Culturespill » Tirades

On the Trail of a Pretender: Kicking Clapton to the Curb

25th June

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Anyone who’s lived enough knows that hindsight’s got a bad habit of separating the bullshit from the real thing. Few things illustrate this truth more clearly than revisiting Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson four years later. It will be apparent to most who’ve given the album a second chance since its release in march of 2004 that listening to it is about as riveting an experience as listening to a second coat of paint dry on your mother’s bathroom wall. It exudes about as much passion for its material as the corporate executives who’ve been cashing in on Clapton’s deplorable laurel-resting for decades. And though Clapton’s role in defining rock ‘n roll and introducing the work of many blues legends to the larger audiences they so richly deserved cannot be denied, it’s about time to call the old buzzard’s bluff: this ain’t no blues man.

This is “blues” for people who thought Blink 182 was “punk.” That’s probably the reason why, working in the music department at a Barnes & Noble when this drivel hit stores, I watched a succession of soccer moms and burned-out Floyd fans cough up their kids’ gas money to hear Eric Clapton’s ridiculously over-hyped disaster of a “blues” album. “One thing the blues ain’t,” Stephen Stills admonished a fan in the audience on the classic live album Four Way Street, “is funny.” The way he said it, it sounded as if Stills was perfectly prepared to slit the poor bastard’s throat with his pick if he dared utter another sound; coming from the guy who jumped Elvis Costello in an Ohio bar amid a fit of rage after Costello called Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger,” the threat of physical violence was entirely real.

(In defense of Costello’s remark, for which he scheduled a press conference to apologize, Salon writes that “There’s no evidence that Costello was a racist — he’d been active in Rock Against Racism before it was fashionable and was too smart in any event to let it show if he was — but he was being as stupid, reckless and out of control as any of the broken-down ’60s stars his energy, brains and invective were supposed to be an antidote for.”)

Another thing the blues “ain’t,” though, is comforting–or at least that’s the way the genre’s founding fathers intended it to be. That’s why it’s the very last genre you should be able to listen to on your way to soccer practice with a legion of snot-nosed kids packed in the back of your SUV. Not because it is explicit–for that is merely controversial–but because real blues is the musical equivalent of a razor to the wrist. A well-delivered blues track, such as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail,” should leave you no more settled than a track from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. And if you’ve listened to either Johnson’s song or Cohen’s album, you know what exactly what I mean. Clapton’s album, by contrast, plays like the soundtrack of a walk through the sandbox on Sunday afternoon with a fistful of birthday balloons and clown paint cracking on your chin in the sun. It is, to put it simply, much too polite a record for the blues.

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Robert Johnson

 

It is nothing less than a travesty that Clapton is continually allowed to pass himself off as a blues man when his days as an edgy and innovative guitarist hell-bent on making the blues cool again are so far behind him now as to be the stuff of urban legend. It has been a long time since Clapton was a no-name strapping on his guitar for another session with the Yardbirds, and his recent recordings prove that he has forgotten what it was that brought him to pick up a guitar as a kid. He fails to understand that mere competence does not constitute “Blues” music. Blues comes from within, from a depth in the gut that’s been hollowed out by the kind of real-life suffering that brought the original blues masters — whose genius was not rewarded by millions of dollars in royalties, but by an occasional burst of applause by the roadside — to their chosen craft.

Take Robert Johnson, for example: he grew up in squalid poverty and worked as a sharecropper as a boy, his first child was stillborn and his first wife died during labor, his next wife suffered a breakdown and also died young, he himself was a victim of near-blindness and, finally, he was poisoned to death at the age of 27. Maybe that’s the kind of shit that Robert was fixing for the night he sold his soul to the devil in Rosedale, Mississippi, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to live with. Or take Muddy Waters, who never sold his soul to the devil, but grew up under the care of his grandmother because his mother died when he was five years-old (the age at which he began to teach himself harmonica, beating on a can of kerosene to get a feel for rhythm.) He worked as a sharecropper at the Stoval Plantation and lived in a shoddy wooden cabin about the size of a matchbox, somehow scrounging together enough in wages to buy his first guitar at 17.

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The Cabin Muddy Waters Lived in As A Boy

The idea behind Blues music upon its birth was that the artist had to HAVE the blues to sing the Blues. Clapton’s lackluster performance on Me and Mr. Johnson–as on so many of his past records–further demonstrates that he is too far removed from that state of the soul to make real music. My disgust with the album has nothing to do with “purism” or a lack of grittiness. I’ll take a clean sound if it’s got soul. I’m talking about modern blues masters like Charlie Musslewhite, John Hammond or even Tom Waits. Clapton, by contrast, compounds weak performances with vocal deliveries that sound as though the man is slipping into a coma as he sings.

