Friday 6 August 2010

Neil Young "American Stars 'n' Bars" (1977) (News, Views and Music 70) (Revised Review 2016)

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The Old Country Waltz/Saddle Up The Palomino/Hey, Babe/Hold Back The Tears/Bite The Bullet/Star Of Bethlehem/Will To Love/Like A Hurricane/HomeGrown

Neil Young “American Stars ‘n’ Bars” (1977)
'I wanna lick the platter - the gravy doesn't matter...for around the next corner may be waiting your true love'

Well, this is a strange one. No don't worry, it's not 'Doom Trilogy' strange or even 'Everybody's Rockin' or 'Landing On Water' style peculiar, but even in Neil's eclectic pantheon he'd never made an album quite like this before - then again nor had anyone else. Neil had spent most of 1977 uncharacteristically looking backwards having agreed to compile his first ever best-of 'Decade' for label Reprise to be out by Christmas (and unusually for Neil it came out on time!) Neil, though, wanted more than a typical best-of and already had two entirely unreleased albums to pilfer - 'Homegrown' from 1974 (an acoustic album at the exact halfway house between despair and hope) and 'Chrome Dreams' from the start of the year (an ambitious album that contains basically every Neil Young track you've ever heard of composed somewhere between 1976 and 1980). Not sure about what to release next to a public who were actually getting impatient for a change (usually we can't keep up with Neil's muse and music but Zuma had been, ooh 18 months ago and no the Stills-Young Band didn't count) Neil decided to release his favourite bits of both as a sort of teaser to 'Decade' (which also happened to feature two of these tracks again a mere four months later). However while recording the intended final track on the album, cutesy country-rock lament 'Hold Back The Tears' with new friends Linda Ronstadt (quite a coup - she was a big name back in 1977) andf Nicolette Larsson (also a coup as it turns out, but this album was her first work - she'll score a big solo hit the following year covering Neil's 'Lotta Love'), Neil decided he was having so much fun he'd record a whole load more songs in this vein. This was in April. The album came out in June. It was such a last minute decision that somebody in the Young camp must have run with the master-tapes to the Reprise pressing plant to get them out at all.

No wonder this album sounds such an odd, disparate, schizophrenic mess - it's a collage of three different albums made in three very different periods in Neil's life (moving from depressed ex lover to narrative storyteller to the first flushes of being a bachelor again before the 'family album' Comes A Time comes along next in 1978) with no link between them at all. The title and packaging were also decided at the last minute ('Chrome Dreams' originally came with a close-up of a car ornament hood, recycled for 'Chrome Dreams II' in 2007 - an album which, typically, has nothing whatsoever to do with the original) and reflect this dual approach. On side one come the new songs, the 'Bars' part of the album (trust Neil to do things backwards), where in playwright Dean Stockwell's typically weird  cover a sozzled Young lies drunk on a bar-room floor while manager David Briggs' then-girlfriend Connie Moskos teases him from the top of a bar with a bottle of Canadian Whisky. On side two, the 'Stars' side, we get mountains and indians - even though Neil's songs about mountains and indians were left back on 'Chrome Dreams' (was this originally that album's back cover?) This side doesn't really count as 'stars' somehow - it features, in varying order, a man obsessed with love that taunts him like a hurricane, a man growing his own marijuana stash, a man wondering if the Bible was real and if the Star of Bethlehem was just an illusion and a day in the life of a salmon crying out for love. Maybe the idea is that we're all stars going through the same experiences, even when we're lowly fish - or maybe Neil's original plan was to include his 'name' songs from the two abandoned albums such as 'Pocahontas' and 'Captain Kennedy' here instead? Either way, the result is Neil's first real 'sampler' for all his varying, eclectic styles that are usually housed across a full record of the same genre - both 'Hawks and Doves' in 1980 and 'Freedom' in 1989 will use this still and these sorts of albums generally appear at the end of decades when Neil is looking back. This time, though, it's 'Decade' that's caused Neil's nostalgia with the idea that even when chucking a load of his different songs together they still sound pretty good; the problem is that the 'playlist' style running order on 'Decade' really works - this album really doesn't.

