Rock & roll can never die
On 16 August 1977, Elvis Presley died bloated on pills; fat and lonely in his Graceland mansion. We don't know if the last word he muttered was ‘Rosebud’ or something similar, but what was clear was that the King had died a long way from the Adonis who spread rock & roll fever halfway around the world. Rust never sleeps.
The 60s generation had lost its idol and this was reflected, not very well by the way, in the work of the new movement that arrived at around the same time: punk. This was a spit in the face to the ‘old order’ and reminded them that they had become stagnant in their mansions and private jets and had forgotten what rock & roll was really about. Neil Young was one of the few of his generation who heard that voice loud and clear and decided to fight back as hard as he could. Using the Bob Dylan of the mid-60s as a reference point, Young decided to embark on a tour in which, in the first part, he presented himself as a folk troubadour, armed only with an acoustic, while in the second part, with his backing band, in his case Crazy Horse, he unleashed an electric storm capable of rivalling the punk vibe.
Young had strongly felt the death of Elvis and the sting of punk and, unlike many of his generation, he decided not to become a dinosaur and instead rediscover his lost energy. The song on which the project would be based would be My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), which opened the acoustic part, and Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black), which was the electric version of the same song. The track made its message clear, "The king is gone but not forgotten Is this the story of Johnny Rotten? It's better to burn out than to fade away. The king is gone but he's not forgotten". From that lyric and riff to those solos that sound like explosions of rage and frustration, Young responded to punk by inventing the grunge sound, more than 10 years before its Seattle explosion.
Rust Never Sleeps confirmed Young in his role as the godfather of alternative music, with his Old Black sounding dirtier and more distorted than ever, on such great tracks as the aforementioned Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) or in those primitive savage numbers that include Welfare Mothers and Sedan Delivery. Of course, the other great classic of the album is the beautiful Powderfinger, the song that opens the electric part; it is pure folk in its lyrics, and told from the point of view of a dead boy after a shooting. The song was written in 1975, and Young had recorded it for one of those albums he never released at the time – Hitchhiker - and later offered it to Lynyrd Skynyrd (the southern band with whom he was a great friend, despite the ‘Sweet Home Alabama incident’), but the death in a plane crash of Ronnie Van Zandt, Steve Gaines and company in 1977 meant that they never recorded it either. In the end Young re-recorded it for this project with Crazy Horse, turning it into an electric ride in which his more lyrical and melodic style as a soloist can be appreciated.
The acoustic side also sees him more lyrically on point than ever, with great tracks like Thrasher and Pocahontas, which also comes from Hitchhiker - and which he plays on a Gibson J-45 - while Sail Away is another wink to country rock and is the only one, along with Pocahontas, that is not recorded live but in the studio. Many of his peers felt betrayed by phrases like "it's better to burn out than to fade away" (a phrase Kurt Cobain himself used in his suicide note several years later) that evoked that ominous slogan "live fast die young" - but I think what Young was asking for was not literal, but to stop living, and sounding, complacent.
The Canadian proved with his work that artistic putrefaction could be avoided, plugging the guitar back into the biggest amp and turning the volume up to 11, because if there was one thing the author of Down By The River was clear about, it was that the king may have died but "rock & roll can never die".