Monday, 29 February 2016
Neil Young "On The Beach" (1974)
Walk On/See The Sky About To Rain/Revolution Blues/For The Turnstiles/Vampire Blues//On The Beach/Motion Pictures/Ambulance Blues
"Though my problems are meaningless that don't make them go away"
Hello Waterface. Welcome to Alan's Album Archives beach. It's cheaper than it looks. And it looks pretty cheap I have to say. Not to mention polluted, with each extra tide bringing in more and more misery from life's flotsam and jetsam and one lone palm tree tattily waving goodbye to innocence in the wind. You see, this album is anything but a holiday, with the general message seemingly that 'life's a beach - and then you drown'. The middle part of Neil's much discussed 'doom trilogy', this is a much misunderstood record that's enjoyed a tsunami of critical changes since it was first released in 1974. To a public eagerly awaiting the studio follow-up to 'Harvest' and who hoped that the live album 'Time Fades Away' and weirdo film 'Journey Through The Past' were just eccentric aberration it's a travesty, evidence of how quickly talent can fade away and garnered reviews along the lines of 'I never really liked Neil Young anyway'. To fans who worshipped the waves Neil swam through up until 2003 it was a cult masterpiece, amongst the best things Neil ever did, made all the more special by the fact that you couldn't flipping get it anywhere (Neil delayed the release of this album, 1980's 'Hawks and Doves' and 1981's 'Re-Ac-Tor' over alleged issues with the sound) and a famous review by the 1970's greatest music journalist Ian McDonald who swam against the tide by calling it his favourite Young LP. Fittingly, then, 'On The Beach's reputation has ebbed and flowed down the years and is now round about where it deserves to be: somewhere in the middle of Neil's prodigious stack of records, in equal turns inspired and simply tired.
To be fair the Neil Young of 1974 couldn't care less what people thought of him. Having buried his musical soulmate Danny Whitten far too soon and watched CSNY roadie Bruce Berry hock the band's instruments for the drugs that killed him, while touring with a band who kept demanding more and more money, it's safe to say that Neil has fallen out of love with the music business badly by now. 'Time Fades Away' was the first salvo of the past-caring 'Doom Trilogy', sad and weary and deeply frustrated at the limiting ways of the world that even music couldn't overcome. It's central phrase is 'don't be denied', closely followed by 'no no no!' howled over and over again in pain. Salvo number two should have been the eight-track-with-drunken-chat version of 'Tonight's The Night', recorded with what was left of Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgren filling Danny's shoes) as a stumbling, bumbling raw Irish wake, with Neil and co deeply depressed and disillusioned. Even Neil's loyal record company Reprise didn't think the album was ready for release though and somehow persuaded Neil to re-think it ('Tonight's The Night' will, in fact, come out after 'On The Beach' with four new songs added to lighten the blow - though only just it has to be said). By contrast to these two albums - if no other albums it has to be said - 'On The Beach' is almost happy-go-lucky. Though Neil is sad and cross and hurting the record feels less personal and bitter, with more messages delivered to the outside world and where even the autobiography comes over more like long and rambling Dylanesque poetic jibes. Neil doesn't sound quite so shocked (or so drunk), while the mood is lifted often by comic vignettes - although only Neil Young could turn the darker recesses of mass-murderer Charles Manson's mind or his turn as a vampire into an album's 'lighter' moments. Still, there is a smile throughout this album, even if it is a wry one. By contrast the closest we came to a smile on the rest of the doom trilogy before this was Neil 'starting a band' before the corruption meant he wished he hadn't and 'New Mama' escaping to her 'dream land' via suicide.
If 'Time Fades Away' is confused and 'Tonight The Night' is blunt about the darker side of life, then 'On The Beach' is searching for cosmic answers about why bad things happen. This is, after all, an album filled with warning: see the sky about to rain - and probably thunder too; 'Walk On' is a message to supposed 'fans' who only like Neil's hits and don't understand his weird path in recent years; 'Revolution Blues' sees the world through the eyes of Charles Manson in a warning delivered too late; the old baseball heroes who used to be so active are now 'in granite laid', imprisoned forevermore (an early example of Neil's fear of 'rust' from standing still); and at the end of the album in the record's greatest line (perhaps Neil's greatest line) the warning that 'an ambulance can only go so fast', that we won't always be able to save ourselves or the ones we love. It's a lesson Neil didn't want to learn, but he sure as hell isn't going to forget it now that it's happened and he's come through it all a wiser, if weaker, singer-songwriter. Bad things happen to good people, time and again across this record, for no other reason than that bad things happen. The much happier slab of noisy escapism 'Zuma' is just around the corner, suggesting that at long last some good things are about to happen. take nothing away from this record though: it's as brave an album as any you'll find released in the mid-70s, gleefully at odds with a chart still filled with glam rock and pop songs. Neil's later praise by critics for 'never standing still' simply didn't exist back in 1974, when Young hadn't been around long enough as a solo act yet for people to understand yet. Given what the public expected (another 'Harvest', while the first of many failed CSNY reunions on a record to be known as 'Human Highway' also took place this year, further damaging Neil's reputation of not giving his public what they wanted, but what they deserved).
