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Arts and Entertainment

DVD Review: Neil Young: Archives Volume 1: 1963-72

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At some point during the last twenty years, as Neil Young’s Archives set was pushed back another nine months on the official Warner Brother release schedule for the umpteenth time in a row, I became convinced that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Not the archive of unreleased songs itself, but the plans to release it.

The songs were surely there; many of the rare tracks that have surfaced on bootlegs rate among his finest work. And there are definitely a lot of them; the 2000 unreleased-song compilation Archives Be Damned, culled by tape-trading fans from a multitude of unofficial sources, fills up five audio CDs, and that’s just the stuff the general public was able to get its grubby hands on. Ever since the late seventies, Young has been talking about the project, occasionally revealing song lists on his website and then abruptly removing them. But after more than a decade of this talk, I was positive he’d never allow the whole banana to be unpeeled in his own lifetime, possibly preferring to leave it for his descendents to deal with. It was easy to imagine him calling his manager every so often to say, “I’m not dead yet, push it out to next October.”

The reasons given at the time had to do with the limitations of CD audio as a medium, or the need to re-design the accompanying booklet, but the more likely culprit was the eternally restless Young’s inability to focus on his past long enough to pull it into coherent shape. As he held press conferences and even posteda trailerfor the damn thing, it seemed like he was just bringing more people in on the joke as release dates continued to be postponed through 2007 and 2008. Just a few weeks ago, as they started taking money for pre-orders, his spokespeople were promising “This time, it’s REALLY coming out” with a tone that suggested they didn’t expect to be taken seriously any more. As of last week, I would have bet you twenty bucks we’d never see it while Young was alive.

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But today I have ceased to doubt. As far as I know, the man still walks the earth, and I hold in my hands a set of ten DVDs from Warner Bros labeled Neil Young Achives Vol. 1: 1963-72. Among the contents are several tracks I have never heard in many years of obsessively seeking out Young’s music, along with a lot of others I have heard before, but in a fidelity that surpasses anything in my collection.

Yes, fellow Rusties, it was worth the wait.

Whether it’s worth the steep asking price is more subjective. While it’s possible to get the set on CD for a relatively modest $99, minus the videos and about a dozen audio “easter eggs”, the extensive extra content on the DVD makes a good case for doubling your investment, particularly if you already own a lot of Neil Young CDs. Each track contains a “file” with multiple compartments, and can be drilled into to peruse Young’s handwritten lyrics, interview excerpts, period photos, alternate mixes and even the occasional performance video. Purchasers of the top-line $299 Blu-Ray edition get the same content that’s on the DVDs, plus the promise of downloadable new content at some point in the future.

Nevertheless, the audio quality observed on the DVD set is already a marked improvement from every previous pressing of Young’s studio material. The songs from Crazy Horse’s 1969 debut Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, in particular, burst out of the speakers with a three-dimensional attack and stunning clarity. I wouldn’t say it’s like listening to vinyl; more like listening to half-inch tape. This really does have the feeling of throwing the original masters on for a playback, and it’s hard to imagine I’ll be needing to buy any of this music in remastered form any time soon.

As for what’s on it: the set takes a kind of strange approach to presenting Young’s entire recorded output, giving you most of the officially released tracks released during the years in question, but not quite all of them. A few songs, including favorites like “Mr. Soul” and “Words”, are represented only by live or alternate versions, leaving out their well-known studio recordings, while others have simply vanished. Surely there will be detailed lists of every relevant omission posted on the net by Tuesday afternoon, but just a cursory listen reveals are some really major ones. What happened to “Out On The Weekend”? “Emperor of Wyoming”? The Richie Furay vocals on his Buffalo Springfield material; the nine-minute version of the Springfield’s “Bluebird” that contains one of Neil’s earliest recorded guitar freakouts, his contributions to CSNY’s live album Four Way Street… it’s hard to understand why these were left off when other tracks have multiple versions taking up space. As such, it falls a bit short of being a true “complete recordings” collection; purchasers of this set can’t trade in all their existing Neil Young CDs without losing something essential.

