, é produzir a vida da pessoa, é viver intensamente. Você tem que estar no lançamento, fazer o marketing daquilo, acompanhar, ajudar nos shows. Não é só fazer um disco no estúdio e pronto.
Ezequiel Neves: Eu passo o artista para a frente. Não vou fazer absolutamente nada, principalmente com essa coisa de gravadora. E agora o buraco é mais embaixo. O jabá está pegando e não tem mais a efervescência, não pode ter.
Nelson Motta: E esse mundo das grandes gravadoras acabou. Nós participamos muito desse mundo, como produtores de discos, como críticos de música. Houve uma época em que isso era tudo. Mas hoje em dia elas estão nos estertores. Esse formato de indústria não tem mais para onde ir. Com a pirataria, com a troca de arquivos, com a internet. Paralelamente a isso, a música popular está passando por uma imensa transformação.
Ezequiel Neves: Por causa da tecnologia.
Nelson Motta: Sim. E há dois formatos dominantes: o hip hop e a eletrônica. São os novos formatos musicais do século 21. Não é que o formato canção popular – com música, letra e refrão – vá acabar. Mas esse é o novo formato.
Ezequiel Neves: Você gosta de hip hop?
Nelson Motta: De algumas coisas. Mas acho chato esse hip hop raivoso. Eu não quero levar esporro, não tenho mais idade para isso. Ao mesmo tempo, o disco À procura da batida perfeita, do Marcelo D2, é fabuloso. Ele conseguiu a perfeita fusão do samba e do hip hop. O D2 é irônico, é sacana, é libertário. Não é cagação de regra. E eu acho interessante esse formato musical novo, não tem primeira parte, segunda parte, refrão. De música, não tem quase nada. O hip hop privilegia a palavra. A eletrônica é o contrário. São vinte mil instrumentos, com sampler, arranjo. De vez em quando tem uma palavra. É só som, praticamente instrumental. Esses são os novos formatos. E as gravadoras não têm controle, elas não sabem lidar com esse universo. O cara faz um disco de hip hop no banheiro de casa. Com uma bateria eletrônica, um gravador digital...
Ezequiel Neves: A pirataria, por exemplo. Eu saio do supermercado e vejo uma banca de disco pirata. Dou uma espiada e compro mesmo. Você pode copiar estes discos também.
Nelson Motta: Isso é uma coisa insolúvel. A tecnologia está crescendo. E, no Brasil, se você fizer a relação do preço de um CD com o salário mínimo... É caro demais. Vai ver se nos Estados Unidos tem pirataria assim. No Brasil, não há polícia que resolva isso... O que você tem ouvido, Zeca?
Ezequiel Neves: Estou preguiçoso. Tenho ouvido só os meus discos bons. Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tom Jobim. Tenho ouvido Vinicius de Moraes com Odete Lara. Antes, eu tinha que escrever e recebia disco demais. Não podia ouvir mais de três vezes um disco de que eu gostava porque já tinha outra pilha para ouvir. Quando parei de escrever, parei de ganhar disco. E como eu ouço música agora! Tenho mania de me hospedar no disco que gosto. A minha preferência e a minha curiosidade são mais cautelosas. Eu me informo, fico curioso, procuro. Quando ganho um disco de que não gosto, eu quebro. Porque não vou passar para frente uma porcaria.
Nelson Motta: Mas há umas coisas ótimas que apareceram nos últimos anos. A Bebel Gilberto é uma maravilha. E a Maria Rita. Ela é tão boa quanto a mãe. Acho que elas são as melhores cantoras dessa geração e são filhas do maior cantor e da maior cantora. A Bebel e a Maria Rita são o começo e o fim da mesma história. A Bebel passou pelo rock, por essa música dos anos 60, passou por Cazuza e voltou ao João Gilberto. Esse segundo disco da Bebel é mais acústico. E a Maria Rita foi criada nos Estados Unidos, no pop americano, completamente afastada da música brasileira, e é uma cantora genial.
Ezequiel Neves: A música vem e volta e fica e vai ficando e vai. Quando me perguntam qual é o futuro da música... Pelo amor de Deus, eu tenho que ser indenizado para responder isso. Porque é muito difícil, eu não sei. Se me perguntam sobre o futuro da música, como ela está... Eu acho que está tudo bem. Você ouve o que quer.
Nelson Motta: Estou mexendo com novidade agora, nesse programa de rádio. E agora lancei um site com a mesma proposta. Há uma oferta grande de música hoje em dia, na internet, na loja, no pirata, na revista. Ninguém mais tem tempo e saco para selecionar isso. Então alguém tem que fazer esse papel de ouvir e filtrar o que vale a pena. Tenho feito também muita letra com meus parceiros. Tenho música nova com o Max de Castro, com o Ed Motta, com o Guilherme Arantes...
Ezequiel Neves: Você está fazendo um trabalho maravilhoso. Eu não estou fazendo absolutamente nada a não ser ouvir música, queimar maconha e beber escondido. De mim mesmo.
Nelson Motta: Ou seja, continua mais rock’n’roll do que nunca.
Ezequiel Neves: Você já fez 60 anos, Nelsinho?
Nelson Motta: Já. Fiz agora.
Ezequiel Neves: Eu já fiz 70.
sexta-feira, janeiro 20, 2006
It was supposed to be something holy, for God's sake, when old Ernie sat down at the piano . . . I swear to God, If I were a piano player, or an actor or something, and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I'd hate it. I wouldn't even want them to clap for me. People always clap at the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I'd play it in the goddamn closet.
-- Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
My parents occupied the bedroom directly above mine while I was growing up. Luckily they were heavy sleepers, and loud music late at night didn't seem to bother them much -- unless, of course, it was the high-pitched guitar or vocal work of Neil Young. On such occasions, my mother would trudge downstairs, rap at the door and stand there with a look that suggested the wrath of every deprived sleeper over the ages.
"Are we going to listen to this man baying at the moon all night?" she would invariably ask, on behalf of my father and herself.
There was a time, sure, when I tried to explain to them what it was to be a Neil Young fan. "How important is an in-tune vocal?" . . . "But it's great when he hits the same note thirty-eight times in 'Down By The River.'" Here was an artist, as opposed to an entertainer. Here was someone who would never turn up hawking his wares on some talk show.
Neil Young's popularity would soon speak for itself. In 1972, my parents would hear "Heart of Gold" played in the supermarket, find it tuneful, and begin to see things differently. When Neil Young announced he would be playing San Diego, our hometown, on a rare concert tour, it became a family outing. My sister, my teenage cousins visiting from Kentucky, my parents and I all went to the show.
