#296: Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young & Crazy Horse
What do you do when you find yourself becoming obsolete? It’s a fate as certain as death — in the words of Abraham Simpson, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.”
Well, Neil Young wrote a timeless, eternal album when he was worried he was becoming irrelevant. (And jeez, he was only 34 — I was kind of hoping my expiration date is a little later.) This record is a mix of overdubbed live recordings and studio tracks, making it a liminal album in more ways than one.
The record is bookended by by two very different takes on the same song. Opener “My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” (co-written by onetime bandmate Jeff Blackburn) is a soft acoustic version. Written in part as a tribute to Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten (which I bet you guessed) and in part as an homage to Devo (which I bet you didn’t), this thoughtful song was unfortunately quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note: It’s better to burn out than to fade away. Young was reportedly quite distressed by this and dedicated his album Sleeps With Angels to Cobain. The closer “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” is the intro’s evil doppelganger — maybe because he’s actually collaborating with Devo.
The first half of the record is mostly solo songs from Young, sounding like a cowboy traveling through space. “Pocahontas” is a surreal, lonely trip through history, where we learn that if Neil Young could eat dinner with two people living or dead, they would be Marlon Brando and Pocahontas. “Sail Away” features Nicolette Larson, a frequent collaborator of Young’s who died in ’97 of liver failure at age 45. Larson and Young have beautiful, weathered harmonies together, and throw out some great lines, like See the losers in the best bars/Meet the losers in the dives. One of the standouts on this half is “Thrasher,” an Americana ballad about the ancient art of road tripping. God, how does he get his harmonica to be so soft and delicate? I’ve been fighting with mine for nearly a month now. It still sounds like a slightly-tuneful chainsaw.
Crazy Horse enters the chat on the second half of the record, and they’re all power chords, frank guitar solos, and swagger. “Powderfinger” is the record’s lyrical peak: a young man dies defending his family, mourning all the role models he no longer has. Rolling Stone calls this Young’s “greatest song ever,” which means that whoever wrote that blurb was a huge Neil Young fanboy.
Contemplative songs dominate, but my favorite version of Neil Young is when he gets silly. The “extraterrestrial folk song” “Ride My Llama” watches a man from Mars steal all of Young’s guitars, whatever the hell that means. “Welfare Mothers” declares that Welfare mothers make better lovers, which they probably do. “Sedan Delivery” has a lyric about varicose veins.
What do you do when you find yourself becoming obsolete? I guess create a masterpiece. Easy.