Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

(Related here and here.)

How are you supposed to settle on one favorite Neil Young album? I asked four friends—Phil Dellio, Steven Rubio, Jack Thompson, and Scott Woods—to help me with this imponderable, asking specifically for their thoughts on the one I have landed on, Rust Never Sleeps. For me, it could have equally been After the Gold Rush or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (and there's a good handful much loved right behind those three, and literally dozens of scattered songs beyond that), except I did not experience them in real time—I resisted Young until Rust Never Sleeps made it impossible for me any longer. I've got a couple of quick points to make, and then Phil, Steven, Jack, and Scott weigh in. Many thanks to them!

First, a prevailing motif of Rust Never Sleeps is time, for which rust serves as metaphor. Most (not all) of its preoccupations touch on time in one way or another. It's as if punk-rock wakened Young to its passing and the necessity to find a place within that stream. But this goes beyond a simple name-checking of Elvis Presley ("the King") and Johnny Rotten or (not a simple matter at all) finding a way to make the guitars sound like the future. In some discontinuous way I still don't exactly understand, Young appears to enter time and history itself. "Powderfinger" feels like one of the most authentic Civil War stories I've ever encountered. All the business in "Pocahontas" does not feel fanciful but somehow lived, directly experienced—even though it is obviously fanciful. And the extraordinary verse from "Thrasher" that Jack and Scott quote below, "Where the eagle glides ascending," etc., with its "ancient river," its "timeless gorge of changes," its "sleeplessness," is crazy but feels full of wisdom beyond its surface, wisdom about what I will just go ahead and call the eternal verities.

Second point: I think there's something subtly compelling as well about the fact that these songs are all actually live performances, though Rust otherwise eschews every single convention of the live album—virtually no crowd noise, for example, let alone onstage between-song banter. But I feel (or project) the edge of live performance, the way his voice feels like it is inside a giant room when most of the instruments fall away from it. That outrageous guitar tone, especially in the album closer "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" feels like some equivalent of pitching off the stage and going crowd-surfing. "We're going to distort / filter / fuck-up these guitars and amplifiers," it says by implication, to a crowd that might well have been expecting songs from Comes a Time. "See if you can support it." It's pure courage on a level, putting himself out there so nakedly with these strange powerful songs, and doing it in front of a few thousand people.

Phil Dellio
A couple of summers ago, I ran a Neil Young poll on the ILX message board. Sixty-six ballots were submitted in total, including outside-the-board lists I solicited from Jeff, Scott, and Steven, all of whom donned Road Eye costumes and participated secretly. "Powderfinger" ended up taking the #1 spot, which, I think it's fair to say, was a major surprise to almost everyone; the general assumption going in was that "Cortez the Killer" would win handily. "Powderfinger" wasn't on my own list of 40, but I had to check back to be sure, so it must be in the neighborhood of my 40th favorite Neil song. My #40 actually was a Rust song, "Pocahontas," but it was the only Rust song on there. (Jeff, Scott, and Steven had shorter lists but more Rust—three for Jeff, including "Powderfinger" at #1, four for Scott, two for Steven.)

I sometimes start bookkeeping when I'm not sure if I have anything to say about something ... Rust Never Sleeps was very important to me when it came out in July of 1979. I'd seen the album previewed at Maple Leaf Gardens the previous fall, my three or four year obsession with Neil was at its peak, and it was the summer between high school and university; my belated discovery of punk was also underway by a few months, and that fit into the story too. Rust's arrival was an event (Decade had been an event too), and my connection with it was intense—and yet, within two or three years I stopped playing it, and tonight was probably the first time I've taken it off the shelf in 15 or 20 years. (Seeing as that break would have been around the time of Trans and Everybody's Rockin', it'd probably be more accurate to say I pretty much stopped playing Neil altogether within two or three years.) When I eventually found my way back to Neil in the early '90s, the details of which I've already recounted too often, Rust Never Sleeps wasn't part of that, just the early albums through to Zuma. For me, rather than being the culmination of that period, Rust had now detached itself from the rest of those '70s albums—it was an overplayed classic-rock white elephant, in the same state of limbo as Who's Next, another high-school favorite I'd cut loose. Which obviously wasn't fair: the album was intended as a rebuke (or at least a cautionary warning) to the white elephants of its day, and its only overplayed songs are "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" and its acoustic partner. "Powderfinger" gets a little radio airplay—not much.

