Monday 23 March 2009

Neil Young "Hawks and Doves" (1980) (Revised Review 2016)

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“Hawks And Doves” (Neil Young 1980)

Little Wing/The Old Homestead/Lost In Space/Captain Kennedy//Stayin' Power/Coastline/Union Man/Comin' Apart At Every Nail/Hawks and Doves

‘We don’t back down from no trouble, we do get up in the morning’

There is nothing more delightfully strange or strangely delightful than a strange and delightful Neil Young album, of which ‘Hawks and Doves’ is probably one of the most delightful – it’s definitely one of the most strange. If variety really is the spice of life then Neil Young would be the perfect musical chef. None of his albums sound anything like their predecessors, do their best to rock the foundations of their successors and nearly always have at least one track that stretches out in a new direction (sometimes it’s a whole LP). This variety is not like some artists I could mention either who do this as a token attempt to cash-in on whatever happens to be popular at any one time  – there must be dozens of artists inside Neil competing with each other over who can shout loudest to gain control of his subconscious and all of them in turn sound like the ‘genuine’ Neil Young, not some desperate attempt to get with the times or some accidental fixation on a new instrument or electronic toy. Hawks and Doves, recorded at approximately the halfway point amongst what Neil has recorded so far in his career (editor’s note – at the time this review was written anyway), is unlike any other LP the minimalist genius ever did, adding masses of new styles and direction to Neil’s oeuvre on side one alone. As for side two, that’s even more unpredictable – Neil ends up sounding like any number of drunken country-rockers around in the pre-punk era and not one of the better drunken country-rockers at that. In a way it's like 'American Stars 'n' Bars' played backwards, with intense revelatory epics recorded across a period of years on side one and 'what the?' drunken country moments recorded in a hurry on side two. The good news is that side one is ever so nearly as good as side two of 'Stars' - and the weird moments on side two are less weird than on 'Bars'. The result is an under-rated LP that ticked all the right boxes and delivered a good half album's worth of strong material (arguably as much as on the all-singing, all-dancing, no-rusting predecessor) and yet which seems to have gone ignored for most of Neil's career (it didn’t help that this is one of the 'core four' Neil albums missing a CD release until as late as 2003, alongside 'On The Beach' 'Stars 'n' Bars' and the next album 'Re-Ac-Tor'). 

The timing of this muted, melancholic album couldn’t be stranger either – mainstream predecessor ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ is acclaimed by many as the high-point of Neil’s catalogue and won back pretty much all the fans who’d grown tired of Neil’s side-street and back alley releases like ‘Time Fades Away’, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and ‘Journey Through The Past’. Most artists re-act to success by releasing a best-of compilation or a successful album copycat – Neil re-acts to success by releasing a ragbag of old releases and some flimsy country-honk songs played deliberately amateurishly and that, until you get to know them, seem to be separate lyrics played to the same tune five times over. Yet even though I’ve always admired the brains of ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and the way it successfully mixes Neil’s key themes in new ways (time travel, Incas, anti-war protests, demented rockers, introspective autobiographical ballads and two versions of a singalong rock classic), ‘Hawks and Doves’ has far more heart. It may be flawed, but it’s a special ‘Neil Young’ kind of flawed – newcomers to Neil’s catalogue will wonder what the heck is going on but many many fans of the man’s hefty back catalogue like forgotten gems like this every bit as much as they like ‘After The Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’. For all of this album’s flaws and its sudden switches of gear throughout, I’m very much one of them.  

This isn't Neil at his best - there's nothing to match the power of 'Tonight's The Night' here. This isn't Neil at his prettiest either, as fans of 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest' still strain to hear potential hit singles. This isn't even Neil at his weirdest, as anyone whose heard 'On The Beach' or ‘Trans’ will attest. But 'Hawks and Doves' is a little of all those things, partly beautiful, partly powerful and partly plain weird. Often all at once. Just check this lot out: 'Little Wing' is a candidate for one of Neil's loveliest songs even if it's a fragment, disappearing in a haze of mouthorgan before it has a chance to coalesce into anything more substantial than a ghost. 'Captain Kennedy' is a war tale that's powerful as a young soldier (the future JFK? His elder brother Joseph, the one ‘really’ groomed to be the next president of the United States before dying in WWII?) fights in the name of his family and country even though he ‘doesn't quite know what that means.' The Old Homestead' is a candidate for the weirdest song you'll hear this year, thanks to three singing vultures, a crazy horse and a solo played on a ‘saw'. No, that's not a misprint. I really do mean a common-or-garden saw (although quite what you're sawing in the garden is anybody's guess). There's even a munchkin chorus who perform in a variety of squeaky voices on 'Lost In Space' who tell us that mankind went wrong and we would ‘do much better on the ocean floor’. And that's just the first side - the second is more modern-sounding (because, well, it is more modern than it happens), played with the sort of honky-tonk shrug heard on many a past Young album. But better, by and large. Compared to 'Rust Never Sleeps' and it's big booming songs about rock and roll, European settlers, Pocahontas and, erm, a chair delivery service 'Hawks and Doves' was never going to compare. But that's kind of the point. This is an album that doesn't compare with anything else (even the similar 'Stars 'n' Bars' wasn't this weird!) and it's an album where you get so lost and mystified you never quite know what's going to be thrown at you next. Even for a sequel for an album about how rust never sleeps, it's courageously brave and audaciously daring, even when it's not actually that good. 

