Culturespill » Dylan

22 Years Later: Why Neil Young’s “Landing on Water” Deserves a Second Listen

28th April

Young

Of all the 60s legends who took baffling artistic detours through the decade Kris Kristofferson described as “shipwrecked,” Neil Young’s was by far the most fascinating. And Lord knows there were some “detours.” By the time Landing On Water came out in ’86, Dylan continued to languish in the alcoholic aftermath of a schizophrenic religious identity that produced material both interesting and intolerable (mostly the latter—and if you doubt that for one second, give a listen to Slow Train Comin’s “When You Gonna Wake Up” and let me know how you feel in the morning. Typical side effects include severe nausea, blurred vision, and sudden death.) The Stones, for their part, long-before settled into a steady offering of McSingles on albums they recorded with gritted teeth from opposite ends of a studio, tolerating one another only out of greed to produce records like Dirty Work, an album full of furiously delivered songs whose titles reflect the animosities of the band—“Too Rude,” “Had it With You.” You get the picture.

After responding to the epic success of the Rust albums with characteristically unpredictable forays into inaccessible pseudo-punk (Reactor) and rickety folk meanderings (Hawks & Doves)–exchanging main stream acceptance for the worship of anonymous new wave dorks in the underground clubs of New York and L.A.–Neil Young journeyed to places few of his fans were willing to go: the electronica beats of Trans which, we later learned, featured electronically distorted vocals that emerged from attempts at communicating through a computer with his son Ben, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy (Neil’s charitable efforts to defeat the condition are legendary and ongoing.)

In retrospect, the 80s are as legendary a period in Neil Young’s career as his 70s heyday–not because the music was great, but precisely because it wasn’t, culminating in the now-infamous lawsuit David Geffen filed against Young for making music that didn’t sound Neil Young enough (Geffen won.) Many like to call Landing on Water Neil’s worst album, but that distinction–if we really must make it–belongs to the morbidly produced Everybody’s Rockin, the musical middle finger to Geffen Records Neil recorded a few years earlier. While Springsteen and Joel discovered new voices with 50s nostalgia pieces like “Pink Cadillac” and “Uptown Girl” around the same time, Neil’s flirtation with similar curiosities reflected, if anything, a voice that had become all but irretrievable.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: “Sleeps With Angels”

It is hardly a surprise, then, that Landing on Water further exemplifies the erratic artistic indulgences Young favored at the time, with its characteristically grungy licks and riffs laid over a jarring and misguided cacophony of synthesized drums and rhythms. It isn’t just that the album sounds dated in 2008; the production is so insular that it was destined to sound dated before the year of its release came to a close.

And yet, despite all this, Landing on Water contains three essential performances that open-minded fans will learn to appreciate. “Hippie Dream”–with its moving eulogy for the bygone days of flower power–is a biting indictment of an era he helped define. “Another flower child / goes to seed / in an ether-filled room / of meat hooks. / It’s so ugly, / so ugly,” Young sings of his cocaine-addled brother in arms, David Crosby, a disturbingly prophetic anticipation of the liver transplant Crosby would receive nine years later. Other tunes like “Drifter” and “Touch the Night” showcase a Neil Young who almost finds his groove amid the album’s synth-laden idiosyncrasies.

These songs are treasures of an artistic vision stretching to fathom the boundaries of its expression, and the ambition of the material it produced at that time is, to my ears, every bit as beautiful as Young’s best work. It may not always have sounded great—in fact, it usually strained just to sound listenable. But Neil’s refusal to look away from less familiar artistic terrain is exactly the kind of edginess his reputation is founded on, and it is the good fan who understands that glories like Sleeps With Angels, Freedom and Ragged Glory could not have been possible without the misadventures that preceded them.

Dylan: The “Collector’s” Edition That Isn’t

3rd April

Dylan

Culturespill memo to Sony: An album is not a “collector’s edition” just because the record company says it is. Too often major labels create pseudo events like this tenth–yes, tenth–Dylan greatest hits package to rake in the dough. Sony markets this 3-disc set as a “collector’s edition” as if it contained something even “Dylanologists” would prize, when in fact there turns out to be “no there there.” Enough! It’s time to call these bastards out when they lie to our face after they’ve got our 20-dollar bill in their hands.

