neil young crazy horse-americana

Another in a series of reviews of recordings by a musician, non-local. The only reason for its inclusion on this website is ‘cuz reviewer Robin Cremer has a backdoor key to the website and can pretty much get away with posting anything he wants.

My entry into the world of album rock occurred in 1970 when my friend Randy gave me his unwanted copy of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.

Sure there was the Gary Puckett greatest hits record and a ton of 45 rpm’s, mostly songs heard on AM radio station KEWI. Stuff like, “Hooked On A Feeling,” “1-2-3 Red Light,” and “Shoot ‘Em Up Baby.” But this was my first full fledged indoctrination into the world of counter-culture rock and roll music, 33 and a third style.

It might have been the grainy black and white cover of a somber faced Neil passing an old lady on the street. 

Or the back cover of Neil’s posterior covered in patches;  or possibly the photo inside the gatefold cover of a long haired Neil relaxing backstage at the Fillmore East;   that made me want to trade in my conservative attire for a more hippiefied appearance and join the ranks of rabid Neil Young fans.

It may have been all of that . . . but I’m pretty sure it was the great music cut into the grooves of the vinyl itself: the wonderful folkie acoustic guitars on songs like Tell Me Why, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and Don’t Let It Bring You Down; the jangly electric grooves of Southern Man and When You Dance; Neil’s high lonesome tenor backed by his melancholy piano on the albums title track, singing about knights in armor, burned out basements, and silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.

After that came LPs by Jimi, Janis, and a whole slew of others. By the time I was fifteen, I was hell bent on being a long haired, guitar playing, bell bottomed and flannel clad pseudo-hippie. And life has never been quite the same, thank you Randy Roach.

Voted number seventeen on Rolling Stones Top 100 guitarists of all time, Neil Young and the music he creates has never been easy to pigeon hole over the years. At times acoustic folkie singing songs of  being alone on the weekend or searching for a heart of gold; other times he’s the electric warrior, dangerously flailing away on hits like Southern Man, Like A Hurricane and non-hits like Barstool Blues and Cortez the Killer.  

The eighties found Neil dabbling in a variety of different genres. Synthetic New Wave (Trans), Rockabilly (Everybody’s Rocking), and Trad-Country (Old Ways) just to name a few. The nineties found him being crowned the Godfather of Grunge and making records with the likes of Pearl Jam and scoring the soundtrack for the Jim Jarmusch movie Dead Man starring Johnny Depp.

The aneurysm Young was treated for in 2005, did not slow down his creative process one iota over the last few years. In 2006 he recorded his most personal album, Prairie Wind and released his most accessible concert movie ever with Heart of Gold.   Filmed at the the Ryman and directed by Jonathon Demme; it find’s Neil at his most affable.

He’s released five albums since then with the most notable being 2010’s Le Noise with legendary Daniel Lanois of U2 fame at the production helm. Critically acclaimed by fans and press, it’s a stunning and reflective album featuring Neil and his boundary pushing electric guitar noise; it’s electric folk music at its best.

No doubt about it, Neil’s musical journey has kept his fans entertained, intrigued and just plain baffled over the forty some odd years since his Buffalo Springfield vocal debut, Burned.

A father of two sons diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, Young organized the Bridge School Benefit Concerts with his wife Pegi, the first one being held in 1986. The Bridge School is “an innovative organization educating children with severe speech and physical impairments.”

Although his records and tours with David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills has been his most high falutin band collaboration to date, it’s his work with Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot and Danny Whitten, later replaced by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro that has been for me the most interesting and musically provocative unions of his career. Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1969 debut album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere yielded three of his most enduring and endearing songs: Cinnamon Girl, Cowgirl In the Sand, and Down By the River, which are still concert faves and classic rock radio staples, some forty-three years since their release.

Young has expressed in the past that the Horse is his go to band whenever he felt the need to get his hands dirty; when focusing on the ‘feel’ and spontaneity of the music was more important than the technical aspects. Young’s Crazy Horse performances have been some of the most exciting and intense shows imaginable. Check out the concert DVDs (Rust Never Sleeps, Weld, Year Of The Horse), and watch Neil lead the band through some of his most beloved songs, breaking out into free form jams; sounding at times like the whole damn thing could fall apart at any minute, and yet they somehow pull it together, astounding you with some of the most electrifying music and intense concert footage you’ll ever hear or see.

On June 5th, Neil Young released his thirty-fourth studio album. His first collaboration with Crazy Horse since 1996’s Broken Arrow.  2004, if you count Young’s eco-rock opera Greendale, which I don’t because Poncho sat that one out, with only Billy and Ralph at the sessions.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s new album Americana is an assortment of traditional folk songs from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. 

