A somewhat different twist on my intermittent series of Five for the Record posts.
The other day, my younger son happened to mention that he was memorizing the words to a certain ’80s pop hit of curious staying power.
Everyone in one of his high school classes was required to memorize the words to a song, and for whatever reason, he’d chosen that one.
“Hmmm,” I said, in full pop-geek dad mode. “There’s a Neil Young song where the entire lyrics are: ‘Ain’t got no T-bone / Got mashed potato / Ain’t got no T-bone.’ You could have picked that one to memorize and been done with it.”
“Who’s Neil Young?” he said.
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This comment raises any number of avenues to trek down. I will focus on one that doesn’t indict my parenting skills. It’s a thought exercise:
Let’s say you had five songs with which to introduce someone to the sprawling, unpredictable five-decade career of Neil Young, painting as complete a picture of his themes, style and appeal as possible. Which ones do you choose?
Given the attention spans of today’s youth, five songs is kinda stretching it. I should really limit myself to three, or even just one.
Instead, I’ll hide behind my existing Five for the Record framework, and see if I can’t find five songs that sum up Neil’s career (in all senses of the word “career”).
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1. “The Loner.” A (self?) portrait of a sullen, lovelorn outsider, this tune from Neil’s very first solo album checks off a bunch of boxes he would return to for decades. The version from the Live Rust album howls, but for my purposes, I’ll go with the manicured studio original.
2. “Like a Hurricane (Unplugged).” The unplugged all-by-himself stuff is a big part of Neil’s trip, so I’ve gotta put some on this list even though I personally prefer him electric.
I choose the pump-organ version of “Like a Hurricane” for two reasons. One, I love the song; it may be the best description of a complicated romance that this complicated romantic has ever come up with.
Two, Neil’s perversity is part of his infuriating charm, and choosing to play one of his best-known songs on a wheezy old parlor organ is nothing if not perverse. (Wanna hear it electric? Sure, you can have a link.)
3. “Ambulance Blues.” Neil at his longest, weirdest, most haunting and, occasionally, funniest (“Old Mother Goose / She’s on the skids / The shoe ain’t happy / Neither are the kids.”) The master of cloaking the deeply personal in the wildly obscure has never been in finer form.
4. “Sedan Delivery.” There had to be a shot of Crazy Horse on here someplace, and this is it, narrowly nosing out “Cortez the Killer” for inclusion in the Big Five.
(Someone on Twitter who I don’t know suggested I play the kid the entire Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album, saying that if not a single riff or lyric caught his fancy, it wasn’t time yet. That’s an excellent suggestion, actually.)
I’ve probably owned Rust Never Sleeps for 30 years and I still have no idea what this is “about,” if it can truly be said to be about any one thing in particular. But that, to me, is part of what makes Neil Young great.
I enjoy that feeling of what? that swells with each verse of one of his epics, until I get to a verse like “I’m making another delivery / Of chemicals and sacred roots / I’ll hold what you have to give me / But I’ll use what I have to use” and suddenly it feels like I’ve stepped too far into some dark adventure and waves of mania are crashing over my head.
5. “Harvest.” None of his weird Eighties stuff? Nope, not representative enough for a Top Five list, though there were some good songs scattered through those records.
No Nineties or beyond? Again, some solid songs there, but I find myself drawn to his earlier work, which I think lays out a lot of the themes and ideas he’s pursued since.
(I had a sore temptation to make Neil’s 35-minute noise trip “Arc” Song Number Five as a monument to his perversity. Couldn’t quite do it.)
I couldn’t ignore the fact that this list really needed a jolt of the banjo/folkie side of Neil. I thought about the more obscure “For the Turnstiles” but decided to go with the better-known title track to Harvest.
It has the requisite dark side (“As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp?”) but also represents Neil’s ability to write winsome, reasonably catchy straight-ahead folk-pop.
5-plus. “Don’t Be Denied.” I hate, hate, hate, hate lists that cheat — lists that promise five items and give six (not to mention lists that promise ten and give eight.) I’m a stickler for truth in advertising, I guess, and if you’re gonna break the borders you set for yourself, you shoulda set them farther out to begin with.
But, boy, the titular three-word chorus sums up Neil’s sideways flight through the music business (and life) as well as anything he’s ever written. So does the payoff verse, in which the lad who refused to be denied gets what he wants — and hates it.
And, boy, the trudge-tempo live version from the recently released Tuscaloosa album sure brings it to life. (I think I might need this record.)
And, boy, a transplanted kid in a new town and a new high school might maybe relate to parts of it, even if he’d never say as much.
Here you go, kid. A half-dozen quintessential Neil Young songs. Don’t be denied.