Neil Young is a punctured idealist, a fallen romantic fighting to stand up. He struggles with the innocence of the classic hippie ideals: that love and peace can reign, that truth, forever sought, might be found. At heart, he’s a self-loathing cynic, angry at his own cursed sympathies, a loner who understands all too well why people don’t want to be alone. He loves the dream as much as he hates it; he hates it because he knows it remains a dream. But like Tantalus, he is forever swiping at the apple, only to have it elude his grasp.
Much of Mr. Young’s best work in the 70′s derived from his despair over the limitations of his generation’s reach. In a string of classic albums that began with On the Beach in 1974 and ended with Rust Never Sleeps in 1979, he detailed the collapse of his generation, how the hippies burned out and lost the vigor for change.
Now, so many years later, Mr. Young is releasing two essential documents that, though separated by time and pain, sing volumes about his relationship with America and his particular generation, implicitly explaining how he survived the crash. On the Beach , which has just been released for the first time in CD format, finds Mr. Young in the thick of his despair over the cultural collapse that his generation was experiencing, yet unable to articulate. Mr. Young clearly felt that although something monumental was happening, he was just too close to it to be able to grasp the big picture. But with the benefit of almost 30 years’ perspective, he takes another stab on his latest album, Greendale , and not only comes up with some answers, but with another great album as well.
That said, On the Beach and Greendale are very different records. On the Beach sees Mr. Young withdrawing as a form of self-protection from the cultural catastrophes of the mid-70′s. The lyrics are nearly too personal, filled with unexplained metaphors and evocative images; the album is about a mood. Greendale is direct, a provocative and inspiring 10-song “musical novel” in which Mr. Young-after years of tough living, both personal and professional-looks back on his generation’s lurching arc and explains his love/hate relationship with it.
As a musical novel (a more satisfying alternative to the dreaded “rock opera”), Greendale depicts the collapse of the Green family-refugees of the hippie generation-as their family is torn apart when Jed, one of the younger Greens, kills a cop who has discovered coke and weed in his car. Grandpa Green, an ancient, grizzled farmer spouting country witticisms (“Some people have taken pure bullshit, and turned it into gold”) dies from a heart attack, brought on by grief and by the invasion of grasping, grubby media types asking for an interview. Sun Green, his granddaughter, becomes a political activist. Greendale ‘s bizarre mixture of literalism and symbolism is sometimes clichéd and pedantic, at turns allegorical, and sometimes so blatant it feels like community theater. It’s very Neil Young in that way. And yet, it is easily the best thing Mr. Young has done since the death of his producer and second brain, David Briggs, in 1995.
Greendale succeeds, as most of Mr. Young’s music does, between the lines. Superficially, it might come off as alternately preachy and cranky and little else, but you have to separate the creator from the creation: The voices and perspectives of the characters in Greendale are never Mr. Young’s, although he has sympathies with each. Mr. Young himself survives in the music’s subtext, where you can discover the man’s most controlled contemplation of the idealism that took over his generation, got corrupted and haunted his career from its very beginning. The Greens, living on the Double E Rancho in Greendale, a small community in northern California, have resigned themselves to pursuing a communal harmony solely within their family; they’ve realized that their old change-the-world psychosis can only be achieved in a vacuum. The album’s first song, “Falling from Above,” captures their reductionist 60′s fever: “A little love and affection / In everything you do / Will make the world a better place / With or without you.”
This remaining morsel of idealism conflicts with the world outside the Double E Rancho, a world alluded to later in the song when “The Hero and the artist” debate their “goals and visions and afterthoughts / For the 21st century.” They “mostly came up with nothin’ / So the truth was never learned / And the human race just kept rollin’ on … / Rollin’ through the fighting / Rollin’ through the religious wars …. ” Mr. Young’s hand grows heavy, but the vision crafted of this family fighting for its innocence is the only credible permutation of the idealism his generation initially invested in. The Double E is the Green family’s Sugar Mountain, some mystical place where you never have to grow up, a fantasy world removed from the culture.
“Bandit” is the middle-aged expression of the innocent hope that typified so much of Mr. Young’s early balladry, especially songs like “Sugar Mountain” or “I Am a Child.” The song takes place inside the head of Jed’s uncle, Earl Green, who, spending a night alone in a fifth-rate motel, finds hope springing eternal in his soul. Earl consoles himself with the thought that “Someday … you’ll find / Everything you’re looking for.” Mr. Young sings the line in the high, fragile yet soaring falsetto of his early career, and it cuts through the eddying stream-of-conscious lyrics like a bullet. “Bandit” is a remarkable achievement, a song about finding comfort beneath your own skin, realizing that self is the only salve.
Greendale does begin to falter toward the end, although not musically. Mr. Young is backed by his longtime cohort Crazy Horse again, and together they achieve a drunken looseness, both in sound and in rhythm, that’s always compelling. But as a straight story, Greendale grows incrementally more absurd. After Grandpa’s death, Sun Green finds the fighting spirit of her parents’ generation: “Truth is all I seek, / Speakin’ out against anything / Unjust or packed with lies,” she says. The section works better on an allegorical level, as Sun Green finds Earth Brown and, through some apocalyptic interaction, they become one in mind and decide to run to Alaska to fight for the environment. The album’s closer, “Be the Rain,” finds them dreaming the same dream of hope and transcendence. Mr. Young slightly mucks it up with an over-the top choir singing and egocentric, propagandistic lyrical turns that sound too much like rants. Whatever success the song realizes is derived from the fact that this hope is only expressed in dream: The young, mad fighters, those powerful voices Mr. Young begrudgingly admired, are still just fighting for a fantasy.
What Mr. Young sees in On the Beach is the transformation of those voices into something much more frightening. It’s one of four classic Young albums-the other three are Hawks & Doves , Re ac tor and American Stars ‘n Bars -that have just been issued for the first time on CD. The other records-especially the last four songs on American Stars ‘n Bars and the first half of Hawks & Doves -have their merits, but On the Beach is the bona fide masterpiece of the bunch. In “Revolution Blues,” Mr. Young hears a version of the voice of his generation in Charles Manson, a hippie for whom the ends justifies the means. “Motion Pictures” is a letter posted from inside the head of an earlier version of Earl, a person who finds being miserable a comfort. Mr. Young tells us: “All those headlines, / They just bore me now / I’m deep inside myself, / But I’ll get out somehow …. “
The real masterwork, though, is “Ambulance Blues,” a nine-minute tone poem that ranks among Mr. Young’s finest. It’s one of his most personal songs, and one of the most difficult to understand: Mr. Young takes us through his personal history, mythologizing and abstracting it in the process. It’s impossible to understand it all, though your confusion doesn’t really matter-you feel the song, even if you don’t get it. The poetic element manages to communicate with us in different ways; it has a sense of sound to it, something primitively evocative.
I imagine Greendale will be as misunderstood as On the Beach was when it first came out. No matter-Mr. Young’s never made a record to satisfy expectations. He follows his muse, and this time it took a turn into the heart of America. He had no choice but to follow. With Greendale , you quickly realize that you have no choice but to listen.