 Say what? Yes, Neil and the Horse have recorded an album of songs that many of us have heard since childhood. Songs that have been so ingrained into our psyche we could sing along the minute we hear the melody. Songs like She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain, Clementine, This Land is Your Land, and Wayfaring Stranger are all included on the record albeit in a slightly more grungier context than the original, with a little bit more ‘adult’ edge to the lyrics. Young has said;

 Every one of these songs [on Americana] has verses that have been ignored. And those are the key verses; those are the things that make these songs live. They’re a little heavy for kindergarteners to be singing. The originals are much darker, there’s more protest in them — the other verses in “This Land Is Your Land” are very timely, or in “Clementine,” the verses are so dark. Almost every one has to do with people getting killed, with life-or-death struggles. You don’t hear much about that; they’ve been made into something much more light. So I moved them away from that gentler interpretation. With new melodies and arrangements, we could use the folk process to invoke the original meanings for this generation.

The press has given the album a mixed reception with Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune giving the album 3.5 stars out of 4, writing “Americana reveals the hard truth inside songs that have been taken for granted,” but Michael Hann, of The Guardian, feels that the album is “impossibly pointless.”

And even though I wouldn’t dare rank this one up there with 1975’s Zuma, my favorite of all Crazy Horse albums, I would be hard pressed to declare it pointless. Sure the record takes a couple listens to get into, simply because many of the more familiar musical arrangements have been well . . . rearranged, some coming full circle.  For example, the melody of Oh, Susannah, sounds suspiciously like Shocking Blue’s 1970 hit, Venus, until you do some digging around and discover Shocking Blue stole the melody from the Big 3’s (featuring future ‘Mama,’ Cass Eliot) 1963 arrangement of . . . you guessed it; Oh Susannah!

 And though many in the rock and roll community believe that Led Zep wrote the song Gallows Pole, I’m sorry to report that is just not the case. A song the great Leadbelly himself once recorded, Young chose to borrow the ‘Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,’ Miss Odetta Holmes nineteen sixties arrangement of the centuries old song about a man condemned to die, begging the hangman to wait just a little longer.

Hangman, hangman, slack your rope

Slack it for a while

Think I see my sweetheart comin’

Ridin’ many a mile

Ridin’ many a mile, oh God, ridin’ many a mile

Honey, did you bring me silver?

Honey, did you bring me gold?

Did you come to see me hangin’

By the gallows pole?

Hangin’ by the gallows pole

Track five finds garage rockers Young, Molina, Talbot and Sampedro, revisiting their doo wop roots when they take on the Silhouette’s 1957 hit Get A Job. Young justifies its inclusion on the record, saying, “It’s a genuine folk song with all of the true characteristics.” Love the opening verse on this one:

 Yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip, bmm

Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na, ahh-do

Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na, ahh-do

Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na, ahh-do

Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na

Ahh, yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip

Mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum, get a job

Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na

Jesus Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain) rocks out in a Rockin’ In The Free World vein. Neil explains in the liner notes the song’s lyrics have been interpreted in a couple different ways. The first is,

 . . . The end of the world. Others have said that ‘she’ refers to union organizer Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones, going to promote formation of labor unions in the Appalachian coal mining camps.

And although I find it mildly ironic that a man who owns almost a third of California can sing the lyrics . . .

As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there

And that sign said – no trespassin’

But on the other side… it didn’t say nothin!

Now that side was made for you and me!

 . . . with a straight face, it doesn’t prevent me from singing along with the old Woody Guthrie chestnut, This Land Is Your Land at the top of my lungs . . . figuratively speaking of course.

Young’s gentle delivery on the oft recorded Nineteenth century folk song Wayfaring Stranger is a wicked stunner, and almost worth the price of the record. Self-proclaimed pagan Neil sings the time-honored gospel song like he believes every word.

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

I’m traveling through this world of woe

Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger

In that bright land to which I go

I’m going there to see my mother

 I’m going there no more to roam

I’m only going over Jordan

I’m only going over home

The mighty Horse rides one final time with Young’s unmistakable guitar leading the way on the last song, God Save The Queen. Utilizing the lyrics of both the UK version . . .

God save our gracious Queen,

Long live our noble Queen,

God save the Queen:

Send her victorious,

Happy and glorious, Long to reign over us:

God save the Queen.


And the US . . .

My country,’ tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From every mountainside

Let Freedom Ring!

The US version is sung by a children’s choir and is a really moving and magnificent way to finish the album.

If you’re new to the music of Neil Young, Americana might not be the record to start your journey. Check out his most recent greatest hits package for a career spanning overview of this iconic musical genius. If you are a die hard fan or know someone who is, Americana would be a welcome addition to yours or their collection.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s album Americana might not be for everyone. Hell, it might not be for anyone reading the pages of seveneightfive magazine! Many of the arrangements on the album might be a little rough around the edges or a little too quaint for the sophisticated auditory predilections of the ‘fives regular readers. But if you’re up for a little adventure and a little tired of the mundane cookie cutter music coming over the airwaves, you should definitely take Americana out for a spin in the family jalopy.

[June 2012 | Robin “Lonely Boy” Cremer]

2 Responses

  1. Doug H 3 years ago
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