Saturday, April 22, 2006

Is The Wave Of The Future An Old Hand From The Past? Neil Young Shows How It's Done - My Review of "Living With War"

Music today is at a crossroads.

With the digitization of music, the paradigm has changed completely. The old business model of selling a hard copy of music one piece at a time is no longer viable, and the struggle to find a suitable replacement has rocked the music business to its foundations. Do you hang on grimly to the old way, suing anyone who downloads your product and keep trying to shore up the crumbling structure? Do you jump on the digital bandwagon and embrace the downloading process, thereby creating a new relationship with the modern music consumer, but not seeing an immediate financial reward by doing so? Do you attempt a mixture of the two? How is the artist to be compensated in this new world? Or the writer, the producer? How do you manage royalties? And what about distribution if the method of distributing music has changed? Who is entitled to a piece of the music pie, anyway, and what percentage? If your role in the music production and distribution process has become obsolete, what do you do about it? And what is the purpose of commercial music in today's corporate-controlled climate?

These may not seem like questions to be addressed by an album review, but they lead into what Neil Young, a 40-year veteran of the music business, is doing with his new album "Living With War".

Neil Young is an artist who has always gone his own way. He filters his life journey through his music, and he constantly challenges the prevailing paradigm, whether it be political, cultural, or personal. For this he is both revered and reviled. His life and his art are one and the same in a way that very few artists can claim.

With his newest record, "Living With War", Neil Young shows the kids how it's done.

This album was recorded so quickly that even his record company was unaware of its existence. Young calls it 'metal folk protest', which is as good a way as any to describe it. Consisting of a 'power trio' (Young on Old Black, Rick Rosas on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums), Tommy Brea on trumpet, and a hundred-piece choir, the music is carefully constructed to serve the message. The 10-song record is meant to be heard from beginning to end in sequence. The driving, distorted guitar, bass and drums lay down a solid bed from which to launch the rocket-propelled vocals. The trumpet solos accentuate the military aspect of the songs. This is martial music, make no mistake - a war against war.

The choir was put together by the legendary Rosemary Butler, arguably the most famous backup singer in music history (and a formidable lead singer and producer in her own right), having sung with the likes of Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and Bonnie Raitt, to name only a few. In a day she managed to round up 100 of LA's most respected session singers and assemble them the next morning at Capitol Records. I was fortunate enough to be included in that august company, and as we milled around the studio, greeting old friends and getting coffeed up in preparation for what looked like a long day ahead (we were booked from 10 in the morning till 10 at night), we had no idea what was in store for us. But as we sorted ourselves into sections ("Where are the altos? Are you going to sing soprano? Do we have enough baritones?"), the words to the first song, "After the Garden", flashed up on the video projection screen ("Don't need no shadow man - running the government - don't need no stinking war") and it instantly became more than just another session. We gasped as we realized that this was a protest record, and not just an ordinary one (if there is such a thing), but one that had the potential to galvanize the nation and give voice to those who have not been listened to in the 21st century.

The choice of a hundred voices for this record, like the use of a trumpet, had a symbolic purpose. According to the LA Times, Young said he enlisted that many back-up singers because he liked the metaphorical weight of having "100 voices from 100 lands." He could have easily hired 10 singers and had them double themselves ten times, but that was not what this record is about. To that same purpose, it was recorded on analog tape, not ProTools, so that we had to wait for the tape to rewind after each take, something that most of us had not done for a long time. Our mission? To sing along with Neil's pre-recorded vocal as closely as we could. There were no 'overdubs', no 'fixing it in the mix' - we had to do it until it was right.

But, as I listened to it last night at Reprise Records in preparation for this review, it was worth it. The effect was so emotionally compelling - Neil's distinctive, plain-spoken voice, echoed by a multitude, was like a beacon from a lighthouse in a storm. There is nothing ambiguous or generalized or euphemistic about this record. It names names. It points fingers. Most of the people in the room listening with me had not heard the record before, and I watched their faces as the impact of the lyrics sunk in. No one was unmoved.

