Monday, 10 June 2013

Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Psychedelic Pill" (2012)


Driftin’ Back/Psychedelic Pill/Ramada Inn/Born In Ontario//Twisted Road/She’s Always Dancing/For The Love Of Man/Walk Like A Giant

‘Seems lately like things are changing…’

There I was, like an idiot, standing in the record shop, trying to work out what would be better value in terms of Neil Youngyness. As a penniless scribe on employment and support allowance (that’s ‘disability’ to you and me) they only give me some of the time when they’re in a good mood despite proving I could make the AAA work as a fully-fledged business, I couldn’t afford both you see and they came out only four months apart. Do I buy ‘Americana’, an intriguing looking set of covers of ancient American folk songs by one of America’s least reverential bands (surely that’s good for a laugh?!) or a double set full of long (and I’m talking loooooong) songs from a band who’d already burned me with albums like the torpid ‘Broken Arrow’, the generic ‘Chrome Dreams III’ and a soap opera about the most boring family not on Eastenders (‘Greendale’), only with fewer songs and a longer running time. Like a fool, I listened to my head not my heart and in one of the biggest mistakes of all my decades as a collector of records chose the wrong one (although in my defence the sale price on ‘Americana’ and the fact that as a two disc set ‘Psychedelic Pill’ cost double helped quite a bit, too). 

‘Americana’ is surely one of the worst AAA albums of the past five years with its dodgy hard-to-hear recordings and spineless, toothless variants on songs that have no reason to sit together except that they’re old, like some musical care home where the world intermingles together but find it’s too late to learn anything from each other. I’m sure that review will be coming to you sometime soon, dear reader, but frankly I’m still too disappointed to have a to write a review with that much venom and scorn (I’ll save it for a day when I’m in a really cross mood. Given the problems I’m currently having with the DWP, it’ll be next week. Editor’s note: actually it was another four years and given the way this topsy-turvy reviewniverse works you can actually read it a few pages back by clicking *here*). Forget, too, how Crazy Horse tried to plug them as two separate albums – ‘Americana’ really was just a warm-up; ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is the real deal. Admittedly, this is ‘real deal’ in the sense that Neil still can’t be bothered to actually work on his songs and is still pushing his ‘first thought, best thought, only thought’ theory too often to create that late-period classic all his fans yearn for, but the source of the muse that keeps him going is stronger and louder on this record than it has been for some time – stronger than ‘Le Noise’ and all but the best of ‘Fork In The Road’ anyway. Some songs meander, some songs are short and still sound like they meander, while charging double the price for a double album that runs merely five minutes over the running time of a CD and features just eight songs and a remix is something that Scrooge McDuck would have been proud of. However, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is way better than the bitter pill I rather feared it would be and is already going down with me as a near-enough life collector of Neil’s art better than any of the past few miserable albums. 

No one but Neil would release two such different albums mere weeks apart and then ignore both in favour of plugging a so-so semi-revealing-but-inevitably-rambling autobiography (‘Waging Heavy Peace’, a project that gets referenced in these songs more times than is comfortable – more on that later). I’ve waited till now to get my ‘Pill’ prescription description ready – despite its November 2012 vintage – partly because my review for ‘Prairie Wind’ was knocking on my head too loud to ignore, partly because I delayed buying it for a time and partly because I needed to get to know ‘Pill’ a bit better before I reviewed it. You see ‘Americana’ I could have reviewed in a single listening – there’s no depth to it, no concept, no theme (except a very vague sense of history) and no variation – but for all its faults ‘Pill’ is as deep and revealing an album as we’ve had from Neil in some time. In fact as I sit here several months on I still don’t feel as if I know it – or that I’ll ever know it  (editor’s note in 2019: I still don’t feel I know it!) – because it is such an autobiographical record, something Neil isn’t necessarily known for despite the occasional ‘Tonight’s The Night’ ‘Trans’ or ‘Sleeps With Angels’. That said contemporary reviews that describe this as a ‘highly personal’ album are wrong – this isn’t about Neil’s dead friends, the struggles of his handicapped son or thoughts of his own mortality (as per the overlooked ‘Prairie Wind’), it’s a man struggling to come to terms with his long career of highs and lows and the memories writing his autobiography have brought to the surface. The sound of Neil thinking out loud, there isn’t really any conclusion going on here or an attempt to directly address his mistakes and frailties though, which prevents it from reaching the higher echelons of his more autobiographical material, but it is nevertheless fascinating for fans to hear their hero trying to make some sense out of the ragamuffin junk in his brain and in that sense it’s the closest we’ve got so far to a true Neil ‘first thought’ album, with everything seemingly fuelled by his sub-consciousness. 

Given that autobiography ‘Raging Heavy Peace’ was a book more about departed friends and the past than anyone was expecting (some event in Neil’s day to day life inspiring a ‘memory’ in a loose, haphazard, non-linear arrangement throughout the book), it sounds to me too as if Neil is realizing how precious life is and how he ought to get back together with old friends while they are still here. Given the context, it’s inevitable that Crazy Horse should get the call (‘Heavy Peace’ in fact mentions the very moment Neil gets in touch with guitarist Frank Sampedro to discuss the idea, mid-chapter, as the thought occurs to Neil), but this collaboration seems very different this time, more of a ‘goodbye’ than a ‘hello’ (it will, indeed, be Neil’s last album with the Horse so far and the tour his last with Poncho in the band). If ‘Tonight’s The Night’ was a noisy wake for the beloved and departed then ‘Psychedelic Pill’ sounds like a tribute service for the living, Neil paying more lip-service to past songs and ideas than he ever has before (the title track, for instance, is a modern re-telling of [24] ‘Cinnamon Girl’, the first song the band recorded with Neil when they were still known as ‘The Rockets’; listen too to around the ten minute mark in ‘Walk Like A Giant’ which paraphrases the opening to [133] ‘Hey Hey My My’). There’s a familiar feel about most of this record, which happens with lots of artists in their old age, but rarely before the prolific Neil who changes styles at least as often as he changes his socks, which makes this album sound like an alternate greatest hits playing at a slightly slow speed. It’s as if Neil is trying to give the band a ‘proper’ send off ‘just in case’ something happens to him or them, after Neil by his own admission was hit hard by not ‘preparing’ for the deaths of long-term friends like Jack Nitzsche, Bruce Palmer, David Briggs and Ben Keith during the past decade or so. After all, in perhaps Neil’s most famous phrase, it’s better to burn out than it is to rust and grow old and toothless – although, of course, what that song was really saying was that its better not to have to die at all. Or, in one of this album’s lines that might well catch on just as much, ‘you don’t learn nothin’ when you start to get old’. 

