Bruce Springsteen had the best (and, you would hope, last) word on musicians promoting their political opinions in a CNN interview earlier this year. When asked about getting flack for his political positions, Springsteen said, "Yeah, they should let Ann Coulter do it instead." In other words, alright, so I play music, write lyrics and seek truth for a living. What are her credentials?
Good question. The national political discussion is poisoned with talentless right-wing flunkies like Coulter, Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage – all of whom have no known background qualifying them for anything, much less dominating the national discourse with their large radio megaphones.
Most musicians – especially rock & rollers – are, er, not too bright and are fish-out-of-water discussing anything but chord changes and equipment preferences. But the best of them through the years have at least thought about various Big Pictures – War, Peace, Injustice, Women – and some can even discuss these things outside the four minutes of a song. The best of them have actually added to the national discussion and created signposts to ideas and generations: "Blowing in the Wind", the Hendrix Anthem, "Ohio", "For What It’s Worth", etc. They’ve earned as much of a right as anybody to get on their soapbox if they want, especially if they can coax 25,000 people to show up to listen at $100 a pop.
Neil Young has gotten up on various soapboxes through the years, but nothing has quite got his attention like the Bush Administration and their outrageous behavior in Iraq and at home. Although Bush’s disastrous war has been going on for over three years now, Young jumped into action and made Living with War in five days this spring. This was just after near-death and a brilliant personal CD/movie/DVD (Prairie Wind and Heart of Gold) last year. A heartfelt tribute to troops, peace, protest and all things American, LWW tried to rip a hole in the Bush facade, which has always been paper-thin and ready to crumble anyway. Often clumsy and sounding rushed – would the verse about Bush and steroids in "Let’s Impeach" have made the cut if everyone had a little time to think about it? – the album feels like an unfiltered screed from Hunter S. Thompson, with all of the flaws, false starts and hints of angry genius.
The Bush outrages lit a fire under Neil Young and he somehow lit a fire under his old friends Crosby, Stills and Nash. All three have been pretty negligible as artists since Deja Vu, but it hasn’t stopped them from years of forgettable albums and meaningless tours, whether it was one, two or all three of them. Even the tours with Young have often been of the mail-it-in variety. Last time at the Bradley Center in 2002, they were still doing the love-child/godfather thing, barely tolerating Young, who came on at the end of the show to bust up Nash’s goddamn vase that Joni Mitchell bought way-back-whenever. They couldn’t hold a candle to him, career or talent-wise, and they didn’t much care. The checks all cleared.
But there they all were again September 6th under the full moon at the Marcus Amphitheater, almost equals, with Neil in the benevolent driver’s seat. With all four brandishing guitars that were turned up and singing in full voice, CSNY was a real band, maybe for the first time. Starting with Young’s "Flags of Freedom" from LWW, all were focused, charging as one into the bright space of musical speechifying.
The LWW spirit and songs (all but one was performed) were the focus, but didn’t dominate the night. Sounding brighter and better with this ensemble (with excellent support from Ben Keith on pedal steel, Spooner Oldham on keyboards and others), some moments broke through better than on the record – Neil screeching "Don’t need no more lies" on "Restless Consumer", for instance. Other songs might not make the next tour, although all have their momentary impact. But it was clear why we and Neil were here tonight. No one else had any product (or ideas) to push.
The CSNY catalog got an early and healthy workout, much to the relief of the 50-ish investment bankers, lawyers and bewildered spousal units salt-and-peppered through the crowd. Although Crosby (in great voice and apparent health) or others may have been out front on various songs, the thick, beautiful buzz of Young’s guitars provided subtle depth unheard-of (or not allowed) in days of yore. During the instrumental moments of "Carry On" and "Wooden Ships", Neil would prowl the space in front of the drum kit, rocking back-and-forth and looking for someone to challenge. Often, he found Stephen Stills, who finally seems to have learned a few things about tone and holding notes – his solos were often indistinguishable from Young’s. Throughout the night, the Other Guys sought out Neil for his approval and to raise their game. He gave generously. They seldom, if ever, looked for each other.
