Monday, 23 May 2016
Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Greendale" (2003)
Falling From Above/Double E/Devil's Sidewalk/Leave The Driving/Carmichael/Bandit/Grandpa's Interview/Bringin' Down Dinner/Sun Green/Be The Rain
"No one could explain it - it just got great reviews" or "Hey Mr Clean, you're dirty now too!"
Dear AAA readers, I am - so I like to think at least - a patient man. I've covered most of Art Garfunkel's solo albums and found something different to say about them even though they sound largely the same, I've sat through Moody Blues reunion albums while barely flinching and I coped with the Neil Young Geffen years of the 1980s with only two nervous breakdowns (so far!) Most of the AAA records usually have something going for them even if it's just a quirky album cover, an under-rated two minute closing track or a brief harmonica solo; if there's something to get excited about then, by golly, I'll be there waving my flag about how brilliant one of my favourite bands is, even if it's one of their least spectacular records. One of our mantras, alongside 'why be compact if you can bore the pants off everybody' and 'why listen to The Spice Girls when you can just put The Beatles on repeat', is that you can learn almost as much from an artist's bad records as from their good: why they are the way they are, what they were thinking at a particular time and why their good records are so good in comparison.
And then there are albums like 'Greendale' where most attempts to be honest about describing what I think include copious swear words and lots of exclamation marks at the end of each sentence!!! To be fair, every music fan (and especially every Neil fan it seems) has a different idea of what works well and what doesn't: there are fans out there who love 'Harvest' above everything else, adore 'Everybody's Rockin' and reckon the last twenty years have been Neil in the middle of a purple patch rather than filling in time and releasing records for the hell of it, which is what a lot of his recent albums have sounded like to me. Many of them also love 'Greendale', which is certainly one of Neil's more divisive albums down the years; more than a handful reckon it's his best which makes me wonder whether a) I'm missing something in an album sense or b) whether I'm missing something other fans have been smoking and not told me about. For me (and as always I'm up for a debate here) there's just nothing to get your teeth into, which is unusual for Crazy Horse records especially: my 'perfect' Neil Young album is varied and musically interesting, like 1989's 'Freedom'; this one isn't. My 'other perfect' Neil Young album, 'Trans', is groundbreaking; this one certainly isn't. My finally 'perfect' Neil Young album is the emotionally powerful 'Tonight's The Night', as real an album as any you could ever hear; this one isn't real at all. You see, while I loved 'Tonight's The Night', every since repeated attempt of Neil at his 'first thought, best thought, only thought' syndrome of making a record has resulted in slim pickings: I'm all for raw on-the-edge recordings if they're exciting or nakedly vulnerable and autobiographical; but 'Greendale', the most 'barely thought' out album of Neil's career, is neither. It is, you see, a concept album largely written by Neil on his way to the recording studios he had booked just to see if inspiration will come (if they ever write a law about no driving and songwriting at the same time, Neil's in trouble). Neil being Neil, his memory isn't great so he ends up writing the same song he wrote yesterday every single day. Some fans love the repetitiveness and a chance to get fully into this lengthy 78 minute album (Neil's longest studio album right up until 2012's 'Psychedelic Pill'); me, I'd had enough by track one and it didn't get any easier after that.
