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Waging Heavy Neil

I was at Oskar Blues in Lyons the other night, and an acoustic quartet performed an exquisite version of “Harvest,” introduced by the singer asking, more than once, “what does this song mean?”

I felt a little like that after finishing Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider Press), a generous, rambling slog through the peculiar brain of Neil Young, filmmaker, model train guru, hater of mp3 sound, lover of old Cadillacs, and, oh, yeah, one of the foremost songwriters and singers of his (my) generation, and the author of “Harvest,” which he doesn’t explain.

I have read a lot about Young and listened to countless hours of his music, and, back in the rockcritter days, alternately praised and thrashed him over the years. (Full disclosure: I’m a big enough fan that I once wrote a column “The 15 Worst Songs Neil Young Ever Wrote.” And here are a couple of recent reviews of Denver shows, at Wells Fargo Arena in 2007 and Magness Arena in 2009.)

But Waging Heavy Peace just tickled the shit out of me, all five hundred often repetitive, desultory pages. Young is obsessive, impatient, curious, difficult and impulsive, often at the same time. He ambles through his life like a locomotive through one of his massive, museum-quality toy train layouts on his California ranch. He writes with great passion of trying to gain perfection in the way model trains slow as they climb hills, of the power of sound and intricacies of his electric guitars and amplifiers, of the biomass fuel that will allow all those old Cadillacs we’ll be driving around in to get 100 miles to the gallon or his Pono sound system that he argues will give digital music the same power as analog vinyl album once did. And yeah, he shares a few stories about the music he made that all of us carry in our DNA by now.

Given the meandering style and day-to-day detail in the book, I’m guessing there was no editing involved. If you’re expecting a chronological dissertation or explantion of his songs, you might be disappointed. “If you are having trouble reading this,” he even warns at one point, “give it to someone else.”

His arguments about sound quality and how digital files fail listeners are persuasive, even if their frequency makes them begin to sound like commercials. But this issue particularly bothers Young. “I can’t go anywhere without the annoying sound of mp3s or some other source of bad sound grating on my nerves and affecting my conversations,” he writes. “I will not rest until the impact has been made and Puretone (later Pono) or something like it is available worldwide to those who love music.”

The title even refers to his battle against bad sound quality. When someone asked him if he was waging war on Apple, he said no, but he was waging heavy peace.

In a sense, Young’s is testament to the notion of being able to control your own life. All of us want to do that, but few have the option to actually make it happen. “I will use my own money when I shouldn’t because I hate waiting,” he writes. “That may be why I spent so much money and built so many things. I just like to do it myself. I hate waiting for approval, because I have my own Approve-o-Meter. It works like a charm.”

But what I really admire about Young is his sense of nostalgia, his respect for the past and his absolute devotion to his family, his collaborators, his friends, and his infatuation with trying to make things better for himself and others. He writes warmly and openly about long-time collaborators he has lost along the way, especially Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Ben Keith and David Briggs. I knew of his model-train obsession and association with Lionel, but his stories of building a transformer so that his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, could run a model train are more moving than any of the revelations about the music.

“I accept that I cannot have every dream come true at once. Life is too shoet for that,” he writes.

That doesn’t mean he won’t stop trying.

March 6, 2013   No Comments

Neil Young Peels the Paint in Denver

Neil Young working the crowd Monday night at Magness Arena.

Neil Young working the crowd Monday night at Magness Arena.

It was a big Monday night for Neil Young electric guitar fans. Foregoing the acoustic set that he played here in 2007, Young blasted his way through a twenty-one-song list that ended with an blistering encore of “All Along the Watchtower” at Magness Arena.

The band seemed to be the same one he brought to the Wells Fargo Theater in Denver on Nov. 5, 2007, which includes core Young sidemen bassist Rick Rosas, guitarist Ben Keith and drummer Ralph Molina, with his wife Peggi Young and another vocalist and sometime guitarist. That night he divided the show into an acoustic and an electric set, but on this tour he stuck mostly with the latter, only strapping on the acoustic for a few songs to break up the high energy and intensity.

