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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.