Neil Young appeared right on time, nervously walking out in front of the screaming crowd, one arm upraised. He looked skittish and tired as he picked up a guitar and began to sing an acoustic song, one of the first he ever wrote, called "Sugar Mountain." The audience rushed the stage, shouted for the electric songs and Young called his band out onstage. But instead of Buffalo Springfield chestnuts and standards like "Down By The River," they played a set of reckless new music, causing no small tension in the arena.
Then, during the final song of the evening, the pressure seemed to cause Neil Young to crack. He began to shout, "Wake up San Diego, Get up San Diego . . ." A few minutes later, the houselights were turned on and the hall was filled with an eerie silence.
"He acts like a drunken monkey," said one of my cousins. The rest of the family didn't say much. We didn't talk about Neil Young for the next few years.
Recently, I found myself back in the same old room late one night, typing this article and listening to Neil Young records, when a familiar knock came at the door.
"Well," said my mother with a note of sentimentality. "A survivor."
The fact that Neil Young can barely relate to his successful current album, Comes a Time, is typical of his career, and perhaps one of the reasons he is a survivor. He's thirty-three and he's spent twelve years in the forefront of the most fickle of businesses, shattering expectations. "It's in the middle of a soft place," he says of the album. "It was made to come out a year ago and got hung up with pressing problems. I hear it on the radio and it sounds nice . . . But I'm somewhere else now. I'm into rock & roll."
Held up because Young had approved a faulty test pressing of the album, and then bought back $160,000 worth of the already printed record because of his mistake, Comes a Time is a complacent Neil Young album. In the time that it took for the LP to come out, something in music changed. Much of the music made by artists who came to popularity in the Sixties and Seventies began to fall on deaf young ears.
"I first knew something was going on when we visited England a year and a half ago," says Young. Sitting in the half-light of his ranch home in northern California after the end of his Rust Never Sleeps tour, Young speaks with an urgency. "Kids were tired of the rock stars and the limousines and the abusing of stage privileges as stars. There was new music the kids were listening to. As soon as I heard my contemporaries saying, 'God, what the fuck is this . . . This is going to be over in three month,' I knew it was a sure sign right there that they're going to bite it if they don't watch out. And a lot of them are biting it this year. People are not going to come back to see the same thing over and over again. It's got to change. It's the snake that eats itself. Punk music, New Wave. You call it what you want. It's rock & roll to me, it's still the basis of what's going on."
Neil Young had given up on touring and was working on his second movie, a comedy/fantasy/musical called Human Highway, in which he plays a folk singer named Neil Young, when his friend Dean Stockwell (who plays Otto, the manager, in the film) told him about the New Wave band, Devo. Young knew immediately that this was the band he wanted for a nightmare episode in the film. He even had the song they would play together, the new one called "Out Of The Blue" that he'd written with the Sex Pistols in mind ("It's better to burn out/Than it is to rust").
Members of Devo were flown in from their base in Akron, Ohio, to shoot the nightmare sequence in front of an audience at the San Francisco punk club Mabuhay Gardens. Devo introduced Young as "Grandpa Granola," and played the song live and in a local studio before flying back to Akron. Later, listening closely to the tape, Young heard two of the members chanting the phrase, "Rust never sleeps."
He called them in Akron. "What is 'Rust never sleeps'?"
Two of the members of Devo, it turns out, used to be in advertising. They had devised the phrase during a campaign for the rust-remover Rustoleum and decided it fit the song. To Young, it fit his very career, and his battle against the dreaded, creeping disease of trying to make a good thing last. Suddenly, Young once again felt the pull of the road, felt the pull of rock & roll. He booked a six-week tour with Crazy Horse, plotted a fully scripted show with filmmakers/directors L.A. Johnson and Jeanne Field, and took off on Rust Never Sleeps.
"I knew I had to get out there and rock," he says. "But I also knew that I couldn't see myself out there doing it the way it had always been. Standing out there with a microphone. It's got to continue to be as new as when it started.
"The music business is so big these days, I feel dwarfed by it. I mean, I put out a record and, you know, it does okay. Somebody like Foreigner or Boston, they come out with a record and sell ten times as many as I do. I think that's great. But I still feel like this . . . little guy."
A set was designed in which huge amps and a huge microphone were constructed before the audience's eyes by Young's roadies. Now they were Road-Eyes, dressed in blackface and hoods not unlike Star Wars Jawas. (When Young explained the concept to his puzzled crew, he instructed them to "wave yourself goodbye for a few hours then move with fervor and purpose." Young himself would play a child dreaming about rock & roll.) Beginning the shows with "Sugar Mountain," he moved through a cross section of old and new songs, ending with a phenomenally loud set with Crazy Horse. "I wanted people to leave saying that Neil Young's show was the loudest fucking thing they'd ever heard." It was a heavy-metal tour de force, and somewhere in the middle of the tour, Comes a Time, Young's most subdued album since Harvest, was finally released.
"You know," says Young, confidently, "I do the same thing over and over and over again. It has a slightly different look to it every time. This tour seemed to wrap something up. It's a retrospective, but it's looking back on right now. I think I broke through to another arena; now, people won't be surprised if I enhance the program with actors and diverge totally away from music, then come back out of it into music again. It's making rock & roll more visible to me."
He is struck with an idea. "I'm lucky," says Young. "Somehow, by doing what I wanted to do, I manage to give people what they don't want to hear and they still come back. I haven't been able to figure that out yet."
I first met Neil Young in 1973, on a bus to San Luis Obispo. He had come along to play guitar with the Eagles at a small benefit for the Indian community there. Young sat playing banjo, a grinning cipher in reflector shades. I was instructed not to talk to him, that he had nothing to say.
After the show -- which climaxed with a fiery "Down By The River" that Young and the Eagles still talk about -- Young plopped down in the seat next to mine. His shades were off, and his eyes were dark, sunken shadows below an Indian-like forehead. But they were mischievous, adolescent eyes. Dennis the Menace eyes.
"Hey," he said, "Bernard Shakey." We shook hands, and he began to tell me that he was an amateur filmmaker, that he was working on his first film (he was finishing Journey Through the Past at the time) and was a little nervous about it. He talked excitedly, punctuating his words with a smirk. "Tough business. I'd hate to go back to shooting Hyatt House commercials."
I turned to look out the window, remembering my impression of Neil Young as a depressed loner. Now here he was -- a joker. I turned back around. He was gone, of course, and I was right back where I started.
Young must have remembered the conversation or enjoyed my gullibility. Two years later, when he was releasing his most antipop album, Tonight's the Night, I received a phone call saying that he was ready to do an interview.
There was a listening party in Los Angeles, his first-ever such media function, and we made plans over beers to meet at manager Elliot Roberts' office. I arrived the next morning to find Young, cheerfully cordial, discussing the album with three hungover disc jockeys. "I just wanted to obliterate everything that I was, you know," he was saying, "and wipe the slate clean."
