Reconsidering Harvest and the Critical Consensus on Neil Young
Flipping through crates of vinyl records at the Wuxtry and Low Yo Yo Stuff shops in Athens, Georgia, my teen-age self came across After the Gold Rush , Tonight's the Night , Rust Never Sleeps , andoddlya copy of On the Beach  still in its shrinkwrap; the record was warped from the twenty years of pressure. The message one received at the time from many of his discerning devoted followers, and the image/persona of the "godfather of grunge" making a triumphant comeback, was simple enough: though Harvest  remained his most-popular album, making him the highest-selling artist in the U.S for a brief time (as inconceivable as that seems today) it paled in comparison to both the subsequent "fuck you"/ proto-Punk albumsTime Fades Away , plus On the Beach and Tonight's the Nightas well as his earliest records with Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps plus Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere  and Zuma .
Harvest had long sinceprobably within months after its releaselost the reverence for past albums on the part of Rock's historians wherein those which receive "classic" status seem to take two forms: either a "lost" or "unheard" album unjustly ignored by a wider audience upon its initial release, or an album that was innovative and startling yet still managed to find commercial success, as such having some sort of subversive revolutionary effect on its unsuspecting mass of listeners. Retrospective accounts often present Harvest, in contrast, as a sell-out the artist quickly regretted. Not surprisingly, I didn't get around to listening to the album until years later, as a C.D.R of a copy someone somewhere had. In 2007, having rediscovered the "classic" Neil Young albums, from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, his second album, to Zuma, and to a lesser extent the releases of the transition-era that followed, from American Stars 'n Bars  to Hawks and Doves and thus having made the leap beyond the boundary separating mere appreciation from close listeningI finally delved into the intriguing mish-mash that is Harvest. I found that I must digress from the opinion of those who discount the record; and instead cast my lot with the "mainstream" press that, precisely because of its commercial success, still ranks the album highly in the annals of Rock.
Young may have shied away from Harvest's success, rejecting the expectations it imposed, but the bleak, less-"produced" albums that followed have much in common with Harvest and do not, to this listener at least, represent a calculated attempt to commit "commercial suicide." Besides, we'll let the journalist, especially the tabloid-journalist, hazard guesses as to what an artist was trying not to do; and instead dwell upon what he actually did. In the end, these four albums offer the listener the bulkthough not nearly all of the important tracksof the music Young recorded during the prodigious, intense, and innovative years from 1971, following After the Gold Rush and his commercial success with Crosby, Still, Nash and Young the year prior, through 1976, a periodization we'll return to shortly.
Of course, the easiest rebuttal to the notion that Young disparaged Harvest, the album (as compared to the attention it brought) takes the form of the body of work that aimed to replicate its supposed M.O.R accessibility and Country-Rock style: Comes a Time , Old Ways , Harvest Moon , Silver and Gold , and Prairie Wind . As far as some detractors are concerned, all of these albums reflect either Young's willful, yet lazy, eclecticism, or mildly-pitiful attempts to appeal to either a very-real audience for "soft" Rock singer-songwriters or a largely-mythical traditionalist-Country/ "real"-Nashville audience. Much of the disregard for Harvest arises from the perception that it began this supposed unfortunate tendency of Young every half-decade or more to produce a sentimental, "easy listening" album of little merit.