Re-listening to Rust tonight—I hardly ever put my half-remembered recollections to the test, so I'm really going all out here, Jeff—it has indeed lost something for me. There's nothing wrong with it, it just doesn't take me back in the way that After the Gold Rush and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere still can. I don't know—there was so much other music that came into my life at that time, maybe Rust, after that initial intensity, irreparably got crowded out. "Sedan Delivery" and "Welfare Mothers" both sound kind of flat to me now, and they're the funniest and liveliest songs on the album. There's a sigh in "Powderfinger" that I still find very moving, and I'm glad I listed "Pocahontas"—let me amend that previous sentence, it's "Pocahontas" that's the funniest song on Rust, also the prettiest. And that's about it. I'm simply not able to hear "Hey Hey, My My" anymore, as complex and ingenious as it is. It's as dead for me as "Satisfaction" is.

(An odd moment that did take me back: three little pops in "Thrasher" from all the play I used to give the album, still there 35 years later.)

[See also Phil's great roundup of Neil Young covers.]

Steven Rubio
Not sure if this will be much help to you, since my experience with Rust Never Sleeps is pretty standard.

I'm old enough to have been around for Buffalo Springfield, and once they split, Neil Young was far and away my favorite solo artist ... you might say my only favorite from that band. And he was more than a favorite to me ... Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere got played on a regular basis at my house, and I could "sing" along with the guitar solos from "Cowgirl" and "River" by heart. After that were high points (in my world) like After the Gold Rush, Tonight's the Night, and Zuma, low points (Journey Through the Past ... even I drew the line at a 97-minute version of "Words"), middle points (I loved maybe half of American Stars and Bars), and not-yet-discovered (I didn't come to Time Fades Away for a few years).

All of which is to say that Young was an icon of mine. But then came 1977, and for me, punk changed everything. Most of my 60s favorites were either long gone or mostly irrelevant, and Bruce Springsteen, while he is my all-time favorite, has always existed outside of my normal taste preferences. Comes a Time was a lovely album, much better than Harvest, but it was so quiet next to The Clash et al.

So, when Rust Never Sleeps came out, explicitly acknowledging punk, I fell in love the way I had with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Looking back, I don't think as highly of it ... I never really understood songs like "Powderfinger", preferring noisier glop like "Welfare Mothers". But "Hey Hey, My My" still resonates.

What capped off my feelings about Rust Never Sleeps is that I saw Young in concert for the first time, which had been a long time coming. (I'd seen CSNY once.) As it happened, the show I attended was the one used for the Rust Never Sleeps movie, which means whenever I want to relive the show, I can just pop the DVD into the player. It's hard for me to separate the album Rust Never Sleeps from the concert I saw, which had silly staging but which was even better than the album because it also included "Like a Hurricane".

Nothing he did after Rust Never Sleeps hit me as hard. And in 2013, if I were listing my favorite Neil Young albums, it would be in a tie for second behind Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

Jack Thompson
Rust Never Sleeps was my first Neil album proper. By that I mean it was the first one I bought for myself. I'd heard a lot of a friend's copy of Decade, barreling down I-5 to and from college the previous year, but that was close to all the Neil I knew at the time. So Rust's importance to me first and foremost was biographical. I'd probably read a X-gau review before I made the purchase and was vaguely aware of real or imagined battle lines being drawn up by veterans in the music industry for and against (Iggy Pop, Townsend vs. the Eagles, The Rolling Stone) punk rock and knew which side I was on. I remember the album cover when I first spied it in Everybody's Records; Neil in tennis shoes and all-white, his Tom Verlaine haircut, the gigantic red and blue speakers and microphone dwarfing the band. I bought the whole my-my-hey-hey American tragic-comic mythmongering hook, line, and sinker, really: what a cocky counter-punch to punk, was my reaction. The clang-clang go the metal guitar sonics were primitive and painterly. The dinosaur stomping tempos when the music rocked; the elegiac and resolute lilt to the slow ones. If I was aware at the time that all I've mentioned so far was a crudely obvious effort by Young to stay relevant during the early excitement of punk rock revolution I'm sure I considered it all bold and even righteous. Yay punk rock! And, even now, I must say, I think one of the most striking things about Rust is really how little musically is conceded to trendy sounds. The punk ruckus might have kicked him out of slumber but he doesn't dive into the mosh pit. I mean, this isn't like the Stones or Blondie doing disco records. Neil just plugs-in his feedback amp and plays traveling songs from Mars. It was like some of Marcus's old, weird America turns up in 1979. (In fact, there must be a Marcus chapter about the setting in "Powderfinger" alone somewhere, right?) The alienated Americana struck something deep in me as well, being only 19 years-old, just starting out, it felt like a bridge between my past and future. I was trying to catch an hour on the sun too, wanted to sleep with Pocahontas to find out how she felt, I wanted shelter from the powder and the finger, and I was most certainly wonderin' a lot about what the fuck to do. The druggy, hippy-dippiness set against mythic landscapes of existential quandary and wanderlust was some of the highest art I knew in those days.

