Monday, 9 July 2018

Neil Young Essay: 'Will To Love' - Spiritualism and The Unseen Other in Neil's Music


Well, here we are at last dear readers, the final ‘new’ article written for Alan’s Album Archives (now I just have a year of re-writes to look forward to, lucky me!) As a result this essay is going to pinpoint an idea that creeps into more than a few AAA albums so has a sense of ‘déjà vu’ to some other essays we’ve covered (you might even spot a few familiar lines if you know the other AAA bands really well – how many can you spot?) For now though we’re going to look at ideas shared by two of our most prolific AAA writers.
There is a famous quote from Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun that he loved Stephen Stills’ songs because they were so Earthy and Neil’s because they were so abstract. Traditionally rock critics like to set them apart and see them as polar opposites. The pair have more in common than simply belonging to two very different bands however and to my ears very much share a sense of theme – they both spend many of their songs being driven on by some force they can’t quite divine. Poor Stills gets the rough end of the deal – he bounces from muse to muse, writes himself into a frenzy desperate not to lose this mystical force that he can’t quite see and realises by the mid 1970s that it’s all but burnt itself out (it speaks volumes to me that his song about this force leaving him for good, ‘Guardian Angel’, should appear on a Stills-Young album, perhaps the LP that most represents that sense of ‘other’ on both men’s catalogue with its pull of the sea and motor vehicles and nightmarish encounters). By the time we reach this part of the book in the mid-1980s almost all of Stills’ best creative moments are behind him (and Neil seems to sense this too if [252] ‘Stringman’ is, as we fans suspect, a song about his stricken friend). Neil, though, has a different relationship with this force, whatever it is. As long as he keeps changing – and doesn’t rust – he can always pick it up again in a new medium, driven to write seemingly in part so he can work out what this force is. [  ] ‘Can’t Stop Workin’, one of his most recent songs seems to be about exactly this). Less muse or romantically driven that his musical partner, Neil just loves tapping into this source for the hell of it and it feels slightly different with each new twist he gives it in song.
Perhaps the closest metaphor Neil ever came up with for this unseen silent spectral force is the wind (and not a ‘Hickory Wind’ calling him home as per The Byrds but one driving him on to search for new things). As a result his catalogue includes a whole ‘pillow of winds’ and he spent a lot of time watching the wind to see how it blows. We know [121] ‘Four Strong Winds’ as a rare random cover song that suddenly turned up at the end of Neil’s most settled and family-orientated album ‘Comes A Time’ (The Searchers did it too). On that album it feels like a threat, the great pull of the wild on a restless soul that makes him forever want to move and not put down any roots. Neil heard Ian Tyson’s song back in Canada as a teen and always said it had a big effect on him; while its syrupy strings don’t have much to do with Neil as we recognise him today, the theme has quite a lot in common. Neil even followed it up with a similar cover, Gogi Grant’s [169] ‘The Wayward Wind’ not to mention the last wind, his own [326] ‘Prairie Wind’ (where in his childhood everyone else sees ‘wheatfields’ but Neil senses ghosts, demons and unseen forces). It’s another dimension, this wind, that runs parallel to our world but hardly ever connects with it. All three songs come with an unusual structure that don’t so much run verses into choruses as hang there in the air, moving to their own whim. Perhaps this explains why Neil chops and changes his style so much as he tries to grasp hold of this wind before it blows itself out the way it did for Stills.
Almost always with Stills it was his girlfriends or his wives that filled him with mystery and the call of the ‘wind’. Neil is notoriously shyer around girls (he’s the opposite of Stills, whose good at introductions and bad at endings) and so Neil doesn’t jump into bed with the first ‘mystery’ he sees pulling him, though he too feels the force of attraction. Love is, in many a Young song, something waiting for you and planned before you were ever born that you cannot escape: [292] ‘Horseshoe Man’ is a particularly good example of how Neil feels: ‘Love don’t care if you’re wrong or right, love don’t know if you’re black or white, love ain’t looking for perfection, love’s the answer, love’s the question’. A hurricane is just a big wind really and one of Young’s most famous songs [109] ‘Like A Hurricane’ sounds to my ears like an attempt to put down the unfathomable into song. Neil feels attracted not by anything logical or emotional but something he can’t quite put his finger on – recognising this sense of ‘mystery’ in a stranger he sees hazily from a bar, though he’s repelled by the love he feels as much as he’s attracted (it doesn’t matter who she is or what she’s like either – ‘you could have been anyone to me’ – it’s the feeling of love that’s so very real but can’t be seen or heard or felt that he’s singing about here when all he wants is for someone to see him, feel him, touch him). You can match this song with an even earlier classic [24] ‘Cinnamon Girl’, in which Neil gets turned on not by a girl’s character or even particular her looks – just something about her that makes him want to run away with her and lose his life tapping into this mystery he senses. That glorious guitar solo in the middle of the song, all played on one note, is perhaps the closest he ever came to tapping into this unusual mysterious force, something thrilling and powerful and multi-dimensional, even if the closest he can get to it in song is the pure beauty of one note.