So much of ‘Psychedelic Pill’ sounds like an extra chapter from Neil’s book (Neil does indeed talk about feeling the ‘muse’ upon him again in the closing chapters so in a way we’ve heard this album in progress) with all the thoughts on Neil’s mind: the poor sound quality of modern digital music, the moment of realisation that he was going to leave wife Pegi for Daryl Hannah, his scares after a brain aneurysm in 2005 meant he feared it was all over (and that Neil was a lot closer to death than he ever let on at the time) and what his legacy will be. This has meant a deeper appreciation for music-making and a deeper consideration of the process, as Neil’s never had to explain himself before his book. Neil’s never written a song about songwriting before and the effect is fascinating (‘Once in a while when things go wrong, I might pick up a pen and scribble a page and try to make sense of my inner rage’ is perhaps the greatest couplet on an album that seems to have been designed to be full of quotable moments). Also, Neil’s often been keen to pay tribute to the music that spurred him on (writing songs for Elvis and the country scene in general), but he’s never been this honest about his influences and in many ways his envy before, on ‘Twisted Road’ talking about listening to Bob Dylan and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time and wanting to ‘take that magic home and make it my own’. Neil has kinda covered his own beginnings as a musician a few times (the ever-fascinating [63] ‘Don’t Be Denied’) and paid comments – not usually kind ones – on what his old friends are doing in the present day (lots of songs about CSNY such as [192] ‘Hippie Dream’ and [135] ‘The Old Homestead’ and even an unforgivably cruel dig at The Beach Boys in [97] ‘Long May You Run’). But this album manages to make Neil both a passive listener for the first time (‘Listening to the Dead on the radio, that old time music used to soothe my soul’ – and yes according to interviews Neil gave it is the Grateful Dead he means not just ‘dead’ singers in general) and reveal more than we’ve heard in a long time. ‘Me and my friends, we were going to save the world, we were going to make it better...but then the weather changed...and it fell apart..and it breaks my heart to think about how close we came’ (from ‘Walk Like A Giant’) is clearly a song about CSNY and it says more in one verse than most books about the band. The ‘weather change’ of 1970 (when Neil walked out of the ‘Deja Vu’ sessions let’s not forget) spelled the end for the quartet who delivered slightly less than before with each passing reunion (even if they still beat almost everything made by anyone else). Conversely, the same verse applies almost as perfectly to the Buffalo Springfield, Neil’s first band which disintegrated just as spectacularly (albeit again because Neil walked out – four times, in fact, over three years, a fact he doesn’t recount here). Neil’s memories on some fairly recent songs like the awful [300] ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ from ‘Silver and Gold’ didn’t even acknowledge these hard times, instead thinking about what fun it always was, but not ‘Giant’ – Neil’s anger and frustration at not having been able to do more with his life (despite doing so much more than almost all of his contemporaries) clearly rankles. It’s probably just my imagination, but I can just hear Neil listening to an early copy of the Stephen Stills box set ‘Carry On’ (released in March 2013) and tracing his partner’s fall from grace while remembering his own (to be fair Stills has probably released far more of worth than Young in the past twenty years, albeit on some very patchy CSN/Y albums – it was the late 1980s when he badly lost the plot). It’s also a cliché that every autobiography by a rock musician will include a chapter (or more) on drugs and another on groupies; Neil’s book did neither so his music does it for him, ‘She’s Always Dancing’ being the first ‘groupie’ friendly song since [24] ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and the album’s title track being one last wigged out drug song (this from an artist who claims proudly at an early stage of the book that he’s now the cleanest he’s been since his teens and already worrying about how this might affect his songwriting).  

Those points are all in the book too to some extent, mind you, if only in passing comments. However there are some tracks here that feel like passages Neil couldn’t bring himself to admit out loud in print and had to release in music form, almost as if ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is an extra chapter cut from ‘Waging Heavy Peace’. We also get the horrific moment Neil has been putting off for so many years and albums now, the moment when he admits to his wife that he’s no longer in love with her but with someone else. Though we didn’t quite know what we were getting yet (‘Waging Heavy Peace’ was still dedicated to Pegi, after all) ‘Ramada Inn’ is every excruciating second of that conversation delivered in almost real time across sixteen aching minutes. Neil makes no comments on his feelings – he’s been doing that for at least twenty albums by now – but he spends a lot of time on hers, as the Youngs stop off at a hotel after a visit to see old friends in the vain hope that going back to the past might make them closer in the future – but it doesn’t, instead breaking up their past. ‘She loves him so’ sighs Neil in the third person, with an aching silence punctuated only by a guitar solo where his response ‘I love you too’ would normally have gone. There’s a Neil tradition of looking backwards across his past every time something goes wrong with his love life: ‘Journey Thru The Past’ marked the end of his marriage to Susan, the unreleased ‘Homegrown’ was a doff of the hat to second wife Carrie and now, after the longest constant relationship of Neil’s life, he has to spend an entire book and record saying goodbye to Pegi, even though that’s effectively what he’s been doing for multiple albums now. ‘Ramada Inn’ feels like a last chapter on that story in the ‘present tense’ (until ‘Storytone’ puts everything into the past tense for one last guilt road trip, up next). However Neil is so used to concealing this part of his life from us – and will continue to hide the truth until 2014 when the divorce becomes official – that he naturally hides this honest track in between other songs that deal with more obviously autobiographical material, from CSNY to digital sound to Canadian childhood memories.  

There’s also a sense of death breezing through both book and album, as if its maker knows that he might drop dead at any moment. Like ‘Prairie Wind’, though, fear of the inevitable end doesn’t result in urgency or bitterness as it would in so many other artists – instead Neil accepts that he’s lived so long and done so much he can afford to take his time, stretching things out to breaking point and often past it. Just listen to how the past is stretched into a twenty-seven minute epic ramble on opener ‘Driftin’ Back’, Neil’s longest ever song (which sounds like [115] ‘Goin Back’ and [117] ‘Look Out For My Love’ stuck together with some guitar solos straight out of ‘Ragged Glory’), ‘Ramada Inn’ sounds almost short at seventeen (despite being Neil’s second longest studio song), ‘Walk Like A Giant’ mini at sixteen minutes (you guessed it, Neil’s third longest song) and ‘She’s Always Dancing’ positively miniscule at ‘eight’. The fact that the other four songs come in at a running time of three minutes or less (very short by Neil’s standards) gives the album a real sting-and-relax feel, like a musician caught between having too much to say and not enough time to say it, a sort of musical S.O.S of dots and dashes. Noticeably, there’s actually probably fewer lyrics on this album than most Neil Young ones (which, let’s not forget, generally run half of this album’s eighty-eight minutes) and the sound of this album is dominated by lots of pealing guitar solos. Sadly this isn’t the fiery, compulsory solos that heighten the tension as per ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (a sound which died with Danny Whitten in 1972) but then again they’re more relevant and exciting than the ones on ‘Ragged Glory’ (which too often stretched simple songs to breaking point for no apparent reason except that the band were in the ‘groove’). No, this album is more like a collection of [268] ‘Change Your Minds’ from ‘Sleeps With Angels’, the fourteen minute epic where each solo took off in a whole new direction before crashing back into the same chorus (a trick Neil uses a few times here). While fans of Neil’s simpler albums like ‘Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’ will quickly get annoyed at having to wait ten minutes between verses to hear Neil sing, it is fair to say that almost all of these long running times are necessary: this is a band trying to work out how to say something big, not one that has nothing to say. At times the band take it too far (the last five minutes of ‘Walk Like A Giant’ is simply feedback and stomping, for instance, last acceptable on a mainstream album circa 1969, while ‘She Feels Like Dancing’ is the one song here not up to standard and could – and should – have been reduced to two or three minutes). Mostly though this isn’t another ‘Broken Arrow’ extended trip because nobody had the sense to say ‘stop!’ to the tape engineer: ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is complex enough to need that extra running time. Even if it is, at times, Neil’s simplest album, full of straightforward thoughts without his usual imagery or poetry, more directly from the heart than usual (even though his rambling autobiography is, typically, less direct than most – Neil’s always got things the wrong way round!)

One other fascinating thing to report is how much of a ‘band’ Crazy Horse are here. After decades of bad reviews and rushed albums even Neil was beginning to have the general view that Crazy Horse were a group of musicians who couldn’t really play. Like Neil, I love the band’s primitive, raw power, which has the added bonus of making Neil’s big guitar parts sound huge, but the band are better musicians (and singers) than mealy mouthed critics ever give them credit for. Thankfully Neil has stopped telling them what to do now (as he kept doing circa the 1980s and even ‘Greendale’, trying to turn them into the sophisticated musicians he always plays with otherwise) and is back to celebrating their unique, powerful, noisy sound again instead of trying to disguise it. Whilst I’ve always considered Ralph Molina one of the best drummers in the business and Billy has his own fascinating groove thing going on without which the band would fall apart, the shock here is what a star Frank Sampedro is. While still not as attuned telepathically to Neil’s playing as Danny Whitten (who is?) Sampedro is really finding his feet now, playing rhythm parts that are the perfect fit to Neil’s and occasionally the equal to them. Instead of simply filling in the space between the bass and lead guitar, Sampedro is off on exciting musical journeys of his own and ‘Pill’ is by far his best playing on album despite him being with the band some thirty-seven years (perhaps, on an album that more than any since 1975 confronts the ghost of Danny Whitten, Neil has finally realised what a great bond he has with his replacement too?) This album isn’t, as so many recent Horse albums have been, Neil sauntering away into the distance while the band play the same groove over and over but a two-way conversation, which is a fascinating new development after so long in this style and a most odd reaction to writing an autobiography in a ‘single’ voice. Far from being the mad powerhouse many Crazy Horse albums end up being, there are some classic moments of dynamics and subtlety too, more like Crazy Horse’s ‘guest appearances’ on Neil’s albums such as ‘Comes A Time’ and ‘Hawks and Doves’ where the band add bite to Neil’s acoustic songs. The very opening of the first track, for instance, is a gorgeous acoustic song with pristine harmonies even CSNY would struggle to reach that suddenly fades in backwards to the more expected heavy rock playing.

