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Greendale

by Russell Blatcher

 

There is a recording of the Greendale portion from one of Neil Young’s recent shows in Dublin around on the Peer To Peer network. The official release is touted as being on both DVD and CD.

Young’s first remark to the audience in Dublin reflects upon the instant communication of tour news commented upon here recently in the Dylan context: 

I’m ready. By now you know what I’m doing before I do, I suppose. 

Yes, indeed, look on the tour site of HyperRust and you will find that every show without fail opened with the entire Greendale album, 10 unreleased tracks, stitched together into a continuous narrative by Young’s deadpan detailing of the story of the mythic American town, and its main family, the Greens. 

The second half ‘oldies’ section also followed a fairly strict pattern early on, before diverging wildly later at some venues. At the Manchester show I attended, one of the modem-equipped wiseacres in the audience shouted out the name of the track which had followed at every show until then. Young paused, sneered and said, “You should open one of those psychic shops in town”, and proceeded to play it any way. It is hard to know why he chose to tack the second half of the show on. On the face of it, it looks like a sop to popular affection for the old stuff, especially 30 years after the notorious show, also in Manchester, at the Palace, when the performing of unreleased songs from Tonight’s the Night was greeting with very little equanimity by a different crowd, not forewarned in the slightest that they were going to hear little or nothing from Harvest, or their other favourite Young albums. When one of the 2003 Manchester audience shouted rightly of his absence from that great city “30 years”, Young erroneously corrected their maths, muttering about playing here in 1976. Unfortunately this nation is blessed with more than one Apollo theatre, and the one he played in 1976 was in Glasgow, not Manchester. For me personally, this time, much as it was that time, the new songs were much the better part of the show, mainly because he seemed to put much more into them. Strangely enough, Young himself connects the shows in one of his self-commentating asides, when he reveals he hasn’t written a group of songs so focussed upon one topic, since he wrote “a bunch of songs about a roadie”, i.e. Bruce Berry, on the album Tonight’s The Night

As the Greendale album remains unreleased, and Young hasn’t introduced the songs by name, the titles are, as yet, guesses. The opener, the only song performed prior to the Greendale tour, is Falling from Above, which may also be called Love and Affection:

Grandpa said to cousin Jed
Sittin' on the porch,
"I won't retire
But I might retread."

"Seem like that guy singin' this song
Been doing it for a long time.
Is there anything he knows
That he ain't said?

Sing a song for Freedom.
Sing a song for Love.
Sing a song for depressed angels
Falling from above.

Grandpa held the paper
Pretending he could see.
But he couldn't read
Without his glasses on.

"How can all those people
Afford so many things?
When I was young people wore
What they had on."

Mamma said, "A little love and affection
In everything you do
Will make the world a better place
With or without you."

A little love and affection
In everything you do
A better place
With or without you.

Slamming down a late night shot,
The Hero and the artist compared
Goals and visions and afterthoughts
For the twenty first century.

But mostly came up with nothing,
So the truth was never learned.
And the human race just
Kept rollin' on.

Rollin' through the fighting,
Rollin' through the religious wars,
Rollin' down the temple walls
And the churches' exposed sores.

Rollin' through the fighting.
Through religious wars.
Mostly came up with nothin'...

"Grandpa here's your glasses,
You'll see much better now,"
Said that young girl
Of Edith and Earl's.

But Grandpa just kept starin'
He was lost in some distant thought
Then he turned and he said
To that young girl...

"A little love and affection
In everything you do,
Will make the world a better place
With or without you."

With or without you.
A better place...
With or without you.
With or without you.

Hear that rooster crowin'
Down on the Double E.
It's a new morning
Dawning on the green.

Bouncing off the towers,
The sun's heading down to the streets.
The business meeting
Window shades are drawn.

Another morning edition
Is headed for the porch,
Because Grandma puts down the paper
Before Grandpa raises his fork.

A little love and affection
In every thing you do,
With or without you...
Hear the rooster crowing
Down on the Double E.

The perennial Neil Young critic (I have Dave Marsh in mind here) will probably see this as typical of his trite sentiments in many songs down the years, especially if they focus too tightly on the chorus. In fact the second verse is a quote from just such a critic: "Seem like that guy singin' this song Been doing it for a long time. Is there anything he knows that he ain't said?" 

But look at the central image “depressed angels, falling from above”. If you still retain the Eighties image of Young as the Reagan supporting conservative, you may have missed his comment on the Iraq war. On March 10th, at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, just before the tanks started to roll, he said:

"Tonight we're having a good time.
But we're going to kill a lot of people next week
Let's not forget about that ... We're making a huge mistake."

What, in this context are “depressed angels”, and why would they be falling from above? The angels are depressed because of what they see going on below, namely yet another political war, dressed up in quasi religious fervour. So depressed indeed that they have thrown themselves from heaven, and are falling down towards us, much like Satan and his cohorts, “Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie” as Milton has it. And indeed the devil too is a major character in Young’s Greendale, lurking, only half hidden in the jail, and playing some part in Jed Green’s killing of the popular local patrolman Officer Carmichael. 