It may be true that reality is increasingly manufactured in slogans and catchphrases such as “Operation Enduring Freedom” (protest that one, smartass!) but the fact remains that “Collectors” are people who prowled the streets for those vinyl copies of Neil Young’s The Beach or Reactor (I’m raising my hand) before he finally re-released them on CD. Easily two of his most fascinating projects, Young dangled both albums before his fans at the end of a string that he withdrew the second they reached for it, offering instead ephemeral promises to release them “someday.” Given that the release of his alleged “Archives” boxed set was again delayed this year for the 1,857,906th time–with the stunning news that it will be comprised of DVDs and not CDs–it’s clear that when Young resorts to words like “someday,” you can expect it to hit the shelves of a store near you around the time we’ve terraformed Saturn’s thirteenth moon.

And that’s exactly the point: A “Collector’s Edition” is valuable to “collectors” because it allows them access to prized moments in an artist’s career that they could not have procured on their own—only Neil had the authority to make those great LPs widely available in CD-quality sound. That’s why fans frothed at the mouth when Tom Waits released that embarrassment of riches, Orphans, 3 discs-worth of ass-whoopin’ outtakes that rival any fine moment you care to recall. And it’s why they sniff around in underground record shops for volumes of the storied “Genuine Bootleg Series”.

Dylan Kicking Shit in the Street

Far from a “collector’s” edition, Sony’s haughtily-titled Dylan (questions, anyone?) is a shamelessly cheap marketing stunt that contributes absolutely nothing to Dylan’s legacy, as a bonafide “collector’s edition” ought to by definition, and the only way to NOT see that is to consciously delude ourselves. While so many other compilations serve as platforms to release new material that sometimes rivals the “hits” (Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Something in the Air,” or Springsteen’s “Murder Inc.”) Dylan offers not a single track that you can’t get on any of the man’s 32 studio albums. And as with Sony’s 9 previous attempts at compressing a career of five decades into a track list that seems chosen by the all-reliable “catch a tiger by the toe method,” this one is more remarkable for its omissions than for its contents: For the love of Christ, a Dylan “greatest hits” without “Visions of Johanna,” “Idiot Wind,” “Desolation Blues”!? It’s catastrophes like these that reveal the genius of bands like Devo or Jefferson Airplane, with their “Greatest Misses” or “The Worst of Jefferson Airplane” retrospectives, as in, “will someone please remind us again how it is that we consented to this vulgarity?”

Once again, Sony peddles recycled glories while those that languish under a film of dust in vaults remain unheard. Dylan is notorious for withholding his greatest songs or superior renditions of released material off of nearly every album–often using the excuse of feeling “too close” to them or sighing that “the world doesn’t need anymore Bob Dylan songs” in moments of dire self-pity, infuriating the very producers who helped reinvent him (as in Daniel Lanois, who pled desperately for Dylan to allow the sublime “Series of Dreams” to take its rightful place on an album it would have made a masterpiece, 1989’s Oh Mercy.) While Sony deigned to release “Blind Willie McTell” and “Series of Dreams” along with earlier outtakes from the Freewheelin’ and Times Are-A-Changin’ days like “Seven Curses,” they continue to withhold a firing line of ferocious (and widely bootlegged) blues numbers from the Freewheelin’ sessions, including electrifying tunes like “Watcha Gonna Do,” “Witchita,” “Solid Road,” “Emmet Till” and a vastly superior alternate version of “Hollis Brown.” The most powerful version of Dylan’s brilliant “Carribean Wind” of 1980 remains withheld, as does the lauded electric version of “Blind Willie McTell.” A truckload of outtakes and alternate versions — from Blood on the Tracks, Shot of Love, Oh Mercy, you name it, ranging in quality from interesting to explosive, continues to gather dust in some New York City safe. Instead we get these “collector’s editions” that “collect” only what we’ve heard a thousand times before.

Dylan doing “Visions of Johanna,” among other things

Columbia’s mishandling of the Bootleg concept began at the onset, when the original 1991 Bootleg Series was planned as a four-disc set and then narrowed down to the three CDs we got, eliminating a wealth of essential material. And Dylan himself has admitted that bootlegged packages of the so-called Royal Albert Hall shows–which feature 8 CDs, posters, postcards and informative notes (I should know: I threw down 200 bones on a copy years ago at a rare disc shop in NYC)–represent Dylan with more competence than his own label, while the renown “Genuine Basement Tapes” series remains by far the most commendable effort at bringing Dylan’s unveiled genius to light.

The point is not that Dylan is some sort of “sell-out” or that Sony should be crucified for cashing in. What can possibly be more boring than the groaning chorus of “punks” and purists everywhere who weigh each band up to the light of their elitist notions of authenticity? Dylan and his label are entitled to make all the money they want—and I wish them all the best in their efforts to do so—but to horde such shining treasure is to rob the American story of many unmined diamonds—an act of cultural burglary if ever there was one.