Sides one and two having almost nothing whatsoever to do with each other (bar the rather childish fun of 'Homegrown' anyway) – and the four songs on side two having nothing in common either. To take the sides in order, the first half of this wildly varying banquet is a noisy, unpalatable, clichéd collection of country songs that were all too obviously written on the hop and performed by Neil at his worst: corny, off-key and insincere. Even as an early example of Neil's 'first thought best thought only thought' manner of thinking outside Crazy Horse, it palls - thank goodness we didn't get a whole album of this stuff because it would have been easily Neil's worst up until that time; maybe right up to 'Greendale' in 2003. We get a tired old song about a country waltz reflecting unimaginatively on a relationship that's over. We get a song about saddling up a horse and heading out into pastures new because a relationship is clearly over. We get a simple generic song about needing love because the narrator does have any - his relationship is over. 'Hold Back The Tears' sounds better than the rest but even this song about keeping a stiff upper lip because - oh yeah - a relationship is over was never going to win any originality contests. And then there's 'Bite The Bullet' which ranks as one of the most misguided misogynistic mistakes in the Neil Young canon ('She's a walking sex machine, I love to hear her scream' indeed). Anyway Neil's feeling randy because, guess what, an old relationship is over. What seems odd in retrospect is that Neil is so trapped in the past having already got over his marriage to Carrie on the bachelor party album 'Zuma' - given the lurid details in most Young biographies it's a party that lasted right up until the end of 1977 and after this album when Neil meets future wife Pegi and begins working out that he's actually more of a homegrown than a party animal and stability is a better for him than floozies. Anyway, like a drunken uncle, this first side of the record embarrasses itself quietly in the corner and feels slightly ashamed of itself even while it's singing about sleeping around and playing the game. Only the fact that Linda and Nicolette join in too and are clearly having a fun ol' time softens the blow and lifts it into the listenable rackets  - sometimes.

Side two is another beast entirely though containing three of Young's best songs of the 1970s, collected from a whole variety of sources. Every fan knows 'Like A Hurricane' or at least they should - Neil's intensity or his ability to say much while saying little has never sounded greater and nor for that matter have his guitar solos which are dynamite across a gripping eight minutes that would have blown lesser musicians away. Especially compared to the first side this is Neil when he means it and the result is powerful as themes of obsession and hypnotism combine in a song you just can't take your ears off, but also with a stillness that makes the eye of a hurricane the perfect metaphor. The only way it could have sounded any more perfect would have been for Neil to use it as the finale of 'Chrome Dreams' instead of partway through this one.  Just as good but more forgotten is 'Star Of Bethlehem', a 1974 'Homegrown' outtake that finds Neil is depressed and fragile mood. No wonder - he thought he'd found the person he was going to spend the rest of his life with and their connection felt oh so terribly real (it's almost certainly about Carrie and 'Hurricane' almost certainly is too, which will give you some idea about the emotional link between them; by contrast the marriage with Pegi was peaceful and comforting, at least until Darryl Hannah got involved too). Neil can't believe that something that bright and alluring could possibly be that alluring and yet he sadly realises it was, with the perfect metaphor of his other favourite mid-1970s past-time of bible bashing allowing him to wonder aloud if he believes in miracles any longer - and whether the Star of Bethlehem wasn't a star at all. It's Neil at his lyrical metaphorical-but-emotional best and much under-rated. The biggest gem of this record though is the song long dismissed as a comedy piece in which a muffled Neil, singing in front of a roaring fire, sings about being a salmon pushing on against the current driven forward by a need to love. In anybody else's hands a seven minute song about a fish would be a joke - but Neil means every word, from spooky life metaphor about bein g a loner ('It has often been my dream to live with one who wasn't there') to the cleansing water of love 'keeping my fins from getting dry, though it distorts what's in my eye'. Written more or less on the spot, Neil spent a fun night phoning up every instrument rental shop he could find and ordering everything, overdubbing bits and pieces bar by bar as he saw fit. It remains one of the greatest examples of Neil's pure restless creative spirit and far from being a fishy tale proves that Neil can write from any angle and sing anything if he believes in the 'core' message enough to convey it. Then there's 'Homegrown', a song about growing drugs that's so 1970s it hurts and seems to stand against everything the anti-drug album 'Tonight's The Night' was on about, but we won't mention that if you won't. Talk about a mixed bag.

