Paul Nelson

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Unless one understands the "On the Beach"/"Motion Pictures"/"Ambulance Blues" trilogy from On the Beach (and "Don't Be Denied" from Time Fades Away), one simply cannot write intelligently about Neil Young. But when one understands these songs, one begins to perceive the exciting possibility that perhaps Young is rock & roll's first (and only?) postromantic. That he knows something that we don't, but should….

For Young, being a postromantic probably means he still loves the war, but knows exactly how and where to invest his combat pay—he may lose it, but never hopelessly….

[American Stars 'n Bars] can almost be taken as a sampler, but not a summation, of Young's various styles from After the Gold Rush and Harvest (much of it country rock) through On the Beach (the incredible "Will to Love") to Zuma ("Like a Hurricane" is a worthy successor to "Cortez the Killer" as a guitar showcase), with a lot of overlap within the songs….

If one can divide American Stars 'n Bars into major and minor Neil Young, I think that it breaks down this way: "The Old Country Waltz," "Saddle Up the Palomino," "Hey Babe," "Bite the Bullet" and "Homegrown" are excellent examples of country rock at its most pleasant and muscular. While these songs abstain from cloyingness and retain the artist's characteristic idiosyncrasies (Young is nothing if not quirky), they lack the necessary resonance to stand up to the LP's four masterpieces.

In "Hold Back the Tears" and "Star of Bethlehem," two songs about how it feels when you've just been left and didn't want to be, a corrosive view of love metamorphoses into hopefulness … with a final metaphor equating the inevitability of the quest for a meaningful relationship with the apotheosis of the religious experience.

Which leads right into the shining "Will to Love," a song that flies into the face of reason by flaunting the seemingly ridiculous—the thoughts of the singer as a salmon swimming upstream—in order to gain the truly sublime. And it works.

"Like a Hurricane" … is a perfect either/or, neither/nor description of a modern-day Gatsby caught between the tangible idea of transcendental love and the intangible reality of it. Everything is "hazy," "foggy," lit by "moonbeam" and "the light from star to star."

               I am just a dreamer
               But you are just a dream
               And you could have been anyone to me
               Before that moment you touched my lips
               That perfect feeling when time just slips
               Away between us and our foggy trip

The first three lines imply that the singer's need to invent someone to love may be far greater than the someone he finds. One can infer from the last three lines that the feeling gained from the creation and the chance taken is undoubtedly worth it, no matter what the cost. Is there a happy ending? I don't think so. "I want to love you / But I'm getting blown away," Young sings. It's like Key Largo with feedback.

Although he may be circling in a peculiar and seemingly haphazard manner …, Neil Young has a very good chance to be the most important American rock & roll artist in the Seventies. Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and others must be considered, of course, but I don't know anyone who goes after the essences with as much daring as Young. I don't know anyone who finds them like he does either. (p. 58)

Paul Nelson, "Neil Young's Solitary Journey," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1977; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 245, August 11, 1977, pp. 57-8, 60.

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