There's a reason why this album turned out the way it did. Like 'Stars 'n' Bars' half the album is made up of old songs. Two of them, 'Little Wing' and 'Captain Kennedy', date back to the 'Homegrown' sessions in 1975, while 'The Old Homestead' was ever-so-nearly on 'Chrome Dreams' in 1977. We’re not quite sure where ‘Lost In Space’ fits in, but my guess is that it belonged first on ‘Oceanside Countryside’, the aborted first solo go at ‘Comes A Time’ in 1978.  Only the country-music on side two (recorded in very hurried sessions) was made  specifically for this album. Why was Neil so keen on covering old ground so soon after embarking on the new? Well, Neil's life changed right here but he wouldn't let anyone in the outside world know about it. Second son Ben was born in 1979 and already his parents knew that their son wasn't growing up the way Neil's eldest Zeke had done. The diagnosis of severe cerebral palsy (Zeke already had a less severe form) came not long before this album's sessions began in earnest and Neil isn't just distracted (as anyone in his circumstances would be), he's recording an album as quickly as he can return to his family and not raise suspicion in the wider world that anything is wrong. Both Neil and wife Pegi were involved in an eighteen-hours-a-day programme designed to make Ben better but in practice more likely to make his parents exhausted wrecks, made to feel guilty at any hours they spent away from their child. Suddenly music seemed like a triviality and something Neil felt too guilty thinking about - which makes 'Hawks and Doves' the only Neil Young album to have no real concert favourites performed from it (though a few 'Little Wing' and ';Old Homestead' performances had been heard years before). Other musicians would have dropped out of sight altogether, taken a year out or simply come clean but that was never Neil's way. Instead Ben's illness is a 'secret' the family will keep close to their chests for some years to come, with this album (made up largely of outtakes), 'Re-Ac-Tor' (recorded in a hurry on automatic pilot) and especially 'Trans' (a concept album about a father-robot trying to communicate with his 'son' that's impenetrable unless you study the lyrics) all directly impacted by Neil's family life. Not that we fans ever knew - the most we get to an 'insight on this album is the sigh on 'Stayin' Power' as Neil and wife Pegi tell us 'we don't back down from no trouble and we do get up in the morning'. 

This was a heavy blow for the Young dad. With both sons having a form of the illness Neil naturally assumed that he had caused it in some awful genetic way, though doctors quickly assured him it was just a very unlikely coincidence and a cruel blow from fate. Neil has admitted that he spent a lot of this period asking himself ‘why him?’, a question to which there is of course no real answer. Neil's re-action on this album, more so than any of the others (even this record's closest cousin 'On The Beach'), is that life is a riddle we can't solve. Neil did after all have dozens of unreleased recordings to choose from now but seems to have picked all of his most uncertain, self-questioning songs. There are several tracks on this album that feature puzzles without answers, locked doors without keys, fables without endings and life lessons without any revelation of what it is we were meant to learn. Often dismissed as nonsense (especially on release), actually 'Hawks and Doves' sounds as it's best as if Neil is trying to solve these clues himself and can't work them out so he's passed them on to us to 'solve' alongside him. Songs like 'The Old Homestead', a nightmarish journey through the sub-conscious, with just enough in-jokes to make us realise that Neil's singing about his career.  'Lost In Space' (which appeals in earnest to some creator 'don't take out the magic pen, don't draw on the infinity board' while singing a song set underwater with a title that's set in space) are baffling, but played with enough emotion to know that Neil means every word he sings (listen to half of 'Ragged Glory' and all of 'Greendale' to hear how different Neil sounds when he doesn't mean what he's singing). Even 'Little Wing' isn't as properly defined as other Young characters, an elusive, mysterious figure while 'Captain Kennedy' is a morality tale without a morale, as if a verse was cut somewhere along the line so that we don’t get the pay-off for this man ill-prepared for a battle he’s been planning to face all his life (that part, surely, is why Neil chose it: he doesn’t feel ready to face up to this responsibility but, against all the odds, is somehow coping). Even though these are old songs, they've clearly been chosen over - say - more emotionally expressive songs like [236] 'Too Far Gone' and [240] 'White Line' kicking round from these leftover albums because they fit Neil's be-fuddled mood better, songs about sticking it out and finding eventual salvation rather than drinking or running away. Nevertheless the characters in these songs are as lost as Neil is. 