Musically 'On The Beach' is Neil's most free-form and rambling record - certainly until the epics start arriving in his set lists for 'Broken Arrow' and 'Psychedelic Pill' in the 1990s and 2010s. Like 'Time Fades Away' and 'Tonight's The Night' the sound is very bare, bordering on non-existent, but this time there's no real band backing Neil and adding noise and there's a decided lack of the anger that made the last two records sound so 'noisy' despite the sparse backing tracks. Of the eight songs on the album only two are rockers ('Walk ON' and 'Revolution Blues') - the rest are so sleepy you barely notice when one song has changed into another. That's particularly true of the album's fascinating second side (intended by Neil to be the first, thus putting fans off even more) which is a rare song sequence from Neil debating issues of sadness and disillusionment. It's as if the past two years have passed by in an angry blur, but now that Neil has started getting the anger out of his system it's left him lethargic and confused. Though neither of the other 'Doom Trilogy' records are exactly over-rehearsed, 'On The Beach' is the first one where Neil uses his trick of taping his guest musician's rehearsal takes, refusing to give them a second go or to even hear how the song goes with that unsure, confused vibe of the record spilling over to the performances too. It's almost as if Neil is making sure that he's the only person in the room who sounds in control - possibly because he's the only one who isn't. There are several guest musicians on this record including old friends like David Crosby (sounding uncomfortable while adding some ragged rhythm guitar to 'Revolution Blues'), Graham Nash (who sounds marginally more comfortable providing wurlitzer piano to 'On The Beach'), Crazy Horse' Ralph Molina (who packs some rock punch into the band's two uptempo songs), Crazy Horse's Billy Talbot (who adds some walking bass to 'Walk On'), Ben Keith (who excels on the dobro/banjo duet 'For The Turnstiles'), Rusty Kershaw (a fiddle player who adds an other-worldly quality to 'Ambulance Blues' - oddly enough Crazy Horse's fiddle player George Whitsell appears on guitar for 'Vampire Blues', in the role that colleague Danny Whitten would be filling in some parallel universe) and The Band's Levon Helm who makes his only appearances on a Neil Young record. In time this approach of no rehearsals will make records like 'Greendale' near enough unlistenable, but on 'On The Beach' it's a technique that works reasonably well, with each faltering step reflecting the inner turmoil and confusion of the characters.
Many fans have called On The Beach a 'mellow' record, which isn't strictly true. 'Mellow' implies a laidback record - and 'On The Beach' is anything but laidback, taking in betrayal, murder, jealousy and fear. By Neil's standards it's also quite a violent record - no detail is spared in 'Revolution Blues', while 'Walk On' is mean and nasty and even a seemingly slow and gentle song like 'Ambulance Blues' carries with it a sting that could fell a posse of scorpions. At times, though, it does sound as if Neil is mocking the sort of record the general public would have been expecting from him. As good a song as it is, there's a reason Neil once gave 'See The Sky About To Rain' to the Byrds reunion because he didn't expect to use it himself; it's sweet and a tiny bit obvious, with the 'Laurel Canyon' of 'After The Goldrush' written all over it. 'Walk On' would be Neil's catchiest song in years had he not written lyrics to go with it which damn every fan who ever wanted him to play anything catchy again after what's just happened in his life. 'For The Turnstiles' should sound lovely played on instruments - but sketched out on a banjo and dobro slide guitar it sounds like Neil (and partner in crime Ben Keith) are making this lovely song as tough to listen to as possible. 'Revolution Blues' sounds like typical Laurel Canyon fare - until you realise it's about an untypical resident, with Manson showing no compunction as he destroys the Canyon's hippie reputation forever. Note too how many songs are titled 'blues' (three of them!) even though, strictly speaking, none of them are: Neil's moved way past 'blues' to the point of depression and even 'blues' as a genre is too happy for what he can play right now (see instead 1988's 'This Note's For You' to sound what a bluesy Neil sounds like; characteristically it's his happiest album of the 1980s!) 'Blues' is still kind of right though in the sense that the 'blues' usually means things beyond your control that you can't change and which make you sad. In retrospect it's a wonder this album isn't 'beach blues'.
