Years long ago, with the old website, I routinely received requests to review new releases from independent artists and bands. The emails arrived in my inbox (the same Yahoo Mail account I use today, believe it or not), contained links to low-quality song snippets, and if interested I replied with my address. A week or so later, a CD would show up in my mailbox.
I usually ignored such enquiries.
In late 1997, however, I received a request from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe, who thought that their song “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” was a natural fit for my site. As astute Internet historians should know, the original Old Grey Cat site leaned on Neil Young-related content to attract hundreds of visitors a day. I figured what the hell, and told them to send a CD my way.
A few months later, on February 8th, 1998, I posted the below essay, which used the “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul” song as a launching pad for something more than a straight review; I’m sure it wasn’t what the band wanted, but c’est la vie. (I have edited the piece for clarity, excised a few digressions of digressions – back then I subscribed to a stream-of-consciousness approach I now find abhorrent – and added the YouTube clips.)
That’s me in 1972 or ’73, above.
Yeah, even then I was something of a hippie, an outsider, a rebel, ready, willing and able to sneak off with a buddy for a smoke – of tobacco. The smoke seduced and corrupted our young lungs, with the coughs erupting from within us little more than echoes of our fading innocence.
Music was a known entity to me: My mom and dad liked “the anti-Neil,” Neil Diamond, and me, I thrived on Johnny Horton. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s a shame: In the late ’50s, he hit the charts with a variety of historical-based novelty songs -“The Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “Jim Bridger” and “Johnny Freedom” – to name but a few. I played his Greatest Hits album on my portable record player, listened to the music and memorized the words.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but he was a “Honky Tonk Man” who mined the rich veins of hillbilly music, a pioneer who helped pave the way for Buck Owens and, later, Dwight Yoakam. “Guitars, Cadillacs and hillbilly music/it’s the only thing that keeps me hanging on,” Dwight sang on his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., capturing on vinyl (or cassette, in my case) the reflection of his – and mine, and yours – soul. It’s an undeniably great album. If you don’t have it, get it, and crank it up. Hell, yes, it’s hillbilly music. It’s real. Authentic.
Certain songs, certain albums stay with you for the long haul. They take you back to a time, a place, a street like a lot of other streets in a town like a lot of other towns – and, yes, I more or less copped those last lines from the final episode of The Wonder Years. But great music does more than just take you back: It speaks for you in the present, too. We change, it changes.
Neil Young’s music is like that. “Down by the River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) means many things, few of which are actually articulated in the lyrics. It’s the guitar rising, falling, swirling in space like a Deadhead twirling, each time ’round different from the last. It speaks volumes – especially when played loud.
Another album, another year: Neil’s Old Ways in 1985. Not a great album by any means, but “Bound for Glory,” a duet with Waylon Jennings, is sublime. Came out the year before Dwight’s LP and another landmark, must-buy album, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town. In that same time frame came yet another genre-busting effort: Lone Justice’s debut, which featured the absolutely sweet Maria McKee’s mercurial vocals on such songs as “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” “Ways to Be Wicked” and “You Are the Light.”
If you don’t have Lone Justice’s debut, hunt it down. I recommend investing in – at the least – Maria McKee’s entire catalogue; whether live or on album, she sends shivers up the spine with just about every song she sings. That’s a cliché, I know, but that’s what happens when you write about music: you find yourself groping for words and phrases that accurately sum up what it is the music makes you feel. ‘Cause in the end, that’s what great music does: It makes you feel.
It doesn’t matter if it’s new or old; the best songs and albums, like great literature, communicate in the moment, not the past. I wasn’t at Woodstock; I don’t remember Kent State. When I was five, I met then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and was thrilled to shake his hand. I knew nothing of hippies or the anti-war movement, of his or President Nixon’s crimes. But I was in the stands in Atlantic City when Neil Young dedicated “Ohio” to the students slain in China.
That song – although about a specific time and place – transcends its origin. For good and ill, Kent State has entered the lexicon as a metaphor. And, to paraphrase David Crosby, metaphors are the driving force behind great songs.
“My heart wants to be unbroken/my dreams rattle here unspoken/my days have all got a number/I need a good song so I don’t feel so wrong/so I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul/I’m leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul…”
Those lyrics are from a recent find which came the Old Grey Cat’s way quite by chance. There, in my mailbox last December, was an invite from an Arizona-based band called Permission to Breathe: Review us, they said. They’d just released a song they thought I might appreciate: “(Leanin’ on) Neil Young’s Soul.” It’s a sentiment, obviously, that captured my imagination.
The first time I heard their self-titled CD, I said to Diane, “They’re going far.” It was neither an affirmation of the music nor a condemnation, just a recognition that they possess all of the ingredients necessary to storm the charts.
I’ve lived with the disc for just over a month and can honestly say I like the Neil Young song: “You say I’ll never be forgiven/your way is taking no giving/that my role is that of a sinner/I need a strong song/that rockin’ free world song/I find myself…leanin’ on Neil Young’s soul.”
It rocks and, as importantly, it captures in “feel” that part of us that turns to certain songs for inspiration. There are other moments of clarity as well, including “Crooked by Design” (“This life of mine, tangled in twine/May not be pretty, but it suits me/Rebel inside, just won’t hide…”) and “Nothing Now,” which documents a relationship’s dying days.
I don’t know how or where Permission to Breathe and/or “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul” will rank in the pantheon of music that makes up the soundtrack of my – or your – life. But, that’s the thing about music. You meet a song, you embrace and it’s with you for the long haul unless and until, for reasons best left unsaid, you leave it stranded on the roadside. “Leanin’ on Neil Young’s Soul,” that one is in the “probable” stage right now. It’s great on a tape right before…you got it: “Down by the River.”