OR :- one more kid that’ll never get to go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.
Yes, today I’ll be talking about Neil Young. Can’t get much more mainstream, he’s one of the names that inevitably appears within weeks of becoming a musiphile on the road to rock and roll enlightenment. You’ve probably all got at least a greatest hits and any of his records will offer up something worth hearing, particularly if your ears are virgin. But I’m not here to talk to you about well-known artists that get their own section in even the shittiest back-street music shop (for the record, the backer the street, the more superb the music store generally). I’m here to alert you to some of the rarer Neil Young slices and have come today with just one question: What the fuck happened to this extremely righteous but generally non-heavy dude in the early nineties to turn him into the kind of nuclear-blast wielding hirsute mind-melder that puts together a blistering two hour live album, best Dylan and give us one of the best pieces of heavy music of all time? I am of course discussing the Arc/Weld workout and the magnificent Dead Man soundtrack, which stands as a stomping fire-breathin’ hundredfoot colossus among any delegation of music previously considered heavy; this shit makes Sabbath sound like Abba. Originally this began as one of my 3am introspective nightmare delusions, a long dark Edinburgh night of the soul with Dead Man soundtrack running on repeat and on its fourth spin; listening to William Blake as read by Johnny Depp with a clattering caterwauling katzenjamma of genius running behind it like a train (difficult childhood, difficult childhood, difficult childhood), and I was possessed with the notion to fling open my front door and yell down at whatever poor unenlightened fucker wasn’t listening to the Dead Man soundtrack at eight hundred decibels: “these lyrics are genius! Fucking genius!” but alas, there was no one there to hear my yelpings, fuckers.
We’ll do things chronological style, just for a change. Both Arc and Weld were released as part of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1991 European tour. Arc was released as part of the Arc/Weld boxset and pretty much consists of 35 minutes of shoegaze bliss. Half-sung choruses and snatches of familiar melodies given the super-distorted treatment, all mixed and lost in a general haze of distortion fug that runs thicker than any pea-soup fog in which I’ve found myself. In practical terms, Young was inspired by godlike Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music musings to cut together the soundtrack of the Muddy Track unreleased 1991 Euro tour doc with bits and pieces of the beginnings and ends of their heavier-than-thou electric songs from the length and breadth of the tour. The result was a mess, and the movie is a blast because of it; he was inspired after an interview to go back and do it properly, using better quality sound and cutting it into a single meditative piece of inspired ur-drone avant-garde bullshit ass-kicking that to me reads as the clear and worthy successor to Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and the clear hyperspatial precursor to the Melvins own live Colossus of Destiny Headfuck, which stretched over an hour of synthesiser and shoegaze noise (or pretentious anti-music wank, whatever side of the fence you prefer) into something approaching redemption. From top to tail the song makes no sense, it can’t be contemplated in any coherent way for any length of time, it’s all the concentrated noise of the Weld album crushed through the eye of a needle, through the looking glass and then stretched impossibly to fill the 35 minutes. Clearly this is an animal that doesn’t belong anywhere, wherever it’s from it sure ain’t here. It’s appropriate that the opening vocals are from Like a Hurricane... but as one might hear them through a winter whiteout or as ghostly apparitions half-remembered floating across your consciousness after falling through a time-loop into the Dustbowl just early enough for Steinbeck to spot you; spectral, distant and dissonant and layered over with wild loose shoegaze guitar madness that spits and crackles rather than aptly flows. There’s just time to breathe before we are launched into a shark pit of clashing guitars that burn white hot with improvisational energy, churning the sea blood red, you know they can smell blood from forty miles away? The volume and the speed and abrasiveness of the guitars increases twofold, threefold until you want to curl up and admit defeat; they aren’t hooked up to pedals, they’re hooked up to slowly but steadily increasing dials. There are still twenty minutes to go. A magnificent counterpoint to a far more subtle mindjob, the Weld album.
