Saturday, October 1, 2011

Neil Young Covers: Lotta Love

Nicolette Larson:
Lotta Love


A dear college buddy (and his wife) came into town a few nights ago for a concert... and we've had a great time catching up as well as reminiscing - last evening we invited over another couple (mutual friends from that time in our lives) and the six of us sat out on our patio until 2 a.m... eating, talking and laughing...

We also did a bit of singing, when Kathy (not having a clue as to the Star Maker Machine theme this week) asked each of us what our favorite Neil Young album was - I had to chime in with Comes a Time, which we immediately put on the CD player, followed by After the Gold Rush, which segued to Nicolette's debut album...

The story goes that "while being driven by Young in his car one day, Larson played a cassette which was the demo of Lotta Love and Young told her the song was hers if she wanted it." - her version reached #8 on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 chart in February 1979 and #1 on the Easy Listening chart, ranking as the #10 Adult Contemporary hit of the year.

Sadly, Larson died on December 16, 1997 at the age of 45 from cerebral edema - I love that we still knew all the words to these Neil Young songs, more than 3 decades after the recordings were released...

Neil Young covers: Helpless

Patti Smith: Helpless

doa: Helpless

Cowboy Junkies: Helpless


I'm squeaking under the time-wire this time…I started out this posting week in the ER (I'm okay now) and my mom is also gracing another hospital with her presence (she's doing as well as an 86-year-old can). So I think the title of my post says it all when it comes to serious health issues: they can leave us feeling helpless.

Recently, Patti Smith has been broadening her punk roots: This song's downright ballad-y. It's from her 2007 album Twelve, a great selection of a dozen cover tunes.

The second version is from a 2004 EP Deadstock, which also includes pretty faithful cover versions of CSN-and-sometimes-Y tunes Ohio, Woodstock, and Find the Cost of Freedom. Will you hate me when I mention that doa are Japanese?

Finally, I've included my favorite version featuring a live Margo Timmons' soulful croon.

Aaaaand...looks like I made this week's deadline!

Neil Young Covers: After the Gold Rush

k d lang: After the Gold Rush


One thing that has become clear to me this week is that Neil Young’s songs have layers of meaning, with different aspects calling to different listeners. Dolly Parton once asked Neil Young about the meaning of After the Gold Rush. Here is the story:

“…when we were doing the Trio album, I asked Linda and Emmy what it meant, and they didn't know. So we called Neil Young, and he didn't know. We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, 'Hell, I don't know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I'd taken.”
To me, the song has a structure, with one verse each for past present, and future. And there is an environmental theme, with the last verse having a few humans selected to travel to a new, clean, planet and a fresh start, while the unlucky ones left behind look on in envy and sorrow for what has happened to their world. K d lang latches on to this sense of loss, and delivers one of her most subtle vocals in her version of the song. Lang can belt out a ballad with the best of them, but she knows that a quieter performance serves this song better.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Neil Young Covers: Harvest Moon

Cassandra Wilson: Harvest Moon


I can't imagine this week going by without offering up jazz diva Cassandra Wilson's beautiful interpretation of "Harvest Moon", the closing track to her critically acclaimed 1996 album New Moon Daughter. The entire album sounds like it was recorded on a midsummer night among ancient oak trees draped in Spanish moss.
Her version of "Harvest Moon" is gilded with melancholy and is a "must hear".

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Neil Young Covers: Ohio

Dala: Ohio


I would like to believe that I can write the words “Kent State Massacre”, and everyone would know what I was talking about. But it probably isn’t the case. When it happened in 1970, it was easy to believe that no one would ever forget it, and that was what Neil Young wanted to make sure of when he wrote Ohio for Crosby Stills Nash and Young. I was nine and a half at the time, but I had an older brother who was in high school, and therefore very aware of the draft. Nowadays, it is the law here in the United States that you must register for the military draft when you turn 18. But there hasn’t been an actual draft in wartime since the Vietnam War. Our young people today take it for granted that they would only serve in an American war if they volunteered. And, partly for that reason, none of the wars the United States has fought in since Vietnam has given rise to the kinds of widespread student protests that were common in those days.

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that he had expanded the war to Cambodia. Students at Kent State University in Kent Ohio quickly organized a series of protests. By May 4, the decision had been made to bring in the National Guard to force the students to disperse. It’s hard to say why things got out of hand the way the did. The students had been throwing rocks, first at the police, and then at the Guardsmen when they arrived. But, none of the students got closer than about 100 yards from the Guardsmen. You would have to have a pretty good arm to be much of a threat at that distance. Whatever the case, some of the Guardsmen opened fire. In 17 seconds, 67 rounds of ammunition were fired at the unarmed students. When it was all over, four students were dead or dying, and nine others were wounded. Two of the students who died weren’t even part of the protest; they just happened to be in the wrong place, on their way to their next class.