As for the second side of new songs, they're the very definition of denial and that old Danny Whitten phrase 'I don't want to talk about it' as Neil talks about every subject under the sun except what's happening to him in his own life. Very much like 'Re-Ac-Tor' to come, the 'new' country songs are distracted, pieces that could have been from any era about such varying topics as musician unions, the American countryside and an unusual interest in the outside world. Anyone could have written them (well, anyone talented - I can't see The Spice Girls tackling inequality and civil unrest on 'Comin' Apart At Every Nail So We're Going To Nail Them Up With Girl Power' somehow) and yet they sound a darn sight better than the similar songs on 'Stars 'n' Bars'. 'Stayin' Power' is as sweet a song as Neil has ever written as he grits his teeth and gets back to the grindstone rather than quitting when stuff gets difficult, which is a lot closer to 'true love' than the hypnotism of [122] 'Like A Hurricane' I'd say. 'Coastline' has a pretty tune and more love lyrics spread across its three simple verses. 'Union Man' is one of Neil's funniest, silliest songs as he parodies musicians unions who have nothing better than to sit about and pontificate about 'issuing' bumper stickers about live music being better than studio ones, played to a manic variation of the riff from 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' (a third song Neil took from the Rolling Stones, now?) 'Comin' Apart At Every Nail' is one of Neil's most overlooked songs, dealing with politics with more care than normal as Neil's frustration at home gets turned into frustration about the state of his adopted homeland. And then there's 'Hawks and Doves' itself, a song that even admits it 'don't got nothin' to say' but says it anyway. Clearly all five songs are filler, especially compared to the weighty best of 'Rust Never Sleeps', but they're better filler than 'Stars 'n' Bars' and many similar albums - certainly there's more thought gone into this album (in both the past and the then-present) than the Mashed Potato and [145] T-Bone of 'Re-Ac-Tor'. The wonder, really, is that Neil didn't make his follow-up records the same way (goodness knows he had more than enough unreleased songs to choose from even after releasing these four!) 

The last two songs in particular show a rare understanding of the outside world. Neil had shied away from making political commentary since his CSNY days (and you can hear his half-guilt over 'Ohio' when watching Nixon being kicked out of office on 'Decade' compilation track [114] 'Campaigner' in 1977), but with so much going on at home he doesn’t want to talk about Neil dives into this writing style again headfirst. More by design than coincidence, this record was timed for release the day before the 1980 election between existing Democrat President Jimmy Carter and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. In a neat mirror of what's happening today, in 2016, a period of unease and tension (in this case the cold war) sees the electorate pick up on a war-mongering buffoon who could talk the talk but not walk the walk and whose principle background was in show business (if there had been reality TV back in 1980 Reagan would surely have been on that too). Almost all AAA musicians, including CSN, back Carter (the trio even performed at a rally on his behalf) but Neil for once sides himself with the right-wing party and makes it clear that on the side of 'hawks' and 'doves' he'd rather be with the hawks. This will get him in big trouble with the hippier (hipper?) elements of his fanbase later on (one review of 'Re-Ac-Tor' began with the words 'Neil Young killed my father - or at least he encouraged people to vote for a candidate who took his disability benefits away which amounts to much the same thing!') and for now it's a question of who 'we' the listeners choose the week of an election rather than a statement of intent, but there's no doubting either the venom in  'Fences', 'Union Man' (lampooning a democratic – in all senses of the word -committee) and the title track even has the rather unfair dig at Carter 'the wind blows and the grass bends - don't push too hard my friend!' Young has never sounded more of a patriot - or more like an old man angrily shouting nothing slogans at nobody, depending on your point of view (what did Carter do to annoy him so? Everyone could tell why Neil got mad at Nixon, what with shooting four unarmed student protestors and all, but the most anyone could say against Carter was that he was 'soft'; actually he stood up to the Russians much more often and much more successfully than Reagan ever did but everyone forgets that - and what was so great about standing up to the Russians already forced into standing up to America after aggressive cold war tactics from decades gone by anyway?) Neil may also be thinking back to the punning title of 'Stars 'n' Bars' in having an album of two halves, one old and one new and one acoustic and one electric, with the 'Hawks' the electric side and the 'doves' the acoustic. However, as usual, the definition between them isn't that neat: even the acoustic 'Captain Kennedy' is 'headed to war', while 'Stayin' Power' is about the more democratic values of sharing workloads and hard work (as opposed to the naturally Republican way of rich v poor divide and getting other people to do the hard work. You'll see what I mean when Trump gets his teeth into things, unfortunately). 