And yes, it is apparently the album the mastering of which permanently warped Neil Young’s hearing. Technically a Young and Crazy Horse vehicle, this album comprises tunes recorded while on the same European 1991 tour that gave birth to Arc. Here the old familiar songs you thought you knew return, tanned and with defined musculature and way heavier and with Crazy Horse’s trademark schizophrenic backing well and truly in place, you can expect this to be one of the most enlightening two hours of your life if you’re a middling Neil Young fan. Songs once thought soft and gentle are plugged into sky scraping amp stacks and run through superbly heavy distortion pedals for the true head experience; lord only knows what would have happened had he attempted to bring his ten-ton-heavy masterpiece Down by the River to this party, possibly he’d have cracked the earth’s crust. There is an overreliance on crowd-pleasers which will always cripple all but the most audacious live acts, but when they’re Neil freakin’ Young’s crowd-pleasers they become more than just bearable, and being filtered through this coffee-stained heaviness they actually become fascinating. There are renditions of Cinnamon Girl and Mansion on the Hill that come across like some heavy metal Neil Young tribute band in the most respectful mould. Its excellently listenable, though my one contention is that the best thing about this album comes a little too soon; the third track is the Gulf War cover of Blowin’ in the Wind. Young begins it with the most stunning war samples ever to open a song (and I listen to lots of metal, and war sample openings are as common as stupid overdesigned logos in those dark waters), you almost feel the need to duck when a high-speed jet zips by. Above and underneath that collage is the best rendition of the Blowin’ in the Wind riff ever recorded. Heartfelt riffage ringing out across a battlefield steeped in modern warfare, distance and the digital; and there’s this obscene analogue organic riff spilling out. It’s blatant and shamelessly tugging at the simplest images and emotions, but it fucking works. And doesn’t linger long enough for you to laugh at yourself and pretend not to be amazed. What follows is a cover as only Neil Young could provide, crowd included and in many ways essential. All the while his ultra-heavy ultra-distorted guitar is present, lending a very modern take on a classic protest song; and those lyrics still burn Dylan, you wrote one of the all-time stone-cold bummers of this or any lifetime. I include Weld out of a sense of duty rather than to advertise it as an extra-special trip to intelligent and deserving rock and roll psychonauts, it is more of a bone for those who are psychonauts second and Young fans first, it’s at taste of classic Young fed through a distortion pedal and a mindset borrowed from Dylan Carlson in the mould of his most exciting and revolutionary pieces. All of this is really window dressing though compared to what we’re here for. Dead Man.
The Jim Jarmusch ‘acid western’ was the kind of film destined never to get massive critical acclaim, mainly because of its unabashed genius. The story meets accountant William Blake, fresh from burying his parents and bidding unwilling farewell to his fiancé, on a train from Cleveland to the town of Machine. After finding his position mysteriously filled by another man, Blake decides the best plan is to start drinking, whereupon he meets Thel, the two develop a relationship that ends as quickly as it began when her on-off boyfriend returns home; in a farcical shootout both Thel and her boyfriend are killed and Blake makes his getaway with an additional piece of lead in his heart. Upon awaking in the wilderness he enters the real plot of Dead Man, (or should I say plots?) he discovers a native American called Nobody healing him. In short order the two begin talking and Nobody begins to believe that Blake is in fact the spirit of that William Blake and must be properly laid to rest; in the less spiritual realm, Blake is being hunted by three extremely deadly assassins who seem more interested in killing each other than him, and many inept policemen and bounty hunters. Blake must survive the worst parts of the wild west to discover if he isn’t actually dead anyway. The film is trippy in the extreme, consciousness becomes fluid and the third act goes places you’ll be struggling to believe. It needs a few watches but what’ll really cement it in your mind is the soundtrack. Neil Young’s bleating, screaming, crying electric guitar seems to do for guitar music what Ansel Adams did for photography; those aren’t photographs, they’re demons come to life and immortalised on celluloid; likewise Young’s guitar licks and riffs and stuttering work is the Wild West incarnate, perversely expressed in distortion-drenched electric sound. I’ve been trying to express to you fuckers but nobody ever listens that heaviness is different to distortion. Distortion is an effect which distorts (ha) the sound of the guitar, sometimes ad absurdum; As Roger Glover put it (and who are you to argue? Were you in Deep Purple? No? Shut up then) “heaviness isn’t about volume, it’s about attitude” and that sums it up excellently. Bonnie Prince Billy’s I See a Darkness is one of the heaviest records I own, and it’s one dude and a guitar; and hundreds of albums are released each year full of distortion, distorted up the arse but with a total lack of heaviness – to be gushed about by idiots who are still amazed by all that sound and fury. Dead Man is heavy. I mean, the weight of a mountain dumping out of your speakers like a modern-day stoning. Crushing consciousness mercilessly. This is the album that understudy fucking Dylan Carlson was inspired by when he created all of Earth’s Hex stuff.
Young’s Dead Man is one of the most overlooked pieces of the nineties; one would expect it to get nods in various rock and roll halls of fame if only for it coming from the same enlightened frets as all that considered classic stuff, but the album seems to go curiously unmarked. It does seem to split opinion but for past-midnight sorrow-drowning doom-laden darkness plays, nothing surpasses this album. I urge you to find it and decide for yourself, and let us know.
Written under duress by Steven.