Return of rock's Angry Old Man

Neil Young knocks the mass media and consumer culture in his brilliant -- if sometimes incoherent -- new "musical novel."

By Shannon Zimmerman

Published August 20, 2003 9:14PM (EDT)

For my money, Neil Young's most interesting albums have always been his weirdest ones -- and sometimes his most underrated ones, too. Take 1983's "Trans." The record is a whacked-out collection of techno-folk that was partly responsible for Young's label at the time, Geffen, suing him for making gratuitously noncommercial music. David Geffen has since apologized for that ridiculous bit of litigation, and for good reason: "Trans," like most Neil Young albums, features an impressive collection of instantly memorable tunes. Trouble is, Mr. Weirdo sings most of them through a vocoder, a device that makes him sound suspiciously like a helium addict.

Two years earlier, Young enlisted Crazy Horse for the proto-grunge of "Re-ac-tor," a crusty slab of difficult listening that comes complete with a nine-minute epic dubbed "T-Bone." The track's only words are "Got mashed potatoes/ Ain't got no T-bone." A generous interpretation of the lyric might deem it an angry, class-conscious rant except that, in 1980, Young had checked in with the country-tinged "Hawks & Doves." An EP-length record that listed at an LP's price, the disc remains the strangest love letter an aging hippie ever wrote to Ronald Reagan.

So call Young willfully perverse. Still, all of the above -- two of which have only recently been issued on CD -- are the glorious results of piles of misspent record-label cash. The albums were relative flops when they were originally released and, even among Young obsessives, they're generally relegated to the ash heap of their hero's reputation-squandering '80s output.

But that, I think, is a huge mistake. Young's oddball outings put the obviously solid stuff (a career-maker like "Harvest," say, or the mighty "Rust Never Sleeps") in a context of warped creativity and a heartwarming series of seriously bad business decisions. Indeed, "Fuckin' Up" (the best track on Young's much-ballyhooed "Ragged Glory") is more than a great song; it's a lifestyle choice. And as Young himself has said, when it comes to his catalog, it's all one song anyway.

If that's the case, "Greendale," Young's much-anticipated, much-delayed concept album, fits right in: It belongs to the singer/songwriter/ax man's grand tradition of doing it his own damn way. For starters, Young is calling the disc a "musical novel," and he's touring it as a quasi-theatrical production. Meanwhile, the "Greendale" Web site is a nearly unnavigable nightmare of arcane details, half-worked-out plot devices, and primitive graphics that seem inspired, at least in part, by pop madman Daniel Johnston.

In other words, it's genius.

This much is at least kind of, sort of clear: The story concerns a family named Green who reside in the fictional Northern California town of Greendale. Earl Green is a Vietnam vet who paints psychedelic pictures that, at least until the devil cleans his glasses, no one wants to buy. Earl's wife, Edith, is a free spirit who loves to dance, and their daughter, Sun, is an 18-year-old high-school cheerleader with artistic ambitions of her own. Her current work in progress is an open-air antiwar sculpture made out of bales of hay.

There's a crime-story overlay, too. This part of the tale features Jed Green and Officer Carmichael, a policeman Jed kills when, during a routine pullover, Carmichael discovers a glove box full of cocaine and a trunk-load of marijuana. Green family patriarch Grandpa also figures in the drama. When the inevitable horde of journalists descends on Greendale to work the local-tragedy angle, Grandpa promptly has a heart attack and dies.

A forthcoming DVD may make it all clearer, but the story, in truth, is a big, rambling mess. Still, "Greendale" does provide a convenient excuse for Young to take potshots at contemporary culture, especially our mass media. And though the tale itself is pretty predictable -- this is the Fox News era, after all -- Young does get off the occasionally winning zinger. "It ain't an honor to be on TV," he chides in the voice of Grandpa during "Grandpa's Interview." "And it ain't a duty either."

As sloganeering goes, those words aren't as catchy or sardonic as, say, "Welfare mothers make better lovers," particularly when they're threaded through a 13-minute tune that mostly relies on the Stones' "Waiting on a Friend" for its main hook. But coming from an artist who recently turned AARP age, the sentiment is admirably caustic. Young, in fact, now has no peers when it comes to being rock's Angry Old Man: He's clearly the crankiest of them all. Only Randy Newman is within spitting distance.

But if the story Young tells this time around is essentially a stitched-together pastiche, his new music is more incisive. True, some of the tunes, such as "Double E," "Devil's Sidewalk" and "Leave the Driving," are just simple -- even simplistic -- variations on the 12-bar blues, time-marking placeholders that give Young-the-storyteller all the space he needs to provide exposition, such as it is.

The album's best tracks, however, are genuinely mesmerizing. "Greendale" opens with "Falling From Above," a song that conjures the spirit of the great "Powderfinger," right down to that tune's lilting, elegiac chord changes and tragic sense of failed defiance. "Carmichael" is moving, too, a languid guitar-bass-and-drums workout that leans on the Buffalo Springfield-era "Mr. Soul" and manages to evoke a warmblooded and empathetic character even before Young opens his mouth to sing. Sun Green's theme song ("Sun Green," natch) is a bit of a long-winded dud, admittedly. But the disc's set-closer, "Be the Rain," is an Age of Aquarius-style production number, complete with an epic chord progression, a girl-group choir and Young's own version of a blue-light special: "Attention shoppers!" our sarcastic master of ceremonies shouts through a megaphone. "Buy with a conscience and save!"

None of "Greendale" can compete with the most sublime moments of Young's career. There's no completely unexpected invocation of Johnny Rotten, for example, and certainly no lyric that imagines the singer and Pocahontas talking with Marlon Brando about Hollywood, the Astrodome and the first tepee. Those are once-in-a-career phenomena anyway, and Young, bizarrely, has somehow managed to uncork entire albums full of them. By comparison, "Greendale" is just another one of Young's career-defying left turns, a screw-it-all foray into the man's wacky, fractured imagination.

But the disc is still a keeper. Young has been at it for so long -- and we've been listening to the geezer for so long -- that it's frequently difficult to hear the man's music through all the mythology and repetition. Even a jaw-dropper like "Like a Hurricane," you have to admit, loses some of its gale-force ferocity when you've heard it five days in a row during drive time on your local classic-rock radio station.

But nothing dispels rock mythology like a genuine goof, and fortunately, Young's canon is littered with some truly twisted marginalia. Ornery, difficult, but still weirdly satisfying, "Greendale" makes a worthy addition.

Shannon Zimmerman

Shannon Zimmerman writes about music for the Washington Post, the Village Voice and other publications.

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