This isn’t, despite one last blurry wig-out on the title track, a fully psychedelic album sadly – the one genre Young never did in the Geffen era that would have been so fascinating to hear (particularly given Neil’s spot-on contributions to the only album he helped make during the summer of love, ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’). However for three minutes it’s fun to hear what a younger Crazy Horse might have sounded like had they been around in 1967, cribbing lines from The Beatles (‘I can’t buy’ reflecting ‘I can’t hide’ from ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and a line Dylan famously mis-heard as ‘I get high’), soaked in acid-drenched reverb and phasing and sped-up to sound fifty years younger. The ‘remix’ included on every single copy as a ‘bonus track’ (and even more a second genuinely included as a bonus track on the blu-ray edition) is more psychedelic than ‘Sgt Pepper’s or ‘magical Mystery Tour’. So much so that you doubt both Neil’s lyric (this scene is ‘like’ a psychedelic pill from a doctor he can’t ‘buy’, i.e. convince him to prescribe him drugs) and his comments in the book about being drug-free since hitting his seventies. Neil seems to be providing himself with one last memory of what he’ll be missing here, the same way he does his wife and CSNY.  

Goodbyes clearly bring out the best in Neil, what with ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and ‘Sleeps With Angels’ and now this album and overall, I’m impressed. ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is the first album in ages (since Trans?) that manages the trick of being different to usual while sounding like a world we want to explore more. Crazy Horse sound good on the extended epics, Neil sounds like he’s having fun on the short punchy songs, there’s a nice variety of deeply emotional songs and dancealongs and out of the eight only ‘Dancer’ is a song that adds little or nothing to the Young catalogue. ‘Driftin’ back’ manages to be both Neil’s most basic, sparse song and his most complex as it changes tone by tone, solo by solo, taking its own sweet times to sum up a life. ‘Psychedelic Pill’ nails another genre and wraps things up in under three minutes. ‘Ramada Inn’ is deeply emotional when you realise it’s the logical conclusion to a story we’ve been following on-and-off for decades. ‘Born In Ontario’ is a fun jig through a childhood that’s been much covered but never like this and never back quite this far, to the days even before the Youngs moved to Winnipeg for Neil to start school. ‘Twisted Road’ is a hymn to music collecting from someone whose given us more to collect than most and its good to hear Neil getting the same thrill buying his heroes’ records we get from buying his own. ‘For The Love Of Man’ reaches back to 1981 for a spooky song hoping things will turn out better in the future, from the perspective of a man who knows they have. And ‘Walk Like A Giant’ is both tribute and self-deprecating joke on how big CSNY were and how far the mighty have fallen in the decades since. These are all strong and very different songs and even if they could have done with a bit of pruning they remain excellent additions to Neil’s catalogue.

We commented on our last ‘new’ Neil LP ‘Le Noise’ that although by his own high standards that album simply wasn’t good enough there were lots of promising signs that the muse was back. Neil was using his old fashioned ‘massive’ sound again and they suited his songs, even if all this ‘one idea for a song, one take for a song, one week to make the whole thing’ idea was getting in the way of what good ideas were there. ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is also rushed in places, the fact that the band came out with not one but two (and in pure disc terms three) albums during their few months together shows that this album too was done quickly and more or less ‘live’. The difference is that more thinking has been going on here before the band even showed up, Neil’s done his homework a bit more before the tapes began rolling and the band do ‘know’ these songs a lot better than they did for ‘Greendale’ last time out. It’s not flawless (‘She’s Still Dancing’ is one of the poorest Neil Young songs in a while), it should easily have been cut down to a single album and at times the excessive running length of both songs and album seems to be more to push some boundaries than because of any outpouring of inspiration. All that said, though, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is a highly enjoyable LP that alters the Crazy Horse sound just enough to be interesting whilst still very much in keeping with past successes. It’s definitely a grower too, improving every time I hear it. Perhaps in time, too, this album will be seen as a stepping stone to the next, greater album to come (who knows?) or even added to future editions of Neil’s ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ book as a ‘soundtrack album’ (it would work really well, the two projects definitely impacting each other). Or perhaps it’s the last great (or semi-great) Neil Young and Crazy Horse album, maybe even the last great Neil album, we will ever have. Only time will tell. But for once, this latest psychedelic pill done by an artist in a hurry and in his older, less inspired years isn’t bitter to swallow at all. 

The Songs:

[380] Driftin’ Back’ is one of the most fascinating songs Neil has ever written. A huge collage of feelings from the past and present presented in a non-linear way very like the layout of Neil’s book, this is an all-encompassing song that starts like a Tudor minstrel ballad and ends up as a rock guitar workout. Despite being Neil’s longest song in history, extended by some of the most thrilling guitar interplay the Sampedro line-up of Crazy Horse has ever come up with, it doesn’t sound forced – unlike a lot of Crazy Horse’s previous ‘long’ songs but instead unfurls at its own speed, like a flower. The opening is lovely, an acoustic opening that sounds as if the song’s going to be similar to its near-namesake [115] ‘Goin’ Back’, strumming the same two descending chords over and over as if Neil is always looking over his shoulder, as if Crazy Horse are rocking us off to sleep. But no, there’s a marvellous change in tone some two minutes in when we fade in to the mother of all Crazy Horse jams and suddenly we’re simply rocking (how much longer is this song on the original unedited tapes then?!) This trick should by rights be forced and hollow (tacking a ‘new’ bit onto the start of an ‘old’ bit is so against the natural Crazy Horse ethos!) but thanks to a glittering peal of Crazy Horse harmonies and a clever fade-in it sounds as if this song has always been playing throughout Neil’s career but that he’s only just decided to let us in on the music always playing in his head at all times on a piece that could easily have been taken from any of his past albums, a mellow rock song that is very nearly an acoustic ballad, as if he’s ‘Driftin’ Back’ to the source of his muse. It takes eight glorious minutes for Neil to stop setting the scene and sing the first ‘proper’ verse – the length at which almost all of his songs have already finished – but that makes sense if the song is subliminal, a composite of what he hears every day slowly breaking through to the surface of Neil’s thoughts.

Young starts his first verse ‘proper’ by wondering if anyone is still listening to what he writes after years in the doldrums before speaking about what the new muse coursing through his veins is doing for him (and us) in a pretty good description of music at its best, designed ‘to help you feel this feeling, to let you ride along’. It’s basically a magic spell cast between listener and writer (though which casts it is left nicely ambiguous) where Neil imagines us listening to the music playing through his head and wondering what we will think of it and wondering where he got the idea from in the first place. Some four minutes later Neil comes up with the most cryptic verse of the song, recounting how in meditation ‘I block out all my thoughts’ until they come on so strong and powerfully he has to let them in (presumably the inspiration he longs for throughout writing most of the book, fearing his musical creativity has ‘gone dry’). Neil equates this to the ‘rock’ that was rolled over Neil’s tomb before his resurrection, interestingly, suggesting that he sees each different creative spell as a ‘death’ and is as surprised as anyone when he gets the ideas to make something different with each and every project. 

Perhaps Neil has been doing a lot of listening to his old work, not only for his book but for the ‘Archives’ box set a few years ago. How else can you explain the next verse, which takes a potshot at organised religion like the days of old, the narrator ‘giving 35 bucks’ as his price of admission to see the Maharashi and Neil taunting ‘it went to the organisation’, slurring that last word to make it sound like the complete antithesis of spiritualism and religious freedom (if religion is personal to all, who needs an ‘organisation’ for it?!) This verse isn’t linked to the rest of the song, recalling similar moments in such different songs like [52] ‘Soldier’ (‘Jesus I saw you walking on the river, you can’t deliver!’) and [276] ‘Song X’ (where a priest has a girl locked away for having an abortion) and – like ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ – it’s as if thinking about the one religious type has caused Neil to think about another. It’s quite fascinating to hear that Neil’s take on what used to be one of his favourite themes in the 1970s hasn’t dimmed at all – in the book he addresses religion square on and calls himself ‘a pagan (if anything)’. Unlike his younger self, though, Neil half-takes the last verse back, offering up the line ‘excuse my religion’ (although again this is sung in such a way that we feel he’s mocking us again).It’s as if it’s a thought that burst through his meditative state where he tried to make his mind free of everything but the music, apologising as his conscious thoughts impose on him and us. Instead Neil cools his heels with ten minutes of see-sawing over the song’s hypnotic riff, which given how simple it is ought to be the most boring song in this book but it isn’t – especially when Ralph wakes up and throws some cymbal clashes into the mix for variety. Instead it sounds like the ‘source’, neil inviting us to hear how the music sounds unfiltered and pure in his head before he has the chance to write it down and add words to it.    