The result is another Young record that's uneven at best, lacking Neil's usual focus and drive while sharing his usual problems of inconsistency. At 29:47 it's the shortest album Neil had played on so far (even the shortest Buffalo Springfield albums runs to 32 minutes) and would be the shortest in Neil's discography if not for the special case of 'Everybody's Rockin' in 1983 (it's a mere four minutes longer than 'Eldorado' in 1988 too which is officially 'just' an EP!)  The front cover is just awful and more evidence of just how little effort went into cobbling this record together - a plain white star on a plain blue background (interesting that Neil should choose democrat colours!) Sadly 'Re-Ac-Tor' (in Republican red) is worse... If creativity is what you look for in Neil's music then 'Hawks' might not be the album for you as, truly, there isn't much going on here - only 'The Old Homestead' breaks new ground by being weird and unlike most other thongs (though even there I'd take the similarly surreal [111] 'Will To Love' other this anyday). However there's a certain low-key charisma about this album that's meant I've probably played it a lot more than the better received 'Comes A Time' and 'Rust Never Sleeps'. There's a message on here just out of reach and - even though we pretty much know the reasons behind it now - this still feels like an album with a lot to give. If staying up late studying impenetrable lyrics and wondering what it all means is for you then 'Doves' might just be your favourite Young record. For most people it's probably somewhere in the middle, with shades of brilliance followed by passages of mediocrity. The wonder, though, give the hell going on in Neil's private life, is how he managed to make an album even this cohesive and good. For all its softer side, occasional beauty and haunting refrains this is also one tough cookie, rallying against musicians unions, presidents, the Second World War and the purpose of life itself. 

The Songs: 

Everything on side one is a highlight. Neil opens the record by sounding as if he’s swallowed a harmonica – the sound jumps out of the record to such an extent that every instrument heard in the next 35 minutes sounds quieter by contrast, no matter how heavily you turn the volume up – before singing solo to an acoustic guitar, a sound fans had been waiting to hear since 1975’s forgotten classic [89] ‘Pardon My Heart’. [134] ‘Little Wing’ dates back even further though, being from ‘Homegrown’, the album ‘Zuma’ and ‘pardon My heart’ replaced in the running order. This song is a complicated ballad about a mysterious girl who everyone under-rates and is scared of frightening her into flying off, but who ‘runs rings around them all’. It mirrors earlier classic ballad [38] ‘Birds’, too, in its allusions to ‘leaving feathers’ when this flighty bird disappears (although interestingly its passing children she leaves feathers to). As such I wonder if it is a later song about the same source: first wife Susan. A Californian girl who loves the summer sunshine, it sounds here as if Neil is comforting her not to be afraid of the darkness in which he lives, that ‘Winter is the best time of them all’. Alas, the song is frustratingly short and seems over before it’s begun –which is fitting for such a flighty creature who matches Neil in never staying in one place for very long, but is a shame given that the tune and the overall feel of this song is very promising indeed and could have turned into one of Neil’s most satisfying acoustic songs if finished. There is an electric version of this song from 1977 (performed by ‘The Ducks’) that’s better yet – Neil doesn’t have any extra verses but he does sing them all over again, making this artificially feel like a more developed song. Another piece of trivia for you – back in 1979 when David Crosby was in bad shape Atlantic rejected a proposed second solo album of his more because of fear of Croz’s drug problems and legal battles than his material (most of the songs have ended up on later solo/ CSNY CDs now anyway, though not many recordings alas). Crosby was a few songs short of a full album though and never the fastest of writers so asked Neil, one of the most prolific songwriters in history, if he had a spare song he could use for the album. Neil gave him ‘Little Wing’, but took it back when the Croz project fell through. A swirl of ethereal Crosby harmonies is just what this sweet little song needs – but Neil’s atmospheric approach suits the song just fine too.