In a way, though, the title and cover are the perfect fit. In comparison to the black-as-night 'Time Fades Away' and 'Tonight's The Night' at least there's a horizon here - even if the sky still looks about to rain and the mood is decidedly bleak. Neil stands with his back to us, staring out to sea, willing the next 'happier' wave into his life. behind him sits a deckchair with two chairs (was the 'empty' one for Danny? Or wife Carrie, with whom Neil had split a couple of years before and whose images are all over the song 'Motion Pictures' from this album). A cruise missile (at least that's what it's meant to look like - it's actually a car fin from a cadillac) lies buried in the sand, just missing where Neil had been sitting moments before by inches (how close Neil was to total collapse?) Meanwhile on the back cover a tatty palm tree - used as the sole prop during Neil's 1973 'Tonight's The Night' tour when the powers that be asked him to provide some 'colour' - stands forlornly in the breeze, most of its branches missing. Of all of Neil's album covers this is perhaps his best, working on several levels at once: should we feel sad that the palm tree has been so weather beaten and battered with age, while it stands out alone on an empty beach? Or is that something to be proud of, as the palm tree still stands tall after everything it's been through (it was standing side by side with Neil throughout those tours after all), dominating the landscape by its sheer strangeness. The next wave of life could be a huge one that sinks the whole of this picture, drowning everything in sight - or it could be the ripple about to break politely at Neil's feet. Either way, he seems ready for it, which is something you can't say of the pitch black covers for his last two records where Neil has never looked more vulnerable. Neil was also nodding at the film of the same name, a Gregory Peck cold war epic in which a nuclear bomb is dropped and everybody dies - yet weirdly enough it's not as depressing as the plot would make it seem (much like this album). Even the sleevenotes sum up the album's confusing, written in haltering English by Rusty Kershaw (who admits at the start that 'I can't read or write very well so don't know why anyone would want me to write liner notes!')
There's something else scattered in the album cover that plays a big role on this album too. At the foot of the table is the newspaper headlined 'Senator Buckley Calls On Nixon To Resign'. Watergate was just breaking as this album was being recorded, with the feelings of confusion as to what was going on in America mirroring Neil's own confusion pretty neatly. Though Neil rarely mentions individuals in his songs, Nixon had always been an exception, held up as everything mad and crazy in a mad and crazy world (especially during CSNY shows). Though his public didn't know it in 1974, Neil was even beginning to feel a little sorry for his old foe he's once lambasted on CSNY's 'Ohio' ('Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we're finally on our own') recording 'Campaigner' in sorry lament for how ill and weak the leader now looked ('Where even Richard Nixon has got soul'); the last track won't be out until the compilation 'Decade' in 1977 though. The album was released, probably deliberately, on American Independence Day 1974 - a day that would normally be a cause for celebration for Americans (even honorary ones like Neil) but most Americans weren't into celebrating much that year; Nixon was recommended for impeachment for lying to the House Judiciary Committee hearing the investigation a mere three weeks later - Nixon officially resigned on August 8th (CSNY were playing a show that night and went to town on the Nixon gags; Neil even threw in his own ditty made up on the spot 'Goodbye Dick' as heard on 'CSNY 74'). As far as the public at large were concerned at the time this album came out, though, the latest news in the public eye had been Nixon himself declaring 'I am not a crook' and 'there will be no whitewash at the white house', further muddying the waters over what was going on. Just to make the point clearer, Neil had the messages 'hello waterface' and 'goodbye waterface' scratched into the vinyl groove, as if he was speaking to 'Watergateface' Nixon himself, although the real killer blow comes in 'Ambulance Blues', where Nixon (as it is surely he) has 'a different set of stories for every pair of eyes'. Along with the rest of the cover, the headline can therefore be both good and bad: Will Nixon ever agree to go from the white-house? Can it ever be proved he did something wrong? Will there be a bright future for America if he goes?
Overall, 'On The Beach' is a real puzzle of a record. The mixture of slow tempos and the air of confusion can make it a hard record to get into at first, less immediate than 'Time Fades Away' or 'Tonight's The Night' despite being far 'tighter' and in key than either of them. The much-discussed of 'honey slides' during the album sessions (honey laced with marijuana) probably accounts for quite a lot of the confused and distracted air, even if Neil's mind hadn't already been confused and distracted enough for one lifetime. If you have the patience to really get to know the details of this album then it's highly rewarding, especially the complex second side that pushes our second-guessing of what Neil is really saying to the limit. The title track and 'Ambulance Blues' especially rank alongside Neil's finest, bravest work, while 'For The Turnstiles' on the first side remains one of those songs you'd love to hear Neil re-record so we can work out just how great it really is. However, for all that 'On The Beach' is suddenly 'in tune', it's an album to admire rather than to love; that much harder to understand and be moved by than 'Tonight's The Night' and lacking the sheer power of a 'Don't Be Denied' to bring it level with the severely under-rated 'Time Fades Away' too. This is, of course, an album far too good to be dismissed on sight as merely 'one of the most depressing albums of the decade...from a spent force' as Rolling Stone Magazine put it in their first review (before Ian MacDonald was so shocked he wrote a second review an issue later to put things 'right'). Neil is admirably, impressively brave as yet again he tries to single handedly destroy his career because, with his friends gone, he no longer feels he can just bask in the glow of success and take the money. However it's notable that most of the fuss made about this album down the years was in the (admittedly rather long) period when no one could get a hold of this record and when this record's absence meant that most people knew about this record from reading about it rather than hearing about it. 'On The Beach' remains one of those records that make for better reading than listening, where listeners have to cope with the similar moods, lengthy ballads and crushingly bare backing and you can't hear most of those fascinatingly oblique lyrics anyway. Though ultimately the weakest of the 'Doom Trilogy' records and not a patch on 'Zuma' already waiting in the wings, 'On The Beach' remains a powerful artistic statement, with one of rock's greatest - and most confusing album covers as a bonus.