I’m sorry, but a guy who puts out albums with liner notes that include catalogs of his own merchandise is the last guy on earth who ought to be cutting blues records. Clapton has made it clear that the tremendous celebrity status he engendered as a young man was so unappealing to him that he is willing to release decades worth of diluted, subpar blues/rock, which he has done. He has proven to be a rather powerful enemy of his own reputation, and has subsequently forgotten how to bring his soul to the microphone. If anybody ought to be keeping his hands off those Robert Johnson records, it’s Eric Clapton. If you want to know what Johnson sounded like, stick with the original tunes and hunt down the stuff that Muddy was listening to while he worked with his bare hands in the fields of Mississippi to save enough for that first guitar: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson or The Mississippi Sheiks.

“Sellout”: In Defense of Tom Petty

6th June


Petty T-Shirt

Image of a Tom Petty T-Shirt, Courtesy of Vintage T-Shirt Store

“I’ve already passed on so much money I don’t worry about it anymore.”
— Tom Petty

We’ve all been there at one time or another: the local artsy coffee joint where the proprietors gather signatures for petitions to legalize hemp, serve organic soy-milk cappuccinos in “Friends Don’t Let Friends go to Starbucks” mugs, and house “open mike” events where, as Leonard Cohen puts it in a song, “all the lousy little poets come around trying to sound like Charlie Manson” as an audience of six-and-a-half timidly munch on a feast of macrobiotic brownies. It’s where the pseudo-punks come to be seen with their hair carefully greased into a towering cascade of freshly shaped spikes, and you wonder how many hours they spent studying themselves in the mirror to appear so carefully disheveled as they curl up with their lattes and laptops and still, somehow, count themselves among the countercultural (without even the vaguest sense of irony.) I can’t help the feeling that, if he were still around, Joey Ramone would also see something just a bit mutually exclusive between punk rock and wifi connections.

There’s something else that the indie coffee joint houses: impassioned popularity contests in which a gaggle of 17-year-olds demonstrate the magnitude of their hipness by declaring profound affection for as many obscure bands as they can name–usually with as much conviction as they can muster, however insincere the whole spectacle may be. Back when I spent many nights a week at one of these places because it was just up the block from my apartment, the “in” bands to name-drop were acts like Deadboy & The Elephant Men, Apples in the Stereo, and Death Cab For Cutie (before your mother listened to them.)


Tom Petty: “Something in the Air”
(Check out Ringo on drums at 0:49)

I guess you can call it a cultural revolving door, whereby you rebel against one culture by conforming to another–and these gatherings of indie hipsters, pseudo-punks and the disciples of Emo Nation happily clamor along in a desperate search for identity at an age when, more often than not, you figure out who you are by figuring out who others want you to be.

Though the courage to be ourselves tends to come later, it doesn’t come to everyone–when you think about it, actually, it hardly comes to any of us. I know I’m no priest of pure authenticity–are you? The point is that, in those rare moments when we permit the discomfort of total honesty with ourselves, we realize that we’re all sellouts in one way or another, each and every one of us, and that this is a totally unavoidable circumstance of human nature.

As Daphne Carr so astutely points out in a great LA Weekly piece on Tom Petty, this is exactly the reason why the fictional “Eddie” in Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” busts into a tattoo shop in L.A. to acquire his own insignia of rebellion, “only to find a girl ‘with a tattoo too'” (a brilliant piece of word play, the more I think about it.) It’s natural to wonder why all the rebells before you look the same as you peak over your book in that hip cafe tonight, but if you think you yourself have never been among them–one of the many crestfallen Eddies in the middle of an L.A. tattoo parlor trying to get a clue–you’re lying to yourself.


Tom Petty: “Any sort of injustice just outraged me.”

The presumption behind the scene described above appears to be this: You’re either an indie rock hipster or an establishment tool, a comprehensive rebuke of any conceivable gray area that reminds me of Dubya’s “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” creed. It’s the same ethic that caused a friend of mine who introduced me to some of the greatest indie bands I’ve ever heard to scoff disdainfully the minute I indulged a craving for–GASP!–Tom Petty in his presence.