After the conference, Young remained on a sofa drinking orange juice and playing with his dog, Art ("Art is just a dog on my porch"). He sized me up and smiled.
"You need some sun," he said. "You look like people expect me to look. Let's go for a ride."
We walked across Sunset Strip and Young rented a red Mercedes convertible for the occasion of his first extensive interview in five years. A sweltering afternoon, we took a ride out Pacific Coast Highway. After a few attempts at small talk, Young turned and announced: "My uncle played ukulele. Outside of that, I don't really come from a musical family."
There was a lengthy silence. A car full of surfers made a dangerous swerve through traffic to pull alongside for a look. "Hippies," he cracked.
I asked him about his childhood, a question that met with a good two minutes of silence. I began to wonder if the interview was already over. Young was born in Toronto, the son of a sportswriter for the Toronto Sun, Scott Young. Young's parents split up when he was ten, and Neil moved to nearby Winnipeg with his mother, Rassie.
"I know the newspaper business," said Young, who was a Sun paperboy. "I had a pretty good upbringing. I remember really good things about both my parents. I don't feel the need to communicate all that much with them. I think back on my childhood and I remember moving around a lot, from school to school. I was always breaking in." He looked over. "I liked to play jokes on people."
"Same old shit," he continued talkatively. "Once, I'd become a victim of a series of chimp attacks by some of the bullies in my room. I looked up and three guys were staring at me, mouthing, 'you low-life prick.' Then the guy who sat in front of me turned around and hit my books off the desk with his elbow. He did this a few times. I guess I wore the wrong color of clothes or something. Maybe I looked too much like a mamma's boy for them.
"Anyway, I went up to the teacher and asked if I could have the dictionary. This was the first time I'd broken the ice and put my hand up to ask for anything since I got to the fucking place. Everybody thought I didn't speak. So I got the dictionary, this big Webster's with little indentations for your thumb under every letter. I took it back to my desk, thumbed through it a little bit. Then I just sort of stood up in my seat, raised it up above my head as far as I could and hit the guy in front of me over the head with it. Knocked him out.
"Yeah, I got expelled for a day and a half, but I let those people know just where I was at. That's the way I fight. If you're going to fight, you may as well fight to wipe who or whatever it is out. Or don't fight at all."
He looked over again, offering me a vision of my own amazement in his shades.
"Few years later, I just felt it," he concluded cheerfully. "All of a sudden I wanted a guitar and that was it."
In his mid-teens, Neil Young hit the Winnipeg dance-band circuit with his band, the Squires, and his own songs -- stinging instrumentals heavily influenced by the Shadows and the Ventures. Then came the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and Young started to write lyrics.
"I never forgot," he says, "that every time a new Beatles or Dylan album came out, you knew they were way beyond it. They were always doing something else, always moving down the line."
Moving back to Toronto, Young soon took up a twelve-string acoustic guitar and tried folk singing around the coffeehouses. He made friends easily with other musicians like Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell and Richie Furay, who were traveling along the same path. Mitchell wrote "The Circle Game" for him after hearing "Sugar Mountain," which was about growing too old to get into the local teen club.
Rock & roll, meanwhile, was booming. One of the biggest bands around Toronto was a group called Ricky James and the Mynah Birds. "We played rock and blues," James, now a disco star, recalls in Los Angeles. "I remember our first gig," continues James. "When Neil took his first solo, he was so excited he leaped off the stage, the plug came out and nobody heard anything."
The Mynah Birds broke up after a flirtation with Motown when James, AWOL from the navy, was pressed back into the service. Their young career at a standstill, James and Young spent a teary afternoon promising each other that they would form another band after James returned. "It was heavy, man," recalls James. "I had really gotten close to the cat. He was never very healthy -- he got bad epileptic fits sometimes -- but he had balls like you wouldn't believe."
After a few months, money ran out and Young had to sell the Mynah Birds' equipment. Typical of his sense of humor, he used the money to buy a long, black Pontiac hearse and headed for Los Angeles with Mynah Birds' bassist Bruce Palmer. Neither had working permits or the proper papers. "But it you were looking for a break," says Young, "the great Canadian Dream is to get out. So we came down anyway."
They were lumbering down Hollywood Boulevard when the Ontario license plates were spotted by two folkies Young had met up in Canada. Stephen Stills and Richie Furay pulled Young and Palmer over. There, on the street, they talked of their stalled careers. Stills and Furay's folk group had broken up, Stills had even failed an audition to join the Monkees because of his teeth. They decided to form a group, later adding Dewey Martin on drums. They named themselves after a tractor, the Buffalo Springfield.
The Buffalo Springfield were largely a West Coast phenomenon for most of their stormy two-year existence. Around Los Angeles, where their single, "For What It's Worth," became an anthem for the budding hippies battling cops on Sunset Strip, they were a sensation -- a tougher, younger brother to the Byrds. Their live shows centered around incredible lead-guitar battles between Stills, the fair-haired, bluesy Southerner, and Young, the dark and fiery "Hollywood Indian" who was always either quitting or rejoining the group. Their fans split into camps and argued for years about why the group broke up.
"Stills and I have always gotten along," explained Young on his bus during his 1976 tour, as we headed for a show in Madison, Wisconsin. "I just had too much energy and so much creative flow coming out that when I wanted to get something down, I just felt like, 'This is my fucking trip and I don't have to listen to anybody else's.' I'd do what they wanted with their stuff, but I needed more space with my own. And that was a constant problem in my head. So that was why I had to quit. Then I'd come back 'cause it sounded so good. I just wasn't mature enough to deal with it. Everything was going much too fast."
By late 1968, the intense chemistry of the group had lit a fire under all its members. Everyone had scattered in different directions, leaving bassist and then engineer Jim Messina to assemble the band's third and final album, Last Time Around, at Sunset Sound studios. While Young was recording, though, Joni Mitchell was down the hall, beginning her first solo album produced by her then-boyfriend David Crosby.
"I don't really want to go down there," said Crosby at the time. "That guy Neil Young is strange."
Mitchell turned to her manager. "Elliot," she said, "you have to meet Neil Young. You'll love his sense of humor."
The possessor of a mercurial wit, Brooklyn-born Elliot Roberts immediately hit it off with Young. "Everybody was intimidated by Neil," says Roberts. "I heard all these stories -- Neil had left the band twice . . . Everyone was always on eggshells around Neil. Say the wrong word, he's gone. That is all I ever heard. Well, I found it easier to deal with Neil than Stephen. I used to tell people the funny things Neil had said. They'd say, 'Neil?'"
After the Springfield's demise, Roberts became Young's manager, and launched him on a solo career. Roberts tested Young's appeal by getting him a guest appearance during a Dave Van Ronk show at a Pasadena nightclub. "We stayed up all night because we were so thrilled he didn't get booed off," recalls Roberts. "He hated his voice and thought all his songs were depressing."
