Forever Young

a gun that shoots & a tree with roots: dylan vs. young in old age.

The concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold reminded me of the differences between Bob Dylan and Neil Young. While Dylan has responded to old age by becoming a ghost, a spook, a wraith, a shadowy riverboat gambler, a will-o’-the-wisp, melting into some murky myth and vanishing into history, Young has managed to grow evermore solid and present.

Dylan rolls with no direction home, but Young has been able to rock his way to something more stable. In the concert film, a quiet, regal affair filmed in 2005 by Jonathan Demme at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, home of the Grand Old Opry, the rocker leans over the stage like a tree, hulking and gnarled, spreading his limbs, timeworn and sturdy, in it for the long run.

Neil Young in Heart of Gold.

While Dylan’s recent songs are evasive, referential, lost in the shards of an old-timey blues past, Young’s songs in Heart of Gold, mostly drawn from the album Prairie Wind, are simple and direct, reduced to their grainy essences by Young’s confrontation with a brain aneurysm that year.

It’s as if Dylan, facing old age and mortality, wants to explore absence—how far one might disappear into the light itself, saturated by a history beyond history, time out of mind. Young, by contrast, has embraced presence, trying to tell it like it is from his own little corner of the redwood forest, where the 1960s dream is still alive, cobbled together out of creaky bones, grandkids, and a faded glory.

The songs from Prairie Wind use every trick in the Neil Young songwriting book: perfectly-placed major-seven chords, little passing notes in the open guitar chords, a bit of steel-guitar crying out, a harmonica note bending, a delayed backbeat on the drums, haunting backup vocals from the usual crew (Emmylou Harris, Peggy Young, etc.), Young’s strained-yet-celestial-yet-strained falsetto, and lots of lyrics about dreams, love, loss, appreciation, memory, and hope. You’d think this would get old, but somehow it doesn’t. Instead, Young finds a way to get old.

The music—and Demme’s classy camera work in Heart of Gold really brings this out—discovers grace, sadness, elegance, truth, weariness, and renewed energy where one would think there could only be cringes and cliches. It reminds me of a brief exchange between Young and a fan at the start of the live album Year of the Horse, which went something like this. Fan: “It all sounds the same.” Young: “It’s all one song.”

What makes the film so moving is precisely that you think you’re headed toward the familiar, and indeed you find yourself in the familiar, only to find yourself crying and moved at how new it all feels. One little cracked vocal note electro-shocks nostalgia into catharsis (Young singing the word “heart” in his parental message to his daughter headed off to adulthood in the song “Here For You,” for instance).

You can see the differences between Dylan and Young in the films that each artist made during the 2000s. Dylan’s Masked and Anonymous, as the title suggests, is elusive, fragmentary, slippery, at the edge of coherence: things don’t quite add up; you’d piece together a story only to see it crumble in the earthquake rumble of an electric-guitar chord on “Cold Irons Bound.” We’re somewhere between the Civil War and a nightmarish noir murder mystery from the 1940s. We’ve left the building and entered some other realm of surreal myth.

By contrast, Young’s Greendale was homemade, in place, rickety, and splintered: a little allegorical tale about hippies in their golden years, an alternative history of America channeled through one town’s struggles. It was amateurish, like a summer-camp drama. But as only Neil Young can do, it linked the close-by to something transcendent: the film’s songs connected its zany crew of locals to bigger stories; a spotlight shined on life outside the limelight.

Bringing the grounded into the electronosphere of mass culture is Young’s special skill. He plugs in, but never gets lost. His roots spread as the wind shivers his timbers. Searching, he lifts us up his trunk to glimpse that elusive place where we all might gather on the hillside, somewhere between Hollywood and Redwood.

1 thought on “Forever Young

  1. I agree with you CR. While I cannot touch your range in describing Young’s musical presentation, he masterfully combines distant stories of love and loss with commentary on issues of immediate social and political import.

    I attended a CSN&Y concert in northern Virginia–about the time the Rover was sniffing around the area– which illustrated this skill. How I wish Demme was there, cameras rolling. Neil Young rocked the Nissan Pavilion with ephemeral renditions of his best work; at once familiar, homemade and rethought. He closed the evening with a touching performance of “Ohio.” A jumbotron stage left listed the names of the dead in Afghanistan and Iraq. Quickly, the show’s Declaration of Independance motif came sharply into focus.

    With the crowd wrapped around his plucking fingers, he had made his move. He walked off stage to a chorus of boos.

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