Written by Alan Kiddings
The final section to the three-part series that relays a story about a writer and his journey with Neil Young's music, with this part finishing off on Zuma.
“First,” Ty had written,
I think you go ahead and do the MA program — that's what Arizona was, right? The plan then is to keep writing, as you're taking those lit classes. I learned as much in lit classes about what kind of writer I wanted to be as I did in creative writing classes.
I've been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, and Neil Young too (have you seen his movie Journey Through the Past?).
If you like the Stuck on a Truck posts, here's the compilation. This is the least literary thing I've written in a long time, and yet I've gotten so much enjoyment and positive feedback on it that I wonder why I even bother with the literary. It's similar, in a sense, to your album reviews on tumblr. Actually, I think I learned a lot from those album posts you did...
where before I had written,
...I didn't get into Miami. I was pretty disappointed, especially for the day we spent in Miami on tour. I think I would have gotten along fine there, would have enjoyed living there—like most people would enjoy living there, probably. But anyway it’s Miami, where everything is cheaper than it looks. So right, I’m going to Arizona. They gave me a decent financial deal, so I'm going to try it out. Dreams, what are they?
Anyway, I hope all is well. I've been seeing your Stuck on a Truck updates, and I can't help but think it's been a fun start to your summer.
P.S. Been listening to a lot of Neil Young again. Maybe it's the time of year. This year, though, it's been more Zuma.
And so we were writing about Neil Young and writing again. Being still young myself, my mentorship had taken for its object a young Neil, whose albums had tracked my progress through the pitfalls of unstructured maturity, whose soundtrack had progressed into Zuma as I was winding out to Arizona. Time and its march was coming back around. I was going to back to school.
And now I'm still back. Being still a student, I often hit the books for whatever nifty info I need. When I began writing this piece, or should I say when I began to conceive of writing this piece in the deliria of that one long-ago galactic illness, I immediately figured I’d better consult the biography of this man, Neil, with whom I had already spent so much close time, to whom I would become closer through reading the bio and writing. It was the student step. The pas of je ne sais pas, if I may. So that’s how I came into contact with the McDonough, the Oxford Bible or the backbone of this long, long-ago piece. I came around to reading the biography during a term of not-grad-studying, of leaving absent that classroom seat, sitting instead on the living room couch, in the solitude of everybody-else-is-at-work, reading the McDonough bio and reminiscing about my times with Neil. Since then I’ve also come around to become closer to the McDonough, to the guy, almost as much as to Neil. I read an interview in the L.A. Review of Books where the guy says, “I write about people who move me. For the most part these are individuals I’ve spent a long time thinking about. There are just things I want to know…,” he says, awkwardly recalling a quote from one of Sherwood Anderson’s stories—Sherwood Anderson, I know from being still a student, being a writer to whom Neil has at times been compared, and up to whom McDonough probably at some time looked. “What did he do it for?” the kid in Anderson’s story asks, “I want to know why.” Later in that LARB interview with McDonough the dude offers or answers: “All I want is for readers to feel the presence of the people I’m writing about. Feel them. That’s it.”
As it pertains to this still-somehow-ongoing project/piece, McDonough, the biographer, had written that Neil Young would declare, “‘I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream,’” and later that “it must’ve felt that way for him as 1975 led to another new life.” That’s when Neil recorded Zuma. He had winded out to Malibu, to a house on Sea Level Drive where Crazy Horse and co. daily worked each other up to raucous sexual and psychical antics. “‘It was a ball of confusion,’” said one of the players, “‘Everyone’s life had fallen apart, so it was like a big free-for-all.’” McDonough dubs the house the Crazy Horse Saloon: a grand hall hosting old Arizonan debauchery by the beach. And the beach — says McDonough — it was “nouveau-riche rockers…thick as flies…. Rod Stewart…flitting about alongside David ‘Kung Fu’ Carradine, the Band…their Shangri-La studio…Keith Moon…Bobby Charles…,” and not to mention “lurking in the Malibu shadows,” Bobby Dylan. So amidst such marooned riff-raff, Neil and Crazy Horse with Poncho Sampedro in tow would sail through the Zuma sessions, recording what McDonough argues is “Young’s finest hard-rock album to date.” Like the house, the saloon, Arizona, it was a welcome, if nevertheless unsettling change. Neil seems to have been happy to be doing something new in pretty Malibu with buddies and beauties all over, while still holding his position as the hoarse spokesperson for the past’s dark dirges. “Danger Bird,” for example — McDonough says it’s like “a trip inside the darkest recesses of Shakey’s mind,” man! How about that for a quote? Put that in your school paper.
