Dec 022010

Is this performance:

A) A savagely raw performance by a rock icon clawing his way back to relevance;


B) A sad attempt at seeming “with it”—and a collaboration with cheesy session players to boot?

I know which side some Townspeople are on, but I’d like to get a better sense of how the RTH community on the whole feels. I will post my own feelings soon.

I look forward to your responses.

Neil Young's 1989 SNL performance of "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" was:

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  56 Responses to “You Decide, Rock Town Hall! Neil Young on Late Night TV, 1989”

  1. BigSteve

    I voted for ‘savagely raw’ (as I always do), but I don’t think this has anything to do with ‘clawing his way back to relevance.’

  2. I voted “sad attempt,” but revisiting this performance today I wonder how much that’s colored by my dislike of Steve Jordan’s drumming and the unavoidable message sent to midde-age men by the site of Neil’s patched jeans. One thing I’m sure about is that I don’t like this song, just as I didn’t like it when I first heard it.

  3. misterioso

    Nice topic. I’ll take door #2. The cheesy aspects are mainly fashion related. (Nice jeans.) I vividly remember seeing this when it aired and being blown away. (The other performances were good, too.) It was a major re-statement of purpose, and if the theatrics of the performance are wee bit overdrawn (like, you know, Neil literally getting a kick in the ass), I still get a charge out of it. I think the context of the performance (i.e., following 10 years of drifting–not that he made no good music in those 10 years) enhances the enjoyment of it, but I also think it stands on its own as entertaining and energizing.

  4. Oh, and this is really petty, but all the thick-thighed rock squatting that goes on between the bassist and the tank-topped, tight-ponytailed guitarist really bug me. The thick-thighed rock squat seemed especially popular in the late-’80s. The guitarist from Lone Justice who would play with Springsteen on his LA albums may have been that stance’s originator.

  5. misterioso

    I share, to some extent, your reservations about the song, but at some point its insta-datedness and anthemic pretensions stopped bothering me.

  6. misterioso

    Agreed, but “the tank-topped, tight-ponytailed guitarist” is Frank Sampedro, no?

  7. You’re probably right, in which case I need to go back and watch old Crazy Horse videos before attributing this guitar/bass stance to the wrong person in my eventual RTH Glossary term entry. Thanks.

  8. BigSteve

    I wish Steve Jordan didn’t tune his snare so high, but as this clip proves when he hits them hard enough it doesn’t matter.

  9. alexmagic

    I was disappointed when I realized how wrong my initial hopes were that this guy was actually legendary ’70s-’80s pro wrestler Terry Funk.

    Not petty at all, Mod. The weird “rain dance” stomp the bass player is doing needs to be addressed, especially when it starts causing everyone else to do it, too. The net effect is, it looks like they’re all trying to sell us that they’re rocking so damn hard that the gravitational pull of their rockin’ is actually physically pushing them down.

    Can we talk about what happens from around 4:40 to 4:46? Neil leaps off the drum riser, turns around and throws a full shoulder block into his bass player, and then the other guy reponds by literally trying to kick Neil in the ass, but he whiffs. Are they so overcome by how hard they’re rockin’ that they momentarily become inflicted with a blinding hate rage, or did Neil work a Three Stooges bit into his stage act around this time?

  10. Come on, man, I’m still the only person to have voted for option B? I like Neil Young a lot, but really…

    I hope this helps some of you understand the hell I live through and why I occasionally need to blow off steam by picking on The Boss.

  11. 1989 was full of fashion issues. (I had those jeans I’m sure) Freedom was the 1st Neil young Album I every bought (and the last Vinyl LP I purchaced new…my local store had it 1/2 priced because they were going to replace the vinyl racks with CDs) Got this one and the Replacements Let It Be the same day..all for $7.99

    Steve Jordan is one of my favorite drummers (esp. with Keith Richards). Charlie Drayton on bass as well.

