Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

The Big Lookback: Neil Young

From 1997, "Wasted on the Young," a survey of a vast catalogue that has only grown since then.

Since my number-one 2021 album Barn brought Neil Young back from what I calculate as a 12-year songwriting drought, this seemed a good time to remind readers that, capacious though may be, it doesn't include 70-odd pieces from my 1998 Harvard University Press collection, Grown Up All Wrong, which climaxed or anyway bid farewell with an otherwise unpublished essay I for some reason called "Wasted on the Young" instead of the cornier but also apter "Forever Young." I don't remember why I changed the title except maybe to underline that Young was no longer writing for rock's fabled "youth audience"--an audience I could only fathom at an informed distance even at 56. The collection's introduction is pretty choice as well: "Rock critics weren't just movie reviewers who processed records instead. In addition to making the world safe for the devotional fellatio and semiconsensual s&m popular music 'coverage' turned into, we were exceptionally well-situated to penetrate, exploit, and (if we kept our wits about us) rise above the hypocrisies and illusions of the so-called alternative press. That for all my pop bias the alternative press was where I felt at home is the paradox at the heart of all my criticism only if it's a paradox at all."

"Wasted on the Young" is at bottom a survey of a vast catalogue, although I wouldn't have believed at the time--despite the alternate mixes and stealth song choices that were already starting to surface for anyone who paid closer attention to Young's discography than workaday fans should need to--how perversely and elusively he would continue to fiddle with the details of the albums I hoped to pin down for the historical record. Thus I had an excuse to binge a little last weekend, but only a little--it would take well over 24 hours to play just the 36 Young CDs on my A shelves. But I couldn't resist revisiting my faves. So of course I returned to After the Gold Rush, with the personal reasons "Wasted on the Young" references in play as always, and as a critic practiced in replicating objectivity under extenuating circumstances can reiterate my belief that it will always remain one of his best. My fondness for the obscure 1973 Time Fades Away (no, I do not own the 2016 remaster) is on the other hand an outlier, so I'll pose my report as a dare: play "Don't Be Denied" before you make up your mind to skip what looks like a live placeholder. I grant that "The Bridge," which follows, is just that. But it gets us to "Last Dance," so I dare you. Then there's a song I hadn't thought about since I reviewed Freedom, the racially redolent "Crime in the City," which overpowered me in its live Weld form and held its own in its longer and calmer studio version.

Yes there was a drought, and Barn does indeed end it. But as I hear things, that drought began more than 10 years after "Wasted on the Young" was written. From Greendale to Prairie Wind to Living With War to Fork in the Road, Young continued to release albums of worthy new songs, songs that more often than not addressed the kind of political questions that are supposedly death on songwriting--and followed in 2011 with the barely noticed masterpiece Americana, cover versions that took the piss out of the nuevo-folkie sentimentality of the "movement" of the same name. True, Young's political focus is less class than ecology, as it happens the life focus of his wife, Darryl Hannah. But ever since "Tonight's the Night" and "Don't Be Denied" he's been an unusually class-conscious rock and roller as well. When he turns 77 in November, here's betting he'll do better with the "too late to stop now" idea than the guy who gave us that phrase has the brains or decency to imagine.

The 1997 essay "Wasted on the Young," included at this point in the And It Don't Stop newsletter, cannot be made available on this website. However, you can find the essay in the book Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists From Vaudeville to Techno (1998, Harvard University Press).

And It Don't Stop, March 2, 2022