Worse yet, there's nothing of the real deal Neil in this album which is a rare full concept album not involving his own (usually charming) point of view at all. Instead, 'Greendale' is a soap opera. Now, I love soap operas about as much as I love The Spice Girls and for similar reasons; both are artificial and false, have no bearing on anyone's real life (though people pretend that they do) and exaggerate and warp everything that's real about the human condition. They're pretty boring too when you could be watching something else (like, say, The Monkees' TV series and spin-offs; see last week's accompanying article). 'Greendale', sadly, is one of the worst soap operas. Thanks partly to Neil's mumbled delivery but also the album's off-putting repetitive nature, you never feel like you get to know the characters very well, or want to given the snatches you do hear. The second song, for instance, spends a whole five minutes talking about how the 'star' Earl Green changes the original name of his house from 'The Double L' to 'The Double E' by painting two extra lines over the 'L'. Gripping stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. Later Jed, Earl's brother, shoots a policeman named Officer Carmichael - a lot more exciting, but we never find out why - which would have been a more interesting development than an imaginary sequence where the devil plagues the imaginary town. We also meet 18 or 19-year-old (even Neil can't decide and he invented her) Sun Green, who gets tired of nobody doing anything so starts protesting - not the fact her uncle has just killed a policeman but at the ecological state of the world. The FBI (played by Billy Talbot) trash her room in protest - and one of them even kicked her cat. She ends the album 'busted for pot' but the charges got dropped. Then there's curmudgeonly old Grandpa, who gets all the best lines but dies halfway through the piece. This dysfunctional family make for a most dysfunctional album where you're not quite sure who you're meant to be agreeing or sympathising with; though it's typically Neil to spend more time mourning the assassin than the victim Earl is a sketchy character who doesn't get much real air time and Sun Green sounds like she's spent more time thinking how good it would be to protest something than what it is she's upset about. Proof that this is more soap opera that traditional concept album comes from the fact that the different plot strands never really meet up anywhere. The best defined character is the cat.
'Greendale' is clearly meant to be an 'everytown' in roughly the modern era, but it doesn't always feel like it being part ghost-town memory and part rambling that-would-never-happen imagination.
According to Wikipedia it's set in California, though there's no mention of the fact in song. In years past Neil used to build whole civilisations for a single song, but here 'Greendale' never feels quite 'real' somehow. Neil's rambling sleevenotes (taken, so it seems, from equally rambling song introductions when playing this album live), calls the place a town of 20-25,000 inhabitants full of mountains, farms and an ocean with quirks and admits 'There's a lot going on in Greendale that I don't know about. Can you imagine? I mean, I made it up and I don't know what the hell's going on...' Sometimes Neil's imagination can be a wonder to behold: his extended journey as a fish in 'Will To Love' or the feverish acid-drenched 'Old Homestead'. Even across a whole album, though, 'Greendale' feels like it's never existed and never will, while not being imaginative enough to be groundbreaking either. I've never met an Earl or Sun Green and I've definitely never met the devil (or at least, that's not how he introduced himself during his last speech from Downing Street), though I have known a few Grandpa-types it has to be said. Some critics reckoned Neil was a small-town storyteller on a par with John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder; in truth he's more like a third grade English student with too much time on his hands.
I wouldn't mind so much if this record was memorable in ways other than the theme - but it isn't. Or rather there are promising little bits dropped into song (the chorus 'a little love and affection in everything you do will make the world a better place with or without you' on 'Falling From Above', the chorus of 'Be The Rain' featuring Neil's then-wife Pegi and three friends, the low-key snakey acoustic vibe of 'Bandit' which suddenly flowers into falsetto innocent chorus, which is the closest Neil will ever get to rap - we hope) that will somehow get lost behind another curious bit of information we didn't really need: a whole verse of Gramdpa looking for his glasses, half of 'Be The Rain' shouted through an ugly sounding megaphone (which may be relevant to the plot but isn't relevant to the music) or Earl Green on the run taking time out from his nightmare changed life to misquote Bob Dylan lyrics. Other bits recall past songs, which is just lazy writing: 'Grandpa's Interview' is the 'Peace Of Mind' riff from 'Comes A Time', 'Falling From Above' is 'Bar Stool Blues', 'Double E' is - dear God - the ghost of 'Motorcycle Mama' back again and 'Bandit' is 'Music Arcade'. It's like a Neil Young greatest hits, except that it isn't because it's not good enough. It's not as if Neil has forgotten how to write or that he never could write and has been faking all these years; this album just hasn't been given enough time to breathe and the couple of re-writes it needs to shine; it sounds like a bootleg collection of forgotten demos that never got re-written into a proper album or exactly what it is: a man writing songs in a car on the way to the studio as quickly as possible. The thought of re-recording Neil Young albums is a bit of a nonsense when the rough edges are half the fun (although I'd still like to hear a 'posher' 'Le Noise' one day) but 'Greendale desperately deserves more love and attention than the ten minutes each the songs took to write, the ten minutes they took for Crazy Horse to learn them and the ten they took to record, in one take or - in some cases - less.