Again like Stills, though, Neil struggles when it comes to the reality of love. The closer Stills got to his conquests (Judy Collins, Rita Coolidge, Veronique Samson) the worse it seemed to get for him as he was stuck with the realities and duties of being in a relationship (though Stills is, I think, a better parent than any music biographer gives him credit for, he struggles to always be for whichever partner he’s with at any one time). For Neil it turns sour just as quickly: [96] ‘Love Is A Rose but you better not pick it, it only grows when it’s on the vine, a handful of thorns and you’ll know you missed it, you lose your love when you say the word mine’ runs one particularly sour song written in the dark days between significant others two and three. The two seem to be connected after all – for if you plant ice you’re gonna ‘harvest’ wind. Maybe Neil’s just not good at commitment when he hears that restless wind blowing through his veins, calling him on to the next new discovery? It’s almost as if this mysterious force doesn’t care, it just does its job and leaves – the cold wind and rain don’t know they only seem to come and go away.
However we all need Somebody To Love, at least in Neil’s view of the world and as many times as he vows to give up on romance he finds himself longing for it again. There’s almost a smile on his face as the wind touches his face and starts to erase all the gloom. It’s worth pointing out though that all his four wives/long-term girlfriends each got their own song where Neil clearly sensed this mysterious force running through them too – three also feel as if they get an ‘ending’ song too. First wife Susan Avacedo was older and more motherly, with Buffalo Springfield song ‘On The Way Home’ my pick as a song about their romance, Neil telling us that ‘I love you’ for the first time in song and praising someone who built him up when he wasn’t sure about himself. Here love is a ‘dream’ that came (and like wind, dreams cannot be physically seen and can’t even be felt). Even their wedding vows sound like a bad parody of this sense of unknowable force (‘Do you wish to be the light on this lady’s solar path? Do you wish to be the moonbeam of devotion to this man’s light?’) By the time of Neil’s debut album it’s already gone wrong – he ended up living with not just her but his entire in-laws and felt an exile in his own house. Soon he’s complaining [21] ‘What Did You Do To My Life?’ and possibly that this attraction is running low as he finds himself alone and ‘abandoned’ on the apologetic [29] ‘Running Dry’. Neil’s next response: the wind of attraction is just a myth and underneath it all [42] ‘Everybody’s Alone’, whether they alone or in a relationship or not. Not to mention doubting his own self whenever he said [40] ‘I Believe in you’, unsure whether his first wife really loved him or not (judging by all the biographies, I think it’s clear she did – just not whether he did). By this point Neil was in danger of becoming ‘Mr Pitiful’ – or maybe [300] ‘Mr Disappointment’.
During his brief bachelor years of mid 1969-mid 1970 Neil ‘fell in love with the actress’ he saw at the cinema in the film ‘Diary Of A Housewife’ and on an impulse gets a roadie to find out her phone number and ask her out on a date (which isn’t the usual way of dating, but again it’s that pull of attraction that seems to matter more than character). Carrie Snodgrass had never heard of Neil but fell for him immediately, perhaps feeling the same attraction. [48] ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ charts their early history: perhaps the most misunderstood song in Neil’s canon (and often attacked by women’s libbers) it’s the sound of a man whose given up looking for love (and that mysterious other force) and would settle for someone to take care of him, ‘fix my meals and go away’. Then he falls for Carrie and (in a line heard live but cut from ‘Harvest’) ‘feels afraid’. What if this force turns out the way the last one did and dies out? My guess from the timings is that [39] ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ might be about Carrie as well, although again like ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘Hurricane’ it’s the dancing not the dancer that attracts him and brings on perhaps the most lustful song in the Young canon (Carrie isn’t known for her dancing, but hey who knows what they got up to together). [47] ‘Harvest’ itself sounds like Neil trying to woo her after she had been hurt – it’s time they both had their cups overflowing with love again and love is here something to be reaped after a difficult growth. He is here already worrying about ‘losing our grasp’ on this force in the future, but still sounds pleased to have ‘changed our plan’ of being single and lonely. By 1974 though it’s all gone wrong again: Carrie herself recalls Neil being two people, one supportive and friendly and one ‘restless’, driven by something neither of them could see (in the excellent biography ‘Shakey’, which must be the only book an artist ever tried to pull for being too accurate!) Carrie took a holiday to Hawaii to escape the claustrophobia of home and spent five days at sea. Unfortunately the captain of the boat fancied her rotten and made endless passes at her – putting him off until she got back to dry land Carrie thought it was over until she found him calling at their house too. Neil, often in a paranoid frame of mind anyway, believed the worst. Even though its generally accepted as one big mistake and misunderstanding it clearly ripped him to pieces: recorded the following year for bachelor party album ‘Zuma’, [88] ‘Dangerbird’ is one of the greatest and scariest pieces in the Neil Young canon. His friends are worried about him so they take him out for a day-trip to the museum where he suffers the most painful (yet musical) nervous breakdown on record. However, although Neil is clearly getting mad at Carrie, he also gets mad at fate. Remembering how he used to fly and feel free with the thought that this force was out there to carry him (the wind beneath his wings?), now he realises with a panic that ‘these wings have turned to stone’ and he can no longer fly. ‘Dangerbird’ is in many ways Neil’s earthiest record despite the sound of crying angels and talk of fate and circumstance – everything is leaden, heavy, oppressing and claustrophobic. He sounds as if he will never trust that wind again.
