Monday 13 January 2014

Neil Young "Rust Never Sleeps" (1979) (Album Review)

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Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Rust Never Sleeps" (1979)

My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)/Thrasher/Ride My Llama/Pocahontas/Sail Away//Powderfinger/Welfare Mothers/Sedan Delivery/Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)

The burly roadie, used to shuffling in shadows and waiting in the darkness to check for instruments, spectrums and musical perfection has just been asked by his boss if he wouldn't mind dressing up in a hoodie and wearing flashing red eyes during his next on-stage appearance. 'You know' he addresses the waiting reporter 'There's only one Goddamned guy I'd ever wear this hood for. Come to think of it, there's only one guy that would ask...'

Neil Young and Crazy Horse's tour of 1978 into 1979 was quite a trip, even by their long and wild standards. A compacted 'history of rock and roll', it began with 'little Neil' awaking beneath a giant amplifier and playing some folky songs before the Horse were unleashed to a wild storm of electronic noise, through the biggest amplifiers built to that point and interrupted by soundbites from famous rock and roll moments throughout history, from Chuck Berry's 'Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell' to Jimi Hendrix channelling the 'Star Spangled Banner' to the stage announcements at Woodstock to 'get down from those towers, man'. The roadies - sorry 'road-eyes' - dressed to look like ewoks (Neil had just seen 'Star Wars' when he came up with the concept) are clearly meant to represent the 'future', when mankind has evolved (or devolved?) but where rock and roll never died and still marches on as mankind's greatest way of communicating with himself. Even the interval is weirder than most, with a mock-advert for 'rust-o-vision glasses', supposedly available in the foyer that 'allow you to see the rust dripping off Neil's guitar when he plays an old song' (we'll be talking in depth about the concept of rust later - and no, in case you were wondering, you haven't accidentally stumbled across an article about restoring cars: all will become clear). Few who ever saw this Crazy Horse tour - even if they only saw it via the tie-in film (also titled 'Rust Never Sleeps') can ever forget it, even if in the clear light of day none of us have got a clue what half of it all means.

In truth the album 'Rust Never Sleeps' is a little like that too, even if it's been promoted to the stage where fans now believe it to contain the be all and end all of Neil's career and provides the answers to life, the universe and everything. Many fans consider it to be his greatest album of all time (except, perhaps, 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest'). In many ways 'Rust Never Sleeps' has a better claim than either of these two LPs (one a rushed recording of great songs, the other over-lush recordings of not-so great songs), although I dare say that it's the return to working with Crazy Horse, the long tours, the eccentric but loveable tie-in concert film and the fact Neil seemed to alone amongst the 1960s crowd in sounding contemporary and relevant as the 1970s turned into the 1980s that made this album the best-seller it became. The perfect album for a less than perfect year, this is exactly what 'oldie' record collectors wanted to hear - a member of the old guard taking on the punk's mantra of one of the 'old guard' reflecting the new sounds without sounding like he was copying something and is certainly one of Neil's more consistent LPs, even if it doesn't have the thrilling highlights of an 'American Stars 'n' Bars', the vision of 'Comes A Time' or the breadth of 'Trans'.

Few albums have become as synonymous with a single sentence as 'Rust Never Sleeps' has been ever since its release but arguably more so in the years since. Running through this whole LP - throughout Neil Young's career in many ways - has been the question 'Is it better to burn out than it is to rust?', whether it is greater to run through your career quickly and brightly, leaving both wonderful memories and devastation in your wake or to fade out slowly, offering more or less the same for a solid, rewarding career. That seemingly innocuous sentence has brought the guitarist more accolades and acclaim, but also more outrage and anger than anything else Neil ever wrote, loved and loathed in equal measure. Just look at Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who was so inspired by that sentence that he quoted from it in his suicide note, written after a third and difficult album and a feeling that the band had already said everything there was to say and that everything to come would just be needless repetition. Or Neil's first boss, Ahmet Ertegun, who defended his charge by claiming that 'fading away is not fun; he means that it's better to live our your days being very, very active - even if it destroys you - than to quietly disappear'. Then again, look at Neil's longterm musical partner Graham Nash, who was spitting feathers when Neil's biographer McDonnaugh asked him for his thoughts for the book 'Shakey', comparing it to the runners at his school who tore round the first lap but couldn't complete the second, adding 'I always wanted to finish - whose to say that I won't write my best stuff when I'm 90?!' Or John Lennon, who so sadly and ironically spent one of his last interviews in 1980 telling reporters 'Making the dead a hero - it's garbage to me, I worship the people who survive'. Neil's listeners too are divided what they think of that line; heck even I'm divided, siding with those stars who are there for the long run and who provide this site with pages and pages' worth of good music rather than one or two great albums, although the fact that I've chosen to fight on through an illness that's killing me to get this website finished rather than taking it easier for a longer but less fulfilled life will show you where I stand. That sentence means a lot to a lot of people and like many of the most provocative sentences in literature, nobody can tell you whose wrong and whose right. Even the album title 'Rust Never Sleeps' (actually something the band Devo came up with and chanted by them in the background while Neil tried to 'act' in his much-delayed feature film 'Human Highway', although Neil had been playing with a similar line ever since 'has your band begun to rust?' in 1969's 'Cowgirl In The Sand') makes Neil's mission statement clear: he has to keep moving, he can't stand still.