The eerie and surreal life-history that is [135] ‘The Old Homestead’ has more facts and genuine truths about Neil Young’s life and career than probably any song before or since, but it’s delivered to the listener in an allegorical way within a tale about a man telephoning three vultures (generally reckoned to be CSN) while debating whether he ought to ride ‘that crazy horse’.‘Homestead’ is an entertaining ride, to these ears not the classic that many fans reckon but interesting and compelling to those who know their Neil Young well, although the recording could be better (Neil’s vocal and guitar-work is dubbed low in the muddy mix in favour of Tom Scribner – who actually made a career out of this sort of thing - hitting a saw to sound like your typical Hollywood Horror B-Movie). It all sounds like a real dream that Neil might have had, with his subconscious divided between the mainstream success and band camaraderie that Young enjoyed with Crosby, Stills and Nash and the rockier, less accessible music he made with Crazy Horse, torn about what road to take with his music (you can tell this is another l3eftover from 1975 and the wake of ‘Human Highway’ and the first flushes of ‘Zuma’ – by 1980 Neil has badly fallen out with the former and is about to fall out big time with the latter). We don’t get to hear Neil’s thoughts about this dream though – the debate within Neil’s head between the two sides would be fascinating to have heard – and the song is simply a shadowy nightmare without resolution or explanation, with the listener as lost within its complex imagery and convoluted ideas as Neil himself. Note, too, the many mentions of the 'moon' in this song and in Neil's work as a whole - he's since come out as a 'pagan', meaning that rather than worship a God in the sky he believes in an order to nature and the moon in particular is a big symbol. His character in this song, the naked rider, is clearly Neil - trying to get on a Crazy Horse that keeps throwing him off - but it's the moon that keeps forcing him back on as he feels the 'pull' tugging at his creativity, even when it isn't actually 'full', this mysterious force he doesn’t understand or can explain but which is there all the same. The line 'get back to the clouds, we're dying of thirst' is also a possible dig at CSN still living their hippie dream, which they need to survive - by contrast the Crazy Horse is built for the desert and can carry Neil's rider further than he can go alone. However Neil feels the reigns fall from his hand and the rider still keeps in touch with the vultures by telephone, weirdly, calling them up to hear what they are up to. Neil interestingly needs ‘light’ to see them – is this the hippie dream? Does he need to believe in what they are singing? Do Crazy Horse represent the ‘dark’ for him? I’m also not at all sure that it was CSN who vowed to ‘ditch this rider’; most bands don’t need the excuse to ditch Neil as he has half a foot out of the door when he arrives! By the tend of the song the rider is back on his Crazy Horse, tired out from effort, but the birds ‘still have his number’ and he might get a call from them at any time (a far cry from the modern age when the others wait impatiently for Neil to call them). No idea who the ‘shadow’ is that keeps asking Neil questions and putting doubt in his mind (His conscience? His fanbase? His record company?) or for that matter the priest who rather randomly walks down some stairs holding a ‘sack of dreams and old nightmares’. What does it all mean?!? To be honest this song could be about anything and only the fact the vultures number three and the horse is 'crazy' appear to offer clues that fans have naturally assumed mean Neil’s bands- but it still could be that Neil is just being mischievous with us here and this song really is about nothing, a demented 'bird' song that was written before the similarly surreal 'fish' song of [111] 'Will To Love'. I do however wait in vain for a sequel, inhabited by some stray gators, the international harvest mice, shocking pink flamingos and the promise of the sea-lions.  

[136] ‘Lost In Space’ is the album’s other key song that’s nearly always forgotten by the few Neil Young books that bother to look at this album with any depth. The song’s wonderful free-flowing laidback melody would sound right at home attached to nearly any set of words – except perhaps what Neil’s given them here. A complicated, murky list of complaints about the modern world and how mankind would be much better destroying himself and starting again, it mixes some of the most poetic and complicated double-rhyme-per-line lyrics of Neil’s whole canon (‘keeping all the grounds around her clean’) with some truly trite nursery rhyme stuff (the next rhyme is ‘working for the Queen’). The title and the line it comes from is confusing too – we start out hearing that Neil is ‘lost in space’ but the imagery is all sea-related and the narrator seems to be having problems surfacing rather than breaking his orbit. If you’ve got the patience to sift through this song’s muddy waters and the inkling to ponder such lines as ‘don’t take out that magic pen, don’t draw on the infinity board’ (lines that have confused many fans but ones that I’ve always taken to refer to mankind’s capacity for destruction and desecration of the Earth that was working just fine without his interference, thankyou) this song is a classic and one you can get lost in for hours. I wonder if this is a race, either mankind in the future or possibly the past or maybe another race entirely (the clandusprods from Zigorous 3?) landing on a suitable planet and rebuilding it up again, [32] ‘After The Goldrush’ style. Neil, though, wants changes: ‘they’ll never feel the way they did before’ is his comment about these people finding a new home, so he bids them to live on the ocean floor rather than the land. This species then spends their time ‘gardening again, landscaping again’, but without the destruction that led to them moving last time, acting like God with their re-wiring of the ‘infinity board’, an ecosystem that would have lasted forever without their meddling. I’m not so sure about the ‘underwater munchkin chorus’ though, as the peculiar high-pitched voices towards the end of the song have been lovingly dubbed by fans (and which does indeed suggest this is some other race). Neil, by the way, seems to be already here wherever here is – he bids these people to ‘live with me’ in the first verse, though the rest of the song is in the third-person narrative. Like most of the rest of the album you can’t quite work out what on earth is going on in this song, but unlike many songwriters who try and pull of this trick you’re sure that there really is something there to unmask and it’s not just a lot of gibberish (or to put it simply its ‘early’ Dylan rather than ‘late’ Dylan).