Interestingly after writing 'Tonight's The Night' largely about other people (both real and imaginary, with the line typically blurred between the two) 'On The Beach' returns to Neil's 'Don't Be Denied' style autobiography. At least that 'Time Fades Away' song remembered the good times too though - by 'Walk On' making music is a pain and Neil has never sounded more defensive, spitting out his lines to his audience 'I Am The Walrus' style, distortion and all. 'I hear some people been talking me down' is the quickest Neil has ever got to a song in the opening line as he fires off another missive in his long talk with his fans, looking back yearningly on a time when he didn't have any back when 'the money was not so good' but he felt free to 'do the best we could'. Rarely has an artist sounded quite so dismissive of his fans, Neil responding to recent criticisms of his work with the laissez fare 'You do your thing - I'll do mine'. Neil also has a withering eye for fame and what it does to people. With Danny Whitten's Young-funded drug overdose surely still in mind Neil sighs 'some get stones, some get strange' before agonising over the fact that 'sooner or later it all gets real', apparently dismissing his own 'populist' years for not being 'real' enough. Even the likes of Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan never made fan-bashing quite such an artistic statement. And yet, despite it all, 'Walk On' is the sort of track fans have been longing for since 'Harvest'. Though the mood is despondent there's a real swing to the rhythm that makes this track Neil's most naturally catchy in an awfully long time. The long awaited return of Crazy Horse (with Ben Keith making his only appearance as their rhythm guitarist in the 'Danny' role) is a real treat, with the same sluggish-yet-on-the-money style that made 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' such a thrilling record. It's Neil's vocal though that's the biggest change, suddenly so full of life and passion after two records (one still unreleased of course) of sounding as if he was holding onto life by his finger-nails. Even if it's bitterness that's the biggest emotion, it's still good to hear Neil singing like he means it with one of his greatest as-live vocals of them all.
'See The Sky About To Rain' is perhaps the only song from the 'Doom Trilogy' you can imagine appearing on a post-Harvest sequel. Sweet and tender and full of the sort of metaphors that had made 'After The Goldrush' such a success, it's a pretty song - so pretty Neil predictably disliked it and gave it to The Byrds to sing for their reunion album at David Crosby's request (where Gene Clark does a typically good job on lead vocal but everyone else sounds like they didn't turn up to rehearsal). Neil's version, weirdly, is a lot more commercial, with a backing track that bounces between a nicely sunny Wurlitzer Piano played by Neil himself and some sweet Ben Keith pedal steel. This time, though, Neil's vocal doesn't sound like his heart is in it at all and his half-hearted voice, which often 'drops out' of the mix, sounds more like a guide take, perhaps self-sabotage once again. Lyrically it's a song that sounds out of place for this period in Neil's life - this is a 'warning' song that knows that bad times are coming but still has the peace of mind to sound pretty; another 'Needle and the Damage Done' (written when Danny was still alive) or 'Old Man'. The song's lyrics are notable for the first (of many) appearances of Neil's lifelong love of trains, comparing the confusion in his mind to a mournful locomotive whistle in the first verse (there'll be lots more of this sort of thing in the 1980s and 1990s), while Neil - in an unusually lazy frame of mind by his standards - simply repeats his first verse all over again and never writes a second. Instead he fits in a brief chorus which is part worry/part weather report and a middle eight where he briefly reflects on fate: why are some men 'bound for glory' (a favourite phrase Neil will re-use for a track on his 'Old Ways' LP ten years in the future), some for 'happiness' and some 'to live with less'. Though he doesn't say it here, Neil must have been wondering which of these categories he falls into: there he was, with all the success he'd spent his life dreaming of and he's thrown it away because it just didn't seem as important as following the music and honouring his fallen friends. His frame of mind can perhaps be best summed up with the finale which sounds like a missing verse from the cryptic music-filled 'Last Trip To Tulsa' from his debut LP: he's enjoying the performance of a man with a 'silver fiddle' (the lyrics are ambiguous whether the narrator is listening or playing it himself) until a man 'breaks it down the middle'. The destruction is left without comment but fits 'On The Beach's mood of angry defiance, as if Neil's usual public have denied him the chance to do what he loves. As good as the middle eight and finale is, though, the song sounds unfinished and more like an outtake than any of the outtakes from this period (released and unreleased) actually do.