But actually, it didn't. Listening to Harvest after all these years, trying to cast aside the curt opinion-summations of its quality and character that accompany widely-popular albums no matter whose ears they travel to, I find that its eclecticism not only belies its common categorization as Country-Rock, which to give a recent example is repeated in the album's entry in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die ; it also reminds us that those later albums have less in common with Harvest than we might expect. Granted, Harvest's two big hits, "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man," as well as "Are You Ready for the Country?" one could call Country-Rock or "soft" Rock. But not the rest of the album. "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World" are curios with respect to Young's entire catalog, the orchestral largess at first seeming out of place; but soon the internal integrity of the two tracks mutes such concerns. They're both intriguing and the former is outstanding; the feminist critiques it incited ignored the lyric's complexity, or rather arose from the inability to understand a singer's words as observations, even perhaps self-critical, instead of strong statements of righteous opinion. Of course, most listeners didn't have the opportunity, as we do now with Live at Massey Hall 1971 , to hear the song as it was debuted: with the line, "Afraid, a man feels afraid," replacing, "A Maid, a man needs a maid," the first time through the refrain. "A Needle and the Damage Done" is of course a bare live recording, one example among many of Young accepting the appropriate, or at least a sufficient, recording of a song no matter its source. Even "Out on the Weekend" and "Harvest," when compared to the slower numbers on Everbody Knows This Is Nowhere and Zuma, are unadorned, minimalist even. These three tracks all rank among Young's best, and with "Harvest," Young reached a peak as a vocalist he hasn't matched since, except perhaps with "On the Beach" and "Ambulance Blues" from On the Beach. Meanwhile, "Alabama" and "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" are straight-out Rock, comparable to "Southern Man" at least, if not Crazy Horse.
Country-Rock has always been a difficult propositionnot to play, but to define, to analyze and categorize after the fact. It has resulted more from the work of zealous journalists; and of Rock artists who feel a certain awkwardness when they appropriate instrumentation, rhythms, vocal stylings, and lyrical themes commonly associated with Country. Musically, however, the separation of Rock from its Rhythm and Blues origins, and also from Soul and Countrynot its return to or incorporation of those musicshas historically involved more work, and more strenuous work at that. Thus the belabored rigidity of form and exaltation of extremes found in Heavy Metal and the simplest Punk. The problem then faced by those eager to delineate the development of, or heap praise upon, Country-Rock, when they turn to Neil Young, is his ease, his lack of pretension, when playing Country. Perhaps we should designate American Stars 'n Bars as Harvest 's true successor, since the Country-Rock of most of its tracks is oddly grouped together with the album's two longest cuts, "Will to Love" and "Like a Hurricane," which besides a couple of experiments in the 1990's (Arc  and Dead Man ) are the closest Young has come to the avant-garde. As with Harvest, we see here nothing out of the ordinary with the Country aspects of the record, which, fittingly, has a collage for its cover art, reflecting the piecemeal approach Young has on occasion employed in putting albums together. The same goes for Hawks and Doves , where the bare acoustic songs of side A flow awkwardly into the Country-Rock side B. Indeed, Harvest Moon, a great record on its own terms, only works as a successor to Harvest in the same sense that a Hollywood sequel to a commercially successful low-budget "indie" film does.
But don't say as such to Alexis Petridis, author of the slim Neil Young volume  of the Kill Your Idols series of Rock biographies. He says, "Harvest was padded with overdubs to the point of anodyne radio-friendliness." Such laziness is typical of Rock journalism and the books that on occasion develop from its hurried efforts; Petridis is not so much showing a lack of understanding of overdubs as he is giving an example of the way simple common views push such laziness in the direction of blatant inaccuracy. We see this process directly at work in Nigel Williamson's Journey Through the Past: The Stories Behind the Classic Songs of Neil Young , when he turns to Comes a Time, the first of Harvest 's several supposed sequels. First, he refers to the latter's "pastoral style" and then, discussing "Field of Opportunity," he says, "If Comes a Time was the belated follow-up to Harvest, then "Field of Opportunity" was the song that made the connection explicit. [...] But the song also has an acerbic wit that subverts the very idea of a Harvest Mark Two." Since Williamson is not suggesting that this "acerbic wit" contrasts with the overwhelming seriousness of Harvest (since such a perspective would negate the common view of Harvest as "mellow") apparently any aspect of the record that the listener would not describe as akin to non-descript "elevator music" becomes anti-Harvest. Thus, to give another example, though Harvest, as noted above, has two archetypal Young guitar-Rock tracks, any similar emphasis on the electric guitar on a later album, such as with Freedom , which began the aforementioned "comeback," ensures that such album stands in contrast to Harvest. Why? Because for many music journalists the only story that matters is that of commercial success, or the lack thereof, and certain kinds of commercial success don't even get counted as such. After all, we never hear that the heavier Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was a sell-out, coming as it did after the studio concoctions of Neil Young , even though in the rapidly-changing Rock scene of the time, with the rise of Hard Rock, it was the more commercially-successful record. [Though Petridis does note that the Rolling Stone review of the former dismissed it in favor of the debut]. By way of the same curious methodology, Rock's historians whittle Harvest down to its two hits. Any outwardly-similar later work finds itself subject to the kind of scrutiny we'd expect from corporate executives, because for many Rock critics such a dismissive approach reaffirms biases in favor of Rock, or, in these post-Rock times, whatever has usurped Rock as the preferred means to act stupid and yet look like you're not trying to do so.