However, is this album really so far removed from what Neil's given us in the past? Even the clever ad much applaud decision to split this album between 'acoustic' and 'electric' sides isn't that new (Neil did a similar thing on 'American Stars 'n' Bars' in 197 although a better description might have been between 'unfinished' and 'finished' sides). For the most part 'Rust' is actually Neil's least adventurous of the 1970s (or at least since 1972's 'Harvest'), trying to 'sound' like what people expect from a 'Neil Young record' with nine roughly equal-length pieces from two genres rather than giving us all one genre (as per 'Comes A Time'), extending most of the songs (as per 'Zuma') or pulling the rug out from under our feet (as Neil with does with his 'Doom Trilogy' of 'Time Fades Away' 'On The Beach' and 'Tonight's The Night', all three of which feature deeper and more rust-breaking songs than this record). Even the subject matters tend to go to the same places (divided into 'Aztec' songs, 'Indian' songs, 'history of music' songs, while 'Sail Away' isn't all that far removed from the famous Randy Newman song of the same name and is about the only Neil Young you could see being covered by someone middle of the road, such as John Denver). Soundwise 'Rust' may well be the most generic Neil Young album of them all.

And yet, there is a boldness and confidence to 'Rust Never Sleeps' that Neil's other albums from the 1970s don't possess. Compared back to back with the nervous 'Time Fades Away' Neil sounds so much surer of himself and his place in the rock and roll world, as a sort of beacon of truth others can rely on when record companies demand too much or falling songwriting royalties begin to bite. 'Rust' seems somehow more direct than Neil's other period albums, as if he's cutting through all the rock and roll excesses to express his real soul (although the quota of non-heartfelt filler - 'Sail Away' 'Welfare Mothers' etc - is arguably just as high as on any other Neil Young album). One reason for this might be producer David Briggs' claim that he mixed the entire studio and double-disc live album in one busy week, fuelled by cocaine and 'attitude' - certainly the electric side of the album is the epitome of the band that didn't get enough sleep last night but are still playing on through dawn because they're too wasted to work out how to stop. Both of the 'Hey Hey/My My' songs say more in three short stanzas than whole books about rock and roll, starkly telling it for what it is, while 'Thrasher' is still a little too 'direct' for comfort for many fans in its tale of fallen idols (me included) and 'Welfare Mothers' - a supposedly jokey song about broken homes and picking up single mothers desperate for love - would raise eyebrows now, never mind in 1979. Musically and lyrically, if 'Harvest' is Neil's 'Sgt Peppers' (a feast for the ears, if not always the brain) then 'Rust' is his 'Band On The Run', a cleverly constructed well-produced album that sweeps past you so amiably and comfortably that it's only later you realise the half-concepts don't actually add up and some of the songs aren't actually as good as the Neil Young/Wings albums that get routinely laughed at ('Sail Away' and 'Picasso's Last Words', we're looking at you!) Is this album really burning out? Or is it fading away? Or is it a crowd-pleasing hybrid of both? What does Neil really think of his single most famous line?

Well it's clear, actually, where Neil's real sympathies lie if not always his actions and despite the fact that unlike Cobain, Hendrix, Joplin and all those other live-fast die-young rock stars he's still going strong at 68 and counting. That question 'is it better to burn out?' isn't even a question by the time he comes round to singing it a second time on the electric half-reprise of the opening song but a statement: if an artist is to stay relevant they simply have to keep moving to avoid getting rusted into one shape that turns them into living statues - even if all that movement burns up precious life-force and cuts their life short. Both the acoustic 'My My' and the electric 'Hey Hey' are hymns to the long history of pioneers in rock and roll, who keep regenerating it so that it can never die but merely pass from one generation to the next, each one influencing the next like relay runners passing on batons. This is better demonstrated in concert than on record, however, where the shows were interrupted by 'stage announcements' that represented a potted history of rock and roll from Chuck Berry to Woodstock and where a 'baby' Neil - representing rock and roll - grew in stature set by set, first 'waking up' on top of a mammoth amplifier that towered over him and playing some 'folk' songs (Neil's always equated rock with folk rather than blues or country like a lot of other artists - his first band The Squires sang folk songs as often as they did Beatle covers or Shadows pastiches in their early days; Graham Nash tells a great story in his new autobiography 'Wild Tales' that whereas CSN bonded over seeing 'A Hard Day's Night' and dreaming of being in a band, Neil was inspired by a documentary about loner Bob Dylan, which explains a great deal).

