#311: On the Beach, Neil Young
Some artists reappear and reappear and reappear again on Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time. Neil Young is one of them. He shows up not once, not twice, but six times — here’s #72, #90, #296, and #302 for your convenience. (See you at #407, Neil.)
Sometimes I get sick of seeing bands show up again and again, even when I love them, like the Beatles. (We already KNOW they were the greatest band of all time, dammit.) But my objectivity is absolutely shot when it comes to Neil Young.
This was actually recorded after the exquisitely miserable Tonight’s the Night, which was inspired by the deaths of two of Young’s close friends. But On the Beach was actually released nearly a year before Tonight came out, for reasons only known to Neil Young. These two records make up two-thirds of Young’s so-called “Ditch Trilogy,” the third being the live record Time Fades Away.
Tonight has a harsh energy; it chews you up and spits you out. So the breezy guitar at the beginning of “Walk On” threw me for a loop. It was a beautiful surprise, especially when Young starts singing about the people who know him for his tragedies: They don’t mention the happy times … I can’t tell them how to feel. None of the songs have that kind of deep black mood present on Tonight. “See the Sky About to Rain” might be melancholy but instead it’s mostly quiet and contemplative.
That doesn’t mean that Neil isn’t playing the blues — in fact, three of eight songs are the blues. “Revolution Blues” is obviously my favorite, with itscasual violence: I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/ But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars. And it takes a real musical genius to put “Vampire Blues” and “Ambulance Blues” on the same record.
Young has said of this album, “Good album. One side of it particularly.” He means Side Two, a quiet, three-song suite that starts with “On the Beach,” a meditation on how alienating fame is. Can’t pretend to understand, but when he says that he went to a radio interview and ended up alone at the microphone, I DID feel like I understood. It’s closely followed by “Motion Pictures,” an acoustic with (YES, FINALLY) some harmonica.
Side Two is the gooey emotional center, but my favorite song was on Side One: the banjo tune “For the Turnstiles,” which features slide guitarist Ben Keith singing a raspy harmony. This one had my favorite line: You can really learn a lot that way/ It will change you in the middle of the day.
Man, that’s one of those wistful lines that only hits you when Neil Young sings it. I think I’ll try to learn it on the banjo anyway.