Monday, 9 February 2015
Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Zuma" (1975)
Don't Cry No Tears/Danger Bird/Pardon My Heart/Lookin' For A Love/Barstool Blues//Stupid Girl/Drive Back/Cortez The Killer/Through My Sails
"I might live a thousand years before I know what that means", or,
Ikachigazuma!...ping!....pingping!.....ping!ping!ping!ping!....whoops....ping!ping!ping!ping!ping!ping!ping!...falls down hole...eaten up by giant frog
The only album in my collection to share its name with a game (I can't see The Monkees doing 'Grand Theft Auto' somehow, and it's too late for Pink Floyd to dedicate a whole game to Myst sadly, which would have been right up there street of hidden meanings and undecipherable messages...and no 'Beatles Rock Band' doesn't count!) I reckon the makers at PopCapGames must, surely, have been listening to this album a lot when they created their game 'Zuma' (followed by 'Zuma's Revenge'...which would have made a great title for Neil's 'other' Aztec albums 'Rust Never Sleeps' and 'Life'). For those who don't know 'Zuma' is a game where you have to match up a sequence of three coloured balls, while all the time the balls are going round the board towards an inevitable doom from which they will never recover (and which means you lose a life). Astonishingly this is one of the few games I've completed (as opposed to throwing it across the room during a boss battle with actions for my character I don't understand, never mind know how to use) so I've got know it fairly well - the same as with this album. The more I get to know both, the more similar they seem. Every time I think I'm on the cusp of understanding how to play the game and understand the album, the ground shifts, the whole thing swirls out of control and I'm back down the same flipping black hole being eaten by a frog. And back to the start of the flipping level again despite getting to, say, 10:11 and starting to feel good about everything. While admittedly the same thing happens to me each time I hear The Spice Girls singing something (why? what do they mean?!?!?) , it doesn't generally happen from the AAA albums - once I've made the breakthrough I feel as if I understand where an artist was coming from even if future interviews end up making me hopelessly wrong.
'Zuma' however sounds different every time I hear it. Everybody at any time, from the biographies to the guidebooks to the internet sites out there call this Neil's 'happy' album. At first hearing it sounds it too: Crazy Horse are all fizz and pop songs, with the odd demented solo thrown in. If any Neil Young album deserves to be called 'adolescent' it's this, Neil typically doing thing backwards by regressing back further from the deep and detailed multilayered songs of his youth with The Buffalo Springfield now he's reached the grand age of thirty. The general label is 'drunk, but in a merry way' (as opposed to 'Tonight's The Night' which was 'drunk - but in a gloomy way'). 'Zuma' was seen that way even at the time, greeted with relief by a public that had just sat through the doom trilogy (you might think Queen Victoria spent a long time in mourning but she had nothing on Neil, show spent three albums crying his out over the death of guitarist Danny Whitten, roadie Bruce Berry and the sixties dream). The difference was made all the more obvious by this album having been released virtually back to back with 'Tonight's The Night' (recorded in 1973 but sat on for two years while Neil wondered to release his drunken shamble of a wake or not - thank goodness he did by the way, it's probably his best and certainly his bravest LP): this was a Young who could smile again, who knew that there was joy as well as sadness in life. This album is full of vibrant colours, faster tempos and tighter performances throughout. That's that then - case closed, album puzzle solved, let's go and play something else ('Hollies Halo' maybe?!) However 'Zuma' is not your regular happy album. 'Danger Bird' - the single most extraordinary track in the Young canon - is heavier and unhappier than any individual song on the doom trilogy, while the most famous song - the tale of Aztec woe 'Cortez The Killer' (which comes with the message that no empire will last forever) - isn't exactly a barrel of laughs either. Much of this album is claustrophobic, those supposedly upbeat rocky riffs sounding either ironic or like the stabbing of a knife while Neil sings on the album of a breakdown, guilt and the needless massacre of an ancient culture in the name of greed. Yep, sounds like a happy album to me.
Tell you what then, perhaps something is happier in Neil's life: maybe his love life. Yeah that will be it as after so many years of difficult years with his first two loves, including Carrie Snodgrass whose relationship with Neil is finally over in 1973, the bad times are over and it's time to partttty! Just listen to the merry tale of 'Barstool Blues', the best chat-up line in the Neil Young canon or the typically vulnerable romantic ode 'Pardon My Heart'. Except that neither of these songs work like Neil's other songs either: the first is a drunken one-night stand inspired by alcohol, adrenalin and desperation, which makes it less and less romantic as Neil gets more and wasted; the second sounds romantic with its acoustic backing and pristine harmonies, but it's a song of remorse and bitter twisted guilt, an apology from someone who still doesn't quite believe they've done anything wrong. And even then what to make of the other album songs: the gloriously poppy 'Don't Cry No Tears' (which turns out to be an emotionless goodbye when you analyse it fully), 'Lookin' For A Love' (which is nice and cosy until the most paranoid chorus in history: 'I hope I treat her kind and don't mess with her mind when she starts to see the darker side of me!') and the nostalgic 'Drive Back' (which has Neil returning to the past not to hook up with an old lover but to escape from the one-night stand he's just woken up with and doesn't want to talk to). And as for 'Stupid Girl', in which Neil Young sounds like The Rolling Stones in 1966 with his misogynist tale of an inferior gender (but which is worse, somehow, because it comes nearly a decade later and out of nowhere), well: let's just say that if you wanted to woo your beloved with a romantic Neil Young album, this wouldn't be one you'd choose for fear of getting whalloped over the head with a saucepan ('Harvest Moon' is probably your best bet, by the way, if you've just come to this page having typed in 'the most romantic Neil Young' album - goodness only knows why you would but people have found my site using the oddest of key words over the years!)
