Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Neil Young:
Hawk or Dove?

The idea that Neil Young is some kind of Great Artist pisses people off. Not only is he heir to folkie limitations both formal (no multiplex popsong structures, trick changes, or off-center rhythms) and technical (his timbre wanders as willfully as his pitch, and his wailing solos are derided by men of chops), but his thematic preoccupation has been a matter of record since 1968, when he dubbed his debut album Neil Young and keyed it to "The Loner." Of course, his limitations are cherished by those of us who believe rock and roll's sacred mission is to plumb the primitive: having basked in his elemental melodies, we're caught up short by his nuances and dazed by his wild power. But his self-involvement is harder to take. Whining through the bad parts of On the Beach, examining his own feces on Journey Through the Past, masturbating by the fireplace in "Will to Love," he seems the quintessential hippie narcissist. who cares what the guy thinks when all he ever thinks about is what he thinks about?

No matter how the concept is abused, though, therer really is such a thing as self-expression, and Young has the secret. His egoism has saved him from a slavishly market-conscious and compulsively technological pop-music generation. Self-expression may not have done much for Peter Ivers, or John Martyn, or any of dozens of left to pursue their own careers. But Young's self has proved simultaneously (in fact, symbolically) volatile and durable, with plenty of content for his expressive gifts to work with. He's unflappably modest, and at his worst moments he'll stand aside and laugh at himself--my favorite line from On the Beach, which is actually a pretty good album, goes "It's hard to know the meaning of this song." And no matter how single-mindedly Young chases his own tail, his obsessions don't stop with romance and private versus public, which after all is the sum of what many more conventional rock stars can offer. The man who wrote "Ohio" (great), "Southern Man" (well . . . ), and "Alabama" (oops) has never stopped pondering the social and the historical, albeit in a cracked way--here Charlie Manson, there Cortez the Killer, and everywhere Bruce and Danny dead from scag.

None of which is to recommend Young as a thinker--about romance, about priate-versus-public, about the social or the historical, about anything but Neil Young. Like any lyric artist, he's more trustworthy [as a sensor] than an analyst, and though [he has changed stance] as tirelessly as Mr. Dylan, his fans have never gauged the progress of their lives by the vacillations of his art. In the end, this detachment serves him well--he's allowed, even expected, to make mistakes. The depressive fatalism of On the Beach was a dead end, the crude fury of Tonight's the Night an inspiration, the sweet, sad love songs of Comes a Time were welcome but often wrong-headed, the all-embracing ambition of Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust an astonishing coup. And now, reeling from the knockout combination of those last three albums, we have Hawks and Doves, which is an odd one indeed. It seems almost perversely--or self-protectively--slight, its music fragile and sometimes partial, its length under 30 minutes despite throwaways. But the theme announced by its title is a grand one, and surprisingly impersonal. In the most bellicose time this nation has known since Vietnam wound down, is Young trying to create a full-length "Ohio"? Hardly.

Admittedly, it's hard to know the meaning of this album. If there's a precedent it's 1977's El Lay country-rock job, Americcan Stars 'n' Bars, which even hada red-white-and-blue packaging motif. But where Stars 'n' Bars' music was Crazy-Horse-at-the-Opry--with backup from Linda, Nicollette, and Emmylou for that reassuring studio flavor--Hawks and Doves has a homey feel. "Little Wing," bare and haltingly lyrical with its miked harp and unaccompanied acoustic, is simpler than anything on the folky Comes a Time, and the rest of the music is defined by Ben Keith's laconic dobro and steel and Rufus Thobodeaux's sawing fiddle. Stars 'n' Bars did stab vaguely at countryish love lyrics one one side while devoting the other to your basic Neil Young hodgepodge. But Hawks and Doves is proudly schematic: "doves" on the blue-label side and "hawks" on the red.

Or so it seems at first, though on the inner sleeve the hawks' lyrics are printed in blue and the doves' in red. After "Little Wing," a dove song in spades, the confusion compounds itself. I initially concluded that "The Old Homestead"--a pseudomythic mind-bender featuring a naked rider, a moon, a shadow, a telephone booth, and some prehistoric birds--was one of the stupidest songs Young had ever written, but now it seems intentionally droll if not a self-parodying shaggy head story. Next comes the opaque "Lost in Space," which ends up on "the ocean floor," where a "marine munchkin" who sounds like a lost Chipmunk takes the break. The side closes with "Captain Kennedy," narrated by "a young mariner" who concludes: "And when I get to shore I hope that I can kill good." Doves, huh?

As Young hodgepodges go, the mid-range stuff only "Little Wing" will tempt Nicolette Larson, although "The Old Homestead" is recommended to Young fanatics and the other two tunes are fun and kinda haunting. But side two is quite brilliant, and unlike anything Young's ever done. Especially after the contradictions of the "dove" side, I don't think it's about hawks, or doves either. I think it's about all those who live and feel they live in the shadow of both ordinary middle Americans, what used to be called the silent majority, neither [moral nor immoral] (or amoral either). What's more I think Young identifies with them, because four of five songs on side two [could c t] just as easily be about guess who. Neil Young, that's who. [Hisself.]

The music is remarkable. Except for the 3:27 minute title song, none of the tracks runs longer than 2:33. [Then] unprepossessing progress is a rocking folkie's idealization of country music, [devoid] of the slickness implied by "country rock" (not to mention "country") these days, and each is constructed around a tag phrase that in a record less redolent of the front porch would be called a hook. The first two of these are rallying [cries] for stable couples who have known trouble, the third a jokey slogan for the American Federation of Musicians, union men all. But it's in the final two songs that Young ties up his statement. "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" is the only song on the side that's even slightly ambiguous, and the only one to express any political dissatisfaction. "It's awful hard to find a job/On one side the government, the other the mob" (Marxians: name the missing oppressor.) It seems to be a complaint that boundaries are disintegrating, as typified by a mysterious event on "the old dew line." But whether the boys launched a missile or let one sneak past is unclear--a good joke on the Pentagon in either case. And then there's the title song, keyed to an unambiguously jingoistic chorus: "Ready to go, willin' to stay and pay/U.S.A. U.S.A./So my sweet love can dance another free day/U.S.A., U.S.A." Which sounds like the current line from rock and roll's finest sensor, save the last line of the last verse, the most significant on the album: "If you hate us, you just don't know what you're sayin'."

Great--middle American virtues are always [undervalued] by coastal types and hatred is rarely advisable. Yet, well . . . as an analysis of the social or historical it seems fragile, partial. Tells us more about Neil Young and his fellow union men than about our condition and prospects, and one does expect that we'll need to know more fairly soon. Too bad we can't be sure that from Neil Young we'll learn about anything but Neil Young. Yet, well . . . the man does leave the possibility open, doesn't he.

Village Voice, Dec. 1, 1980

Postscript Notes:

Photocopy is smudged, faded, just crummy.