The Harvest entry in the 33 1/3 series of books does not fare much better. While we learn a goodly amount about the Nashville setting into which Young stepped for much of the Harvest sessions, like too many of the 33 1/3 books, it amounts to a glorified Mojo retrospective. Because the project itself demands such detail, the book's author, Sam Inglis, notes the record's diversity. But he doesn't delve into the mass of previous writings which mischaracterize the album. And he concludes that Harvest is not one of Young's best records, that it is a "fine" record, but not one which galvanizes its audience.
We turn to an academic, William Echard, in his book, Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy , to find an apt and revealing comment on this misunderstood (or, rather, insufficiently-understood) album: "Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Harvest, aside from its commercial success, was the presence throughout of pedal-steel guitar, played by Ben Keith in a unique style which highlighted the instrument without relying on many identifiable Country music cliches." Indeed, Ben Keith: he is crucial to Harvest and On the Beach, and is present on Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, Comes a Time, and Hawks and Doves. On side A of American Stars 'n Barsagain, this album has turned out to be far-more significant than we thoughthe's there with Crazy Horse, and violinist Carole Mayedo and backing vocalists Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson. Like Tonight's the Night, this album, also featuring two more Crazy Horse tracks, "Homegrown" and "Like a Hurricane," could have been billed as Neil Young with Crazy Horse, or Neil Young and Crazy Horse, but wasn't; and one doubts any particular reason explains why they weren't.
Keith embodies the effacement of these commonly-espoused divisions in Young's workthe division between Crazy Horse and commerce, or between laid-back "soft" Rock and the foreboding open spaces of On the Beach's slower tracks. Only the remaining founding members of Crazy Horse, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, have arguably been as important among Young's collaborators. Keith even played Grandpa in Young's Greendale film! Most important, Keith's unique pedal-steel guitar work serves as the equivalent of Young's lauded electric-guitar dissonance when Young focuses on singing, as well as piano, harmonica, and rhythm guitar. Obviously, Keith does not go as far off into atonal sound as Young does with Crazy Horse. But Keith's contributions allow us to see how these "soft" Rock/ Country-Rock albums of Young's do not represent prescribed genres, or the desire for commercial success, impeding upon pure artistry.
Even Echard, though, falls prey to the need for intellectual shorthand: that is, in the process of making an argument about the primary subject matter in question, secondary subject matter finds itself subjected to gross simplification, objectified. As such, having not mischaracterized Harvest, he falls prey to easy categorizations of its "doom trilogy" successors. In a section on the "gendering of style," an uninspired predictable analysis of the "gender coding" of Neil Young's oeuvre, Echard refers to Young's "reservations about the success of Harvest and his willful detour into non-commerciality in subsequent years," and again to "Harvest's commerciality." The problem lies not with said reservations, which Young did express, but the notion that "commerciality" and "non-commerciality" are easy or "willful" gestures and methods of composition that an accomplished popular-music artist can turn on and off like a spicket. The artists and record-label heads who defined popular music in its earlier years were overwhelmingly concerned with commerciality, as listeners raised on Rock continually must remind themselves (for example, as Peter Guralnick reminds us about Soul music in his book, Sweet Soul Music). But in doing so, they gambled, played a game of chance; and often failed. After all, a "hit," once it has fallen from the charts, cannot be easily repeated, because if it is replicated too literally it will lack the sense of novelty that is necessary to any commercially-successful product. In other words, if Neil Young had remade "Heart of Gold" time and again, he would have descended as far into "non-commerciality" as he did with the "doom trilogy."