Far better would have been for Neil to release his better tracks as part of 'Chrome Dreams', up there with The Beach Boys' 'Smile' and The Who's 'Lifehouse' as the greatest AAA lost album all (even if it's not quite as staggeringly brilliant as many fans tend to think: it had 'Homegrown' on it again for starters; 'Bethlehem' would have been revived for this album too most likely). Someone asked me the other day (editor's note - make this the other year now) why Neil’s last-but-one album was titled ‘Chrome Dreams II’ and why they couldn’t get their hands on the first album. The reason, in true Neil Young fashion, is that technically there isn’t a ‘Chrome Dreams I’ : or at least it exists only in the minds of fans who’ve been reading about the record’s 1977 sessions in Neil Young biographies or in the hands of bootleggers. For those who don’t know the story, 1977 was a confusing year for Neil and even more confusing one for the record company, after the star promised to deliver the ‘greatest hits with a difference’ set ‘Decade’, followed by the history-loving ‘Chrome Dreams’ – only for Neil to postpone ‘Decade’ for a year, record a new 20 minutes’ worth of country honk romps, release quite a few songs on both LPs and scrap the ‘Chrome’ project altogether. Fans have been salivating ever since reading the track listing as most of the highlights of the next three Young albums were meant to be on the album: ‘Look Out For My Love’ (from ‘Comes A Time’ 1978), ‘Pocahontas’, an acoustic ‘Powerdinger’  and a much slower and marginally more powerful version of ‘Sedan Delivery’ (all released on 1979’s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’) plus 'Little Wing' and ‘Captain Kennedy’ (‘Hawks and Doves’ 1980) not to mention gorgeous outtake 'Stringman' and the sweet 'Too Far Gone' (re-recorded to lesser effect for 1989's 'Freedom'). What an album that would have been, even with a couple of filler songs in there too - after a run of patchy records it would have been Neil's creative best since 'Tonight's The Night' and his most listenable best since 'Goldrush'. Perhaps Neil felt the album didn't hang together well (in truth it's about as cohesive as this one and that's not saying much), or maybe he wanted more stuff in the vaults for 'Decade II' or maybe Neil was having too much fun making wacko country-rock songs about drinking and relationships that were over - whatever the reason there are few fans who'd take the album we got over the one that could have been. As a result, however good parts of the album are – and even though ‘Like A Hurricane’ remains one of Neil’s best loved tracks of all time, ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ has a reputation for being something of an anti-climax, a half-baked lost opportunity that could have been so much more. To this day 'Stars n Bars' is measured not so much on its own terms but for being a low-key replacement that couldn't possibly hope to match with everything fans had been reading about it (in that sense it's more 'Smiley Smile', the low budget replacement for 'Smile', than 'Who's Next's conquering dilution of 'Lifehouse').

Like so many Neil Young albums, American Stars ‘n’ Bars is a good old fashioned compromise between Neil’s planned collection of acoustic songs celebrating American history and the new set of hastily recorded country songs that has just awakened his muse. Like many a 70s Neil Young album, if only the star had made fewer recordings per calendar year and taken his time over deciding the track-listing and album themes we might have been on for the decade’s greatest classic – but then, it just wouldn’t sound like Neil. Every Neil Young album has a classic on there somewhere (even ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Silver and Gold’ have classic lurking on them somewhere, you just have to hear the albums a dozen times each before you find them; I'll give Neil the benefit of the doubt over 'Greendale' for now but I must confess I'm still waiting for that one) and even the greatest, most consistent and important milestones of Neil’s career has something odd to puzzle over (acknowledged classic ‘After The Goldrush’ alone has the underdeveloped ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’ and ‘Til’ The Morning Comes’, an under-rated cover of pop classic ‘Oh! Lonesome Me’ dragged out to triple the length and the out-of-place ranting of ‘Southern Man’).

I have a theory about this record and why it turned out the way it did - one not borne out by any other reviewer, but hey when did that ever stop me? Back in 1970 Neil's career seemed easy: he wasn't planning to record with any other band but Crazy Horse. They felt like the only band that could play what Neil wanted at the time - something powerful, but simple and direct. However Danny Whitten's death that year and the ad hoc bands made since (most of which Neil didn't like very much) led to him seeing Crazy Horse in a very different light by the time they re-grouped with new guitarist Frank Sampedro in 1975. While 'Homegrown' was largely solo, 'Chrome Dreams' was intended as a 'band' record (bar 'Pocahontas', 'Captain Kennedy' 'Little Wing' 'Will To Love' and the 1974 outtakes anyway). Neil could perhaps have ridden the new-look Horse forever at this point - certainly it's not like him to have made effectively two records back to back, interrupted by the ill-fated Stills-Young LP. However not all of these songs sound like natural fits for Crazy Horse. Even the ones that do feature the band, like 'Look Out For My Love' and 'Sedan Delivery', don't sound like natural Horseplay, as it were, pushing the band to new heights of subtlety, perfection and glossiness. Neil may have started wondering if sticking with one band was the right thing to do after all for a songwriter of so many different colours and whether the Horse could keep up the pace (even though if anything it's the solo songs from 'Chrome Dreams' that are the weakest). Booking Linda and Nicolette into a single session and enjoying their company so much he re-enrolled them for another four and began to wonder if a second album with Crazy Horse's name on the cover was necessarily a good thing straight away. Neil had also got back together with Crosby, Stills and Nash twice – in 1974 and 1976, resulting in two half-completed abandoned albums and a tour with Stephen Stills that ended with Neil getting bored and deliberately travelling the wrong way for a gig and abandoning the tour unannounced (see news and views no 33 for more). Even for Neil, abandoning and then recruiting bands twice over was unusual – and the fact that a public longing for more Crazy Horse and CSNY got given a strong dollop of raucous country with a one-off band that were never seen again has much to do with this album’s poor reputation. When Neil wrote his material he probably had no idea which of his many groups were going to record it – and the confusion shows in the album.