[137] ‘Captain Kennedy’ sounds on first hearing like the easiest song on side one to unravel. It is a morality tale about war, a young cadet hoping that he has learnt all his lessons and that ‘when I get to shore I hope that I can kill good’. But just as you think you’ve got the message of the song some curious line will trip you up and cause you to fall down. Again, many fans will continue to scratch their heads about this one for years to come – and Neil’s not likely to tell us what this song’s all about any time soon – but I think it’s another of Neil’s political allegories we’re dealing with here. JFK is the obvious choice – he did indeed work as a sailor in the 2nd World War which is where he broke his back to such an extent that he would have been considered severely disabled had news about this ever fully leaked to the public rather than been covered up. It could be that, or another cadet who happens to be named Kennedy. However my guess is that Neil is really writing about JFK’s elder brother Joseph Kennedy Junior. This was the all-American hero his dad had been busy grooming for presidential nomination at some point in the future and had everything: his younger brother’s rugged good looks but a political nous, hours of training and a fit and physical body. Naturally this groomed hero signed up early on during WWII to ‘fight the German schooners on the sea’ – but he died during a bombing raid when one of the weapons his plane was carrying went off prematurely. Neil may have been imagining his last moments here as he remembers all that training (not the war in this instance then, but to be president) which all amounted to nothing, leaving him hovering between life and death as his thoughts vary from ‘when I get to shore I hope that I can kill good’ and ‘I’m thinking about my family and what it was all for’. However even this isn’t a perfect description – the lyrics say that this Kennedy was a sailor not a pilot and the Kennedy who lost his life in the war was the ‘father’ of the narrator heading out to war (in Vietnam? Or Korea?) – and Joe Kennedy Jnr didn’t have any children. However there may yet be an explanation if you fudge things slightly: Joe was a war hero awarded numerous posthumous medals and even had a navy vessel named after him. His very much younger brother Robert, a full ten years his junior, served in it for a time (what must that do to your brain, risking your life in a vessel named after your dead elder brother killed in the same way you now fear?) Or maybe its all the Kennedy children, all lumped together as one person who all shared the same desperate need to please their ambitious dad Joe Senior. Throughout my studies of JFK’s life and career, it seems obvious to me that he liked pleasing people more than he actually liked yielding power or making decisions – and pleasing his quarrelsome and demanding father came top on his list. This is, of course, not all that far removed from Neil’s own ambitious father Scott, in whose footsteps he sorta kinda followed (in the sense that both are ‘writers’, if in wholly different mediums). Maybe Neil’s had the same thought here as this song finds a captain ‘lost at sea’, determined to fight bravely but unsure quite why, thinking about his ‘family’ while the uncontrollable tides lap around his feet and make him wonder what he’s just got into (and the Kennedy-instigated Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is about the closest political allegory to this song’s line about an ‘uncontrollable wave’ as we’re likely to live through). This being a ‘Chrome Dreams’ song though, why Neil should be thinking these thoughts a full fourteen years after John Kennedy’s assassination, eight years after Robert’s and a full twenty-three after Joe Junior’s death though, is anyone’s guess (and in case you’re wondering, no I thought of that – it was also first recorded eight after Joe Senior died). Whatever the reasoning behind it, however, ‘Kennedy’ is an ear-catching song, with a rise-and-fall cyclical melody unusual for Neil, and it’s a welcome chance to hear the guitarist singing solo to his own acoustic playing.                   