Now nearing the twenty minute mark now, Neil is back to another of his book’s favourite themes: the problems with modern digital sound reducing everything to a ‘middle band’ of average low and high frequencies so that modern music – or old music re-produced for digital form – sounds all the same (in Neil’s words ‘you only get 5%, you used to get it all’). In one of his more eloquent interview of the 1990s, when CDs were still new, Neil likened digital as opposed to analogue music to ‘taking an ice cold shower and being hit with tiny cubes, instead of a bath where the water rushes all over you’. Famously, Neil still refuses to give permission for some of his albums (most importantly ‘Time Fades Away’, less importantly ‘Where The Buffalo Roam’) to be released on CD until the situation ‘improves’ and Neil goes to great lengths to make sure all his modern music is simultaneously available on vinyl or high quality downloads (a worthy cause you might think, until you realise that each vinyl record costs around double the price of the CD and the downloads take an eternity and most of your internet allowance to download – Neil doesn’t need the money so why not waive more of his royalty fee?) At first Neil mocks the modern call for possessing art in miniature on phones and on walls, claiming ‘I used to dig Picasso’ for his sheer refusal to follow rules and ability to go to new places art had never been before; nowadays his uniqueness has been forgotten and he’s been turned into just another ‘wallpaper’ you can download from an app. I’d probably better not mentiomn the plethora of really good Neil Young apps out there to him, from song lyrics to long-starved CSNY news sites Whether knowingly or not this next section directly mimics fellow AAA band Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’, taunting ‘I don’t want my MP3’ (instead of ‘MTV’) and – a few minutes later – gives us the sarcastic line  ‘Gonna get me a hip hop haircut’ like the grumpy old man Neil is proudly becoming. Yeah right, a seventy-year-old telling money-starved teens to buy proper sounding music are all going to listen because he now looks like them. It’s the ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ cover, with a twist. Rather than wrapping up or thoroughly investigating any of these thoughts Neil simply moves on past some extra guitar weaving. He finally ends with the lines ‘Blocking out my anger, finding my religion, I might be a Pagan!’ in a line that’s close enough quoted verbatim from his book. In many ways this line is ‘Psychedelic Pill’s ‘acid reflux’ – the state the album keeps returning to as Neil tries to keep his emotions in check during this most turbulent of times. It is a return to the meditative source of the song which still plays in his head, merrily dancing from one note to another like an acrobat on a psychedelic pill. Somehow this song finds its way back into the lovely chorus harmonies of nearly half an hour before for a natural end, although even then Neil’s not done, scarping away at a three-note riff on his guitar as the others join in, the Crazy Horse equivalent of landing on water as the momentum just keeps them rolling. Now the song is over at last maybe Neil has time to do the washing up or something before the song begins again in his head?

Some people have been disappointed at the rambling nature of this song, perhaps expecting all the different threads to be tied together somehow and its certainly true that it’s not as directly powerful as another [94] ‘Cortez The Killer’ or [112] ‘Like A Hurricane’, but actually I like the fact that this song doesn’t have any answers and simply keeps going as it looks for them anyway. The song might be titled ‘Driftin’ Back’ but in true Young style its actually more about the present and all the thoughts rolling across Neil’s subconscious. While far from perfect – repeating the title phrase a grand total of 50 times throughout the song is lazy, even for a song that lasts twenty-seven minutes and you have to feel for poor Ralphy whose arms are clearly getting tired as the song inevitably slows down in its last quarter – the lyrics are intriguing, revealing enough to be of interest to fans while cryptic enough not to give the game away. The song, though, would be nothing without those glorious extended guitar outbursts, especially the opening eight minutes where Neil and Sampedro hit the mother of all grooves, gradually circling each other and getting further away from the original direction whilst still in touch, more pen friends than bosom buddies. By far Sampedro’s best playing on record, this is also one of Neil’s career best performances, content to take its time and make the most out of each take on the verse. The result is a song that’s divisive amongst fans but is a welcome song that hints at how good Crazy Horse’s abandoned new age album (‘Toast’ from 2001) ,might have sounded, big on wise empty spaces and meditation. 

Moving on (finally!) the title track [381] ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is heard here in two versions – the ‘album cut’, a hard-to-hear heavily phased and effect-ridden version of the song and the ‘remix’ added as a ‘bonus cut’ (despite this being the first issue of the CD...strange) without the effects. I hate the first one and love the second, as any attempt to ‘modernise’ the timeless Crazy Horse sound seems pointless to me. A stomping, grungy angry little rocker with a riff that’s only a shade away from [15] ‘The Loner’ stapled onto the runaway groove of [39] ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’, but a lyric that recounts [24] ‘Cinnamon Girl’ in the 21st century, it’s another of the album’s more successful songs. Sadly even the ‘bonus’ version is mixed a little strangely, with Neil’s double-tracked voice drenched with echo and switching from the left and right channels so often it makes you queasy. To be fair, though, the effect is highly fitting for this disorientating song where the two dancing lovers circle each other in a trance – though whether from the music, from the pill mentioned in the title or from being in love with each other (or a combination of all three) I couldn’t say. This is surely a song for Daryl, given that dancing is Neil’s usual euphemism for lust, his explanation perhaps for why he’s making these big changes in his life (because the p[air are so hooked by each other they just can’t keep away from each other). The refrain of the song tells us that the ‘party girl’ is looking for a ‘good time’, but the sheer power of the noise that Crazy Horse use and the disorientating feeling of the song suggests that, however good a time the pair are having now, they’re going to pay for it with a massive hangover in the morning. Probably with divorce papers being served. This makes the links with ‘Cinnamon Girl’ fascinating: Neil’s swayed not so much by the character and deep knowledge he has of this soul but his desperate need to escape from his life and run away with her (that song being inspired by a passing stranger). This time though this fellow ‘party girl’ is out for escapism, dancing out her troubles and trying to forget her woes rather than the carefree dancer who loves life in ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and the last couplet (where when she dances ‘every move is like a psychedelic pill from a doctor I can’t buy’) suggests the narrator needs the escapism just as much. At three minutes, with almost as many verses as the previous twenty-seven minute track, this is a tight little rocker that’s leaner than most recent Neil Young songs and makes for a nice change, even if your head will swim for quite a time after playing it. I do however long to hear a whole Crazy Horse album like this, not just three minutes, as what better backdrop for the Horse’s jam-heavy style could there be than psychedelia?!? 

[382] ‘Ramada Inn’ is an innaresting song too. The slowest piece on what’s actually quite a fast paced album, its 16:52 running time might be ten minutes shorter than ‘Driftin’ Back’, but because it’s all so slow and uninterrupted by guitar solos this song sounds like even more of an epic. By comparison with the rest of the album, there isn’t much of a melody here, Neil simply singing the lines almost all on one note as he did on ‘Greendale’, which is a shame. That said, the lyrics are fascinating, as Neil takes one last car ride with a figure who is surely Pegi, staying over in a hotel for one last time as man and wife. They’ve spent ‘so many years now together, all those good times, ups and downs’ and even now they’re off visiting old friends they’ve known for decades. However things are different from how they used to be ands they both sense it. The kids have grown and moved on and every day they go through their routine out of habit more than love, as Crazy Horse join in on the aching chorus ‘every morning comes the sun and they both rise into the day…’ a line that reflects another song of devotion to Pegi [138] ‘Staying Power’. However, this is a couple who didn’t have staying power after all, as hard as they both fought for it and this is now their last hurrah as a couple, in some backward town (that could be anywhere: the Ramada chain have 800 hotels across the globe), in the only place that’s open for a last drink. It’s the state of their marriage in a microcosm: he drinks too much to try and avoid her gaze, but she’s not looking at him anyway but staring into space and dreaming about some alternative future. They’ve run out of things to say to each other, of things to do and they both know this is the end. For the most part Neil recounts this song like a tragedy that was fated, singing in such a detached way he might as well be filing his tax returns. However there’s one great last twist of the knife for anyone whose been following this love story since ‘Zuma’: Neil sadly acknowledges that ‘she loves him so’ and he can’t reply, those lines hanging in the air as he returns to his guitar playing, or perhaps burying his head in the paper. The closest he gets to a response is the sighed line ‘he does what he has to do’. Neil is too close to this story to sing it in the first person and seems to have deliberately hidden this revealing song away in the middle of an album where it can be overshadowed by the immediate songs next to it. However, it may well be the most important song on ‘Psychedelic Pill’, the moment when he drops the charade and stops travelling down a road that’s been one of his longest and widest (it makes perfect sense that their last act as man and wife is a car journey, even if it’s one that happened off-screen).  With wife departing and children gone, Neil is wondering what he has left. One of his most mournful guitar solos ever suggests the answer’s ‘not much’, but there’s a feel of redemption about ‘Ramada Inn’ too that just about manages to keep the song alive across sixteen lengthy sounding minutes. Overall ‘Ramada Inn’ is a nice place to stay which has a lot of good things to stay, but I wouldn’t want to live there and I’m glad we didn’t get a full album of this stuff.  