My other theory is that this album of odds and ends does have a theme linking it and it's an apt one: confusion. Neil's had enough of partying and enjoying his freedom but he's still afraid of commitment after two marriages that went wrong in quick succession. Neil wasn’t to know that he’d meet his wife of 30 years Pegi just a few months after this album’s release and the difference between this album and successor 'Comes A Time' (His first record for her) is the difference between night and day (or The Beatles and The Spice Girls if you'd rather). Practically every track has an aching sadness that there is someone missing in Neil’s life who should be there. You can hear it on side one, with the hurried honky tonk country parables about narrators missing their wives/girlfriends and getting drunk and horny in retaliation. ‘Bite The Bullet’, especially, is the most ‘whoopee I’m single’ in the whole of Neil’s catalogue. This theme of desperate loneliness fits the ‘other’ three side two tracks as well, all written after the split with Carrie: ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ is about finding out that the thrilling exciting partnership in your life turns out to be something else entirely a few years down the line, ‘Like A Hurricane’ is a dreamscape about a mysterious imaginary person the narrator sees in his dreams and which isn't a cosy 'safe' romance at all but a hurricane that's primed for destruction and ‘Will To Love’ is, erm, about a fish fighting his way upstream in search of a mate (of course, it's also the most autobiographical song of the lot). Neil doesn't know if he's coming or going, wants to party or settle down, obsessed with his old lover but knowing he can't return. Throw in the number of bands Neil's joined and quit in recent years and you can understand why he feels a little bit dizzy.

So, if we forget about the album ‘Stars ‘n’ Bars’ could have been for the moment, how good actually is it? Well, most critics dislike the first side – and I actively hate it. The recordings weren’t intended for release at the time (singer Nicolette Larsson claims they were rehearsals for s set of recordings to be made in the future and was furious when they were released) and they sound like it – even for Neil they are rough, raw and painful to listen to at times. Country music might have suited Neil’s state of mind but as a generalisation Neil never got to grips with the genre in the same way he did rock, electronic, rockabilly, folk, etc (the list goes on and on) and his efforts here could have been written by any star with a modicum of talent (a terrible thing to say about a writer as inventive and original as Neil). Two of the songs are vaguely promising (‘Palomino’ and ‘Hold Back The Tears’) but they’re what the base standard of the record should have been, not the highlights. However, while most critics quite like the second side I actively love it. And I don’t just mean the well known ‘Like A Hurricane’ – ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ is one of Neil’s most under-rated gems, a depressive song about things turning out to be something else that’s up there with his cleverest songs and the curious, compelling, downright unique ‘Will To Love’, with its mangled sound and metaphors, is one of the most important songs Neil ever wrote. Only ‘Homegrown’ lets the side down, but that’s what comes from writing a song when drunk, playing it back when drunk, releasing it when drunk and being embarrassed by it after release when sober. No wonder this record was one of four Young albums unavailable on CD for years - until as late as 2003 in fact, around twenty years after the invention of the compact disc (the others being 'On The Beach' 'Hawks and Doves' and 'Re-Ac-Tor'). Many many Neil Young albums vary in quality and this album may be the most Neil Youngy of them given the way it varies between pure inspiration and mediocre filler on a nearly track by track basis. However if you can take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad and the ugly and the Hurricanes with the bullets then, dear reader, you'll have passed one of many tests in being a Neil Young fan and can proudly upgrade your way to enjoying the experiments of the Geffen years and working out whether Neil's 21st century albums are more perspiration or inspiration. Though the bars are clearly a bad place to end up, the best of this record proves that maybe Neil was a star after all. 

‘The Old Country Waltz’ is probably not the most auspicious start the record could have had though. So slow it sounds as if its running at the wrong speed, with Neil more out of tune than unusual and with all of Young’s usual instrumentation replaced by a generic pedal steel, this song seems wilfully determined to damage the record from the get-go. Had the band turned in a more professional recording, this could have been quite a pleasing b-class number, one that isn’t very revealing or particularly memorable or inventive, but does have a pretty tune and the odd good line. But, understandably given how rushed these recordings were and that they were never intended for release at the time till Neil heard and liked the playback, the song comes across as a pale version of what could have been. As Neil says, ‘I ain’t got no excuses – I just want to play’ – and his desperation to get what he felt across was rather to the ruin of this sweet but not particularly well written song. Even on half-asleep, mode, though, the harmonies between Neil and guest Nicolette Larsen sound remarkably good, with the two sometimes harsh vibratos cancelling each other out for a sound that’s almost CSN-ish. Goodness only knows what this song has to do with either stars or bars, however.

