The Two Neil Youngs: Demme’s Film Shows A Saccharine Singer

As you may have noted by now, I like the friction—sometimes comic, sometimes revealing—that results from juxtaposing high-culture and pop-culture references. In part because of the light, or shadow, they cast on each other, in part because of what they share (e.g., Anna Karenina and the fatal love triangles of the tabloids).

Which is why I want to begin my Neil Young polemic from the heights of Mount Wilson.

The Two Scrooges

Back in 1940, in one of the most influential literary polemics of the last century, Edmund Wilson argued in his “Two Scrooges” essay (the opening piece in The Wound and the Bow, originally published in The Atlantic) that the reigning condescending literary consensus on a superb popular artist—in this case, Charles Dickens—was all wrong. Indeed that it reflected an obtuse, snobbish philistinism. One that was able to see only the superficial, cheerful caricaturist in Dickens, and occluded the dark, complex resonances of the sensibility that surfaced in the later work.

“The Bloomsbury that talked about Dostoevsky ignored Dostoevsky’s master, Dickens,” Wilson memorably sneered, with good reason.

The Two Scrooges, the Two Dickens—and now, ladies and gentlemen, consider a similar cultural divide over the conception of another misapprehended popular artist: the Two Neil Youngs.

There’s the bland, insipid, complacent, syrupy, self-satisfied, family-values, country-pie, pious, rural-virtues Neil Young that Jonathan Demme’s just-released film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, gives us. No doubt a true snapshot of a recent Neil Young moment, but a snapshot that doesn’t merely sugarcoat but virtually erases—denies—the existence of the Other Neil Young.

The occlusion of the artist’s complex identity is comparable to constructing an image of the work of T.S. Eliot based entirely on a film version of Cats. “Waste Land,” what “Waste Land”? Look at the big furry kitties!

Mr. Demme’s film omits the dark, electrifying, deeply disruptive, sometimes bleak, sometimes exhilarating and subversive Neil Young. Not the “country-rock” musician that Mr. Demme’s reliably adoring film-critic acolytes describe him as, but rather the hard-core, killer rock ’n’ roll genius whose electrifying, volcanic sound and deeply resonant and compressed lyrics left an imprint not just on music, but on popular culture itself. Neil Young is not just a transformative rock god—but as the spiritual godfather to Kurt Cobain, he was also a powerfully influential transformer of American popular culture, the progenitor of the wickedly acute, wised-up post-punk cultural sensibility.

Don’t get me wrong: Mr. Demme’s film is in many ways both beautiful and respectful. But by exalting rural virtues—in effect, by equating “rural” with “virtue”—and by making a hymn of praise for the prairie wisdom of the Great White North, Neil’s Canadian prairie roots, he verges on rural supremacism. By that I mean the ingrained American nativist, puritanical distrust of (and distaste for) the urban, the cosmopolitan, the seductive sins of sophistication, irony and complexity. Instead, simple is always best. Or less dangerous.

And so, in his extremely well-meaning way, Mr. Demme—well known as an admirably socially engaged director—has made perhaps the most reactionary film of the past year.

Reactionary in the sense that it implicitly gives the impression that family values of a certain kind—the Great White North, Great White Nashville kind—are the only true values. If you stay close to the land and practice rural virtues, you’ll go to heaven, (as long as you’re a rich rock—sorry, “country-rock”—star). Conventionality rules, dude!

‘The Idiocy of Rural Life’

Reactionary? I know I reacted to it by questioning the assumption that not all who live close to the earth are superior to those who don’t. Although I’m not a Marxist, I savored once again the bracing contempt for the cult of peasant wisdom that Marx and/or Engels expressed in The Communist Manifesto: The peasants need to be rescued, they say, from “the idiocy of rural life.”

Some have claimed that this is a mistranslation, that what was meant was not the “idiocy” but the stultifying isolation—but that’s absent too in the virgin-soil iconography of this prairie apotheosis, complete with primitivist dioramas of Neil’s life-giving Great White North wheat fields.

Yes, the film suggests, all this can be a reward for virtue; this is what virtue looks like—a contribution to the demonization of urbanity whose celebration was the best thing about Mr. Demme’s other films.

