Sonic Universse

Notes on On the Beach by Neil Young


Neil Young on the beach.

Well, yes, to answer a question no one’s yet asked me. I was one of those guys in high school, in the very early the seventies, who had found their Reason to Be through a sheer immersion into the contemporary grind of rock ‘n’ roll. Leonard Bernstein declared it an art form; Ralph Gleason informed us that rock ‘n’ roll lyrics were the new poetry; and the larger media, Life and Time magazines specifically, uniformly declared rock music a vision of the world to come. I was all in, to be sure, 16, 17, even 18 years old, a would-be poet, a record reviewer for school newspapers and cheaply produced undergrounds. Dylan, Mitchell, Ochs, Simon, Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, poets, prophets, philosophers all, would be the models who’d be useful to gauge my own experience. Their effusions would make my evolution. It seemed like the best idea in the world. Gradually, relying on millionaire rock stars made less sense as I got even just a little bit older. My young frustrations grew faster than my admiration of the songwriters .Rather irrationally, I felt betrayed.

Dylan turned to Jesus, Ochs hanged himself in alcoholic depression, the Beatles and Stones seemed distracted and distant from those of us working minimum-wage day jobs to buy their records. The rock elite seemed addled all at once, bereft of a good lyric couplet, a chorus that could unlock emotions. Heroes fell from the pedestals I had put them on, and I took a cheap pleasure wallow in shallow cynicism. It seemed increasingly the case that pop stars, wallowing in ennui and wealth couldn’t speak convincingly about a life that confounded them. It’s a trauma that confuses many who’ve obsessed over the music and the musicians: I no longer cared what befell them either in their lyrics or real life. At the time it didn’t take much to make me a despairing sad sack. I was a self-made Grim Gus for a time, a premature cynic in my early twenties who wanted to now speak of everything as being false. There was no one to relate to, no one speaking to the persistent chattering anxiety firing along with my synaptic patterns. Or was there? The Revolution hadn’t happened, and the promises of Woodstock were a stale joke. There was no garden to get back to.

But there was Neil Young. It was Young’s songs on the Buffalo Springfield albums I returned to over and over again; it was Young’s worrisome vocals and sparsely filled cadences I related to; it was Young’s ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed, dumbstruck, stunned into a psychic motionlessness in the face of a feckless reality that overturned one utopian ideal after another. If Dylan had spoken to the youthful urge to explore, challenge, and derange the senses in “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Paul Simon sought authenticity against a materialism in “Sounds of Silence,” and Joni Mitchell entreated listeners to embrace all their travels and affairs with an openness that would transform the world. Young never lost sight of himself in a world that he might not be able to transform through good intentions or a collective Good Vibe. Says Polonius to an anxious Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…” This above all, Neil Young remembers his mortality and remembers that dreams of a perfect world are not facts, and that he will show himself to be anything other than another fellow who’s been bashed, bandied, and bounced about by the unschooled churn of the world as is. This is what I’ve always liked about Young in contrast to his admittedly worthy compatriots—that he’s seldom, if ever, sung as though speaking from On High.He was in the trenches with all of us, rolling with the punches. As early as his song “Helpless” on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young release Déjà Vu, a time when the puppy-hug conceits were giving way in a time of post-Altamont, Young admits that his life was too crowded with the stress and consequences of other people’s expectations, and that he needed to return to something simpler, finer of mind before he grew his hair and ventured from his hometown in Ontario.

There is a town in north Ontario
With dream comfort memory to spare
And in my mind
I still need a place to go
All my changes were there

It’s a lovely, three-chord song, and the lyrics, delivered in Young’s fragile whistle of a voice.The lyrics have a plain-spoken quality that brings to mind the idiomatic precision of William Carlos Williams. Nothing especially poetic in effort but certainly poetic in effect, the plain and clear admission of needing to get away to a time that existed no more, if it ever did. The appeals less for the message, which is one of escape from the world—clearly, no one ought to rely on lyrics as solutions to real problems—but in the way, it simply crystalizes the yearning, the fleeting thought. There is no thesis, no lesson, just an intimate revelation as the problems of the universe continue apace. There was a flurry of junkie laments and tales of ecological disaster that found their way onto the albums of politically timely artists. Young, a man concerned with the environment and the survival of the species and someone who has had experience, we assume, with the fatal travails of heroin addiction, combined both these themes in the title song of his 1969 solo album After the Gold Rush. The song is a science fiction eco-disaster fantasy akin to what Paul Kanter and Grace Slick offered up with their Jefferson Starship Blows Against the Empire album. But where Kanter, Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane entourage offered an album’s worth of Sturm and Drang about angry hippies highjacking a starship and leaving a wasted and wretched planet, Young remains the effective minimalist. Three spare, elliptical verses vividly outlining a world that can no longer be inhabited, a ceremony sounded off, a revelation that our narrator is among the debris of a dying planet, that there is a new hope arising as a spaceship arrives and the selected ones board the vessel. They are off to find a new home for Mother Nature, our narrator reveals, but he won’t be among the citizens of a New Earth.

I was lyin’ in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hopin’ for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playin’ in my head
And I felt like getting high…

The fact is that Young knows he is a man who, though blessed with the capacity to learn and imagine, lacks a clear channel to the future, that he is a mere mortal among the herd. Jefferson Starship harmonize cleverly for a skewed utopia where all our friends will be, and croon and cruise for two album sides about setting up camp on another heavenly body. Even in a fantasy, a reverie, Young embraces the simpler tale and the pitiless outcome. Although his song suggests the possibility that the species will go on, the narrator is left behind, never to see the new sun. While I find much to enjoy in Starship’s grandiosity, Young’s fatalism is all that much more powerful. Cogent, reserved, and simply stated, with an ending uplifting and tragic at once.