A bit of embarrassed giggling kicks off second song ‘Saddle Up The Palomino’ – and surprisingly, given that this is one of the most uncharacteristic songs he ever wrote, it isn’t Neil finding something to laugh about. ‘Saddle Up The Palomino’ sounds on the surface to be more like it: Neil’s plugged in his electric guitar and the words are much less generic than before, with some typical stream of consciousness lines that Young is so good at. But the plot of the song follows a man from the country, saddling up his horse to seek out new horizons and stalking a figure he’s fallen in love with – who, its revealed in the last verse, is the narrator’s friendly neighbour’s wife. Very un-Neil that, especially the ‘way I feel this must be real’ chorus lyric which sounds more pop than revelation country song and the lines about ‘if you can’t cut it, don’t pick up the knife’ seem very wrong considering its the narrator whose at fault here and innocents who are going to suffer because of it. The whole song sounds ugly, not in a good falling-apart-but-i’m-too-emotional-to-care way like most of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ but a song planned to be nasty and written to provoke the audience as much as possible. As a result, even a classy (if under-used) riff and some good lines (especially ‘life is like a cold bowl of chilli when life let’s you down’ – the kick, excitement and overwhelming emotions are still there, but in a way that’s hard to digest) can’t recue this limping song. You also miss Crazy Horse, who could have given this song a much better backing track – not for the last time on this album I might add.

‘Hey Babe’ comes as something of a relief. Yes its dull, yes the lyrics are atrocious (‘hey babe, hey babe, oh-oh can you see my love shining for you? Oh-oh can you see my love shining for you? Hey babe etc) and yes Neil seems to be singing the lyrics having never seen them before (his vocal is all over the place, missing some words and coming in too early for others) but at least this song sounds like a Neil Young song. I don’t know why it does – there’s nothing noticeably Neil-ish about this third country song, with its lacklustre riff and generic chorus, but somehow the guitar tuning, the clever guitar riff and familiar chord changes all come together to make this sound like a ‘Harvest’ outtake. Compared to the ‘Comes A Time’ arrangements in a few months’ time this is slapdash indeed, but somehow for once on this record’s opening side the sheer basicness of the song is quite charming, with the narrator’s simple desires to tell his partner how much he loves her quite sweet. The pedal steel also comes across quite well here, as does the wondering violin, setting a good counterpart of obstinacy and unchanging feelings when set against Neil’s ever busy guitarwork (for such a simple song, there aren’t half a lot of chord changes in ‘Hey Babe’).  Not the sort of thing you’d expect to hear on a Neil Young best-of, but compared to the last two tracks we’re back on the right road.

‘Hold Back The Tears’ is similarly semi-impressive, with Neil finally singing as he means something and a chorus melody that’s one of Neil’s strongest in years (since ‘On The Beach’ I reckon). Nicolette is again on fine form, her nagging but sympathetic vocal doing much to drive the narrator metaphorically onwards towards happier times. Although all the songs on this record thus far have been about unhappiness and an unexpected split between the narrator and his girl, this is the first time Neil seems to be writing from the heart rather than acting a role. He’s not a country farmer in this one, or a randy adulterous farmhand but an upset and confused everyman, telling himself some good advice he knows he’ll never take. The repetition really works in this song, with the chorus cutting back in several times in an effort to ‘wake’ the song up, but we know subliminally that the narrator isn’t listening, he’s too busy feeling sorry for himself and its notable that every time the chorus dies the song changes key back to the minor again, with the narrator dredging up yet another memory from the past. This is a clever song about regrets and guilt, which does exactly the opposite of what it claims to do – even the seemingly straightforward opening verse about being glad the girl’s out the way so the narrator can see more of his helpful friends is obvious in musical terms: what with the minor key, slow tempo and pedal steel accompaniment, this song sounds like its crying even when the lyrics are happy (Neil was actually talking about the track ‘Out On The Weekend’ from ‘Harvest’ when he offered the famous quote ‘the song is actually happy but the way I sing it it can’t help sounding sad’, but the concept works just as well here).  Definitely the highlight of the first side of the album – and, in truth, probably the only song from the opening 15 odd minutes that you’ll ever want to play more than once.