After the Springfield," Young said during that ride on his tour bus, "I wanted to get out to the sticks and think everything over." Along with his wife, Susan, Young moved into a spindly house high atop a hill in Topanga Canyon. After finishing his first solo album, Neil Young, in a local studio -- which, these days, he fondly characterizes as "Overdub City" -- he built his own studio in his garage.
"The problem was, I needed a band again," Young said. "I met these guys that were, to me, the American Rolling Stones. There has never been a bad night with them, to this day. Crazy Horse."
Danny Whitten was the leader of Crazy Horse. A husky, blond guitarist/surfer, the intensely sensitive Whitten wrote all his songs about the same sixteen-year-old girl who had broken his heart. He had moved to California from back East with Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, as part of a vocal group called Danny and the Memories.
"You had the impression," Elliot Roberts recalls, "that he had been through a lot and was very soulful. Whatever very soulful is, he had it. Very strong guy, but you could see that you say the wrong word and you'd slap him in the face. We all liked Danny. He was obviously very talented and Neil was drawn to him instantly."
Young met Whitten through a mutual girlfriend while he was still with Buffalo Springfield, and they began playing together. Whitten's guitar playing cut slashing patterns across Young's. After working on the first Buffalo Springfield album during the day, Neil fell into the habit of dropping by Talbot and Whitten's house in Laurel Canyon at night. "We used to have a great time," remembers Talbot, "sitting around, singing 'Mr. Soul' in D-modal turning -- all four of us singing harmony."
Young eventually enticed Whitten, Talbot and Molina to come up to his Topanga home/studio and record some "strange songs" he'd written while being laid up with the flu. "In a single day," Talbot says, "we did 'Cinnamon Girl,' 'Down By The River' and 'Cowgirl in the Sand.' There wasn't much need to discuss it . . ."
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere -- still Neil Young's favorite of all his albums -- was finished in two weeks. He and his new band toured small halls as Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and together they built a lasting reputation for hard, metallic rock. Young would spin off on searing guitar solos during which he wildly tipped back and forth on his heels. Because he acted so quickly, Young was never considered as a leftover piece of the Buffalo Springfield for long. Neither was Stephen Stills, who had meanwhile teamed with David Crosby and Graham Nash to record Crosby, Stills & Nash. When the trio finished their album and realized they needed another guitarist to hold up the instrumental end of things on the road, Stills visited Neil Young. Just beginning his career with Crazy Horse, Young knew he had a decision to make.
"I decided to do both," Young has said. "The obligation with Crosby, Stills and Nash wasn't going to be that heavy, a few songs and lead guitar." It became much, much bigger than that. Or, as Billy Talbot says, "Neil joined up with those guys, man, and everything went crazy."
Young punched the clock twice a day for a year, touring with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, then Crazy Horse, then CSNY again. "I never really fit into CSNY as well as Joe Walsh does with the Eagles," he explains. "Everybody had a different viewpoint on what's happening and it takes a whole lot to get them all together. It's a great group for that. Four totally different people who all know how it should be done, whatever it is."
Young went straight from Deja vu, the first CSNY album, into recording his own third solo album, inspired by actor Dean Stockwell when he unraveled a screenplay idea of his. It was about three lives -- one of them a moody musician -- on the day that a mythical tidal wave swallowed Topanga Canyon and was called After the Goldrush. The apocalyptic theme influenced the bulk of material for Young's album of the same name.
"The film fell through," says Young, "and there I was with a record. So I put it out. Would have made a great movie."
It was a more poetic album than Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, due in part to the fact that the tenacious, black Les Paul guitar he played throughout the previous album had been lost. "I took it to this store to be repaired," says Young. "I came back to pick it up the next week and the store was gone."
Young chose an enigmatic cover for the album, a solarized shot of him passing an old lady on his way to a CSNY show in New York City. It symbolized his own passage, his breakup with wife Susan and a farewell to the Topanga house that had already started to become overrun with fans ("I came home to find people I didn't know in my bedroom"). The album captured a huge audience for Young as a solo artist, and that success brought more changes than he could have ever planned for.
"By the time Young did After the Goldrush, he'd fired us," says Billy Talbot. "Danny was doing . . . you know."
Talbot jabs his arm.
"I was really surprised when Danny became a junkie. There was no reason. In those days, people just started shooting right up. Didn't snort nothin'. He just shot some speed, the next day some smack and from then on, he was a junkie. He was always a strong person and he was also a strong junkie. Did more than anyone else, they tell me."
For all his disheveled looks and maybe-I-know-where-I-am-maybe-I-don't stage presence, Neil Young is not a drug case. For a long time, according to friends, he would ask, "Is this hard grass," before accepting a joint. ("When I get high," he says, "I'm a basket case.)" He has never taken acid and never tried heroin. And Whitten's strong aura of junk scared Young considerably -- in fact, he wrote "The Needle and the Damage Done" for him.
With After the Goldrush just released, Neil Young embarked on a solo acoustic tour of small halls, performing the best of his old work and a slew of new songs, written about his new ranch in northern California and a new love. During a stopover in Nashville to tape The Johnny Cash Show, he began recording a follow-up to After the Goldrush. Spiriting away the show's other two guests, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, he recorded "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold," with Taylor on banjo, at a local studio. But a lingering back ailment worsened as he continued on the tour, and after it ended, Young suffered a slipped disk on his left side. He underwent operations and a long confinement on his ranch. Doctor's orders allowed him only four hours a day on his feet.
"I tried to stay away from the success as much as possible," Young says. "And being laid up in bed gave me a lot of time to think about what had happened. I thought the popularity was good, but I also knew that something else was dying. I became really reclusive.
"There was a long time when I felt connected with the outer world 'cause I was still looking. Then you get everything the way you want it. You stop looking out so much and start looking in. And that's why in my head I felt something change; I was thinking about all these things. I was lying on my back for a long time. It affected my music. My whole spirit was prone."
The lethargic downbeat of much of Harvest, Young's next album, was partially a result of the sedation he was under during much of the recording. Released in February of 1972, it was the biggest-selling album of that year and influenced an entire genre of country rockers. Young's back gradually improved; he began writing and playing electric guitar again, and used some of his wealth from Harvest to finance his movie, Journey Through the Past. In the fall of 1972, Young decided it was time to end the seclusion and undertake his biggest tour yet -- three months long and recorded every night for a live album (Time Fades Away) of new material. Jack Nitzsche, the producer of his first solo tracks, was on piano; the Nashville rhythm-section core from Harvest -- Kenny Buttrey on drums, Time Drummond on bass and Ben Keith on steel guitar; and the rumored-to-be-healthy-again Danny Whitten on lead guitar. A huge crew of technicians was brought in, and the mammoth tour began rehearsing at Young's Broken Arrow ranch.
