Music by VICE

How Neil Young Became the Greatest Old Man in Rock

In his Desert Trip performance he showed the virtues aging and the value of never trying to be cool.

by Jeff Weiss
Oct 9 2016, 11:11pm

Neil Young was always old. You'd sooner imagine him emerging fully formed from slabs of Dakota granite than as a cooing baby with flesh and blood parents. Technically, there's contradictory evidence. Examine this 1969 photo of Young alongside his famed sportswriter father. According to his birth certificate (which I can't procure due to the shadowy claws of the Canadian government), Young was just 23.

But I'm not sold. For all we know, Neil Young is the Highlander, as old as Olympus. Eternal as the Colorado River and a national treasure on par with the craggy canyon that the river's wandering path carved. All we know for certain is that Young will be angry at the sun until one of them finally burns out first. My money's on the sun.

On the night of Saturday, October 8, the second evening of the Desert Trip OldChella Rock n' Roll Fantasy Camp Extravaganza, Young reminded everyone why you can still use the goat emoji to describe him, should you risk the potential hatchet attack that could come from describing him with such contemporary semiotics. His backing band, Promise of the Real, handled the youthful quotient—comprised of hard-rocking bearded dudes in their late 20s, led by Lukas Nelson (son of Willie), who looks like Post Malone but plays guitar with the force of Karl.

The set design featured six teepees, a cigar store, and a 100-foot projection of a burlap sack of seeds imprinted with the words "organic," "seeds of life," and "Indio, Ca." As he took the stage, two overall-clad women sprinkled seeds all over the floor.  Peak Neil Young. That is to say it was electric, mournful, unrepentant, polemical, ecological, and cantankerous.  Neil Young might not be the genial chill dad that you'd want, but he's the stubborn, frustrating, righteous paternal figure that we need.  

"Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century," Young wails in that nasal hayseed high-plains alto, lonely as the setting sun. Setting it off with "After the Gold Rush," belting in all black, cowboy hat slanted over his eyes, pounding a pipe organ and delivering serrated harmonica licks. He's solitary on-stage, familiar as a father, alien as a god, slightly flipping 46-year old lyrics to reflect modern damage. Wearing a "Water is Life' shirt because Neil Young is your conscience reminding you not to leave the faucet running when you brush your teeth. His band joins him after a few songs, adding the necessary voltage.

From day one, Young's sang with the scars of a man haunted by quiet tragedies and blatant avarice, addictions and desperate longings, personal traumas and political treachery. He could get captured on tape committing a string of bank robberies and I would still swear that no one ever had such integrity. When he excavates "Heart of Gold," it's one of those moments that could make a hardened convict cry. You can see the Desert Trip audience retreating into memory, considering their divorces and affairs, dead lovers and deepest ardor—the continual search for something as brutally simple as Young articulated, but almost impossible to find in unadulterated form.

Young wrote "Heart of Gold" at 24 or 25. Already complaining about "getting old." His lone number one single appeared on 1972's Harvest, alongside "Old Man," a song about his kinship and identification with an elderly ranch groundskeeper. So to see Neil Young at 70, gray hair flowing from under his Stetson, thick mutton chop sideburns intact, is to see someone that solved the problem of aging gracefully, not by disregarding the laws of physics and nature like The Stones, but by embracing it. When you never try to be cool or trendy, the fickle caprices of youth culture don't concern you. If you're brilliant enough, you become timeless.  

This is a man who drove a 1953 Pontiac Hearse down the Sunset Strip in the Age of Aquarius.  When Stephen Stills spotted it, he realized Neil Young was in LA and Buffalo Springfield was born. That was several lifetimes ago, but those early Young songs sound only slightly world-wearier than when they were first written.

Similar to every other artist on this bill, there's the bible material and the non-canonical scripture. Give Young credit, his latest inarguable classic came on 1992's Harvest Moon. Among the Desert Trip bill, Dylan is his only peer for in-studio longevity. The Rolling Stones's Faustian pact might allow them to remain the best live show on earth until Keith Richards finally gets tractor-beamed away by aliens to start a new species of extraterrestrial human hybrids, but their last definitive studio work came before almost anyone reading this was born.