Alas ‘Bite The Bullet’ undoes all the good work. In normal circumstances this would be a no-holds-barred rocker about lust, but like many a Neil Young arrangement this one is re-cast for a most puzzling array of instruments, including pedal steel and country harmonies. Like ‘Paolomino’ and the up-coming ‘Homegrown’ ‘Bullet’ has been taken by most fans to be a joke – at least we hope it’s a joke, as this lustful song about treating women as sex objects and how the narrator longs to make his partner ‘scream’ is deeply uncomfortable if taken at face value. Neil being Neil, he sings this song much straighter than the other we’ve heard so far, though, making you question what exactly is behind the song?  Now, Neil was never the most women’s lib kind of a guy although his most picked-on songs about the subject have been misunderstood (‘A Man Needs A Maid’ is about a man so hurt by love that the only women he wants in his life is one who works for him rather than falls in love with him, while the unreleased CSNY song ‘Pushed It Over The End’ is about taking the concept to the extreme, with women taking over all male roles rather than making the sexes equal  - how typical, by the way, that this sterling song is still unreleased when the likes of this horrible track sold several million copies on the back of ‘Hurricane’). But ‘Bite The Bullet’ truly is against the grain, even though it seems to have been a short-term way of thinking for Neil and is never mentioned by him again – you can imagine Neil recording this song in a huff with his wife one night and never thinking that he’d have to defend against this song 33 years later. But that’s no excuse – not when there were so many better and more fulfilling songs left in the archives which don’t cause half as much upset as this one, with its images of ‘walking love machines’ and the tasteless title line which must be the most unromantic and peculiar lines Neil ever wrote.

Side two, thankfully, is much better. Despite its similar country-folky heritage ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ is so superior to all that’s come before it with the opening note alone that it’s hard to believe it’s by the same artist. The song dates back to 1976, a comparatively recent song for the second side, and despite being one of the most depressing things Neil ever wrote is among my favourite of his songs. The song concerns the loss of love that comes with relationships over time, how the people we think we know really well turn out to be strangers revealing hidden traits and how the person whose every characteristic you worship can end up irritating you after several years spent together. Or, as the third verse phrase puts it succinctly, the light that you saw in the person you admire might be an artificial one ‘from a light down the hall’ and not their radiating inner beauty as you thought. The title is clever, too, with the metaphor of light summing up the myth/truth of Christianity with the phrase beloved of scientists and hated by theologioans: maybe the star of Bethlehem, which heralded the coming of Christ wasn’t a ‘star’ at all but a similarly artificial and longed-for-but-unreal light.    Uncharacteristically, Neil addresses the listener here, confiding in us ‘ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning...’ and the song is unusually heavy and sombre, with one of Neil’s best ever vocals (surprisingly low-pitched for this period of Neil’s career) suggesting how close to his heart this song is. Most moving of all, perhaps is the second verse: the person you thought was going to be in your life forever is only ‘passing through you’ in the end – not even ‘passing through’, oblivious to your presence which would be bad enough, but ‘passing through you’ like a ghost that still haunts the narrator, however much he tries to forget her. Considering this song only has three verses – and no choruses – it doesn’t half pack a punch, telling a whole story complete with a beginning, middle and an end. One of Neil’s most under-rated songs, most fans were surprised when this song became one of only two tracks from this album to appear on ‘Decade’, the LP this album replaced in the Reprise catalogue (along with ‘Hurricane’, of course). But it more than holds its own I think, being one of Neil’s most elliptical, symbolic and genuinely moving songs. Everybody whose ever found their life going in a different path to the one they intended will find much to love and the carefully thought out and sensitive arrangement does much to suggest that the oft-held Neil Young-ism ‘first thought, best thought, only thought’ might not be so true after all.

‘Will To Love’ is just as fascinating and another highlight of his entire catalogue. When I tell you that this song is an extended metaphor about a fish swimming upstream and fighting obstacles, you’ll either think I’ve gone monkeynuts again or that this is one of Neil’s ‘joke’ songs. Neither is true (although, the former opinion is arguably up for debate) as ‘Will To Love’ is one of Neil’s more serious songs. Alarm bells always ring when Neil pretend to be someone else because it usually means he’s writing his most naked and autobiographical songs about events so close to home that he can’t write about them in the normal way (the whole ‘Trans’ album about the difficulties of having two sons with cerebral palsy  -  see review no 84 - is the most obvious, although there are plenty of others such as the gun runner/drug addict death in ‘Tired Eyes’ and the crazed murderer of ‘Revolution Blues’). Even being a fish can’t disguise that this song is more or less the ‘true’ Neil talking to us – oh and listen out for how low-key the music is, another sign of this song’s honesty given that, generally, if you can’t hear what Neil’s singing about then it matters. A lot.