Against all odds Neil finds love a third time in a marriage that will last thirty-eight years with Pegi Morton, who he spots working in ‘a diner – and never knew a woman finer’ as he puts it in [242] ‘Unknown Legend’. Neil had, so he said years later, been admiring her from afar for months, maybe a year. He was stung by the failure of his last two marriages and wanted to make this one work, sure that this mysterious ‘other’ force was there. For ever such a long time it was: [113] ‘Comes A Time’ is surely the happiest ever song in this usually melancholy man’s back catalogue as he celebrates his marriage in 1978 with a song about how there ‘comes a time when you settle down’, the ‘wind’ he feels blowing through his relationship so strong ‘it’s a wonder tall trees ain’t laying down!’ (I always wondered what that line meant until thinking about this essay). Neil feels comfortable enough to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary with some of his sweetest love songs on his most romantic album ‘Harvest Moon’: as well as the tale of their meeting which is ‘Unknown Legend’, Neil sings [248] ‘Such A Woman’ where his muse is clearly a mystical other-worldly force. As time goes on though and he meets actress Darry Hannah (we don’t have a date but my guess is somewhere in the late 1990s, with the divorce album ‘Are You Passionate?’ the moment where it gets serious even if Neil will be with Pegi until 2014) things change yet again. The devastating song that signals the end of their relationship is [378] ‘Plastic Flowers’ in which Neil admits he may have been pretending all along and that he was only attracted by this strange force and willing love to happen, punished by mother nature for only having fake flowers that came undone. It may be worth throwing in [244] ‘You and Me’ here, with its tale of two lovers at odds ‘guitar fighting the TV’, although that’s an older song written in fits and starts and only finished off in the early 1990s; it would be very Neil to write a song about three wives driving him to distraction at different times!
And so there we are with Darryl Hannah in the past few years. So far Neil has been largely ducking out of his changing relationships head on in song (and when he does its usually to apologise to Pegi or feel guilty, seeing her ghost in his rear view mirror on [381] ‘Glimmer’ and seeing her younger self in his new love for instance). However there is one key song about their relationship that sums up why Neil made this move the way he did. [385] ‘I’m Glad I Found You’ makes it clear that he feels the same restless creative wind-energy beating in her that he does in himself. ‘It’s not that we got anything new’ he sings, ‘It’s not that anything is better or worse’ but he recognises someone else who needs protection as much as himself and once again he sights ‘the promised land’ as he feels ‘your soul in mine’. I guess you can’t always get what you want – but sometimes you might just find you get what you need!
Love, then, is confusing. It’s not permanent but ever-changing, sometimes staying forever and sometimes for such a short time (the burst of attraction heard on ‘Cinammon Girl’ and ‘Hurricane’), and doesn’t always take the same form. Sometimes Neil gives up ever searching for it. One of his most moving and cynical songs is [107] ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ in which he wakes up to find that love has departed forever and his illusion has been shattered. Maybe, he thinks to himself, this secret gift doesn’t exist, miracles aren’t possible and that wasn’t a Star of Bethlehem at all but just an ordinary light in the sky that kick-started a whole religion. He’s the grumpiest we’ve ever heard him, certain that the wind he’s been chasing doesn’t really exist and he’s built his career on a lie. It may be significant that his longest-lasting significant other, Pegi, will arrive almost instantaneously with recording this troubled song.
However there’s one highly telling moment in his back catalogue (significantly very much one of Neil’s last recorded songs before meeting Pegi) that might sum up Neil’s quest more than most. [108] ‘Will To Love’ has been hiding away in plain sight on Neil’s discography for years and people still assume it’s an eccentric novelty song. It is, after all, an extended metaphor of a fish swimming upstream driven on by who knows what that’s hard to hear at the best of times. It is, though, perhaps Neil’s greatest attempt to write down this feeling in song. Escaping ‘hooks, nets and angry bears’ Neil aches with being worn down by life but still needs to carry on, sure that out there he’ll find the goal of ‘someone who cares’ that’s ‘like something from up above’ and even swimming in his sleep. Neil recognises his own role in this, a ‘fire in the night’ that attracts people to him – but sometimes he ‘burns too bright’ and scares people off with his intensity. ‘Sometimes I see what really isn’t there’ he sings to us, as love ‘keeps my gills from getting dry but distorts things in my eye’. This unseen force he feels both brings him the truth and blinds him to the realities he overlooks in his haste to fall in love. Neil escapes it all and ‘can’t be tamed’ even by harpoon, ‘one of millions all the same’ looking for ‘someone somewhere who calls my name’. It’s a moving song, especially as Neil’s been so open about his search for love across so many albums and so many years. Neil continues to brave the wind – and came a thousand miles just to be here, in a position to love again.
Then again, this unseen force doesn’t just represent love, the way it (almost always) does for Stills. There’s a spiritualism at the heart of many Neil Young songs, a belief in something bigger, that tomorrow never knows what life may hold in store. For many past AAA acts this would be something religious: The Byrds felt this in Christianity, Cat Stevens felt this in Islam, to some extent Paul Simon felt it in Judaism and Pete Townshend in guru Meher Baba. The Rolling Stones, jokingly, felt it in Satanism (‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is very much an attempt to work out what this unseen force is). Neil, though, is largely anti-religious. He spent much of his younger days damning the hypocrisy of the Christian Church ([56] ‘Soldier’ [60] ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’) and occasionally preaches against it in later life too (such as the abuse in the Catholic Church where priests still lectured about abortions on [266] ‘Song X’). The one exception is the oddly reverential [330] ‘When God Made Me’, as Neil tries to tap into this secret wind-power he’s tapped into and what he’s meant to do with it, if anything. However even elsewhere Neil clearly believes in…something that isn’t of this world. The closest he’s coming to actually giving us a belief is in [369] ‘Driftin’ Back’ where he wonders if he’s a ‘pagan’ (the original religion before Christianity came along, more of a belief in an unseen force of nature than anything churchy). [346] ‘Spirit Road’ is one of his better songs of the past decade, a ‘long highway of your mind’ that we all have inside us, although this dark and scary song is really more about losing this spirit road. It makes for interesting reading back to back with the surreal [23] ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’ which might well be about the same thing, but in a less obvious way. It’s there in other songs too: from the same album ‘Chrome Dreams II’ Neil offers us [350] ‘The Way’, a ‘road that can never be closed’ even when you don’t know it’s there or want to walk down it. I wonder too if [67] ‘Deep Forbidden Lake’ is Neil’s first go at trying to describe this force, sensing a ‘dying breeze’ that’s disappearing from the world around him and trying to work out what it is.