Right then, it's the return of Crazy Horse that makes this a happy album! Yay - there they are again, resurrected after a difficult four years when it looked as if they would never ride again. Bassist Billy Talbot discovered new guitarist Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro playing in another band in 1973but the two stayed friends rather than bandmates for the next two years, keeping in touch while leading their separate lives. It took Sampedro's threat to leave the business after three years living out of his truck because he'd spent all his money and a wacky holiday with Talbot in Mexico where the pair got close for Billy to consider adding him to Crazy Horse as Danny Whitten's replacement. Neil and drummer Ralph met him for the first time during a flying visit to Chicago for some loose sessions with the rhythm-guitarless band. Both were sceptical but somehow Sampedro slotted in instantly, just enough like Danny Whitten (full of some virtuosos-but-not-that-virtuoso natural playing, aggressive and tight) but with his own distinct character (Sampedro tends to do his own thing a bit more than Danny, although conversely he tends to sit on the beat instead of a few milimetres before it, driving the band on). 'Poncho' fitted into the band straight away, much to the relief of his band mates, but at first they still had doubts, worried about whether Neil would use them or not. Typically forthright, Sampedro knocked on the guitarist's hotel door and asked 'am I in the band - or not?' -a shocked Neil told him he'd already decided he was 'in' if the band were patient enough to wait for the right time.
That came after Neil abandoned a whole album that was meticulously crafted ('Homegrown') and a scrappy one that was put together in a right old hurry (The Stills-Young Band's 'Long May You Run'). Both are interesting in context, sounding miserable but actually being song-on-song probably happier than this album. 'Homegrown' for instance is one of those famous Neil Young LPs whose songs will become scattered across several albums to come: 'Star Of Bethlehem' ('American Stars 'n' Bars' 1977) 'Love Is A Rose' ('Decade' 1977) 'Little Wing' 'The Old Homestead' ('Hawks and Doves' 1980) plus Zumas' 'Pardon My Tears' ...interestingly almost every song planned for the album centres on love and how it can look great from a distance and go wrong when you're up close; well all of them but 'The Old Homestead' which in truth could mean anything. Neil's songs for 'Long May You Run', meanwhile, mainly end up being lazy holiday songs about the pair's time in Hawaii and Stills claimed later his partner had written them on the spot (with just the terrifying 'Fontainebleau', about the memory of an epilepsy attack in a hotel, at one with the sound of the 'doom trilogy'). Only then was the time right and Crazy Horse characteristically lived and breathed Neil's latest set of songs. They lived and recorded in the same Malibu beach house belonging to producer David Briggs, whose neighbour Goldie Hawn was luckily absent for most of the time and unable to complain about the noise. Neil being Neil, while the house was spacious he chose the bigger rooms for the band to live in and kept the smallest one for recording in, painful hour after painful hour with the band right in each other's faces (the micxing room? That was in the kitchen!) Surrounded by the best drugs you could get and various groupies who loved hanging round the house at all hours, 'Zuma' became infused with a feeling of decadence and good humoured wastage. The recordings came thick and fast, the final mixes made more or less straightaway each time and the band had fun - even Neil (who according to Briggs' recollections was just 'happy happy happy!') That must be it then: this is a happy recording of a sad album, which is why it's always sounded so weird (igachikazuma!...End of level about to be reached...next one nearly loading...)
Except...(oh dear, down the hole we go, one life down again!)...if you hear this album out of context there's a great deal there you wouldn't call 'happy'. Just look at 'Danger Bird' - a scary song if ever there was one, an extraordinary, impenetrable tale that finds Neil taking the call that will change his life and suffering a breakdown, right on the spot, 'long ago...in the museum...with his friends!' - and which Crazy Horse play so straight and densely it positively hurts if you're listening to it right. We don't know what that call is incidentally (is it the news of Danny's death? or Bruce's? The call to tell him that his marriage is over? Or simply some other bad news that tips him over the edge?) Neil's guitar playing, so nearly always emotional and vulnerable anyway, is at its most extreme here, ending in the most jaw-dropping howl of pain this side of CSNY song 'Ohio'. Many fans rate it as his greatest guitar playing ever and I'm not going to argue - in fact I'll add that this endlessly fascinating, densely layered song with Crazy Horse intoning like the choir of doom over the top of it all, may well be Neil's greatest ever song as well (again, this side of 'Ohio' anyway). Equally, 'Cortez' is extraordinary, sung with all the detachment of a wandering minstrel but filled with such pain and detail that you half believe you're back in the Aztec world for those precious seven-and-a-half minutes. Just listen to how loaded this song is, dripping with irony and sting from Crazy Horse's instruments, saying everything the narrator (trying to stay neutral? Too pained to let his emotions show?) cannot. A whole civilisation is dead, caught out by their own belief that their future was assured - and Neil's guitar sounds as if it's weeping for the whole bang lot of them, those slaughtered by the Spanish, their ancestors' desecrated tombs and the generations than were never born, all because some jerk came dancing across the water looking for some gold. This is not a happy album - and this isn't happy playing either but a guitar-weave of tears between the two guitarists (with Poncho at his best already - at least until 2012)while Billy and Ralph play a funeral arrangement behind. It's not as if these two songs are insignificant, either, taking up a full 13:25 minutes of an album that lasts a mere 36:24 (more than a third).
If you're reading these reviews in the order that they're published - we've been here before, although actually 'Cortez' came first. Neil's always had a fascination with the Aztec civilisation, although this is the first time he's used it in song. Despite telling the story of the fall of the empire here first (Spaniard Cortez being greeted as the re-incarnation of the God Quetzlcoatl, who legend said would appear, pale-faced, and visit their lands) Neil will be back with tales of Aztec life ('1979's 'Ride My Llama' and possibly the undated 'Powderfinger', plus 1987's 'Inca Queen'). This is the most poignant of Neil's 'Aztec' songs, though, about an empire that effectively handed over their years of learning and scientific principles because of a 'mistake' (people tend to think of the Aztecs as a superstitious war-like race with savage tendencies; while this is true, the Europeans were far more barbaric at the time, without any of the great libraries or many of the mathematical and scientific principles of the Incas), all because they got one 'fact' wrong - they weren't a continent alone on the planet and their visitors, speaking in foreign tongues, weren't sent from the skies. The Aztecs pay dearly for that one mistake and Cortez was merciless, killing every single one before historians ever had a chance to hear about their culture (we've only discovered bits of it since - there's lots of discoveries they made we probably still don't know about, which they took to their grave). It's a theme that's echoed down the years, from mankind handing over the keys of his planet to aliens who appear to be so nice on the outside, to sit-com/dramas/soap operas/god awful B movies where that nice young flatmate who seemed so good in the interview turns out to be a pain/axe murderer/werewolf/zombie/spice girl (depending on the budget of the film). Few writers tackle the subject as head on as Neil does here, singing about the subject matter as if he's there, despite there actually being very little written accounts of any of this story (merely Cortez' letters home, which are understandably slanted to make him look the hero). There's also a little of the 'young punk tackling an established order' to the way Neil writes this song: Cortez doesn't invade, he 'dances', with a swagger and purpose. He doesn't act valiantly - he lies and steals (it's the supposedly blood-thirsty Aztecs who are noble, 'offering lives in sacrifice so that others could go on').
'Cortez' is a key Young song for many reasons, not least because it blows the hypocritical idea that all of Western culture is a good thing and to out benefit. Neil has been fighting this theme for years (most notably in the innocent country and wicked country motif running through 1968's 'Neil Young') but only in 'Zuma' does this theme of easy modern living being a noose round our necks become a fully blown concept. It crops up again and again across this album: the narrator of 'Danger Bird' doesn't choke anywhere - he chokes in a museum, surrounded by the items of the past that reminded him of how life used to be - and that it used to be better. Neil's angry narrator decides to 'Drive Back' not because he has a past love in mind but because the past is always better and modern living is getting him down. He sings 'Barstool Blues' with all the passion of a drunk who knows he has to get his kicks now while the alcohol is pulsing through his veins because his head's going to hurt in the morning (at least when the Aztecs got drunk on something it was cocoa, which does far less harm). Perhaps the real theme of 'Zuma' and the reason it reads as happy/sad as it does (igachikazuma!...bonus points! Yes!) is that it's a deceptive album, recorded high on drugs and booze which is on the surface all about how great modern day living is (bars! booze! pretty women everywhere! ) but below it all is an angry snarl about how all that modern living just distracts from the true purpose in life. After all, it was modern day living like this that took the lives of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry far too soon and anyone whose heard any or all of the doom trilogy will know that Neil wasn't about to forget his late lamented friends in a hurry. The boozy bonhomie of 'Zuma' is really just a front - the real message of the album is that 'the Spanish are coming!' to take away our ideals, pull down our achievements and reduce our modern world to wrecks while we're not looking (Nixon may be gone in this era but politically the Western World is still a mess and the cold war is slowly thawing). 'Zuma', an album perhaps named for Aztec chief Montezuma who gave away his whole culture in the name of friendship and idolisation, really does live up to the likeliest definition of that word: 'the troubled frown of an angry God'. Fascinatingly, Neil also claims to have written a first draft while still in high school (suggesting he 'chose' this song for an album where it would hit) - and like many of his best early songs it was written while ill in bed with a hallucinatory fever (allegedly diarrhoea or 'Montezuma's Revenge', a strand of the illness through to have been passed on through Aztecs to Spaniards and on to everywhere else - although this sounds too neat a story to be true to me).