  12. BigSteve

    I know you’re interested in the intersection of sports and rock, Mod, but I don’t know if this will make you like the clip more or hate it more. The legend is that Neil and the band wanted to avoid coming out cold to perform this song. As you know, it’s hard to crank it up to full-on Rock right out of the box, especially if you’re a bunch of (relatively) old guys used to playing long concerts.

    So they lifted weights backstage (and maybe ran around the block?) to get their engines running before hitting the stage.

    So maybe those aren’t crouches — they’re squats.

    And I don’t remember what their other song was that show, but I remember Jordan played bass and Charlie Drayton played drums on that one.

  13. misterioso

    I recall reading something like this as well.

    I believe the other songs were No More from Freedom straight into Needle and the Damage Done.

  14. hrrundivbakshi

    The problem with that band is that fully half — and maybe three-quarters — of it is essentially *pretending to rock*. I get the feeling Neil told his faithful session-men: “lookit — I don’t care what you do, but it has to ROCK.” They try real hard. They’re only trying to earn their keep, after all.

  15. That’s an AWESOME story, BigSteve. I still don’t like the song or performance, but this makes a lot of sense in explaining the ‘roid-raged fury with which Neil and his band attack their instruments. Plus, yes, I do love the intersection of art and sports, so Townsmen andyr, chickenfrank, and sethro better be ready to stretch out and do some squat thrusts before tonight’s rehearsal!

  16. misterioso

    This is the article I was thinking of

    Scroll down to the section “Into the black.”

  17. Your, I presume, second vote “against” means a lot, brother.

  18. Ah, yes. I’ve also heard the weightlifting story, courtesy of Jimmy McDonough’s awesome Shakey. Also, I believe Steve Jordan specifically chose large cymbals that he knew would sound good on TV, based on his experiences playing in Letterman’s band. And, if I’m not mistaken, this SNL performance was the only time this lineup ever played together.

    Despite some of the sartorial choices by the band, I approve of this performance. It contains some essential Neil-ness in the abandon and committed fury that cannot be dulled by, say, Jordan’s occasional ostentatious drum fills. Suffice to say, you rarely if ever see performances like this on TV anymore. SNL can’t even mix bands right anymore; no matter what genre they come from, they almost always sound like shit nowadays.

    I think Bruce Willis hosted this episode. That may explain Neil’s leather jacket.

  19. misterioso

    Oats, you’re right–Bruce Willis. Too bad he couldn’t have blown some harp on this. That would have added, er, something.

    Ripped & patched acid wash jeans notwithstanding, dated lyrics notwithstanding (kinder gentler machine gun hand, etc.), Three Stooges antics notwithstanding, squat-thrusts notwithstanding, this is in my top 10 all-time tv rock and roll performances.

  20. I read Shakey this summer and I recall something about Neil hating live TV and getting all cranked up to do the episode. Admittedly, it looks a little forced nowadays. But it is still Neil in one of his loud periods so that’s always welcome. Besides, who else from season 15 would you want to watch again?
    Maybe the Pogues or the Notting Hillbillies just to see that combo once.

  21. 12-2?!?! Hrrundi, we need to get together and find the strength to carry on. Is it stuff like this that’s at the back of your mind while you take potshots at hippies?

  22. sammymaudlin

    This rocks big time. Neil rocks, per usual, so hard that I forgive the muscle man and the guitar-trots. I had and have jeans like that and they are timeless. To get hung up on some jerk’s ponytail and miss Neil bleeding in gushes all over the stage is unforgivable. This single performance is head and shoulders above any performance I have ever seen by the Stones, and I’ve seen them live.

    And as for the song itself, “A kinder gentler machine gun hand”! How can you not like a song with a lyric like that.

  23. misterioso

    Can’t believe you’re surprised about this.

  24. Well said, Sammy! That reminds me: I think one of the reasons this performance is semi-legendary was, at the time, it was Neil drawing a line in the sand separating himself from the likes of the Stones and the Who, who were touring with ridiculously large caravans with horn sections and ringers out the wazzoo. (Say what you will about Steve Jordan, he’s no Simon Phillips.) “I am nothing like those jokers,” he’s saying here.