[383] ‘Born In Ontario’ rounds off the first CD by more or less repeating the last song’s sentiments of ‘going back home’. After some forty odd years of hearing Neil sing about ‘the good ole U S of A’ its strange to hear him proudly proclaiming his Canadian nationality, repeating the word ‘Ontario’ some twelve times across the song. Perhaps performing at the Canadian winter Olympics a few years ago has gone to Neil’s head? Musically this is another of those dopey lopsided cod country-rock songs Neil comes out with every few years (filling up whole sides of records with them on the albums ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ and ‘Hawks and Doves’), but the lyrics are a lot more interesting than most similar songs in this vein. While not as descriptive as the ‘other’ song about Neil’s Canadian past (CSNY’s gorgeous ‘Helpless’) or as strictly autobiographical as the opening of [63] ‘Don’t Be Denied’), there’s a lot of great, insightful couplets here as Neil goes back further than he’s ever been before in setting. Neil proudly tells us over and over ‘I was born In Ontario!’ but if you read the book then you’ll know that he wasn’t there for very long – the family moved to Winnipeg when he was small. Fittingly this song comes with the sort of good-time waddle that recalls the enthusiasm of a toddler who wants to dance but is still learning to walk and keeps falling down, while knowing that he’ll master the art someday. Neil admits where he’s born doesn’t really matter (‘It don’t really matter where I am, it’s what I do, it’s what I can’), moving on to reveal more about his songwriting methods (he admits he ‘tries to write a happy song’ but that coming up with songs is more usually therapy when ‘something goes wrong’) while remembering that from his childhood days in Ontario ‘that’s where I learned most of what I know’. Some of the touches here – strangely missing from the book – are sweet, such as a toddler Neil trying to copy his famous writer father Scott by borrowing his typewriter ‘for a couple of miles’ (thus extending the earlier metaphor of art being like ‘a journey’, although it was probably to keep Neil busy during a long car journey) and explaining why he didn’t stay in Ontario for very long (‘I left home at a tender young age, ‘cause mom and daddy never liked to stay’). Indeed, most fans long assumed Neil was really born in Winnipeg until Neil’s book came out, given that this is the town where Neil spent the longest and the one he’s most connected with (with Joni Mitchell funnily enough living right round the corner, although the pair didn’t meet until their 20s). The best line in the song, though, is undoubtedly ‘You don’t learn much when you start to get old’, yet another great twist on that old line about how ‘rust never sleeps’ and how ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’. By returning to the place of his early childhood, Neil wants to be young again and feel that sheer joy and verve for life he used to have. Musically Crazy Horse throw a few new things into the song, Sampedro coming up with a clever accordion part that makes the song sound at once like history and like a party in the present (it’s the sort of thing Nils Lofgren always used to play on these albums) and the three Horses adding another clever harmony part to the song. All in all,a delight and  probably the best of the shorter songs on the album. 

The second CD is sadly not quite up to the first, [384] ‘Twisted Road’ sounding so similar to ‘Born In Ontario’ it may as well have been titled ‘Part Two’. Again, though, the lyrics are the highlight of another fascinating song, Neil recounting the moment that music first hit him between the eyes (hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ on the radio ‘poetry rolling off his tongue’ – which seems rather late, given that Neil had already been releasing records with the Buffalo Springfield for a few months by this time), seeing Roy Orbison live in concert (where, unforgivably ‘seeing Roy’... ‘brought me joy’ in easily the worst lyric of the album) and being in the present, wondering where all the good music went, while ‘listening to the ‘Dead’ on the radio’. As we said earlier, Neil really does mean the Grateful Dead apparently, given what he’s said in interviews to plug the album, but the use of the name here is very clever – this song is Neil’s tribute to all the great singers and songwriters gone but not forgotten from every generation, ‘the dead’ living on on the radio, their lives having counted for something. The thought of Neil ‘walkin’ with the devil down a twisted road’ never seems to match up with the rest of the song though (did it start as an off-shoot from ‘Greendale’ where the Devil is the main character?) and the song’s melody and arrangement is even more of a mock-hoe-down (poor Crazy Horse, forced into singing a chorus that clearly doesn’t suit them, sound like they’re desperately trying not to shout out ‘yee-hah!’ at the end).  Still, even if ‘Twisted Road’ isn’t up to the best work on this album, it still sounds much more developed than most recent Neil Young songs and has an intriguing hook, some fascinating heart-warming lyrics and another strong band performance (this is the most ‘shimmery’ and other-worldly their guitar parts have sounded since ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ in 1969!) Best lyric: a description of Dylan at his natural best, ‘poetry rolling off his tongue, like Hank Williams chewing bubble gum!’

Even by Neil’s recent ‘lesser’ albums, however, [385] ‘She’s Still Dancing’ sounds dreadful. The worst song on the album by a country mile, I’m surprised it made the cut, seeing as this one song could have been removed to make this a ‘single’ album. The riff Crazy Horse play this time seems generic in the extreme, simply a speeded up version of ‘Driftin’ Back’ without the magic or poise, while the lyrics manage to make even the deliberately Neanderthal ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ sound like Yeats’ poetry. The dancing theme was already covered well enough by the title track – by contrast this song doesn’t sound like dancing (it’s too slow and the beat irregular), instead it sounds like drowning. This is, surely, another song of lust for Daryl and seems to celebrate the fact that they do have a chance to get together in this life after all, refuting both [208] ‘We Never Danced’ and [234] ‘Wrecking Ball’s afterlife meeting (dancing being, so it seems, a euphemism for sex). Neil seems shocked that his new partner has waited for him all those long years and admires her ability to be the free spirit he always sings about in song but has never been able to be himself till now. There’s another repetitive chorus – the Achilles heel of this whole record – but even the rest of the lyrics sound pretty poor (‘She wants to live without ties to bound her down, she wants to dance with her body left at ground’). The verses are better, especially when this song becomes unexpectedly dark (‘She likes to burn…She has the fire’), the plunge to a minor key suggesting Neil might have bitten off more than he can chew. However this is at heart a happy song, as Neil realises that all his doubts over the years are wrong and the couple have the ability to ‘dance forever’. The music though is wretched and leaves me earth-bound, dangerously close to repeating [330] ‘Be The Rain’, the less-than-inspired finale to ‘Greendale’ (and rather supporting the view that the character is based on Daryl, though I still think there’s some Amber Jean in there). Not one of Neil’s better ideas alas, with even another bout of excellent Crazy Horse harmonies failing to rescue the blandest and most pointless song on the album. Frankly, even on ‘Le Noise’ or ‘Greendale’ I’d have been disappointed with this – in the middle of Neil’s best work in some time it sounds downright hideous. Also, at eight minutes its only the fifth longest track here (!), but whereas the other long songs have grandeur, this one would pall at two or three. Worst lyric: ‘Floating in the smoke, it gives her hope’. 

