Archive for the ‘Neil Young’ Category

In today’s world, it’s easy to explore an artist’s oeuvre. Pre-Internet, not so much. In my slice of suburban America in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, one had few options for digging into rock ’n’ roll’s past beyond flipping through the racks of the local record stores and checking the song titles on the back of the LPs in hopes that they contained the older song or songs you heard Ed Sciaky play the previous afternoon. 

Top 40 radio only played current chart hits, while the AOR stations cherry-picked recent releases that adhered to the rock orthodoxy and programmed them alongside popular platters from the late 1960s onward; the same held true at mellower WIOQ, although its deejays – such as Sciaky – occasionally featured deep tracks from albums past and present. The same closed approach could be found on WPEN-AM, an oldies station I listened to on weekends; it only featured rock ’n’ pop hits from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s.

New releases were easy to find – even the mom-and-pop record store I frequented stocked them, as they were the bread and butter of the music industry – though singles and albums on smaller labels could be hit or miss. The music magazines helped fill the knowledge gap for new releases, of course, as there were far more than made it to the airwaves, and sometimes the old – but, by and large, their focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Which is where record guides proved handy. These days, if the various Facebook groups I belong to are representative of the wider world, many music fans decry reviews and such all-encompassing guides as the Rolling Stone Record Guide – especially when they’re critical of their favorites. But to this kid in the early ‘80s, they were necessary for navigating the canons of established artists and bands – as well as discovering older acts that the established history (aka rock radio) had bypassed.

In 1979 or ’80, I bought the red version of the Rolling Stone Record Guide; in 1983, I ponied up the cash for the second. They are among the most important books in my life, sharing space with such tomes as Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams. Sure, sometimes they gave my favorites one- or two-stars (or, in the case of ONJ, none) – but so what? A good or bad review only reflects the writer’s opinion. Period. And, too, it forced me to think through what I liked about the albums and why. 

In fact, my main criticism of the tomes isn’t that they sometimes say mean or petty things about a few of my favorite artists, as that’s de rigueur for dorm-room debates (which, in a sense, the two editions represent), but is the same issue I have with much of music criticism (including, at times, my own in this blog). Making great music isn’t akin to making a model airplane – it’s about intangibles that, as often as not, have more to do with the listener(s): Who we are, where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in the wider world. There’s no right or wrong, per se, just right or wrong for us.

Such is the case for this year for me, at any rate. Much new music has passed me by not because of the merits (or demerits) therein, but that – due to the pandemic – my headspace is elsewhere. That said, there have been some new songs and albums that have found their way into heavy rotation within my den…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” From every indication, aka the new songs I’ve heard her play in her livestreams, Courtney’s forthcoming album, Old Flowers, is sure to be a five-star affair. Even if it’s not, this song just tugs at the heartstrings. 

2) Jess Williamson – “Infinite Scroll.” I just wrote about Williamson’s latest album, Sorceress, yesterday; to my ears, this disco-light number conjures Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” but maintains its independence all the same. “Time did unfold like an infinite scroll” – that sums up life when young, if you think about it. It’s just great.

3) Neil Young – “Try.” After 45 years, Neil’s legendary Homegrown album is finally slated for released in June. For those unaware of its history, Neil planned on releasing the album in 1975 only to decide at the last minute to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. Based on this track, it has the markings of an instant classic.

4) Lucy Rose – “Question It All.” Even if my Tyler the Cat wasn’t featured in the video at the 28-second mark, this single from the British singer-songwriter would be getting my attention. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece on it, it’s essentially a Marie Bracquemond painting set to song.

5) Emma Swift – “I Contain Multitudes.” On Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday (May 24th), Emma announced her next project: a collection of Bob Dylan covers that she’s dubbed Blonde on the Tracks. That she’s including this, one of the bard’s latest releases, is way cool.

There, atop the dresser in the photo to the left, is a portion of my record collection circa early 1982, when I was 16; I stored my 45s in a stack beside the turntable as well as in a shoebox on the floor that was situated beside another shoebox filled with cassettes. I also stored some LPs in a small rack near my desk, which was across the room.