Danny Whitten was the last to show up, still in the full throes of kicking his habit "city style" -- with numbing quantities of booze and drugs. The band started rehearsing, and Whitten soon stopped and propped himself up with his guitar. "You guys are really great," he gurgled in wonderment. He looked at the sheet music Young had studiously written out for the musicians. "Hey Neil, where's my music stand?" he demanded and broke up laughing. "Hey Jack! Play 'Be My Baby.'"
Whitten was driven to the airport, given a plane ticket and fifty dollars. Arriving in L.A., he used the money to score a dose of pure heroin. Danny Whitten shot it up and died that night.
Neil was pretty strange on his big tour," recalls former tour manager Leo Makota. "He'd already been through heavy changes with Danny, then Neil tells him to go and Danny reads that as him just not having it anymore . . . and kills himself. It's like playing God. And are you ready to play God? But that was just one thing that happened.
"Neil was trying to get a certain sound out of the band that he apparently could never find. The band would jam at sound checks in the afternoons and sound great. Then they'd come in and do the show at night and never make it. Neil's mood never seemed happy or comfortable. So you have a situation where everybody is trying to please him and nobody really pleased him."
One reason, conjectures Makota (who is now a carpenter), is that everyone got a little money-hungry seeing those full houses every night. The band revolted, wanting more dollars and a percentage. Makota himself tried negotiating for a bigger crew price. "I admit," says Makota, "we should have just done the job that was at hand."
The revolt took Neil by surprise. "It turned him against everything," Elliot Roberts recalls. "He didn't know how to handle his friends constantly hitting on him for more money. He rebelled against the success, started to see what it did to people. I was afraid to leave. I knew if I left, Neil was gone."
Meanwhile, puzzled audiences were treated to ragged versions of his new songs. ("Every time I go out on the road," Young says now, "the album that just came out is behind me. I don't want to lose the time frame to old material.") Young took to drinking tequila to relax. All those expectant faces waiting for "Heart of Gold" began to look, as he would later write, like an ocean of shaking hands that grab at the sky. They were his demons. And, in Cleveland, he began to scream at them. "Wake up, Cleveland. Get up . . ." The rest of the tour was biding time.
He returned to the solitude of his ranch, bewildered, saddled with problems from Journey Through the Past and deeply upset. "For the first time in my life," he says, "I couldn't get anything to turn out the way I wanted." It was the beginning of a time he would later call his Dark Period.
There was a brief try at a CSNY reunion in Hawaii in the summer of 1973, but Young left the proceedings because he was "too tired to start another cycle." Causing no small resentment within the group, Young returned to Los Angeles, where he found another person close to him had ODed -- CSNY guitar tuner Bruce Berry. For the first time since Danny Whitten's death, Young rounded up the remainder of Crazy Horse, and they started recording at a small rehearsal room. The sessions began after midnight, after everyone had drunk enough tequila and played enough pool to do songs in memory of Whitten and Berry. According to Ralph Molina, "a picture began to develop . . . and it became Tonight's the Night."
An album in which tuneful vocals, commercial choruses and artistic humility took a back seat to raw emotion, Tonight's the Night was rejected by Warner Bros. in 1974 when Young, wearing wraparound, razorback shades, brought the tapes to the executive offices. "I always noticed that Otis Redding would fuck up words on his records, but he's just keep on going . . . if the spirit was there," Young explains today. "Not everyone, however, shares that particular philosophy."
Young then recorded a slightly more conventional work, On the Beach, but not before taking his rejected album on the road throughout Europe. He assumed the character of a sleazy Miami Beach emcee, a chatterbox of Vegas-type one-liners, and directed the band through a tequila-soaked show.
"I slipped out of myself," Young recalls, "and into something easier for me to take . . . that would destroy what everybody though I was. I don't like to be prejudged before I do something. I don't like people to say it's going to be this, and have them be right. I might have been really slapping the audience in the face with some of the shows, but they had their minds totally turned around and that's more than you can say for most concerts. It was really healthy for me. I was the same person for too long.
"We tried to put on the entire show for under fifty dollars. 'Everything is cheaper than it looks' was our motto. We hung one light bulb behind the stage. We did everything that we could to get as far out on the edge and try to play our music and to get it loose. I took the Eagles on tour with me -- they thought I was pretty crazy. They were a good, clean country group back then, and they sounded like what a lot of people would have expected me to sound like after hearing Harvest. They think, "We're gonna have an evening of really fine country-flavored rock & roll and fold rock.' And then we just came out and . . . took 'em all to Miami Beach."
Returning to the States in the wake of a massive critical backlash against him, Young, in a characteristic turn-around, agreed to a huge CSNY summer tour of stadiums. He traveled separately, in a Winnebago, leaving immediately after the show to keep his participation strictly musical. At every turn, though, there were accusations that CSNY had reunited only for the money.
"There's no question that we got paid a lot of money for doing it," says Young. "But there's no question that we were all there and delivered every night. It was just that we were playing these huge fucking places where we could get people to come in like cattle and fucking see us from half a mile away and listen to you squeak. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, they couldn't even hear you do that. It's a huge money trip, which is the exact antithesis of what all those people are idealistically trying to see in their heads when they come to see us play. So that's where the problem is. It costs a lot of money to put the show on. I don't know where it goes. All of it doesn't go where it's supposed to."
The last CSNY show was at Wembley Stadium in England in September of 1974. "Sometime," says Young, "we'll do something again in some combination."
After a brief vacation, Young returned to Los Angeles to begin another album, this one meant to be "the other side of Harvest." The resulting LP was full of the beautiful, melodic ballads his audience had been clamoring for. But the songs were mostly self-pitying, metaphorical details of the breakdown of his most recent relationship. Called Homegrown, the completed album depressed an entire room full of Young's friends when he played it for them. Someone turned the tape over and played the other side, a resequenced version of the Tonight's the Night material for a possible Broadway musical. The room began to party again. Rick Danko, of the Band, challenged Young to put Tonight's the Night out instead. He did.
The album was initially panned by many critics, but by the end of that year, Tonight's the Night turned up on the best-ten lists of the same critics for whom Neil Young had once symbolized a near comatose laid-back chic.
Says Young today: "It took two years to make it sound like it was made in one night. Everyone thought we'd done this great work. And it still didn't sell. For me, a perfect album."
In the spring of 1975, daylight seemed to be breaking through on Neil Young's artful decline. He recovered the missing Les Paul played on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Billy Talbot called to say he might have finally found a Crazy Horse guitarist worthy of Danny Whitten. Young turned up at Talbot's Silver Lake home with guitar in hand and heard Frank Sampedro for the first time. Staying for a week, Young played with the refurbished Crazy Horse and wrote material for Zuma.
