COMMENTARY : Colorful Chameleon : Music: Fans that have stuck by as Neil Young changed from one style to another are finally rewarded with his newest effort. He plays the Sports Arena tonight.

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If a fan's devotion can be gauged by how far he is willing to follow when a musician strays from his established path, then longtime loyalists of Neil Young can feel proud to have survived one of the most arduous obstacle courses in rock history.

Among contemporary music's celebrated style chameleons--Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Todd Rundgren, Bob Dylan--perhaps only Dylan has more rigorously tested his fans' resilience.

Since forging a solo career from the scraps of Buffalo Springfield in 1968 (and notwithstanding intermittent stints in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), Young, who performs tonight at the San Diego Sports Arena, at various intervals has traded in guitar-band rock, frontier-saloon-piano balladry, neo-folk, quasi-country, techno-synth dweebery, punkish rock and R&B.; Sometimes, the implied challenges in these musical experiments have seemed more like overt attempts at audience alienation.

Yet, every angular turn in Young's uneven 23-year career has been ignited by a puckish spark of adventure. More than merely proving his own malleability, Young's musical field trips have demonstrated that rock can be twisted, desiccated, inflated or stomped into almost any grotesque shape without losing its pulse.

For patiently bearing with him through all these costume changes, Young's older fans were rewarded late last year with "Ragged Glory," an aptly titled, rock-affirming follow-up album to 1989's acclaimed return-to-form, "Freedom."

The newer opus reunited Young with his best band, Crazy Horse, and revisited the frayed-nerve rock of his first truly influential and massively popular album, 1969's "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" (which featured the hits "Cinnamon Girl," "Down by the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand"). The new release forms the molten core of a concert tour that brings Young and Crazy Horse to San Diego tonight.

A streamlined juggernaut of rugged guitar textures and tunes elongated by pick-shredding jams (average length per cut: 6 minutes), "Ragged Glory" showcases the quintessential Young. The reedy, adenoidal voice, the guitar tone and attack that suggest someone articulating the strings with a car key, the insouciant, structural sloppiness, the joie de rock normally found in a much younger man. "Ragged Glory" reminds the listener that Young was an "alternative" rocker before there was such a thing.

It is, of course, important to keep such thoughts in perspective. If "Ragged Glory" is impressive primitivism coming from a 45-year-old rock icon, it is nonetheless garage-rock by a guy whose garage sits on a private, multimillion-dollar ranch-estate in Northern California. Life has a way of changing the context in which we cling to our perceptions, and for all his good intentions and torn jeans, Young cannot escape the inevitability that most of today's record-buyers will regard him as a bronze-bust member of the Old Guard.

However, while "Ragged Glory" is enjoyable on its own merits, what is crucial to a full appreciation of the effort is the realization that Young doesn't care about ingratiating himself with musical timeliness. If his wacky career curve were not sufficient proof of that, then his steadfast refusal to merchandise himself via television commercials or on corporate-sponsored tours certainly qualifies.

At a time when the day's raging "iconoclasts" are busily devising career-making publicity stratagems disguised as "controversies" (Sinead O'Connor?), one need look only as far as Young's pointed 1988 rip at rock's corporate sell-outs--"This Note's for You"--to remember what making-waves used to mean. Underlying Young's rebellion against music-biz gamesmanship is an essence of rock 'n' roll as potent as any produced anywhere, any time, by artists of any age.

If, in Young's case, that essence has been tempered by time--"mellowed" has an embalming connotation rendered inappropriate by both "Freedom" and "Ragged Glory"--it still fuels one of the more original and provocative modern talents.

A hero of the album-cut era, his legacy includes two early, lushly produced miracles in "The Loner" and "I've Been Waiting for You;" enduring topical songs in "Ohio," "Southern Man," and "The Needle and the Damage Done;" solid radio fare in "Heart of Gold;" and such recent statements as "Rockin' in the Free World" and the new album's "Love to Burn."

But it is the totality of Young's art, which includes his occasional gaffes, lulls, miscues and a willingness to expose his creative warts, that makes him one of the more fascinating figures ever to emerge from the rock maelstrom.

And a must-see on the concert circuit.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse will perform tonight at the Sports Arena. Opening acts for the 7:30 p.m. show are Social Distortion and the Buck Pets.

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