'Revolution Blues' was the biggest shock on the album for those still hoping for another 'Harvest'. By now Neil's life of musical neighbours, commercial success and mellow vibes in the famous Los Angeles district Laurel Canyon must have seemed a lifetime ago: it was a whole two bands, five records and a failed marriage ago in fact, which is as much living as anyone can fit into three years. By 1973 Laurel Canyon was no longer the in place to be either - that was split between New York, Motown and, erm, a late rallying for Liverpool looking at what was big in the American charts that year - with the hippie dream that had fuelled so many of the musicians of the day to move there now looking tragically naive and ultimately doomed. The trigger effect, though, was the Charles Manson and 'family' murders which, fuelled by a mis-read copy of 'The White Album' and a feeling of unease and tension in the air after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, led to Manson's conviction that America was about to break out into full-on civil war and that it was up to him to start it. We've already covered this madness on our review of 'Officially Titled 'The Beatles' and our Beach Boys book (legend has it Dennis Wilson was warned he was next and sent a bullet in the post) but 'Revolution Blues' is the most graphic song on the subject by far. To the shock of many Neil even appears to side with the killer, telling us the story from his point of view as he calmly shoots any dogs that might bark and give him away while hunting down Neil's former neighbours. Any other songwriter might have been going for shock value, but my take on this song in context with the rest of the 'Doom Trilogy' is that it's Neil assassinating his own successful past which he owns up to ('Yes that was me with the doves near the factory...'), annihilating the singer who came up with 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest' now that he knows that his old self was getting hits the 'easy' way and hadn't yet understood what 'important' things he should be singing about.
He may also have felt something similar to Manson during his earlier, obsessed musical years without a hit (Manson having been widely thought to have also been taking 'revenge' on showbiz figures after his own attempts to get a record deal failed; the closest Manson got was becoming Dennis' writing partner - and as a good friend of Dennis' and a sort-of near neighbour it makes sense Neil might have met Manson himself too, though he's never mentioned it in public). Like the Lennon murder to come, too, Manson seems to have been fuelled partly by a sense of betrayal - that he'd once bought records by singer-songwriters from Laurel Canyon and paid them so much money because they promised peace and prosperity in the future - and all he got was deeper in debt with each record. Manson, then, is only a more extreme re-action of Neil's own as he sneers those famous lines 'I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars - but I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars!' In the end Neil ends up depicting a very different revolution to the one of race Manson depicted; he is instead drawing a line between the haves and have nots, the idle singer-songwriter rich Neil was himself a member of so recently and the people jealous of their fame and their money (Young starts the tale at Manson's lowly 'trailer' to emphasise the contrast with the mansions later). Manson wasn't actually that much of a 'have not' as it happens, 'protected' financially by various members of his 'family' clan and his blackmailing of famous celebrities - but that's not what many of the papers said at the time ('He looks like a hippie, therefore he's poor!') The result is a tense song driven by, of all people, David Crosby's intense rhythm guitar (the closest he ever came to repeating 'Eight Miles High') on a song he confessed during CSNY's 1974 he didn't much understand or care for (it's typical of Neil to get someone who so represented the Laurel Canyon spirit on the record - presumably James Taylor was busy that week). The song pounds along using a fair mimicry of Manson's own unusual unrelenting arhythmic style usually ending in some multi-syllabled word (his first and only album only being out on bootleg, though his songs with Dennis share a similar pattern), going for quick-footed rhymes throughout ('In this land of conditions I'm not above suspicion'). The only release comes with a majestic Neil guitar solo that sails over and above the song not once but twice, while if anything his vocal is a bit too intense and authentic for comfort. Deeply uncomfortable, totally unsettling and painful to listen to, 'Revolution Blues' is Neil heading 'for the ditch' like never before, challenging his followers to 'Walk On' once more.