"Zuma was breaking free of the murk," says Young. "My best records are the ones with Crazy Horse. They're the most fluid. Zuma was a great electric album coming from a place where pop leaves rock & roll."
After finishing the album, Neil Young and Crazy Horse toured the world. "We played England, Japan, everywhere except America," says Talbot. "It was an idyllic time, man, Neil was just sparkling. We had a band again. I heard us playing like I knew nobody else could play. I remember in Rotterdam, coming offstage and seeing Paul McCartney standing there. We'd just finished the set, the four of us are running through this wind tunnel to get back to the dressing room, and McCartney's just standing there. He nods at me like, you know, musician to musician. I just kept thinking . . . four of us. Four of them. Have we got a band or what? I don't think we've come down from that tour yet.
"I have this tape from Japan. Compared to this tape, Zuma sounds like a bunch of guys sleeping in big, fat armchairs, smoking pipes. Whenever I feel down, I listen to that tape."
Sampedro shakes his head. "Some shows Neil gets crazy with the guitar," he smiles. "Way crazy."
During a break before the world tour was to continue throughout America, Young found time to begin a long-discussed album with Stephen Stills in Miami. After the project (Long May You Run) was completed, Young took Stills and band on the tour that had been originally planned for Crazy Horse.
"Stephen asked Neil to do it," says Elliot Roberts, "and Neil said yes. He loves Stephen. They're the oldest of friends . . . and think about it. In ten years, you'll be happy to see anybody you've known that long."
But after mixed reviews and the onset of a throat ailment, Young left the tour in Atlanta, with a telegram saying: "Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously, end that way. Eat a Peach, Neil."
Neil Young, who writes virtually all the time, can look back and find all the movements of his life and career documented in his songs, some more cryptically than others. "My songwriting process has never changed," he explains briefly, as if talking too much about it might betray the muse. "I never try to write. I know when it's there. I hear a bell ringing in my head and I just leave . . . but I don't try. Sometimes three months can go by . . ."
Some artists, I point out, have been known to get writer's blocks that last for years.
"Well, if that happens to me," says Young, "I'll take up gardening."
One afternoon during a tour several years ago, Young sat in his manager's hotel room. The phone kept ringing, tour crew members bustled in an out . . . and through it all, Young sat on the bed with his son Zeke, peacefully watching the news.
The broadcast was interrupted by an emergency bulletin. Pat Nixon had suffered a stroke, an announcer said over a filmed report of the sad and beaten Richard Nixon tearily moving through the hospital's revolving doors. After a time, Young got up and disappeared into his bus in the parking lot. Onstage several hours later, Young played the song he had written:
Hospitals have made him cry
But there's always a freeway in his eye
Though his beach got too crowded for a stroll.
Roads stretch out like healthy veins
And wild gift horses strain the reins
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
The song was a first called "Requiem for a President." Young later changed the name to "Campaigner," and placed it on his three-record retrospective album, Decade. "Guess I felt sorry for [Nixon] that night," he said of the song while traveling on his bus the next year, just as 300,000 copies of Decade were being prepared for release within the week. "That album was a chance to use some of the unreleased material. Hopefully it's a greatest-hits album that's more like an album." Young laughed. "Should be timeless."
I wondered when he'd decided his first decade was over. He thought about that.
"Well," he said, "I'm not sure it's over."
He was silent for a long while. I drifted back to a bunk to watch television. Young joined me after a few minutes and stared at the screen intently.
"Listen to me," he said, eyes revitted to the tube. "What if I just save Decade for a year, then put out a new album. The new stuff sounds so good -- I've got this song called "Hurricane" that just soars -- I think I'd feel better releasing something new. It's not time to look back yet.
I looked over at Young, who had obviously made up his mind and was now fully enjoying The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. A few minutes later, Young went to the front of the bus to make a call on a mobile phone. "Elliot?" I could hear him say. "Here goes another album . . ."
In two short days, Warner Bros. President Mo Ostin and Executive Vice-President Ed Rosenblatt had flown to the next stop along the tour to discuss delaying Decade with Young. Neil played them most of an album he'd already recorded and titled American Stars 'n Bars ("because one side is about American folk heroes and the other is about getting loose in bars"). They honored his wishes to postpone Decade a year in favor of the new album.
By the time American Stars n' Bars was released four months later, Young's prolific songwriting nature had completely altered the album to include a side of new music "written fast and in the spirit of country music," performed with Crazy Horse and the Saddlebags -- singers Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt.
Several of the still-unreleased songs from Stars 'n Bars -- "Powderfinger", "Captain Kennedy" and "Sedan Delivery" -- were sent to Lynyrd Skynyrd for possible use on their Street Survivors album. None of the songs fit the tone of the album but singer Ronnie Van Zant was saving "Powderfinger" for a future LP at the time of his fatal plane crash. Van Zant and Young had sent messages of mutual admiration for each other, but Neil never got to tell the man who wrote "I hope Neil Young will remember / Southern Man don't need him around anyhow" that "Sweet Home Alabama" was one of his favorite songs.
"I'd rather play 'Sweet Home Alabama' than 'Southern Man' anytime," Young says. "I first heard it and really liked the way they played their guitars. Then I heard my own name in it and thought, 'Now this is pretty great . . .'"
In the summer of 1977, a rumor shot through California music circles that Neil Young was appearing nightly in the bars around Santa Cruz. It was disregarded by most as typical gossip, but a trip up the coast one Friday night found a crowd milling around the entrance to a small bar called the Catalyst. The marquee simply read: DUCKS. Inside, the place was filled with the dull roar of zoo people quacking and blowing duck calls.
After a while, out wandered four musicians. On lead guitar was Young, his painter's hat pulled down low. The Ducks opened with a scorching version of "Mr. Soul" and played through an hour of simple, hard Chuck Berry-esque rock & roll. The songs, only a few of which were Young's, celebrated trucks, girls and bars. The Ducks became a secret, local institution. For a buck, you came in and Neil Young burned up the frets, then joined you at the bar for a drink.
Young had turned up in Santa Cruz to visit an old friend from the Springfield days, singer/songwriter Jeff Blackburn. Once part of the San Francisco duo Blackburn and Snow, he'd been playing around the quiet coastal town with a band that included ex-Moby Grape member Bob Mosley and drummer Johnny C. Craviotto. When the group lost its lead guitarist, Young joined up. They decided to call themselves the Ducks and within weeks every duck call within miles had been purchased.