Neil quotes both Elvis and Johnny Rotten in his song, two casualties of rock and roll very much in the news when this album was released in 1979, although his meaning of the song then was probably rather different (Johnny Lydon is clearly written as a 'burn out' figure expected to die next, while Elvis is washed up and dead at 44, probably wishing he had 'burnt out' whilst young - ironically Lydon is now ten years older than Elvis ever reached and still going strong; fellow Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, who died shortly after this album's release, would have been a better target in retrospect). This dialogue continues across the album, with Neil turning on those who chose to rust rather than burn out ('Thrasher', as damning a portrait of irreverence as you'll ever see, reportedly about CSN) and contemplating the weirdness of the job he does 'moving' people ('Sedan Delivery' - well it's as good a guess for what these odd lyrics are about as any other!) Young's take on the subject seems to be that everyone else has given up and thrown in the towel, with music now a 'career opportunity' censored by record companies rather than something to live and die for which every artist passionately believes. Rightly or wrongly (and the digs against CSN are pretty harsh), Neil at least sounds like he's making a convincing argument here as well as trying to get his mojo back. As fate would have it, Neil will end up sounding more distracted than most in the coming decade, thanks to his oft-mentioned-on-this-site run ins with his record company and the 12-hour-a-day rehabilitation programme Neil and wife Pegi enrolled in to help their son Ben, born with cerebral palsy - but for now Neil isn't growing old as gracefully as the rest of his peers and that fire is exciting for this album.

Neil's looking back much further than just rock and roll however. 'Rust' is the album that finally makes good on Neil's promise as the 'Indian' of Buffalo Springfield (often wearing fringe capes during live appearances in contrast to Stephen Stills and Richie Furay dressed as all-American cowboys), with references to the invasion of Western Capitalists, the Alomo and Pocahontas. Ever since 1975's 'Cortez The Killer' Neil's been writing about the way a 'mis-reading' of a fortune ended up with a gigantic Aztec empire falling to a bunch of puny European settlers and how that might or might not reflect on the present day (I may be wrong to me 'Cortez' has always sounded like a cold war parable). This time we have three of them: 'Ride My Llama' 'Pocahontas' and 'Powderfinger', while it's notable that the first two even include time travel as part of the song, Neil's narrator sharing a drug-fuelled 'trip' with his Indian ancestors and imagining talking about Hollywood round an Indian campfire with Pocahontas and Marlon Brando. In truth, these three are among the weirdest songs Neil ever wrote and yet fans are quite fond of all of them to differing degrees - perhaps because they're surrounded by some of the most straightforward Neil Young songs in years.
Weirdly, too, is the fact that although the album kinda mirrors the hit concert tour (acoustic opening, electric ending), the split is 50:50 rather than 25:75 as heard live. This means that despite the star billing for Crazy Horse (eagerly awaited by fans for four years - a long time in 1970s musical terms) they don't actually turn up until side two, playing on a grand total of four songs (last album, 'Comes A Time' - billed to Neil alone - features Crazy Horse on two songs and there was no fuss made about that). Equally weird is the fact that almost all of this album is recorded as 'live', even though most of the audience chatter has been cut out (apart from 'Hey Hey' 'My My' and 'Ride My Llama') and even though Neil and co knew that they would have a live album (released as 'Live Rust') out in the shops soon anyway (only 'Pocahontas' and 'Sail Away' are fully studio bound). Weirder still, closing song (the 'electric' version of 'Hey Hey') is the same recording as the one released on 'Live Rust' and recorded during the tour at the Cow Palace, albeit with a couple of extra overdubs (including bassist Billy Talbot walloping the studio doors for extra emphasis on the 'on' beats!) Totally weird is the fact that a third of this album is made up of outtakes from earlier, less regarded albums ('Ride My Llama' dates back to 'Zuma', 'Sail Away' to 'Comes A Time' and 'Pocahontas' to the unreleased 'Chrome Dreams' of 1977, which we still say would have been Neil's best album had ever got round to releasing it in one go instead of splitting it across his next half-dozen albums) and the fact that at least one future classic ('Shots', later released on 1981's 'Re-Ac-Tor') were part of this album's sessions too. Then again this is Neil Young we're talking about: perhaps the fact that this album got released at all instead of being dismissed for being too 'commercial' and replaced in the schedules by another 'Tonight's The Night' is the one truly weird thing about this album.