‘Deep Forbidden Lake’ could though also be about death and Neil spends a lot of his career wondering what might lie underneath the thin ice of life once it’s over – and whether its connected with this mysterious unseen force. One of his most moving songs is [18] ‘The Old Laughing Lady’, a tale of comfort after the death of someone who mattered to someone he loves. Death is here greeted as a ‘fever on the freeway…a slipping on the stairway…a rumbling in the bedroom and a flashing of light’. Is this the instant of death? Is this when the seen finally becomes the unseen? Is this the clear white light of death? Neil is also aware enough to know that we can’t have life without death, that ‘you can’t have a cupboard if there ain’t no walls’ and that something else has to be out there ‘propping’ us up. One of Neil’s most quoted lines is that ‘it’s better to burn out than it is to rust’. He didn’t quite mean it the way Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain took it to mean when it was used in his suicide note, seeing all sorts of things in that phrase about a life well lived but lived short, so to make amends Neil wrote a tale of what he thought happened that night to the grunge guitarist. [257] ‘Sleeps With Angels’ is really more about girlfriend Courtney Love than it is about Kurt but it sums up their last few hours together well – by the end a sea of manically chanting angel-demons have carted him off for one mistake and he sleeps somewhere else from now on. Is this the great force in angelic form coming to claim him before his allotted time, ‘too soon, too early’? This wasn’t the first time Neil wrote about the spark of life (the unseen life-force) being extinguished though: [86] ‘Tired Eyes’ finds him pleading with the victim of a mass shooting and a drug deal gone to wake up because once that spark is lost its lost forever and losing that life essence is a high price to pay for one fuck-up too many. The title track of the album that song is from, [76] ‘Tonight’s The Night’, also delights in its mocking tone: CSNY roadie Bruce Berry died of a drugs overdose needlessly on a nothing day. So as Neil and co can’t save him they help commemorate it, making it an important ‘night’, even though it doesn’t need to be important to lose your life – these things can happen anytime. Neil even feels it happening to himself as he suffers from a brain aneurism in 2005, which must surely be what his song [323] ‘Falling From The Face Of The Earth’ is all about as he realises how swiftly the end can come and thanks his friends while apologising to his enemies. Paul Simon, by the way, has wind as a metaphor for death too – ‘everybody feels the wind blow’ in ‘Graceland’.
Neil should, perhaps, have been born in another time long agos and wordls apart before organised religion. The Aztecs and The Incas are his favourite period, perhaps because their ideas so chime with his own (except, perhaps, the human sacrifice part – life is clearly precious to Neil, more so than appeasing any God). There are many songs about the Aztecs in his discography and especially about their sudden fall from power (as a quick history lesson they had never seen a white man and greeted [94] ‘Cortez The Killer’ and his Spanish hordes as Gods and invited them into their land where they plundered all the gold they had lying round – it wasn’t particularly valuable for Aztecs – and slaughtered them for fear of reprisals). Why, Neil wonders, did fate decide that their life-essence should be destroyed this day after centuries of success in their own cocoon in life. While everyone knows ‘Cortez’ (or at least they should!) two of the key songs on this theme are some of the most overlooked. [156] ‘Like An Inca’ has Neil’s narrator going to a fortune-teller. However she’s shocked to find everyone has the same missing mark on their hand as if they know time is up. [200] ‘Inca Queen’ too – now there’s a lady who has this unseen essence in spades as everyone does her bidding for her. It’s as if that missing spark was pre-ordained and every civilisation only has a certain allotted time on Earth. You can also throw in here Neil’s occasional songs about another oppressed race, the American Indian. [127] ‘Powderfinger’ mourns a twenty-two-year-old caught up in something bigger than he understands dying through his innocence as the European settlers arrive to claim his land. Neil’s description of his death, standing in for all of his race, is one of his most powerful because of the description of that spark dying out (‘I saw black and my face flash across the sky!’) [125] ‘Pocahontas’ as well is an old little song that veers from tragedy to comedy in the blink of an eye but too has its images of pre-ordained fate in the sky (‘aurora borealis’) and a race killed without mercy as they ‘killed us in our tepee and cut our women down’. By the end the invaders are in control of ‘Nobody’s Empire’ because they’ve taken land rather than people and missed the entire point of being alive.