Highlights of the first long set included "Long Time Gone" (written for Bobby Kennedy, and they got that one right) and an outrageous "Almost Cut My Hair", with Crosby playing the delirious fool who still thinks he owes it to someone. During "Deja Vu", Neil quoted sumptiously from "Cortez the Killer" during the dreamy instrumental break. We have all been here before, indeed. Like "Cut My Hair", many of the causes taken up by the well-meaning former hipsters had long teeth and dog-eared pages, like an old high-school notebook. Lots of getting back to the land, which hasn’t worked for anyone but polygamist Mormons in Utah. But what the old stuff lacked in useful substance, it made up in groovy celebration of well-earned glories.
After an hour-and-a-half of loud, beautiful noise, the boys gave ‘em what they came for – well, most of ‘em, anyway. For an hour, it was sunshine, communes, flowers-in-vases, women and sailboats. Young joined in seamless harmony on CSN first-album guilty pleasures "Helplessly Hoping" and "Guinevere". Stills entered soul-growler territory on a solo "Treetop Flyer", with Neil in acoustic support. Besides a dramatic "Roger and Out" (most improved song from LWW), Young’s major contribution to the quiet set was a perfect "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", with Crosby and Nash.
Just before "Teach Your Children" (and, now that we’re grownups, don’t we? Shouldn’t we?), David Crosby strapped on the electric 12-string he was playing most of the night. Neil playfully came over and seemed to be goading him into something. Crosby then became Roger McGuinn for 15 seconds, playing intro of the Byrd’s version of "Mr. Tambourine Man". There were groans all around when he stopped, but it was a moment that said something about possible true comradery on the tour.
After a moving "Find the Cost of Freedom" (accompanied by projected photos of thousands of the Unnecessary Dead), Young reached into the history bin for some images from his more recent (1979?) past. While Hendrix’ seminal National Anthem blared into the Amphitheater, three diverse actors raised an oversized microphone to the center of the stage, Iwo Jima style, and tied a giant yellow ribbon ‘round the old mic stand. This theatrical quote from the Rust Never Sleeps tour was brilliant, and Young waved the prop at the crowd when he wanted some noise the rest of the night.
The next hour was all political, loud and powerful. It began with "Let’s Impeach the President", complete with projected lyrics and video to support the Bush soundbites from the record. Graham Nash had his only bright moment of the evening with the most dated song of the night (and that takes some doing with this bunch), "Chicago". The point, I’m sure, was the chorus "we can change the world", and we can, but who remembers who was "...your brother bound and gagged/And they chained him to a chair"? How about Bobby Seale in the notorious Chicago 7 trial.
After that, Stills and Young explored their legacy. "For What It’s Worth" benefitted from a sonic update by Neil and a torrid reading by Stills. Like the blazing version of "Ohio" that followed, the song was hurt by the fact that the same sorts of things aren’t exactly going on in this national crisis – there are not "thousands of people in the street" and Nixon ain’t comin’ anymore (these guys are worse). But to the extent the reflection of previous rage informs our own, we learn, we grow and we fight better. Besides, both songs just kick total ass and always have.
All that was left was Neil’s signature blow-out from the last tour, "Rockin’ in the Free World". But it was so much different and better with everyone involved. Wait for it: CSNY almost out-rocked Pearl Jam on the recorded version. I said almost. Intent on breaking all his strings, Neil was possessed, searching for musical challenges from anyone willing to take him one, including the single horn player. It was 20 minutes of shear audio dynamite and he almost smashed that precious black Gibson of his in the process. No encore. None needed.
Getting out on a limb like Neil Young has personally and politically in the past year is not for everyone. Not everyone can handle the blow-back (he was cable-squawk fodder for a week after LWW was released, when he could have been promoting Heart of Gold) or want to even deal with getting out front on important issues. He has made the world a better place by keeping his music intense, focused, honest and meaningful – more so than anyone in his musical generation. He’s trying to move something else now through joy, music, memories and facts. The more people who come to these shows wanting "Our House" and who end up humming "Let’s Impeach" on the way out, the better.