Overall, then, 'Rust Never Sleeps' is one of those occasional revered 'classic albums' we come across on this site that in our opinion doesn't quite live up to its top-notch billing (in truth there's only three, maybe four songs that are top notch - and one of those is a repeat of an earlier song!) and one that doesn't actually have the depth and creativity levels of the more forgotten albums around it (1978's 'Comes A Time' and 1980's 'Hawks and Doves'). And yet at the same time I can totally see why so many fans fell for this album in a way they never did for the others - and why Reprise decided to get behind this album as opposed to, say, 'American Stars 'n' Bars'. There's more thought and care given to this album than perhaps any other Neil Young LP since 'Harvest' and it sounds both commercial enough to be played on radio but ambitious enough to encourage long-term fans that Neil and co aren't standing still. The fact that practically all these songs have survived in Neil's ever changing setlists down the years (goodness knows he has a lot of songs to choose from - more than any other AAA member in fact!) suggests that this album is close to Young's heart as well; goodness knows he seems to be having fun in the film (right up until the moment a 'road-eye' accidentally whacks him round the head while struggling with a 15 foot microphone!) To be honest, though, 'Rust Never Sleeps' might have been better still had Neil gone with his 'first thought, best thought' policy and gone with Crazy Horse all the way; a lot of the acoustic songs - clearly hear to soften the commercial blow of Crazy Horse at their heaviest - simply can't compete and while 'Sedan Delivery' and 'Welfare Mothers' both rock better than they ever did before (in outtakes from aborted sessions in 1978) and since (any of the many live tours that resurrect them in later years) they sound woefully out of place here, empty songs from an empty age on an album that has so much to say that Neil even successfully gets away with telling us his latest manifesto message twice, at the beginning and end of the album. 'Rust Never Sleeps' after all and it takes more than a couple of singalongs and a handful of classic tracks to convince true fans that this is Neil Young at his best. For 1979, though, this is the perfect album for the times, ending a troubled decade with a gritty and realistic album that takes in subject matter stretching back hundreds of years and yet still pointing it's way hopefully into the future. Compared to Neil's other best known albums (the singer-songwriter 'Goldrush' and the rather sappy 'Harvest') this is easily Neil's most influential album and deservedly won him a whole new audience from kids that had long considered his peers anachronisms. Neil is clearly listening to what people wanted to hear - but unlike the sex pistols he refuses to give it to them 100% and restricting expectations of what he's really about: now that's the true ethos of punk, even if Neil was at the time an 'elderly' 32.

As a final note before we start the review proper: what other AAA phrase has since become so well known that the wikipedia entry for this album includes the memorable sentence: 'Did you mean 'The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' episode 'Rust Never Sleeps'? Or the edition of the 'Star Wars Comic' entitled 'Rust Never Sleeps'?' and then directs me to the headline of a scientific journal about wheat extraction?!

'My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)' is the latest of the occasional anthems he writes whenever one decade turns into the next (see especially 1988's 'Rockin' In The Free World' and possibly 1969's twin attacks of 'Cinammon Girl' and 'Down By The River', which sum up the joy and fear of the 1960s as well as any two songs from that decade). Just to rub the point in, Neil will sing it more or less complete a second time, in electric form, to end the album. For now though it's an acoustic lament, divided between celebration and requiem, a hymn to the wonders of rock and roll while acknowledging that there has to be 'sacrifices' for it to continue. Juxtaposing the death of Elvis (who dies in 1977) - the 'punk' of his day who everybody feared - with the latest anti-establishment figure Johnny Rotten is a clever moved, suggesting that rock does indeed eat itself and rebellious youngsters have the choice of dying young with glory intact or fading into forgotten middle age when the next big thing comes along. A lot of 'Rust Never Sleeps' is about Neil refusing to stand still while those around him grow 'old' and in many ways 'My My' is Neil's theme song, revealing just why he has to chop and change directions so often to keep his music fresh. Heard with just Neil's lone acoustic guitar, this song sounds more like a folkie protest than the better known electric anthem version of the song and the mood is dark and sombre, with even celebratory lines like 'rock and roll is here to stay' tinged with regret for all the chaos it will undoubtedly cause in the future. Note too that Neil is less ambiguous this time around: 'This is the story of Johnny Rotten' he sings unapologetically in the third verse ('Hey Hey' at the end of the album turns this into a question: 'Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?', with the future still with the potential to be changed). Unlike most of his contemporaries Neil Young understood the necessity of music to change and get back to its bare-bones essence and despite being one of Neil's shortest songs (on paper at least) there's an awful lot going on here, reflecting how on the one hand 'It's better to burn out than it is to rust' but on the other 'once you're gone you can never come back'. A slow, stately tune - which in other circumstances and other hands could have easily ended up becoming the national anthem for some modern developing country - is the perfect accompaniment for a song that asks more questions than perhaps any other Neil Young song.