Neil is perhaps unique in the way he can ‘feel’ this power in inanimate objects too and is clearly a ‘Roadsinger’. One of Neil’s songs I’m asked most about is, unfortunately, a rare one I hate (mostly for being rude about The Beach Boys). [97] ‘Long May You Run’ is such a moving song’, people say to me, ‘do you know which great figure from Neil’s past inspired it?’ They look aghast when I tell them it was a car. Not just any car, Neil being Neil, but a hearse. It’s one that played a major role in his life (it’s how two members of the Buffalo Springfield spotted him and Bruce Palmer and flagged him down and started a band) and was perfect for a young musicians trying to transport instruments instead of bodies. It was a sad day for him when the engine died – and the life-essence left his car – hence the song. Neil doesn’t just do this for cars though – another passion in his life is trains and [262] ‘Train Of Love’ is Neil’s take on how we all have a ticket on the love express (if not quite as hippie as that description makes it sound!) Maybe even robots have this power, with ‘Trans’ a whole (well, two-thirds) of an album about what might happen if robots suddenly realise what this life-spark is and try to use it. Far from being an artificial world full of artificial men, Neil depicts robots and machines as envying humans for that spark they don’t possess themselves. [151] ‘Transformer Man’ especially is about this very act of giving birth to life, which is given now at a ‘push of a button’ as man tries to replicate Godliness. The narrator even gets the feeling from humans, as they ‘electrify’ him/her/it every time they look in a person’s eyes and feel that essence and spark of life they cannot have.  As much as computers control the way we live, they cannot live the way we can.
However mostly Neil finds this sense in nature, the closest he can come to describi9ng where this force comes from: it just is, it’s always been there. [239] ‘Mother Earth’ most obviously is Neil’s hymn to what nature can provide for us mortals, the source of that great mysterious something for all of us. Neil worries that this source may be extinguished for good if we’re not careful and we’ll lose our life essence as a species (well sort of, it’s a very odd song once you analyse it). [246] ‘War Of Man’ too is about this disturbance as mankind ignores the essence that gave him life and try to kill it – ‘no one wins’ at a time like this. [320] ‘Be The Rain’, the least loopiest song off ‘Greendale’, is also saying this (I think). If mankind is to restore his planet back to health and re-connect with that spark then we desperately need to go back to our roots and find that source again, recognise for what it is and worship it – and if that makes him a ‘pagan’, a few thousand years out of date, then so be it.
Instead the only other semi-reliable source of this gift of something ‘other’ is from good old rock and roll, the best place for humans to conjure up that primal spark themselves and give it a life outside themselves. Many fans will tell you how primal it feels to be standing a few feet away from Neil utterly in the moment and tapping into…something during one of his ‘on it’ shows, as if he’s connecting us in too. Neil counts out the girls he’s loved via the music that turned him on and gave him this gift in [243] ‘From Hank To Hendrix’. He triumphantly sings that ‘rock and roll is here to stay’ and ‘rock and roll will never die’ in the two [122/130] ‘Hey Hey My Mys’. [328] ‘This Old Guitar’ also has Neil realising that he’s just inherited the spark that makes music from something he can’t see and will be passing it on one day. However even this source isn’t permanent and often lets him down: [189] ‘Hippie Dream’ and [273] ‘Peace and Love’ are both diatribes about how the spark in music can die, relating this to David Crosby’s drug intake and John Lennon’s assassination. However that’s only when the people making music get in the way of the music itself. For the most part you sense Neil chose this medium because it’s the best way of chasing that source of magic, that spark and essence, that every guitar solo he plays and every lyric he sings is a chance to chase it anew. Far from being [202] ‘Prisoners Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ it’s the rock and roll that sets him free.
Finally [249] ‘No Hidden Path’ is a song I often forget about, even though it’s one of Neil’s longest, buried away as it is near the end of ‘Chrome Dreams II’. However it’s a good one to end on as it ties together several of these themes: Neil tells us how he feels when he senses this mysterious life force while he’s out walking in nature. He’s gone out to think, to walk under some ‘tall trees’ and to try to write music – feeling that he only can when he’s in nature. Instead he feels a ‘cool wind’ that seems to blow from a whole other world and reminds him that he’s ‘missing a friend’ whose gone over to the other side. Neil is confused in his love life, unsure where the spark is anymore (this is peak crossover time from Pegi to Darryl) and urges the light to show him the right path out of this darkness and into the day, promising to follow as he ‘holds on to the threads of time’. He sets off to discover what this mysterious life-force is one last time, accompanied by a wail from guitar ‘old black’ that very much sounds as if he’s found it. And if that isn’t the most Neil Young song ever, I’ll eat my Buffalo Springfield fringe jacket!
Above all, Neil listens to the wind of his soul – and where he’ll end up only he really knows. He’s used the changing solar winds inside his head as the impulse to do everything he does – to chase the girls and women who offer him this inscrutable beauty, the genres of music that best relate to the music playing through his head that changes with the wind and the career chapters that violently cut from one thing to another. Neil remains the maverick he is because that wind always comes first – over friendships, over relationships, even sometimes over the music he would have been better off making (albums like ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and ‘Greendale’ are wilfully following the wind at the exclusion of anything any other person would do). Unlike Stephen Stills, who ended up exhausted and worn out by trying to tame the wind that ran through his restless soul when all he really wanted was stability, Neil still chases it – he’s virtually the only ‘old-timer’ whose still as active as he ever was in his youth, partly because he still really wants to know where this musical wind is and where it will take him. It’s a mystery this game that commences, for the usual fee (plus expenses). And that really is it, dear reader, our last original article (with just a few odds and ends to go after this). Thankyou for reading – and being my unseen celestial force that’s kept me going all these years. Enjoy the books as they come out! And I’m sure we’ll meet again somewhere along the lumpy, bumpy long and dusty road. Aloha Nui! 

