Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Close Enough for Nashville

In a pathetic attempt to convince the world that Neil Young makes a difference in the record business, Warners is touting Old Ways (Geffen) as his country move. But without a single gold record released in this decade, he doesn't, and it's not. Maybe David Geffen, who sued his prestige singing for not trying hard enough in the wake of 1983's computerized Trans and 'billyfied Everybody's Rockin', figures Neil is due. At least Old Ways doesn't sound like some eccentric throwaway, and the proper application of CHR emoluments to country radio could conceivably break "Get Back to the Country" in the rural contemporary market. But even in that unlikely event the album won't go gold, because it just isn't good enough--not only is Trans more adventurous (and droller), it has better songs. And it won't be Neil's country move, because Neil has been making country moves ever since he put "Oh Lonesome Me" on After the Gold Rush.

Oh, some motion is discernible. Young has worked in Nashville off and on for over a decade, always with a folkie's fondness for acoustic instruments and a square dancer's sense of rhythm; steel player and coproducer Ben Keith is an old hand, while drummer Karl Himmel and fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux saw substantial action on 1978's Comes a Time. But the great Nashville session pianist Pig Robbins is new, and so are Willie Nelson, who recently helped Julio Iglesias go country, and, on six cuts, Waylon Jennings, who I bet thinks he's finally gotten to go rock. In overall feel Old Ways is another awkward step in the path of two stylistic predecessors: Comes a Time, whose classic folkie love songs Young thought close enough for Nashville, and Hawks and Doves, released around Election Day 1980 and the first hint of Young's turn toward Reaganite jingoism. Unlike Comes a Time, Old Ways touches a range of countryish themes--cowboys, truckers, fathers and sons, old ways, getting back to the country. And not only does it avoid the mythopoeic fantasy of Hawks and Doves (though "Misfits," featuring a drunken cowboy, a sneezing prostitute, and some astronauts watching Muhammad Ali tapes as the sky falls, ain't exactly "My Efusive Dreams"), it lays down a more graceful two-step. If anything makes Old Ways country, it's its aura of bright banality.

Yet if Old Ways isn't the self-assured comeback Young's proponents say it is, neither is it the inept neoconservative sellout those fed up with his self-involved foolishness want to believe. Try though he may--and I'm not convinced he's trying all that hard--Young has small flair for the literal narrative and pungent sentimentality the country audience goes for, but his modestly engaging melodies are the equal of any Music Row tunesmith's. So what you get here quite often is a catchy ditty that starts off like an utter clich but soon jogs a little to the left lyrically, almost of its own accord. "Old Ways" are divided into bad (substance abuse) and not so bad (workaholism); Rockaday Neil gets back to the country between tour stops; "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" hails "workin' families" who resist encroaching housing developments; the trucker in "Bound for Glory" abandons wife and kids for a hard-lovin' hitchhiker with new ideas and a dog. The don't-grow-up-too-fast of "My Boy," the gypsy boots of "Where Is the Highway Tonight?" and the exploitative idealization of "Once an Angel" are all old Young, and while "The Wayward Wind" makes a dandy country song, it was written by two UCLA students and never entered the country charts when it went number one pop for Gogi Grant in 1956. Which leaves the boosterish "California Sunset" as Young's sole country departure.

None of this stropped Comes a Time helpmate Nicolette Larson, who opened for her ex-lover at the Pier September 10--after all, what does? "I know you must be fans of country music because there's going to be a lot of it layed here tonight," she told the most employed-looking Neil Young crowd I've ever seen midway into her disastrously enthusiastic set. When Young came on with a band that included not only Keith but Thibodeaux (who looked like the Big Boys' daddy) and even Robbins (who couldn't have been there for the money), and then opened with a new song about being thankful for his country home, I wondered if she'd been telling the truth. But Young spent the night demonstrating once again why he makes a difference in rock and roll even when he can't justify David Geffen's advance. This man has been some live performer for one hell of a while. There was more Comes a Time than Rust Never Sleeps and Tonight's the Night combined Tuesday, and although with typical perversity Young showcased only two Old Ways tracks, his six new ones were on the slow side, with lots of foreground color from Thibodeaux. But of course he did "Heart of Gold" and "Sugar Mountain," and yes he did "Powderfinger," and in the end the peaks of a powerful show were "Helpless"--dedicated to David Crosby, with Robbins's piano jangling in the background as things fell apart--and, of all things, "Down by the River." When I got home I searched fruitlessly through live albums and bootlegs trying to find a guitar solo half as galvanizing as the 20-minute serial explosion Young set off at the Pier. As Thibodeaux sat there bobbing his head, all us fans of country music went wild.

Not that this was just the same old Neil--it never is. While he rolled out the latest folk-rock variant, he talked country, with special emphasis on Willie Nelson's FarmAid benefit. It sure was nice to hear the Reaganite urge support of Tom Harkin's family farm act and combat against "big corporations and big money." But populists are no more reliable politically than guys who write songs like "Southern Man." Though by concert's end Young, who doesn't see what's so bad about the U.S. invasion of Central America, had replaced the band logo of his International Harvesters (well, we are saving the whole world, aren't we?) with a peace sign, he was also moved to put in an encouraging word for brave American hostages and proud American GIs. And if Young hadn't grown up in Toronto and Winnipeg, which aren't what you'd call small towns, he might understand that it isn't only evil bankers who pressure farm kids off the land--patrimonies get more cramped with every generation, and city lights have their own allure. It's hard not to feel that Young's current fling with The Family hooks into the male egoism that's always made his love songs so patronizing and footloose, as in "Once an Angel," where Young's wife approaches heaven (sez he) for putting up with his ornery ways. Now that's a country song for you.

Few rock and rollers have been as obsessed with losing their youth as Neil Young--he was all of 26 when he moaned "And I'm getting old" in "Heart of Gold." Yet for better or worse he hasn't, really: where some rock and rollers actually do get wiser as they push and pass 40, Young trades for a new dunce cap. And it doesn't much matter. Old Ways is a minor comeback at best. But just ask Ray Charles--even Reaganites can sing from the heart. And anybody who can rip the stuffing out of it the way Young did on "Down by the River" the other night isn't likely to burn out or fade away in the foreseeable future.

Village Voice, Sept. 24, 1985