Side two is rather less welcome than the first, heralding the first batch of ‘withdrawal’ songs that will last to some degree right through ‘Re-Actor’, ‘Trans’ ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ ‘Old Ways’ and ‘Landing On Water’. The closest sound, however, is to an older album of Neil’s – the first side of 1977’s ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars.’ Bar-room honky-tonk might sound like a weird place to go – and it is – but some of these songs show promise at least and in the midst of a recession over which more and more people seem to be growing forgetful, it’s nice to be reminded by this album that we’ve actually had one of these credit crunch things in the past (they come round every fifteen years or so).

The next three tracks are less, well, everything compared to side one and a songwriter sleepwalking his way through his art. [138] ‘Staying Power’ features one of the worst vocals in Neil’s history, although somehow that’s strangely apt on this despondent song about trying to find some get up and go when you’re get up and go has just got up and left. You can tell in retrospect where Neil is coming from: he's tired and his brain is fried after so many hours trying to make Ben feel better. Nothing the Youngs do is working and, unlike a place of work, they can't escape as the programme for recovery took place in their own home. They can't even off-load to one another the way a couple normally would because they’re both going through the same thing. 'Staying Power' makes more sense now we know the 'story' behind it and is rather a sweet song of teamwork. At the time it just sounded like a rock musician being moody as a grin-and-bear-it riff and a honky tonk piano try and offer some yee-hah nearness but everyone in the room is too tired to feel it. In the end the Youngs will find the perfect solution: a Bridge School that exists for children like Ben that does great work but really needs a celebrity fundraiser to keep them on the straight and narrow. If you believe in such things, this is surely the ‘answer’ to the questions Neil and Pegi have been asking themselves about ‘why them?’ Her brains and his contact book are a powerful combination and by 1986 there will be annual fundraisers featuring a hugely impressive array of musical acts. The Youngs don’t know that here though and are still being told that the only way to make their son better is a sixteen-hour-a-day programme seven days a week. Yikes – that’s probably longer than the collective time Neil spent in Buffalo Springfield!  In retrospect you can forgive this song for sounding grumpy and under-par, then, but without coming out and saying what’s going on there’s no real sense of catharsis here either.

[139] ‘Coastline’ picks up where that song left off – it has virtually the same melody in fact and has only a marginally different arrangement – and is neither better or worse. These two songs are, alarmingly, the most obviously autobiographical songs on the album, detailing just how tough things were for Neil and his wife with all their many problems and how exhausted they were. It’s the last we’ll hear of Neil’s true self for a couple of albums – and when we hear it again it will be wrapped around so many vocoders and electronics it will be impossible to decipher without the lyric sheet. My guess is that this song is Neil back to his ‘On The Beach’ setting, staring at the coastline at what is suddenly a tsunami heading to him, not just a wave. This song is also grateful, though, for the love Neil has in this same wave – the coast was where he met his beloved (not strictly true if Pegi as it was a restaurant and not a seaside one, but hey ho) and has Neil taking his wife out dancing by the light of the moon where they first met in a rare moment of escape. As songs go this isn’t too bad – like many of Ray Davies’ muses about boredom it’s not that the songs themselves are boring, it’s just that they sound drained of all purpose and almost as if they have to sound monotonous to get their point across successfully. But oh God that country honky-tonk arrangement, that bar-room piano and that oh-so sterilised violin part – heck Neil if you really wanted to annoy me so much why didn’t you just play The Spice Girls and have done with it?!? 

When most fans first heard the jokey country hoe-down [140] ‘Union Man’ they thought Neil had lost the plot (and not for the first time either, I might add). What they maybe didn’t get was that this is surely a big fat joke. I’ve always welcomed the occasional glimpses we’ve had of Neil’s mischievous humour, which comes in very handy for breaking up Neil’s more serious or more moody records and this hilarious put-down is no exception. In it Neil tells us time and time again how pleased he is to be a ‘union man’ of the AF of M (presumably a spoof of the Associated Federation of Musicians) before giving the listener every reason under the sun as to why he should hate his job. After all, it’s the antithesis of Neil in this song, a slow burning unit who don’t get anything done and choose to do everything, however small, through a democratic vote. Neil sends them all up something rotten while the backing chorus meanwhile are singing ‘proud to be a union man’ in a very righteous flag-waving way that’s spot-on. Some of the lines are terrific (‘I pay my dues ahead of time, when the benefits come I’m last in line’), but there’s not enough of them – the song falls a bit flat when it gives up halfway and comes to a vote over whether ‘live music is better, bumper stickers should be issued’. That’s Ben Keith piping up from Neil’s collection of musicians and proposing this pointless adjudication. The fiddle part is great fun, though, and – as ever – Neil’s spiky guitar part is seemingly deliberately at odds with the laidback backing. Now I see why Neil hires and fires his musicians and is wary of joining bands! OK, so you won’t be able to play this song too many times before the joke palls but never mind – at least it’s given you a few laughs along the way. 