When we began the session, Neil was in the control booth with his hat pulled down over his eyes, but as the enthusiasm of the choir became apparent, he came out into the big room with us - smiling, walking around, occasionally directing us himself, singing along. On top of a giant boom mike, he had draped a military jacket and camo hat. The choir was like a Maserati - powerful and responsive, giving whatever is asked for instantly. The hardest part was holding back, especially the gospel contingent, but in the end, we did what we came to do - serve the message.

Neil Young was hoping that the younger generation of musicians was going to pick up the torch of the 60's protest tradition. Thirty-six years ago he recorded 'Ohio' about the Kent State killings, and he wrote 'Southern Man' in response to racism. He has never hesitated to address the causes he feels strongly about, but after 35 years, he and many other people of the Woodstock generation figured that today's musicians in their 20s would be the ones to stand up and speak truth to power. Many of them have, individually, but as a movement it hasn't happened. And throughout his career, the records he has made and the positions he has taken stubbornly refuse to be categorized. He wrote 'Ohio', but he also wrote 'Let's Roll' after the 9/11 attacks to commemorate Flight 93, caught up, as was the rest of the country, in the fervor to avenge those innocent lives, and deal with those who perpetrated the attacks. This categorized him in many people's minds as a right-wing Republican, especially since he endorsed Ronald Reagan during the 80s.

But Neil Young merely calls it like he sees it, and is not beholden to any party or ideology. He has seen the country hijacked by criminals and is not afraid to come out and say it. In this, he is echoing what the people he meets say to him all over the country. He addresses our concerns - the fear of what will happen if we descend into total war; the love and loss of our children, both the ones we send to war and the ones who stay behind; the rampant corporatism and the mindless commercialism which lets it pillage unchecked; the longing for a real leader; the need for the unheard voices to be heard; the deep love for our country, for our freedom, and the sadness which comes from the harm being done to it in the name of military/industrial domination. One could call it "The Neos And The Damage Done".

So, here he is.

This record is both a throwback and the future. Young is going to make the songs available to listen to for free. Reuters reports that "starting April 28, fans can log onto Young's Web site,, and listen to the 10-track collection in its entirety, free of charge, said Bill Bentley, a spokesman for Warner Music Group's Reprise Records." And Neil Young has both feet planted firmly in the future, bypassing the slower (and more expensive) traditional forms of promotion and going directly to the Internet to reach his audience. The message he has is so urgent that there is not a moment to waste, and the immediacy of the Internet is the perfect conduit. He has also started a blog,, to keep his fans up to date in real time. This is the direction that music should be going in, I think - where the artist and the fan can be closer to one another, and actually co-create, in a way, for this record came about as a response to the conversations that Young has had with all kinds of Americans.

Music is in the middle of some serious growing pains right now, but as you will see with "Living With War", growing pains mean strength and maturity. We have a chance to come out of this stronger, better and more true, and Neil Young, music icon from the 60's, is leading the way.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the experience.
The gospel contingent having to hold back made me laugh. That must have been hard with such an emotional bunch of songs.

Five long days away for me.


Alicia Morgan said...

It really was difficult, Heather. Those songs make you want to holla! You'll hear on the tail end of "Impeach the President" one little bit where people just had to shout a bit...

Anonymous said...

Alicia and David, This is so inspiring and leaves me feeling a little less alone and crazy here in the belly of the beast (Washington). I will really look forward to hearing the songs and they will be especially meaningful knowing that you guys are in the backup choir.
with love, Meredith

Alicia Morgan said...

Wow, Meredith - what a place for a thinking person to be in these times! Feeling 'alone and crazy' is why I started my blog in the first place after the 2004 debacle. Please write us, here or at home, and keep in touch anytime if you need a dose of sanity. The blog friends who visit me here in Hooterville keep me frem screaming.

love, A

alyceclover said...

It's funny, just about everywhere on the 'net I see "Dixie Chicks", but hardly "Neil Young" or "Pink". People have taken her "Dear Mr President" and made their own My Tube music video's to it, which are even more powereful than the Pink release.

I have no idea why no one is working to get Bush & his cronies kicked out of office, unless they're in fear of their lives.