It’s hard not to be impressed when rock legend Neil Young raises a jar of clear liquid before the thousands of fans at one of his concerts and, uttering one of only two sentences spoken all night, thanks his sponsor, “water.”
I was among last week’s throng at Shea’s Theatre in Buffalo, New York.
I’m a fan. And my husband is a huge fan. And, since the veteran rocker is getting on in age, we decided seeing him perform Cinnamon Girl for perhaps the last time was worth the effort and expense involved in travelling more than 8,000 kilometres.
At 62 years old, Neil Young didn’t disappoint.
He never does; it’s not his style.
After years of drinking and doing drugs like most other young and idealistic rockers of the 1960s and ‘70s, Young went on to do what too many successful musicians don’t: he aged gracefully, without the drugs, kept rocking, and remained idealistic and politically active.
He is, in spirit, still young (ignore the pun).
Look at him last year: Practically a senior citizen, Young put America’s youth to shame when he penned some of the most politically brazen songs of this century for Living with War.
“I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer 18-to-22 years old, to write these songs and stand up,” he told the Los Angeles Times upon its release.
“I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the ’60s generation. We’re still here.”
Born and raised in Canada, but a longtime resident of California, Young drew heaps of criticism for producing an “unpatriotic” album condemning a war for which, according to those critics, he had no business even talking about.
Living with War lambastes the Iraq invasion and the questionable interests of its civilian general, George W. Bush, with such vitriolic anthems as: Let’s Impeach the President (for lyin’… for misleading… for abusing), Lookin’ For a Leader, and Shock and Awe.
The third track on Living with War, The Restless Consumer, could easily title this very column.
Here, the veteran rocker rails against the “ad machine” and consumer culture by repeating, again and again, Don’t need no more lies! Music to my ears …
The reviews of this CD were, for the most part, terrible.
The folk rocker was criticized for using a choir and trumpets.
Some decried its acerbic tone and the fact that Young seemed to be having too much fun making it, and then talking about it.
Young wrote the 10 songs in nine days and rushed the CD to production, and it shows, said critics.
But, just because Neil Young is an icon with dozens of hits to his credit doesn’t mean every song needs to be a Heart of Gold.
Some, including me, see it as nothing short of heroic that someone of Neil Young’s artistic and pop-culture stature would throw an album together, sacrificing perfection (this time), because he was angry at the state of his adopted country and because he thought something needed to be done.
The album is itself an anthem for the ages.
It gives hope to anyone over 30 who possesses a shred of — well, hope — that the world isn’t totally doomed.
Young has consistently written songs about the environment, including Mother Earth (Natural Anthem), from the 1990 album Ragged Glory, and Be the Rain from his 2003 album Greendale, which kind of hits home:
“Save the planet for another day / Attention shoppers / Buy with a conscience and save / Save the planet for another day / Save Alaska!/ Let the caribou stay.”
Neil Young has never been afraid to speak out.
He wrote and recorded Ohio after the 1970 shootings of four students by the National Guard at Ohio’s Kent State University.
He wrote about racism in the south in Southern Man.
But he has had some opinions that are hardly admirable among fans like me, and which seem inconsistent with the left-wing Michael Moore-type thumping of Living with War.
“As befits a man nicknamed Shakey, his political vacillations are legendary,” writes Alexis Petridis in the May 5, 2006, edition of Britain’s The Guardian.
In the 1980s, Young supported Ronald Reagan’s nuclear weapons.
“Then there was AIDS, about which Young pronounced himself very concerned,” writes Petridis. “Not with research or healthcare, but with the prospect of ‘a faggot’ working in the fruit and veg department of his local supermarket: ‘You don’t want him to handle your potatoes,’ he counselled.”
Luckily for Neil fans, he would get over that and go on to perform at a benefit for poverty and AIDS in Africa, Live 8.
He is one of the founders of Farm Aid. And he and his wife Pegi have been organizing the Bridge School Concerts, fundraisers for the Bridge School for handicapped children, including his son, since 1986.
Neil Young is what we want our heroes to be: human, caring, fighting and rockin’.
At Shea’s Theatre in Buffalo, when Neil performed his first set alone, wearing what appeared to be a linen suit and pressed white shirt, and bumbled around between songs, touching one or two guitars among his shiny acoustic collection before settling on a third, one worried if this grey-haired chap was shuffling towards the end of his career.
Then, after a 20-minute intermission, Neil returned, still in a white shirt and blazer, yet transformed by an old pair of paint-splattered jeans.
He and his band then proceeded to rock the house. I didn’t look up, but I’d bet money the chandeliers in that antiquated playhouse were swayin’.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.