"These guys play some great music," Neil told one local. "Sure they want to go out and do something, but all I want to do is play some music right now, and not go out and do anything. You see, I haven't lived in a town for eight years. I stayed on my ranch for about four years and then I just started traveling all over, never really staying anywhere. Moving into Santa Cruz is like my reemergence back into civilization. I like this town. If the situation remains cool, we can do this all summer long."
This exchange was later written up as a front-page story in a local newspaper. Crowds began to arrive from everywhere. Record companies even sent scouts. Word got out about the house that the band lived in. There was a robbery. And one day Neil Young disappeared again.
"I still have the team spirit," said Jeff Blackburn when I called him recently. "It's almost hard to comprehend it ever happened. We all knew Neil had commitments and everything . . . I guess we were in the fairy tale and unable to see out of it."
After the Ducks episode, Young had taken his son Zeke for a cross-country ride in his tour bus. They ended up in Nashville and Neil decided to begin his next record there. Young rounded up a crew of sidemen that included country session musicians who had never played anything resembling rock, a singer -- Nicolette Larson -- he had worked with on American Stars 'n Bars, and six acoustic guitarist. Young began his most accessible and ultimately best-selling album since Harvest. "I was feeling pretty sunny," he recalls.
Nicolette Larson had kept a tape of some of the material from when she and Neil first met and sang together at her friend Linda Ronstadt's house. When the phone call came from Nashville, she was ready. Young barely had to show her the songs before they were singing the duets that appear on the album.
The Gone with the Wind Orchestra, as the entire conglomeration of twenty-two musicians was called, lasted throughout the album and for one live performance, on Young's thirty-second birthday, at an outdoor benefit for children's hospitals in the Miami Beach area. Young rehearsed the outfit in a Nashville storefront and flew everyone to Florida where, sharing the windy stage with Nicolette, he played what could well have been his purest and most note-perfect performance ever. The show ended with Young playing part of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," which he dedicated to "a couple of friends in the sky."
A visit to Young's house in Zuma Beach a month later found him and Nicolette in floppy sweaters before the fireplace -- Ma and Pa Kettle at home. Young made some coffee, put on the tape, and they sang with themselves while Comes a Time played. On the living-room table was the then-current issue of People, with the re-formed Crosby, Stills and Nash on the cover.
"Strange seeing that," said Young. "Those three with Jimmy Carter on the inside . . . it makes me think. It's good that they're together, but it's also good to be apart too. They all must feel sometimes like getting away from it. Just like when I'm someplace and decide, 'Think I'll get on the bus and go.' I have to be able to go . . ."
Young is in Elliot Roberts' office a year later, rubbing the two-day beard he's grown since the end of the Rust Never Sleeps shows. The tour had ended in L.A., the night after a raging coastal fire had swept through Zuma Beach and gutted Young's house. All that was left was the stone fireplace.
"Beautiful house," Young says. "Burned to the ground."
I have the impression that if the house had to go, the imagery suits Young just fine. That evening a year before, listening to Comes a Time with him an Nicolette, seems like it's from another time and place entirely.
"People don't understand sometimes," he says, looking down at a pencil he's toying with, "how I can come in and go out so fast, how I can be there and want to do something and then when it's over, for me it's over. To other people it's just a beginning. Sometimes that's hard for people to take. I can see how that would be. I just don't like to stay in one place very long. I move around, I keep doing different things . . ." He looks up. "Just different things."
It must be difficult, I wonder, to decide which impulses to follow.
"I only follow the ones I get," says Young. "And if it makes me laugh . . . I know it's a good one. Basically I've had a really good time, even though my songs have mostly expressed the down side. I like that there's a lot of humor in rock & roll now. A lot of people take me so seriously. They don't know what to do with me not taking myself so seriously anymore. I guess it's just that a lot of people from the Sixties and early Seventies . . ." the old smirk . . . "just aren't that funny."
To many of his own fans Neil Young is still the antithesis of humor. He is the dishelved loner, a space case, a drug casualty . . .
The filament tethering Neil Young to the actual world is delicate. One is aware almost on meeting him that nobody else appears to be quite as real to him as he is to himself, and that behind his seerlike eyes is a capacious landscape that is just as absorbing as the one that he sees in front of him. He doesn't seem so much defended or reserved as singularly constituted, one of the small tribe of artists for whom responsiveness is a creed. He receives songs as much as he writes them. The exchange is a mystical one, and mysticism, as G.K. Chesterton somewhere remarks, keeps people and cultures sane. Logic, too emphatically embraced, is what undoes the mind.
In the past few months, Young has released a CD of new songs, Prairie Wind, and with Jonathan Demme has made a movie, Heart of Gold, that will be released on February 10th. The movie features Young performing most of the CD's songs. Both projects record the deeply felt testimony of a maverick mind that has been at work for forty years. The songs' arrangements are restrained and unembellished; not a note is played for show. The themes are those of mature life, both backward-looking and hopeful, the expression of a sensibility determined to preserve its integrity. They are suffused with mortality and with ardent feelings for his wife and family and his friends. In the movie, he talks disarmingly about his love for his daughter, a college student, and because his manner is typically so subdued, even remote, the profound sentiments have the quality of being nearly a revelation.
It is well known that Young's circumstances while writing and recording Prairie Wind were dire. Last spring he had an episode of blurred vision, which turned out to be the result of a migraine. In performing tests to arrive at the diagnosis, however, doctors in New York discovered that he also had a cerebral aneurysm. It had likely been in place for years, but it might fail at any time. Surgery was scheduled to take place in four days. The procedure was not notably ambitious, but any invasion of the brain includes the possibility that a person might not wake up as who he was before he went under the knife. Young and his wife, Pegi, a singer, flew from New York to Nashville and stayed at the Hermitage, a hotel Young likes especially. On an old guitar that had belonged to Hank Williams, he began writing songs and recording them with musicians he had played with for years. He recorded three or four songs a day, then came back to the hotel and wrote three or four more. They appear on the record in the order in which they were written. Young says that he has never been very good at determining the sequence of songs on a record -- "too impatient," he says. He finished all but one song, "When God Made Me," a hymn, then had the operation. He was to play at a Canadian awards show in Winnipeg, where he was partly raised. Several weeks before the show, he was walking with a friend when blood appeared on his pants leg. He began to bleed heavily from an incision made in his leg to remove a blood vessel used to patch the aneurysm. When he came to, he was staring into a bright white light. He was in an ambulance, but for a moment he thought he might have gone to glory. Needing more time to heal meant missing the awards show, and canceling meant having to explain his absence. Otherwise, he wouldn't have let anyone know.
Young's father, Scott, a sportswriter famous in Canada, died last year, in his eighties, after a period of dementia. As a child, Young would watch his father writing. On those occasions when he pointed out to his father that he appeared to be doing nothing, his father would say, "That's when I get my best ideas." Waiting for an idea is a hallmark of Young's method. His father's death was not unexpected, but it haunted Young, especially in light of his own mortality. He felt blessed to have escaped any lasting consequences and fortunate to have discovered his problem by means of an MRI and not as the result of having a stroke in a backstage hallway of a stadium.
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Young lives in Northern California, south of San Francisco, on property he calls the Broken Arrow Ranch. On the Rand McNally Road Atlas, a small fir tree appears more or less where the ranch is. He bought the place thirty-five years ago. Before moving to it, he lived in Los Angeles, in Topanga Canyon. Leaving L.A., he drove through a brush fire. "The freeway was in the middle of it," he told me. "Both sides of the road were in flames. It was very dramatic. I was driving out of town, and the place was burning up."
Young said this a few weeks ago, in Northern California, while we were riding in an old Plymouth he owns and more or less widely circling the borders of the ranch. He has a fleet of cars from the era of his childhood -- he is sixty. His fascination with cars has its genesis in an early misfortune. When he was six, he went swimming with his father in the Pigeon River and woke that night with his shoulder hurting. Before the morning was through, he was so stiff that his father described him as moving like "a mechanical man." In Shakey, Young's biography, written by Jimmy McDonough, there is a description of his being taken to the hospital and how the polio he'd contracted in the river nearly killed him. When his parents came to take him home, he said, "I didn't die, did I?" The nurses sang "Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes" to him, and he wept. He had lost so much weight, his mother told McDonough, that "he looked like hell on the highway. Skin and bones." He had been a fat baby, as wide as he was tall, she said.
Qual o borogodó de Kate Bush? Eu olhava para a foto dela na capa da “Mojo” de dezembro e me perguntava por que a revista inglesa se gabava de trazer a única entrevista para o lançamento de “Aerial”, seu primeiro disco em doze anos. Li o texto babão de Tom Doyle, que chega a lhe elogiar as formas. Li as declarações angelicais de Kate (“Eu nunca quis ser famosa. Meu desejo não era ficar famosa, era fazer um disco.”). Li os elogios de David Gilmour, de Peter Gabriel e de Rufus Wainwright. E, por fim, li a resenha cinco estrelas de Fiona Wylie, com o carimbo “clássico instantâneo Mojo”. Não entendi nada.
Assim que trombei com a edição nacional de “Aerial” (EMI) numa loja de discos, pus no cestinho de compras para tentar compreender o fenômeno que, ao menos pelo que dizia minha memória, era inexplicável. Nelas, Kate continuava sendo somente aquela vozinha de desenho animado, a intérprete de “Wuthering heights” e de “Babooshka” – embora os Futureheads recentemente tenham feito bem a outra de suas canções, “Hounds of love”. Bush, hoje com 47 anos, não lançava um disco desde “The red shoes”, de 1993. Desde, então, fora um “vídeo álbum” fracassado em 1994, nenhum trabalho novo veio à luz, exceto seu filho Albert, nascido em 1998. Sua última entrevista ocorreu no mesmo ano.
O nascimento do garoto radicalizou a opção de Kate por permanecer longe dos holofotes da mídia. Se isso é só uma estratégia de marketing pessoal como qualquer outra, quem há de saber? Enquanto trocava uma fralda e varria a casa, ela ia casando idéias e sons no estúdio caseiro que montou com o marido guitarrista, Dan McIntosh. Na verdade, uma das músicas presentes em “Aerial”, a música que abre “Aerial”, a melhor música de “Aerial”, “King of the mountain”, havia sido composta no longínquo 1996, misturando Elvis Presley e Orson Welles: “Elvis você está lá fora em algum lugar/ Parecendo um homem feliz?/ Na neve com Rosebud (o mítico trenózinho de “Cidadão Kane”) / e rei da montanha.”
“King of the mountain” abre o primeiro CD (sim, “Aerial” é um álbum duplo), sub-batizado “A sea of honey” e composto por sete canções. Todas de uma forma ou de outra estranhas, como seria de se esperar de Kate, mesmo após doze anos de silêncio. O refrão de “π”, por exemplo, diz: “3,141592653589793238462643383279”. A renascentista “Bertie” é para seu filho. E “Joanni”, para Joana D’Arc. Já “Mrs. Bartolozzi” é uma ode erótica à lavagem de roupas e à sua secagem no varal (“Minha saia flutuando em torno da sua cintura etc.”). Como qualquer autor, Kate escreve sobre a sua realidade, ainda que alterada.
O segundo CD, sub-batizado “A sky of honey”, é uma espécie de suíte em nove partes, começando com um “Prelude” e terminando com a faixa-título de todo o álbum, “Aerial”. Há um belo dia, um casal, um idílio e, aqui e ali, passarinhos trinando, o que aproxima o clima geral de um encontro entre Branca de Neve, Enya e Tetê Espíndola, deus nos livre. As duas últimas faixas do disco, “Nocturne” e “Aerial”, se sustentam por si sós, sobretudo porque modificam a dinâmica, hum, pastoral do todo, introduzindo ritmos mais marcados que quebram a pasmaceira precedente. O conjunto da obra, li na “Mojo” e alhures, é genial.
Bem, após a primeira audição de “Aerial”, senti-me um perfeito idiota: gostei de cara de “King of the mountain”, que, a despeito de versar sobre o Rei do Rock, tem toques magrebinos, mas o resto não bateu. Após sucessivas audições, passei a gostar também de “Nocturne” e de “Aerial”, mas o resto continuou não batendo. Fiquei nisso. Comecei a me perguntar se eu teria de ser inglês para apreciar Kate Bush, pois tudo o que eu lia acabava mencionando uma certa englishness. Pensei até em disparar e-mails para meus amigos ingleses, para averiguar se eles têm mesmo sonhos molhados com Kate Bush, mas concluí que não valia o esforço. Aqui, onde o buraco é mais embaixo, “Aerial” é tedioso.
Fiona Wylie, a entusiasmada resenhista da “Mojo”, teve de escrever depois de escutar “Aerial” apenas duas vezes numa sala da EMI, sob vigilância para não gravar o álbum e vazá-lo em cópias piratas. Na primeira, nos diz, ficou “seduzida, intrigada, um pouco perplexa”. Na segunda, ficou “excitada, tocada, comovida”. Comigo, depois de mais de uma dúzia de audições, foi acontecendo um pouco o contrário: comecei respeitoso, preocupado em captar o espírito da coisa, mas fui ficando cético e irritado. Irritou-me a pretensão travestida de simplicidade, as iluminações prêt-à-écouter, a sonoridade de sub-Peter Gabriel de saias, a sensação de que, mesmo depois de doze anos, a maior parte daquelas canções ainda não se concluiu ou resolveu, perdendo-se em planícies de teclados.
Claro, o problema deve ser meu.