I don’t think I’d feel the same way were it not for the peculiar erasure of any trace of the Other in this film, the Other Neil Young. The one whose soul-shattering chords and trance-like lyric meditations suggested that there might be Other Values, realms beyond the rural to find fulfillment or (dare I say it?) excitement, the wild surmise at a glimpse of something not found in the Prairie Home Companion.

The Other Neil Young can be glimpsed—if you want a side-by-side comparison with Mr. Demme’s laundered version—in Jim Jarmusch’s 1997 down-and-dirty Neil Young documentary, Year of the Horse. A film and a sensibility almost entirely ignored—whitewashed—in the critical adulation accorded Mr. Demme’s film. Due to Mr. Demme’s critical cachet, his film will undoubtedly overshadow not just Mr. Jarmusch’s work (shamefully not even referred to in most reviews) but, even worse, will serve to eclipse entirely in the minds of most—in the collective consciousness of the culture—the very memory of the Other Neil Young.

Now I’m not proposing the equivalent of a W.W.E. steel-cage match between Mr. Demme and Mr. Jarmusch (although, come to think of it … ). Look, they each made their own movie of their own Neil Young. But the Jarmusch documentary at least does justice to the reason why Neil Young is an important figure in the culture. Not for his contribution to “country rock,” the misleading pigeonhole that the tunnel-vision reviews of the Demme film have consigned him to. Yes, he contributed to “country rock” (and I’m second to no one in my love of “country rock”—I probably play more Gram Parsons repeatedly than anyone you know), but the point is that he, Neil, is at the very heart of hardcore rock ’n’ roll, something the Bloomsbury types of our time seem to disdain appreciating or just don’t get.

He’s at the heart of rock ’n’ roll, on a plane with Dylan and Van Morrison, because of the way he harnesses the torrential energy of “Like a Hurricane,” because of the spooky, apocalyptic dreaminess of “After the Gold Rush,” the mordant forever-haunting, guilt-ridden death wish that is “Tonight’s the Night.” The incantatory, almost sinister romantic ecstasy of “Cowgirl in the Sand” (which can’t help conjuring up, for some of us at least, the bleak desolation of Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”). And the brilliant, truly insidious but somehow tragically joyful nihilism of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” with its thunderous opening chords that sound like someone’s pounding on the Gates of Hell. Just to name a few.

I’m not saying there’s anything technically inaccurate about Mr. Demme’s film. Indeed, there’s much to admire about its dramatic structure and genesis. It’s basically a concert film of Neil Young doing songs from his new down-home, back-to-roots tribute to his Canadian prairie origin, the acoustic, rural virtues of his Prairie Wind album, with a few older “country-rock” throw-ins like “Heart of Gold.”

What lends it the drama that the songs (for the most part) lack are medical rather than musical factors. Neil wrote the songs shortly after learning he’d need to undergo surgery for a brain aneurysm. The concerts for Mr. Demme’s film were recorded at Nashville’s original Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium, with some of Neil’s remarkably gifted old-boy Nashville studio musicians (and none of Neil’s Crazy Horse compadres, the ones he made rock ’n’ roll history with, who are—like that history—nowhere to be seen, not even referred to, unpersons: part of the unpast in this snapshot).

I have to say I’m in awe of Mr. Young for having the courage, the level of spiritual evolution required to pull off with such calm panache a concert that so effortlessly weaves together such a remarkable array of musical elements—guitars, keyboards, backup singers, choruses. There is much beauty and bravery to admire in it. And the shadow of mortality endows the occasionally wistful but mainly self-satisfied music we’re given with an extra dimensionality that Mr. Demme modestly and unobtrusively records. Well-done, tasteful, somber, reflective and—did I mention?—self-satisfied.

Three Neil Youngs?

And yet … Neil Young being happy and self-satisfied, surrounded by friends and fellow music lovers: more power to him, and mad props for doing it so well. But hey, forgive me: I totally concede I couldn’t face brain-aneurysm surgery so admirably and stoically, no question—but still, this is a guy who used to give brain aneurysms with his music (metaphorically, anyway). This is a guy who could leave you shaken to the core with his chords, with a single incantatory phrase whose compressed, elliptical wisdom could haunt you for weeks, months, a lifetime ever after.

