Most great artists have extraordinary flaws and we want to correct them, to carry on where they left of: they have a great weakness, an idiotism to match their genius, which paradoxically leads them stumbling into some perfection. Artists are usually broken in some way, and yet that brokenness is what makes them powerful and paradoxically a vessel for higher and greater soul. They provoke in you the desire to transcend them; we secretly desire to surpass and complete our heros. Perhaps this is the enlightened aspect to our envy — the most secret of our vices — to provokes us to reach higher.
Speaking of Neil Young, he provokes these kinds of feelings in me. The part I envy in Neil is his emotional, vertical depth — which can be best heard in his early acoustic guitar songs, but some of his later ones too. What made him great was certainly not talent, in the gross sense. Neil is a terrible singer and a sloppy guitar player and his lyrics are awkward. And yet somehow he sings with supreme ‘open heartedness’ and a presence which cannot be denied. We feel he makes no deals or compromises with the world: he offers his bloody heart on a plate. And everybody know that in folk music a broken voice is the best kind of voice. For me the perfect song would be to combine the poetry of a Townes Van Zandt, a Tom Waits, a Leonard Cohen, with the trembling vulnerability of a Neil Young song — if such a thing were possible.
I believe that sometime when you are drawn to people intensely you actually cross paths: on 4th of July, somewhere in Mendocino California, way back in the late 90’s, I got to sort-of jam with Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse. I don’t know how I got invited to that party, but somehow, I found myself, sitting on a hay bale, strumming my acoustic guitar along with the legendary group. Neil wasn’t there but his ghost was certainly present. And evy wasn’t even the world I felt then, it was blue murder. What joy I might have felt was tainted by fantasy that I should have been up there singing: Crazy Horse should have been my band. But I just hung back playing G chord, D Chord, C Chord — the major chords of Neil Youngs epic song Helpless. Helpless was just how I felt.
Neil was my favorite singer as a teenager, and when I listen to the songs I wrote in my early twenties, then they all have a flavor of Neil. They were pretty good songs — however, I didn’t have presence to embody or own them. Talent is really peripheral when it comes to art, depth of heart and soul are everything. Perhaps I had some talent but I wasn’t humble or hardworking enough; I wasn’t able to be a fan. The trouble was I wanted to be the best, to surpass, to conquer, to overcome — in other words I had too much ego and too little real confidence. What I could have learned from Neil — after I had learned the three or four chords of his song was to care less what people think. A twenty-something person — and twentysomethings are the most self-obsessed bunch in the world — learns these life lessons. They get burned in some many aborted attempts to ‘be somebody’; they learn eventually the hard way to go beyond narcissism and develop real character.
My biggest beef with Neil is that he is sloppy and unfocused. This actually my own critique of my earlier self and approach to music and that whole ‘rock music’ generation, which both inspired and lead so many people, including myself, astray. I’m not a Sinatra fan but Joni Mitchell was right to quote old Frank when he said that the sixties generation were ‘bums’. They had no discipline. Their freedom was a false freedom, a bright and giddy explosion that had to end up in carnage.
This is not a moralistic condemnation of weed, but if I had to guess what the biggest obscuration to Neil’s genius was that he smoked way too much of the stuff — as he freely admits. Weed tends to creates a certain spaciousness and sparkle in the beginning but the results are dullness. Weed as a lifestyle, really sucks — not that I have anything against it as medicine or an occasional recreation. Now that weed is legal — as it should be — and has become drug of the american establishment, we should not be shy about criticising its use, especially when mixed with serious matters such as art. But that’s just my opinion. Neil romanticised drug culture and use, and ‘burning out’ instead of ‘fading away’. But do we have to do either? To glorify this choice was Neil’s biggest idiotism.
The best art requires serious sobriety and discipline, whether it is celebratory or deeply introspective. Freedom is only won through real discipline, it can’t be found by hanging out, smoking weed, and noodling on the guitar. There has to be more intelligence and work involved. African Americans always understood this and worked a lot harder than that whole generation of white Californian hippies — for obvious reasons — even though weed also corrupted rap music later on. Drugs, hard and soft, come in when people start to have too much power, become too big for themselves. While the acid tests might have opened up a space in culture, they were also why much of the 1960’s lost its sparkle later on.
In any case, the excesses of the 1960’s are being washed away in the flood of time and only the real will be left standing. Neils real strength is sustained by those few powerful early songs, like Ohio, Down by the River, Needle and the Damage Done to name a few favorites. This are songs of an individual, not a movement — they are lonely and pure, they demand attention. They were the nourishment I was looking for at a certain point in my life.
When I first heard the song: ‘Sugar Mountain’ at age 15 there was this chord: the C chord slid down two frets to the D position. It is a haunting open kind of sound, like pine trees and snow, like the shadow of a bird on a lake in North Ontario. I used to play that chord over and over again, in a veritable trance. ‘Oh to live on Sugar Mountain … ‘. Longing, that was what it is. Pure longing. Longing and one pointed desire for the infinite. That was what I heard in that song, though I could not articulate it at the time.