Though a minor share of guilt has accompanied my moments with the music of Tom Petty ever since, it’s a pleasure I pursue without shame to this day. Why? Well, it’s like Jessica Grabert wrote in a piece for Blend Music recently: “juxtaposing Tom Petty’s voice with Mike Campbell’s guitar rifts is like having sex between Egyptian cotton sheets—it may not be the most technically astounding collaboration, but it sure fucking feels good.” It’s not possible to put it any better than that; and anyway, all the guilt in the world wouldn’t do a thing to temper my belief that, contrary to the now-revered indie label’s name, we don’t always have to “Kill Rock Stars.” Well, not all of them, anyway.

Petty

It’s easy to overlook the human being in a guy when he takes the laser-lit stage of a half time show at the Super Bowl as a crowd of young people–desperate to be looked at and wholly indifferent the music of Tom Petty–crowd around to perform their most sincere fits of adoration before a glittering frenzy of TV cameras. And it’s just as easy for those kids at the cafe–or my indie-rockin’ friend–to spew chants of “sellout” on their way to another laptop-‘n latte love-in with their cadre of poster punks and Emo clowns, all of them desperate to belong by pretending that they couldn’t care less about belonging anywhere at all–no, honest they don’t. I swear!

Petty, notorious for a longstanding anti-corporate bias that has brought upon numerous lawsuits and a mysterious blaze at his house ignited by a still-unidentified arsonist, took a lot of heat for appearing at the Super Bowl this year, an event sponsored by Bridgestone Tires, which hires children at a Liberian factory where the environment is destroyed and workers’ rights are non-existent. For many it was an easy excuse to pan Petty as a “sellout.” But those who would do so–like those kids in search of themselves at the cafe around the corner–unfairly dismiss one of the greatest stories rock ‘n roll has to tell.


Tom Petty: “Swingin’,” Echo (1999)

Growing up as poor as a stray dog in Gainesville, FL, Petty traded in his slingshot for a stack of Elvis LPs after a personal encounter with Presley that left him star-struck in awe, and later defied his deeply abusive father, who berated him severely for being “a mild-mannered kid who was interested in the arts” (read “queer”), by “driving up in a van full of Florida stoners onto Sunset Boulevard in 1974, cruising for labels“–a 3,000 mile road trip from his Florida hometown. It was only after Petty struck it rich, of course, that his Dad–by most accounts an outright monster–suddenly embraced the rock ‘n roll he claimed to despise for so many years, “which really sort of insulted me,” petty explains in a scene from Peter Bogdanovich’s fascinating documentary about the band, 2007’s Runnin’ Down A Dream.

It’s no wonder Petty found it insulting that his father, a man who swung with closed fists at his mother and offered much of the same to his brother Bruce whenever he tried to come bewteen Tom and the latest ass-whoopin’ his father had to hand down, suddenly found the entirety of his ego invested in his son’s success. “He was just crazy,” Tom explains in the film, “he would give me pretty good beatings most of my life . . . the house could erupt into a fist fight” at any moment.

In a particularly stirring connection, the film establishes a long line of rock legends who, like Petty, either lost their mothers young or had abusive fathers. It really is amazing how many have been treated to one or both of those pleasantries–Bono, Larry Mullen, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Sinead O’Connor–you name them, they’ve dealt with it. As someone says of Petty in the film, “You don’t get to where he got to from where he started out unless you have something to prove to somebody who’s not listening to you.”


Tom Petty & Playboy Records

This tragic combo of a lost mother and monstrous father is the peculiar fuel that both filled Petty with an irate drive for success–“I just turned my anger into ambition,” he says–as well as a disdain for the compromises that ambition requires. We’re talking about the guy who turned down his friend Stevie Nicks’s request to join the band because “there are no girls in the Heartbreakers,” who took his own label to court when they sold out to MCA and tried to dump him in their lap without his consent, then sued his new label for upping the price of his then-upcoming album Hard Promises by applying a $1 “Superstar Pricing” hike, as the company called it–exactly the reason you saw petty tearing a dollar bill in half on the cover of Rolling Stone back then.

Even Petty’s got to get a chuckle out of the irony that it’s a tire company his critics now point to in defense of their case against him as a “sellout.” It was, after all, another tire company (B.F. Goodrich) that he sued in 1987 for using a song that sounded conspicuously like Petty’s “Mary’s New Car” in a commercial–especially “conspicuous” since Petty had just taken a request from the company to use the song and asked them to kindly shove it up their asses. The case was “settled out of court.” In other words, the bastards paid up and shut up.