Mr. Demme’s movie, this Canadian Prairie Home Companion, is so nostalgically goody-goody and reverent about the Great White North that Neil came from, it becomes like a propaganda film. Sure, there are some songs on Prairie Wind that are haunting and wistful and plaintive—it’s Neil Young, after all—and you can’t help loving the weathered faces and battered fingers of the Nashville session wizards. It’s all admirable, really—I get that.

But art isn’t always about admirability, is it? All happy families are alike, alas, which is why there are few great novels about happy families. Indeed, Edmund Wilson was, if crude, at least closer to the heart of the matter when he said that art grows out of a wound, one that can’t be covered up with plastic surgery or sugary sentiment. (The Jim Jarmusch film gives you both the wound and the bow, so to speak.)

It’s not like I’m being anti-acoustic here. But as my friend Natalie—a major Neil Young fan who plays electric bass guitar in a cult-fave, punk-pop, all-girl (except the drummer) band called Ruffian—pointed out, it’s not just a split between Electric Neil and Acoustic Neil à la Dylan here.

She likes Early Acoustic Neil—the eerie trippiness of “After the Gold Rush,” for instance, or the deep mystification of “Helpless” (“Blue, blue windows behind the stars”—huh? Check out the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Helpless” sometime and you’ll see what we’re talking about.)

But she feels that Late Acoustic Neil is another story—the Neil of the terminally insipid “Harvest Moon” and the songs on Prairie Wind, simple to the point where it reminds you that while simplicity can be an artistic virtue, there’s a difference between simplicity and simple-mindedness.

So maybe, Natalie suggested in response to my Two-Neil typology, there are actually Three Neil Youngs—Early Acoustic, Electric and Late Acoustic—although she agreed that Early Acoustic and Electric are just on a higher plane than Late Acoustic. (I hope you’re following this.)

Meanwhile, there’s the Neil Young of the Jim Jarmusch movie, which is really a portrait of him and his decades-long companion band, Crazy Horse (the one he formed after leaving Buffalo Springfield). I have to give Mr. Jarmusch—whose films have not been faves of mine before—credit here for his instinct for greatness: for giving us footage of some amazing, extended versions of the insanely appealing, thunderous, incantatory Crazy Horse sound, interspersed with tales of OD’s, bad behavior, the rock ’n’ roll life.

Yeah, it’s Behind the Music stuff we’ve heard before, but it cumulatively convinces you that there’s some special Crazy Horse chemistry in the wail of sound—Neil on lead, Billy Talbot doing those thunderous bass riffs and Frank (Pancho) Sampedro ripping it all to intelligible shreds on rhythm guitar. Especially when you see the three of them locked into a riff they can’t escape from (nor do you necessarily want them to)—it’s so mesmerizing to watch them as they bob and weave in a semi-synchronized ecstasy that looks like Orthodox Jews davening before God. Indeed, on several songs—most notably “Like a Hurricane” and “Tonight’s the Night”—Mr. Jarmusch is content to let us watch and listen to something kind of breathtaking.

‘The Long Friends’

What exactly is it that’s unique about Neil Young? For one thing, his work still provokes interesting arguments; people who are smart about music and culture still care about figuring him out.

At a party recently, I found myself getting into a long argument with a smart dude who was knowledgeable about both film and music and had this theory of “the spook” in regard to Neil Young’s best work.

I seem to recall we started off arguing about “Cowgirl in the Sand,” which is my admitted Neil Young weakness, due to having been introduced to it under, um, special circumstances one night at some lodge on the Rocky Mountain slopes of Colorado. It was one of his longer songs, 10 minutes or so in the original, but this one seemed to go on forever (and yet one never wanted it to end).

Since then, in live performance, Neil has played longer and longer versions of this eerie ode, each accompanied by what I’d call an electric-guitar exegesis that—like the illuminations of a monk on an old manuscript—doesn’t necessarily spell out its meaning but somehow speaks to it and elaborates upon it.

I was talking about a relatively rare Neil CD, Road Rock, which has a full 18-minute version of “Cowgirl in the Sand,” a version I’m still learning from. I always feel that when an artist is obsessed with returning to one of his early works, it’s worth our while to take the proper time to understand why.