The reason this song has such a low-key sound is because Neil ‘plays’ every instrument himself, ordering lots of unusual instruments he didn’t know how to play and walking from one to another in turn, overdubbing at random.  The staff, assuming Neil was going to bring a load of veteran session musicians in with him, looked on amazed. But somehow this hazy song rings true – the emotions felt by the fish/human narrator of this track are equally hazy and confusing, with the character driving himself onward through many problems and against his better judgement, unaware exactly what unknown force is driving him forward. The lyrics are among the best in Neil’s career – which is why they’re repeated verbatim in the ‘key lyrics’ above. The first verse is (comparatively) the straightforward one: the fish tells us that he feels the strain when the waters he swim in run ‘deep’, tiring him all the more as he tries to come to terms with the emotional stresses around him. In true Neil Young fashion, though, the narrator isn’t interested in the past and can’t get back there anyway – he’s more interested in moving forward and leaving his mistakes behind. The second verse takes us back to ‘The Star Of Bethlehem’ with the narrator comparing himself or perhaps his subconscious artistic self to a ‘fire in the night’, a glow of honesty and emotion that glares out as a beacon when things turn dark and shows Neil the way he ought to go forward. Neil then tells us that sometime the glare given off by his subconscious ‘shines too bright’, a clear reference to the ‘hidden’ autobiography littered through Neil’s career and perhaps his acknowledgement that chopping and changing bands depending on his muse hurts people. Listen out too for the chorus lines about how this feeling, described as the ‘will to love’ and feel things so deeply, is described as ‘feels like something from up above’ – given by God perhaps, although the ‘feels like’ phrase suggests that Neil isn’t too sure where his talent comes from and takes him b y as much surprise as anyone else.

The third verse finds the fish in trouble, with his belly ‘scraping on the rocks’ and his fins ‘in the air’, as clear an image of distress as you’ll ever hear. As we’ve seen throughout this confused album, Neil is still smarting from his broken marriage and his emotions were laid bare in this period, perhaps a little too bear given how many of them are still unreleased and yet still the fish pushes on, hopeful that his love will be around the corner to save him. Particularly revealing is the fourth verse where the fish imagines himself as a singer in a band, afraid that his rambling is driving his friends away but unable to stop his subconscious working overtime in trying to relate and understand the life around him. It seems as if the ‘water’ the fish is swimming around in is really emotions/Neil’s artistic side and the ‘water’ that both cools his eye and makes him feel better while distorting his vision (a ‘fish eye lens’ no less) is a very powerful image. The penultimate image is more or less the same, with Neil talking about ‘rambling on and on’, afraid that opening himself to this subconsciousness too much will push his audience too far and talking about the dangers of water, ‘drowning’ in snow which is presumably feelings about past emotions that have ‘frozen over’. The memory of a stream from which ‘we all came’ is also interesting, suggesting a common source of emotion that’s felt by all beings to some extent although the line about ‘millions of others all the same’ suggests that there are many others travelling this puzzling journey in search of a mate across the human (and indeed fish) races. The final verse then ends the song in a more comforting spot, with the fish imagining his soul mate as a person who can keep up with him when he swims against the tide and share in his emotional feelings without getting bored and turning away. Happily this is as close a description of second wife Pegi as you can get (not as a fish, I say hastily, but as a person as prepared to fight for justice as Neil and able to keep him going) and perhaps the reason this song remains such an oddity in the Neil Young canon is that the songwriter didn’t remain in this confused part of his life for long. For Neil that’s fantastic but for us that’s a shame because this wonderfully obtuse and fascinating song is one of the all time Neil Young greats, with the salmon forcing his way onward a much better metaphor for human relationships than anyone whose read about this track rather than heard it can have thought  I take it back what I said earlier, sometimes ‘first thought, best thought’ really is the way forward and this track – unplanned and never repeated in concert or re-recordings to this day – is one of the strongest of testaments to that epithet.

However most fans who bought the album then and now probably turned to ‘Like A Hurricane’ first. When the song was first heard on the Crazy Horse tour of 1976 fans immediately claimed it as one of his best, not least because it sounds at once so like a Neil Young song and at the same time so unlike anything else we’d heard from him before. Alas, the studio version of this track has come in for some stick over the years: for some odd reason the band modified their arrangement, with rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro playing some very out-of-place synthesiser instead of second guitar. But even though this studio version pales in comparison to the live recordings on ‘Live Rust’ and ‘Weld’, there’s no doubting the majesty of the track. Neil again turns in one of his best vocals here, sounding truly lost and helpless against the musical onslaught of one of the best-recorded electric guitar parts ever made and a plodding backing from the horse that keeps threatening to tie his feet to the ground. The hazy, hypnotic feel of the song, which unlike some Crazy Horse songs is really well suited to the extended, improvised end, owes much to the interplay between the two, with Neil’s guitar and swirling keyboards reaching ever higher, so that the band sound as if they are playing in slow motion or in the eye of a gigantic hurricane. In fact the last two minutes go some way to redeeming this ‘lesser’ recording, as Neil’s anguished guitar solo towards the end is one of his best, stretching out just that little bit further with each pass on the song’s riff, like both the emotions that keep driving the character onward and the un-attainability of the ideal partner in the song.