Other Neil Young related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Neil Young' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/neil-young-1968-album-review.html
'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/neil-young-and-crazy-horse-everybody.html
‘After The Goldrush’ (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/neil-young-after-goldrush-1970.html?utm_source=BP_recent
'Harvest' (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/neil-young-harvest-1972.html

'Time Fades Away' (1973)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/neil-young-time-fades-away-1973.html
'On The Beach' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/neil-young-on-beach-1974.html
'Zuma' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/neil-young-and-crazy-horse-zuma-1975.html

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/news-views-and-music-issue-70-neil.html

'Comes A Time' (1978)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/news-views-and-music-issue-29-neil.html
'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2014/01/neil-young-rust-never-sleeps-1979-album.html

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/news-views-and-music-issue-26-neil.html
'RelAclTor' (1981) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/neil-young-and-crazy-horse-re-ac-tor.html

'Trans' (1982)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-84-neil-young-trans-1982.html
'Everybody's Rockin' (1983) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/01/neil-young-everybodys-rockin-1983.html
'Old Ways' (1985) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/10/neil-young-old-ways-1985.html

‘Landing On Water’ (1986) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/neil-young-landing-on-water-1986.html
‘This Note’s For You’ (1988) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/neil-young-this-notes-for-you-1988.html

'Freedom' (1988)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-92-neil-young-freedom-1988.html
'Ragged Glory' (1990) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/neil-young-and-crazy-horse-ragged-glory.html

'Weld' (1991)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-95-neil-young-weld-1991.html
'Harvest Moon' (1992) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/neil-young-harvest-moon-1992.html

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/news-views-and-music-issue-121-neil.html

'Mirror Ball' (1995)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/news-views-and-music-issue-103-neil.html
‘Silver and Gold’ (2000) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/neil-young-silver-and-gold-2000.html
‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/neil-young-and-mgs-are-you-passionate.html
'Greendale' (2003) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/neil-young-and-crazy-horse-greendale.html

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)  
http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/neil-young-prairie-wind-2005.html
‘Living With War’ (2006) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/neil-young-living-with-war-2006.html
‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/neil-young-chrome-dreams-two-2007.html
'Fork In The Road' (2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/neil-young-fork-in-road-2009.html

'Le Noise' (2011)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-94-neil.html

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/news-views-and-music-issue-147-neil.html
'Storytone' (2014) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/neil-young-storytone-2014.html
'The Monsanto Years' (2015) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/neil-young-and-promise-of-real-monsanto.html
Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/neil-young-livecompilationarchivecrazy.html
Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/neil-young-livecompilationarchivecrazy_18.html
Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016
https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/neil-young-surviving-tv-clips-1970-2016.html


The Searchers: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important. Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! The Searchers are one of our harder working bands, only now in the coming year about to enjoy a well earned retirement with news of a final tour ending in March 2019. Though it’s been thirty years since they last made a record, The Searchers have been touring regularly before and since then, with some two hundred odd shows a year adding up to several thousand concerts now. Here are a few of them – though we’ve kept this entry down to four parts this week so we can return and fill in the ‘last’ gig when we get the chance!

1)  Where: Litherland Town Hall, Liverpool When: February 10th 1960 Why: First Gig Setlist: Unknown

Though the 1960 date seems early enough anyway, The Searchers had been going in some form since 1957 when a teenage John McNally started a skiffle group at school before adding Mike Pender, Tony Jackson and Chris Curtis. The gig we’ve listed here is the first to be played under ‘The Searchers’ name and which featured all four ‘founding’ Searchers – along with their then lead vocalist Johnny Sandon, who back then took billing on all the early posters. It’s a sign, though, of how respected the just-named Searchers were and what a following they had that they were booked to play Litherland Town Hall on their first gig rather than a local club. Their setlist has been lost in the mists of time but was likely to include a similar setlist to what was recorded in 1963 as ‘The Iron Door Club Sessions’ : [8] ‘Let’s Stomp’ [9] ‘Ain’t That Just Like Me’ and [2] ‘Jambalaya’ were all early favourites, along with [44] ‘What’d I Say?’ and a Chris Curtis sung version of ‘I Who Have Nothing’. How did it go down? We don’t really know – nobody seems to have reviewed the gig and unlike some bands who still have clear memories of their first gig decades on The Searchers have never really talked about it.