And if an artist’s relevance is measured by how many bands try to steal his shit, then Petty’s pretty fucking relevant. By now it’s not exactly news that The Red Hot Chili Peppers–on an album that captured the sound of a band totally out of ideas–pilfered the groove to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” for their derivative hit “Dani California.” The Strokes, who were described playing Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” with Ryan Adams during a Rolling Stone interview a few years back, admitted borrowing from “American Girl” for their hit “Last Nite.”


Tom Petty Covering “Asshole” by Beck

“That made me laugh out loud,” Petty says, “I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I’d sue]. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.” In other words, he’s too old and rich to give a shit. But it’s worth keeping in mind, next time you think about sneering at a buddy who deigns to hold you hostage to a Petty tune, that he may be old and rich, but he’s got a hell of a story to tell, and was defending artistic integrity when all the younger bands you want to name were crawling their cribs in diapers.

John Hiatt and the Scourge of a Digital World

30th May

Hiatt

It’s getting pretty clear that we’ve probably heard the last of the great John Hiatt albums. I’m not asking for another Bring the Family—records that great only grace our ears once every decade or two at best. And I’m not one of those close-minded dip shits that bitch every time his favorite band puts out a new album because “it’s not as good as the last one,” stubbornly resistant to an artist’s creative evolution. Lord knows an artist with Hiatt’s range offers something for everyone and their mother, as adept at the crooning twang of “I Can’t Wait” as he is at the lion’s-roar of rockers like “Something Wild”–to say nothing of his “I am the other Elvis Costello” days on early albums like Slug Line and Two-Bit Monster.

What I am saying, however, is that it’s been far too long since John sounded ready to abandon himself to the song, come what may, in the kind of blistering spontaneity we heard on the brilliant and rollicking Crossing Muddy Waters that scored him a Grammy nod in 2000. Hell, even The Tiki Bar is Open, for all its polish, still offered a sound that swung with two clenched fists. But, good God, Same Old Man? Master of Disaster? (album title or Freudian slip?) What’s happening to Mr. Hiatt is happening to some of America’s most prized and once-gritty songwriters, and it’s not entirely their fault, either.

It’s called “compression,” an alleged “technology” that is, ironically, doing more to set back the soul of rock n’ roll than it is to advance it. We’re told by the advocates of compression and digital recording technology that “Compression is used to bring down the highest peaks, above the threshold level, leaving the lower levels just as they were. After that the level is restored so that the peaks are the same level as they were to start with, but the overall dynamic range is reduced. The result is a much more controlled sound.” The problem, though—as albums like Hiatt’s Same Old Man or even Dylan’s Modern Times demonstrate rather painfully—is that this “controlled sound” makes for a profoundly boring listening experience, the result of a mastering process in which all instruments in the mix are compressed so that no one sound stands out over another—presumably to maintain the listener’s attention for a longer period of time as opposed to merely bearing the song until that killer guitar solo at 2:13.


John Hiatt & The Guilty Dogs: “Perfectly Good Guitar”

The result is an album full of tracks that sound more like extended yawns than songs. David Skolnik, a self-professed “audio nut” and “vinyl guy,” shares this experience with Hiatt’s 2005 album, Master of Disaster: “I had noticed the sound wasn’t very good– so I did the unthinkable and hit the tone controls on my best audio system. After a dramatic reduction of bass and well chosen treble spice, the album came to life–like the Hiatt I’ve known and loved for 20 years! What a difference,” he concluded, “this is a fine album.” Perhaps, but when you need to hit the “treble spice” and tone controls to hear that fine album hidden in the clutter, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.

This is what Dylan meant when he told Rolling Stone that “you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.” Exactly, Bob. Now maybe he got a little carried away with the whole ”no one’s made a decent record in the last 20 years” bit, but you can understand the frustration of a guy who is responsible for some of the most essential rock n’ roll ever put to tape, a balls-to-the-wall blues-rock sound he pioneered at a time when lo-fi was the only fi. There’s a reason why The Black Keys recorded Thickfreakness in 14 hours on a ¼-inch 8-track Tascam, and it wasn’t just for shits and giggles.

As song after song unfolds on Same Old Man, John Hiatt’s latest offering, a painful fantasy enters the mind: what might this record have been had John been left to his own devices, allowed to strip each song down to nothing more than a solo acoustic performance recorded live in-studio with only a guitar and harmonica to cradle the guttural snarl of his immediately distinctive voice? What if, for once, John had tossed the band to the curb in a long-awaited realization of the power he commands when the excess is filtered from the substance (uh-hem, “Have A little Faith in Me,” “Learn How to Love You,” uh-hem)? With a record like Same Old Man, it’s clear that the vulnerability lurking beneath the surface of these new songs—mostly reflections on a 20-year marriage and entertaining memories from an even longer career—might have come to the fore, and we just might have had the album of John’s life on our hands. What a tragedy.