I'm less keen on 'Thrasher', another song generally heralded as amongst Neil's best, although thematically it's the perfect accompaniment to the last song, with the metaphor of the sun setting and rising again used to show why change is as inevitable in music as anything else. Neil's admitted since that this song was a dig at his old colleagues CSN and certainly some of the lines here do sum up their worst excesses, such as the 1974 world tour with specially commissioned silk-lined Joni Mitchell designed pillowcases and private jets ('They had the best selection, but they were poisoned with protection...There was nothing that they needed and so nothing left to find'). Yes, CSN did take their eye off the ball slightly come the mid 1970s, when rows and a love of comfort meant that the three millionaires no longer represented the hungry young men desperate for change from the ground up they had been, separately, in the mid-1960s. However, in making the band a target, Neil seems to be forgetting his own role in the band and the fact that it was adding his fourth persona that turned the band into mega-stars - or the fact that he did rather well commercially out of the deal (would 'Harvest' have done so well without CSNY exposure? I think not!) His lines about them being lost in 'rock formations' (ie statues so secure in their roles that they've lost the ability to 'move') is far too damning for a trio that were still recording some of their best and most adventurous material (check out Crosby's unreleased late 70s wordless choral work, Still's' 1979 world tour where he barely ever sang and turned all his great classics into blues workouts or Nash's very out of fashion 'No Nukes!' song 'Barrel Of Pain' - all three examples far more 'adventurous' than anything on this Neil Young album it has to be said). The line where Neil leaves them in the fields for the road out is particularly 'wrong' somehow, Neil claiming 'I got bored and left them there...they were just deadweight to me'. Only two years earlier, when CSN were recording, err, 'CSN' (you know, the one with the boat) the newspapers were cackling about Neil's absence and claiming he didn't have the talent to cope with the painstaking layered vocals that were once again the toast of the town. Add in, too, that CSN's fall from grace in the late 70s had as much to do with Crosby's escalating drug habits as anything else (the line about the band being lost in 'crystal canyons' is the cleverest of the song - but then again Neil was equally guilty - just have a look at how stoned he is during his guest appearance in The Band's 1978 farewell concert film 'The Last Waltz', DVD copies of which spent a great deal of time and money 'editing out' the line of coke very evidently leaking from Young's nose) and you have what is, in essence, a deeply unfair, in fact downright nasty song. True, Neil never actually gets round to naming CSN in the song (like the next album's slightly nicer 'Old Homestead' it's surreal rather than literal) but for someone normally so reticent to talk about his own songs Neil does seem to have mentioned CSN's name in connection with this song quite often and with much glee. Certainly CSN's reputation never recovered - but I argue that it was Neil's words and actions that turned CSN into statues; dare I say it I still consider him the least talented member of the quartet, although that's more of a sentence in defence in how amazingly talented the other three are that even someone of his talents can't compete than an anti-Neil rant. All this wouldn't matter if 'Thrasher' was an interesting song in it's own right, but it isn't: it's a tired folkie song that at 5:38 lasts far too long without any sufficient changes of pace or tempo or even melody and - together with the rather flat vocal Neil gives it (the song is live after all) makes it one of the most boring songs in Neil Young's canon. Yes there are some good lines throughout the song, the metaphor of the 'thrasher' coming to reap the musical fields of any artist who stands still for too long is a great one and the last verse - where Neil acknowledges even his time as a 'dinosaur' will come some day - is terrific, belatedly trying to undo the nastiness at the heart of the song. But it's not enough: this is, ironically enough, Neil standing as still as he's ever stood and 'Thrasher' is too mean at heart and too dull in execution to deserve its reputation as a classic Neil Young song, being easily the worst song on the album. Thankfully better is to come.

'Ride My Llama' is the 'emptiest' and silliest song on the album, but it's written and performed with such skill and poise that it overcomes it's novelty beginnings. One of Neil's soccasional surreal 'trip' songs, it takes in both America's American Indian heritage ('Remember the Alamo? Well I feel that good today!') and possible future ('I met a man from Mars, he picked up all my guitars and played a travelling song'). The idea of history as something changing, so that today's present will be seen in the 'past' by our successors, is a clever twist on the themes of the album's opening two songs and even though this song dates back to the 1975 'Zuma' period, 'Llama' fits this album much better. This is also the song on the album that best shows off what a strong acoustic guitar player Neil is, switching rhythms suddenly but easily and adding in a delightful 'choral' section (Neil triple-tracking his voice) that's among his lovelier melody lines. Written to a walking pace tempo (did Neil come up with this song whilst walking round his ranch - which was still new in 1975?), 'Ride My Llama' is a clever mixture of the rural present and surreal future, Neil 'seeing' his own 'neighbourhood' and possibly out wandering with his dogs while simultaneously imagining the land as it might have been (llamas and Indians) and what it might be (aliens scooting over the surface), never quite going where you expect. Listen out too for the then-risque lines about drug taking, when the alien offers the narrator 'something for the trip' (so much for CSN being lost in 'crystal canyons'!) although Neil does fit in the dig that taking drugs is something done by 'primitives', in the days before mankind physically left his own planet. Clearly less 'important' than the 'bigger' songs on the album, 'Ride My Llama' gets unfairly overlooked I think, a strong example of Neil's frequently funny humour and his ability to 'see' the world differently to those around him (who else would have come up with a song like this, which is too surreal even for 10cc?) The best of the album songs you might not know if you're just a casual Neil Young fan.