Yes, Young did adopt a persona for the recording of Tonight's the Night and the British tour, late 1973, when its songs were revealed and "promoted" (though the album was not finished) for the purpose of distancing himself from the implicit demands of others. He also dwelled upon the dark side of Rock culture of the 1970's, especially on the basic ugliness of the stardom-fandom system (wherein Rock's "myths of fun and potency" were countered by "anti-myths of death and disempowerment," as Echard inscribes them). But any sort of "willful" desire to upset listeners and audiences was not first and foremost. How could an artist know for certain before the fact that he would disappoint or offend anyone? Echard seems to realize as much when he says, "[Young's] reservations about the success of Harvest did not concern commercialism per se so much as they concerned the artistic and personal dangers of trying to recreate past successes." But having said that, and thus indirectly acknowledging that Young has also stated he does seek to repeat artistic successes, not just those of a commercial nature (leading to the common complaint of Young's unpredictable moves as "perverse"), Echard's analysis does not suggest he realizes the extent to which "commerciality" is out of the artist's control. Precisely as such, Young understood that working with the assumption he's a top-selling artist would have resulted in failure, indeed would have redefined what success and failure meant with respect to his work; or, rather, the question of artistic success would no longer be relevant, only that of commercial success. This tragic fate has befallen a countless number of excellent artists in Rockand in cinema, literature, et al.
The likes of Echard, who critique Rock as a masculinist pursuit often held by its ideologue-like adherents to be authentically-expressive compared to a feminine "pop," fall prey to conservative discourses that portray capitalism as an inclusive open-ended forum for its wildly-diverse participants. Although we certainly don't expect contemporary popular-music critics, who bandy around the word, "pop," the same way wide-eyed, self-satisfied Christian zealots speak of "Jesus," to approach commerciality with a radical perspective, we do expect more from academia's sheltered forums. What in the post-Cold War, "end-of-history" U.S imperium is more masculinist and reactionary than commerce? Perhaps militarism, but only among naive Americans who think that U.S diplomatic policies have something to do with democracy or nationalism. Elsewhere in the West at least, and especially within the polite-society liberalism of upper-class Americans, the notion that the need or desire to make money trumps all other concerns itself trumps all other intellectual frameworks. Echard allows this unspoken belief to frame the "doom trilogy" albums, ensuring that rather than being listened to principally as works of art they are forever forced to fit within paradigms created by modern capitalism, such as those of the record industry, but also those of the academic milieu Echard inhabits, whereagain, especially in the U.Ssince the "cultural turn" of the 1980's, questions of gender and race have preoccupied scholars instead of those of class.
But forget the problem of its frequent mischaracterization and Young's mythical rejection of professionalism and accessibility. To repeat the assertion above... in contrast to the frequent dismissals of its significance, Harvest actually serves as the beginning point of the remarkable peak of Young's songwriting, when having become newly comfortable in the studio as both a singer and bandleader on After the Gold Rush he recorded an extraordinary number of brilliant, sublime songs over the course of a few years. Besides Time Fades Away and Tonight's the Night, both recorded in 1973 [except for a few tracks on the latter], and On the Beach and Zuma following, some of the best songs on later albums were also first recorded during this time, mostly for the abandoned Homegrown and Chrome Dreams. Indeed, out of Chrome Dreams's ashes emerged both American Stars 'n Bars and Rust Never Sleeps: "Will to Love" and "Like a Hurricane," as well as a different version of "Hold Back the Tears" on the former, "Pocahontas" [the original solo recording with varied overdubs added], a Crazy Horse version of "Powderfinger," and "Sedan Delivery," in a Crazy Horse take different than the one originally planned for release, on the latter. Chrome Dreams also featured a different mix of "Homegrown," as well as "Star of Bethlehem," both of which ended up on American Stars 'n Bars; but they had been scheduled for Homegrown as well. In addition, "Look Out for My Love" from Comes a Time and "Captain Kennedy" from Hawks and Doves were originally slated for Chrome Dreams; and "Little Wing" and "The Old Homestead" from Hawks and Doves were originally to appear on Homegrown. In short, both Chrome Dreams and Homegrown surely deserve equal status alongside Smile among the best of Rock's "lost" albums.