After five years of intense music fandom, in other words, my entire music library clocked in at a little less than 100 LPs, about 40 cassettes, and maybe – and I’m likely stretching it – 100 45s. I’d yet to complete my Beatles collection, though – as the posters demonstrate – I was a big Beatles/McCartney fan. I owned the red and blue best-of sets (Christmas gifts both), plus everything from Rubber Soul onward (sans the Hey Jude collection), but it wouldn’t be until late 1987, after graduating college and landing a full-time job, that I owned everything Fab.

Similar situations occurred with other favorite artists. I fell in Mad Love with Linda Ronstadt in 1980 due to “How Do I Make You,” for example, but never picked up her first few LPs until the early 1990s, when they were only available as Japanese import CDs; and in late 1981, I bought my first Neil Young album, re*ac*tor, and then the one that preceded it, Hawks & Doves, but it took me most of the ‘80s to work my way through his backlog. 

It wasn’t that I wanted to wait, but records and cassettes were expensive. By the early ‘80s, new releases generally set consumers back $5.99 (the equivalent to $16 today) – but some were discounted to $4.99 and others priced higher, at $6.99 or even $7.99. Factor in sales tax, which in Pennsylvania was six percent, and buying an album was a major expense for a kid on a budget.

And once you consider other typical teen expenses, such as movie tickets, magazines and fast food, prioritizing a catalog item over a new release was an extravagance (just as hardback books were to paperback editions). That said, as I noted in my piece on Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album, I had a hierarchy of fallbacks whenever I walked into a record store; if A was out of stock, I’d look for B, and then C, and then, often, something totally unrelated would catch my eye and I’d walk out with that, instead. Later that year, I discovered a used record store where $7.41 bought three, four or more LPs instead of one, but the same basic rules applied. Wants waited.

I think of those times often, these days. If the streaming services existed back then, how much money would I have saved through the years? But, hand in hand with that, would I treasure specific artists and their oeuvres the same way I do now? Would the years-long journey that, as I outlined here, took me from the Byrds to Emmylou Harris have ended the same if it had occurred within a few weeks? I doubt it.

Which is to say, I have a love-hate relationship with the streaming services. Artists don’t get their fair share from the proceeds, which is a big concern, but another issue is whether the services actually help or hinder music discovery. As I noted last summer, the algorithms used by Pandora barely scratched the surface when I created a “personalized” station around the Bangles. While the results were fine for background music, they were sad for active listening. This Paisley Underground geek was not impressed.

Apple Music, which I subscribe to for simplicity’s sake – when driving in my car, or even hanging out in my living room, it’s easier to say, “Hey, Siri, play All I Intended to Be by Emmylou Harris” than work my way through the iPhone app – often denigrates the album as an art form, as does Spotify with its emphasis on playlists. I’ve added albums to my library only to discover, at a later date, the songs have been split between various collections or even different editions of the same album or, in the case of Juliana Hatfield, 22 “unknown” albums. (On the flip side, I’ve added specific best-ofs only to find the songs then listed under their original album homes.) It doesn’t impact the listening experience when I ask Siri to play the albums in question, but it does if I select the album through the app – which, if we ever return to our workplaces, is what I do in the office.

Anyway, at its best, music is the currency of the soul, and that soul isn’t as well nourished as it should be. Since 2000 or thereabouts, music artists have seen their revenue streams upended, first through the illegal-downloading craze and now via the streaming services. Live shows and merchandise sales is all they have – and for the young ‘uns, it’s likely all they’ve known. If you watch a live-stream and see a tip jar, and can afford it, send money their way – doesn’t have to be a lot. If an artist you like has set up a Patreon thing, and you can afford it, sign up. 

Don’t, however, feel compelled to blow your budget; and don’t feel guilty if you can’t or don’t contribute. (I’ve been very judicious, myself.) This pandemic’s economic fallout has caused many folks to lose their jobs – and even those of us who aren’t unemployed may well be, at some point, if the global economy continues to deteriorate. In some respects, then, this new reality isn’t all that different than the one many fans experienced during the 1960s, ’70s, ‘80s and ’90s, when every visit to a record or CD store forced us to whittle our wants down from the many to the few or even just one. Me, I always felt guilty heading home with a single LP, but such was life – and is life, again.