The big draw for the most devoted collectors will be the previously-unreleased material found here, though it’s interesting to note that there’s precious little here that we boot afficionados haven’t already heard in some form. Most of those songs come from Disc 0, Neil’s legendary, un-heard recordings with his teenage band The Squires, and his earliest demos as an aspiring folksinger. It’s a trip when the very first vocal we hear, following a few rowdy Link Wray-inspired instrumentals, is a familiar one. “Well I wonder who’s with her tonight, and I wonder who’s holding her tight” sings Young, as he would in the second verse of “Don’t Cry No Tears” on 1975’s Zuma, over a decade later.

The band’s mix of surf music and Stonesy R&B must have been a hoot and a half on the Canadian club circuit in 1964. They’re not very accomplished, no better or worse than a lot of other garage bands of the time, but would certainly rate an entry on one of the Nuggets collection. Young’s 1965 demo for Elektra Records - made not in the company’s studio, but rather their tape library, with a portable reel to reel machine and a single mic - reveals Young the Dylan-esque solo troubadour still finding his voice, sometimes struggling to find his footing. But hearing it with forty years of hindsight is illuminating, much like hearing the early tapes made by the Who when they were still known as the High Numbers, or CCR’s days as the Golliwogs. Although you can tell they haven’t fully developed as musicians, singers or writers yet, there’s already a distinctive quality about them, a sense that a path has now been charted and is about to bear fruit.

Young’s Buffalo Springfield years get a disc of their own, though anyone who wants the complete story is advised to pick up the 4-disc box set that came out a few years ago (and do so soon as it is evidently now out of print), which includes all of Young’s compositions for the group, including Furay’s definitive vocal takes of “On The Way Home” and “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”. The only unreleased song here is a short song called “Sell Out”, which, oddly, is missing the jaunty, “la-la-la” chorus it had when it first popped up on a 2004 bootleg. But there’s also about ten minutes of audio from the band’s final performance in Long Beach, from May of 1968, that finally proves what you’ve always heard about the Buffalo Springfield live: they had an electricity on stage which never translated properly in the studio. The two-guitar exploration here is phenomenal, light years beyond the tight, professional unit that made those perfect pop singles. If there’s any more stuff of this quality in Young’s vault, I might be tempted to take up safecracking.

Hearing (almost) all of the studio cuts from Young’s Topanga 1968-70 years over the course of three discs is nearly overwhelming. In about eighteen months, he cut the two albums that established the baseline for the rest of his career, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After The Gold Rush, and was brought into the realms of Crosby, Stills and Nash in order to “take something soft and give it balls,” as his manager once declared. As you can see on an incendiary 1969 performance of “Down By The River” on live TV, Young took this job seriously, and as a result, inspired Stephen Stills to step up his own game as much as he could, in a desperate attempt to avoid being upstaged. The interplay between these two rival/ pals has never been more evident than on the Woodstock outtake, in which they perform a slow, doomy, droning rendition of “Mr. Soul,” with acid harmonies biting through the sludge. (Young, who angrily refused to be filmed at Woodstock, is seen as a dark silhouette from the side of the stage.)

But you start to notice something when CSNY’s pristine, multiple-overdubbed studio tracks are heard smack dab in the middle of Young’s first work with the immortal Crazy Horse, the band that’s continued to back him for the last forty years, though rarely were two of those years in a row. The contrast between the tight-but-hip session players of CSNY, and the raw, raucous “American Rolling Stones” that was the Horse is immediately obvious when you put them side by side. Crazy Horse has always been the best vehicle for him to really stretch out and play endless, Coltrane-length solos that seek to explore every last possibility before crashing back into the head, while CSNY produced immaculately crafted gems that took forever to record and sounded like it. In one of the embedded interview segments, archivist Joel Bernstein likens the difference to the Beatles and the Stones, but I think that’s understating it. At their furthest extremes, you could say CSNY are kind of like Yes while Crazy Horse is kind of like the Stooges, two fundamentally different, even opposing approaches to music. And yet, this one guy manages to pull off both gigs, with mostly the same material, at the SAME TIME. It’s uncanny, folks.