Moreover, if Rock fans continually ponder, entranced and awed, Bob Dylan's remarkable, prolific period of 1965-1966 (what I call his Rock/ radical phase) that of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, they surely should do the same for Neil Young, 1971-1976. The beginning-point there is not so artificial as it first might appear. The recording of Harvest began in February, 1971, with Young having both purchased his ranch near San Francisco and written a plethora of new songs; as hinted above, a good number of them can now (officially) be heard as they were debuted on the Massey Hall album. By the time Harvest was released a year later, Young had endured serious back surgery. By the time he went on the Time Fades Away tour in early 1973, Danny Whitten had died. But of course, the Stray Gators, who'd played on Harvest, were there, playing many of those songs written before Harvest. Given the dour nature of Harvest's songs, and that Time Fades Away is closer to Harvest in its origins, and similar to On the Beach and Tonight's the Night primarily in the haggardness of Young's voice, we wonder why we don't hear of the "doom quartet" instead of the "doom trilogy." Either way, the songs were coming fast. By 1975, with Tonight's the Night complete and finally released, and Homegrown complete and not released, Young clearly had a surfeit of songs that did not necessarily fit together well when grouped into albums. Zuma, like the previous album billed as Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Everbody Knows This Is Nowhere, bookends the "classic" period, but also lacks the cohesiveness of its predecessors. Another realization, more revealing, comes with the transition period of 1977-1981. Even Echard follows the conventional wisdom that, after the bored Long May You Run  by the nonexistent Stills-Young Band, the forgotten American Stars n' Bars, and the drab Comes a Time, Rust Never Sleeps marked a welcome rejuvenation. But that album, as noted above, was as reliant on older material as the other transition-period albums, and receives such frequent and high accolades based on a few tracks and the simplicity of its make-up: one half solo-acoustic, the other Crazy Horse.
If the upcoming Archives releases make the Homegrown sessions available, the mischaracterization of Harvest will further become a figment of the past. As Jimmy McDonough's comments on the Homegrown tracks in Shakey , his biography of Young, make clear, the sessions for this album, actually the first planned "sequel" of Harvest, included several tracks that had more in common with On the Beach, also recorded in 1974, than they did with Harvest. While several of these out-there, experimental tracks did not make the final cut for inclusion on Homegrown, the point is clear: the division between the "soft," "commercial" work and the "non-commercial," "doom" work does not capture the essence of what was going on. Echard again possesses the nuance necessary to see the crux of the matter, even as he makes use of inadequate phrasing and concepts: analyzing "Will to Love," he notes, "with On the Beach Young had already shown that when the softer, introspective features of his more commercial music are taken to extremes, they become oppositional to the mainstream." Moreover, McDonough's descriptions hint that, to delineate Young's peak more effectively, we should designate the shorter period, 1973-1974, beginning with Young's fateful rejection of a proposed second Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young record in 1973 in favor of what became Tonight's the Night, and continuing through the voluminous number of songs recorded throughout the next year or so. As such, Young's peak corresponds more closely to Dylan's in its brevity, and also in the apparent fact that personal upheaval and alienation gave them a remarkable momentum, pushing the artists much farther in their exploration of the art of song than they had ever imagined.
To continue the comparison between Young and Dylan hinted at above... Young of course was among Dylan's followers, but he possessed a whimsical, earnest naivete suggesting he wouldn't have needed Dylan. Perhaps not: we would take the Punk-partisan stance, and assert that Lou Reed, the former student of Delmore Schwartz, opened up songwriting much like Dylan did, and of course did so in a Rock band thoroughly engrained in New York art communities. Alas, Dylan did come first. Young, and many other of Dylan's followers, stood accused of writing bad poetry, straining a weak voice (actually, not many besides Young faced this particular charge) heeding the needs of commerce instead of his muse, and decidedly lacking the "cool" that was a prerequisite for all Rock stars. All these accusations were truethankfully so. How else were young listeners to know that Rock offered both good times and personal catharsis?