Talking of great near-mythological beings from another culture who lived long ago and gave in to their own mistakes and self-indulgences, the reunion with Crosby, Stills and Nash was another major talking point of this record at the time. Of all the many many abandoned CSNY projects over the years 1974's 'Human Highway' got closer to completion than most and would have been a fascinating release: Crosby and Stills are having a great time in their lives (one's got married - one is young free and single!) but both Nash and Young are as depressed as they'll ever be. An album full of rancour, guilt and regret, it would have been a deeply heartfelt record (and 'Pardon My Heart' would have fitted it nicely, although it seems more likely that the songs played in concert that year 'Pushed It Over The End' and 'Traces', plus the title track, would have been Neil's contributions to the album). The one recording of a Young song the quartet did manage to finish was 'Zuma's closer, the cosy ballad 'Through My Sails'. Another Young song at least partly inspired by the foursome's holidays in their beloved Hawaii (Nash even bought a house there - and let's face it Hawaii must be the polar opposite to his home town of Manchester!), it features almost the only time CSNY sing together all the way through (Neil's own later 'Lookin' Forward' and Stills' 1970 Ohio B-side 'Find The Cost Of Freedom' are the only other exceptions I can name). However even this song has things changed round, with something slightly uncomfortably wrong and just out of place that most fans can't put a finger on: none of CSNY are singing in the usual places (Crosby takes the Stills past down low, Stills does Nash up high, Nash takes the Crosby part in the middle and Young kind of weaves in an out where he feels like it). Obviously 'Sails' was written for a whole new project - but it's interesting that yet another song supposedly about a peaceful 'paradise' has an edge to it, like all of the 'Zuma' songs to lesser or greater extent.
Overall, then, I still don't know what to make of 'Zuma' (darn it...that's another life gone!) an album which I love and hate in equal measure. I adore this album's many plus points: the quick-witted repartee of a newly born Crazy Horse, who sound even more alive than they did on 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere', the astonishing virtuosity and song construction of 'Danger Bird' and 'Cortez The Killer' - songs lesser artists wouldn't even imagine, never mind pull off and no Young solo album with a CSNY reunion can be truly terrible (as opposed to actual CSNY reunions, which don't always come off that well). 'Barstool Blues' and 'Pardon My Heart' are minor gems too that deserve to get a lot greater recognition than they ever seem to get, Crazy Horse at their most delightfully flippant and their most righteously earnest respectively. But then I hear the crassness of much of the rest of the album: the cheap clichéd feel of 'Don't Cry No Tears', the aimlessness of 'Drive Back' the stupidity of, umm, 'Stupid Girl' and the relative weakness of 'Through My Sails' (a song that works nicely on my cobbled together version of 'Human Highway', heard after the agonies of Nash's 'Prison Song' and the sheer terror of Stills' 'Guardian Angel' but sounds rather empty here) and I begin to question everything I thought I knew about this album. In short, there are two responses to this record, both of them equally valid. Neil played the record proudly for Carole King. Her comment: 'Erm, when are you going to make the real record?' says much for how weird this record was for the time: dry, sparse, full of uncontrolled anger and aggression, a determination not to be fooled again that makes Crazy Horse sounds more like The Who (especially the madder, sadder Who of 1975). However Rolling Stone Magazine called it a superb comeback album, the best thing Neil had ever done, blah blah blah, recognising the sheer brilliance of 'Cortez' and 'Dangerbird'. Both responses are right - both responses are wrong. 'Zuma' is an odd record, full of some great moments alongside dodgy ones, some dementedly happy songs next to some heartbreaking ones and is at the same time a door leading out of the darkness of the past three years - and a door that leads right back in to the darkness again.
That goes for the cover too, by the way: a pen and ink drawing by Neil's friend known simply as 'Mazzeo', which has upset more than a few people over the years because it looks too bad for release - too bad for a bootleg even (the wibbly-wobbly sketchyness looks like the illustrations for Rhubarb and Custard re-drawn on a moving train) but which I rather like. Mazzeo may have spent barely ten minutes on four drawings (he later joked that he got paid $200 a minute for his work - and this was back in 1975!) but he captures what few other writers could: the crudeness of this album but also the virtuosity. A bald eagle, taking some doomed romantic victim out of the camera shot above a desert landscape...it's as if he heard the album. He didn't apparently, just listened to Neil rabbiting on about the visions in his head while recording the record 'the desert and pyramids and stuff'. Neil has always been one for 'first thought best thought' and that's been to the detriment of his album covers as well as his music in recent years (just have a look at the covers of the past fifteen years for albums like 'Silver and Gold' 'Chrome Dreams II' 'Greendale' 'Le Noise' 'Fork In The Road' 'Psychedelic Pill'...ye gads! I've seen prettier pictures entered for the Turner Prize!) This one, however, works: perhaps the Neil Young sleeve that most closely resembles its contents (only 'Trans', with its robot hitch-hiking the other way to its human clone, comes close - and they spent one heck of a lot more money on that one!)
'Don't Cry No Tears' is a real jolt for anyone whose come to this album straight from the 'Doom Trilogy'. Neil isn't shying away from this song, half-unwilling to sing it: he's right in your face, with the crisp guitar crunch of Crazy Horse at their loudest. For many fans that's a relief, akin to the moment 'Cinnamon Girl' stepped out of the darkness of the early solo days but once you get to know this song well you realise how little there is going on here by Neil's recent standards. Neil's character is still quite bitter too, basically walking out of the life of someone who clearly loves him because he's had enough and expecting her to get over it without a second's thought - the cad! It's not as if Neil claims anywhere that he isn't 'worth it' or something equally likeable; all we get are some Dylan style homilies equating love with a service that's on tap until the bills aren't paid ('Cause when the water's gone the feeling lingers on') and a confusing second verse where he suddenly gets jealous at the imaginary new man on the block she may or may not be with ('I wonder whose holding her tonight?') This sticks in the throat particularly because this twist appears in such a simple (almost dementedly simple) song, played on a simple three-chord structure that sounds like either a garage band or a group just starting out (yes that's about all Crazy Horse can play according to some critics, but they've oh so recently been playing on 'Tonight's The Night', one of the most dense and subtle of Young albums, even if chord-wise it's an album not that much trickier than this one). The end result is a rather unlikeable song by Young's high standards, although there's still much to enjoy including a brief but magical moment when Neil's lead guitar stops scratching away at the riff and starts soaring, just like the old days (frankly this section isn't anywhere near long enough) and the nice chemistry between Crazy Horse who are already right on the money.
'Danger Bird' however proves at once how 'light' some of these other compositions are. A fascinating dense, torturous journey through an instant where live suddenly became too painful to live for the main character, we spend the whole song trying to work out why without ever really getting an answer (the clue might be in the two lines taken from a 1973 era song that dealt directly with Neil's breakup with Carrie Snodgrass, 'L.A. Boys and Ocean Girls' thought too 'personal' to release: 'Because you've been with another man, there you are - but here I am!') The 'why' doesn't matter as much as the 'what' though: Neil's songwriting instincts are spot-on here as he describes the memory of a breakdown ('Long ago...in the museum...with his friends!', the last word spat out with such vitriol you wonder if they were part of the problem - was this a day trip for CSNY between gigs or something?!) Neil's narrator remembers the moment when his life changed forever, as if by piecing together the exact moment he can go back to how it was before, but knows his perception of life is doomed to be forever altered by what he saw and felt that night. The hint is that's he's agraphobic now, to suspicious of people to spend much time with them, while his outbursts have turned everyone he used to spend time with away from him, half-frightened and half-confused by what he has become, effectively too mad bad and dangerous to hang around with, cutting him off at just the point where he needs to be surrounded by humanity and help ('Dangerbird flies alone!' is the song's pained opening cry). Slowly, ever so slowly, Danger Bird tries to find his way back into the life he used to have - but it's hard for him, oh so hard. Every time he tries to fly he finds his 'wings have turned to stone' and finds himself waiting for the train of depression to hit him,. 'waiting spread-eagles on the tracks'. Even freedom, a concept he used to believe in without really thinking, is 'just a prison to me': freed of all his family and friends and living the solitary life he once craved, Danger Bird finds there's no point to it without anyone to share it with. All he has are his memories of how easy life used to be and how he used to soar - and there are so many they come 'falling down, like the rain on his back'. Throughout Neil effectively talks to himself, schizophrenia writ large, as he and Crazy Horse chant back at him operatic style, taunting him in his madness by their sheer aloofness ('Where I used to be so calm now I think about you all day long!' is one of the most frightening passages in the Young canon, right up there with 'Tired Eyes' and 'Driveby', although both these songs are more detached than 'Dangerbird', a song which wows through its extraordinary emotional power, the whole band clearly 'living' this song). Then Neil takes flight on the most extraordinary guitar solo, channelling all of his angst and rage into one of his most perfect instrumental breaks, pushing bit by bit until charging at the end, Hendrix, style, furiously chopping away at Crazy Horse's slow chug, so desperate to breakout and reach out for the sky. Even by the end, though, with all that power and noise he fails, limply recovering back to the song's slow main hook and nursing his wounds until an unexpected final verse. The song then ends with a resolution, of sorts, Danger Bird knowing that though his wings won't let him fly for real anymore he still has the power to believe and Neil struggles to spit out the words to his last verse as if he's using every last ounce of breath in his body: Watch me fly above the city, like a shadow on the sky, fly, fly, fly...' Never has singing sounded like such hard work, as if there's a deadweight sat on Neil's lungs that won't let him breathe. The result is startling, compelling and one of the greatest attempts to explore the theme of madness in song. Though intensely dramatic and visual in its poetic surreal lyrics there's nothing forced about this song, which rings true from the first note (a pleading squeal of feedback, cut straight through the middle of the note as if this song has already been playing for a long time in the author's head before we 'hear' it), to the last strained nervous tick of a guitar part. 'Danger Bird' is an incredible work, vastly under-rated and a highlight of Neil's set list on each of the few occasions when he's revived it (there's a 14 minute live version from 1997's 'Year Of The Horse' live album even more stunning than this one, for instance, all the more powerful for coming after twenty minutes of noodling through the hopeless and barren 'Broken Arrow' album). One of the absolute joys of the Neil Young canon - why the hell wasn't this glorious song chosen for 'Decade' and why isn't it better known?!