Well, some fans claim, this isn't as record where you're meant to follow the plot - the important bits aren't what the words tell us but what the music is doing. This is after all a Crazy Horse album: traditionally it's the weight of the sound they play and the hypnotism of the playing that matters. Very infrequently that argument follows, especially in the album's second half when the smoky ten minute lament 'Carmichael' finally drops out of the same-riff fiasco for some lovely slow mournful Young playing, the taunting twelve minute 'Sun Green' which features lots of sizzling solo-ing and the punchy finale 'Be The Rain' where Crazy Horse's bare-bones skeleton is wrapped up by the four-strong female chorus like a gorgeous patterned scarf (though you'll still curse whoever invented the megaphone for the course of both of these last two songs). However, while sections of 'Ragged Glory' 'Broken Arrow' and on their next reunion 'Psychedelic Pill' will feature a handful of songs every bit as lengthy and longwinded as this, 'Greendale' doesn't feature anything else. Once each song locks into a groove, that's pretty much it for up to fifteen minutes and only one song (the forgettable gospel ballad 'Bringin' Home Dinner' with the all-time worst Neil Young vocal, unless you're unlucky enough to own the rare 'Where The Buffalo Roam' soundtrack and have heard our hero strangling 'Home On The Range' multiple times) clocks in at under five minutes. This is an album that cares almost nothing for the listener - which would be fine if Neil cared something for Crazy Horse. But I'm not sure he does: Billy and Ralphy are incredibly under-used, reduced to repeating the same simple patterns over and over when they're capable of so much more than that. Frank Sampedro, meanwhile, isn't on this album at all (sensible chap!), leaving Neil no other guitarist to bounce off: he's the entire colour spectrum on this album, while Ralph and Billy are restricted into being structure, and he's having something of an off-colour day. Especially vocally: Neil's voice is unique in all of rock, caught right on the verge of being deeply annoying and hauntingly fragile and beautiful. When Neil really lives the material he's singing he's as great a vocalist as anybody out there, pretty-ness be damned; but here he's narrating not singing and there's a reason Neil didn't become a TV presenter and panel show member like his mum and his grandma: his voice gets monotonous when speaking for too long.
What we have, then, is an almost unmitigated disaster. Boring songs about boring people played by a band who are usually anything but boring but aren't allowed to be their best here, performing unknown songs simply, while even the best bits sound like earlier Neil Young songs, whether from earlier albums or earlier tracks from this same record. As interesting an exercise as it may have been for Neil to write an album in ten days, it would have been more interesting yet if Neil had taken longer, worked out where he was going and just who exactly he was going there with. Admittedly I'm a fan from the CSNY 'polished' side of the spectrum, but I fully get when Neil feels the need to be raw: 'Tonight's The Night' would have been stupid with strings for instance, 'Ragged Glory' wouldn't have been ragged or glorious with overdubs and rust creeps in faster during re-takes; I get that. In many ways I look forward to Neil's sparser albums more than the polished ones these days. But 'Greendale' isn't meant to be that kind of an album: it is, at least on paper, a colourful album about a colourful family leading a colourful life (too colourful to be real in many cases, but never mind). But Neil the album producer/film director seems to have it in his head he's shooting a film noir and considering the album's called 'Greendale' it's odd how much of it feels like it's in black-and-white. There are, as always, moments when the album seems to be working - when Sun Green takes up her megaphone, when Grandpa stops talking about the bad old days when kids had nothing and searching for his glasses and actually gets on with being a human being instead of a walking/hobbling stereotype or when Neil suddenly remembers that these songs are going on for eleven minutes and he ought to bung in a chorus occasionally. But somehow, regrettably, you wind up at album's end with no idea what you've been listening to and what it all means and it feels like a waste of your time when you could be listening to a different Neil Young album that actually matters.
