Neil Young

Live at Massey Hall 1971

(Reprise 2001; 2007)

By Christopher Alexander | 6 April 2007

Being young and a fan of pop music invites some unreasonable comparisons to your idols. Take this scene from a bar in the East Village, where last night I found myself in conversation with Davids Goldstein and Greenwald about our mid-twenties. We do this, of course, by talking about Neil Young’s mid-twenties; Harvest was written and recorded while he was 26. At that point in his life he had already: been in Buffalo Springfield; recorded Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) and After the Goldrush (1970); toured with Crosby, Stills and Nash; and somewhere in there tossed off two world class live albums that he decided to let chill out in his basement for almost forty years as if they were bottles of wine. We pursue this train of thought at our peril—didn’t Biggie Smalls get capped when he was 24? Kurt Cobain wrote much of Nevermind (1991) when he was 22 and 23, right? Well, I interviewed Corin Tucker once and…who needs another beer?

Age plays a primary role in the songs on Live at Massey Hall 1971, the second installment of the predictably great Archives series (the set has been in circulation as a bootleg for decades, though in vastly inferior sound quality). “Look at my life,” he asks the titular subject of “Old Man,” “Twenty-four and there’s so much more… / Live alone in a paradise that makes me think of two.” It dawns on me, listening to this set, that Young makes twenty-four seem like a milestone, like someone should give him a gold watch if not a parade. “I’ve been to Hollywood / I’ve been to Redwood / I’ve crossed the ocean for a heart of gold,” he sings on his sole number one single, “Heart of Gold,” where he later adds “and I’m getting old.” The entire thing reads like a long list of the things he’s seen, proof he’s already forgotten more than most will ever know: “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done”; “I’ve seen love make a fool of a man”; “I’ve been first and last / Look at how the time goes past.” Doesn’t the name of the album that would house most of these songs, Harvest (1972), say it all—a coming of age, for sure, but more than that a feeling ripening, a reflection of months underground, or months spent hungry if you are the farmer? And doesn’t the harvest always happen in autumn? The first line of that album is “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up”; he’s going back to Onanie, he’s had enough. Jesus, I listened to that album religiously when I was fourteen years old. No wonder I always thought twenty-six would be old-with-a-capital-O.

None of this would be as affecting as it is, if it weren’t for the fact that, above the excellence of the material, Young was really on fire tonight. I’ve always read the chorus of “Old Man,” where his voice jumps an octave, as the anguished wail of lost love, or of lost innocence, or both. But it hits the spot here, and the result is palpable: this is the alarm of age, sheer terror of the inability to stop time. It’s hair raising music. “A Man Needs a Maid,” which Young introduces as his song for a musical (which makes the contrived orchestration of the Harvest version make a bit more sense, if still not as palatable), is keening. No wonder he needs a maid: a maid is harmless to the thing the actress becomes in this version. He makes it explicit in the lyric, “A man feels afraid,” but it hardly begins to describe the utter terror of the singer at love, at aging. No wonder he backed off in the finished version; it’s as if changing the line and smothering the music would conceal what was vulnerable. It worked, except listening to this performance reveals its failure.

Musings on age, of course, are really about time—where am I now,
where have I been, where am I going, and how come I can’t stop this dreadful thing? Intertwined with that is the warm feeling of memory; Live at Massey Hall has the bookends of old songs “On the Way Home” and “I am a Child,” like Young is trying to crawl back into the womb. “I’m going back to Canada / on a journey through the past,” he sings, and the Canadian crowd applauds the name-check, but you can’t help but wonder if they’re applauding a superhuman capacity to reverse aging, to live forever. If it’s not true what they say, and in fact you can go home again, would that mean that time is a loop you can restart at any interval? Young the lyricist tends to think so, too; in the heretofore unreleased (and absolutely spell-binding) “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” he bids a woman farewell, but, realizing how much trouble finding a maid is, he has second thoughts: “Come back, maybe I was wrong.” It’s tempting to think that, especially when one listens to pop music, which has the ability to make four minutes seem like eternity, which is also to say it seems like no time at all. It’s a spell, and it’s a trance: it invites you to live inside of it. And that’s why that high note of “Old Man” makes you rock back in your chair, more than the virtuosity of it: it’s a sensation that gives lie to any idea that time stops when the music plays, even if it fails to break the spell of the music.