“They’ve got it now, Robbie,” says Neil Young to The Band’s Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz. Young has just been introduced and run through a few chords and notes on his harmonica. Young cracks himself up at his mock-confident assurance before launching into a performance of “Helpless” that would forever help me begin to come to terms with both the wheat and the chaff among this free-wheeling artist’s highs, lows, suspect collaborators, and unintended associations. The fact that Young could do this while retaining such a singular voice was eye opening. The “singular voice” thing wasn’t hard for me to grasp. I’d gravitated toward the opinionated, iconoclastic sort for as long as I could remember, but embracing and making the most of the likes of Crosby and Stills? No thank you! Sure, I’d been thinking this stuff to death. As a 9-year-old boy hearing “Heart of Gold” on AM radio, this Neil Young guy sounded pretty damn cool and deep. A few years later, however, between wondering what he saw in those smug, hippie CSN assholes and suffering the Neil-lite of America’s “A Horse With No Name” my life with Neil Young was on life support. Even in 8th grade, with Neil’s “Cinnamon Girl” among the ranks of hundreds of girls, real and imagined, I was bursting to simply talk to if not touch, this guy had some unsettling baggage. It wasn’t until 10th grade, when I saw him in The Last Waltz, that I finally found a way to get inside Neil Young and his music. It would be too late to help me fully navigate the high school social scene, but it was a start.
The release of an 8-CD box set, Archives, Vol. 1: 1963-1972, set me on a journey through the past with Neil, an artist I’ve bought a good 15 albums by, most of which I’ve cranked up, fired up to, and shed a tear over. I dumped one a few months after buying it, Ragged Glory, which launched his “Godfather of Grunge” era and, for me, drove home the sorry site of a middle-aged rocker in ill-fitting jeans. Today I find myself square in my own rocker in ill-fitting jeans era. Although I’ve never listed him, in mouth-breather fanboy fashion, on any list of my All-Time Favorite Artists of, Like, Ever, I’m appreciating more than ever the role Neil Young played in my high school years and beyond. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of Young fanatics already own most of this set in bootleg/blog download form. A few years ago, for instance, a friend handed me five CDs worth of Buffalo Springfield outtakes and early solo recordings of this variety, all swiped from the web. Young’s finished recordings are so direct and unpolished that, if you like his stuff, it’s hard to go wrong with this archived material documenting the development of his voice. That said, this collection is not to be mistaken for Vol. 1 of an expanded Decades, the classic 3-lp collection of Neil’s work through the mid-’70s that is still the best place to start if you want to make one Neil Young purchase before departing on a year-long trip to the moon.
Speaking of the high school social scene, around the same time I acquired this box set I finally gave into Facebook. As a friend promised, it’s given me the chance to catch up with old classmates who’d long left my life, including grade school classmates I lost touch with before our voices broke. Most of our interactions, following an initial string of messages that confirms we’re actually alive and all grown up, are of the Like variety. I Like their link; they Like my status update. It’s not too far removed from our hallway greetings and furtive classroom giggles. The more I surfed Facebook and spun Neil the more I thought about what a great a role model Neil could have been for me through my high school years. Unlike my more idealistic and confrontational rock ‘n roll heroes, Neil got along with anyone who crossed his path all the while doing it his way. It’s cool, you know?
A range of characteristics apply to Neil Young and his music: romantic, rebel, traditionalist, trailblazer, burnout, iconoclast, oaf… They’re all represented in this collection of early and breakthrough recordings, including demos, alternate takes, and live recordings. Two of the concerts were released separately just a few years ago, but it’s cool, it’s Neil Young. I doubt he can keep track of all the archived material he’s generated. Isn’t that the way it is with most of us? Isn’t that why we have FB friends posting pictures of us in compromising and long-forgotten positions?
A shot of me and my oldest friend, age 10, crouched with a stand-alone record player and the American Graffiti soundtrack album under a card table covered in cardboard decorated as a jukebox at some lower school fair has yet to surface, but that’s where I first began to find my musical voice. Neil is captured finding his voice on the set’s first CD, beginning with early ’60s recordings with a bunch of young fresh fellows in a surf-rock vein. At first these cuts are a shock to the system, but after a few spins these attempts at a then-contemporary style rock ‘n roll reveal themselves as one more traditional component, along with folk and country music, of Young’s signature style as well as a belated rationale for some of his more head-scratching departures during his Geffen years (eg, Everybody’s Rockin’). Then Neil begins sounding like Neil, with early versions of “Sugar Mountain” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowaday’s Clancy Can’t Even Sing.”
A CD of recordings from his Topanga scene, circa 1968-1969, follows. Here Neil really starts sounding like Neil, with a laid-back take on “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” It’s a cool recording, but it lacks the rebellious bite of the hipster anthem that would be the title track of his second solo album. A studio take on “The Loner” is a windfall for fans of the flat, reedy fuzz guitar fills that Young would first deliver to the public on “Mr. Soul.” It’s cool to hear Young’s music in such a constricted, claustrophobic setting, but it’s not really Neil. This set delivers a number of Neil/Not Really Neil moments until it moves into the third CD, a live solo recording from Toronto’s Riverboat in 1969. For the first time Neil has no choice but to be Neil. Contrasted with the 1971 live solo performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall a few CDs later, the rhythms are not yet nailed down in this ‘69 set, but the songs and Neil’s easygoing humor are in bloom. The Neil who can walk unadorned through any social scene begins to take shape. I wish I’d been able to contemplate this moment in Neil development when I was trying to get my own act together. FB friends don’t often post photos of FB friends first learning to be themselves. That rarely happens when the cameras come out at a late-night college party.
The rest of this box set shows other aspects of Neil Young in development: recordings with his CSN buddies, a raw live show with Crazy Horse (like the Massey Hall disc, previously released as a single CD), early takes on the Harvest material. By this point, however, Neil is clearly Neil, and Neil is in charge. Because of that the later discs are more listenable but not as enlightening. It’s cool, though, it’s Neil. If only I’d figured out how to be half as cool when it mattered, when memories of my rediscovered FB friends were first cemented. The psychic stew represented by Neil Young played right into the culture of my small high school. With all that Young’s music and persona represented, there was a good chance that any two thirds of it might feel as if it was directed at any one of us. A Venn diagram of high school personality types intersecting with Neil’s music would show great overlap in all areas: burnouts and preppies reflecting on the sensitive acoustic tunes, rockers and jocks throwing back “ponies” of Rolling Rock, prog-rockers and punks digging through the rubble of On the Beach. How about Neil the hippie icon reaching out to Johnny Rotten, in both acoustic and crunching power rock fashion? They surely had gotten it by that point, Robbie.