It’s early 2001 and I’m clearing out all my stuff. Lately, I have become a minimalist with the unrealistic goal of fitting everything I own into a single mahogany trunk. Inevitably, this means a lot of old vinyl records have to make way. I’m house-sharing a derelict weatherboard joint out in Surrey Hills with three under-employed musicians and fate has it that in just a few months’ time we will be evicted. I think we all have a premonition that this is on the cards.
The house is a pigsty: multiple leaks, gathering mould, mice pooh in the breadbox, possum arses sticking out of the walls to block out the sunlight while they sleep, empty pizza cartons, cheap wine bottles – it’s a cross between Animal House and the Dead Poets Society. Dessie, one of my housemates, has the distinction of discovering a decomposing mouse while he is watching TV with his new girl.
I am unemployed (by choice), single (not by choice) and soon to be a nomad (I will spend the next three years couch-surfing, house-sitting, sponging). Going through my record collection is a journey through the past ten years. What initially surprises me is the number of Neil Young albums I have. I reckon there’s about a dozen. Slowly, it starts to come back to me where and when I purchased these gems.
In first year uni (1992) I hired The Last Waltz from the local video store and was mesmerized by the Neil Young song Helpless. This in turn led to some opportunistic purchases from the second-hand record store Dixons in nearby Blackburn. The first album I got was Harvest; Young’s most commercially successful album with countrified folk classics like Heart of Gold and Old Man. Over the next few years I also acquire After the Gold Rush, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Tonight’s The Night, Time Fades Away, Zuma, American Stars ‘n Bars, Comes A Time, Decade, Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust.
I later realise that all these albums were cut in that classic 1969-79 period. I’m well aware that Young has been a fearless and prolific artist since ’79 but for some reason that’s where it all ends in my record collection. Not a conscious decision. Maybe I got sucked back into the Dylan vacuum – I can’t remember now.
I play a few of the records and I’m transported back to the slothful glory of my university days…up all night studying for an Economics exam under the influence of Crazy Horse…late for a lecture and stuck in traffic on Middleborough Road with the opening line of Tell Me Why ringing in my ears…Barstool Blues blasting from my car stereo at three o’clock in the morning after returning from another ill-fated nocturnal pursuit:
And I saw you in my nightmares
But I’ll see you in my dreams
And I might live a thousand years
Before I know what that means.
With the old records spinning, the overriding feeling that comes back to me is one of solitude. Not so much in the loneliness sense – I had a great bunch of friends at uni – but more so the realisation that I had no one to share this music with. In 1993 not one person that I knew listened to Neil Young. I’m not even sure any of my mates had heard of him. Dudes were more into rap, R&B, house, heavy metal, etc.
Ironically the grunge thing was starting to take off at that time and Neil Young was considered to be godfather of that genre. I tried listening to some of that stuff but sonically I didn’t get it. I couldn’t connect. In retrospect I think it was only the distorted guitar sound that the 90s grunge movement had in common with the Shakey one. For me, Young had much more going on with his tenor voice coming through with clarity above the mayhem of the music, fused with evocative melodies and strange, enchanting lyrics.
The panoramic imagery of songs like Cortez The Killer take you back to the 16th century Americas. Pocahontas is in that world too – albeit with the unexpected entrance of Marlon Brando into the final verse. Then there is the doo wop harmonies of Winterlong sounding like something out of a 1950s dancehall. And the wistful harmonica and nostalgia of Long May You Run. And the sheer autobiographical determination of Don’t Be Denied.
But Powderfinger is the crowning achievement. I had subconsciously neglected this song for the past seven years because of my horror at learning an Australian band had stolen its identity – that’s not a reflection on the band in question (whom I’ve never listened to), but more a reflection of my stubbornness at the time. This song was my secret. How dare they publicise it to the world!
The version of Powderfinger that stands out for me is the cut from Live Rust – the album that is inextricably connected to its predecessor Rust Never Sleeps (where the song first appears). As I pull the record out of the sleeve and drop it in the slot, I know exactly where I’m going to place the needle. Side 3. Track 1. It’s late but I turn it up a few decibels. Let it rip Neil. This will scare the possums away. This will shake up Dessie and his new girl.
Powderfinger is a Southern gothic novel told in just a few verses, ornamented by a succession of blazing, screeching guitar solos – each of which adds to the narrative. Inexplicably the ghastly lyrics are accompanied by an almost doo wop backing vocal by the Crazy Horse musicians. The way the slain man’s last words come to mind just as he is dying:
Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her
is just gut-wrenching. And then the song just ends, winds up in a flash – leaving you with that last poignant thought of the dead man. Songmakers dedicate their whole lives trying to come up with something like that.