While Dylan at his rare best captivated by going well beyond anyone's expectations, Young offers kinks in the expectations themselves, not just in outward styles or genres, but in the formal structures of the songs too. Any musician who has had to practice how to sing, only to still have a "bad voice," or rely on improvisation to make decisions that would otherwise never be made, knows the routine of resorting or succumbing to the fruits of pragmatism; and knows how everyone's life, and all of its experiences, are their own bell curves, constantly interacting with others. While we always return in our thoughts to the sound of Young's bare voice, on these early albums we also hear a lot of harmonizing, in some cases among Young's overdubbed vocals, but often with others, notably Ronstadt, Larsen, Keith, James Taylor, and Crazy Horse members Whitten, Molina, Talbot, and Whitten's eventual replacement, Frank Poncho Sampedro. In many of Young songs, especially in these early years, the refrains come first: the tag line, the hook, is out front, via harmonizing voices, as an invitation, sometimes a great jump in volume designed to wake up the listener: "Cinnamon Girl," "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)," "Cowgirl in the Sand," "Southern Man," "When You Dance You Can Really Love," "Tonight's the Night," "New Mama." We'd surely expect this approach in a lot of earlier popular music, and in church songs, but in 1970's Rock, for an artist reputed to be a lodestar of opposition to "pop" norms, it stands out.
But it also begins to make sense when we notice that Young has largely avoided verbosity, not just in comparison to Dylan or Joni Mitchell, or early David Bowie, but to nearly every contemporary song composer of significance, including Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, Elton John/ Bernie Taupin, Laura Nyro, Richard Thompson, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, and his collaborators David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Young, formally speaking, remained the kind of songwriter he was in 1965, penning what are essentially pop ditties, molded into a meticulous and concise records; his true compatriots in the early 1970's were probably Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, masters of concision.
To return to the awkward division in our appreciation of Young's music between the bare Rock and camaraderie among artists (even with an acknowledged leader) exemplified by Crazy Horse, on one hand, and the work of "Neil Young," solo artist overseeing complicated projects entailing the submission of a large number of other, non-solo artists... We have also noted Young's unsettling of the listener's expectations with regard to his unique approach on the electric guitarits simplicity (if one uses the standards of music notation) but most important its emphasis on timbre, especially as it seems to be a sort of stand-in for a scream, a vocal freak-out/ glossolia; his voice, after all, is free largely in its fragility and beauty. In turn, we hear of his influence on the new generation of guitarists, post-Punk/ post-Rock, who also willingly embraced "noise." Yet, Young may very well have not influenced the likes of Keith Levene of Public Image Ltd., Bernard Sumner of Joy Division, Marc Reilly of The Fall, Roland Howard and Mick Harvey of The Birthday Party, Arto Lindsay of D.N.A, and indeed his later opening act Sonic Youth. Rather, he was a contemporary of those artists, all pushing the electric guitar into the realm of pure sound. While they may have heard him, and he may have not heard them, they were all only doing what is far more "natural" then playing notes and chords. No leadership was necessary, and Young was no more the leader than, say, the Sun Ra of Atlantis, the John Coltrane of Live in Japan, or indeed the Lou Reed of White Light/ White Heat. He was, though, another clue camouflaged among the sign-posts of received wisdom.
Ragged Glory is of course the epitome of the Crazy Horse experience: a distillation that as such also suggests Crazy Horse's limitations relative to the broader experience of Neil Young's music. However, another aspect of two its tracks, "Country Home" and "Over and Over," is noteworthy: there is both a song and a "head," to use Jazz terminology. These separate lead-melodies, similar to but not merely mimicries of the central vocal melody, help stretch the tracks out further. Two other tracks, "Love to Burn" and "Love and Only Love," also feature extended non-vocal passages: not mere "solos," but extended improvisations built upon relatively-standard Rock riffs. As a result, the guitar parts on most of the album, while as timbrally complex as most of Young's guitar-work, explore new ground by way of structural complexity. The general emphasis on the concerts of 1991, especially their ascents into feedback-laced sonic murk, made the changes in Young's music at the time seem not to be new paths, but rather retreads. The unfortunate notion of a sequel to Harvest the next year again only encouraged the listener to discount Young-as-is in favor of Young-as-was. What a surprise awaits the listener who previously ignored Harvest Moon when he comes to the album's final track, "Natural Beauty," truly a enigmatic creation.