[141] ‘Comin’ Apart At Every Nail’ is the same melody set to very different words – although Neil still sings it in the same jokey way he sang the last track on my favourite of the second side songs. ‘It’s awful hard to find a job’ sings the Canadian-born American citizen crossly, ‘on one side the Government – the other the mob’, with the narrator desperately trying to find some form of connection between the ageless American dream and the American reality circa 1980. Neil sides himself – for the last time in a decade – with the ordinary working man whose ‘up for a hell of a fight’. Like [419] ‘Already Great’ in the ‘Trump’ age Neil’s position as an outsider allows him to see what the locals don’t: the riches, the industry, the sheer amount of things the country has to offer. Neil is though simultaneously annoyed: using the metaphor of America as the perfect family home,. He notes that the ‘fences are comin’ apart at every nail’. People need to do something soon or it will fall to chaos; in context Neil is clearly rallying to Reagan’s side here though he doesn’t actually come out and say it. The fiddle-playing makes this song sound even more country than the rest, but thankfully the honky-tonk piano’s good and guest Ann Hillary O’Brien sounds great in the ‘Nicolette Larson’ role alongside Ben Keith. The politics are maybe a little suspect, but this catchy song is heartfelt and you can at least imagine this one as the fierce electric guitar rant it should have been. Revive this one, please, Neil – it’s a typically classic song that just needs more time to be spend on it to make it truly swing. 

Title track [142] 'Hawks and Doves' suggests that Neil’s finally paid his electricity bill and got his electric guitar switched back on for a song that’s even more blatant that swing-voter Neil is siding with the Republicans. This is, for an honorary democrat foreigner like me, an uncharacteristically dumb  song as Neil tries to wave a patriotic flag and heap scorn on people who don’t believe in the stars and stripes the same way that he does. Some clever opening lyrics about aging and being more set in your ways promise much but soon degenerate into an un ugly song about how beautiful America could be if only her citizens loved her ideals as much as Neil does. Considering that Neil only entered the country illegally (during the Springfield days) and spent none of his childhood or teenage years there, this is a curious statement to make – is Neil being serious or having us on? Unlike ‘Union’ and ‘Nail’ Neil seems to be taking the vocal seriously this time, but with nasty and uncharitable lines like ‘if you hate us then you don’t know what you’re saying’ please please tell me Young didn’t mean a word of it. Another reading of the song could be that the ‘hawks and doves’ circling in the air’ are each competing for Neil’s affections – unlike many of the old hippies on this list and in a 180 degree shift from his CSNY days Neil actually campaigned in favour of super weapons during the height of the Cold War, albeit more for security’s sake than for using it to explode enemies – but Neil can’t choose which road to go down here and is still trying to make up his mind who to vote for. Perhaps a fairer assessment would be that despite all the shouting and bullying going on in this track Neil – the real, inner family-orientated Neil – doesn’t actually care that much about wider world affairs, he’s just concerned about what might happen to his family. Now that’s a song I could get behind; sadly though most of this song is just re-written daily Mail articles from an American perspective, cheap empty rhetoric from an artist who is usually better than this. After all, this song hardly compares to Neil’s most left-wing song ‘Ohio’ does it? That song had everything to say – this track has nothing. One of Neil’s all-time worst tracks. Neil seems to be ending the record vowing to always stay here, ready to defend his adopted homeland and to take on everyone who criticises him for that. 

If so then sorry, Neil, you were wrong – it’s the snatches of despair, frustration and melancholy that lift this album towards the upper ranks of your back catalogue and it’s the very vagueness and confusion of the album’s first side that keeps us coming back for more, not the sloganeering blatant propaganda of the second . Still, there’s never been a boring Neil Young record - well, not until ‘Silver and Gold’ and Postman Pat’s favourite album ‘Greendale’ at least – and ‘Hawks and Doves’ mix of the revealing and confusing, clarity and obscurity, fragility and hard-nosed politics, songwriting craft and throwaway recordings, acoustic gentleness and electric anger is unlike any in his back catalogue and remains one of the guitarist’s most under-rated and undeservedly forgotten efforts. This album is a true fan favourite, with more glimpses of Neil’s spirit and soul than usual. Obscure even compared to the other Young LPs late to join the CD party, keeping records like this one our little secret sounds good to me, what would you say?

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music

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