It’s hard to shake the grad-student methods of reading and writing once you’ve started them. And since I’ve started this part of this piece, this part of my life, with books, the compulsion is to keep considering them. This book, for example, this biography of Neil by McDonough called Shakey, has kept me company these few months I’ve not-squandered writing this long piece, my “Neil Young Times.” To the tune of Neil’s life I’ve documented some of my years here. It came to me one night, it’s worth noting, driving back from drinking margaritas, that what Neil’s albums claim to be about is also what’s been behind the time since I’ve started listening to him, since between Harvest and Zuma, and between Journey through the Past and Time Fades Away, up to and including the time I was driving back from that tequila bar, I was living a life of which Neil had already told. The time doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either, and so the sentences themselves don’t make a whole lot of sense, but alongside Neil’s songs, the nearly seventy-odd of ‘em from the Seventies, it’s all sequenced together. However clumsily, it reads. I wrote it. See, it’s all about reading and writing. It’s reading the life-writing about the songwriting of my life. The book, the biography, cues up my autobiography, and the songs tell the whole truth of those years, the lot of them. The story is vast and long; it covers the whole country and beyond, and who knows why it’s out there? It could go on and on. The time it stretches over is vaster and longer than a country. I’d like to think that back when Neil asked me that long time ago whether I was ready for that country he was asking a temporal question—that he was talking about a musical time, back then, which would measure what was to come without my knowing it. Then later I’d write about it, its story, set it down, give up its musicality for the still more measured timing of this prose piece. And like I said the story could just as well never end. It could stay tracking me and the measures or manners of my life alongside the albums Neil released. But there’s a closure to seek, however contrived. To bind or bracket the in-betweens I contemplated on that drive back from the bar would be to render this story some resolution. Because how it started—how it really started, no epigraphs or fooling around, just the straight dictation, was: I got home that night a little drunk on the margs and hit record on my voice recorder to keep handy the idea I’d had, with Neil and me kind of cosmically aligned, as has been demonstrated here. I made with the recorder a voice memo of how: I want to write a piece like Harvest at Christmas and On the Beach while I was on the beach, Tonight’s the Night when every night was in a different town. And then there was the desert album, Zuma, when I went to the desert. And remember when I went to that get-together early in the semester and met a friend who’d also been listening to Zuma? He’d said, “Yeah, it’s like the perfect desert music. I listened to it all the way out here.” And so had I. All the way out to the desert. What a journey, through the past, to the prickly blank dunes. It’s like Homer’s Odyssey, into the underworld on earth. Into the hearth in the home. The place where my soul was kept—its seat, sitting on the living room couch even now. Or like Ulysses, maybe morelike, was the journey, peripatetic as it was, from the center to the periphery, to the settlement, to the desert where the Spanish conquistadores rode in in the 1500s. Upon arrival here I was made to record a reflective travelogue which mine went Lost in the desert, a school ahead. Pen didn’t work—couldn’t write notes! Then it got dark and we were running out of time. We had to get to the pyramids in time for us to retrieve the lost goods. So I made a phone call to the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and had them patch me through to the bureaucracy suite at Embassy Suites, which is where I’m currently still involved in my studies, which is where I've taken shelter from the whipping sands and blues of the land of tequila plants and cactus forests and other things Zuma’s Neil might rant about. A land of cowboys-turned-joes with danger-bird-buzzards circling overhead. A land of classroom dreams where I mull over what would happen “If I could hold on / to just one thought / For long enough to know / Why my mind is moving so fast / And the conversation is slow.” A land where my mom used to live, where I used to load bowls and listen to Harvest. Meanwhile I'm just trying to get credentialed. It’s mythic, almost, the land, for the invasores as much as for me, for it was the land which claimed home to my grad school, my would-be mother of soul were I to graduate from there. Which would mean having gotten my degrees, in the land of 1000 degrees. Which would be the end. End. And then the recording ended.
