This year, a man not known for his sense of irony, Axel Rose, finally delivered something we’ve been waiting on for over a decade, Chinese Democracy. Unfortunately the reaction in China mirrored the rest of the world- not interested. Yet even this procrastinating and exacting multi millionaire metal-head had had nothing on Neil Young’s long promised (23 years) archives project. It’s apparently a chronological collection of all of his songs, suddenly freed from his infamous whims and flights of fancy, where he could impetuously shelve songs or even entire albums, go off and record in an entirely new genre, and then promptly get sued by his record company. Yet I’m getting ahead of myself, that will probably be Vol.3 or perhaps Vol.25, who knows? In the digital downloading, torrent sharing disposable music world of 2009, this incredible box set stands alone. It will appeal to more than the fat bellied washed up ex hippie, or even your casual stalker with a Neil fetishist. It takes you back to the first time you ever bought a record, the exacting exploration of an artifact, as you paw through the 128 tracks (12 hidden), 60 of which are previously unreleased versions mixes or just damn rare, the beautiful 236 page book of pictures, lyrics, newspaper articles and intimate letters to his mother, the stupid fold out poster of a filing cabinet drawer, and the almost hidden box that contains the link to the free MP3 download files, and the curious writing pad you that will never use.
Ever the terrible salesman, three of these 10 DVD (in the main audio – the images being an old tape machines turning) discs have already appeared in the last couple of years, notably some of the live material. Yet getting to hear the early music from the Squires, Neil’s high school band more than makes up for the disappointment that it’s not all new old stuff. Here you can really hear the influence of the British invasion of the 60’s, particularly the Shadows and the Beatles. On his first recorded singing performance I Wonder Neil barks short and sharp, Hard Days Night style and you have to strain to hear the Neil we know, yet he later rejigged this song for Zuma’s Cry No Tears. So like an elephant Neil never forgets.
The second disc takes in his Buffalo Springfield days, these incredible songs like Expecting to Fly, which is an apt description of a band that should have gone on to super stardom but inexplicably never did. This is a time of Mr Soul and Sugar Mountain, songs he would repeatedly return to. Later while solo, his mannered version of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere from a promo 45 features a flute solo, and I’ve Been Waiting for you (which he played in Melbourne recently) appears here for the first time without the terrible vocal treatment of his debut album. It’s on this disc that Neil finds both himself and Crazy Horse, a band of earnest slightly inept rockers who give Neil the freedom and feel to finally be true to himself. And from here it’s an explosion of creativity. The three Topanga Canyon discs are mostly album tracks from his self titled debut, from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and After the Goldrush, The one new track with Crazy Horse, Everybody’ Alone is an absolute cracker with a great solo, making you wonder what exactly Neil was thinking in excluding it. There’ a couple of unreleased live tracks from Crosby Stills Nash and Young with a bit of live rapping and a different hidden version of my favourite ever Neil track Don’ Let it Bring You Down. Later there’ a couple of versions of Heart of Gold, and the incredibly rare (and killer) Bad Fog of Loneliness, but in the main it’s album versions from Harvest.
A huge highlight is Neil Young’ first film, Journey Through the Past (1973), a marijuana cloud put to celluloid, with live performances from Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y alongside Neil’ nonsensical ponderous mysticism. â€œWe’ve translated it into words in order to reassure ourselves,â€ offers a heavily stoned Stills, â€œand some day the reassurance by words wont be necessary anymore.â€ This pretty much describes the film. Thank god for the music.
Each song has it’s own photos, lyrics and extras, though there’ a bunch of strange hidden short videos verging from Neil carefully accosting a record store clerk selling bootleg live albums of his material, to finding his lyrics to Cripple Creek Fairy, describing what Needle and the Damage Done means, and reading out a review describing him â€œas stimulating as watching your nails grow,â€ This is Brewster’ Millions for Neil fans, 1963 – 72, and it’s only the beginning. 23 years ago Neil made a promise. In 2009 he’s delivered and it’s well worth the wait.
Bob Baker Fish