  25. BigSteve

    Go, sammy, go!

  26. trigmogigmo

    I like it overall, despite the over-the-top rawking out, the ripped jeans, the bass player doing the Scoliosis Rock dance, the misstep at 2:21 that is awkwardly recovered with a strange “look at my butt” move, etc. What I always stop to enjoy is when Neil cranks up the screetching tremolotic noise guitar.

    Mr. Mod, what is it about Steve Jordan that bugs you? I mentioned him in the “instant offense” thread, and think he brings some good energy, though here he’s stuck on an endless noisy crash ride (maybe appropriate for the song). Perhaps I am just seduced by his cool dreadlocks and high attack stance.

  27. As we await the Silent, Chin-Stroking Minority to finally chime in on this, maybe I can say a few more words on their behalf.

    The song is minor league Neil Young! It sounds like something a 14-year-old would have written after hearing the exquisite “Sedan Delivery.” Sure, it’s great that they’re very enthusiastic and balls-out about their new song, as if they just smoked a joint and learned it 5 minutes before their 30-minute backstage iron-pumping session. It’s fantastic that Neil let the free world know that he wasn’t going to be some fat-cat money-grubbing mega-act like the Stones (and he’s held true to his values: BRAVO – for real). It’s sincerely endearing that they did squat thrusts before taking the stage, but the song goes nowhere!

    I don’t care if it’s 1969 or 1989, when they’re playing this. Did the music world have to be so lame that I’d fall for a song with less going for it than some throwaway ’70s rocker like “Takin’ Care of Business”? Let’s be real – and feel free to laugh at me for being such a fuddy-duddy: both guitarists are playing the same cowboy chords on cranked up electric guitars. That’s never a good idea. The song has no dynamics, with Jordan and Drayton just hammering away because there was nothing better to do and no one would give them shit for doing so. The lyrics have some bite, but like Lou Reed’s New York album from the same time, there’s too much “ripped from the headlines” venom for me to have a personal relationship to. Again, I compare this to the balls-out rockers on Rust Never Sleeps and I don’t get anywhere near the enjoyment. “Sedan Delivery” and “Powderfinger” give me chills; they set a scene. In the case of this “Rockin'” clip, only this animated performance sets any scene, makes me feel anything. I could turn the sound off and get just as much energy from it.

    The question I ask myself is simple: Would this performance be better if I dubbed in “Takin’ Care of Business” instead of “Rockin’ in the Free World?” The answer is a resounding – and sad – YES!

  28. I wasn’t going to argue with you about Jordan in the instant offense thread, trigmo. I agree he’s got a lot of energy, but I guess I thought of him as a “go-to hack” for veteran rockers trying to re-establish themselves apart from their legendary bands. He played on those X-Pensive Winos albums too, right? That stuff sounded even more like classic rockers slumming than Young ever did! Going back further, wasn’t he the original Letterman drummer? Somehow this plays even more into my feeling that he’s slumming when he plays like that. If you’re going to try to come off like you’re playing with The Stooges it helps to be a Stooge. Watching Jordan play that stuff is like watching some polished, educated guy get drunk and rowdy at a strip club. And didn’t Jordan produce a really bad Neil Young album, Landing on Water, or something like that? I sold that thing the day after I bought it. I don’t know, I’ve got a lot of beefs with him for his “slumming,” but now that I think of it, did he ever apply his chops to a well-arranged album?

  29. trigmogigmo

    Ha! Good points. And I think you are right, he seems to have been a NYC tv-studio band session player… SNL, Letterman, etc., then hooked up with Keef when Charlie Watts was out to lunch.

  30. jeangray

    “Landing on Water” is one of Neil’s 80’s highlights.

  31. jeangray

    Methinks thou doth protest too much.

    It’s the guitar-solos dude!

