The king is gone / But he's not forgotten
Is this the story / of a Johnny Rotten?
[My My Hey Hey (Into the Black)]
If your life revolves around a guitar, you're in luck. The Generation Axe tour led by Steve Vai was a perfect sign that we are experiencing new times and in the first half of 2016, you can almost talk about a new axe era, finally, for our favourite instrument. From Eric Clapton to Tosin Abasi, present-day 'popular music" in the broadest sense of the word, from jazz or blues to progressive metal, is coming out of some pickups screwed into a box. Among the legion of legends who have invaded Europe alongside the young horde of 'virtuosos' is one of the handful of guitarists around who can even stand above both categories: Neil Young, the hippie with a punk soul who knows that he is beyond good and bad at 70 years old, a living legend respected just as much by his lifelong fans as by their great grandchildren.
The fact that he is an intergenerational phenomenon was evident at the Mad Cool festival held in Madrid in mid-June. Thousands of people turned out to listen to him with genuine enthusiasm, as they did two days before at the same site for another "piece" of living history, Pete Townshend and the Who, who left everyone who had never seen them play before equally amazed.
Neil Young and Pete Townshend are both in their 70s but there are things they carry in their blood that rebel against arthritis. Or at least they try to.
The native of Canada and his inseparable Old Black -a Les Paul from '52 or '53 with Firebird pickups- will never be a reference for purists of the guitar trade. Neil Young is a songwriter for whom technique -but not technology- has always comes second to the music. The Rolling Stones were right in rejecting his offer to be their lead guitarist when Brian Jones died [in contrast, Rory Gallagher made a mistake in turning them down later] because his style would never have fit in with the band. Too personal, too private.
On his second solo LP, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) you can find what are arguably the two prime examples of the 'Bible' of Neil Young as a guitarist, Down by the River and Cowgirl in the Sand, both over ten minutes long and virtually instrumentals in their own right. The owner of Old Black wanted to cry out of love and spite and Old Black cries, snaps with its teeth, clenches its fists… a raw, dirty sound that announces the coming storm of Like a Hurricane or, in a paroxysm of distortion, Rust Never Sleeps (1979).
In between, his inner Dr. Jekyll took him for a stroll in the country with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt so that when he came back home he could write a techno LP that he would promptly follow with a rockabilly record, maybe a collaboration with Pearl Jam, or go on tour with the son of Willie Nelson and his Promise of the Real, the band he recorded his most recent albums with and support him on the road. Nothing to do, of course, with the legendary Crazy Horse even though the bulk of his live repertoire still comes from those truly good times. The ones after the gold rush.
The Fuse of '68
Epilepsy and other major ailments have never slowed the hyperactive creativity of this genuine pioneer, a never-ending source of music that, starting several years ago, seemed to put out albums almost every month. He made a few ventures into the movie world and promoted his own brand of digital recording format (PonoPlayer). Thousands of projects of all kinds, like his "The Bridge" concerts, always targeted at a single purpose: research into illnesses like those his son suffers from, cerebral palsy and quadriplegia.
Neil Young was at the right age at the right time. Born in 1945 in Ontario, the explosion of '68 didn't catch him by surprise because he was one of the people responsible for lighting the fuse. He released his first solo album that year after leaving Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash behind. He was riding high in the saddle of 'crazy horse'.
His precociousness enabled him to see the change of cycle before most of his generational peers did. From the mid-'70s on, deeply depressed by the tragic death of his friend Danny Whitten, his soulmate in Crazy Horse, he began to break the chains with a world of love and flowers, devastated by the aftermath of an overdose. He closed out a decade of masterpieces and was ready to begin another one.
Like a Hurricane
Neil Young went full force into the punk era literally Like a Hurricane (1977), the peak moment of his career as a guitarist, a song in which he condenses everything he learned between Cowgirl in the Sand and Zuma. A little later he would buy some mock Godzilla-size amplifiers and matching microphones and got ready to play stronger, dirtier and more transgressive than the Sex Pistols themselves.
“Rust Never Sleeps” was the motto Neil Young adopted to face the '80s. The hippies were dinosaurs, except that he wasn't one now, he had reinvented himself as the conscience of rock. And no one dared push him around, not even Johnny Rotten, the unquestionable protagonist of that album, live show included.
Over the next 10 years, Old Black and his boss drove his fans crazy by experimenting with everything he had an opportunity to explore. Re-ac-tor (1981), Trans (1982), This Note’s For You (1988)… from synthesizers to horn sections, strapping on his Gretsch White Falcon [or the Chet Atkins signature model] until he finished, just before the '90s arrived, with another masterpiece that changed the cycle once again. Freedom and its Rockin’ in the Free World anticipated in 1989 the social crisis that would blow up in our hands. Now no one can say we weren't forewarned.
From here on out, the career of Neil Young sinks directly into confusion or, better said, into a fog that he manages to escape from on a limited number of occasions -Broken Arrow (1996), Greendale (2003), Prairie Wind (2005), Chrome Dreams II (2007)…-. He makes up for his creative slump by dusting off a seemingly limitless archive of unreleased recordings and a steady stream of live albums, both past and present. Just like since 1968, at the rate of one or even two per year.
In the 21st century, the irrepressible Canadian -who refuses to become a U.S. citizen although he has the right- has thrown himself into turning his retirement years over to his most rebellious and committed side, with one absolute leading character: his son. The Bridge School Festival, a benefit concert for research centres and foundations for functionally impaired children, brings together stars from all genres every year for a very special performance for a very special audience.
In 2006 he recorded Living With a War in one brief month, a protest against Bush's war policies in Iraq, but his great political battle has always been related to his concern for the environment. Farm Aid is his best-known initiative, a non-profit organization battling against the social exclusion of farmers driven into poverty by new production techniques. In the present day, Young has started up a new battle against the multinational Monsanto, dedicating his next-to-last album, The Monsanto Years (2015) to their transgenic seeds. That album was recorded with the help of his new sidekick, Lukas Nelson.
Whether it's with the son of his old friend Willie, his old band mates in Crazy Horse who got back together a few years ago, Daniel Lanois, Pearl Jam, the Bluenotes or whoever he feels is capable of keeping up with Neil Young when he goes into hurricane mode, even at 70 years old, his inseparable companion will always be Old Black.
Because his revolution has the name of a guitar and in his hands -a privilege of being a legend- it indeed is a "weapon loaded with future".
For your listening: The Bridge School Concerts 25th Anniversary Edition
(All images © Cordon Press)