'Pocahontas' is surreal too and equally concerned with time-travel, but more time seems to have been spent on this song, where Neil's narrator imagines what life must have been like back in the days of the Indians and his outrage even several hundred years on at what happened to his 'ancestors' (it's never been proved that Neil has Indian blood in him, but Young has clearly always had an affinity with the old tribes, hiring several genuine 'indians' in his many backing bands over the years and becoming 'identified' with the clan as early as the Buffalo Springfield's first TV appearance in 1965, albeit probably at first only to annoy the heck out of the smart white-suited Stephen Stills). Neil cleverly juxtaposes the past with the present, enabling the characters to seem like 'real' people rather than history-book characters, although his choice of 'Marlon Brando' to sit with himself and Pocahontas round the campfire sadly undermines the song rather (with all of the modern world to choose from would Pocahontas, the daughter of an Indian chief remember, really 'talk about Hollywood' rather than, say, carriages that move without horses or modern tents?) Still, the dreamlike quality of the song, where anything can happen and does, comes over strong and Neil is working to his own internal logic here not ours, impressively carrying the song off with one of his better vocals that doesn't possess a flicker about how 'weird' this song actually is. Rather than doping Pocahontas an injustice, the song also reflects her life in a small strange way, captured by Western white men and made to live in an environment completely alien to her own (she 'converted' to Christianity and took on the new name 'Rebecca', enjoying her time with European tobacco planter John Rolfe so much she even chose to stay as his wife rather than go back to her people. The true story of Pocahontas is a powerful one of how love can overcome any differences - even if the story has inevitably been tweaked and twisted by later, decidedly white European writers at pains to point out how much better their civilisation was; Neil's song of yearning, where he wonders if Pocahontas would sleep with him if she was lost in his own alien environment, is actually far more fitting to the true story than any of the many Hollywood films on the subject. Perhaps they should get Marlon Brando to play Neil in a film version of this song?... The melody for 'Pocahontas' is clever too, a running, chugging, acoustic song that somehow mirrors folk roots (this is a 'storytelling' song made for singing round a campfire as in the song) and sufficiently 'Indian' enough to evoke her spirit. Neil gets the casual cruelty of the age well too, with the much0discussed line about how the European attackers 'might have left some babies' deservedly gaining much praise, that one line reflecting the point that they don't actually care: the Indians simply mean nothing to them. All in all, another album highlight and one of the songs from 'Rust Never Sleeps' that deserves it's reputation as something special.

The side ends with 'Sail Away', the least known song on the album and it's least known for a reason. An outtake from the Nicolette Larson duets recorded for 1978's 'Comes A Time', the song simply wasn't up to the range and maturity of most of that album (by and large reflections of growing older and having children) - and sadly the same goes for its appearance here, making you wonder why Neil resurrected it (had Neil 'saved' the two Crazy Horse songs from that project - 'Lotta Love' and 'Look Out For My Love' - and swapped them with, say, 'Thrasher' and this song then this really might have been his greatest LP of all time). There's nothing really wrong with this song, which basically says that home can be wherever and whatever as long as the narrator has the chance to leave it from time to time and do other things, but says it without any real spark of identity or with anything new to say. Neil sounds bored, the melody sounds a little too much like every other Neil Young acoustic song, his harmonica playing apes Dylan just that little too much and Nicolette Larson - the undoubted star of 'Comes A Time' - sounds terribly out of place here, her keening harmonies the very definition of mid 70s folk-rock that the punks were trying to replace. It's almost as if Neil left this song here as evidence of why he had to change before he, too, got stuck into 'one place'. Then again, lyrically this song does fit the album better than 'Comes A Time': it opens with more time-travelling, as Neil tells us he'd be at home in any era, in a 'tepee' or 'penthouse 35' and again Neil tells us that 'ordinary people' are the 'real stars'. Unfortunately, though, there's not much more - 'Sail Away' is so laidback and tension free that you rather wish the song would 'sail away' and the album could get back to it's intensity...

