“I guess Neil Young is the king of rock & roll.”
That was the lead to Kurt Loder’s review in Rolling Stone of Neil’s 1990 album Ragged Glory, and for some reason I’ve never forgotten it. (The one and only time in my life, by the way, that a neighbor actually knocked on my apartment door and asked me to turn the music down came with that album playing.) After seeing Neil at Radio City Music Hall tonight, I’m right there with Kurt.
I’ve probably seen Neil Young play almost 20 times—pretty much every tour since my junior year of high school. I’ve seen him solo, with a country band, with a synthesizer collection, with various rock lineups, and, of course, with the mighty Crazy Horse. Seen him be great, seen him be lousy. Seen him fight with the crowd, and seen him blow the roof off of hockey arenas.
Tonight, my beloved wife, Suzanne, and I saw him on his “Greendale” tour; for the first half of the show, he plays his new album, a strange narrative work about three generations of a family in California. He performs the album straight through, with actors and crew members miming or lip-synching the action of the songs—”a hippie musical,” Suzanne called it, oftentimes resembling a high-school production of Hair. And yet, once you get past the weirdness of watching something that’s kind of like a live music video, it’s oddly affecting. (Neil has also made a Greendale movie that I saw a few weeks ago at a film festival—it, too, is baffling and flirts with cheesiness and yet has a weird beauty.) Even the songs themselves are hard to figure out: Some of them aren’t really songs at all, just a two-chord vamp with Neil talk-singing a story that has no rhyme or chorus or discernable structure. It’s not his best work, but it sure has drawn me back to it and grown on me.
I’m 37 years old, and I don’t want to fall into nostalgia for an era that I didn’t even live through. Now, especially, I want to be sensitive to the fact that people want to cast Tracksas a boomer magazine, and I’m doing all I can to show that it isn’t just that, that we care about new music and finding and introducing people to young artists of substance and merit. But really, who—aside from Bob Dylan, the greatest of them all—is as fearless and passionate, as dedicated and singular, as Neil Young? Who has been so brave, so willing to follow his muse, his heart, his ears, wherever they lead him?
The second half of tonight’s show was Neil storming the hills with Crazy Horse, unleashing that apocalyptic, glorious assault that comes when the band’s lurching rhythms merge with his blazing guitar. They played “Rockin’ in the Free World” not even one of my favorite songs, and turned it into a protest—of what? The war? The government? Injustice and arrogance?—and Neil was in so deep that it was impossible to imagine how he would get out of his trance. I love OutKast and the White Stripes and Eminem and Radiohead and Wilco, but I can tell you that none of them are yet capable of getting anywhere near that place.
Unfortunately, I was stuck at my desk until the concert, so I had to skip a meeting at the Housing Works Used Bookstore and Café, where I serve on the board. I would be remiss if I did not use this space to do a plug for Housing Works, which makes me all the more disappointed I missed this meeting. Housing Works is a marvelous organization that provides services—shelter, medical care, job training, legal advocacy—to homeless people with AIDS in New York City. Among various entrepreneurial ventures, they run a used bookstore in SoHo. In recent years, the store has become the hub of the young literary scene—it’s where the cool young novelists do their readings. A friend who sits on the board told me that they had been talking about trying to bring music into the space, but no one could get it together, and would I be interested in trying?
So, last January we started the “Live From Home” series once a month, and it immediately became a huge success and a big part of my life. In the past year, artists like Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams, Fountains of Wayne, Rosanne Cash, and Bright Eyes have played in the bookstore; we raise thousands of dollars each show and bring a whole new constituency into the store, making them aware of the cause. It has been so enormously gratifying to put my 15 years’ worth of contacts and relationships into making this thing work, and I am so proud of working with all the amazing people involved in this project.
I’m writing this late at night—at 1 a.m.—because I have to wake up early and fly to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest conference. Once there, I hit the ground running: I sit on a panel less than two hours after my flight lands, and then begins three days of marathon music performances, interrupted only by gulps of barbecue, Mexican food, and beer. I will miss my family terribly, but I haven’t gone for the past two years and am actually excited to get back into the mayhem. And who knows? Maybe I’ll see the next Neil Young.