Those were the events that shocked a nation, and inspired Neil Young to write Ohio. The song was released as a single a couple of weeks after the event, and came out on a live CSNY album the following year. CSNY recorded the song as a rock anthem, and it worked as a powerful protest song at the time. But, as I noted in my introduction, these are very different times than those. There is no anti-war movement to rally, not like there was then. So how should a contemporary artist cover the song? Dala has answered that question brilliantly. Instead of a protest anthem, they render the song as a cry of mourning. The slow it down, and remove the wailing of the electric guitars from the original. Neil Young and Co made Ohio a rallying cry, and the victims of Kent State martyrs to the cause. Dala finds the humanity in the song, and reminds us that the victims were somebody’s sons and daughters. Young’s writing allows both approaches, and each one is or was utterly right for its time.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Neil Young Covers: Burned

Wilco: Burned


For the soundtrack to the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, Wilco covered "Burned", a song Neil Young wrote and sang on the first Buffalo Springfield album thirty years earlier. While the original had that "vintage whine" of Neil's, we get Jeff Tweedy's stoner-drawl and some far out guitar feedback--which may actually fit the lyrics better. Many cuts on the Warhol album have 90's era bands (R.E.M, Luna, Bettie Serveert) knocking out 60's covers. As with most soundtracks, it's a mixed bag.

Teenage Fanclub also covered an uptempo version of "Burned" as a B side to their 1995 "Sparky's Dream" single. I don't have it but you can check it out here .

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Neil Young Covers: Cortez The Killer

Marissa Nadler: Cortez The Killer


Carrie Rodriguez: Cortez The Killer


Built To Spill: Cortez The Killer


Clem Snide: Cortez The Killer


There's been a lot of great Neil Young coverage released since the turn of the millenium; of the 200 covers in my private stash, over half were released in the last decade alone. But no single song has caught my fancy more effectively than Cortez The Killer.

Originally released in 1975, with a crying guitar riff that ranked #39 on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos, and later named one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Cortez is a somewhat pensive, almost wistful, eminently political, entirely accurate historical recitative for the bulk of its journey.

In the last verse, though, the narrator switches into first person, describing a woman he knows, who's "living there today".

Wikipedia writers cite temples and Cortez' mistress La Malinche (Doña Marina) as the possible subject of these lines. Personally, I think that's a grave misinterpretation of how Young writes.

Instead, I think the woman is real - that the whole story of conquest is revealed as a metaphor in the last few lines, wherein the whole thing collapses back on you like a brick wall, placing the personal in the political in a way that only true genius can. Try it, up against Carrie Rodriguez' alt-country, Clem Snide's angsty whine, Marissa Nadler's echoey nufolk, the heavy jamband rock of Built To Spill - four vastly different takes on the emotional core of the piece - and see what I mean.

Neil Young Covers: Cinnamon Girl

Replicants - Cinnamon Girl

[buy it]

I saw Neil Young once. It was the Ragged Glory tour.

It was a total spur-of-the-moment thing, and the nose-bleed seats were testament. My brother and I were waaay up in Cloud City, but I didn't care. It was a Big Rock Show and I was excited. Sonic Youth was a support act.

All during Sonic Youth's set, a drunken, long-haired man in a very unwashed Neil Young tour tee-shirt stood - in the row before us - screaming his throat to shreds: "Get off the stage!!! Neil!!! Whoo!!! Get off the stage!!!"

After the break, once Neil did take the stage, the fine fellow slumped into his seat, passed out, and only barely vomited all over his shirt... ah, good times.

Neil Young Covers: Old Man

The Boxcar Lilies: Old Man


There are three ways that I can think of to interpret the song Old Man. The narrator could be addressing an imaginary old man, who represents what he thinks he will be like in quite a few years, looking back at his life. The narrator could be addressing an actual old man, but not one that he knows well; in that case, the narrator is simply projecting his own concerns onto a relative stranger, seeking to reassure himself that there is a future for himself. Or the narrator could actually know the old man well enough to compare himself; in this case, the narrator is seeking common ground with someone from another time. I find all of these possible meanings in the original, and The Boxcar Lilies preserve them beautifully. I want to reassure the 24 year-old narrator that there is indeed a future to look forward to, and more love to be won and lost and won. I’m a bit older than that, as you may have guessed.