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Friday, March 24, 2006

Heart of gold never sleeps

Now, about Heart of Gold, and about Neil Young.  The film and the performance are all about mortality: Neil has recovered from his aneurysm, but his father has just died, and the film’s final words, after the credits have rolled, are “for daddy.” Young wrote and recorded the songs from Prairie Wind in the week before his surgery, which makes a song like “Here for You,” from an empty-nester dad to his daughter, all the more precarious and poignant: I promise I’ll be here for you, but first I have to see about this here brain surgery.  But then, the whole thing—the film, or, more accurately, life itself—is precarious and poignant. So it’s practically impossible to see the movie without thinking of it as the work of the Neil Young Preservation Society—and this is a good thing: Hey, we still have Neil with us!  Things can’t be all bad, now! Add to all this the venue of the Ryman Auditorium, its intimacy, its acoustics, its atmosphere, its ghosts backstage: it’s as if the National Historic Landmark, renovated in 1994, hosts the International Rock Legend, restored in 2005.  The entire film is flushed with a gentle ochre glow, and Neil Young turns out to have been an alt-country sage all along, even when he was writing “I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold, and I’m getting old” in his late twenties.  Country is, after all, a much kinder and more appropriate genre for Advanced Grownups, since it tends to be more concerned with how to make sense of the years than with how to do it all night long.  And the songs are mostly acoustic, mostly pleasant, and mostly accented by Ben Keith’s lovely, plaintive work on pedal steel.

There’s a curious tension, though, between the lushness of some of the arrangements and the sparseness of the film itself.  The movie opens with brief interviews with some of the principal musicians, riding in elevators or the back seats of cars, almost as if the film is being made on the fly and they didn’t have time to set up “formal” interviews in studios with proper lighting.  There’s no time to bother with blather—let’s get to the show!  Hop in the car!  Here we go! And, of course, as every reviewer duly notes, Demme doesn’t do audience shots.  So there are about ten minutes of setup, during which we hear about Neil’s recovery and the wonderfulness of the Ryman, and the rest of the film is nothing but music.  No cutaway reminiscences, no accounts of the life and work, no interviews with rock journalists.  Just the performances themselves.  Whereas the performances themselves include dozens of performers: not just Neil Young’s friends and associates, but also the Nashville Strings, a completely unnecessary horn section, many lovely backing vocals, and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers to boot.  Apparently the Greater Tennessee Gamelan Society couldn’t make it for the August dates.

Now, about those backing vocals.  From the moment the concert begins, we’re reminded that Neil Young can’t really sing.  It’s not because he’s 60 and recovering from brain surgery; his voice sounds pretty much the way it did thirty or thirty-five years ago.  He couldn’t sing then, and he can’t sing now.  Often, his inability to sing has its own charm: see “precarious and poignant,” above.  That high reedy voice, which now sounds so strange coming from this old, lined, wizened face, is wonderfully effective on songs ranging from “Down by the River” to “Helpless” to “Powderfinger” (which aren’t in the film) and downright heartbreaking on the gossamer “Harvest Moon” (which is).  And sometimes, it doesn’t matter in the least that Neil can’t sing, because his wife Pegi can, and so can Emmylou Harris, who appears here as Featured Backup, the role she plays whenever she’s not playing her own material.  (Can’t hit the high notes?  Need help with vibrato? Not strong on harmonizin’? Call 1-800-EMMYLOU today!)

But Neil Young’s vocals have been a point of contention for me and Janet over the past twenty-two years or so.  Janet, you see, comes from a family of harmonizers; her oldest sister, Cynthia, is the leader of Eight to the Bar, and all the sisters have sung in the band at one point or another in its almost-thirty-year history.  (The lone boy in the family, Bud, is a bassist, and more in the tradition of Jah Wobble than swing.) My family, by contrast, can’t even manage a round of “Frère Jacques.” The Lyons, accordingly, place great emphasis on vocal virtuosity or the lack thereof, and they have nothing but disdain for the tradition of white-boy singer-songwriters who don’t hold up the “singer” part of the deal (and they do consider it, with some justice, as a white-boy tradition).

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I’m a drummer, and I could care less about the vocals or the lyrics.  If you’ve been reading this blog for two years or so, you’ll remember that I once had a contest for pop lyrics written by space aliens, and that when it was all over, I wrote, on behalf of drummers everywhere,

Privately (or at least privately until now), we suspect that they’re all versions of “Collar me, don’t collar me/ I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush.” We know what really matters—just us and the bassist, working away in the engine room to make sure everybody else has a good time.  We’ve long suspected that the lead singer was really just saying “Today is her birthday/ They’re smoking cigars/ He’s got a chain of flowers/ And sows a bird in her knickers.” So thanks, everyone, for giving me indisputable proof.  I will now spread the word to the rest of the U.S.D.A. (Underappreciated and Spiteful Drummers Association).

Which is to say, I don’t always pay attention to what’s going on up front, and don’t always see the need to.  In the case of Mr. Young, the vocal track does not affect in the slightest my love for a gorgeous little tune like “Winterlong” (whose lyrics are weak and whose vocals just suck) or for such an incandescent piece of work as “Like a Hurricane,” whose second guitar solo is somehow even more glorious and agonized than its first, and should be treated with great reverence. 

Janet counters that the vocals are unbearably whiny on songs like “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and beyond embarrassment on the turgid “A Man Needs a Maid.” She happens to be right about that, but I think this is merely evidence of a certain, ah, radical unevenness in Mr. Young’s body of work.  So Janet brings up a more sweeping and structural point: the bad-singing white-boy tradition licenses all kinds of horrors in hands less talented than Young’s, and—here’s the kicker—leads to rockism.  For example: while we can all appreciate Pavement and their unique contribution to our important Alternative Music Heritage, Stephen Malkmus can’t sing for shit and doesn’t try to.  That may be all right for Pavement, but it is not all right for the ten to twenty thousand bands influenced by Pavement (I saw another one just the other day—a special new band).  In less exalted climes, there is the phenomenon of Eddie Vedder, who can’t sing, who begat Scott Stapp, who can’t sing, who begat. . . .

Ah, but this train of thought leads me to my decisive counterargument.  In rock, yes, weak or introspective or whiny or mumbled white-boy vocals are part of the odious apparatus of rockism.  But too exclusive a focus on vocals leads straight to fascism.  The vocalist tradition may mean one thing when you’re talking about Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn right on down to Aretha and Gladys and Toni and Lauryn, but quite another when you’re dealing with the likes of Jim Morrison or Bono or Scott Weiland.  The lead-vocal tradition represented by these guys inevitably produces not only excessive critical attention to the Leader and his Cult of Personality (hence fascism) but also the genre of really awful rock journalism (“in his more recent work, Bono’s yearning reaches a blah of blah blah blah, as in the song ‘You,’ where he sings, ‘You/ Oh, you/ You are you/ You know’”). And you don’t want that, now, do you.

So we’ve never been able to decide whether the vocals matter all that much.  Since the question remains open, feel free to chime in.  Meanwhile, the drummer will relax and wait between shows for his cinnamon girl.

Posted by Michael on 03/24 at 12:15 PM
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