The unheralded highlight of 'On The Beach' though is surely 'For The Turnstiles', even if the lo-fi two-men performance does its best to distract from just what a strong track this is. Though he hides the song behind a veil of surrealist imagery and Dylanesque dada-ism, this is surely another deeply autobiographical song about where Neil's head was at in 1973. The opening verse relates sailors never coming home as they get lost in song and fall prey to sirens who are actually far more earthly than most storybooks paint them (they even 'charge ten dollars at the door' in a line with shades of 'A Man Needs A Maid/Muse' again). A second verse commemorates 'all the great explorers' who kept moving, discovering the unknowable and re-defining mankind's understanding of himself, yet whom after their death are now silent unmoving statues 'now in granite made'. A third, simpler verse has a baseball player 'left to die' out on the field the first time they make a wrong move, dropped by the fans who are only interested in winners. Throughout all three verses weaves a repeated chorus howled, not sung, by Neil and Ben Keith in which all of these revelations have taught the narrator a lot and that 'though your confidence may be shattered - it doesn't matter' because life is about learning, not being praised for what you do. Neil has learnt the hard way to escape the shadow of Topanga Canyon success and learnt that in the end you have to do what you have to do and take no notice of what anyone has to say about it; his fate as inevitable and unstoppable as the sailors who follow their muse to their deaths, the explorers doomed to be captured at one moment in time or the baseball players who can't keep winning with every ball they play. The close of the song, with the baseball public rushing 'for the turnstiles' as they turn their back on the performers, is one of the saddest moments in any Young song for all his remarks about trying to rise above the criticism and Neil's vocal has never been more fragile than here. I just wish that such a gorgeous and detailed song had been given a performance more worthy of it; great as Neil's plucky plucked banjo and Ben's shoulder-shrugging dobro part are such a substantial song deserved something a bit more substantial. Maybe Neil just didn't want to put down the 'perfect' recording of this song, given that this is a song about never being able to 'win' no matter what you do.
We switch next to the album's weakest song, with 'Vampire Blues' a lazy cod-blues that fills up a hole where outtakes 'Winterlong' (see 'Decade') and 'Star Of Bethlehem' (see 'American Stars 'n' Bars') should have been. More the Bela Lugosi type of vampire than the 'Twilight' sort, Neil's cosmic vampire turns 'bats' in the second verse and switches from 'sucking blood from the Earth' to 'tapping on your windowpane'. Neil probably had something a bit more political in mind for this song at first - the opening verse being more like a Greenpeace vindictive against big oil companies sucking the world dry of its resources but we're a bit early for Neil's 'ecological years' just yet and this is a theme he seems to have shied away from despite it dominating his later period work from 'Greendale' to 'The Monsanto Years'. Instead it may be something closer to the bad-time vibe of 'Revolution Blues' where people are getting impatient for change; 'Good time are coming' Neil grins during a painfully slow middle eight 'but they sure are coming slow'. Sadly a slow ploddy melody-line and a guitar part that's like a really poor version of the blistering solo on 'Cinnamon Girl' (also largely on one note, but played with such wild abandon it lacks all the excitement) make even a half-hearted song sound worse than it deserves. You sense that Neil was almost willing his fan-base not to turn the record over, but for once what he's trying to say isn't interesting enough to put up with how he's saying it.
Over on side two, though, the 'On The Beach' title track sounds like an epiphany of sorts, with too much discovery to fit into one song. Neil's taking a long hard look at himself, possibly fuelled by 'honey slides', and trying to come to terms with his contradictions. Though he's laughed at the hippie dream he once shared across the rest of the album, he's lost without it, hoping that the world that's already turned away from him doesn't turn away altogether. The 'pictures' that Neil 'placed on his wall' may well be further Laurel Canyon references as we know Neil had a rather fetching drawing of David Crosby circa 1967 above his fireplace in this period (see the inside cover of Croz' 'If I Could Only Remember My Name') - the fact they keep 'falling off' may be due to Neil's own explosive relationship with his CSNY friends and colleagues. Neil's next contradiction is that he needs a 'crowd of people' - the followers he's lambasted on 'Walk On', the bands he's walked out on and the friends he no longer sees - but, private to the point of disappearing for months on end, he 'can't face them day today'. In a final verse Neil finds himself awkwardly plugging his latest album, aware that he has to make some money and sell some records or he'll never get to make anymore which would destroy him. Somehow, though, all the camaraderie of making a record and facing up to statements with the help of his band-mates evaporates and he finds himself 'alone at the microphone', his comments unconvincing even to himself. Most of the 'Doom Trilogy' is about exposing fakery and that being successful, having the world 'on a string - doesn't mean a thing'. Here, though, for pretty much the only time in his career, Neil feels like a 'fake' himself. Running away from his past life he simply finds a road and keeps on going 'though I don't know where it ends', making a special vow to the fans who got past his 'Walk On' firewall and thus proved their worth that he won't let us down - that he'll always be 'true' to his music. The melody for this fascinating musical breakdown is, like much of this album, painfully slow, the musicians dragging their heels and putting the brakes on as Neil's half-asleep vocal desperately tries to urge them on. It's as if Neil's in a daze and his doubts and guilt are holding him back, with even the guitar solos picking at the song's rhythm rather than exploding into full colour as per normal. A fascinating, moving song, although once again a slightly 'draggy' performance prevents the song from being the 'Don't Be Denied' style classic on the album. That's Graham Nash on the Wurlitzer organ, by the way.
