Friday, June 12, 2009

The Religion of Rust: Part One

After well over 25 hours of plowing through them in limited spurts of free time, I'm now ready to post my first impressions of the recent release of the Neil Young Archives, Volume One. My long-time reader (singular intentional) will recall that I bought a PlayStation 3 right after Christmas with the expressed intent of experiencing the Archives in their Blu-ray format. At that time, the Archives were slated for a February release which was delayed, again.

The Archives have a storied history of never quite coming out. All that has now changed.

The only reason I considered a PS3 was because Neil Young himself recommended it as the best way to listen to and rummage through his Archives. So, I bought the PS3 on faith. Faith in Neil's rather infamous discriminating taste. Blind faith as a Rustee.

A Rustee is a self-proclaimed ascription to those who are the most devoted fans of Neil's career. The term refers to the huge phenomenon that surrounded Neil at the time of the release of his sensational folk-acoustic / grunge-rock album Rust Never Sleeps in 1979 and the equally terrific Live Rust album that followed.

As you know, I have not been disappointed with my PS3. I love the navigation and graphics capabilities of the system. From the beginning the better quality sound produced by the PS3 – even on MP3s through my exact same stereo setup - left a more than favorable impression on me.

Needless to say, the sound quality of the Archives in Blu-ray is astounding. Most of the 128 or so featured tracks sound as if they were recorded yesterday instead of between 1963 and 1972 - the period of Neil's career covered in volume one. To a true Rustee, this in and of itself justifies the rather hefty price tag for the release.

Remastered album tracks of The Loner, Southern Man, Down By The River, Cowgirl in the Sand, and Heart of Gold, all sound fresh and clear with much deeper bass and extended range at the upper end, as they were intended to be listened to by Neil. These are mixed with all sorts of previously unreleased alternate takes and live versions of Neil’s other work up to 1972. The 1971 live performance at Massey Hall was incredible on DVD. It is even better in Blu-ray.

I guess technically speaking the time period covered is pre-Rustee. You get Neil's progression from the early years with The Squires and Buffalo Springfield, through his initial solo period, to the beginning of things with Crazy Horse, with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and with the Stray Gators.

The navigation menu for the Blu-ray version of the Archives is basically on a three-tiered basis. The first tier is to "Play All" which gives you a variety of usually well thought out "collage stage sets" constructed for either a record player or a reel-to-reel tape recorder. On this "stage set" you get to watch the song in question being played while watching the original record or the tape. Only the sound is in the highest quality digital definition. Kinda cool in a retro-way.

The second tier, which I prefer, is actually a pull-out filing drawer filled with labeled file folders just like most of us keep somewhere. You can navigate from tab to tab back and forth along the file drawer and select the song you want to hear. From there you jump down into another menu level which is a hanging file folder containing various links that you can interact with while the music plays. You don't get this interactive ability on the DVD or CD releases of the Archives.

Usually, especially on the later material, there are a number of items to explore as the track plays in crystal clarity. There are photos, letters, Neil's original hand written sheets of lyrics, posters, ticket stubs, images of 45's, and often yellowed press clippings. There are links to "hidden" tracks - alternate versions of the same song - as well as various audio/video links featuring live performances of the tune along with associated radio interviews and other audio-only content.

You can get lost in here. Lost in a good kinda way.

In addition to all this there is massive "timeline" that includes a great deal of information. The timeline traces every major personal and world news-related event (such as the July 1969 landing on the moon) during Neil’s life from 1963 – 1972. The emphasis, of course, is on when albums were released, when groups were formed and broke-up, who Neil was touring with (if not solo), etc. There are push-pins scattered throughout the course of the timeline and if you select one you get another file-folder not accessible from the “regular” menus. These folders contain additional song tracks, videos, etc. related to whenever the push-pin happens to be on the timeline.

Within this vast construct of menus you will find all sorts of things. There is extended footage featuring the elderly guy Neil wrote the song Old Man about. Louie Avilla was the Portuguese overseer of the ranch Neil bought in Topanga Canyon. Avilla actually is involved in a conversation that lasts about 5 - 6 minutes.

In another extended video, Neil steals a bootleg LP of one of his live performances from a used record store. He gets into an argument with the employee who insists he pay and ends up on the phone with the store owner explaining to him that he shouldn’t have to pay for music that was “stolen” from him to begin with. It’s quite funny.

There’s a video of CSNY performing an all acoustical version of Ohio as well as one with them playing Neil’s classic Down by the River on television.

In another video we see Neil stoned at his ranch listening to early versions of Words blaring from his barn out into an open field so that he can hear the echo of certain notes off the distant ridge line, then Neil waxes poetic about the creative process between giggles and the apparent mantra of the moment: “I don’t know, man.”

There are numerous videos of Neil and archivist Joel Bernstein discussing the Archives in February 1997. Of particular note in these discussions is Joel bringing the 1970 Fillmore East performance with Crazy Horse to Neil's attention. He had completely forgotten about it. This performance not only is featured as a disc on the Archives but was the first release of anything pertaining to the Archives as the inaugural release of the special Performance Series Archives.

At one point on the disc of his previously unreleased live performance in 1969 at The Riverboat coffee house in Toronto, Neil talks about how important the audience is to the performance of the musician. The more attentive the audience, according to Neil at the time, the better the performance. 28 years later in 1997 there is a video of him complaining that now that he has 40 albums worth of material no one comes to his concerts wanting to hear the new stuff. “Fuck the audience,” he off-handedly exclaims. “If I’m going to survive they’re going to have to eat it.” Meaning his new material.

When you cover decades worth of an artistic career you’re going to run in to some contradictions. Especially with Neil.

The discs are almost decadently packaged in a large flip top box along with a six-foot foldout of the file drawer view of the menu system. A 230-plus page leather bound book features more photos, letters, hand-written lyric sheets, lists of show sets, etc. for anyone who might want a more traditional way of thumbing through some of the materials available.

The final disc in the 10 Blu-ray set features Neil’s midnight stoner film Journey Through the Past. As a film it is pretty crappy and will challenge even the most dedicated Rustee but it features a couple of interesting CSNY tour video clips (they perform Find the Cost of Freedom and Ohio) and is a rather fitting way to end this first volume of the collection, which is, after all, all about the past.

This set is an extravagance to some degree for even a die-hard Neil Young fan. It is pricey and some of the previously unreleased material was never released for good reason – it is garbage. Still, Neil has always believed that you can take him or leave him, warts and all. He’s never tried to hide anything and has been, above all else, honest and straightforward with his abundant talent.

There has never been anything like this released by any artist. You take the good, the bad, and the mediocre. If you go with the Blu-ray version what you ultimately get, however, is the reward of discovery of a truly vast scale, the enjoyment of some of the best rock music ever written in the highest possible sound quality. You get to explore everything in a manner that is truly unique and really sets the standard not for just how musical art should be presented and explored but how history in general should be made available. Go where you want. Read want you want. See what you want. Hear what you want. Draw your own conclusions.

It was more than worth the wait.

One of the featured tracks in the Archives is the classic I Believe in You. And that pretty much sums up my relationship to Neil as an artist and, now, as an innovative curator for the museum of himself. I believed in Neil when he said play it on a PS3. I believed in Neil when he said get it on Blu-ray or you’ll miss out. I believed in Neil when he said it will all be out there for you to explore. And it is. More than I expected.

Not everyone agrees, of course. There's always dissent in Neil's world. But most Rustees seem to dig it and that's all that matters. As of yesterday they are sold out.

Hallelujah.

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