In thinking about starting work on this last part of this long piece, I revisited the old Neil, the Neil that I hadn’t heard before. The Neil before the piece, the prologue, the past Neil who I watched in Journey through the Past. That was the time of Time Fades Away, and this was at a time again when I was starting graduate school, re-starting really, to listen to Neil. After the leave. In the desert again. So that’s how I would start, just to reiterate. I would finish with Zuma since it came last chronologically, and I would start with this re-start where Time Fades Away had faded in. It came to me another night that Time Fades Away is what described this whole journey through the past, right? Isn’t that what it is? And so it was the perfect thing to begin with, the perfect epigraph for my biograph of me and my Neils. So, inspired, before the whole story, I pressed down and wrote this:
On Neil Young’s least favorite Neil Young record is a song called “Don’t Be Denied.” He wrote it the day after Danny Whitten’s death. A talented guitarist, Danny had been rehearsing with Neil and his band the Stray Gators out at Neil’s ranch; they were all together preparing for a record and a tour both eventually given the title Time Fades Away. Danny drugged himself the more the rehearsals dragged on and pretty soon he got that last little bit too loose on his guitar, so the Gators told him he was done. They kicked him out of the band and he boarded a plane to L.A. Just about as soon as he arrived, he went to a friend’s house and ingested a heavy dose of diazepam and alcohol. He died. He was a dude who’d died with no identification, nobody around to identify him, holding nothing but a note with Neil Young’s phone number on it. And then the day after that, getting the phone call and everything, Neil wrote “Don’t Be Denied.” A couple months later, in January 1973, Neil and the Gators embarked on a ninety-city tour whose setlist included but a handful of songs any audience member knew, a fistful of songs meant to have been recorded with Danny at the ranch. Mourning or moving on or denying, not having recorded like they wanted, the band decided at the last minute, Fuck it, let’s record on the road. So here’s eight songs that were brand new that were written and rehearsed with a guy who was dead by when the time came to record them.
Among those eight songs is, I’ll reiterate here for whatever reason, not unlike Neil does, “Don’t Be Denied.” It’s about moving on, going on from somewhere in the face of poor odds, about not failing just because of some bleak stubborn obstacle. Much of it is Neil narrating the trials and triumphs of his life, like being beaten up at school, like meeting his bandmates, like selling half a million records, like going on this tour, Time Fades Away. In the recorded version you can hear Neil breathe hard after belting out a line about “Playing our songs for the highest bid.” It’s a brusque huff; sounds like he probably just wavered a little too close to the microphone. Swaying or jamming while he strums the jangling guitar part, and then he bumped his breathy mouth on the mic, is probably what happened. But it sounds close; the whole song sounds closer for this incidental breath. Maybe that closeness can explain why in just these last few weeks I’ve taken to Time Fades Away, finally coming close to writing something about my times. Then again, it may well be my sense of time fading away, and such a sense coinciding with my listening to Neil’s foredoomed live record, his least favorite, at just the right time.
You can probably make out here how I’ve been trying to write something in Neil’s mode — about Neil and me, something begrudgingly personal. Worrying whether that personal-ness is enough has made it difficult for me to sleep soundly. At night, in just these last few weeks, I’d fathom sentences for this imaginary piece, getting so wrapped up in it that I couldn’t get a word out; it kept me awake. Staring into the black for some out-of-the-blue phrase to alight upon me. Then staying up like that made me sick. After what piddling hours I salvaged for sleep elapsed I’d wake up with my throat rawer and rawer. I’d get out of bed, get some orange juice, get back in bed. Another two days and nights like that and an ulcer’d bored itself into the inside of my cheek. Yet another night and I got a tightness in my chest, from an imagined stress I guess. The ailments beleaguered me. I said to myself, I gotta put this Neil piece down — that is, I have got to get better first; I can’t think in this state. Then once I got away from it far enough to listen to it fresh again, I started talking aloud to myself about it. I made a voice memo that I hoped would facilitate me articulating who I figured Neil to be, what he meant, and what I meant by meaning to write about him. In that fresh listen what’d I hear but how you or I’d exaggerate my present condition echoed back at me in the record’s opening lines. “Fourteen junkies too weak to work.”