[386] For The Love Of Man’ isn’t the best song here either, but its slower tempo and smoky Sleeps-With Angels-like fragility makes it really stand out here. So does it’s age: this is a song that dates back to 1981 and ‘Re-Ac-Tor’, though it’s really more like ‘Chrome Dreams II’ in the way that Neil’s response to a major life event is to go for a walk in a nearby forest reaching out to some great unknown to get him through it and like ‘Trans’ in the way that the love he has for his newborn son means that deep down he’s ready for anything. The song would have stood out a mile, in fact, amongst Neil’s other works of 1981, being a poetic and very personal response to tragedy rather than a mechanical song about escapism, so you can see why the song would have been abandoned back then (it really should have been given a home on the patchwork quilt that was ‘Chrome Dreams’ though). The lyrics are bigger than Neil’s personal life though, this latest drama a crack in his usual ‘routine’ that gives him the space to ponder of what life really expects from him and all the other human beings out there. Without the sheer noise to sing over the cracks in Neil’s voice really begin to show here, while the tune sounds remarkably like last album ‘Le Noise’ (only Ralph Molina’s excellent drum track separates it from that ‘solo’ performance). Lyrically it’s a kind of precursor to [340]  ‘When God Made Me’ this time finding Neil wondering out loud whether the amount of ‘love’ a person gets in their lives has been decided before their birth and whether there’s anything they can do about it, imagining a world where every life is sacred and capable of greatness and where for each birth ‘angels ring the bells in the holy hills’. Again, Neil’s becoming much more accepting of religion the older he gets but makes it clear that he doesn’t know if any of this is true; it might just be his imagination running away with him. Even more moving is the second (and last) verse, Neil walking down a ‘dusty road’ to a Church he doesn’t know and hasn’t seen down this track before (is this a Brigadoon Church he only spots on his ranch in times of stress?) Neil asks the heavens to ‘let me wonder there’ and see whether there is anything in what they say to comfort him (compare this to [60] ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’, where Neil can’t get away from the sight of a church quick enough!) By the end Neil is still not convinced either way, claiming that what he sees makes him feel ‘it’s alright’ but that still he continues to ‘wonder why’ he sees what he sees – divine inspiration?  Or imagination? The jury’s still out. Humble and quiet, without as strong a tune as some of the other songs, its’ easy for ‘For The Love Of Man’ to get lost, but it’s well worth the effort to analyse it; this is a song that might not rank among Neil’s best but offers plenty to think about.

This scattershot eighty-eight minutes epic desperately needs a strong song to tie things together and [387] Walk Like A Giant’ largely fulfils that role, at least until a rather curious extended finale of feedback and stomping that extends the song from a nine minute epic into a 16 minute piece of chaotic noise. Clearly inspired by his autobiography once more, this is Neil longing for the time when he and his friends had respect, power and worth and firmly believed in what they were doing, ‘walking like a giant on the land’, rather than merely releasing records for loyal fans out into the ether as he feels he does now. Ever the realist/grumpy one in a band of utopian idealists, in the past Neil has shied away from such claims, distancing himself from CSN’s belief that music could change the world with a series of songs like [82] ‘Roll Another Number’ and [192] ‘Hippie Dream’ that decry how those ‘wooden ships’ had ‘hippie sails’ that wouldn’t get them very far. Perhaps it was CSN’s enthusiastic support of Neil’s controversial ‘Living With War’ album and Neil’s sudden love of politics in the wake of the Iraq war and 9/11 that’s made him think otherwise; whatever, Neil now claims that spiritual utopia was ‘in the distance...getting closer every minute’ when the quartet were together and making presidents quake in their boots until, without warning, ‘the train left the tracks’. Neil stands there now in their wake, after some fifty years nearly of making some of the most powerful music ever made and waiting for the train to come back and – in the opinion of many – being about the only old rocker still refusing to compromise or soften his stance. It’s unusual if not unique to hear Neil kicking himself for helping the train to crash and how ‘it’s not enough to think about how close we came’ – he feels it’s unfinished business that it’s too late to put right (hint: it isn’t Neil, at the time of writing the Woodstock 50th anniversary is waiting for a CSNY anniversary to go after Trump and inspire a new generation who have never heard of you). Neil then moves to the present day (ish), recounting the American and Canadian forest fires of the past few years, seeing a ‘big fire burning’ to ‘burn down all my ideas’ – he might have well as sung ‘ideals’; certainly the 1960s ethos seems further away than ever now the credit crunch has revived the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ spirit of the 1980s. This passage is also quite scary given that, in 2017, Neil and Daryl lost their house to a great forest fire (that does it, Neil is psychic! No not psycho, psychic…well, maybe that too). Neil’s muted vocal, feebly mixed, with its claims to ‘want to walk like a giant’ are both moving and slightly silly all at the same time, especially when someone (Billy Talbot?) adds a mock out-of-breath puff in his best ‘giant’ voice and the whole band add some nonchalant whistling, as if the Horse couldn’t care less (it is audacious, after all, to get CSNY’s biggest rivals in to pay ‘tribute’ to them – can you imagine CSNY singing a song about the raw grunt of Crazy Horse?!?) There’s no doubting the sentiment of the song, though, or the stinging choppy guitar work Neil adds to the song which recounts both [94] ‘Cortez The Killer’ [159] ‘Like An Inca’ and a song CSNY made their own [27] ‘Down By The River’. Could have done without the seven minutes of false endings and giant footsteps though, Neil railing at the world one last time and recalling the pyrotechnics and frustration of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend, wondering out loud whatever happened to ‘My Generation’ once they grew old  – especially as it meant us fans forking out for a two-disc set! While not as epic or as strong as ‘Driftin’ Back’, this sixteen minute song is still far better and much more developed than anything Neil’s given us for a while and ‘Walk Like A Giant’ is a fascinating song, if only to see how Neil’s feelings have shifted and softened down the years. 

Well, what a long strange ‘trip’ it’s been! Overall, then, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is a far better record than I was expecting both because of Neil’s recent poor form, Crazy Horse’s poor form and the unlistenable curio that ‘Americana’ was, a starter released mere weeks before this main course. Despite his worries in ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ that he’s past it (the one revelation from the book I never expected to read) Neil has a lot of life left in him yet and even though he’s nowhere near the same level he was even as recently as the 1990s the fire inside him is still raging strong and Crazy Horse, especially, sound like a band half their age. Neil ended his last great run of albums with 1993’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’, a dark, mysterious album highly similar to this one with its moody monochrome shots of life in the (then) present day and requiems for younger singers who didn’t see the point in growing old and selling out. Hopefully ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is the start of a whole new brilliant phase, with Neil and Crazy Horse picking up where they left off, updating the songs so that the characters a little older and the 1960s dream is a little more faded but who still are very much recognisable from the characters of the past. Frank Sampedro, in particular, has cracked the art of flying off in his own world while still listening to Neil (something Danny Whitten seemed to pick up without even trying but which is a woefully hard act to pull off) and Crazy Horse are at last being used properly, instead of being stapled into concepts where their sound doesn’t go. There might not be any individual song here to compare to [112] ‘Like A Hurricane’ or [94] ‘Cortez The Killer’, but like ‘Sleeps With Angels’ this is a fascinating mood piece that only lets the side down once and managed to run to double the length of Neil’s last LP (‘Le Noise’) despite containing the same number of songs. The medicine the modern world needs, the beast is waking up again and Crazy Horse sounds like they have many  more miles to gallop yet, however many references there are on this album to aging and mortality. Perhaps Neil ought to write books more often if they waken his muse and his feelings of nostalgia as wonderfully as this...

Other Neil Young and Crazy Horse reviews you might be interested in reading:

'Crazy Horse'

‘After The Goldrush’

'Time Fades Away'

'Tonight's The Night'

'American Stars 'n' Bars'

'Comes A Time'

'Hawks and Doves'





'Sleeps With Angels'

'Mirror Ball'

'Le Noise'

'A Treasure'

The Ultimate Grateful Dead Concert (Top Ten News, Views and Music 197)

'High Time - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Grateful Dead' is available to buy now by clicking here

So, it’s not just me then – Neil Young’s been listening to ‘The Dead’ on the radio too. I wonder if he knows about the ‘Deadcast’ app/? Yes, dear all, the Deadheads among will you know what it’s like when you get into this group – they become all-consuming and everything else you listen to, however golden, somehow becomes less shinier. So forgive me for yet another Dead-related article so soon after the last - it’ll pass soon I promise but at the moment I’m still obsessed with the ‘Deadcast’ app on my new phone which broadcasts unreleased Dead concerts 24 hours a day (the Deadcast website does the same if you don’t have a phone). What a revelation it’s been, ladies gentleman and skeletons – I’ve been a Dead fan for over 20 years now, own every single studio album they ever did and most of the live ones and solo albums including three box sets. But till now the only complete concerts I’d heard were two rather uninteresting ones (‘Hundred Year Hall’ from the European 1972 tour and the ‘Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack’ from the five day ‘farewell’ tour of 1974).