'Pardon My Heart' is just as intense, but in a much quieter way. First recorded for 'Homegrown' in 1976, it features Neil's voice and an acoustic, joined by the first ever recording by the new-look Crazy Horse, filling in with some of their most gorgeous harmonies on the chorus (CSNY couldn't have done any better!) Neil's still in a bad place, inside a 'fallen situation...with little reason to believe' and clearly still nursing his wounds after his years with Carrie. The love 'isn't flowing the way it could have been' and both sides have been 'pretending' for some time, 'not giving while one pretends to receive'. However for the first time Neil seems to feel some guilt about the way it all turned out, Crazy Horse sounding like his conscience as they start off in the background and gradually become centre stage, their words of wisdom that 'you brought it all on' repeated over and over, a musical slap to the face. Neil is moved enough to add a quiet electric part to his acoustic, placed distantly in the background to sound echoey and sad (an old trick he'd discovered with Buffalo Springfield on the Stills track 'Everydays') and rarely has his guitar 'old black' sounded finer, the notes ringing out with crystal clarity, scything their way through his echoed muddied acoustic madness. Neil comes to terms, sort of, with how the relationship turned out: he loved the idea of Carrie and what she offered so much that it broke his heart when that relationship turned into petty squabblings ('I loved you more than moments we have or have not shared') and against all the odds this quietly reflective song ends happily, with the memory that at one time it 'feels so good - when love grows the way that it should'. Together with the beautiful melody and Crazy Horse's delightful harmonies (angelic and earthy all at the same time), 'Pardon My Heart' is one of the strongest Young ballads of the period, thoughtful and wise. A whole album of this on 'Homegrown' would have been quite something, although only 'A Star Of Bethlehem' actually reaches this peak as a 'song'.
Alas all that brilliance is wiped out in seconds by the tired riff of 'Lookin' For A Love'. Neil's out on the prowl, his conscience now eased by the revelations of the last song and this track is another ridiculously basic track that sounds like a rock and roll version of a carol. Neil imagines himself meeting his future love around any corner - when he takes walks at the beach for instance - although he's sure that life will surprise him and 'she'll be nothing like I pictured her to be'. However it's the unexpected switch to a minor key for the end of the chorus that points at the true heart of this song: Neil's narrator is scared first that she'll treat him badly all over again, and then that he might do the same to her, with his fiance running off when 'she starts to see the darker side of me' (singing this last line in a deep growl, like Johnny Cash). That line sticks out like a sore thumb on a track that's basically jolly and even features some nice Crazy Horse 'aaahs' that take a lot of the sting out of this song's tail. That's kind of it though: a pretty chorus, some dumb lyrics and a slight twist in the tail is something of a let down after the glorious depth of 'Tonight's The Night' or indeed this album's 'Danger Bird' and 'Cortez The Killer'.
Luckily 'Barstool Blues' is better, if only because Neil sounds as if he means what he's singing, uncomfortably pushed to the upper end of his register. The lyric is cryptic and confusing, Neil admitting years later that he really did write the song when drunk and had no memory of actually putting pen to paper when he found it the night after. That's to this song's benefit, though, full of some fascinating lines that sum up the schizophrenia of the 1975 period well: 'Why [is] my mind moving so fast when the conversation so slow?' he muses in the opening verse, before thinking again about Carrie 'in the movies and those magazines at night...I've seen you in my nightmares but I'll see you in my dreams', adding for good measure that he doesn't understand his own words and that 'I could live a thousand years before I know what that means!' The fun, charging riff comes on like a big friendly bear trying to give you a hug, an amiable youremybestestfriendsinthewholewideworldhic! kind of a drunk and this song seems to be a 'blues' in an ironic sense rather than an 'On The Beach' sense (although you sense the narrator might well have a nasty headache in the morning). Like most of the best Crazy Horse rockers, this track is actually quite slow when you come to analyse it, although Neil's cheeky chappie persona and the lopsided riff give the false impression of travelling at speed which rather suits the song's chaotic confused lyrics. However yet again there's a bit of a sting in the tail as Neil goes on to sing about 'a friend of mine who died a thousand deaths, his life filled with parasites and countless idle threats'. As far as I know Neil has never said who he was singing about here and few fans have put theories forward, so here's mine: producer/manager David Briggs was the key proponent of this album, loaning the house where 'Zuma' was recorded and encouraging the new-look Crazy Horse to bond with their leader. For the most part that's to this album's benefit, giving it a loose no-distractions vibe, but tales of heavy drugs and lots of scantily dressed females around also give it something of a negative vibe where drugs and booze offer an escape (despite the danger warning of 'Tonight's The Night') and women are a commodity. Briggs, who came from a slightly frightening, tough street gang lifestyle, was occasionally threatened by people from his past jealous at his sudden riches, while few managers came with more hangers-on. Or is Neil singing about his new mate Poncho, himself a product of a violent, tough talking background and whose money got spent on anyone around him, no ,matter how little he had at the time. Perhaps the reason this song is a 'blues' is that Neil, like many drunks, is lost in the brilliance and brightness of the moment but knows that he's going to pay for it in the morning - and the rest of his life if he ends up throwing his lot in with these people full-time (it is a fact that Neil tends to get carried away by whoever he is at any one time - which is why it's been so good for him to chop and change over the years). Whatever the cause, 'Barstool Blues' is one of Neil's better 'mindless thrash' songs and Crazy Horse turn in another note-perfect performance where even the 'wrong' notes are wrong in a good way!