Meanwhile, the purported influence of Young on "grunge" was not just advertising copy. Again, though, the word, "influence," does not work. Of course, Young did push Crazy Horse to new heights of noisiness, at times moving past any perceived boundary separating Rock from non-Rock, in an era when several leading artists of the U.S Punk/ Indie "underground" embraced Hard Rock. Dinosaur Jr. offered only an especially easy comparison to Young/ Crazy Horse; numerous other bands explored the same ground, including the Seattle "grunge" acts. The comparison to "grunge" was the easiest because those Seattle bands worked comfortably within the confines of traditional Rock in a way unlike nearly all of their peers. Yet, they also followed the example of Punk and Indie in avoiding the obvious stylistic cliches of Heavy Metal and Psychedelia, and in presenting themselves as artists first and foremost. The denouement came quick though. For Young, the peak came even before Mirror Ball , his collaboration with Pearl Jam, with the Crazy Horse track, "Change Your Mind," from Sleeps with Angels , evocatively similar to Sonic Youth's "The Diamond Sea," from Washing Machine : both more than 15 minutes long, traversing the terrain of Rock-guitar noise/ improvisation to come to a sound we could call, to borrow Derek Bailey's favorite term, "non-idiomatic." With these tracks, Crazy Horse and Sonic Youth both counter the listener's expectations (or hopes) and descend to near-silence: not so much quiet, as sparseness reflecting the artists questioning what they do down to its very core. Sonic Youth the year prior, with Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star , rejected the illusion of Punk infiltration of the mainstream, and looked for inspiration to the "low-fi" artists and others who had never gotten caught up in the "alternative" moment. For Young and several others of his generation, the disparity between art and commercial success had never been such a problem, as the latter had been handed to them quite easily. Indeed, one wonders why those who follow the argument described above, of Harvest confronting Young with the prospect of commerciality, in turn don't emphasize the same "threat" as it emanated from Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Especially since C.S.N.Y's hits were often penned by Young, how could "Neil Young," solo artist, ever exist in a cordoned-off zone of pure artistry? Once again, the choice for non-commerciality is as non-existent as that for commerciality. Thus, soon after the brooding Sleeps with Angels came the blase Mirror Ball.
Beyond the "classic" period and the difficult ensuing transition-era, Young has followed a path always surprising, often charming. If Dylan has usually played it safe, often uncomfortable in his own skin, Young has just played, as a musician and in a broader meaning of the word, making others uncomfortable with his spontaneity. The excellent Trans , despite its unique place in Young's discography, looks to the past, with its updated version of the Buffalo Springfield track "Mr. Soul," and the borrowing of a melody from "Stringman" (at the time unreleased) for "An Inca from Peru"; and to the future, as "Little Thing Called Love," briefly at the end of its refrain features a guitar part that would later anchor "Harvest Moon." After a series of decent, though uninspired, recordsEverybody's Rockin' , Old Ways, Landing on Water , Life , and This Note's for You Young turned a corner and became one of the most wide-reaching, relevant Rock artists of the 1990's. Of late, after the relatively-inactive, unimpressive period, 1997-2002, Young once again has challenged, goaded himself into action, going back to the eclecticism of the 1980's, but with considerable moderation: from the disarmingly-amateurish intermedia project Greendale , continuing with Prairie Wind , which at least in its good first half pleasantly occupies the middle ground between Old Ways and Harvest Moon, to the blunt protest anthems of Living With War , sorely needed in an age when war-mongers and "bloggers" (or war-monger "bloggers") claim the mantle of progressivism. With the release of Chrome Dreams II , as Young himself has noted another mish-mash of an album in the mode of Harvest or Freedomits title and constituent parts, especially "Ordinary People," which belonged on Freedom, referencing the pastand with Young finally delving into his archives, another end point looms, hopefully as illusory as those previous.