It’s that fatalism, the lack of heroic pretense in Young’s writing that has been a major draw to his music. This isn’t to reduce the singer to a single-topic Worry Wart who can only give grim tidings to the largeness of life. Hardly a guy to roll over and go back to sleep when the stress is too much, Young’s long career has been fascinating for reasons quite apart from his admittedly occasional persona as a small voice describing the dying of the light. He has been a restless intelligence musically, as observable through his proto-grunge rock, collaborations with Crazy Horse, the earnest balladeering of love songs from deep in the heart, or his fruitful side trips into the areas of country and western, blues and soul, and digital boogie. He is not going quietly to any impending good night.

Still, though, I return to something that intrigues me still, a 1974 album called On the Beach, which I consider a landmark disc from the period, a confession as profound and unavoidable as John and Yoko’s Primal Scream album or the outsized confessions of poet Robert Lowell. Though lacking the anger of Lennon or the particular detail and depth of Lowell’s incessantly detailed and personal verse, Young’s work is nothing less than a stark declaration that was perhaps at the end of the line as artist and that his interest in remaining with the rest us on this side of the dirt perhaps hung in the balance. Returning to the idea that Young is an artist aware of limits in a perilous existence, On the Beach is a lament that old ideas aren’t working. By constant tone, theme, and implication, this is a chronicle of someone feeling powerless over his life. Even his artistry, performing, writing, singing, becomes the millstone he must wear around his neck. The title song, a doleful, a chunky strum of the guitar, is a straightforward admission of his love-hate relationship with his dedicated audience.

I need a crowd of people
But I can’t face them day-to-day
I need a crowd of people
But I can’t face ‘em day-to-day
Though my problems are meaningless
That don’t make them go away…

This is the ultimate mind-screw, being an artist who has reaped a handsome reward from fans for the good work he’s done who is alienated from the gift that provided his life with purpose. He needs his audience to feel whole but loses himself in the bargain. He has achieved riches from doing exactly what he wanted to do but feels a prisoner obliged to respond to the demands on his time, talent, and soul.

The mood remains downbeat with “Vampire Blues,” an extension of the festering resentment addressed in the title song. Young is no longer the fatally alienated superstar, but now instead of a blood-sucking creep; a user; a liar; a low-grade demon who will steal your vitality, love, and passion; who will feed upon your good graces and leave you a charred chunk of humanity. It’s nothing personal, you understand, it’s planetary.

I’m a vampire, babe,
suckin’ blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby,
suckin’ blood from the earth.
Well, I’m a vampire, babe,
sell you twenty barrels worth…

Young effectively reflects the world he has seen too often and too long up to this point, an existence full of takers, exploiting resources and replenishing nothing in their wake. Implicit here is Young’s idea that he is like the earth, a resource being used up and exploited to fulfill the emotional and material needs of others, with nothing left, no fertile soil and no soul as a result. Only burnt-out husks remain of formerly glorious beauty.

The songs are a string of sharp, acute glimpses of life that has been stripped down to routine, drained of joy and passion. “For the Turnstiles” is a terse, sinister conflation of sailors, pimps, touring bands, and hometown heroes revolving around each other both as contrasting metaphors and real-life figures locked in a deadpan dance of entertaining the paying customer while offering mirthless smiles revealing grim, clenched teeth. Everyone is paid for what they do, everyone gets what they want, everyone feels like they’ve been robbed. “Revolution Blues” outlines a diorama of survivalist paranoia: every neighborhood is a camp, no one believes a word anyone says: this is an America where whatever is going to happen will happen soon and without warning. The narrator is ready, his gun is handy, he has plenty of ammo, he has no idea what he’s defending or who he’ll be fighting.

On the Beach is a powerful revelation of sorts, both an admission from Young and his generation that they are no longer in the figurative Kanas anymore. In his mind he may still need some place to be, but the record might be considered as a journal of a moment when existence became too big and that the dreams of utopia, peace, freedom, and justice were destroyed by assassinations, a bad-faith war that would not end and a death-trip rock festival that all but gave a lie to Ralph J. Gleason’s insistence the music would set us free if we believed long and hard enough. Young became awakened, in a manner of speaking, was stunned, and for a while conquered by anxiety at the loss of his naivete, But with On the Beach he confronts his fear, despair, and depression and writes his way through the dilemma. No philosophizing, no rationalization, just the blunt admission that he was having a hard time of it, coupled with a coarse imagining of an America without hope or love. In a Hollywood scenario, this would have been the point where the disillusioned artist bids farewell to all that and lapses into silence. But Young refused to become cynical; through his career he has shown himself to be one of the most interesting artists remaining of the Golden Age of California sound, a man willing to experiment, to try new things, switch up styles and attitudes, explore the furthest and most resonating reaches of emotion. What I believe we have in Neil Young is one of the worthiest bodies of work any rock singer-songwriter has created over time. There is much to discuss in other essays yet to be written. He is oeuvre rivals Dylan’s. (That would be debate worth having). But it is worth it to consider, again, On the Beach. Without this significant record, Young’s work could well have been much less endearing.

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