Neil Young has always held a special place in my life. He was the first rock musician to really connect with me, I was eleven years old. Perhaps strangely, it was with Everybody’s Rockin’ and Trans, which at the time were records considered to be perverse goofs by his longtime fans. But man, doesn’t this video for “Wonderin'” still hold up as top-shelf entertainment? It was in my late teens that I got into his canonical records, and they still sound as vital and essential to me now as they did then. I’ve been lucky to see some fantastic shows (Tom Waits at the Commodore Ballroom, Guided by Voices at The Drink, et al…), but his 1996 show at the Regina Agridome stands alone as the single most transcendent immersion into sonic bliss I’ve experienced.
He was backed up by Crazy Horse on that tour, so when I heard that this was shaping up as the first year of the horse in ages it was cause for real excitement. That feeling was diminished a bit by the, um… uneven traditional covers album Americana released earlier this year, which had me wondering if Neil and Crazy Horse had finally reached the end of the line.
I needn’t have worried. If the video for the recent show in New York’s Central Park is any indication, those shambling burnouts are still bedecked in ragged glory. Watching the show, the song that hit me hardest was a track from the forthcoming Psychedelic Pill, “Walk Like a Giant”. You can catch a shortened studio edit released on YouTube, but I’d like to linger on the epic twenty minute version from the Central Park show for a bit, which should start up here.
The riff is essentially a reworking of one of Neil’s most aggressive anthems, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”. But where the electric version of “Hey Hey, My My” is fevered and crunchy, “Walk Like a Giant” slows down the chord progression, and the guitar work is generally less intense throughout the song. Typically on a Neil Young epic, his playing wails and fights defiantly like Ahab raging in a storm. But here, the performance is wistful, almost subdued. That’s reflected in the lyrics, simple and direct, perhaps influenced by the writing of his new memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream
I used to walk like a giant on the land
Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream
I want to walk like a giant.
…Me and some of my friends
We were gonna save the world
We were trying to make it better
We were ready to save the world
But then the weather changed
And the white got stained
And it fell apart
And it breaks my heart
To think about how close we came.
“Hey Hey, My My” is famous for the line “it’s better to burn out, than to fade away”. “Walk Like a Giant” feels real, powerful, and to my ears stands up as one of Neil’s best songs in many years because it deals with fading away while an inner fire still burns. And it is communicated not just by the lyrics but by Neil’s playing of Old Black, which over the years has to stand as one of the most powerful and beautiful expressions of feeling produced by humankind.
Fittingly, the performance concludes with a long feedback-drenched ending… hell, Neil and Crazy Horse once released a pretty cool album made up of them. But here “Walk Like a Giant” also reworks the formula… as described by David Carr:
…a solid four minutes of a repeating, thudding note as the band stomped in big steps, dinosaurs in full frolic. Boom. Boom. Boom. The audience tried clapping but finally gave up until the amps died down. It sounded like a hair-metal parody, but in Young’s hands it had the aura of ceremony.
In earlier decades, that stomping would have conveyed a sense of euphoria and amped-up garage rock giddyness. This playout begins with powerful stomping, slowing down, losing energy, one hears the giant finally thud to ground with a mournful howl of pain and loss.
I can only imagine how this would resonate in the building. In my two other Neil Young concerts, I was struck by how Old Black on those beat up vintage amps was one of the few sounds capable of inhabiting an arena space, where “music filled the air” was more than a cliche.
Floor tickets for Neil Young and Crazy Horse, live in Van Rock City, November 11th. In hand. Can’t fucking wait.