Alas 'Stupid Girl' is the worst excesses of the period trapped in one handy song for you to skip. Sounding not unlike Mick Jagger Neil turns on either Carrie, a new groupie friend or a combination of both, slurring his opening words 'you're such a stupid girl...you really got a lot to learn!' In turns the next few lines tell us that she's also a 'beautiful fish...lookin' for the wave you missed' and saw her 'practising self-defense in a Mercedes Benz' (a curve-ball for you here, is Neil singing about Janis Joplin here with the references to Mercedes Benz? The year 1975 was the fifth anniversary of her death so she was in the news a lot when this album was being written and the similarity between her I'm-in-control persona and sad overdose death and Danny Whitten's may have struck Neil when he was busy 'promoting' Tonight's The Night' in this same period) Either way this is quite an ugly song, with a demented squealing rock and roll riff that's more suited to mindless bands like Status Quo or Led Zeppelin than a 'proper' writer like Neil (ho ho that's another line that will get me letters!) Neil sings in a high voice again, perhaps wisely distancing himself from the scene or suggesting that he's drunk once more so doesn't mean what he's singing. That said he 'sounds' like he means it, without the tongue-in-cheekness with which Mick Jagger sang the similar Stones song of the same name ('Aftermath', 1966). While The Stones were borderline-wrong anyway at least they had excuses for this puerile rubbish (it was longer ago, they were living up to their 'persona'; that track was featured on 'Aftermath' following the romantic praise of women 'Lady Jane'), the only excuse Neil has is one bad experience. Something of a blot on this album and Neil's canon as a whole.
'Drive Back' is more puerile mindless nonsense, although at least it's not offensive this time around. Quoting from a Lennon song from the year before Neil starts 'whatever gets you through the night - well that's alright with me', at once making the doom trilogy warning about excess, escapism and darkness null and void. Again the song turns nasty, telling an unseen girl that she'll never ever see her again before driving back to the scene of his own youth before they met (presumably Canada, although this isn't so much a 'journey through the past' as an 'I'm leaving here and now' kind of a song). With just two verses and a chorus repeated twice surrounded by lots of chaotic jamming (the band seriously needed another take of this, if only so poor Ralph can cover up the fact he gets tired and slows down near the end) there isn't much to this song, which is less a 'car' song and more another 'bar' song, Neil so high on the booze he doesn't quite know what he's saying. Another of 'Zuma's lesser moments.
