By Terry Barr | Contributor Published: 06/05/2013 8:00 am EST
Back in the early 1970’s, when I was a teenager, I selected potential girlfriends based on two criteria: does she have a pretty face (very subjective, obviously) and does she like Neil Young (the true deal-breaker)? I could endure it if the girl liked other bands. Hell, I learned to love The Beach Boys’ PetSounds because a girl I met at St. Petersburg Beach one summer liked it. Her name was Marcy, whose parents had emigrated from the Ukraine and had settled far away from where I lived or vacationed in some place called Virginia Beach. Marcy, dark-complexioned, wavy-long black hair, looking slim-to-almost-nothing in her pale pink bikini, foreshadowed in appearance the woman from Iran whom I eventually married. Marcy’s face stopped me that first day on the white sands.
And she really liked Neil Young, i.e., knew the order of songs on After The GoldRush. Not many girls did in those days, or even now. We were happy together for two days, alternating “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with “When You Dance I Can Really Love.” For those two days I was in love. But was I in love with Marcy or with the fact that Marcy liked Neil? I was fifteen then, and when Marcy’s family left the hotel to return to Virginia, I was crushed—so crushed that every AM hit song I heard for days reminded me of her, of “us.” And since Neil didn’t make AM much, that meant I was identifying with songs like “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” and with artists like Edward Bear.
By the end of high school I learned that if I kept true to my two criteria, I might not ever date again. The number of girls in a small town like Bessemer, Alabamawho were both pretty and Neil Young devotees ranged from 0 to negative 7. Or that was my experience at least.
I managed in those years to keep my love life and my Neil Young love life running concurrently. These were the Harvest years, the Time Fades Away years, even the Tonight’s The Night years. As long as the girls didn’t hate Neil, I gave them a chance, and I’m not about to say here how many of them gave me a chance. Once, I even dated a girl who felt sorry for Nixon. She claimed to know something about Neil, and that was good enough for me, for one date anyway.
I met plenty of girls in college who loved Neil, but they were mostly girls who didn’t see me as a potential dating partner. I had branched out musically, too, getting acquainted with David Bowie, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and 10CC. But no one compared to Neil: his vocals, his guitar, and especially his lyrics. I was in love with so many of his lyrics that it’s hard now to select a representative one, but letting the first one flash through my mind, I come up with this:
Did I see you down in a young girl’s town
With your mother in so much pain?
I was almost there at the top of the stairs
With her screamin’ in the rain.
I don’t know what the song means, though I had my guesses once. Neil would let the lyrics play with each other and allow the story of it all to sing. And in my mind there was always a place to go to see that story—a place where “all my changes” were too.
I followed Neil through decades of changes. Some, like his computer world stuff, I liked. Some, like his rockabilly mood, I didn’t. His late 70’s Rust Never Sleeps is still one of my favorite records, and his late 80’s Freedom was the soundtrack we listened to while my wife was in labor with our first daughter. Neil and I accompanied each other on so many trips, and when he sang “My life is changing in so many ways, I don’t know who to trust anymore,” I’d think: me, Neil. You can always trust me. And I believed in him and never thought that would change.
I believed in him even when he embraced Reagan during the Farm-Aid days. Neil said he thought Reagan, as a man from the West, would understand and empathize with the plight of the lonely farmer, “out on the weekend, trying to make it pay.” He appealed to Reagan to help the farmers with subsidies, with aid, and I don’t know if Reagan listened, but I feel pretty confident that he didn’t, given The Great Communicator’s track record as California Governor back in the 60’s.
I remember when seminal Rock Critic Dave Marsh blasted Neil for his political betrayal back then. Marsh published a bi-weekly newsletter called “Rock and Soul Confidential,” and his attack on Neil was blistering. Not too long afterwards, a couple of wise people invited Marsh to speak at the small, liberal arts college where I teach. At the luncheon after his talk, in the “banquet room” of our local Golden Corral as Marsh was taking questions, I asked him if Neil was still his “enemy.” Marsh looked at me for a moment, seemingly embarrassed, or maybe he was just shocked that anyone in Clinton, South Carolina not only read but remembered his words. He smiled, “Yeah, I did say that. Well, I meant it then, but I guess I’ve softened a bit now.”
Marsh had recently lost a daughter after some debilitating illness, and Neil had denounced Reagan’s successor, the first Bush. Marsh’s opinions always mattered to me, even when he declared in print that Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was the greatest Rock, Pop, or Soul song of that era. It’s a great song, yes, but it’s no “Cinnamon Girl.” In any case, I was relieved that he and Neil had made peace.
That was twenty years ago, and Neil has made plenty of records since. I’ve bought most of them, too, but the last one I remember really liking was Mirror Ball. Most of them I’ve listened to maybe once or twice. I’m no music critic and never have been, so I can’t write about his musical arc with any real authority. But in the past twenty years, I’ve gone from being mildly disappointed in his music, to being somewhat bored by it, to finally waking up one day and saying to no one in particular, “I think his new stuff stinks.”
I’ve listened to Fork in the Road, LeNoise, and Living With War, and I don’t remember the countless others. I know I should love Living With War, given Neil’s ever-constant lament and defiance of our national pastime war machine. In my journey through the past with Neil, I’ve both admired and relished “Ohio,” “Ambulence Blues,” and “Southern Man.” Maybe I’m just too old now. Maybe I’ve just heard all the rhetoric for too long. Of course, maybe it’s just that rhetoric isn’t my idea of lyrical beauty.
But with Neil, the rhetoric was always subsumed within the poetry, as in my favorite of all Neil’s tunes, “Cowgirl in the Sand”:
Hello Cowgirl in the Sand.
Is this place at your command?
Can I stay here for a while?
Can I see your sweet sweet smile?
Old enough now to change your name.
When so many love you, is it the same?
It’s the woman in you that makes you want to play this game.”
I’ve seen Neil’s recent film, Journeys. I started his self-titled memoir. Many of us are capable of creating meaningful, poignant art in more than one medium. But not all of us. Not me, and, I’ve come to see, not Neil.
Still, it’s hard to let go of the artist who once caused me to keep dating a girl who didn’t treat me very well. I bought Neil’s latest a few weeks ago: Psychedelic Pill. It’s a rocking work with extended guitar jams—a Crazy Horse record. I used to love the jams, the ten-minute versions of “Cowgirl” and “Down By The River.”
But that was then.
Maybe Neil and the band still get kicks out of six-minute guitar duels, but I don’t. Not any more. Perhaps the worst thing I can say about these solos is that, to me, they all sound the same.
No, I think this is the worst: the lyrics to Pill’s “For the Love of Man.”
For the love of man
Who could understand what goes on
What is right and what is wrong
Why the angels cry, and the heavens sigh…
It doesn’t get any better either. Not on the other songs—the entire album. Not for me. Not anymore.
I suppose I hope that Neil keeps making records. I’d hate to see him burn out or fade away.
Which makes me think of Marcy again. Did she outgrow The Beach Boys? What did she think of Smile, a few years back? Did she ever visit the Ukraine, or St. Petersburg again?
Did I ever tell her that in those two days back in 1971, she was the cowgirl in the sand?