Paul Nelson

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For anyone still passionately in love with rock & roll, Neil Young has made a record that defines the territory. Defines it, expands it, explodes it. Burns it to the ground.

Rust Never Sleeps tells me more about my life, my country and rock & roll than any music I've heard in years. Like a newfound friend or lover pledging honesty and eager to share whatever might be important, it's both a sampler and a synopsis—of everything: the rocks and the trees, and the shadows between the rocks and the trees. If Young's lyrics provide strength and hope, they issue warnings and offer condolences, too. "Rust never sleeps" is probably the perfect epitaph for most of us, but it can also serve as a call to action. (p. 72)

[We're] dealing with omniscience, not irony, here. Too often, irony is the last cheap refuge for those clever assholes who confuse hooks with heart, who can't find the center of anything because their edges are so fashionably fucked up, who are just too cool to care or commiserate. Neil Young doesn't have these problems. Because he actually knows who he is and what he stands for, because he seems to have earned his insights, because his idiosyncratic and skillful music is marked by wisdom as well as a wide-ranging intelligence, Young comes right out and says something—without rant, rhetoric, easy moral lessons or any of the newest production dildos. (pp. 72-3)

For my money, Neil Young can outwrite, outsing, outplay, outthink, outfeel and outlast anybody in rock & roll today. Of all the major rock artists who started in the Sixties (Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Who, et al.), he's the only one who's consistently better now than he was then.

Though not really a concept album, Rust Never Sleeps is about the occupation of rock & roll, burning out, contemporary and historical American violence, and the desire or need to escape sometimes. It's an exhortation about coming back for those of us who still have that chance—and an elegiac tribute to those who don't….

Rust Never Sleeps leads off with "My My, Hey Hey (out of the Blue)," and you can tell in an instant … that this song lies not far from the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter here is death and desperation. And commerce. While "out of the blue and into the black" is a phrase that's filled with mortal doom, "into the black" can also mean money, success and fame, all of which carry a particularly high price tag. (p. 73)

The autobiographical "Thrasher" (the threshing machine as death symbol) follows, and it's about rock & roll destructiveness, too—this time in the guise of the easy living that can lead to artistic stagnation. But even as the singer chronicles the downfall of many of his friends and fellow musicians … he makes the decision that it won't happen to him: "So I got bored and left them there, they were just deadweight to me / Better down the road without that load."

Written partly in the florid and flowery style of mid-Sixties rock "poetry" …, "Thrasher" is a very complex composition that dwells deeply on the ties and boundaries of loyalty, childhood memories, fear, drugs, the music business, taking a hardheaded stand and art itself. (pp. 73-4)

"Pocahontas" is simply amazing, and nobody but Neil Young could have written it. A saga about Indians, it starts quietly … and then jumps quickly from colonial Jamestown to cavalry slaughters to urban slums to the tragicomic absurdities of the present day…. With "Pocahontas," Young...

(This entire section contains 800 words.)

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sails through time and space like he owns them. In just one line, he moves forward an entire century: "They massacred the buffalo / Kitty corner from the bank." (p. 74)

Like the helicopter attack in Francis Coppola's hugely ambitious Apocalypse Now, the violence in "Powderfinger" is both appalling and appealing—to us and to its narrator—until it's too late. In this tale of the Old West, a young man, left to guard a tiny settlement, finds himself under siege and can't help standing there staring at the bullets heading his way…. The tension is traumatizing, our empathy and fascination unbearable. And Young refuses to let us look away.

"When the first shot hit the dock I saw it comin'," the boy says…. The narrator says: "Then I saw black and my face splashed against the sky."

The song doesn't even end there. Instead, the dead boy adds another verse…. The king is gone but he's not forgotten. This, too, could be the story of a Johnny Rotten. Hey hey, my my. Rock & roll can never die. (pp. 74, 76)

Paul Nelson, "Neil Young: Every Promise Fulfilled," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1979; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 302, October 18, 1979, pp. 72-4, 76.


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