In fact it feels like watching a soap opera: no Earl shouldn't have shot Carmichael. Yes Sun Green has a right to be mad at the way the planet's being exploited, though snarling through a mega-phone at fellow Greendalers who think the same when she should be aiming her protest at people who can do something about it is probably not the way to go. Yes it's sad when Grandpa dies and leaves Grandma home alone, but it's sad when anyone dies: simply saying that without giving us any reasons why these characters are special doesn't teach us anything we ought to know. And if there's nothing to learn from Greendale and it ain't all that to listen to because the plot keeps getting in the way of the music, what is the point in any of this? Why didn't this album end up one of Neil's lost ones like 'Chrome Dreams' or 'Homegrown'? Why couldn't we have had those records instead? Why couldn't Neil have simply listened to the radio on his car up to the studio, admitted to Crazy Horse he didn't have any songs and three old friends could have spent their time messing around and jamming some oldies for fun instead. 'Greendale' is not my favourite place to visit then - and it sounds way too painful to live there, what with bandits, devils and irritating teenagers shouting obscenities through mega-phones. There aren't many Neil Young albums I don't like and many that I love'; 'Greendale' is an under-baked, under-written, under-arranged, under-considered concept album that's 'important' in Neil's oeuvre only because it's unique and nobody else has ever made an album like this one for several very good reasons.
There is, apparently, a film which I've only seen enough of to go 'dear God - this is worse!' in which Neil's long-term sideman Ben Keith (whose not on the album) makes one last golden cameo playing the part of 'Grandpa', confusingly miming to Neil's voice from the record. He's great, but the songs are still hopeless and so little happens in any of them that a good half of the film consists of an old man pontificating from a chair, which may well be your idea of fun but isn't mine. As if that wasn't enough, there was even a comic book in the works at one stage - last reported in 2007 and thankfully seemingly dropped - just in case you don't know what an FBI informant kicking a cat or an old man losing his glasses looks like. What next? A musical? An opera? A ballet? A 'Greendale Babies' spin-off animated series? (No don't be silly, this is Neil Young not Pete Townshend and 'Tommy'/'Quadrophenia'!)
Oh and just a thought, isn't it a bit lucky that the Green family live in Greendale of all places? That's like everyone called 'Lon' living in London, all the Little Misses from Mr Men Land living in Mississippi and David Cameron's constituency moving to Rockall-Doing. And surely someone connected to Neil must have known about the fact that Greendale already exists? (It's where UK children's character Postman Pat Clifton lives - he also has a cat, funnily enough, although she's generally kicked by accident by Mrs Goggins at the post office, not the FBI, unless there's a darker-than-normal story I missed somewhere - as created by fellow St Martin's, Carlisle almunus John Cunliffe; hey he's the only famous graduate we've got so we're going to keep mentioning him when we can!)
We start our little journey through goodness knows what with 'Falling From Above'. This track starts like it's going to be a good one, with a lovely opening 30 second swirl of Young guitar that sounds like a more tender 'Cortez The Killer'. And then the drunken-sounding vocals come in. Grandpa's been talking to Jed about the fact that he never wants to retire 'but I might re-tread'. That 'joke' is, believe it or not, the best on the album, followed by the head-scratching Grandpa Granola philosophy 'when I was young people wore what they had on'. The second verse, ostensibly Grandpa listening to the radio, hints at where Neil's going with this as the characters wonder 'Seems like this guy singing this song has been doin' it for a long time - is there anything he already knows that he ain't said?' No seems to be the answer, which is why the next few minutes involve his grand-daughter Sun looking for Grandpa's glasses while 'a rooster crows on the Double E'. There is, to be fair, the best verse on the album and the best Neil's written for a while as he goes all Bob Dylan and imagines 'a hero and artist comparing goals for the 21st century' but 'they came up with nothing, so the human race 'just kept rolling on'. There's a real sense of directionless across this meandering song, punctuated by the catchiest chorus on the album, that 'a little love and affection in everything you do' will brighten the world. Musically this is a less interesting song, simply a backdrop for Neil to narrate his obscure lyrics to, but Ralph's thick heavy drum sound is a delight and Neil's keening harmonica says far more about Grandpa's nostalgia and gentle frustration than any amount of lyrics ever could. If the rest of the album could have been up to this standard, I'd have been pushing for a second series of 'Greendale' although it still doesn't quite come off.
