Wednesday, November 12, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 316): "HELPLESS" (1970) Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

OK, boys and girls, today is the birthday of Neil Young, 69 today. And Neil’s one of those main dudes. Like, it’s hard to imagine the history of my listening without his contribution. Young has had his fallow periods, certainly, but his best stuff hits on different fronts: there’s Neil the hard-rocking guitarist, usually in collaboration with Crazy Horse, his garage band of musical mates; there’s Neil the crusader for this or that cause, steering by his own idiosyncracies—including criticism of both Bushes, criticisms of the record industry, of mp3s, of gas-guzzling cars (he’s been working on both a hybrid electric guitar and an alternative format for sharable music), and his concerts to support the Bridge School; there’s Neil, as I first knew him, as folky-trippy crooner with a penchant for strung-out states of mind. That Neil is represented by today’s song, which is the first song of his I ever heard way back in 1970. It graces Déjà Vu, the album on which he joined Crosby, Stills & Nash to create one of those albums that seems a landmark of its time, more than the sum of its parts. And yet “Helpless” is more than all the rest. The song marked me when I first heard it, all of eleven or so, and still works its magic on me. And it's also the song Neil performed at The Band's farewell concert and it appears on The Last Waltz (1978) with Joni Mitchell on backup vocals.

The strung-out Neil was the basis of so many memorable Seventies albums from him: Tonight’s the Night (1975), On the Beach (1974), After the Gold Rush (1971), which also had some of the guitar hero Neil on display on, my favorite, Zuma (1975), which also has quiet tunes and even a CSNY number, and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969), which also has the droning acoustic downer “It Won’t Be Long,” a song that is sort of quintessential Neil. But what really is? Neil’s a bit of a chameleon. I’ve already posted on “Thrasher,” his great narrative of disillusion in the late Seventies from Rust Never Sleeps (1979). And, indeed, I feel like I should go to something later than that, but I didn’t care much for Neil’s output in the Eighties—not really wanting to revisit Trans (1982) or the even more forgettable late Eighties albums—though he ended the decade strongly with Freedom (1989). In the Nineties, Neil rode that renewed purpose into a series of worthwhile discs: Harvest Moon (1992), Sleeps with Angels (1994), Mirror Ball (1995), Broken Arrow (1996). Two of those are with Crazy Horse, and Mirror Ball is with Pearl Jam, while Harvest Moon revisits the sound that made him millions on Harvest (1972), which I guess could be called hip Country.

I’m tempted to take a song from one of those latter LPs if only to indicate that Neil has done good stuff beyond the Seventies but I haven’t listened to those albums recently enough to feel drawn to them. And of course Neil keeps going: Prairie Wind (2005) might be said to pick up where Harvest Moon left off, and Greendale (2003) is an involved dramatic tale that only someone like Neil could pull off. I haven’t mentioned the many live albums—it’s always interesting when Neil picks up his electric guitar for an audience—including Weld (1991) with Sonic Youth and, with Crazy Horse, Year of the Horse (1997), which was also a film by Jim Jarmusch, for whom Neil did the guitar soundtrack for Dead Man (1995), all of which shows that the Nineties was a decade of revitalized guitar-playing for Neil, and more power to him.

More recently (the last works I’ve picked up), there was the entirely solo grunge-guitar classic, Le Noise (2010), with production effects via Daniel Lanois, and another Crazy Horse outing, the sprawling Psychedelic Pill (2012)—on both albums Neil offers some songs in a retrospective mood, such as the notable tracks “Hitchhiker” on Le Noise and “Twisted Road” on Pill. Made interested again by those latter day offerings, I picked up Chrome Dreams II (2007), another sprawling effort I have to admit I haven’t “fully absorbed” yet, as indeed I haven't any of Neil’s work since the mid-Nineties. His is a vast body of work, and he continues to work on his Archives, releasing unreleased performances and alternate takes and mixes. Certainly it’s about time someone did a full, in-depth critical study on Young’s career.

So . . . “Helpless.” It's not only the first song of his I loved, it also lets me get CS&N on here as it doesn't look like they'll be showing up otherwise, though I have come to admire Déjà Vu more like I once did. It's interesting to hear Young working with those other worthies who, to my mind, never got close to doing anything as good again. Not so Neil.

“There is a town in North Ontario / With dream, comfort, memory to spare / In my mind I still need a place to go / All my changes were there.”  There you have the look backward that shows a rosy past, a past that impoverishes the present, to some extent. One still needs “a place to go,” in one’s mind, because the present oppresses, except to the extent that the changes of the past live on. And Neil's vocal is as pure as any he ever did.

I confess I always heard it, sang it as: “dream, comfort, memory, despair.” For me the parallel was that dreams provide comfort—a possible future—while memory brings despair, because one has failed to live up to its promise or because what is recalled is shaming or undermines the present. Which is why a “place to go” in one’s mind is necessary. But Neil isn’t so glum; he’s recalling a place—in Canada, where he’s from—that provides comfort to his mind.

There’s not much development in the song, and that may be what I loved about it. Young and company seem to be stopped in time, hanging in a stasis as he contemplates those “big birds flying across the sky / Throwing shadows on our eyes / Leave us helpless, helpless, helpless.” An odd word for what the song conveys, I’d say. Listening to it in my teens/twenties it would be better to sing “wasted, wasted, wasted”—and I think that’s what the song conveys. (Probably that word would’ve been censored anyway.) The song, with its slowed-down strum and that limpid pedal steel, sounds like what being really stoned feels like, making Neil Young the best conjuror of that state. And the plea, “sing with me somehow,” makes us all want to chime in with him. We hear ya, Neil.

And yet, when I first fell in love with the song it was in those days of “changes” called childhood into teens. It’s bracing to think of being 11 and recalling “a past” already out of reach—or is it depressing? I suppose there is some comfort in the look back, but it wouldn’t be going too far to say that this entire daily project, this series, is an effort to get out of the past—“the chains are locked and tied across the door” but let’s hope not forever.

Baby, can you hear me now?

Happy birthday to Neil, one of the originals.

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