North American idol

By JAMES PARKER  |  May 16, 2007

Shortly after the Fillmore East show, in what looked like another feint of perversity, Young fired Crazy Horse. He had his reasons. For one thing, he’d written a whole new batch of tender, trippy, glimmering-astronaut songs that would have been crushed by the Crazy Horse treatment. There was no place for “I Am a Child” amid the wheels of Talbot and Molina. Also, heroin had entered the band: “Sure enough/They’ll be sellin’ stuff/When the moon begins to rise,” Whitten sings on Fillmore East in his own “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown.” “Pretty bad when you’re dealin’ with the man/And the light shines in your eyes.”

Whitten was becoming a problem, even to the point of nodding out on stage. In response, Young overhauled Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” and wrote a masterpiece: “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done” (to a spindly, stalking guitar line), “A little part of it in everyone/But every junky’s like a settin’ sun.’ ” Repetition has pounded it flat, but try to recover the wonderment and hurt in that last line, the slow-motion grandeur, its witness to a sinking fire. “Since I left Canada about five years ago and moved down South,” Young says on the Live at Massey Hall disc, “I found out a lot of things, some of them good and some of them bad . . . ” Whitten would be dead before the end of 1972.

If Live at the Fillmore East is about a messy sort of brotherhood and its possibilities, Live at Massey Hall is about pristine idiosyncrasy. It is the sheer strangeness of Neil Young that comes wavering off this disc, and (stranger still) the way that, what with his Chagall-like imagery and the tremors of wino sadness in his voice, an entire generation appeared ready to relate to him — passionately. What was going on in America in 1971 that caused “I was lying in a burned-out basement/With the full moon in my eye” to be greeted with a roar of gladdened recognition? Somehow this hunched man, with his gravedigger countenance and scarecrow boots, had become psychic conductor to a nation. Live at Massey Hall comes with a DVD of performance footage: Young’s presence at the mic is all aura, a druidic smudge in a pool of light, with darkness pressing in. Crazy Horse led him to the electric mainline of his guitar playing, but by 1971 Young had found his way into a lyrical unconscious, a stream of elusive, almost unphraseable sensations that nonetheless felt (to his audience) like common property: “When the dream came/I held my breath with my eyes closed/I went in-sane/Like a smoke-ringed day when the wind blows.” His reverberant 1972 megahit Harvest was just around the corner.

Expect an archival box set later in the year from Reprise. It will be an eight-CD, two-DVD, 150-page book affair, with all the trimmings, that covers the years 1963–1972. And it will offer miracles. But as a crisp, poetic statement of Young’s duality as a performer, these first two releases won’t be bettered. Here he is, lurching through coils of noise with Old Black and dreaming into the spotlight — the sound of the band, and the sound of the mind.

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Related: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Flashbacks: September 1, 2006, Perfectly strange, More more >
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