Now, first, I wasn’t any junkie but maybe for being hooked on hearing this Time Fades Away, and, foremost, that’s not to trivialize those real addicts like Danny who’d died. But I hearing about such a weakness to work resonated with me; I had been too personally weak—too spiritually weak, really—at least until I heard this first line of Time Fades and learned of Neil’s penchant for having people turn into him. It was like, “OK, here’s these eight songs that have somehow come to include me in them,” so that if I wanted to write about Neil and me all I had to do was just be honest—about getting sick, weak, about the fresh listen, and the meanings would manifest themselves. Then I heard another line in that “Don’t Be Denied;” it’s toward the end. Neil, ever the old poet, beseeched me, “O friend of mine, don’t be denied,” and, all hokey-ness aside, the line declared what was important. So what Time Fades Away did for me was set in relief my relationship past and present with my writing and with Neil; it gave me work. I would work on a long piece about my relationship past and present with Neil, and so I got to work writing about Zuma and Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach, the ways these albums had always kept my time. So listening to Time Fades Away was like looking at your watch for the dawn after a dark night, which wouldn’t be a strange way for Neil himself to describe it, except that he describes it as more like a pre-dawn nightmare, the night lasting longer than predicted, the tour never ending, not to mention meanwhile my own beleaguered-ness catching up with me, and my trying to shed light on how exactly Time Fades Away as it fades away. Why not start with these griefs and getting-down-into-the-grooves as a prefatory statement?
Or how about these, then? There’s another song, “Journey Through the Past,” on Time Fades Away. It’s the second song, the one after the song “Time Fades Away.” It’s from a movie that also has a soundtrack, both of whose titles were given that same romantic phrase, Journey Through the Past. Must have been a popular one at the time. The movie looks like this; the soundtrack looks like this. And the version that can be heard on Time Fades Away was recorded at a concert in Cleveland where Neil would inaugurate Jose Cuervo as his new tour manager. The song is plain personal and beautiful, asking,
When the winter rains come pouring down on that new home of mine,
Will you think of me and wonder if I’m fine?
Will your restless heart come back to mine on a journey through the past?
Will I still be in your eyes and on your mind?
It fits because it’s what I had determined to do with this piece, once I’d determined Neil had befriended me. I’d journey through the past, to the past, with this piece. I’d write myself into and out of it with Neil. It’d be a trip to relax and reminisce on, and there’s nothing much more to it than that. My favorite Neil records are the ones he recorded right around Time Fades Away, give or take or fade away two years or so, so you’ve got an era that begins with Harvest which was my unassuming introduction to Neil Young, and ends with Zuma, which is what I’d just written about. They’re all weird, warm records to indulge in, and they’ve all accompanied me in some each-different solitary spells not unlike the one under which I was followed around by Time Fades Away these last few weeks—or months, I mean. You know how time fades away.
Now I’m Nashville where Neil really started and it’s been about six months since I wrote the above stuff on Time, my being. I’m here and I’m wandering around checking out the sights and the sounds, of course, and what do I stumble upon but an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame right downtown, just following the footsteps and it got me there to where I’m seeing what but this big placard about Ben Keith and the big barn in Mt. Juliet, reading the story that I’d written about about how Harvest came to be, the popular one, and watching with my own two eyes the footage I’d watched from Journey Through the Past where the Nashville band and Neil are playing “Words” between the lines of age, like no time has passed, like there never was a past to journey through, never a piece to write, no “Neil Young Times,” and yet it’s like I've been passing through writing and reading these time-words for ages. Here's the picture for what it's worth:
I've gotten older just writing about it these last few minutes, much less or older at least these last few months, while yet no past has passed at all. If these words about “Words” have come to close the castle walls or the barn doors of these “Neil Young Times,” then I guess I’ve got to stay inside. I’m always inside the words, trying to sweep up my stray ages and tie them into haybales for music.