'Motion Pictures' is even more blurred, a last goodbye song to second wife Carrie Snodgrass (the 'Carrie' named in the credit dedication) as Neil moved to a new town as a bachelor once more, still deeply confused as to whether he's doing the right thing, 'A home away from home, livin' in between'). A second verse wistfully remembers the Laurel Canyon lifestyle and nature left behind, while all Neil has to stare at is a blurred artificial motion picture on his TV screen. The next two verses, though, don't appear to be about Carrie at all but are another chance to discuss the album's theme of staying true to yourself whatever the cost. 'All those people think they've got it made' sneers Neil (in as much as you can sneer in a song this quiet) but he knows that money and fame doesn't cut it - he'd rather 'start all over again' from rock bottom than carry on living a lie, whatever the newspaper headlines say. Neil then admits to us, not without good reason, that 'he's deep inside himself' and wonders if he'll ever get 'out' before deciding that he will 'somehow'. Neil then promises someone (Carrie? Us?) that we can be proud of him yet, that he'll 'stand before you and bring a smile to your eyes'. That's a certainty that isn't shared by the music, however, which is slow and sleepy even for this album, played on just two acoustic guitars and a harmonica and featuring a vocal where Neil sounds plain drunk (what was in those honey slides?!) A late night confession of the soul, it's clearly Neil trying to comfort by reaching out to his core values in the darkness - but as a performance it's far more unsure of itself than as a song and - even after going through 'Tonight's The Night' through to the other side - you end up fearing for Neil's mental state. Good as it is to hear Neil opening up again, the song is sadly not one of his most memorable.
Closer 'Ambulance Blues' is a direct cross of the blunt autobiography of 'Don't Be Denied' and the surreal storytelling of 'Last Trip To Tulsa' and lasts somewhere roughly equal to both songs at just short of nine minutes. Though the song makes little sense unless you understand Neil's story backwards and at times sounds like a fairytale ('Mother Goose' and all), it is a 'real' song: 'The Riverboat' that was 'rockin' in the first verse as Neil starts his journey is a Toronto Coffeehouse where Neil started his career (a triumphant home-coming live show recorded there in 1969 later came out as part of the 'Archives' series); 'Isabella' which Neil mourns for being 'torn down' was a real place, also in Toronto, and Neil's first home away from his parental home as he and his fellow Mynah Birds settled down (Rick James, then a wannabe singer awol from the draft and later Motown star Ricky James, was Neil's room-mate); it got torn down shortly before this album's recording so no wonder Neil was feeling nostalgic. Neil then widens the song out to wondering what became of the people he passed along the way - the 'waitresses' pining for their boyfriends (little does Neil know he'll soon marry one heh heh heh), the 'burn-outs' and most movingly the single mother struggling to make ends meet ('She's on the kids, she ain't happy - and neither are her kids'). Fans have debated who Mother Goose may be - the most likeliest guess to me would be first wife Susan Acevedo, several years Neil's elder, who was his replacement 'mother' figure in a way - though clearly no relationship can be reduced to a single label. If so then it's a telling verse, Neil recognising her need 'for someone to scream at' because of her unhappy life and 'feeling a heel' for 'making her feel so bad' - all of which fits in the imagery of his run of songs written for Susan circa 'After The Goldrush'. Recognising that he can do nothing to heal the past, Neil refers to his trip down memory lane as 'sickness gone' and sighs that he's only become wise in retrospect and it will do him no good - chillingly, that 'an ambulance can only go so fast'.
The final verses sound like they written at a later date and from a slightly different (less honey slidey?) perspective. Neil turns, 'Walk On' style, to his critics once again for being 'no better than me' and adds one of his best Dylanesque lines as he compares their meddling and regurgitating stories as 'stomach pumps and hook and ladder dreams' (erm, everyone except your old handy review blog Alan's Album Archives naturally!...*gulp*...) Neil jokingly invites his critics round 'for some scenes' so they can see what he's really like rather than sitting 'alone' (I'm available whenever you are Neil! These 'scenes' include playing with your model train set right?) Neil then moves onto a 'man who could tell so many lies', a figure un-named in the song but one everyone assumed to be Nixon almost from the day of release. Neil wonders how on earth he can remember what lie he's telling ('and who he's talking to') before saying that he knows Nixon doesn't speak for him - and hopes he doesn't for 'us' either. It's an unusually direct political statement for Neil solo in this period (with CSNY to 'stand behind' it's a different matter) which might be why Neil makes the figure so vague. Talking of CSNY, it's also generally accepted that the line 'you're all just pissing in the wind!' is a direct quote from manager Elliott Roberts after yet another CSNY split. The debate here, though, is why Neil includes it - does he agree? Does he wish that CSNY had stayed together and made the hippie dream a reality instead of 'blowing' it through band fights? Or is he laughing at Roberts, knowing that the band might have made more money - but money's 'not where it's at man' and that anything made to sell is effectively 'pissing in the wind'? Is everything CSNY - or any of us for that matter - simply destined to blow back on us? Neil sounds as if he doesn't know anymore, the song going the opposite way to the big ends of 'Don't Be Denied' and 'Last Trip To Tulsa' by simply fading out on a weary harmonica sigh, it's questions still unanswered.
