I am a huge fan of Neil Young. I have all of his CD’s and albums going back to the first solo CD. I even recorded a version of “the Loner” on my new cd, The Eternal Contradiction. The reason that I own a herring bone Martin D-28 is because of the inside picture of Neil on the “After the Gold Rush” album. So it was with great enthusiasm that I ordered the Ryman Concert DVD that Jonathan Demme did on Neil with Emmylou Harris and even Neil’s wife Pegi backing him up.
The film started out with the songs from his Prairie Wind CD, one which I do not own. I was utterly prepared to hear an artist thrilling me. It didn’t happen. This is probably going to sound egotistical or at least enrage a lot of people that I care about, but…
The songs for the first hour were so uninspired, I could hardly believe that he wrote them. I thought that perhaps I was simply turning into a curmudgeon or that he was too old to do his songs justice, but wten he did “I Am A Child”. What a fantastic song. Original, melodic and poetic; a song that would have worked if it came out today. It was simply great. A great song done in his own inimitable style.
He then did several of his older songs and even Harvest Moon, a song which was pleasant enough when it came out, but sounded truly wonderful that night. I liked it so much better than I knew I did. And I realized that the older songs weren’t better because they were familiar, they were better because they were better written.
It got me to thinking about songwriting in general and his work in particular. The Prairie Wind songs had lazy lyric choices, false rhymes and just not a lot of the artistry of so much of his previous work. I have always looked to him and a few other artists as inspiration for me. The chances they take, the growth they continue to display as musicians and composers,…and poets.
The upside is that Neil still takes all kinds of chances with his writing, performing, arranging, etc and that is truly inspirational and, for me, thrilling. Where I become confused is the part where one must put your new songs up there next to your old songs. How do they sound? How do they resonate? Would the new songs have broken you as an artist? I know that I don’t succeed everytime, but that’s what I’m thinking and trying to do every time I write a new song. You can’t continually top yourself, but you MUST try.
Perhaps when you are as deservedly successful as he is, you have no one to point out to you that it’s possible that this new song sucks. The audience can become so psychofantic that you cannot depend upon them to give you a true reading of what you are doing. They can get so that they just seem to love everything that you give them, when it is your incredible success and your fame that is now driving the train.
All I know is that there were no songs that I heard of the Prairie Wind selections that thrilled me, not the playing, not the writing, not the poetry.
It’s easy to just say whatever you want, whether it actually meters or rhymes, but for me, the true art comes when you manage to do all that and you do it in the framework that you created. To disregard that cannot be freeing and thrilling if what you say is a powerful truth or poetic art, but to disregard it and just put whatever comes out on the page, seems like something that we should not expect or accept from the people we regard as masters of the craft.
That being said, I’m still a huge Neil Young fan, just disappointed …this time.
What I am trying to convey is that we, none of us…not you, not me, not Neil, should get lazy in the creation of our art. We may not make it to the winner’s circle, but we’ve always got to try our best. Everytime you write a song, do a show, make a recording, do it like this might be the last thing that you ever do on earth. You will be rewarded for that effort, I promise you.