'Double E' though is pretty bad. A crunchy grungy 12 bar blues that only settles down into a proper tune when Neil turns the page into a minor key. The song is yet another example of Neil's obsession with dancing young females full of the joys of life - Sun Green, though, is based not on a girlfriend but surely on his daughter Amber Jean whose already featured heavily in her dad's previous album 'Are You Passionate?' as both her parents struggle to come to terms with the fact that she wants to leave home. The idea behind the song is that the whole Green family are all revolutionaries in their own way, but that only Sun's generation has the ability to express themselves freely: her mum Edith and Dad Earl got hell from the locals just from changing the name of the house. Suddenly Grandpa's died and Grandma's pining for him, wearing bright colours to cheer her up (it doesn't work) and her memory issues causing her to still think it's 'the summer of love' even though she has no one to love anymore. This weird, time-jumping song is simultaneously a flash-back and a flash-forward but there's not enough happening to explain the characters or make us feel anything for them much other than explaining how much of a pain local politics can be ('Change comes slow in the country' sings ranch-holder Neil, apparently from his own experience, 'When you're new there's a lot of mistrust'). Musically this track also sounds like a quick boogie thrown together to give Neil something to 'sing' the narration too and the performance is pretty dreadful, too slow to be interesting but too fast to be pretty and it sounds like its causing Ralph real problems to stay awake on the drums. At five minutes with no real change across the song this is also simply far too long.
'Devil's Sidewalk' sounds like we're finally getting somewhere, with a funky 'World On A String' type guitar riff and the first appearance of that female chorus singing 'Greendale!' at key moments in the song. However that's all the song does, sitting there for verse after verse about goodness knows what. Well, to be specific, goodness knows this: an un-named captain, now on land, still 'tries to stay afloat' in a metaphorical garden with a million metaphorical weeds, feeling sorry for himself (leading to the unlikely line 'If you stood in my shoes your eyes would be glazed!') The sleevenotes point out that the dock he made his home for so many years is being up-rooted and destroyed, but good luck working that out from the actual lyrics. Neil gets fed up and - figuring he might as well admit he's stolen the riff to The Beatles' 'Come Together', which was itself stolen from Chuck Berry's 'You Can't Catch Me' - tells us 'all I can tell you is you got to be free; John Lennon said that!' However unlike his similar steal of The Rolling Stones' 'Lady Jane' on 'Borrowed Tune', there's no reason for it here; Neil's not too 'wasted' or miserable to come up with his own, he's simply copping bits for the hell of it because he's never sounded so uninspired. I'm not at all sure what the final two verses mean either, as the Captain, trying to keep out the metaphorical devil of temptation walks past singing children and tolling church bells and feels nothing, though he is moved by the red glow of a furnace. Is this the sound of a man, drowning in his own problems, turning his back on heaven and turning to the dark side? Only a brief blustering harmonica part blows the cobwebs away on a song that feels like it lasts forever, not merely 5:18, weirdly, the exact same time as the last one (is Neil cutting them to measure now?) Oddly Neil's sleevenotes tell us 'Satan's in every town - in this one he lives in the jail', but we never get a mention of a jail in the lyrics.
As if that wasn't enough, 'Leave The Driving' is the same sodding song! Well, maybe it's a touch slower and lighter but to most intents and purposes this is the same riff played with the same gung-ho attack. At last something happens as, Neil's sleevenotes tell us about 'how one stupid move can change your life forever'. Jed has killed a cop who pulled him over - for 'speeding and no brake lights' apparently, which is a bit of a shame as he's got a tone of drugs in the back (which apparently smell even in the main part of the car enough for the cop to notice, though the way it's written it could just be Jed's air freshener); this is never mentioned again which is a shame as it would have made for a more interesting song: what got Jed into drugs in the first place? Is it the only way of making money in this hick town? Was he beaten down by peer pressure because everyone was doing it? Is it medicinal; for Grandpa? Neil had a real chance here to put his views about the law and drugs out into the open (it's varied in other songs but traditionally Neil's been anti, especially after seeing what it did to Crosby, though partly because of so many bad episodes mixing his epilepsy with drugs - see the Stills-Young Band's 'Fontainebleau' for more!) You get really sick of this same riff after twelve minutes of it now and Neil's lyric writing is at its worst here as he drops the idea of writing about character entirely and describes the scene in all its clumsy detail: 'flashlight' rhymes with 'right', 'tell' rhymes with 'cell', 'wall' rhymes with 'at all', 'Hours' rhyme with 'no one could believe it - Jed was one of ours' and the whole thing sounds like a songwriter's first ever attempt at writing a song and getting thoughts down on paper, not a writer used to making his work sing with metaphor and illusion. Oh and 'trigger' and 'blunder', which doesn't even try to rhyme. You can tell that Neil didn't have a long journey into work when he wrote this one. And yet the odd detail really works: Jed doesn't see the world in slow motion, he realises how things will be now and how primitive and limited his life inside a prison cell will be, the 'sound of the future' on 'a worn out '78' (an early example of Neil's obsession with analogue technology that'll appear in nearly every album after this one). Grandpa's shock is also cleverly handled: instead of a sermon or a row, he sighs that he's got too 'old' - that 'the more time you spend on Earth the more you see unfold', his understanding of the world blown in half. However the final verse is probably closer to the truth of what this song has meant to do, Neil cackling that 'some people can take pure bullshit and turn it into pure gold!' Yeah, thanks for that, Neil, we don't have to keep buying these albums you know...
