When I was 10 years old, I asked my mother for tickets to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse play at Madison Square Garden. My mom was always very generous and open minded about letting me go to concerts when I was a kid. She knew that rock was important to me. The only condition was that I had to have adult supervision, but this wasn't ever a problem because I had a built-in concert companion in my brother, who is 20 years older than I am (long story) and loves rock as much as I do.
Of all the concerts my brother Billy took me to see - including Kiss, Jethro Tull, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Frank Zappa - Neil Young and Crazy Horse was the loudest and the biggest freak show of all. ...The line to get into MSG that night was like some kind of unwashed hippie Halloween party. This was, after all, less than a decade removed from the 60s. All the kids were dressed in their army jackets and ripped clothing, lighting firecrackers, drinking beer from brown paper bags, and getting rowdier by the minute. The sidewalks in front of the Garden were teaming with squirrelly looking dudes selling T-shirts and drugs. 'Smoke and coke, how high you wanna fly?' I was just barely ten years old and I remember being a little scared as we got on line, but also feeling like I was part of something cool and rebellious that I'd be able to tell my friends about the next day.
Once we got inside the arena, the atmosphere became even more carnivalesque. The smell of pot hit us like a sledge hammer as we walked from the rotunda into the arena. People were smoking joints and bowls out in the open, without any worry at all that an usher might confiscate things or throw them out. I can recall bottle rockets getting shot across the arena, and I remember the kids in front of us snorting something called Rush - one of them proceeded to do a headstand on his seat for about ten minutes. It was the kind of scene you'd never see today, where all events like this are so tightly controlled by mookish bouncers with their yellow shirts and schmucky earpieces, and there's virtually no chance of anything spontaneous or surprising (or exciting) happening.
When the lights went down, the energy level and the weirdness quotient increased another hundred points. The memories are all a bit hazy now but the stage was decorated with 25-foot-high mock amplifiers and microphone stands. Before the band played one note, several gnome-like, bug-eyed creatures wearing hooded monk robes came out to twiddle knobs and dials. I later found out these were roadies in costume, but at the time it just seemed bizarre and a little frightening. But any fear was quickly cast aside and replaced with awe. It's the best feeling in the world when you're 10 and you get that first glimpse of one of your rock idols standing in the blue and white spotlight. The deafening roar of the crowd as Neil and the boys took the stage was nowhere near as savagely loud as the opening riff to "Cinnamon Girl." If I had to choose one (non-sexual) point in time to travel back to in my life, I'd have a hard time picking out a place I'd rather be than that concert...
The concert was part of the tour for Rust Never Sleeps, which is one of the headiest albums I've ever heard. Although Neil was by then a 'mature' artist representing an older cohort, he managed to make an album that bridges the divide separating the hippies from the fledgling punks and New Wavers. Side 1 is Neil's nod to the struggles of his 60s compatriots via acoustic folk songs that harken back to the pre-Collapse period as well as the naturalistic imagery of the rural turn. "Pocahontas" is, most immediately, part of Neil's long standing fascination and sympathy for the plight of Native Americans. At the same time, the song is symbolically a metaphor for the ruthless march of modernity over all that's innocent and nurturing. 'They massacred the buffalo, kitty corner from the bank/The taxis run across my feet and my eyes have turned to blanks/In my little box at the top of the stairs/With my Indian rug, and a pipe to share. "Thrasher" similarly acknowledges the death of a peaceful utopia - read: the hippie idyll - but does so in wistful tones, and not without alluding to the humanism and morality of those naive dreams.
Where the eagle glides ascending
There's an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits
I searched out my companions
Who were lost in crystal canyons
Where the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates
Side 1 is the elder statesman's sorrowful but also appreciative look back at where he's come from. Side 2, featuring some of the hardest and most incendiary music Neil has ever made ("Sedan Delivery", "Welfare Mothers", "My My, Hey, Hey"), shows that he is not content with simple nostalgia and clears the decks for punk rock and its attempt to break through the malaise of the 70s. With its images of brute force overtaking little people living their communal lives, "Powderfinger" - rumored to be Neil's response to The Band's "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" - is thematically similar to much of what is heard on Side 1 and serves as a warning to those who plan to go up against the system. But placing the acoustic/electric "Hey Hey, My My"/"My My Hey Hey" at the album's bookends, Neil also seems to be saying that the struggle against conformity is worth it - even if it is bound to eventually collapse under its own weight. 'It's better to burn out than to fade away.'
This brings me back to the concert I attended when I was ten. I've often wondered about the meaning of those huge stage props - the mic stand, the amps, the roadies dressed as gnomes... I should also mention here that I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse again in the early and mid 1990s (the tours for Ragged Glory and Broken Arrow) and the big props were still part of the show on both occasions. You might or might not get a satisfactory or even coherent answer from Neil if you were to ask him what the props are all about, but it seems to me like it's a commitment to making a BIG statement against conformity, regardless of whether defeat is inevitable. The virtue is in making actually making the statement as much as it in its results. This approach has enabled Neil to stay relevant for over 40 years and is why his music continues to give inspiration to those who strive to live on their own terms.