Kit Rachlis

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Young's songs often come down to a single moment, a gesture that crystallizes and then breaks the tension, because they depend so much on the vagaries of mood. This undoubtedly is one of the things that Young has found so attractive about folk—the sense it often conveys of being a found music, with tone and atmosphere almost everything. A song could be whipped up on the spot, like a talking blues, and what mattered was not the proper convergence of theme and metaphor, but comic timing. If you were good, the process of making up the song—how long you paused to fit the right word into the rhyme—was as important as the completed song itself. A half-finished verse, a redundant refrain, was valued if it hit the moment. Young has always loved those kinds of throwaways; long after they became passé even in folk circles, he has persisted in dotting his albums with such songs as "Love in Mind," "Till the Morning Comes," and "Crippled Creek Ferry," one- to two-minute fragments that end in ellipsis.

Their open-endedness is the source of their power. The repetition of "till the morning comes" takes on the obsessive double-edge of a domestic quarrel: the impatient threat and the imploring request of a lover who has drawn the line, but secretly wants to see it crossed. The sudden fadeout of "Crippled Creek Ferry" (it's over before the credits roll) leaves us hanging—which is exactly its point. Young doesn't put much stock in resolutions. He has said that in making his first album he learned that "everything is temporary." By themselves, those words are clunky; they drip with supermarket mysticism, but I think that Young means them to be taken at face value: that his albums are about the passage of time. They're like journals—brutal, detailed, ingenuous, trivial, spilling out with all the art and artlessness of day-to-day life. Young has the megalomaniacal belief—and the diarist's faith—that everything he says is important. Which, of course, isn't true. He has never made a perfect album—one that has the conceptual unity of [the Beatles's] Sgt. Pepper or the spiritual unity of [Van Morrison's] Astral Weeks. The closest he has come is Zuma, and even that is marred by the gauzy nostalgia of its conclusion—Crosby, Stills, and Nash harmonizing on "Through my Sails." But you don't expect perfection from journals, even if they are meant for public consumption—by definition they are raw, immediate, and incomplete.

Because his honesty is often confused with intimacy, Young creates the illusion that no gap exists between public appearance and private truth. This trick—what F. Scott Fitzgerald once called "a trick of the heart"—is necessary to confessional songwriters and is probably Young's deepest inheritance from the folk movement of the sixties. (pp. 172-73)

Like Dylan, Young sidestepped folk rhetoric and used its strategy for his own ends. He lays himself open in order to shut you out. His songs, like those of all confessional songwriters, invite you into his house, but when he opens the door all you see at first is a goddamn mess. Sentences are strewn around like forgotten laundry, images are piled up like last week's dishes. Lyrics end like the half-opened magazine on the bathroom floor. (pp. 173-74)

Like all of us, Young is caught between memory and desire, private acts and public events. "The Loner" who announced himself so boldly on the first cut of his first solo album is the same person who warns us in "Star of Bethlehem" that all our dreams and lovers won't protect us. It's Young's refusal to give himself any outs...

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that gives his work its moral edge. I don't mean the easy generalities of "Southern Man" or "Alabama," but the leap of imagination that allows him to envision himself as both Montezumaand Cortez ("Zuma"), that can suggest that Nixon's got soul…. If Young's fatalism allows him to identify with Cortez or Nixon or Ahab—convinces him that he will ruin whatever he touches—the rest of him recoils at the idea…. When he tells his lover in "I Believe in You" that he comes to her at night and feels all his doubts, he means it quite literally; most of his love songs ("When You Dance," "Journey Through the Past," "Harvest") are structured around questions. (p. 174)

Collections are invariably frustrating, and your first response to Decade is to throw half of it away and rearrange the whole thing. It places too much emphasis on Young's early career, overlooks Time Fades Away and includes only five songs from On the Beach, Tonight's the Night, and Zuma; in short, the four albums that contain Young's most barbed and eccentric work are given the least attention. But it would be a mistake to view Decade as another haphazardly compiled "Greatest Hits" package. It is as carefully assembled as "Ambulance Blues" or "Don't Be Denied"—Young's earliest attempts to sum up cultural history and his place in it. Neither song is on Decade, but they can be heard rattling down its halls, anticipating every turn. Like Decade, they deliberately try to conjure up the past, try to put a lid on it, only to discover that it has slipped their hold. (p. 175)

"It's better to burn out than to fade away," Young says in "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)." Decade is about not burning out or fading away. By closing with "Long May You Run" the album comes full circle. Young writes that the song is about "his first car and last lady." Don't let him kid you. It's his benediction on the album and his career. With the notes falling perfectly into place with the inevitability of the future, it's his hymn to friendship, things coming to an end and things continuing. It's the only song on Decade that doesn't have a moment of dread, which makes it suspicious. (p. 177)

Kit Rachlis, "Decade," in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, edited by Greil Marcus (copyright © 1979 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1979, pp. 171-77.


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