I’ve still got a long way to go before I’ve heard all 2000 odd recorded shows the Dead ever made, but I’m well on my way to having heard 500 of them now in some form or another and I’ve already formulated a little list of what the ultimate Dead concert would have been like, with performances available from any era. Some Deadheads might call my selection naive or wish to point other, better shows – please do if that includes you; everything that made this band great and unique is their ability to pass on life lessons learnt and that goes for the fans as much as the band. Sadly I fell in love with this band a mere year before Jerry Garcia’s demise and never did get to see them properly in concert. Thank goodness, then, that so many wonderful archives of them exist, each concert wildly different, each performance adding something new, each development in the catalogue something to be cherished and love. Most of the shows listed here are ones I’ve heard from ‘Deadcast’ but some are out especially on CD, either at the time or in years since – frankly anything ‘live’ is fair game for this list. My favourite full show so far, by the way, is a fairly un-regarded one from 7/11/1985 with Garcia not long out of recovery from the coma that almost killed him: charging at a rate of knots throughout, it’s a near perfect gig. Here then is this Deadhead’s list, in chronological order, although it’s worth pointing out that this list could easily have been ten times longer. What a concert this would have been, though, eh?...

“Viola Lee Blues” (18/6/1967 – The Monterey Pop Festival)

Few fans rate the band’s rather nervy Monterey performance – traditionally the Dead always ‘blow’ their biggest audience shows like this and Woodstock. But while the rest of the short gig is under-rehearsed and tentative, this full throttle 15 minute version of a classic blues standard is right up there with the best. Many Dead songs have outlaw characters but this is the only one in the Dead canon actually up before a judge and while the song reveals no emotion lyrically and simply describes the scene (‘The Judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it down!’) the escalating carnage the band play is something truly special. Each repetitive verse sounds hemmed in, like the prisoner has been locked into his cage early, but the space between them gives the band and Garcia especially the space to soar and hint at the darkness and danger lurking in this song. We never find out what the prisoner is in trouble for – probably nothing that major if his two year sentence is anything to go by – but the seething hatred at everything the judge stands for is perfectly captured here, especially the tirade of noise at the last verse that is probably the hardest, heaviest sound of the whole three day peace and love festival while still in keeping with the rebellion ethos of it. The crunch at the end – when the band simply circle back to the beginning of the song as tied as ever – is the only ending the song could logically have. Superb.

St Stephen > The Eleven (27/2/1969 Fillmore West and 23/8/1968, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco)

The Dead’s 1969 Fillmore shows are legendary and most of the justly worshipped ‘Live/Dead’ album comes from them including the best version I’ve heard of one of my favourite Dead songs ‘St Stephen’. Arguably the first ‘modern’ disciple of Christianity, Stephen was one of the first believers born after Jesus’ death not to have firsthand knowledge of anyone connected with events. Far from the earlier saints who went to their deaths believing 100% in life after death and that their beliefs were true, Stephen represented a younger generation struggling to come to terms with his belief. Robert Hunter’s clever lyric doubles this with the pain of being a hippie in 1969 when Haight Ashbury was now a media circus and the first flush of the summer of love seemed to be over. The ‘Aoxomoxoa’ studio version is pretty special anyway, but this live version is something else entirely, with the Saint a little more sure on his feet and the band swooping as one through what must have been a ridiculously hard song to play. The band then link to a re-telling of ‘William Tell’, another old tale of an elder generation ‘shooting’ at a younger one that makes perfect sense in context, the band even playing a bit of a Scottish Jig to this song (even though the story is from Switzerland). The band then swoop into a killer rock and roll riff and some of the most joyous playing of their career in a song played in the frankly hideously complex time signature of 11/4, the band’s two drummers Billy and Mickey effectively keeping two separate times at once. How the band get to the end in one piece I’ll never know, but far from a technical masterclass this ‘trilogy’ really sounds natural as the band lightly play around with these huge concepts in rock and roll heaven. I could have been boring and plumped for the same ‘Eleven’ as on ‘Live/Dead’ (its plenty good enough) but there’s another, earlier performance from 1968 doing the rounds too that’s even more over-the-top and extraordinary.

That’s It For The Other One (27/2/1969 Fillmore West)

This is the stunning version from the ‘So Many Roads’ box set of 2000, by the way, which collected together five CDs of live recordings with a few studio outtakes and a collection of the band’s final, unreleased songs intended for a 1995 album at the end. It’s as hit and miss as any Dead study should be, but worth the money for this one recording alone. Starting with the band tuning and Garcia’s declaration that ‘its really too weird up here...beyond the pail’, the Dead then enter the Twilight Zone with their most extraordinary music ever (their own soundtrack to the 80s remake of ‘Twilight Zone’ notwithstanding). Starting off with the ‘Cryptical Envelopment’ theme of the album, it begins as a folk song with Garcia mourning the fact that ‘he had to do die’ and commenting on ‘children learning from books that they were burning’ (putting this song firmly back with the generational crossroads of ‘St Stephen’). What comes next is less-space age then the effects-laden studio original on ‘Anthem Of The Sun’, as the band plough full steam into a rock and roll psychedelic journey (‘A bus came by and I got on, that’s where it all began’). Tighter, more disciplined and heavier than the studio, this sounds less like a whimsical decision to ‘drop out and turn on’ from a boring life than a desperate need, with every monstrous rumble of rock adrenaline sounding like a do or die approach for the narrator. For a band who’ve only been making records four years or so after years of missed opportunities and years of being ignored, the Dead still remember what it was like when this more middle of the road journey seemed like the only way out and they rail against the system with everything they’ve got here. Unusually Garcia reprises his ‘Envelopment’ section in the middle, as the band back off and get quiet, murmuring ‘he had to know he had to die’ like a man possessed. The band aren’t finish and keel back into the song as Garcia plays with what sounds like shaking hands, his guitar angrier and louder than I’ve ever heard it before or since. Most versions of ‘That’s It For The Other Ones’ I’ve heard sound like the ‘fun’ moment of the set, the place where the Dead can go to extremes – this one sounds by contrast like a matter of life and death. The song finally collapses after some 27 minutes of the most extreme use of the Dead’s five fingers of one hand’ philosophy where telepathically each one knows exactly where the others are going. What’s even more extraordinary is that the band don’t seem to realise the magnitude of what they’ve just played, Bob Weir even having the audacity to announce ‘a break, because this is our short set’ to an audience whose minds have just blown and who will never hear music the same way again, with every other concert after this one by any band surely an anticlimax after seeing this. Weir adds that they will brighten up the next set by ‘bringing on the monkey’ – fans have long speculated what he means by this (is this a rude joke about Pigpen?! Or did Garcia’s heroin addiction go back further than we thought?!?) If you even vaguely like the Dead and don’t own this version of what was always one of my favourite of their songs then download it from Amazon now – it’ll be the best 70p you’ve ever spent!

Dark Star (13/2/1970 Fillmore East)

Choosing the best ‘Dark Star’ is like choosing your favourite child – you love them all in so many different ways and each one of them is near perfect in your eyes. Many fans agree, though, that the 1969-70 ‘Dark Stars’ are spacier, tripper and far more mesmerising than later ones and the general consensus is that the Dead never jammed on the song better than they did on this February night. Unusually I agree with them – this ‘Dark Star’ is fragile yet tough, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, combining power and beauty like few recordings before it. There have been longer versions of perhaps the band’s most famous song of all time and individual sections might be better on other recordings, but the Dead’s telepathic interplay makes this one a nose better than all the others all the way through as the band entice their audience to a ‘transitive nightfall of diamonds’.

