Monday, May 22, 2006

He CAN Sing

Typically I don't care if people hate music I like, or if they love music I don't get. A myriad subjective experiences precede an encounter with music, and I always think of my family eating liver while I retched outside from the smell when I was a youngster. People tell me liver tastes good, but I can't be in the same room with cooked liver without barfing. Thinking of that image usually prevents me from arguing over musical tastes, which are as mysterious and subjective and intricately bound to our individuality as those for food.

But earlier today Flea and I were teasingly debating Neil Young for the billionth time--ok, we weren't really debating; more accurately it was a discussion about The Drive-By Truckers with Conniption that got derailed a bit. I can understand the whiney voice complaint--there are musicians whose voices grate my nerves to the point I can't give them a fair listen (Dave Matthews chief amongst them). Flea says she hates Neil because of his voice, which is like nails on a blackboard to her. That's completely understandable. But when she says he can't sing I get defensive. And Flea is certainly not the only one who tells me that Neil Young can't sing. It's simply not true. No one who's ever tried to sing "Helpless" or "Expecting to Fly" or "Harvest Moon" or "For the Turnstiles" could say that. In his prime Neil had shocking vocal range, and could sing complex harmony like a muthafucka. Dude could hit unimaginably high notes without reverting to falsetto, and those plaintiff moody songs needed that aching, sorrowful voice:

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes leave us

Helpless, helpless, helpless.

You listen to this song, to the nifty modulations Neil pulls off in the single syllable of "All," the way he turns "on" into an octve-spanning multisyballic, and then you try to sing it. I dare your sorry ass to try to sing it. If you can't sing it, you are a worse singer than Neil Young, and any opinion you might hold about his talent as a singer is worth two fistfulls of doodley-squat. And I'm a-tellin' you here and now that nobody can sing it without tuning down. I've tried to sing "Helpless." In my teens and twenties I couldn't get there, and I had a decent voice back in the day--I come from a long line of church singers, and sang quite a bit in school. My wife, who can sing like an angel, and who reduced a funeral home full of attendees at my Grampa's funeral to quivering jelly with her rendition of "Amazing Grace"--even she can't come close. Try "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," or "Don't Let it Bring You Down," or "I Believe in You." I taped "I Believe in You" for Cha during our courtship and she termed it the most beautiful singin' she ever done heard. I will buy you a bottle of single malt if you can hit those notes with the same vocal acrobatics as Neil. You try it, and then try to tell me Neil "can't sing." When Jorge and I were playing and singing together here and anon he used to force me to sing "Down By the River" and occasionally "From Hank to Hendrix." Those are relatively easy Neil Young songs to sing, and they were a fucking workout. I was always happy to sing something easy by The Beatles or David Bowie instead.

I must point out that there's a difference between a voice you find annoying and a voice that is musically incompetent. Neil can sing, beyatches, and he sings in a classically American mode that is hundreds of years old. There's a reason great singers like Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell and Linda Rondstadt and James Taylor and David Crosby and Stephen Stills and Graham Nash have sung with Neil over the years (aside from money). His voice is a national treasure, even if it was stolen from Canada. Sure, it's petered out a bit, but he's in his sixties for Christ's sake. Not only can he sing, but he writes great songs: The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Cowboy Junkies, The Pretenders, Gillian Welch, Nathalie Merchant, The Isley Brothers, David Bowie, Dave Matthews, Matthew Sweet, Nick Cave, The Corrs, Simply Red, U2, Tori Amos, Oasis, Big Country--these are only some of the bands/acts who've covered Neil's stuff.

And he plays a vicious guitar to boot--certainly not a technically accomplished player, but extremely evocative. I remember at Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert The Heartbreakers were doing "My Back Pages" with Neil and Eric Clapton--Clapton did a yawn-inducing rote blues trill or two when his turn to solo came along, and then Neil blew the joint apart, teaching young kids how to destroy an electric guitar. Clapton was obviously impressed.

Special nod to Seth for hooking me up with MPEGs of Time Fades Away. Why is this not on CD?

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