I don’t usually pay much attention to stories about the circumstances in which a particular record came to be. However, the stories about the timing of this record are an exception. Neil Young made this record in Nashville in 2005, shortly before going to the hospital for surgery for a brain aneurysm. Combined with the recent illness and death of his father, mortality had to be on his mind, and the lyrics show it. In a concert film Jonathan Demme made of Neil’s live premiere of the material from this album, Neil talks about his father’s dementia. He remarks that the loss of memory left his dad in the moment, since he’d lost everything else. As an example, he cites the time his dad turned to Neil and simply said “cop” when a police car rolled up behind them.
I remember hearing on the indie rock grapevine that Sonic Youth said Neil himself was “really far gone” after they toured with him in the early 1990’s – a tour I caught at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. (The guy standing next to me kept asking his buddy, “is that a dude or a girl?” while pointing to Kim Gordon.) So perhaps Neil could relate to what his dad was going through.
You might think that reflections on dementia and aneurysms would make for a bleak record. The reasons I love this album is that the results are quite the opposite. There’s no raging against the dying of the light here. The poem I refer to there was written by Dylan Thomas, a poet who drank himself to death at a young age. It’s a well worn path of rock musicians that Neil’s earlier song “Hey, Hey, My, My” once touted: “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” In that song, fading seems to refer to a pale imitation of something that was once vibrant. One assumes this has to do, in a musical context, with commercial accommodations of the kind the hardcore band Minor Threat once summed up by singing, “I need a little money, cuz I’m getting old – that’s the way it goes, isn’t it?”
Some thirty plus years after Hey Hey My My, time seems to have given Neil a different take on the true meaning of fading. Rather than taking one away from one’s true nature, it rounds it out in a way that resonates with the way that everything is always already fading in the world. It can be seen as a quality that unites us with all things, rather than banishing us to death where we are separated from everything. The chorus of the song “It’s A Dream” goes,
“It’s a dream
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
It’s only a dream
Just a memory without anywhere to stay”
Each verse surveys situations in life that are different in some respects – bad dreams, scary news stories, railroad cars, old men on the sidewalk, young boys fishing, rivers flowing. They are all connected together by the common impermanence the chorus notices in all of them. I didn’t get the impression that the fading of these dharmas left Neil with a feeling of loss, but rather of connection. The verses are all in the present tense about things that are happening now, rather than dwelling on the past. The fading happens in the same place, the mind of the moment – they’re all memories, impressions without substantial reality, “without anywhere to stay.” The string parts make me think of the beating of a bird’s wings, making each departure sound like a graceful exit.
There’s a luminous feeling about what remains, which from my Buddhist perspective has to do with the innate nature of the mind itself before thinking. The song sees a continuity in life even as the singer contemplates the prospect of his departure from it. Depending on your views about rebirth, that continuity could even include Neil himself.
Falling Off the Face of the Earth adds a gratitude expressed to a loved one to the acceptance of the transitory nature of life expressed by It’s A Dream. The Last Time I Saw Elvis adds humor. I listened to this album when I was recovering from a serious illness and found that Neil’s evocation of those qualities really helped me stay on track as I negotiated the roller coaster of what that situation brought to the fore for me. There aren’t that many rock or pop records I really would have wanted to listen to in that situation. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to pop in the Sex Pistols, much as I love Johnny Rotten, the man Neil pays tribute to in Hey, Hey, My, My. Falling Off the Face of Earth made me think of an analogy Joseph Goldstein once made to describe what it’s like to come to a mature perspective on the impermanence of things in life. He said it’s like we’re falling through the sky, passing clouds as we go. At first this seems terrifying – until we realize there’s no ground beneath us to crash into. I don’t know what Neil was thinking or feeling as he wrote those songs. But I hope I can face what he did with the kind of equanimity and balance he brings to this tune:
The concert film of these songs shows a healthy Neil all recovered from his operation. To my eyes, he looks fresher than he has in years. Perhaps as a boast of this newfound vitality, he surrounds himself with a veritable phalanx of guitar players in this version of Comes A Time:
The mise-en-scene of all those instruments makes me think of radically different sounds achieved by similar orchestrations of rock instruments. Such as Glen Branca’s guitar orchestras or the Boredoms one-off concert under the Brooklyn Bridge in 2007 which assembled 77 drummers: