Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Greendale

Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Released 2003 on Reprise
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 23/11/2003ce

1 Falling From Above
2 Double E
3 Devil's Sidewalk
4 Leave The Driving
5 Carmichael
6 Bandit
7 Grandpa's Interview
8 Bringin' Down Dinner
9 Sun Green
10 Be The Rain

Neil Young - guitar, harmonica, organ
Billy Talbot - bass
Ralph Molina - drums

Here's a rarity: an 80 minute "folk-rock opera" that you can actually listen to all the way through. It doesn't fall into the usual pitfalls of crawling up some central character's angst (The Wall) or having lyrics that are so sketchily "symbolic" and unconnected that the plot is hard to make sense of (Tommy). In fact it's so novelistic in it's approach it's almost like a "books on tape" with musical accompaniment.

The story follows three generations of the Green family of the fictional seaport town of Greendale, California and isn't so much a straight narrative (though there is a plot) as a series of character studies. The key players include crotchety old Grandpa Green, "crazy hippie drug dealer" Jed Green who shoots a cop, and Jed's 18 year old cousin Sun Green who emerges as the "hero" at the end of the story. None of the Greens is anything like a villain (even Jed is more of a lost soul); in the end the bad guys turn out to be those old love-to-hate'em institutions -- Polluting Corporations, The Federal Government, and The Media.

"Falling" is a folk rock overture that begins with some funny meta-commentary by Neil-as-Grandpa griping about Neil: "seems like that guy singin' this song's been doin' it for a long time / is there anything he knows that he ain't said?" But in spite of his crotchety demeanor he's a sweet old guy, his refrain "a little love and affection / in everything you do / will make the world a better place / with or without you" is one of the most lovely tear-up-your-eyes sentiments Neil's ever sung. Basically this song functions to introduce the characters by describing "a day in the life" though it also puts these simple lives in a larger context:

"slammin' down a late night shot
the hero and the artist compared
goals and visions and afterthoughts
for the 21st century
but mostly came up with nothin'
so the truth was never learned
and the human race just kept rollin' on
rollin' through the fighting
rollin' through the religious wars
rollin' down the temple walls
and the church's exposed sores"

"Double E" pulls back to describe the town of Greendale itself: "change comes slow in the country."

"Devil's Sidewalk" takes the action out to sea where Grandpa's even-grumpier sea captain brother John argues with his young crew about "the meaning of life" and shit like that. One of the whippersnappers tells him: "one thing I can tell you is you got to be free / John Lennon said that, and I believe in love / I believe in action when push comes to shove!" -- but Cap'n John ain't buyin' that hippy mush. His solution to human problems is to get away from humans altogether and live out at sea, negationism personified.

"Leave The Driving" is where the action really starts; Jed is pulled over by the fuzz with a car full of coke & weed, when "in a split second tragic blunder" he shoots and kills the cop. This sets up the next couple songs which is perhaps the strongest sequence on the album.

The melancholy "Carmichael" explores the aftermath of the until-now-nameless cop's death, who it turns out is just another regular guy with a family: "Carmichael you asshole" the new widow sobbed beneath her veil / "shot down in the line of duty, is this how justice never fails? . . . goddamnit Carmichael you're dead now and I'm talkin' to the wall."

Next the acoustic "Bandit" is one of the loveliest songs on the album, it's verses consisting of the muttered inner monologue of jailed family fuck-up Jed as he ruminates over the many mistakes he's made in his life. It's choruses and bridges consist only of the simple line "someday you'll find what you're looking for." But it doesn't sound like he ever will.

Greendale being a small town, the murder of a cop is big news. The media descends on Jed's relatives in "Grandpa's Interview." After ranting about how much he hates the crap on TV ("I don't have time to talk that fast!") and resents the creeps camping out on his lawn, Grandpa goes out on the porch and fires his shotgun in the air to drive them away. Then he falls down dead of a heart attack. In a sublimely dark comic moment, Grandpa's dying words are another meta-comment at the narrator's expense: "That guy who just keeps singin', can't somebody shut him up? / I don't know for the life of me where he comes up with this stuff!"

"Bringin' Down Dinner" is an organ dirge about the aftermath of the second death in the story. It sets up the last two songs where the focus moves to young Sun Green, up until now a rather insignificant character.

In her titular tune (angry guitar RAWK in the best Crazy Horse tradition), "Sun Green started making waves on the day her grandpa died." She goes activist, chaining herself to a statue in the lobby of the power company and shouting through a megaphone. This attracts the attention of the FBI, who follow her around and eventually trash her appartment and kill her cat while she's out dancing. At the club she meets a guy named "Earth Brown" (gimme a break!) and he invites her to come to Alaska to fight beside him against the "enemies of Mother Earth": "I'm ready to go right now" Sun Green told Earth Brown / "let's go back to my place, pick up my cat and leave this town behind!" which is another tear-jerker moment because we already know the cat's "lying in a puddle of blood at the foot of Sun Green's bed."

The finale "Be The Rain" is more of an anthem then an end to the story. Sun & Earth go to Alaska, singing "we've got to save Mother Earth."

In some ways I feel the ending of the tale of Greendale is a let-down, but then when you're trying to craft a true-to-life series of character studies a "tidy dramatic ending" would probably ring false as real life doesn't lend itself to tidy endings. We are never going to know what happened to Sun Green in Alaska (or her relatives back in Greendale), but then I suppose the whole point is it's up to YOU THE LISTENER to determine how things are going to turn out in the global sense.

Neil's storytelling has never been better, and he sings in all the character's voices quite wonderfully. Musically, the tunes are all memorable, if a bit familiar-sounding, with John Lee Hooker being the biggest influence outside of Neil's own past records. The stripped down trio is also perfect and is the major reason this record avoids the problems of most "concept albums"; there is no filler or overproduction anywhere. Neil's self-deprecating references to the simplicity of his own tunesmithing (and attributed quotations from fellow travellers like Lennon and Dylan) are an interesting post-mod updating of the old folkie tradition. Cuz after all it's just one long song written by everybody, innit?

If you've ever enjoyed ANY of Neil's records this is certainly one you should hear. I'd rank it right alongside "Rust Never Sleeps" and "Freedom" as a touchstone in his career (not that these are necessarilly his "best" records, but they mark creative rebirths after most folks had written him off -- he has a knack for resurrecting himself every ten years or so.)

It's also a remarkably good distillation of the current zeitgeist, encapsulating the various strands of dread, hope, negationism, activism and fatalism here in early 21st century America (and maybe the rest of the "Western world" as well.)

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