The three generations of Greens are archetypical Americans, apparently very different, from young Sun Green, drafting her ephemeral anti-war banner in the corn, for airplane passengers to read, to her hippie generation father, still struggling to sell his psychedelic paintings, to Grandpa, the wise old curmudgeon who sees through all the fantasy fired at people from their TV screens, including the current fantasy of yet another just war. Grandpa’s comments on TV sets him firmly in the Eisenhower era:

It ain't a privilege to be on TV.
And it ain't a duty either.
The only good thing about TV
Is shows like Leave it to Beaver.

Shows with 'Love and Affection,'
like Mama used to say.
A little Mayberry living
Could go a long long way.

Leave it to Beaver ran from 1957 through 1963. The Andy Griffith Show, which started in 1960 was located in Mayberry, which Greendale is probably another version of. 

Young is telling the Green’s story because he believes in America, or more precisely, in Americans, not in the Hero or the Artist, who “mostly come up with nothing”. Grandpa’s views tie back to the era when the US public could not be so easily enticed to support hare-brained foreign adventures at the merest of excuses. But Young is clear as well that in the end Americans of all eras will resist the likes of Bush and Cheney, as they transmutate into the kind of despots the U.S.A. was set up to escape from. 

In the song Leave The Driving, Jed’s slaughter of the police officer is tied to the shortly to follow terrorist attack on New York:

The whole town was stunned.
They closed the Coast Highway for 12 hours.
No one could believe it,
'Cause Jed was one of ours.

Meanwhile across the ocean,
Living in the Internet,
Is the cause of an explosion
No one has heard yet.

But there's no need to worry.
There's no reason to fuss.
Just go on about your work now.
And leave the drivin' to us.

And we'll be watching you,
And everything you do.
And you can do your part
By watchin' others too.

“Leave The Drivin” is the Bush administration’s advice to the U.S. public, on how to conduct the “war on terror”. In the third stanza quoted here is a clear depiction of the McCarthyite tactics currently used to suppress any criticism of this policy.  Grandpa refuses to listen to the propaganda, despises TV and reads the paper without his glasses. 

The song concludes with a bitter condemnation of Bush’s war and the motive for it:

The moral of this story
Is try not to get too old.
The more time you spend on earth,
The more you see unfold.

And as an afterthought,
This must, too, be told,
Some people have taken pure bullshit
And turned it into gold.

Which is to say that the motive for the war is purely economic. 

Neil Young never ceases to amaze me. His combination of this song cycle with his deceptively laconic narrative has forged a new idiom in popular music. It will be fascinating to see if the album is released with or without the narrative. Conventional wisdom may dictate leaving it out, but I hope that he doesn’t. Currently news is that the release of the album has been brought forward from September to August 5th. This is so counter to experience of Young’s release schedules that I would view it with intense suspicion. But you never know. Amazingly, one of the Hyperrust reviews of the current U.S. Greendale Tour, with Crazy Horse, describe the arrangements as “much like the Zuma sound”. 

It would appear that elements of the Young entourage have introduced a drama into the presentation (Larry Craggs as Grandpa, Pegi Young as Edith), using 3 stages: the jail, and the Double E ranch and assorted locations on an hydraulic lift, as well as a large video screen. 

As a result of the delay in submitting this piece, the official release of Greendale has now arrived. As promised, this contains a DVD as well as the CD of the song suite itself. The DVD turns out to be of the same Dublin show I have been discussing. I’m not sure that the visuals add a great deal to the argument, but it’s nice to have, though I would have preferred one of the more dramatic, group shows from the States. Perhaps this is still to come. 

The Guardian review of the album on Friday 1st August was packed with all the usual anti-Young animus. I really cannot see the point of using a reviewer with a negative outlook on the whole oeuvre from the start for a performer as well established as Young. Dorian Lynskey, the culprit in this case, should be shown some of the contemporary reviews of Young’s masterworks, mostly rubbished when they first appeared. Here is a typical comment:

Alas, Young's quality control is, like his pseudonym, shaky. The pivotal shooting is gauchely described as "a split-second tragic blunder", which suggests he has been taking stylistic tips from the true-life stories in Take a Break magazine. In one bathetic couplet, which rhymes "loaded up both barrels" with "a woman named Carol", the influence appears to be Victoria Wood.

Mmm, gauche and pathetic, how appropriate then that this followed very shortly after the low key, but long overdue CD release of On The Beach, which includes the following admonition in Ambulance Blues:

So all you critics sit alone
You’re no better than me for what you’ve shown
With your stomach pump and your hook and ladder dreams
We could get together for some scenes

As he also says elsewhere in the same verse: “It’s hard to say the meaning of this song”. Mr Lynskey admits towards the end “Perhaps we're not meant to understand it all.” Since Young himself admits his own frequent disassociation from the songs as he writes them, we should perhaps not even try. But, I can’t help it, and surely anyone can understand Sun Green’s corn field message.

 

 
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