Side two opens with 'Powderfinger', a real fans' favourite about an unknown and ambiguous invasion of some historical settlement. Like most of the songs on the album, the theme of something in the past being 'overthrown' when something new comes along and how no one is safe: however big you get there will always be something out there to try and challenge you. Neil's narrator this time is an unknown 22-year-old left as lookout not expecting anything to happen but whose peace is suddenly disturbed by a white boat full of men with rifles shooting. Neil does a great job building up the brave but inexperienced and naive character and his family in just a few lines (clutching 'daddy's rifle' which 'feels reassuring') and wondering why the 'powers that be' have left him on charge on such a fateful day. The last two verses, which features the youth trying to return fire only to see 'my face splash in the sky' as he's shot in return, is moving indeed, the narrator's ghost pleading with the listener to 'remember me to my love - I know I'll miss her'. This song is a much more 'human' response to the inevitability of change than those elsewhere on the album and actually accepts that some people do get hurt in the name of 'progress', even if the punks didn't quite come out shooting when they took rock music over in the late 70s and thus far better than the one-sided 'Thrasher'. With lots of space for duelling guitars and the sort of slow-tempo-that-sounds-fast-when-played-loud that Crazy Horse have made their own, it's the perfect launching pad for Neil's most famous backing group and they make the most of their appearance, with this easily the best of their four performances on the album. Only one puzzle remains: why is this song named 'Powderfinger'? Is this the narrator's name for a gun, a weapon he hasn't seen before? (But if so he seems to know his 'daddy's rifle' and how it works pretty well) And if this line is a condensement of the line 'Shelter me from the powder and the finger' in the last verse, then what does that mean? (Does the 'finger' give the orders in an Alan Sugar type way?) Either way, 'Powderfinger' is a fine, thought provoking song well performed by one and all.

'Welfare Mothers' is another popular Crazy Horse song, almost certainly because of the clever 'dum-dee-doo-der-de-dum-dum-wooh!' riff, which is easy to sing/hum along to and is spiky enough to sound tough as well as melodic. Unfortunately, there's not much of a song to go with it: Neil tries to add some social commentary here with the idea that giving welfare benefits to single mothers will make them more willing to sleep with random strange men in desperation questionable at best. Neil's had a rather mixed time of social commentary: for every gem in his canon like 'Ohio' there'll be a terrible song like 'Motor City' that gets the politics so skewed you wonder what on earth he's been reading. 'Welfare Mothers' is another mistake, alternating between being patronising ('Welfare mothers make better lovers' indeed!) and occasionally hitting the mark (the 'welfare mothers' are 'out on the street with the whole family' - but because they've been evicted rather than for a night out on the town). Could it be that the joke is actually on the narrator, then, who doesn't seem to understand or care why he's suddenly picking up so much interest from the single mothers on welfare around him? If so, though, the song isn't clear enough, encouraging us to laugh at rather than sympathise with the down-trodden single mothers, with every mocking cry of one of Neil's worst ever chorus lines 'Deee-vorrrr-cee!' Future incarnations of the song also catch fire much quicker and easier than this, too (the 'Weld' live album is about the best, complete with a deliberately painful improvised ending over the phrase 'No...More...Pain....Where's the cheque?'), sacrificing this song's rather silly mock-waddle for all-out attack that make it a much more streamlined song even if the sentiments are still the same. Frankly Crazy Horse sound rather over-used here, giving a paper-thin one dimensional song the same muscle as they did the death of a whole tribe on 'Powderfinger'. All in all, not one of Neil's better songs, although at least compared to similar 'joke' songs from the period such as 'Homegrown' and 'Motorcycle Mama' this one does fit the album (sort of, anyway - this is exactly the sort of broken home the punk movement was born from) and does have a 'message' over and above simply being there to annoy the listener.

