Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fork in the Road, Revisited

You know how sometimes a song will get stuck in your head for no apparent reason. That happened to me last week. I got to humming a tune from Neil Young’s 2009 release Fork in the Road on the way to work and then back home again afterwards. So, I decided to check out the song on the CD/DVD release when I got home that night.

Neil has put out 33 studio albums (so far) among many other releases throughout his incredible 45 year career. Most recently, in 2007 he created a superb album, Chrome Dreams II. In 2009, he followed with Fork in the Road. When you put out that much material, featuring as many diverse styles as Neil experiments with (remember he was once sued by his record company for failing to produce "Neil Young music"), occasionally something comes out and you scratch your head. What was he thinking?

I was nonplussed by Fork in the Road when I got it in April of last year. I listened through it once. Listened to a couple tunes again. Played what I thought was the best stuff for Jennifer. She was blah with it as well. It seems it was a flavor of Neil neither of us cared to sample at the time.

Then, over a year later, here’s Just Singing a Song running through my head clear out of the blue. As I posted before, this is the way karma works. I listened to the song. It sounded really great. Then I gave the entire CD/DVD another try. I really got into it. I listened to it several times over the weekend. Suddenly, it becomes very clear what Neil was thinking all along. Man, this stuff sounds good. A crude, rocking Neil.

I had this same response to previous Neil offerings. Trans and Landing on Water come immediately to mind. Anyway, I’m grooving on the CD when I remember that long-time Neil Young back-up band member, Ben Keith, died recently. I perused the album credits to see if Ben played on Fork in the Road. Indeed he did. I also noticed that this album was produced by long-time Neil producer L.A. Johnson, who has also passed away in the last few months.

Neil is getting to the age (he's 64) now where his “supporting cast” is starting to check out. An inevitability. Still, he charges passionately ahead with new material. More to come soon. But, as I was going over the album credits I noticed a listing for “music video” credits. WTF? I didn’t notice any videos on the DVD portion of the release when I popped it into my PS3 last year. I was so disenchanted with my initial listening that I didn’t bother to explore the DVD fully. (I should point out that Neil releases all his albums these days in CD/DVD sets. He believes DVDs offer superior sound and he's right about that as far as I'm concerned. If you play Fork in the Road on DVD you get a simple screensaver as the album plays.)

Well, it turns out there are four music videos in the “extras” section of the DVD. Three of them are videos of tunes on the album, one of which I had seen online before the album was released last year. I checked them all out. The Just Singing a Song video features Neil in a kayak rowing away as he lip syncs to the music. Kinda cool. There’s a different version of the video here that features Neil driving his Lincvolt. Check it out, it is a nice rocker.

For you non-Rusties out there, the Lincvolt is Neil’s specially engineered 1959 Lincoln Continental that now gets 100 miles per gallon while sporting a 600 horsepower engine. The message is obvious here. You can take a classic American car and make it into an electric hybrid without sacrificing anything in terms of performance or style. Going “green” with automobiles is in no way as difficult as the major automobile manufacturers or oil companies would like the public to believe. We could reduce virtually all the CO2 emissions from standard American cars right now. Certainly, in the next few years. If we only had the willpower to do it.

So, what’s the hold up? Well, that’s kinda the point of Fork in the Road. Most of the songs on the album are about hybrid cars or the mechanics that make them or various cultural and environmental aspects of the whole hybrid car revolution. Neil has always been a huge classic automobile fan. The simple fact is that this classic aesthetic is fully compatible with hybrid vehicle culture. So, don’t give either me or Neil any BS that says otherwise.

But back to my discovery of these videos that I’ve had in my possession unbeknownst to me for over a year. There’s a fourth video that features Neil with Ben Keith and the other backup band members of Truck Show Tour in Calgary, Canada from October 2008. Neil performs what is apparently a second (or third) encore for the show to an enthusiastic crowd. His choice is the old Lennon-McCartney song A Day in the Life. Terrific version of the song (unfortunately the version on the DVD is not available online, but check out this one). As it ends, however, being the last song of the night, Neil pulls out all the stops and plays Old Black like I have never seen a guitar played before.

He is pushing the limits of the guitar so far that the strings start breaking on it. Neil just goes with it. As the strings flail wildly around like wirey spider legs, the weaving and jiving guitar driven by Neil’s body contortions, the sound becomes more and more distorted. Finally, Neil places the guitar on the stage and rips out all the remaining strings, groups them like a braid in his fist and starts pounding the guitar's pick-up with the bunched-up strings, as if it were a percussion instrument. The crowd goes way beyond crazy as does the backup band itself. Just an incredible amount of energy.

In the end, Neil sits Old Black on its stand (just like he did when Jennifer and I saw him back in May, well minus the ripped out strings) and just lets the guitar roar out into the crowd until it quiets down on its own accord several minutes later. Neil and the band leave the stage. Old Black reverbs on.

I was enraptured by finding this wonderful video on Fork in the Road. I showed it to Jennifer and she just laughed, calling it “pure art”. And so it is. Pure art discovered when I was searching for something else, in a place I didn’t even know existed like finding a hidden compartment in an old quilt chest. Just a great experience which started off with a completely unrelated song popping into my head out of nowhere.

You never know what you're going to find when you look for something else.

I didn’t used to pay a lot of attention to things like that. But, as I get older I do. There’s something to all this, I think. But, I won’t hazard a guess as to what it is. Better to just enjoy the art and not think too much about the "ping-pong mind" that got me there. Keep on driving us Neil. On a lot of levels.

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