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The set also includes three live performances. The Horse’s show at the Fillmore East in March 1970, and Neil’s 1971 solo set from Toronto’s Massey Hall were released individually years ago, but the third, from Toronto’s Riverboat in 1968, makes its debut here. The show is wonderful, capturing a period in Young’s career that even the boot collectors haven’t heard too often. Though the one unreleased song performed, “The 1956 Bubblegum Disaster”, turns out to be a thirty-second, one-line goof, Young’s in superb voice and seems to be discovering his own songs as he works through them, spontaneously seeking out new counter-melodies for the familiar chord progressions.

Rounding out the collection is Young’s first feature film attempt, Journey Through the Past, making its first appearance on home video. “Attempt” seems like the right word even though he did in fact complete the movie. In one interview from the time of filming, included amongst the DVD extras, Young states, “There isn’t any big plan… we have a list, but we don’t really have a script.” No one who sees the film will doubt this statement. It’s mostly incomprehensible, or just plain dull. In perhaps the most typical scene, Young and girlfriend Carrie Snodgrass drive on screen, stop the car, get out and smoke a joint without talking to each other, then get back in and drive away. But there are yuks to be found periodically, particularly when sage philosophers Crosby, Stills and Nash are dispensing their pearls of wisdom, and a small helping of very good performance footage, including some of Neil’s Harvest-era band jamming away in his barn. Consider it his (relatively) clean-living Cocksucker Blues if you will, finding deeper meaning in salamander cages instead of junkies’ hotel rooms.

Here are some of the highlights for the folks who may think they’ve heard it all before:

• The foot-stomping acoustic blues “Hello Lonely Woman,” cut near the end of his days in Canada
• Another solo tune from Canada, “Casting Me Away From You”, the earliest tune that really and truly sounds like Neil Young, lilting chord changes and all
• The alternate, original version of “Mr. Soul” with a notably different guitar track, touted by Young in his autobiography Shakey as the “correct” one, which he’d irretrievably screwed up by overdubbing for the official release.
• A haunting waltz titled “Slowly Burning” from May, 1967 with Jack Nitzche leading an all-star session band of Don Randi, Russ Titleman, Carol Kaye and Jim Gordon, performed as an instrumental although there are lyrics attached in the “file”
• Versions of “Birds” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” cut during the sessions for his 1968 solo debut, which although inferior to the released tracks, shine a light on what the choice of backing musicians can do to his raw material. The latter, especially, just kind of sits there, totally lacking the infectious charm that Crazy Horse would bring to it a few months later. It’s as good an illustration of what the funky, anti-professional Horse brought to the party as you could ask for.
• An electric version of “Everybody’s Alone” from the Gold Rush sessions with a blistering solo.
• Two studio versions of “Dance Dance Dance”, a Crazy Horse take from the Gold Rush sessions and a duet with Nash cut in England in early 1971
• The Horse wailing through “It Might Have Been” in Cincinnati; though widely bootlegged, you’ve never heard it sounding this good.
• A studio version of “Wonderin’”, similar to the one heard on the Fillmore East ’70 show released a few years ago, which also appears as part of this set
• A video of Young performing an incredible version of “The Loner” at a tiny folk club in NYC from summer of 1970, which cuts into an acoustic performance at the Fillmore East, before concluding with footage of Young showing some hippie in Washington Square Park the chords to “Cinnamon Girl.”
• Several video clips from CSNY’s summer 1970 tour, including a transcendent “On The Way Home”
• A studio take of “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” from the Harvest sessions, which misses the tequila-soaked abandon it would find during the recording of Tonight’s The Night two years later... and then, also, kick around the vault without ever being released.
• Footage of Neil recording “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World” with the London Symphony Orchestra. He has some harsh words for the musicianship of one of the world’s most famous orchestras, sputtering “They were half a beat behind me for the WHOLE FUCKIN’ THING!” which Jack Nitzche tries to explain that’s actually the conductor’s fault.
• An incredible piece of cinema verite, which I’d read about but never seen, in which Young accosts a record store clerk for selling bootleg albums and walks out the door without paying for one of his own.

It’s been a heavy couple of days, taking it in all at once. You probably shouldn’t try to do that. There’s enough music here to last a normal person for years. Given that, the prices don’t seem so out of line anymore. It is, after all, the (nearly) complete early output of one of the greatest talents rock music has ever seen. And that's worth something.

Neil Young's Archives Vol. 1: 1963-72 can be ordered directly from Warner Bros.