John Hiatt: “Cry Love,” Walk On (1995)

It truly pains me to make this argument about Hiatt’s more recent work, because few appreciate John’s neglected talents more than I do. I drove from Tampa to Nashville last year just to see John Hiatt do a brief opening set for the woeful Peter Frampton at a charity event (where, predictably, legions of burned-out Framptonites sat stone-eyed and baffled throughout a devastating solo performance by Hiatt, someone most of them had obviously never heard of before—one of many reasons why my girlfriend and I jetted out of there before Frampton took the stage with his prog-rock bullshit—at the Ryman Auditorium, of all places. Is nothing sacred?)

Hiatt’s life story is the stuff of an authenticity few songwriters can claim: his brother committed suicide, his father died when he was 11, his first wife also committed suicide (shortly after the birth of their daughter), and he spent his first night in Nashville sleeping under a park bench. He went on from there to spend nearly thirty years sleeping under another bench—this time the park bench of recognition—but this isn’t Leonard Cohen’s music scene anymore. As Tom Petty argues on his vicious The Last DJ album, fake breasts and a polished smile will sell better than a well-written song any day of the week. “Some angel whore that can learn a guitar lick / Heeeyyy, now that’s what I call muuuuzzziiiiiik!” Petty sneers on “Joe.” Hiatt is easily one of the most hard-nosed and unsung pioneers of what’s become known as “alt-country”—a sound Hiatt was making long before Steve Earle fused it with a rap sheet and boot spurs to make it cool.

Maybe it’s that same crowd of burned-own Framptonites who are currently bemoaning the loss of what they call John Hiatt’s “golden voice” on Same Old Man. “John has lost the golden voice,” someone called E.M. Witt whines in an amazon.com customer review, “his voice is gravelly and out of pitch at times.” (Oh, no! Gravelly? You mean it sounds like a real human being occasionally! Eeeww!!) And maybe it’s this crowd for whom the whole “compression” crave was fashioned. But anyone who comes to a John Hiatt record in pursuit of a “golden voice” should probably be directed to the bin of remaindered N-Synch CDs over in the corner instead.


John Hiatt: “Have A Little Faith in Me,” Bring the Family (1987)

We don’t ask John for golden voiced pop ditties—we ask him to be real, give it to us straight, and take no easy turns. His voice has always been gruff, and, until recently, so was his music–and that’s what made his records so great. The problem with Same Old Man is that it is boring, and that’s not entirely John’s fault–the culprit is the same thing Dylan complained about after releasing Modern Times–digital recording technology and its “compression” approach to mastering is sucking the life out of these songs; the result is an album that more closely resembles a fleeting drizzle in a cold empty park than a record.

It happened on Master of Disaster and it happens again here. It’s a downright travesty—and I mean that. Either John can’t hear it himself or he just isn’t speaking up. As the aforementioned “audio nut” David Skolnik suggests, “I don’t think John should have to suffer a let down of his public perception because of his tech people- he deserves better!” I wholeheartedly agree, but until Hiatt hands down the ass-whoopin’ those “tech people” have earned, the decline in that “public perception” may become precipitous.

The Spill on Hiatt’s new album, Same Old Man . . .

Associated Press:Same Old Man ranks with the best music of Hiatt’s 34-year recording career . . . “

Glide Magazine: “Same Old Man may be the most accessible album of John Hiatt’s career . . .”

Thoughts of a Lime Monkey:SAME OLD MAN is not a bad record, it’s just a poor Hiatt album . . . “

411 Mania: “Hiatt puts in another solid studio album, that sorrowfully won’t get much airplay . . . “

Bamboo Nation: “Same Old Man is absent any out-of-the-ballpark, radio-friendly singles, but the album is so consistently excellent as a whole that its culminative effect is a bit disconcerting at first . . . “

 

Neil Young’s “Reactor”: Kicking Against the Pricks

26th May

Neil live

When you’re talking about an artist like Neil Young, whose muse suffers from the most acute schizophrenia any songwriter’s ever experienced—a countrified Pantera one minute and Tim Hardin the next–you don’t have to look too hard to find the criticism of pot-bellied goobers who tolerate only what they hear on one of those “classic rock” stations they turn up in their rusted trucks on the way to a beer pong tournament.