'Sedan Delivery' doesn't make much sense either, being a series of hallucinogenic surreal fragments held together with the same fiery arm-crushing riff and the occasional chorus cries of 'gotta get away' 'no one knows' and 'hard to find'. However 'Sedan' does work, to a point, simply because this is again one of Neil's finest ever riffs, relentless in its urge to drive the narrator onwards, and the fact that there are a few intriguing stories amongst the lyrics, even if none of them seem to belong in the same song. If there's a theme here it's one of not caring what other people think of you, starting out with a female champion pool player who only loses when she gets self-conscious over her varicose veins, a dentist trip where the narrator sends a 'thankyou' card despite being caused lots of pain, Ceasar and Cleo out in space 'making love in the milky way', delivering 'chemicals and scared roots' to a mad scientist and 'sleeping with too many covers' (I'm warm now so I don't care!) All of these characters are 'tagged' by society and not 'allowed' to become anything else, even though they clearly have much more to give (ie it's only when the pool player remembers she's a woman and not meant to be a stereotypical pool player that she loses and the dentist isn't really nasty, honest, whatever the experience - he's trying to prevent something worse). Performed as if the band are in the middle of a raging fever (many of Neil's strongest rock songs were actually written during 'fevers', such as the one in 1969 that saw both 'Cowgirl In the Sand' and 'Down By The River' come into being - was this another one? Or a half-memory of one of Neil's occasional epilepsy attacks, thankfully all but over after 1976?) 'Sedan Delivery' is the closest Crazy Horse ever did come to playing like a punk band, thrashing out a simple four-chord riff and refusing to stick to a single story throughout, the very antithesis of the prog-rock concept epic that took one idea and spread it across double, sometimes triple albums. The most telling lines, though, come right at the end, when Neil imagines himself as a deliver of furniture: he clearly means something much deeper than shifting chairs, however, telling us painfully 'Sedan delivery is a job I know I'll keep - it sure was hard to find!' As above, our take on this line is that Neil is talking about his job as an 'artist', doing his best to 'move' people out of their comfort zones and show them something else they don't see in 'their' lives (we're back to moving and not standing still again, clearly the key theme of the album). If so, then 'Sedan Delivery' is something of a mission statement: he's not becoming part of the 'punk' scene because morally he agrees with it, he's simply refusing to give up the day job he loves so much and become a 'dinosaur', forever doomed to standing still. As the intense riff makes it clear, he still feels urgently that he has more to say than to simply pack up and pass the 'baton' over to the next generation. And when Crazy Horse are playing like this, who can blame him? An unusual song, which might mean nothing or might mean more than almost any other song Neil has ever written, fascinatingly oblique and a winning mixture of poetic and tough
The album then ends with 'Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)' is the album's opening song played now with an electric crunch behind it. Most of the same comments as before apply: this is a song split between celebrating the spirit of rock and roll and commemorating the lives of those who lost their way inside it and the differences lyrically are minimal, although what there are are telling. Instead of 'rock and roll will never die' comes 'rock and roll is here to stay', quite a statement to make back in 1979 when people were assuming rock and roll was tired and dead and had no interest for the 'new' generation (in actual fact it's the late 1990s that were in danger of killing off rock and roll and replacing it with 'pop' - not quite the same thing, even if the two genres have become intrinsically linked). Here too comes the question: is the story of Elvis the story of Johnny Rotten? (Complete with question mark this time). Neil knew that only time would tell whether the ex pistols would implode or whether it's 'stars' would end up becoming establishment figures every bit as much as Elvis (it seems right to compare this song with Pete Townshend's 1978 classic 'Who Are You?', a song about identity written after Pete bumped into two of the Sex Pistols and pleaded with them to 'finish the job' they'd started - by contrast they were simply eager to meet such a revered musician, whatever their public image of hating anything made before 1977). The result is a draw, really: Sid Vicious did die young, his image either clouded or highlighted by the alleged murder of his girlfriend depending who you speak to, while John Lydon has become a regular on reality TV circuits, still loose enough to speak his mind but not really a rebellious figure the young aspire to be. The answer to the question 'is it better to burn out than to fade away?' then, is a draw and like the opening version of it the electric version of 'Hey Hey' doesn't quite know how to take that fact. This is a special song for many for a reason and Neil has never sounded more like the voice of impending doom than when singing this version, with the criss-crossing guitars of Young and Sampedro a magical backdrop to a song that doesn't quite know if it's ending a chapter or starting a new one.

There's a lot going on in 'Rust Never Sleeps' then. Neil Young embraces the challenge of punk and tries to show both that their ethos of changing the guard has been his all along but that age should not be an obstacle to what you do if you're still doing it well. This is an album more urgent and earnest than any in Neil's canon since at least 'Zuma' and at times he manages to beat the punks on their own musical territory whilst writing lyrics far more thoughtful and long-sighted than any punk record could manage. The difference is that punks dreamed of a short sharp future and never saw past the end of it; Neil not only knows that it's part of a bigger cycle, he actively encourages the listener to consider the changing of the guard across time, from the American Indians and Aztecs to the future. With such a terrific concept, appealing to the oldies who secretly agree with the punks that music had become too staid by 1979 and with the newbies who wanted to be taken as seriously as Neil does take them here, it's no surprise that 'Rust Never Sleeps' is such a special record for many. It isn't, however, Neil's greatest record of all time - even though parts of it may be amongst Neil's greatest work and even though it's arguably the best-timed record of his career. There are too many songs like 'Sail Away' and 'Welfare Mothers' that sound strained and tired for this to be a 'true' classic album and the fact that the one admittedly key song at the heart of the album is repeated again at the end means that in truth we only have eight songs here - and four of those throwaways, half of which still work on their own terms ('Ride My Llama' and 'Sedan Delivery') but half of which fail miserably ('Sail Away' and 'Welfare Mothers'). The rest is indeed top notch, playful enough to be listenable but deep enough to pack a real punch - but there's only half a classic album here and, like the other records around it; 'American Stars 'n' Bars' 'Comes A Time' and 'Hawks and Doves'; it's a 'nearly' album that doesn't quite gets things as perfectly as it thinks it does. Still, 'Rust Never Sleeps' is nevertheless a very good album with a clear message and several great songs that did exactly what it needed to do to re-establish Neil Young's following and re-energise him for perhaps the most difficult decade of his whole career...

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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