Next up is the soliloquy for the killed cop with 'Carmichael', a song named after him. Naggingly familiar as the tune is (think every song on 'Sleeps With Angels' stuck together!), at least it's a stronger one this time and the slower tempo makes for a nice change. Unfortunately this song of tragedy is again clumsily handled lyrically and is hardly 'Driveby' or 'Tired Eyes', songs where Neil maps out the entire sorrowful scene in just a few words. Carmichael's widow's best friend wonders whether to let on about something the cop was up to (he seems to have been involved in something far more corrupt than Jed ever was!) His widow seems to be onto something herself though and feels slightly sick when all his fellow officers turn up to declare her husband 'a credit to the force'. 'It's not worth it to spend much time on him' says Neil in his sleevenotes' because he doesn't have a future' - but sadly there's nothing much here about his past either, with some truly awful lines. Admittedly this is meant to be 'real' people at a eulogy, awkwardly working out what to say, but still it's pretty bad: 'Carmichael was a credit to the force with everything he did, now it feels like there's a big hole in our side where he fit'. Hmm, I can't see that one ending up in a greetings card anytime soon. Here's the widow's grand total summary of their memories: 'Remember 'Hey Mr Las Vegas', you used to be so cool! We met Wayne Newton down at the beach and you acted like a fool!' If that was my epitaph my ghost would not be happy! Only the final verse touches a nerve: the police force carries on as normal, as if nothing had happened, except for the empty space in the car park where Carmichael should have been. Overall, one of the weakest tracks here and at ten and a half minutes ridiculously overlong, with most verses interrupted by some rather simplistic guitar wrestling, a long way down on 'Broken Arrow' and 'Ragged Glory' never mind 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' and 'Zuma'.
'Bandit' is a little better, the only acoustic song on the record which features Neil mumbling to himself as Jed as he 'wraps up dope in a paper bag' and prepares to run away on bail, feeling sorry for himself but also cross with himself too. Jed never does quite work out where to run to, but goes through the options of friends and family anyway. A cheery chorus 'Someday you'll find what you're looking for' just sounds at first like something else to sing to keep him going, thrown away like every line, but something about it sticks in his head and the sweet falsetto chorus suddenly drifts upwards into a lovely golden musical moment that's amongst the prettiest on the record. Jed is 'trying to get through - but not be through' as he tries to live a new life on the run, but the best line ('You're invisible, you got to many secrets!') is a steal from Bob Dylan as Neil is quick to point out ('Like A Rolling Stone' to be exact). Though smaller in scope than the other songs on this album and lacking the Crazy Horse crunch, this may well be the best song on the album - it feels 'real' in a way that the other songs on here often don't, a very human re-action to great tragedy and going on the run, torn between sorrow and dreaming of a better future. Unfortunately it's still not what it might have been: Neil mumbles the lyrics, the main tune is basic bordering on non-existent and the song makes no sense out of context and little within. At least we've got a different riff this time though and the chorus is hauntingly perfect. As for the lyric booklet, the devil escaped from jail long enough to clean Earl's glasses, apparently. As you do.
