Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

“Neil Young: Long May You Run by Durchholz and Graff // “When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening To Van Morrison" - Greil Marcus

Neil Percival Young and George Ivan Morrison will both turn 65 this year, Young on November 12, Morrison on August 31. In an earlier era, 65 was synonymous with “retirement age”. Of course, many people retire at a younger age nowadays, but neither Young nor Morrison shows signs of calling it quits. True, Neil Young has been devoting much of his time and energy to looking back, documenting his many decades in the business. Morrison has slowed down somewhat, though he headlined a folk festival in Canada just this month (August). Still, both seemed poised to carry on for some time to come.

Nevertheless, 65 remains a landmark age, a time appropriate for critics and historians alike to start the process of summarizing and saluting the careers of artists who have made a major impact on the musical world, as both Young and Morrison have done since the 1960’s. These two books illustrate two very different approaches to the art of the hallowed-figure-of-rock career retrospective, though neither is exactly the hagiography one has come to expect from such tomes. The truth is, neither Neil Young nor Van Morrison has made it easy through the years for writers to follow the development of their artistic timelines in a logical manner. Both have reputations for being cantankerous, unpredictable, and eccentric in their own ways. They do what they wish to do, expectations be damned.

Of the two, Neil Young has had by far the greater commercial success and the greater influence on subsequent artists. Thus, it’s not surprising that he’s the one who has been given the oversized-coffee-table-book treatment. I must confess that I have not read any of the previous full-length treatments of Young’s life and career (there would appear to be at least eight earlier books), but authors Durchholz and Graff tend to rely mostly on two of them - Neil’s father Scott Young’s “Neil and Me” and Jimmy McDonough’s “Shakey”. There are also quotes from papers and magazines strewn throughout the text. No doubt these two books could be considered the definitive sources to date. Scott Young was not “just” Neil’s father, but a prominent Canadian author and television/newspaper journalist, while McDonough interviewed Neil Young extensively before the artist decided not to authorize the book after all.

It is often the case that biographies relying heavily on previously published works are regarded as slipshod hackwork. Of course, this attitude assumes that the reader is familiar with all of this previously published work, and that the authors of the later books have nothing new to offer. I personally found much here that was new to me. But beyond that, Durchholz and Graff get high marks for their arrangement and interpretation of the facts, and for their well-reasoned critical commentary on the artist and his art. Since Neil Young’s recording career has been littered with false starts and abandoned projects, indicating that he himself has not always been happy with his work, it is only fitting that Durchholz and Graff are also unafraid to occasionally find artistic fault with the music under consideration. Thus, we may consider this a “critical biography” as well a history.
However you wish to look at it, the book tells the story of Neil Young in compact, readable form, covering everything from childhood to his first recorded work as lead guitarist for a Winnipeg band called the Squires, through his days in Toronto with the Mynah Birds (which also featured Ricky James Matthews, later to find stardom as funk icon Rick James), Buffalo Springfield, the various comings and going with Crazy Horse, the equally frequent comings and goings with David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash (a series of collaboration almost doomed to failure considering the nature of Young and Stills’ relationship in Buffalo Springfield), various genre explorations (from electronics to swing) with a range of collaborators, recordings with top Nashville players such as the late Ben Keith, his political songs and statements, his benefit causes (often related to the illnesses of Young‘s sons), all the efforts to represent Young’s musical history through a series of reissue repackagings, all culminating in Young’s role in the development of the fuel-efficient Linc/Volt automobile. Virtually every recording session is described in loving detail. If it was a significant aspect of Neil Young’s life, it’s covered here, even when it sheds a less than favorable light on the man himself.

The narrative is supplemented by sidebars detailing various people and events in the Neil Young saga. This results in a few instances of repetition, as topics mentioned in the text occasionally reappear in the sidebars. In addition to the text, there is a fascinating array of high-quality illustrations spread throughout the book, virtually on every page – performance photos, artwork, album covers, 45 RPM picture sleeves, posters, concert programs, ticket stubs. Even if one already knows everything there is to know about Neil Young, the book will impress your friends as it rests on your coffee table. There is also an illustrated discography, which could have been improved by personnel listings.

If “Neil Young: Long May You Run” is a tribute in the form of a Big Statement, “When That Rough God Goes Riding” is a much smaller, more narrowly focused statement. Greil Marcus has long been recognized at one of the Greats of contemporary music journalism, as witnessed by the number of other writers who have referenced such classic Marcus books as “Mystery Train” and “Lipstick Traces”. (Incidentally, 2010 also marks Greil Marcus’ 65th birthday.) “Rough God” (the title comes from a Van Morrison song which paraphrases William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”) is not on this level of accomplishment (and I doubt it was intended to be), but it’s a fascinating, beautifully written little nugget in its own right.

On the upper-left corner of the dust jacket, the publisher has classified the book as “Music/Biography”. A biography it is not. The details of Morrison’s first couple dozen years are briefly sketched in the book’s first few pages, concentrating on his early influences and his days with the Northern Irish band, Them. Beyond this point, there are just enough biographical details sprinkled here and there to provide a context for Marcus’ musico-philosophical musings. The book lacks enough technical matter to classify it as a musicological analysis. If pressed for a term to classify the book, I would need to call it “an appreciation”, and a rather impressionistic one at that.

Marcus’ writing style is, as always, filled with quotable lines and delicious phrases, so many that it would be a disservice to single out one or two. (This no doubt reads like a cop-out, but it would be better for the reader to come upon them in their intended contexts.) His opinions on Morrison’s songs and performances often break with conventional wisdom. He very much dislikes “Brown Eyed Girl”, which he considers to be Morrison’s “least convincing” record; he dismisses the song “Moondance” as “TV-commercial jazz”; actually, I find that one a valid observation. But his discussions of most of the performances he chooses to discuss at length are very well thought-out, sometimes rather quirky, but by and large far from capricious.

One of the aspects of Morrison’s performance style Marcus spends considerable time with is what he refers to as the “yarragh”. Once again, this is a Yeatsian concept, thought of as a haunting, sorrowful cry which can be detected in much Irish balladry, whether sung or written as poetry. It is Marcus’ contention that when Morrison indulges in repetition of words and lines or wordless moans/interjections, it is part of his quest for the yarragh. It is what makes Morrison’s art distinctively Irish. This is Marcus at his best. At his worst, he devotes one 10-page chapter to 16 albums recorded between 1980 and 1996, considering every one of them as not worth devoting time and energy to take seriously. On the other hand, several chapters are devoted to performances hardly anyone has ever heard, available only on bootlegs or in the memory banks of concert attendees. Marcus is such a fine writer, one eagerly reads his commentary on these as well.

The Neil Young book will doubtless appeal to fans, but is just as likely to win converts to his music. The Marcus book will appeal almost exclusively to hard-core Van Morrison fans. But if you want to encounter a great popular-music historian writing near the peak of his powers - music writing as literature - "When That Rough God Goes Riding" is for you as well.

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