2)  Where: Royal Aquarium Theatre, Great Yarmouth When: August 2nd 1964 Why: Last Gig With Tony Setlist: [53] Needles and Pins [13] Love Potion no 9 [23] Sugar and Spice [59] Don’t Throw Your Love Away [11] Sweets For My Sweet (sample setlist from July)
The year 1963 saw a breakthrough for The Searchers. By now the ‘house band’ at Dingle’s ‘Iron Door Club’, the band had lost Johnny Sandon but gained a real following, a record contract and two number one hit singles. Touring Britain a number of times that year, it looked as if 1964 was going to be another big year, but disagreements and discontent in the band hurt The Searchers in 1964 and by the Summer Tony Jackson was on his way out, singing just one lead vocal on third LP ‘It’s The Searchers’ and packing up his bass for good after this otherwise non-descript gig in Greater Yarmouth. Speculation still flies around as to why Tony quit when he did (or was he pushed?) Curtis was always adamant that he never liked Tony and wanted ‘Black Jake’ out of the band from the first, but he’d been a favourite with labelmasters Pye and as lead singer on their two number one hit singles his spot in the band seemed secure. It was only once ‘Needles’ became a hit with Pender on lead that the Searchers’ driving force of a drummer realised that there could be a future without him. Jackson’s drinking was also getting out of hand, as were his wild rages and it may be that the rest of the band were trying to ‘shock’ him back to normality with the threat of kicking him out the band – which he then took up, forming his own band ‘The Vibrations’ soon afterwards. It may be too that Jackson’s high pop falsetto was such a popular sound of 1963 that in the quickly changing world of popular music it was deeply out of fashion by 1964. What’s interesting is that this setlist (technically from two weeks earlier as nobody seems to know what was really played at that final gig with Tony) is still quite heavy on Jackson songs, as if both sides are still in denial about the split. Tony would have sang lead on three songs out of five as part of this concert package tour and the setlist changed a great deal by the time Frank Allen officially joined the band for the start of another tour (note: Frank's first gig as a Searcher came just a day later at a show in Coventry, with thanks to drummer Scott Ottoway and reader Nigel Dean for adding this info). For this show onwards the ‘Tony’ songs removed and replaced by two tracks that never appeared on album, [83] ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ and [84] ‘Memphis Tennessee’ plus the latest Searcher single [74] ‘Someday We’re Gonna Love Again’).
3)  Where: Perth, Australia When: March 3rd 1966 Why: Last Gig With Chris Setlist: Unknown
It’s less of a mystery, though just as controversial, why Chris in turn got pushed out of the band that he had become almost single-handedly in charge of by 1966. Chris suffered something of a nervous breakdown in this period, playing with an unhappy band who were sliding down the charts on a weary tour down under that lasted weeks and found the band physically as far away from ‘home’ as it’s possible to get. It didn’t help that the band were on a support bill again, having dropped from their position at the top of the bill, and underneath another ‘failed’ act too in P J Proby (the two acts have met up since and in a role reversal Proby got his part in the recent ‘Solid Silver Sixties’ tour partly on the back of Frank Allen’s nomination). Taking an increasing number of pills to get him through the gigs Chris was ‘unstable’, having manic episodes that led to the rest of the band flushing his pills down a hotel loo to try to shake him out of it – this only made Curtis more defensive and bitter. From his point of view he thought The Searchers were dead – they had released their fifth and last album for Pye at the end of 1965 (delayed from the Summer to appeal to the ‘festive market’) and their singles had been noble failures for much of the past year. The music world had moved on from the ‘Merseybeat’ sound so identified with The Searchers and yet wouldn’t ‘allow’ them to push into folk-rock (their dominant sound of 1965) or a growing interest in psychedelia. Curtis, feeling that he’d let the band down with his choice of singles ([101] ‘When I Get Home’, his first original A-side especially) and desperate to keep having hits with someone, anyone, was torn between letting the band he’d done so much for down and having a last gasp of a chance doing something else. In the end his health rather decided for him and many people assumed that this would spell the end for The Searchers, given that Chris was a focal point of the band in terms of material and direction. Instead they bounced back with a new, much heavier-sounding drummer John Blunt as early as early as nine days later with a performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall. From this point on its Frank who will end up being the ‘showman Searcher’ making most of the announcements and being the band’s biggest cheerleader, a role he still plays to this day.
4)  Where: London When: December 1985 Why: Last Gig With Mike Setlist: Unknown
Almost as big a shock came nineteen years later when Mike decided that the clock was ticking and he wanted to try and make it as a solo artist (his band’s response? ‘A solo artist? He was forty-sodding-three!’) By now Mike had become the band’s lead singer following his ‘breakthrough’ on [53] ‘Needles and Pins’ and had sung the main part on a good 80% of the band’s material. The loss of the band’s record contract with Sire (when they were booked to make a third album before the label got swallowed up during a takeover) really hit him hard; he’d held on for years in the hope that The Searchers would get to make more records one day and the loss of this chance and the prospect of another lengthy wait was too much. With so many Searchers gigs booked across 1984 and 1985 he agreed to see out the end of the tour and then agree to go their separate ways. He also came back for a final special show in London three months after his last ‘regular’ gig with the band. Unfortunately no label was interested in Mike as a solo singer and the only job he could get was putting his own version of The Searchers together, effectively competing in an already shrinking market with his old band which left more bad blood than the last two splits combined. The other Searchers were having too much fun to stop and after a lot of deliberation chose Spencer James as their new lead vocalist, with his first gig coming nine months later as part of the aptly named gig ‘The Greatest Blues, Soul and Rock and Roll Revival Ever!’ Revival is, it seems, the word for The Searchers who have survived four major upheavals in their lifetime (including Johnny Sandon’s) and yet still come out fighting. Alas the stroke suffered by final founding member John McNally in 2017 looks as if it will spell the start of a final chapter for the band, with one final lengthy ‘farewell’ gig due for the end of 2018 into 2019.
*Note that entry number five will be added in due course when the very final Searchers gig takes place*