Thirteen whole minutes of 'Grandpa's Interview' though and you begin to lose any patience you had left. That 'Peace Of Mind' riff is back again, re-cut for a less suitable jagged guitar part behind a similarly chugging and static story about the media grilling Grandpa for his views on Jed. He and Grandma slip out, forgetting the cat, knocking down ornaments as they go. Grandpa has 'no respect' for the media so 'they won't get any of mine' as he declines the invitation that he has a 'duty' to put the record straight '(it ain't my crime!') Neil gets carried away, with a verse that sees Grandpa describe the fact that he hasn't liked any TV series since 'Leave It To Beaver!' Grandpa then collapses, presumably from a heart attack brought on by the extra stress, dying on a copy of the newspaper with the graphic and distorted details of Jed's life juxtaposed against Carmichael's. Neil says in his sleevenotes that Crazy Horse felt really depressed recording this song because Grandpa died - I feel utterly depressed too, but not I don't think for the same reasons. This is an empty, hopeless, pointless song - a ten minute rant about the problems of the press that could have been better handled in a different song couples with an unconvincing three minute death. I don't buy for one minute Neil's line that he 'died a hero - trying to be anonymous'; he could have just refused to answer the door in the first place. Ralph apparently sneaked a look at Neil's lyric sheet and declared 'Grandpa's dead!' in shock, but his death somewhere in this record seemed inevitable, just as these things always are with soap operas. The biggest shock is that Sun Green didn't end up pregnant by her drugged up boyfriend's grandpa's cat whose come back from the dead and is really his aunty or something. As Neil says in a line about someone singing outside - 'Could someone please shut him up? I don't know how the hell he comes up with this stuff!' Thirteen minutes of my life - only one shorter than the Young record on 'Change Your Mind' - I will never get back again.
'Bringin' Down Dinner' is a shorter gospel song that sounds like it ought to be better with a decent tune and a switch to organ. However Neil's vocal is painfully flat and out of tune and the Crazy Horse's boom-chikka backing is wholly unsuitable. Sun Green arrives to tell Grandma that Grandpa has died - she's just making his dinner and wondering why the TV cameras are showing his picture on TV. Despite her curiosity she's too busy telling her what a pretty girl she is ('You should go out now and see the world'). The whole thing sounds like a funeral march as the old nag keeps on talking and won't listen to why her grand-daughter and half the network news teams have just pulled up in her driveway. There's no variation in this song again, which simply repeats the same two chords over and over for three minutes and some more clumsy rhymes where 'vitamins' almost-but-not-quite rhymes with 'vans' and 'see' rhymes, with a certain inevitability, with 'Double E'. Personally I think Grandpa's better off out of it if he doesn't have to listen to songs like this, which even by 'Greendale' standards is woefully poor and under-written. Anyway, somebody eat that dinner quick - it's going cold!
'Sun Green' is better, with a slight feel of danger about it as Neil cranks his guitar up to eleven and Crazy Horse discover a groovy hypnotic beat that makes the song seem much louder and scarier than it should. However even here twelve minutes is way too much, especially when Sun Green decides to protest about...something and sings half the song through a megaphone. Grandpa's death was apparently a catalyst for Sun Green speaking out against media lies, but the worst the press actually did was follow up a murder with a question - Grandpa didn't give them a chance to go away. Sun Green protests outside 'powerco' that 'there's corruption on the highest floor' and then gets all surprised when somebody, you know, tries to stop her. What's odd is that her comments are general, that their hands are 'dirty', which is something that will surprise absolutely nobody over the age of four: usually this sort of vague protest gets ignored, it doesn't end up with FBI informants send round to Sun Green's house to trash the place (and stab her cat when he tries to claw their leg). Billy has a great cameo as the FBI knocking on the door but otherwise this lyric is lumpy in the extreme. Oh and this being a soap opera there's also an unlikely romance and - wouldn't you know it? - Sun Green's new boyfriend is called Earth Brown. Anyone of my generation whose ever had to sit through the 'Roger Red Hat' books at school will begin to wonder if they were actually set in Greendale. Anyway the end result: a false charge of drugs, which gets quietly dropped after being splashed all over the papers. Neil is clearly on Sun's side here ('Mother Earth has many enemies, there's much work to be done!') but Sun Green is a cypher who doesn't seem to act like any normal teenage girl, even hardened eco-warriors. I'm more interested in the poor cat who died in the line of duty. That chorus 'Hey Mr clean, you're dirty now too!' is also repeated so many times it's imprinted into your consciousness for long afterwards - and not in a good way...
