Monday, November 12, 2007
The Old, Weird Canada
Neil Young turns 62 today. Is he the greatest Canadian rock star ever? His primary competition may be Alberta's own Joni Mitchell, who turned 64 last week on the same day we were celebrating Johnny Rivers' birthday, but Neil's got her beat on career value by now and it ain't even close. As much as I love Leonard Cohen, he's not even really a rock star. Barenaked Ladies work better as a novelty act than as a band you have to take seriously. I suppose you have to send a respectful nod in the direction of Robbie Robertson; Glass Tiger doesn't even enter the conversation. (The Five Man Electrical Band was Canadian: who even knew?)
But you do have to account for that lengthy fallow period in the '80s when Neil was putting out bizarre, ignored record after bizarre, ignored record, the rock & roll equivalent of when George Scott hit .171 with three homers while playing first base for the 1968 Red Sox. The first of these was 1982's Trans, which everybody hates now, but was a fairly substantial hit then, reaching Number 19 on Billboard's album chart. He released a single called "Little Thing Called Love," which I am unfamiliar with but went to Number 71 on the Billboard Hot 100, and then "Sample and Hold," which everyone remembers but did not chart.
Even though Trans is considered the opening salvo in Young's weirdage, it was far bigger than the somewhat more conventional records that followed: the rockabilly Everybody's Rockin', recorded with the Shocking Pinks in 1983; the country Old Ways, from 1985; the synth-rock Landing on Water, from 1986. It was after Everybody's Rockin', I think, that David Geffen sued Neil for making un-Neil-like records. He supposedly went back to his old style with Life, recorded with Crazy Horse in 1987, but nobody ever heard anything from it, either. Of all the albums from this period, Life had the lowest peak chart position at Number 75 (actually, it tied with Old Ways).
Young finally produced another hit in 1989 with "This Note's for You," from the album of the same name. It was actually a doo-woppy kind of album, and I'm no Neil Young scholar, but I am not aware of him pursuing doo-wop at any earlier point of his career. If the album hadn't produced a hit, it would have been just another batch of Geffen-suing weirdness.
I think the lesson here is that you shouldn't stop doing something just because David Geffen doesn't like it.