Days blur together. Nights, too. The rinse-and-repeat life has gotten old for everyone, as has the incompetent, incoherent and intolerable hack whose mismanagement led us to this abyss. But for 70 minutes yesterday on YouTube Live, Courtney Marie Andrews provided a respite from the madness and sadness that accents life during the great pandemic. She sang songs old and new, including a few requests and a beautiful rendition of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”

The entire show can be watched here:

Unlike her never-ending livestream event from a few weeks back with the Tallest Man on Earth, Sam Evian and Hannah Cohen, this one was perfectly paced. Songs flowed. Her voice soared. Souls were soothed. I should mention that the show served a purpose larger than lifting spirits: It was to raise funds for her bandmates, who are – like many others – out of work. (I donated what we likely would’ve paid for two concert tickets to see her, $50.) 

She said, near the end, that she hopes to do another livestream event and sing a few more of the requests, which she gathered from her social-media accounts. I’ll be happy to donate again, no matter what she plays, but… as fate dictates, two years ago today – not long after seeing her in our old (and missed) hometown of Philadelphia – I posted this top 5, Timeless Songs, which collected tunes I thought would be cool for Courtney to cover in concert. I’d still love to hear those songs, but now have additional suggestions…

Which leads to today’s Top 5: Song Requests for CMA’s Next Livestream. With one exception, they’re all covers because… well, I love cover versions. They’re cool.

1) Diane and I still talk about “Warning Sign,” an unreleased song Courtney performed at her 2018 show at the Boot & Saddle in Philly, with fondness. It sounded like a long-lost Dan Penn tune, just about. Now, stripping the song to an acoustic core might be difficult, but still… I’d love to hear her try.

2) “Prayer in Open D” is, hands down, my favorite Emmylou Harris song, and its lyrics take on an even greater poignancy now: “I can find no bridge for me to cross/No way to bring back what is lost…” Courtney is one of few singers who could do it justice. 

3) “All My Trials” is an old folk song that’s been covered many times through the years by everyone from Peter, Paul & Mary to Paul McCartney. One of my favorite renditions of it, though, is by Anita Carter of the Carter Family. It seems apropos for these times…

4) On that never-ending livestream I referenced above, Courtney and pals performed not one, not two, but four Neil Young songs – “One of These Days” and “Unknown Legend” from Harvest Moon, “Helpless” from CSNY’s Deja Vu, and “Motion Pictures” from On the Beach. Originally for this one, on social media, I suggested one of two classic Neil songs – “Powderfinger” or “Human Highway.” But the more I think about it, this song from his recent Colorado album seems a better fit – “Where did all the people go?/Why did they fade away from me?/They meant so much to me and now I know/That they’re here to stay in my heart.”

5) Jackson Browne released “A Little Soon to Say” a few weeks back, after it was revealed that he was recovering from COVID-19. Although written before the pandemic, its lyrics seem appropriate to today: “I wanna see you holdin’ out your light/I wanna see you light the way/But whether everything will be alright/It’s just a little soon to say…”

 

Despite the varied features, album reviews and artist overviews, the day-to-day draw of the old site – which I launched 23 years ago this month – can be summed up with a name: Neil Young.

To give you an idea of what I mean: I created two mirrored versions of the same basic content: The Unofficial CSN/Y Pages and The Unofficial Neil Young Pages. By the time of the Y2K tour in 2000, the Neil pages were attracting 300+ unique visitors a day, the CSN/Y-branded pages about 50, and the rest of the site – en masse – maybe 25. As a result, my Neil pages – along with a few other NY-centric sites – were spotlighted in the short-lived Mojo Collectibles, which spelled my name wrong, and Record Collector.

(After the Y2K tour ended, I feel compelled to mention, the boom in overall visitors slowly dwindled to about a hundred a day.)

Mind you, folks weren’t visiting for my thorough album discography, which included useful links to CDnow.  They were seeking information on bootlegs. Neil bootlegs, to be precise. And with the help of a handful of fellow (and metaphoric) longhairs, I delivered: The site was home to 100+ bootleg reviews. We dove deep into the music, sound quality and other esoteric stuff, and advised folks on what to look for and what to ignore.

This review focuses on a set that collects Buffalo Springfield’s Monterey Pop performance and various sundries. It’s a good example of what we aimed to do: educate, ruminate and pontificate.

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“I’d like you to welcome now–with a great big, fat round of applause–my favorite group, the Buffalo Springfield…”

With that introduction from The Monkees’ Peter Tork, the Buffalo Springfield took to the stage at the now-legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival missing an important ingredient: Neil Young. The enigmatic guitarist had quit the band a month earlier, on the eve of the Springfield’s Tonight Show appearance. In his stead at Monterey sat replacement lead guitarist Doug Hastings and, on rhythm, none other than Byrd David Crosby.

In John Einarson’s For What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, bassist Bruce Palmer claimed that Crosby “stunk to high heaven.” Doug Hastings’ take was that, due to David’s deficiencies as a rhythm guitarist, “he would rush the tunes.” While agreeing that their performance was rather lacklustre, Richie Furay shifted the blame from the Byrd to the Springfield itself, and their lack of rehearsals sans the absent Neil Young. “We were struggling because we didn’t have the whole band, the family.”

Since the band’s performance was inexplicably left off of the mammoth Monterey Pop box set from a few years back, fans themselves haven’t been in a position to judge – oh, sure, there was a Monterey Pop bootleg series in the early ’90s, but finding it was just about impossible then. Besides, it only contained four of the songs from what was a six-song set. Do you really want to pay $50 for four songs? I thought not. Along comes Monterey, Mannix & Gold Star…a one-CD affair that comes close to collecting the entire Monterey performance, adds in the two songs the band performed on a truly weird appearance on Mannix, as well as recordings from the Gold Star Studios that date from early- to mid-1967.

Like most rock scholars, the Old Grey Cat has always considered the Springfield to be “Stephen’s band.” Stephen Stills was the glue that held the group together; and the Monterey set offers strong supporting evidence…forget what the band members themselves thought. Musicians – like most artists – are their own worst critics, after all. The band cooks, especially on “For What It’s Worth,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” and “Bluebird,” with the latter two joined at the hips in an unintentional – but fantastic – medley. Richie Furay also comes off very well with his two forays into the spotlight. To these trained ears, David Crosby more than holds his own.

Now for a few quibbles: “A Child’s Claim to Fame” and “Pretty Girl Why” are displaced in the lineup. In fact, they weren’t the concluding songs that night; they were the third and fourth numbers. But my main gripe? “Pretty Girl Why” cuts off midway through the first chorus!

The sound quality is good, if somewhat muffled.

The “studio out-take” of “Bluebird” is the nine-minute version found on the double-album best-of titled Buffalo Springfield released in the early ’70s, as well as on several bootlegs, most notably the cd version of CSNY’s Wooden Nickel. It’s Stills at his best, pure and simple.

What follows next is definitely not Stills at his best – though it’s not really his fault. In one of the most surreal moments in the history of the band, the Springfield guested on an episode of the TV series Mannix – yes, you read right. Mannix. In the episode (taped on August 14, 1967, but not aired until October), they provided the “atmospherics” in a bar … the only member of the band to be clearly seen on camera was Stephen, who was decked out in hippie regalia. The two songs they performed, “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” are featured complete with the dialogue from Mannix’s Mike Connors and the episode’s other actors. In other words: “Ugh!”

Perhaps the most startling factor of the appearance was that Neil had rejoined the band three days earlier. One assumes, then, that he also took part in this Mannix episode – Mannix but not The Tonight Show!? Go figure….

Now for the Gold Star material (much of which can also be found on the Stampede and Down to the Wire bootlegs): Forget what the accompanying liner notes claim; these songs were not the band’s “first attempt to make an album.” Rather, they’re demos and studio out-takes, primarily from early 1967 when the band was marking time. Sound quality is on par with Stampede (which is to say so-so), but the material itself is – for the most part – wonderful. Neil’s demo of “One More Sign,” for example, features a tender vocal. The two takes on “Down to the Wire” are great, too, with Stills’ lead vocal a delight to be heard. The only difference between this material and Stampede is that, here, “Come On” is replaced by an early run-through of “Mr. Soul.” (A-)

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