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Hearing Neil Young's New Album, Living With War

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Until a few years ago I was president of Reprise Records, a label whose historical roster is really amazing -- from Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell to Green Day, Depeche Mode, The Smiths and... the point of this story, Neil Young. Now I'm retired from business and I live my life as a humble blogger. Last week I wrote a story about Neil's surprise new album, Living With War coming out. Please read that so I don't have to repeat anything I've already written and I can just continue from where I left off.

I left off right after having sat in a room in Elliot Roberts' home (Neil's manager) with earphones on listening to a disc Neil had made for him. After years of always hearing Neil's music on discs personally put together by Neil, I appreciated how much better this listening experience was bound to be compared to hearing the songs on a commercial CD. Before -- and again after -- playing it for me Elliot asked me not to write about it until Wednesday. That's today.

First my biases: I'm prone to love everything Neil records. I feel he's one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of our time. If I listen to a song of his and I don't get it, I have long learned that that is because I haven't spent enough time with it and that when I do, I will eventually see what he was trying to do and appreciate it. A second bias, just as strong -- and one regular Down With Tyranny readers are already very aware of and probably in sync with -- is my abiding mistrust for the Bush Regime and the alarm with which I view what they have done, and continue to do, to the country I love so much. The nexus of these two biases lead to an incredible hour of listening.

The specifics of the songs Neil has recorded and the points he raises lyrically should come as no surprise -- not even to people whose consciousnesses have been enveloped in a powerful and mind-numbing haze for the last few years. Conventional wisdom has pretty much made it clear that Bush and his regime are incompetent, venal and corrupt and that his war is one of the most catastrophic foreign policy blunders every made by a U.S. president. What Neil has done with Living With War is made these ideas easily digestible for post-literate western society at large. He's managed to create a body of work that will help make it easy for people to talk about the war, Bush's short-comings and how to deal with them. Virtually no one wants the U.S. to start a (nuclear?) war against Iran -- not the citizens of this country and not the professional military. But who's going to stop Bush and the crazed, obsessed fanatics he's surrounded himself with? Living With War will filter up into political policy circles, not with answers but with the questions he's raised from us and for us.

According to his manager, Neil recently flew back from the Nashville premiere of his film, Heart of Gold, with Steve Bing, a film producer friend who is also one of the most consistently generous supporters of progressive causes in the U.S. (Bing, 41 and one of the richest men in America, who at 6'4" likes to wear jeans and T-shirts, has donated mightily to the Democratic Party, to Stanford University and gave $10 million to the National Resources Defense Council's study of global warming, among many other things.) He and Neil had a long talk about Bush's war in Iraq and what the Bush Regime has been doing to the U.S. The discussion helped Neil flesh out an idea that was germinating in his mind, a concept album about Bush's America, something he started getting at when he wrote and performed Greendale. From the time he started writing the songs until the album was recorded, 9 days passed. Neil can be fast, but that is really fast.

The first track is called "After the Garden" and, obviously, its first lines are the first lines of the album:

Won't need no shadow man
Runnin' the government

A nice optimistic beginning for a collection of songs that could have been a big downer. Neil chose a different road though -- one that is inspiring and positive, both musically and lyrically.

The second song, the title track, is something I've already covered in the first post and I included all the lyrics there. Neil's use of part of the "Star Spangled Banner" towards the end is chilling and a great reminder that this is our country, not just Bush's and Cheney's and Rumsfeld's and the reactionaries' who are behind the immensely unpopular and tottering, incompetent regime.

The next song starts out dark and ominous, "The Restless Consumer," a song as destined to be called "Don't Need No More Lies," as Green Day's classic "Good Riddance" is always called "Time of Your Life." This is a heavy song that weaves together several threads which have shown up in Neil's work for many years. Just from my one listen I took from it an anger at the power of "Madison Avenue" to create absurd demands -- from needless consumerism to... needless wars. The song questions how a society -- ours -- sets priorities. Why wars instead of curing diseases, for example? This'll be a good one for college professors to discuss with their students for decades to come.

"Shock And Awe" is the fourth song on the record. Neil doesn't have planes and tanks and bombs. He has words and, ultimately, his "Shock and Awe" will be long remembered after Bush and his shock and awe are nothing but an unfortunate footnote in history books.

Back in the days of shock and awe
We came to liberate them all
History was the cruel judge of overconfidence
Back in the days of shock and awe.
Thousands of children scarred for life
Millions of tears for a soldier's wife
Both sides are losing now...

I remember thinking that right around this point in my listening experience, and especially with the next song, "Families," came the realization that I was listening to a classic Neil album that will go down as one of his greatest. The sixth song, "Flags of Freedom," made me glad I was sitting alone so I could let me tears flow freely without embarrassing myself or anyone else. The first 2 lines give it all away: "Today is the day our younger son/Is going off to war..." The blurb Neil wrote on his website, ""I think it is a metal version of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan... metal folk protest?" has a lot to do with this song. There's even a shout out to Dylan in the lyrics!

The next song is the one that really lays it on the line, the one all his accumulated moral authority allows him to write, the one everyone wants to know about, "Let's Impeach the President." Maybe his pal Steve Bing should send the lyrics to all the wet-finger-in-the-wind Democratic senators who refuse to back Russ Feingold's moderate censure resolution. Instinctively, Neil must have known the song is going to cause an uproar and become the focus of the album. So he crafted an absolute masterpiece, immune from the barbs and arrows that will surely come.

Let's impeach the president for lying
Misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door

He then goes on to lay out a case as strong as anything Henry Waxman is going to do -- maybe not as specific -- but a lot more poetic. The song discusses the Regime's criminality, spying, the mess they made of post-Katrina New Orleans, hijacking "our religion" for partisan purposes, as well as how they have used divisiveness and racism to further their political agenda. Neil backs up his lyrics with Bush's own words, turning his inspid/Orwellian words on tape against him as the song is transformed from a hard rocker into a soaring gospel inspirational.

He follows it with a more forward-looking "Lookin' for a Leader," which has the musical potential to be a single. It's a song crying out to "re-unite the red, white and blue," and to "clean up the corruption." Neil sings that "We're lookin' for a leader/With the Great Spirit on his side." He even includes an interesting couple of shout-outs to Colin Powell and to Barack Obama, with whom he spent some time at Farm Aid. (I won't give them away; you'll want to hear how he approaches this himself. He even almost mentions the Hillary word... but doesn't -- thank God.) This song is a really good rocker that radio programmers are probably going to gravitate to; it won't get the raving, vicious right wing fanatics calling in and threatening to kill djs.

The album ends with a song about somebody's buddy who went to Iraq, "Roger and Out" and it goes into a stirring rendition of "America the Beautiful" sung by a 100 piece choir. Elliot assured me it was comprised of the best voices in L.A. It sounded that way. And they're singing all over the album. In fact one of them, Alicia Morgan, an articulate and idealistic blogger, as well as a wonderful singer, was interviewed the other day in The Independent, a U.K. newspaper.

I spoke to some of my old comrades at Reprise today. They're still getting their heads around a marketing strategy for the album, although it looks like an early summer release, perhaps with songs streaming on the internet early and probably a single to radio "very soon."