That passing on of the musical baton works the other way too. Back in the mid 1960s everybody was covering Beatle songs, but more than a few hip bands began to cover their rivals instead including some fascinating versions of Searcher songs./ Then The Searchers became an even bigger cult for the new wave crowd, in the era of chiming ringing guitars and they became darlings to a whole new generation. For this section we’ve stuck to original songs that The Searchers wrote, plus one song that became a big hit only after they had done it (reclaimed by the song’s authors!), although by far the two most covered songs ‘originated’ by The Searchers remain, of course, ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ and ‘Sugar and Spice’.
1)  [89] Too Many Miles (The Steel Chords, B-side 1966)
The Steel Chords are a Norwegian group who began their career in 1961 covering Shadows instrumentals before switching their sound when The Beatles became big. The fab four, though, would have been proud of the way they always refused to cover the obvious songs the way their peers were doing and the way they always looked for obscure gems to re-work for their audience. One of their more successful covers is this sweet Searchers original, originally recorded for their last (and best) 1960s LP ‘Take Me For What I’m Worth’, which means that they must be about the only four people in the world to own a copy of this deeply rare but beautiful album except me! I always thought The Searchers’ version was a great song looking for a good home, with an ugly folk riff pasted in on top and a country-rockish lilt that didn’t suit them one bit. What they were really waiting for was psychedelia – and that’s what The Steel Chords have discovered a year on. Though the band struggle with the English pronunciation sometimes (‘Miles’ is not an easy word to sing), their backing is better, switching the flute riff to a mellotron and replacing the country tones with a lovely bass-drum interplay. Sadly this song was only ever released as a flipside; evidence that they really did own a copy of the Searchers’ fifth album comes in what the Aside was: a rollicking version of  Fats Domino’s  [85] ‘I’m Ready’, which owes a lot to the Searchers’ arrangement (but with a Farfisa Organ where the guitars should be!) It can be found on the various artists set ‘Beat and Piggtrad’, while The Steel Chords are themselves still going as of 2018 with a facebook group detailing their latest tour. 
2)  [98] Til’ I Met You (Samuel Hui, ‘Time Of The Season’ 1976)
Hong Kong star Sam Hui must have had an even bigger collection of rare Merseybeat records to know about this exquisite flipside, one of the best things The Searchers ever did. The originator of ‘Cantopop’, Hui was pretty much on his own mixing local influences with the 1960s Western records he loved and this song is one of his best ideas at uniting the two. The Searchers’ original was acoustic, gentle and soft, but this arrangement plays with power and panache, adding a thick heavy sound that suits it really well. This version of the song seems more hopeless and desperate somehow, each verse punctuated by a drum roll and a sense of claustrophobia despite the happy words. The usual ‘Cantonese’ echo on the voice, too, is an odd touch but a lovely one once you get used to it, making this piece sound the way it would have done with the ‘Spector’ wall of sound heard on that fifth Searchers LP.
3) [  ] Hearts In Her Eyes (The Records, A-Side 1980)
You don’t get much more cult than new wave favourites ‘The Records’ who released four very well regarded and loved records in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While they often spoke in period journals about their twin influences being The Beatles and The Kinks (what excellent taste!) I always felt that they owed much more to The Searchers: the jangling guitar, the stiff upper lip hiding real emotion, the harmonies…they could easily have come out of the 1960s had it not been for some of the production sound they used. They were certainly fans enough to provide this song to the band’s little-known reunion album in 1980. The Searchers fell in love with this little tune (did they hear a demo? Or is this the demo?) before the single inevitably became a flop and The Records ‘borrowed’ it back again. There aren’t that many differences: lead singer and co-author John Wicks sounds as if he’s on some hazy drug I guess (whereas Mike Pender sounds drunk!) so that The Records are more detached than The Searchers, that’s about all! The song became one of The Records’ biggest hits – indeed one of their only hits – proving that you can’t keep a good idea down.

Other Searchers related articles from this website for you to peruse: 


'It's The Searchers' (1964) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/its-searchers-1964.html
‘Sounds Like Searchers’ (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-searchers-sounds-like-searchers-1965.html

'Take Me For What I'm Worth' (1965)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-5-searchers-take-me-for-what-im.html
'The Searchers' (1979/1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/the-searchers-19791980.html

'Play For Today' aka 'Love's Melodies' (1981) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/the-searchers-play-for-today-aka-loves.html
‘Hungry Hearts’ (1988) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/the-searchers-hungry-hearts-1989.html

Surviving TV Clips  and The Best Unreleased Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-searchers-surviving-tv-clips-1963.html
Solo Recordings 1964-1967 and 1984
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-searchers-solo-recordings-1964-1967.html
Non-Album Recordings Part One 1963-1967
 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-searchers-non-album-recordings-part.html  
Non-Album Recordings Part Two  1968-2012
Live/Solo/Compilation/US LPs/’Re-Recordings In Stereo’ Part One: 1964-1987 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/the-searchers-livesolocompilationus.html

Live/Solo/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two:  1990-2014 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/the-beach-boys-15-big-ones-1976.html