Los Angeles is a crowded place, so on those occasions when you find yourself alone you’re tempted to think you missed an important homeland security announcement, or perhaps the Rapture. The Beverly Center was abandoned. My cowboy heels clicked on the polished travertine on my way to the 10:20 p.m. showing of Jonathan Demme’s concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” past the half-dreaming ticket taker and into an empty 50-seat theater. All alone.
This felt about right. What I have for Neil Young has always seemed a solitary thing. I was 12 years old in 1972 when my older brother brought home the album “Harvest,” which I promptly borrowed and never gave back, wearing the grooves out with the chipped stylus of an Emerson turntable. Some of those songs--"Alabama,” “A Man Needs a Maid"--are knitted into my living soul. By the time I was 13, I had the complete works of Neil Young--a small stack of LP’s that included Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
For devotees who might want to compare their favorite albums, here’s my top five: “Time Fades Away,” “Zuma,” “On the Beach,” “Tonight’s the Night” and “Harvest,” all of which are supremely, supinely desperate and inconsolable lyrical statements. I like my Neil as I like my Joni Mitchell: on the rocks.
Of course, Neil Young had millions of fans, and “Heart of Gold” was a No. 1 single, so he was hardly a cult figure. Yet I almost hate to tell you how bad I had it. To what you can be sure was the sheer delight of my parents, I ripped the ass out of all my jeans and quilt-patched them like those on the back of the album “After the Goldrush.” My size-12 feet grew into a point from wearing cowboy boots like Neil’s. I had a closet full of snap-fastened cowboy shirts and a Mexican silver belt. Talk about unintended consequences: Neil Young, style icon.
And as soon as I could, I went to Fuller’s Music and bought the closest thing to a Martin D45 guitar I could afford, a Yamaha spruce top. While I was there I bought some harmonicas and a chrome neck brace. First Woody, then Dylan, then Neil, now me.
Outside of Woody Guthrie, the Beatles and maybe Bob Dylan, Neil Young is probably responsible for more guitar purchases than anyone in history. Young was an inspiration, proving once and for all that you didn’t have to be particularly good at music to be a great musician. That singing-saw voice, that wood-chopping style of hammer-on guitar, the occasional lyric so unvarnished as to splinter into complete weirdness. The blown-out, overdriven raunch of those four-note solos of “Powderfinger” played on “Old Black,” Young’s battered Gibson Les Paul (got one of those too).
It’s simply not the case that Young made it look easier than it was: It was easy, or rather simple in the sense of a musical, notational palette. It really is extraordinary when you look at Young’s career of 40 years and 40-plus albums that he should have come so far and created such immortal melodies using only campfire chords.
To an extent that can only be appreciated at coffeehouse open-mic nights, Young democratized music for the untalented. For this I will always be grateful. No matter where I am in the world, if there’s a guitar, I can strum semi-sweetly through “Harvest Moon” or warble “Sugar Mountain” or “Helpless” to mist an eye. And I’ve never even been to North Ontario.
I can’t tell you how empowering it was to have music handed back from the elite--the quick-fingered, the true-voiced, the perfect-pitched.
Like a lot of play-by-ear living room musicians, I imagine, I have a folder of my own songs--girlfriend laments, mostly--that trundle along under the weight of their own painful sincerity. As artless, oblique and occasionally jejune as some of Young’s lyrics seem, try writing better ones. And that’s just the point. What Young does seems somehow attainable--almost possible with the common tongue and common heart--and so I keep picking up my guitar.
I doubt anybody ever listened to an Elvis Costello song and thought, “Oh, yeah, I can do that.”
It’s a strange thing to see Young, now 60, all dewlap and fuzzy ears, singing “Heart of Gold” and, more ironically, “Old Man.” I thought it was better to burn out than to fade away? The film was recorded just months after Young was treated for a potentially lethal brain aneurysm, and the songs from the new album, “Prairie Wind,” are valedictory and autumnal, goodbyes and thank-you’s.
Well, if it comes to thank-you’s, then here’s mine.