  32. I need to (protest too much), jeangray, for the greater good.

    There are at least a dozen other songs by Neil Young with better guitar solos – and thousands by other artists with better ones. I understand what’s good about this, don’t get me wrong, but you guys are so excited about his return to rocking, which was welcome, that you start sounding like the author of that book Shaky, in the old Village Voice article that someone posted. Did you read that weird interview? The guy is so into HEAVY NEIL that he pretty much rejects MELLOW NEIL. What I love about ’70s Heavy Neil is that his sensitivity and vulnerability are carried within all those loud guitar parts. “Rockin’ in the Free World” is hectoring (again, my same complaint with its companion piece, Lou Reed’s New York). Again (there’s that word again), I compare it with “Sedan Delivery” and it falls way short.

    These are nothing more than my opinons, of course, but I trust they will serve you well some day. 🙂

  33. Really? I’m surprised, I didn’t know anyone liked that album.

  34. HVB, I reserved a table for 3 for tonight’s self-congratulatory dinner over this issue. I think it’s safe to assume that someone from the Silent, Chin-Stroking Minority will step forth today to support us. See you tonight.

  35. hrrundivbakshi

    Mr. Mod, you are completely on target here. In fact, I don’t know what else I could say — except perhaps how disappointed I am that you can’t summon this kind of insightful analysis when you’re on the WRONG side of arguments with me. Well done!

    WRT our right-thinkers’ dinner tonight (are we really the only two who will be in attendance?) — I’ll be having the beef wellington, served with carrots and thrice-baked potato. I trust you’ll join me in a baked alaska for afters?

  36. Does a baked alaska involve some sweet thing smothered in meringue? If so, we’ll have to part ways on that course. I’m not the biggest fan of a hard meringue. However, I’m with you on the beef wellington. For dessert I’ll seek out something in the custard/rice or bread pudding family.

    Still waiting on the identity of our third dining companion. Don’t be shy!

  37. 2000 Man

    I kind of think the voting choices are the same. Just switch the second parts:

    A sad attempt at seeming “with it”—by a rock icon clawing his way back to relevance.


    A savagely raw performance by a rock icon collaborating with cheesy session players to boot?

    It was okay, but I thought Charlie Drayton was suffering from osteoporosis. I like Steve Jordan and Charlie Drayton, but the second guitar didn’t even sound like it was plugged in. I’ve been actually kind of revisiting Neil Young these days, and I really have been liking him up through Rust Never Sleeps and the live album that followed. But this song is just dumb. I want to chant “in a garbage can” after every line in the verses.

    Got 1000 points of light…..In a garbage can

    People sleepin in their shoes…..In a garbage can

    He’s just done a lot of better stuff, and I can’t really get behind this.

  38. HVB and I look forward to dining with you!

  39. Charlie and Steve did that with Keith Richards as well (switching between bass and drums) It’s cool to see on the Hollywood Bowl DVD

  40. BigSteve

    I really like that one too. Jordan played drums on it, but Danny Kortchmar produced.

  41. I also thought no one liked Landing on Water but this is part of the amazingness of RTH. It was one of the few ’80s Neil albums unavailable on Lala, when I was listening to as many as I could on that now-defuct site. (My favorite from that era is probably Re-ac-tor.)
    Anyone want to make a case for Life? I thought that one well and truly blew. Not a big fan of This Note’s For You either.

  42. BigSteve

    I’m calling bullshit on this “session players” riff. It’s not like there’s this impermeable firewall between all-for-one-and-one-for-all Bands who Rock and these unsavory session players who Don’t Rock. That’s ludicrous.

  43. sammymaudlin

    The question wasn’t “Has he done better stuff?” Don’t change the subject. The question was does this rock? or is this pathetic? No one here is saying that this song is better than Cinnamon Girl?!

    If you can’t recognize this as Neil delivering solid rock then you wouldn’t recognize rock if Townsend fell from the sky and wriggled smashed his guitar on your face.

  44. BigSteve

    …both guitarists are playing the same cowboy chords on cranked up electric guitars.

    You have actually listened to Neil with Crazy Horse, haven’t you?