This is the perfect backing for a song about being lost in the grip of emotions. While the other tracks on ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ have for the most part been bemoaning past losses, ‘Hurricane’ is all about the excitement of new love and the feeling that, despite the narrator’s best attempts, he can’t help getting caught up in the turmoil of the electricity between the pair. Most lesser writers would stick with that, but Neil makes it clear in the song that its his prospective partner’s very stability and understatedness that’s turning him on, with her simple faith in him causing the somersaults we keep hearing in sound. One other point that fans often miss about this song is that the narrator is imaging his ideal love, he hasn’t actually met her yet – hence the oft-quoted Neil Young line ‘I am just a dreamer – but you are just a dream’ (compare this to the last track’s ‘It has often been my dream to live with one who isn’t there’). The narrator’s desperation and loneliness also becomes clear with the next line ‘you could have been anyone to me’ – this song isn’t about true love as such, its the narrator’s desperate need to be in love which overwhelms him the most and cancels out his other emotions. Interestingly the song starts with the line ‘once I thought I saw you...’, suggesting that the character has built up his ideal soulmate from a short glimpse at someone in the distance he never got to know. In that case the lines about ‘getting blown away’ are a red herring: there is no real person to act coolly to the narrator and his emotions mean he keeps getting ‘blown’ towards her, not away from her.  However, the genius of the song is that, like many a Young classic, its as simple or as deep as we want it to be. We can all identify with the feeling that our emotions are tugging us into places we don’t want to go – and if we go that bit further we can also identify with the need to come up with some ideal to measure other partnerships against. The end result is a staggering song, simple enough for radio airplay and to drag new, intrigued listeners into the fold but deep and ‘real’ enough to keep old fans happy. Unlike some fans out there, I don’t think that ‘Hurricane’ is Neil’s best work, but it is up there somewhere with his very best and despite the lengthy eight minute running time it doesn’t run a note longer than it ought to.

After the rigours of the last three songs, ‘Stars ‘n’ Bars’ signs off with a seemingly deliberately frivolous song ‘Homegrown’ – although in truth its more a self-indulgent joke than a ‘song’. For the few people out there who haven’t already guessed, the song is about the delights of growing marijuana in greenhouses and is only just about subtle enough to get away without a ban in 1977 (it probably wouldn’t today!) The backing is just as slapdash as the country songs on the first side but is in a much rockier phase, with the Horse sounding even more under-rehearsed than usual (though the closing a capella section is quite delightful and yet more evidence of the Horse’s beginnings as a Four Freshman-type vocal group). Full marks to Neil’s guitarwork once again which drives this peculiar song forward nicely, although it’s a shame that the song fizzles out just as Young seems to be working up to a big solo. And that’s about it really – drug users the world over are chanting ‘yeah man’, the rest of us are going ‘what?!’ and those who don’t like Neil at all are saying ‘I can’t hear the words anyway’. You have to question why this song made the album, though, when the likes of ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Captain Kennedy’ were held in reserve.

So, ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ must stand as one of the most schizophrenic and quality varying albums in the history of AAA releases (interestingly, I barely used the word ‘schizophrenic’ when I wrote about the ‘core’ 101 releases but I’ve had to use it a lot recently for the ‘news and views’ reviews, showing perhaps the importance of consistency when judging an album’s worth). If only Neil had abandoned his country project, or perhaps taken the best two songs from it and worked on them a bit and added the better songs from this album and Chrome Dreams’ outtakes we’d have had a cracker on our hands here. The title would also have made more sense: as it turns out, this album has a lot of boozy reverie on the first side but practically nothing on the ‘stars’ side of things (presumably Neil came up with the title when ‘Pocahontas’, the elusive politician/hero/everyman ‘Captain Kennedy’  and the Indian-Cowboy saga ‘Powerdfinger’ were still in the running). A word too about the cover which perfectly suits up the two sides of this record: on the front a drawing of an obviously wasted Neil clutching a bottle of liquor tells us that this is going to be one of Neil’s shambling couldn’t-care-less kind of records (which the first side is), while the back view is a posh drawing of an Indian Squaw staring back at us from atop a snow-covered mountain, implying this is going to be one of Neil’s multi-layered, outward albums (which the second side largely is). To be honest, if only Neil had put the thrilling ‘Will To Love’ on the ‘Decade’ album where it belonged along with ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘Hurricane’, you wouldn’t need to buy this record at all. But two classic and long songs (along with another shorter classic song) isn’t that bad maths from a nine-song selection in the end and few of the songs here are truly awful in a ‘Landing On Water’ or ‘Broken Arrow’ type way (nine-minute inaudible Jimmy Reed covers anyone?!) Whether you’ll take to this album depends a lot on whether you’re a Neil Young fan already – and most of it probably came as a great shock to newcoming fans who bought this LP on the back of ‘Like A Hurricane’. But then, Neil’s not like other artists and actively encourages his fans to hear his lesser moments alongside his greater ones so they can get a better ‘feel’ for what his art is all about. In this context ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ might well be the ultimate Neil Young LP, containing some of the very best and some of the very worst music this towering figure has made to date.  

Other Young reviews from this website to read with stars in bars include: 

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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