Morning Dew (8/6/1971 Hollywood)

Coming at the end of an epic three and a half hour set this version of one of the band’s better cover songs simply grows in stature with every passing refrain. Tired and weary at first, as befitting a song about a nuclear war that leaves most of the world dead (the song was inspired by seeing the film ‘On The Beach’ at the cinema, where this scenario actually happened) the song simply grows from nothing with every passing moment as Garcia is by turns mournful, angry, compassionate and afraid. So many groups did this song (Lulu being another AAA member) and nearly all versions of this lovely song are worth seeking out, but the Dead seem the most ‘in tune’ with the sentiment somehow, treating the song as a mournful ballad rather than an uptempo protest. Garcia’s guitar solo going into the last verse as it positively screams out in agony and fury is bone-chilling, the song finally collapsing in a final mourned cry of ‘I guess it doesn’t matter anyway!’, a warning to all the listeners before it’s too late for us. I almost wish the cold war was still with us when it inspired inspired performances like this.

Cold Rain and Snow (3/2/1978 Dance County Colisseum, Wisconsin)

One of the Dead’s earliest cover songs, I’ve always admired their down and dirty version of this folk song, which doesn’t so much turn a folk song electric as stick a jet engine underneath it and hurl it into space (Fellow AAA band Pentangle recorded the folky original if you want a comparison). Romance was never a typical subject matter for the Dead (a few Weir solo songs aside) and it sounds odd hearing Garcia singing about being thrown out of his own house. The way the music runs through so many disparate sections telepathically, though, is perfect for the Dead and the way the twin guitars seem to be in battle with the bass throughout shows off a great skill I wish the band had exercised more. By 1978 this song hasn’t been played in Dead shows to often so its appearance as late as 1978 was a surprise. The Dead had played around with the arrangement a lot since the early days, which was usually a bad thing but occasionally struck gold, as here where the band double up the time signature and give it a much more straightforward tempo, replacing the rather lopsided gait of the original with electric muscle.

Halfstep Mississippi Uptown Toodeloo (9/5/1981)

The studio version of this song – which kickstarts my favourite Dead LP ‘Wake Of The Flood’ – is heartbroken and sad, the narrator mourning the fact that he’s been ‘born with the mark’ and has been unlucky his whole life. This version from eight years later is much more positive, Garcia all but crowing proudly at the fact that he’s seeing life through eyes quite unlike those around him and his chorus cry of ‘I’m on my way!’ now sounds triumphant than defeated. The song’s second half where the narrator finally finds salvation ‘across the Rio, Grand Rio, across the lazy river’ always sends chills down your back when it’s played right – this version, with the band’s harmonies never better, sounds like Nirvana. It took a long long time but finally the un-named narrator of this song is at home and at peace.

Wharf Rat (4/4/1986 Rich Stadium, New York)

I really struggled to find the best version of ‘Wharf Rat’, probably my favourite of all the songs in the Dead’s canon, and I’ll be honest with you – I’m not sure if this is it. I know I heard a great one about 80-odd Dead concerts ago but I was so overcome I forgot to take my usual notes. I think it was this concert, but who knows – perhaps a fellow Deadhead will put me right (did the band even play this song that night?) Still, I’ve never heard a bad version of this song yet, Garcia and Hunter’s tale of poverty stricken August West, whose life once looked promising but is now washed up and homeless by the sea that once gave so much. The way West asks his fellow penniless narrator for a dime for his story and then tells it anyway is superb storytelling, West promising that ‘I’ll get up and fly away!’ and put his life right ‘the good Lord willing’ even though we just know that will never happen. The song is played on one chord almost all the way through (with the exception of this one sudden burst of emotion) and on paper should be the most ghastly, banal thing the band ever played. In fact the Dead always manage to go somewhere new with this song, where the chiming one chord echoed on guitar, bass and keyboard never fails to sound like as trap and Garcia’s last sudden burst of guitar towards the end the only real sunshine inside the song. If ever a songwriter wants to learn how to use momentum in a song, this is the perfect example, never staying a note too long even though some performances went on for 20 minutes or more.

Blow Away (7/7/1989 Giant Stadium, New Jersey)

Poor Brent Mydland never really fitted with the Dead and his songs only occasionally caught fire, but at his best his work was right up there with Garcia and Weir. I always thought ‘Blow Away’ (from what turned out to be the last Dead album ‘Built To Last’ in 1989) was among his best – and then I bought the CD, with this live version of the song as a bonus track. For those who haven’t heard it, after a rather ragged performance of the full song Brent kicks back into a coda, rapping out to the audience in a Pigpen-manner about how ‘you can’t hold love in your first’ and that controlling, possessive love ‘ain’t real love at all’. The song rattles on and on, with the band repeating the hypnotic riff, as the previously quiet and controlled Mydland pours out his demons and his own ups and downs in his personal life as he gets the whole audience to open their fists and let their own hang-ups ‘blow away’. I saw both keyboardist and song in quite a different light after hearing Brent open up to his real feelings on this performance and although the Dead (struggling with a song they don’t know all that well by their standards) have played better at almost every other show, the realness of feeling in the room is highly moving and supportive. A late period classic.

Rain (27/7/1994 Riverport Ampitheatre, Maryport)

Finally, we end with the biggest surprise out of all the ‘Deadcast’ shows I’ve heard. For years I’ve read in books and websites about ‘The Dead’s most popular cover songs’ – the majority of which have appeared on album or were Bob Dylan songs from the rather dodgy gigs the two American institutions played together in 1987. Top of my list of ‘must hears’ have been other AAA songs: the likes of The Who’s ‘Baba O ‘Riley’ (which I still haven’t heard), The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ ‘It’s All Over Now’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’ and the fab four’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ (!) and this one, a superb Beatles b-side (to ‘Paperback Writer’) that for my money is one of the best things they ever did. The Dead version doesn’t disappoint either, slowing the song down to a ballad and replacing the sneering Oasis-ish taunting of Lennon’s original about ‘state of minds’ with a more reflective, learned take much more in keeping with the Dead’s usual style. The Dead did many ‘rain’ songs in their career, almost all of them loosely linked to this one in that the ‘rain’ that falls actually represents re-birth and a new way of looking at the world rather than sadness. What a joy to hear them finally tackle the original in one of their last shows (indeed ‘Rain’ is one of the last ‘new’ covers the band ever did, nominated by new keyboardist and Beatles fan Vince Welnick).I don’t know about you but had the band continued I’d have love to have seen more Beatles songs in the setlist (‘Nowhere Man’ ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ ‘Within You Without You’ ‘The Fool On The Hill’...)

Those still longing for some ‘encores’ would do worse than to seek out the following: Pigpen’s greatest song ‘Two Souls In Communion’ (from any of the 1972 shows), Bob Weir’s lovely ‘Weather Report Suite’ from any ‘Wake Of The Flood’ era shows (when it was played complete), Garcia and Hunter’s gorgeous ‘Row Jimmy’ from the same period, two solo Garcia tracks from the mid 70s that the Dead excelled on ‘The Wheel’ and ‘Loser’, a mid-70s trilogy of ‘Help Is On The Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower’ top ‘roll away the dew’, any of the mid-to-late 70s versions of ‘Terrapin Station’ (an epic that sounds much better live than on album), a late 70s medley of two of the Dead’s better late-period songs ‘Scarlet Begonias’ and ‘Fire On The Mountain’ (henceforth known to fans as ‘Scarlet Fire’), the first ‘Touch Of Grey’ after Jerry’s return from illness in 1985 – the perfect version of a the perfect song to bounce back with, Garcia’s gorgeous ‘Candyman’ from the late 1990s when Jerry no longer had to put on his ‘frail’ voice for the addicted narrator and finally the very last song the band ever played, the ‘Box Of Rain’ from July 1995 (a month before Garcia’s death) that un-beknowing to the band was the perfect farewell. Now that’s what I call ‘Live Dead’!
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‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

'Workingman's Dead' (1970)

'American Beauty' (1970)
'Blues For Allah' (1975)

'Terrapin Station' (1977)
'Shakedown Street' (1978)
'Go To Heaven' (1980)
'In The Dark' (1987)

'Built To Last' (1989)
Surviving TV Clips 1966-1994
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1993
The Last Unfinished Album 1990-1995
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1966-1976
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1978-2011
A Guide To The CD Bonus Tracks
Dick's Picks/Dave's Picks
Road Trips/Download Series/Miscellaneous Archive Releases

Essay: Why The ‘Dead’ Made Fans Feel So ‘Alive’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions