from the Critical List September 1, 1989
Neil Young is the three-legged dog of rock & roll; is the uncoupled runaway backward caboose of rock& roll; is the rabid mutant armadillo of rock & roll; is the clattering hijacked half-track of rock & roll, the furiously boiling unwatched pot of rock & roll, the shakily held, unblimped 16mm camera of rock & roll. Neil Young is the elusive six-sided silver dollar, the giant revolving rotisserie spit of rock & roll. And we love him for it. Some of us. Most of the time.
    Neil Young. Ladies and gentlemen, Neil Young. Not your average pop star -- I think we can agree that as pop star qua pop star, he's no Buster Poindexter. He's a warbling contradiction -- by all rights, he shouldn't be a pop star at all, so indomitably perverse is he. Even more than Johnny Rotten, whom he celebrated in "Out of the Blue," he's made a career out of throwing his career away -- a strategy that, his noted imbroglios with Geffen Records notwithstanding (they sued him for not being the product they thought they'd bought), has allowed him an enormous amount of psychic room in which to do his work. I won't say he never tries to be, or at least allows himself to be appealing, but the fact is it doesn't matter one way or the other: Back in the oily '70s, owing in some part to his association with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and in part to a couple of LPs that meshed perfectly with the times, he found an audience, or one found him, and nothing he's done since -- not even the purposefully out of tune, out of time Tonight's the Night, nor the magnificently disheveled Time Fades Away, recorded as an antidote to the success of Harvest, nor the rapid stylistic makeovers of his 1980s -- has been enough to shake them. Not even Trans, recorded under the tardy influence of Devo, could scuttle his ship.
    Since the inception of his solo career, Young has never been without a label; has managed to make a record nearly every year (some years two); has for the last decade toured regularly, and not irregularly before that; has made three movies; and has even brought home a couple of Top 40 hits. He's successful. Yet he remains stubbornly marginal, the closest thing to a punk his coterie has produced, drawn repeatedly toward the primitive, the turbulent, the dark -- his (arguably) best-known song is called "Helpless," and he sounds haunted and anxious even when singing a straight love song, which is not often. Though I'm sure that to many he'll forever remain, for better or worse, identified with CSN and related purveyors of mellow California professionalism, his music largely refutes theirs. He continues to all appearances phenomenally unconcerned with appearances, suspicious of the sort of show-biz validations his peers have desperately courted, and committed only to reaching and communicating some kind of truth, whether musical or personal. I wouldn't say he near bats 1,000 in this regard, not by a country mile, but the attempt keeps him fascinating, and fascinatingly problematic. Young was considered important enough to be given his own chapter in The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, yet the burden of Dave Marsh's essay is that he really isn't that important at all.
    At the Greek Theater the weekend before last, we got the naked Neil, mostly solo, spotlit against a black backdrop o a stage bare but for an upright piano. I don't know whether it was "important," but it sure was good. Radio-miked both at guitar and mouth, Young, who in the Buffalo Springfield was known for playing with his back to the hall, was free to roam, pacing diagonals, facing this way and that, paying as little or much attention to the audience as he liked; it made of the stage a living room, turned the show into a public private affair. Yet it was an aggressive, sometimes angry display (even "Sugar Mountain" had an edge on it), Young whipping arm against guitar, snapping strings, rocking back and forth i a half-crouch, with his head tucked into a raised right shoulder -- he's the untucked Quasimodo of rock & roll. (Not without humor, though, and sometimes, just plain purdy.) He split his set between obvious chestnuts, played as though they'd been written the day before, and dense and sprawling, dread-lined new songs, performed as though they were the inspired testimony of the moment. Well, I'm a fan, you can probably tell...

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Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1989 and 2000