If Young wanted to do the greatest hits thing, he could be up there for six days straight, interspersed with the occasional lecture of the benefits of electric cars, the d'evils of Monsanto, the pros of Pono, and why more millennials need to get into model trains. But his uncompromised nature means the need to keep himself challenged and engaged. So sprinkled among the anthems are his more recent songs, broadsides against war, xenophobia, corporations, and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For someone famously sued for not making Neil Young-type music, the problem with the new material is that they're slightly too similar to what you'd expect from Neil Young song. They're mostly solid songs, but you're sitting there politely waiting for them to be over, hoping that he'll play "Cinnamon Girl" or "Hey Hey, My My." Of course, the latter would've been too on the nose. Neil Young isn't about to stand up there and give a bunch of journalists such an easy framework to blather about the benefits of burning out versus fading away.

The truth is that Neil Young did neither. He's still here, slightly slowed by a bad back and bouts of epilepsy, but undaunted and seditious. He's still mad, cracking dad jokes at Trump's expense ("Come see Roger Waters tomorrow night build a wall and make Mexico great) and dad jokes about the smoke billowing from the audience ("you guys must be BBQing.")

There are those moments where it feels like you're about to call up everyone you've ever missed ("Heart of Gold," "Out on the Weekend," "Harvest Moon"). There is "Powderfinger," a definitive banger in the Young anthology. There is the finale, "Rockin' in the Free World," where you have to forgive Young's 80s Reaganing because he's added a new verse, subversive as ever. It's classic Neil Young, aware of the differences between progress and evolution—liberal but wary, unwilling to fall for the bullshit. He was awake when many in his generation were asleep, but far too smart to ever buy into anyone else's pre-packaged ideologies.

Because this was a Neil Young performance, there are those moments that rolled back the years. Not to 1972 or '67 or whatever, but to a place ungoverned by cellular decay, refrigerator mounted calendars, or Greenwich standard time. "Down By the River." You might have guessed it. At one point, he shouted to the crowd, "you'll get your 'Down By the River' when I want to." And when he finally conceded, it was with the force of a thousand trucks of nitroglycerin.

If other people play the guitar like it was gridded on a north-south and east-west axis, Young plays it like a pool hustler finding eccentric spins and angles only a master could've seen. It stops and stutters, levitates, descends, rushes forward at frenetic speeds and stops on a dime. There is too much sauce, too much soul, opening up this weird wormhole where we'll all watching the soundtrack to a murder scene by a body of water.

"Down By the River/I shot my baby," that off-pitch, bizarre, wrathful voice hits that atavistic lever in the back of your brain. The three guitarists in Promise of the Real assume center stage with Young like some prairie cavalry attack, brutal and unyielding.  He's of the generation that grew up on Cowboys and Indians and the black and white Westerns and realized that they got the stories all wrong. Sometimes the heroes were in reverse. Sometimes, there are no heroes.

As "Down the River" crested and slammed for what must have been 20 or 25 minutes, there was a young blonde woman with a flowing red dress. She was hoisting a tiny baby wearing even tinier oversized pink glasses, and floral headphones. The newborn's dad was beaming and head banging and taking photos of the moment in the vain attempt to capture something permanent for eternity—even though it's more likely the files will just linger in the cloud.

I'd like to think that one day 40 years from now, he'll tell his daughter that she saw Neil Young before she was old enough to remember. At that point, Neil Young will be long dead, but I suspect it'll feel like he's still here, reminding us what we've forgot.

Neil Young Set List:

"After the Gold Rush"

"Heart of Gold"

"Comes a Time"

"Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)"

"Out on the Weekend"

"Human Highway"

"Neighborhood"

"Show Me"

"Harvest Moon"

"Words (Between the Lines of Age)"

"Walk On"

"Texas Rangers"

"Powderfinger"

"Down by the River"

"Seed Justice"

"Peace Trail"

"Welfare Mothers"

Encore:

"Rockin' in the Free World"

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