'Cortez The Killer' sounds like it's made by an entirely different band: graceful, beautiful and masters of the slow build, had this song been an instrumental it would have been a special moment in the Young canon. However it comes with that lyric, one of the most celebrated that Neil ever wrote and open to just about every interpretation under the sun. Actually it's a re-write of 'Star Of Bethlehem' - recorded before this album but released a year later on 'American Stars 'n' Bars', Neil sadly coming to the conclusion that a supposedly glorious moment in Western Civilisation 'wasn't a star at all' and miracles don't happen. Cortez of Spain wasn't a noble explorer, out to find new continents as our history books have it, 'looking for a new home and a palace in the sun'. Instead he was a 'killer', out for gold and nothing more, taking advantage of a civilisation that greeted him as their long lost God. Cortez should have made friends and set up a trade between the colonies, he could simply have taken the gold and run - but no, he had to slaughter them all, committing the genocide of a people who created so much beauty. Cortez' notes homes suggest that he slaughtered them because he thought them 'barbaric', with their worship of a 'false' sun God and the human sacrifice of prisoners. Neil, a committed 'pagan' in recent years whose already had several beefs with Christianity down the years, clearly finds this stance hypocritical, making Cortez and not the Aztecs the 'killers' in this song; theirs was a noble people surrounded by 'leaves' and 'pearls' and 'the secrets of the worlds' and their sacrifices were made to keep the Gods happy 'so that other life could go on'. By contrast Cortez only brings with him 'galleons and guns' and his sacrifices are because of a culture he doesn't understand. After a lifetime of backing the under-dogs (it's not for nothing Neil was an 'Indian' not a cowboy in the Springfield) Young has finally found a cause he can 'connect' with, building up a wonderful image of Aztec civilisation in just seven short simple verses that says more than most 500-page books on the subjects. Throughout it all is the feeling of waste: these deaths were so needless and the fact that there was nobody but the Spanish left meant nobody mourned the passing of a whole tribe who, as archaeologists and historians will go on to discover, 'built up with their bare hands what we still can't do today'. All of the above is accompanied by music that sounds like a sad eulogy, Neil sounding as if he's haunted by what his 'ancestors' did (in the sense of them being European rather than specifically Spanish) and on the verge of tears throughout. That's especially true of the poignant last verse, which suddenly switches without notice from the past to the present, Neil suddenly at the heart of the action, missing his true soulmate who perished on that fateful day ('I know she's living there and she loves me to this day!') His guitar work is again incredibly powerful and sets the scene nicely (it's a full three minutes before he starts singing, as if his words are merely adding to what his music has already said). Incidentally, legend has it that the song would have started with a different verse heard much earlier in the song, but the ad hoc way that 'Zuma' was being recorded meant that the engineer accidentally missed a take that everyone felt was 'the one'. Fearing that Young would be angry Briggs was nominated to tell the guitarist who simply shrugged his shoulders and replied 'I never liked that verse anyway!' Unusually and rather tragically this 'lost verse' has never turned up anywhere else (unlike most revised Young songs): it was never sung in concert or features on a demo tape, although one concert from the 1990s did feature a bit of improvisation that might hold a clue as to what it contained ('Ship is breaking up on the rocks, sand and beach...they're so close!') All in all 'Cortez' is one of Neil's most celebrated songs for a reason: poignant, powerful, emotional and quite unlike any song ever written by any earlier writer, this song is both Neil and Crazy Horse at their best.
Alas after such heavy losses 'Zuma' needs a stronger way to go out than the brief tonic of 'Through My Sails'. On the upside, this CSNY outtake from 1974 features some typically gorgeous harmonies and a lovely melody and in one sense makes for a good companion (the images of sail - this song also makes for a good sequel to CSN classic 'Wooden Ships' and Crosby and Stills' many songs about sailing as a metaphor for life). Stills, especially, sounds lovely while the middle eight (the wordless 'aah' that's shared in tandem by Crosby and Young and echoed by Stills and Nash) is positively gorgeous. However the lyrics are so tame after such a wild ride: it merely recounts a holiday to Hawaii where 'still glaring from the city lights into paradise' Neil 'soared'. Re-connecting with nature has long been a Young theme, but other lyrics (such as the later 'War Of Man' and 'Mother Earth', not to mention most of the 'Neil Young' album from seven years earlier than 'Zuma') make the point rather better. Ultimately this is a song that sounds like no breeze is blowing through these sails - this is just a song coasting by thanks to a basic tune, basic words and the beauty of CSN.
Overall, then, 'Zuma' is a puzzle of a record (no lives left - you're out the game!) Apart from my beloved twin albums of '#Tonight's The Night' and 'Trans' and possibly 'Freedom' and 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' I don't think I could name you another album with two Young songs quite as stupendously inspired as 'Cortez' and 'Danger Bird'. Those two songs alone pack such a punch that 'Zuma' is straight away amongst the top legion of powerful, passionate Young LPs, full of the guitarist at his hypnotic and haunting best. Both these songs read 'true' in a way that few others do. On any other album the 'winners' would be 'Pardon My Heart' and 'Barstool Blues', two other downright brilliant songs that only lose out because they're measured against such perfection. But what does the rest of the album do? It wastes what could have been the single best album of the 1970s talking about stupid girls, looking for loves, driving back and not crying tears that sounds like they could have been written by any writer with a knowledge of three chords and a guitar. On any other album these four songs would have sounded disappointing - as part of this potentially genius album they sound even worse. That's probably deliberate of course - Neil famously added the horrid 'Motorcycle Mama' to 'Comes A Time' because that album was in danger of becoming 'perfect' and Neil knew he's have to live up to it and I sense a similar thing may have happened with 'Last Trip To Tulsa' on 'Neil Young' and 'Words' on 'Harvest'. The shame, though, is that Neil is clearly on the roll of his life here, his creative side waking up from the there's-no-point depression of the past three years without yet being so afraid of falling sales or his record company (Reprise come out of this whole scenario brilliantly, by the way - what other label would allow that album cover out and release 'Tonight's The Night' mere months before this one?) that Neil has to sell his soul to get his work made either. 'Zuma' fails because it should have been so much more - but the very fact that we're talking in sentences like this shows just how 'right' the better half of this album is. In other words, 'Zuma' the album is so like 'Zuma' the game: just when you think you're about to mess up you get an extra life and extra chance to make things happen; yet conversely just when you think you're in charge of everything and you're on top of your game you end up falling down a great big hole.