Nonetheless, I got no respect from this guy, who called the 18-minute version “noodling, Grateful Dead style” (killer put-down, and even if I think he’s wrong, you can see the subject brings the sharp knives out of the drawer).

Anyway, we went on to discuss other songs we both liked, and he offered the theory that what they had in common was something he called “the spook,” which sounded like an old blues term for something eerie, uncanny, in touch with ghostly forces. Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil—like that.

He said that some Neil Young songs definitely had “the spook” and others did not. As I recall, we agreed on “Helpless,” I think, but disagreed on “Powderfinger” (him yes, me no). And although I don’t know if I’d use the same phrase, I think there’s something true about it. Half the time, that quavering falsetto in Mr. Young’s voice makes it sound like he’s seen a ghost or like he’s walking past the graveyard, in touch with spirits whose provenance he’s not so sure about. His spooky muses. I think of the chillingly spooky phrase from Robert Stone’s Children of Light, the name that his half-mad heroine gives to the unwelcome visitors/creatures she begins to see when she’s losing her mind: the “Long Friends.” I have a feeling that Mr. Young has seen the Long Friends.

Girls Know

So there’s that—that spooky, moody, minor-chord Neil Young thing. But for me, it’s also about the songwriting, the lyrics: Neil Young as master of epigrammatic Compressed Elliptical Wisdom (C.E.W.). And, by the way, this is not just guy stuff—one interesting thing you learn is that many intelligent women are into Neil. There’s Natalie, the bass player, and her theory of the Three Neils. And my friend Naomi (who dates bass players), with whom I developed the theory of Neil’s C.E.W.

It’s what’s most distinctive about his songwriting. Dylan has it but tosses it off casually, almost too profusely—there’s so much to pay attention to that you don’t give any one element its due. Neil makes you focus on an elliptical phrase by repeating it over and over until all (or most) of its resonances rise and emerge. When Neil gets hold of a phrase, he doesn’t try to explain it, but rather exalts it through an almost trance-like incantation.

“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” for instance: Has any phrase ever captured the transition from life to death with more take-you-by-surprise compression than “out of the blue and into the black”? (Kurt Cobain quoted from this song in his suicide note.)

Just about every line in that song has that quality. My favorite? “You pay for this, but they give you that.” Let’s just say it’s not about a retail transaction; it’s about another kind of price altogether. You could even call it a distillation of tragic wisdom that summarizes all of Sophocles. (O.K., that’s a hyperbole, but you know me—I like the friction that comes from mixing high and low references.)

Naomi’s favorite was another line from that same song: “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.” The way Neil turns an absolutely deadpan recitation of a cliché that’s been worn down to the point of meaninglessness, through his plaintive incantation, into a kind of transcendental affirmation of beautiful and frightening realms beyond our ken.

It’s what distinguishes great songwriting: the ability to take a familiar phrase out of the vernacular and, just by giving it the attention, the attentiveness we often neglect, defamiliarize it and raise it to another level.

That’s what this guy does, what he’s done. Not just affirm old-time family values and radiate complacency, as he does for Mr. Demme. Listen to Decade, listen to Live Rust, rent Year of the Horse.

Watch the Demme film if you want. It’s a beautiful snapshot for a family-values album. But believe me: “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”

But maybe I should give Edmund Wilson the last word. A word about art and danger. At the close of “The Two Scrooges,” Wilson is talking about Dickens’ struggle to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a struggle interrupted by a fatal stroke. A death that left unresolved Dickens’ own internal struggle with the character of John Jasper, Drood’s mesmerizingly villainous, opium-smoking choirmaster, whom Wilson believes Dickens saw as an embodiment of his own divided self:

“Mr. Jasper is, like Dickens, an artist …. Like Dickens, leads a life of the imagination apart from that of common men. Like Dickens, he is a skilful magician whose power over his fellows may be dangerous …. ”

And so, Wilson suggests, “All that sentiment, all those edifying high spirits, which Dickens has been dispensing so long … has all this now grown as false as those hymns to the glory of the Christian God which are performed by the worshiper of Kali?”