The Voice in the Thunder

Neil Young and I go way back—all the way back. The creation myth is that I was born to a Neil Young song. All creation myths have conflicting scribes; my parents disagree on which song was playing on the tape deck just then. Either one suits me just fine. As far as I was concerned, from the time I could dance to a record, the man, more so than the musician, could do no wrong.

But lately, Neil—we are on a first-name basis—Neil recorded two albums that blew the dust out of the cracks in that foundation. Storytone gushed about new love as an old man. Yet the old man was not so much spilling his soul as engaging in awkward PDA with his new lady friend. Then this summer’s The Monsanto Years, all uptempo with a backing band of twentysomethings, reincarnated the rocker. He was rarin’ to call out Monsanto, Starbucks, genetically modified food, too big to fail, Citizens United, the Supreme Court…

Neil has succeeded with protest songs before. The poetic simplicity of “Ohio.” The focalized humanity and irony inherent in “Rockin’ In The Free World.” Angry Neil riles folks up with the best of ’em. Music is an emotional medium. Listeners respond emotionally to imagery and subtext and sound; the flip is that listeners like me shut down when we’re directed what to think.

The Monsanto Years is a nine-track letter to the editor. It is not even a rallying cry like the Bush-impeaching Living With War. It’s an old man yelling at corporate America to get off his back and off his dinner plate. The anger is justified. The music is intriguing—at times dissonant and unsettled, at times rockin’ and catchy. The music pulls the plow. The lyrics? They just chew the hay.

IMG_7210Even so… I bought my tickets for Neil Young + Promise of the Real’s Rebel Content Tour at Red Rocks. I’ve traveled to a lot of Neil Young concerts at very different points. Driving I-25 from Albuquerque, hopping the regional train to Cologne, riding melted shotgun through a Phoenix afternoon—I spent those pre-concert days in love. Neurons dilated, butterflies jitterbugging, can’t-eat can’t-possibly-sleep in love.

It’s one thing to understand the mechanics of being in love, and another to be in love. I spent something like twenty years infatuated with—nay, in adulation of—nay, worshipping—Neil Young. And then, the idol became a man. Maybe I grew up. Maybe he let his slip show with those two on-the-nose albums. Maybe. But in truth, the shift goes further back.

This is a story I refused to share until the risk of jinx passed. After a Panama City concert in 2010, Neil actually came out to shake hands and sign autographs for the fans ringing his bus. My idol, approachable, tangible, right there, a god on earth with no rail or rope between us. All I needed to commune was to run over and stick my hand out.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t meet him on a thin mob’s impersonal terms. Besides, here was no god. Here was a raisined man, all that was left after the music had spent him for the day. I dreaded that I would never see my idol again, and that our last gossamer connection would be this: him, bent and flanked by Herculean guards; and me, stripped.

This time, tailgating in the dirt parking lot north of Red Rocks, birds of prey restless in the amphitheater rock, my anticipation for the concert didn’t precipitate. This was risky business, going back to an old flame and hoping the early magic would alchemize again.

IMG_7224The fledgling tour had two nights at Red Rocks. The first-show report from another fan was that the rain stopped for good the moment Neil opened the show at the piano. Like magic, she said. The second night—my night—Neil opened alone, sans band. These four acoustic hits did not umbrella the rain this time, even if they kept the drunks in rows 47-49 entertained enough to brave the wet. Then Neil lost the focus of the drunks on the fifth song, singing an old dirge-ode to Mother Earth on the pump organ. Hoo boy. How would they react to rants against Monsanto?

Promise of the Real emerged, half masked by fog machines, to tour through Neil’s back catalog. They buttered us up with everything—or a sense of everything—we wanted to hear. By the second half, they finally braved the new material. “Yeah, I want a cup of coffee but I don’t want a GMO. I’d like to start my day off without helpin’ Monsanto.”

The sermon had deflated in my living room. But here? The crowd cheered a guttural amen. By the time Neil got all riled up … well, the nonbelievers had already slogged to the parking mud. We were the choir, and we were assembled.

For two and a half hours, this sixty-nine-year-old ran his youthful band ragged, pouring out music and vigor in a thunderstorm, singing about what burns the hairs on his ass. I often think of his jams as tectonic music, unceasing, grinding, steady, slow, slow, so methodically slow. But vamping with Promise of the Real, the energy volcanoed over. Eavesdropping rain flooded my face during “Down By The River.” Me standing up a mountain, and him below, in full creative regalia, nothing between us but sky and the rain in my eyes.

If I have to go out, this is how I want to go out.

The new songs may not be beautiful, and they certainly are not perfect. But Neil is a rock star; songs are his op-eds. He is at least voicing his thoughts. Someone is now paying more attention to where food comes from because of this album and this concert. Here I am writing about them. Ripples really do spread.

So many people, people who genuinely care about making that Big Difference, paralyze themselves with the futility of doing something imperfectly. I do. And if I want to make ripples, then an Olympic-class high dive may not be the most effective. Sometimes, a cannonball works best.

Cannonball. That’s not a bad way to describe Neil’s music. Imperfectly finished songs, songs you don’t want to drop on your toes. And it’s not a bad way to describe Neil on stage. Blunt, weathered, forged from the hardest parts of rocks.

Photo227I descended to the rail after the show. The stage was already dismantled, the guitars sheathed from the mellowed rain. I took in the whole hulking lit-up mass of the amphitheater. Sloughed cans and plastic ponchos mulched the rows where people had cheered about saving the planet from ourselves. Ripples, like sound waves, take time and fearlessness to spread. Not everyone has heard the voice in the thunder. Not everyone has experienced music speaking to the hole in your heart. When you do, it is supernatural.


This essay originally appeared in The Durango Telegraph.

Photos copyright the incomparable Mary Hughes. Flowerpot on stage copyright Zach Hively.


One response to “The Voice in the Thunder

  1. Nailed it, Zach. This made me realize that as much as I like the funny columns, your best from the heart columns make me weep in that good way. Thanks. Ummm.. and why are you NOT a rock music scholar?

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