Neil Young is often written off quickly as a forgettable debut of psychedelic folk-rock that did little to display the future career of the auteur which bears its name. It was critiqued for doing little to separate itself from the rest of the Californian folk scene the year between the summer of love and Woodstock, and Neil’s future greatest work would be predicated on existence in a post-Woodstock America. To this day whispers of “mulligan” hover over Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. However history shouldn’t be measuring this record in such black and white terms. For one Neil was always far grimmer than sunny sixties SoCal, you weren’t going to hear the Byrds or Mamas & the Papas singing “The Loner” or breathing out anything as frightened and suspicious as “Here We Are In The Years”, and Neil Young still displays a maturation in songwriting from his Buffalo Springfield work in further detailed lyricism and more evocative melodic turns.
The album’s crowning point comes on its closing track, “The Last Trip to Tulsa” where Neil paints a surrealist narrative complete with Native Americans, men eating pennies, and green gasoline. There are a lot of different things I love about this song like the supremely hilarious irony of a feminist pilot who lets a man fly her plane because, “it looked good for his pride,” closing sardonically, “I wonder what it’s like to be so far over my head” to the juxtaposition of regionalist and surrealist imagery as a reflection of hippie America. Unaccompanied acoustic songs traditionally function on melody and direct emotional exchange but “The Last Trip to Tulsa” unorthodoxly succeeds on mood centered instrumental vamping and lyrical abstraction, two traits that would come to define some of the best work he made in his career.
Neil’s peculiar and cryptic use of lyrical abstraction has always been one of the primary traits of his songwriting, using metaphor or allegory to comment on personal and social subjects. “The Last Trip to Tulsa” ends with an anecdote that seems to comment on Neil’s stubborn and often unmerciful dedication to following his artistic path despite what consequences it may place on his friends’ or his own career trajectory:
I was chopping down a palm tree when a friend dropped by to ask, if I would feel less lonely if he helped me swing the axe. I said, “no it’s not a case of being lonely we have here, I’ve been working on this palm tree for eighty-seven years.” He said, “go get lost!” and walked towards his Cadillac. I chopped down the palm tree and it landed on his back.
And in this way Neil is both paradoxically extremely self aware and also simultaneously distant and removed, avoiding all the usual cliche pitfalls of singer-songwriter music. For the rest of his career he would continue in this idiosyncratic struggle to chop down the palm tree, taking artistic risks and suffering both commercial and critical backlash. Neil Young is the Platonic ideal of the artist as an unaffected entity self driven by a primordial need within to create, comment, reflect, and express.
I’d like to thank Hendrik for having me on the blog this week and I’d also like to thank all of you who followed along with all my ramblings. In the future be sure to remember what we’ve learned, “only love can break your heart,” and “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” But above all remember to keep on rocking in the free world. Goodbye Waterface.
Make no mistake. This record is the boiled down essence of genius. I guess I like it more than Neil Young does. But if you take Mr. Young’s analysis of his own work too seriously you’d think he was a failure. This is the guy who’s been working on a comprehensive box-set treatment of his entire catalog since I was in junior high school. I guess he’s got an inferiority complex. That’s his problem. This record is awesome.
Neil’s eponymous album is nearly perfect in every way. It’s the perfect transition record between Buffalo Springfield and the Crazy Horse years (it also happens to be the only album between the two). It’s heavy on careful song craft and mixing in a way that’s similar to what cutting a single for Buffalo Springfield must have been like. Sure, it’s overdub city. But, Neil plays all the overdubs to his advantage. Who can argue with layers and layers of Neil? Other than Neil? There’s some anger and emotional purging on this record that would become more prominent on his next album with Crazy Horse (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere). A whole lot of longing too. This guy can paint a lonely sound picture like no other.
Not too many guys are bold enough to start their solo career with an instrumental. Neil does just that with The Emperor of Wyoming. Gutsy. It sounds like it was written for a movie that plays in Neil’s mind. The Loner is next. That’s Neil. If I Could Have Her Tonight covers the longing angle pretty nicely as does the next cut, I’ve Been Waiting For You. Man, that song is so great I can listen to it over and over. The Old Laughing Lady is a tune that sounds like it should accompany a slide show about some lady you feel like you met years back. String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill is another instrumental and it was written by Neil’s friend Jack Nitzsche. Here We Are In The Years is about a bunch of life happening all around you stuff and What Did You Do To My Life is a haunting story of a woman splitting on Neil. Sorry, man. I’ve Loved Her So Long has some sweetly singing female backup vocals. Insanely great.
Which brings me to this. The last cut on the album. The Last Trip To Tulsa. Fantastic. Epic. Cinematic. But what does it mean? I couldn’t tell you and I’ve heard it a hundred and nine times. To me, it’s the kind of thing I dream about when I have a fever. Maybe it’s that way for Neil too. It’s Neil’s second installment in a series of songs which build strange image upon image throughout a long song very carefully crafted to make you feel something intense even when you can’t possibly understand what’s happening in it. The first Neil Young song like that? In my opinion it’s Broken Arrow by Buffalo Springfield (written by Neil). Bizarre in it’s vision and hideously awesome.
For weirdos only: Take a look at the photo of the reissue LP above. It’s missing Neil’s name on the cover (the sticker doesn’t count, Chachi). Just like the first pressing of Neil’s solo debut. That album came out on Neil’s birthday - November 12, 1968 - and sounded muddy enough that he quickly remixed it and re-released it early 1969 along with a new cover that proudly displays his name. The reissue I bought a couple years ago sounds awesome. You audiophile geeks probably already know how awesome it sounds. Blacker blacks. More transparency. Wider soundstage. Hahaha. And if you listen very carefully to I’ve Been Waiting For You, it confirms something I’ve long suspected. Neil needs a mint.