Where the eagle glides ascending
There's an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits.
I searched out my companions,
Who were lost in crystal canyons
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates.

Today? Images of eagles (ascending or descending) are near as bad as images of the American flag. Sophomoric? Probably. Bad poetry? Probably, I wouldn't know. Pulpy? Sure. And certainly not as deep as the lyrics pretend to be, but imagery of timeless gorges and crystal canyons with 19th century God-is-dead alienation still works for me; like a psychedelic movie western.

In retrospect, I'm ready to admit Neil has made prettier music, that there are probably only three songs on Rust worthy of the eponymous Decade collection, and I like Everybody Knows, After the Gold Rush, Tonight's the Night, side two of On The Beach, and "Like a Hurricane" at least as well, but I identified with Rust like no other Neil album before or since. Not that I'm claiming this is of any great significance to me or you either. It would actually have been far more accurate of my life at the time to say that I hadn't decided it was better to burn out than fade away at all but almost exactly the opposite. And, even in that, my identification with Rust was kind of self-righteous, helping me in my efforts to leave some of my past behind. But I really was wonderin' what to do and, most of all, like Neil, wanted to get away, to sail away, gotta get away.

Rust Never Sleeps is a record for road trips, two-lane blacktop rolling on forever, from the sun-bleached morning into the dark, spectral, night.

Scott Woods
My favourite song on Rust Never Sleeps is the quiet, gorgeous, ironically (or should I say duplicitously?) titled "Thrasher," and though I often claim I'm not a lyrics guy, the imagery here is remarkably suggestive. Back in the mid-'80s I was talking about the song once with a fellow Neil enthusiast I worked with at the college paper (he was a few years older than me, and a major stoner), and I still recall his recitation of the line, "When the aimless blade of science/slashed the pearly gates." He was shouting the line at me, his eyes bugging out, declaring, "that's just unbelievably brilliant!" I couldn't—and I still don't—disagree. Equally remarkable, and no less evocative for Neil fans of a certain vintage, though, is the line about "that great Grand Canyon rescue episode," which I've never heard as anything but a reference to the epic three-part "Grand Canyon or Bust" episode of "The Brady Bunch" that aired in 1971. As described in IMDb, "Mike tells all the kids not to go exploring on their own as they don't know the terrain. But the family hits its second crisis of the trip when Bobby and Cindy go missing. Unknown to the rest of the family, Bobby and Cindy were intrigued by an Indian boy they spotted…" Okay, fine, I'm sure rock star Neil had better things to do in 1971 than watch drawn-out episodes of Mike & Carol's kin (then again, a lot of crazy shit can happen on a tour bus, as Neil himself can surely attest) but if you bring the almost-as-lovely "Pocahontas" into the frame here as well—might there not be at least a hint of thematic consistency at work?

So there was that with Rust Never Sleeps—intriguing characters (Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, Johnny Rotten, and an unnamed Martian in possession of some terrific weed), starring in fragments of stories put across in ways I'd never heard before in pop music—it all seemed so plain-spoken and grounded in a way that felt both unfamiliar and exciting. (I should mention here that I really only started to think about Neil Young in the early '80s. Rust and Decade reached me in tandem after being tipped off by something I read in The Globe and Mail about Neil being one of the original punks. So, a couple forgotten '70s radio hits aside, I really had no prior idea of what he was capable of.)

There was also music, of course, and though song for song I might prefer side one's acoustic slowburns (save "Sail Away," the kind of freewheeling-folkie Neil I've never been partial towards), I still get a kick out of side two's electrified meltdowns, and I wish I had better command of the language at my disposal to burrow into and adequately describe the guitar sound of the "Hey Hey" finale. Years of FM overplay later, I still find it entirely rousing (in a way I don't find "Rockin' in the Free World" at all so), in no small part because it has the most insane guitar blare I've heard. Pretty sure I wasn't alone during the mid-80s "pigfuck" days when I'd think of "Hey Hey" as a kind of litmus test for how far any of the pre-grungers—from Dinosaur Jr. to Squirrel Bait, et al.—could take it; some worthwhile attempts here and there, but truthfully, it stands untouched. But hey hey, my my—just because I can't get there, perhaps you (Jeff), or someone else that's part of this festschrift, can. You certainly have my blessing to try.

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