Musically Neil has since admitted that he sub-consciously stole the melody from his hero, Pentangle's Bert Jansch, who wrote many mid-1960s songs that sound like this one although 'Needle Of Death' (covered by Neil himself on 2014's 'A Letter From Home') is the most obvious (Bert didn't seem to mind as the pair played this song together on their 2007 tour where Bert was Neil's opening act). Bert is a very similar writer to Neil anyway (at least the 'acoustic' side of Neil's writing away from Crazy Horse) - they're equally emotional and autobiographical, but usually hide the 'truth' behind a veil of imagery and metaphor, lacking the directness of a Stills or Nash. Many of Bert's early pieces are designed to make you feel uncomfortable, whether through the treatment of a character ('Needle of Death' is about the overdose of a close friend during his early days in coffee houses - Bert only found out when his friend never came to pick him up for a gig in his car as usual) or through a doomed love affair or his guilt over drinking (which becomes a much stronger theme later). With Neil it sounds a little like all three stuck together: things that really happened to him seen through the eyes of characters, complete with guilt for past mistakes and especially romances that didn't work out. The difference between the two writers though is nostalgia: Bert changed as little as a writer as anyone could with any level of success across his career and spent 90% of it touring coffee houses and folk clubs, even during his peak Pentangle fame. By contrast Neil has always been eager to shift styles and leave his past behind, even this early on - and yet he's always been deeply nostalgic too, with dozens of songs that look backwards rather than forwards from 'Don't Be Denied' to 'Helpless' and back to 'Journey Through The Past'. 'Ambulance Blues' remains one of his best, though, a surreal collection of memories that was always intended to be gibberish to most fans and yet clearly comes with meaning. In a way 'Ambulance Blues' is Neil's mission statement not to wallow in what might have been and plough on regardless, recognising 'it's easy to get buried in the past' and perhaps already planning the simple escapism of 'Zuma'. However, for all of Neil's comments, it's hardly a 'sickness gone' - even 'Zuma' includes such songs as 'Pardon My Heart' and 'Dangerbird' as signs that this period was too big, too overwhelming to be dismissed in a single song. I still harbour the suspicion though that this is what Neil was trying to do here - sum up his troubles and his difficult recent past and everything he's learnt during that period together in one long song so that he can move on. The result is an impressive composition, again slightly let down by a so-so performance (Neil's troubled lead vocal, giving nothing away is great, as is Rusty's wise-cracking fiddle playing, commenting on and laughing at the action but everything else is slightly 'off') but still an impressive tour de force that tries something new and successfully in keeps the dreaded 'rust' at bay.
Overall, then, 'On The Beach' is an album that - fittingly - hits you in waves. Your first thought, especially if you paid over the odds for a copy in the pre-CD release age, might well be 'why do so many fans rave about a record that barely gets above a whisper and which largely sounds the same?' The tautness and tightness which is so successful in 'Walk On' and 'Revolution Blues' seems at odds with an album whose best musical description is 'sleepy', bordering on lethargic. That description actually sounds worryingly like 'Greendale', which is not a pleasant thought. However, this is far from a 'lazy' album however it sounds at first and the more detail you uncover and the more big questions you hear the album raise the more it piques your interest. There's nothing here designed to be memorable, which is why this album got such a poor reception on first release, but that is after all meant to be the point; this is an album less musical and enjoyable but deeper and more heartfelt than 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest' and like the rest of the 'Doom Trilogy' it's harder to listen to but more rewarding when you do. For me personally I much prefer these trips to the ditch which reveal more of the 'real' Neil, but I can also hear the album through 'other' ears who will only hear a slightly woolly and undercooked album with some promising lyrics that you can't actually hear properly. Less intense than either 'Time Fades Away' or 'Tonight's The Night', 'On The Beach' takes longer to get into than both and is arguably more inconsistent than either. The highlights though, such as 'For The Turnstiles', the title track and 'Ambulance Blues' represent Neil at his bravest and - near-enough - his best. Wish you were here? Hardly looking at that beach, either on the cover or in our minds, but sometimes there's a reason bad things happen in life and Neil is right to try to tell us what he's learnt and to wave that ragged palm tree high in the wind at anyone who cursed him for not making another 'Harvest'. Goodbye waterface, it's been fun.
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