  45. I didn’t vote because neither is accurate.

    Regarding the song:
    As with the Mod, the “ripped from the headline” lyrics bother me, not because of their subject matter but due to their lack of creativity and subtlety. But the music itself, while lacking in dynamics, kicks ass.

    Regarding the performance:
    I’m fine with Neil’s performance. It’s spazzy and awkward but hasn’t Neil always been spazzy and awkward to some degree? I’m guessing that Neil bought those jeans in ’72 and still has them (albeit there is probably no denim left, it’s just a bunch of patches with a zipper at this point).

    The rest of the band are trying WAY too hard. They look like they got their “outfits” in wardrobe before the show (well, maybe not Pancho but, if so, that is one bad look he’s developed on his own). I don’t know if they felt the need to try and keep up with Neil’s Look and stage antics but it doesn’t work for anyone but Neil.

  46. I respect and agree with your analysis, other than our differences over the music, but must have known when you posted this comment that THIS would be coming your way.

  47. misterioso

    (…in a garbage can…)

  48. It’s not ludicrous when it looks like the session dudes are more concerned with “rebelling” against their usually controlled working conditions than adding anything to the song. I know this is a major prejudice of mine, and when I saw that Beatles cover band made up of session/tv talk show guys, the Fab Faux, I dreaded seeing bassist Will Lee (Letterman), in particular, goofing off because the boss wasn’t around. Instead and his mates (including Conan’s Jimmy Vivino) were totally dedicated to the music at hand. That taught me a lesson, but I still see Jordan, Drayton, Wachtel in X-Pensive Winos mode, and other session guys, when freed from their day gigs, looking like they’re overcompensating. (Some other shocking exceptions to this prejudice of mine include T-Bone Burnett and G.E. Smith, when they backed working musicians.)

    On a related note, Don Was is the producer equivalent of the overcompensating session cat. He’s like the hippie teacher who wants to be friends with the students.

  49. I exaggerated by saying “That’s never a good idea.” Usually it’s a bad idea. Again, the song is lame. There’s no care in the arrangements. I respect the energy and effort, but I stand by my opinion that dubbing in “Takin’ Care of Business” would greatly improve this performance.

  50. I am trying to find a way to defend “Rockin’ in the Free World,” even though I also find it rather dated (not so much because of the lyrics though). This song was still popular when I was in high school, thanks to Pearl Jam’s frequent covers, for what it’s worth. I think a better comparison point than BTO would be… well, anything, but more specifically maybe Social Distortion.

  51. mockcarr

    I’m only okay with Neil generally, but this sounded better to me than I would have thought, all the issues with it that resonate with me are about stage movement. I can’t decide whether the bass player is taking a crap or trying to prevent one. However, I lean toward the majority, because I can’t put this into 1989 context anymore. I believe the sound wins out over the forced fury.

  52. Sure, and when’s the last time you spun your Social Distortion records?

    Remember, folks, there’s no statute of limitations on eventually seeing things my way…

  53. Actually, I don’t own any, but I’m always happy when they come on the radio, which is more than I can say for “Takin’ Care of Business.”

  54. I did not see that coming and it made me laugh out loud. But I don’t think that I copped out at all.

    Neils performance and the music are good; the rest of the band and the lyrics are… meh.

  55. I thought the bass player dropped his pic, and was looking for it. It’s good. I’m glad he uses some old guys instead of just getting young guns. The performance is a cartoon, but it’s only rock and roll, and I like it. Great work out story. It is absurd to think you can instant-rawk for one song without warming up. It’s also a drag to bring all those Marshall amps for 2 songs. Always prefer to see this kind of Neil over the bar stool acoustic Neil.

    What went wrong with SNL sound for bands? You’re right, they can’t mix anyone correctly now. It doesn’t matter what genre, they always get the vocals wrong.

  56. As a resident of Providence, I am legally obligated to point out whenever this video is shown anywhere that Neil is wearing a Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel T-shirt.

    That was all anyone here could talk about for days afterward.

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