Take this poor bastard’s attempt at criticism of Neil Young’s Reactor, the greatly misunderstood garage rock tutorial he put out with Crazy Horse in 1981, in an amazon.com customer review—typos preserved. “There is one song on it ‘T-Bone’ where he repeats the same lines over and over. That ain’t song writng,” he says, supporting it with the equally misguided assertion that you “Never see Bob Dylan write something like that. You know it stinks becasue I’ve never seen Neil play any of the songs from this album live,” he continues. The problem, of course, is that “Southern Pacific,” Reactor’s most recognizable single, is actually a mainstay in Neil Young’s live shows (I’ve got the bootlegs to prove it.) And when he does perform it live, the crowd always responds with a roar of familiarity.

This is just more of the entirely unfounded pretense with which so many close-minded fans fuel misinformed criticism. Reactor, like 2003’s brilliant Greendale, only asks that his audience expands their minds and tastes just enough to accommodate a muse whose range continues to widen despite age. While many of Neil’s peers languish in the dust of past triumphs, Neil is not afraid to indulge newer visions and look forward–both as an artist and as a man (For once, Rolling Stone got it right when they voted Greendale the #2 album of 2003 just behind Warren Zevon’s highly emotional swan-song, The Wind. At least someone still knows the sound of art when they hear it.)

Those who express disappointment in albums like Reactor or Greendale because they didn’t mail in yet another collection of “Neil Young-ish” singles the way Silver & Gold or Prairie Wind did were never fans in the first place. They crave merely a single patch in the quilt of Neil’s total artistic range. They are the morons shouting “Judas” at Dylan in 1965 whose hopeless anonymity is a fitting fate.


Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Southern Pacific

“That ain’t songwriting,” some say about tunes like Reactor’s epic “T-Bone” in which, yes, Neil howls “ain’t got no t-bone” for nearly 10 minutes, “Never see Bob Dylan write something like that.” Really? Let’s take these lines from Dylan’s song, “Wiggle Wiggle,” the opening track from his 1991 album, Under The Red Sky.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like satin and silk,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a pail of milk,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, rattle and shake,
Wiggle like a big fat snake.

Now, call me crazy, but I’m fairly certain that this fails to meet the aforementioned reviewer’s standards for “songwriting”. That is exactly the point: Neil Young’s Reactor is much-maligned for applying an aesthetic fraught with ruthless feedback and distortion to a weak selection of songs, but to object to Reactor on those grounds completely misses the point.

If this album’s flaws are more of the same-old Neil Young “flakiness”, it is the same “flakiness” that characterizes rock ‘n roll’s legacy–a legacy Neil Young defines as accurately on Reactor as on any other record. Reactor’s snotty abandon and feedback-laden indifference constitute the kind of temperament that great rock ‘n roll thrives on, and if it fails to conjure greatness on Reactor, then it is, at worst, a powerful tribute to the soul of rock music.

A boundless ambition pervades Reactor that is at once charming and confounding: the frenzied wail and shriek of “Shots“, the thumping, deceptively political railroad anthem, “Southern Pacific”, the 10 minutes of Neil Young shouting “ain’t got no t-bone!” amid Crazy Horse’s famous thrash-and-grind sound. These performances exemplify what is great about rock ‘n roll far more powerfully than any of those contrived classic rock anthems poisoning FM radio every day.


Neil Young: “Be The Rain,” Greendale

Reactor and, later, Greendale, are miraculous examples of a musical and lyrical ambition that refuses to give in to the ravages of time and age. If people would get a grip on their attention spans for long enough to engage with a story that lasts longer than the 3-minute FM radio single, the rewards are great. People who don’t have the capacity to do so need to toss their Neil records and listen to more chick-rock.

Take a chance on Reactor. Listen to something different, something that refuses to make friends, something too sincere to earn air time on any of America’s thousand shitty classic rock stations. Few experiences are more gratifying than getting weird looks from other drivers when you crank up this album on your car stereo at a red light with the windows down. It proves you’re listening to something that’s true. Reactor is the real thing: are you?

Special Treat: The excellent blog known as That’s Fucking Dynamite recently posted an mp3 for this killer and extremely rare Neil Young tune called “Sea of Madness,” which appears to be a live take from Neil’s appearance with CSN at the original Woodstock. Check it out here.

UPDATE (6-2-08): Here is yet another special treat, courtesy of Andrew Ronan–a live, solo acoustic performance of “Shots”–the song that would later appear on the Reactor album–performed here in a live set from 1978. It is an absolute must-hear. Download it here.