At last, after 70 minutes, this soap opera is almost over and I can sense the cliff-hanger music and the end credits arriving. 'Be The Rain' is at least a relatively strong way to end, a charging brittle tune that dances like 'Cinnamon Girl' with the angry denial of 'The Loner', basking in the sunlight of the female chorus. Unfortunately, half of this song is sung through an out of tune megaphone too, while Neil's as-live vocal is mumbled into his shoes. Lyrically it's 'Mother Earth' and 'Natural Beauty' all over again, a vague ecological protest that tries to urge us to do our bit for nature, but instead of concentrating on what we're losing through industrialisation it's just a song of empty slogans ('Hey big oil what do you say? We gotta save Mother Earth!') Hard not to agree with the sentiments and we might all be better off if more of us waved placards at evil Governments, but Sun has nothing to share with us that we don't all know already and there's no sense of community or 'truth' here, just a batty teenage girl with a megaphone, easily dismissed (where did she get that megaphone from by the way? I don't know many teenage girls who have one handy 'just in case' their relative dies and turns them into an eco-warrior overnight...) Still, even if the lyrics are clumsy, the melody is pretty strong and the performance is easily the best as on their last day Crazy Horse finally get a song that's vague and as much about the music as the narrative to get their teeth into. Some of Neil's blistering guitar work is exceptional, but the always under-rated Ralph Molina is one better, dancing all over his drum-kit for the full nine minutes and giving it everything he's got. Anyone who doubts Crazy Horse' abilities only need listen to this song, where less is more and two old friends dare each other on to new heights of greatness.
That's just the music aspect of things though - lyrically 'Greendale' is an experiment that just doesn't work. At all. Neil needs to present with characters that he knows as well as himself, while showing us how the world works through his eyes, but none of the characters in 'Greendale', not even Grandpa, feel alive enough to do that. The biggest difference between a soap opera and a rock concept album, apart from the generally superior writing, is that the characters tend to learn something through music, whether it's 'Tommy' kind-of being the messiah, but losing the power when he bosses people about, to The Kinks' 'Arthur' learning that there's nothing ordinary about an ordinary human being to Happiness Stan finding out in 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' that the story is about who you are not what you want to be (for the story's in the journey and not what lies at sea - or in the sky). Jed learns that he probably shouldn't have shot a cop, of course. Grandpa probably wishes he hadn't been so quick to get mad at the press. Sun Green learns to be herself and speak out about the truth, although quite how she got to that point in her life overnight is still something of a mystery. Nobody really changes though, All the characters, you sense, would have been given the famous 're-set' button had Neil ever figured we'd have the patience for a sequel. Just like a soap opera in fact - it's meant as a distraction, not an education and good as eye/ear candy rather than for all our souls. Which is fine as far as it goes, if 'Greendale' had been entertaining enough to actually entertain us - but it doesn't. By far the weakest album overall of Neil's lengthy and illustrious career (yeah, I know, that's a big call but hey even 'Everybody's Rockin' made me laugh on 'Payola Blues' and 'Landing On Water' had 'Pressure' and 'Hippie Dream' on there), I got badly lost on my trip into 'Greendale' and I still don't feel as if I care enough to navigate my way through the territory. Good on Neil for trying something so different to his usual working methods, but this experiment needed more time, love, energy and creativity to work than most and it's a tragedy that it ended up being hurriedly written in the back of a car on the way to work every morning. 'Be the rain' wails Neil as, in the character of Sun Green, he tries to make the world be themselves (and no, I don't know what that cryptic statement means either). Yes Neil, you had the answer there all along; this album has too many characters but none of them are 'real' enough to become a substitute for the 'Neilness' we usually get on Young's albums. Usually even Neil's weaker albums have something to teach us, but every time I hear this album I never ever want to go back to 'Greendale' again where in addition to having to re-live the death of that poor cat (oh yeah and Grandpa - nearly forgot about him) I lost my patience, my sanity and quite a bit of my hearing too. Package tours there are not recommended, unless you have a thing about teenage girls with mega-phones and/or weird families who act nothing like people in the real world.