It is testament to his sizable repertoire that he only repeated one song, “Cinnamon Girl,” from the Wells Fargo date I saw a year and a half ago.

It was a long night. Everest came on at seven and played a thirty-five minute set. I had never heard of this Canadian band, but they played well, although the sound was a little muddy for their sometimes acoustic-based music.

The Neville Brothers were next, and for those of us not able to attend Jazzfest (this weekend is the last, with the Nevilles and Young both scheduled there for Sunday), they pumped forty-five minutes of heady New Orleans funk into the hall, with all the favorites – “Hey Pocky Way,” “Caravan,” “Fiyo on the Bayo,” “Fever” — and more. I haven’t seen the Nevilles in at least fifteen years, and their set didn’t seem to have changed too much, but their music is as rich, vibrant and deep as it comes, and they just knocked me out.

Young, dressed in tennis shoes, jeans and a white sports coat, opened strongly with “Love and Only Love,” loud and brash, which set the pace for the rest of the night. The songs from his current album, Fork in the Road, were sprinkled in among the classics and kept the intensity if not quite the impact of some of the older material. For me, only the last two, “Get Behind the Wheel” and “Just Singing a Song Won’t Change the World,” which closed down the regular set, really caught my ear, especially the latter.

Young always manages to surprise even the most jaded concertgoer. Early on he sat down at the piano and lit a fire beneath “Are You Ready For the Country,” and I found myself screaming “because it’s time to go.” He followed that with “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” with all the high harmonies intact. I don’t remember seeing him do this one in concert very often, if ever. “Pocahontas” got the crunch effect, with Young screaming out “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me” as the song wound down.

But my own favorite section came near the end when he played a mini-set from Tonight’s the Night. After a version of “Heart of Gold” (never a personal favorite) that made me a believer again, he pulled out “Albuquerque,” “Speakin’ Out” and “Tonight’s the Night” itself.

I have long been fascinated by Young’s stage show, and we were sitting where we had a great view of the backstage area. Young is fastidious about his presentation, whether having a roadie go around wiping down each microphone just before the set began to another fellow who walks up between songs and changes out the hand-written lyric sheets.

As we watched guitar tech Larry Cragg set up Young’s onstage rig, Rob Ober, a good friend and guitar enthusiast who accompanied me, said there is a lot of interest in Young’s sound and instruments, and if you type “Neil Young sound” into a search engine, you’ll find a host of sites like this one dedicated to the Rig.

He always employs some kind of onstage shtick, and there was a painter positioned behind the band who created several interesting canvases during the set. For his environmental hymn, “Mother Earth,” Young walked up some steps at the back of the stage to an old, worn pipe organ, which added drama and gave the song the feel of an old evangelical revival.

All in all, it was a nice surprise, one we hadn’t planned. We got free tickets for the show online Monday afternoon when Magness Arena or Young apparently decided to paper the house, which wasn’t a sell-out, by giving away tickets near showtime. Total cost for the two tickets was about seven dollars, which paid for allowing me to print them on my computer. Other people in our section got their tickets the same way. Not sure who to thank for that, but hey, thanks anyway.

Neil Young
The Neville Brothers
Magness Arena
Denver, Colorado
Monday April 27, 2009

1. Love And Only Love
2. Fuel Line
3. Are You Ready For The Country?
4. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
5. When Worlds Collide
6. Pocahontas
7. Hit The Road
8. Change Your Mind (Everest – background vocals)
9. Cinnamon Girl
10. Mother Earth
11. The Needle And The Damage Done
12. Light A Candle
13. Goin’ Back
14. Heart Of Gold
15. Albuquerque
16. Speakin’ Out
17. Tonight’s The Night
18. Down By The River
19. Get Behind The Wheel
20. Just Singing A Song


21. All Along The Watchtower

April 28, 2009   No Comments