Friday, May 05, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 5, 2006

Neil Young is righteously pissed again.

His latest album, Living With War, is a hard-rocking electric tirade against the war and the Bush administration.

“Won’t need no shadow man running the government/Won’t need no stinking war ... after the garden is gone,” Young sings in the opening song. “And on the flat-screen we kill and we’re killed again/and when the night falls, I pray for peace” goes a verse in the title song.

There are songs about soldiers and their families and titles like “Shock and Awe” and “Flags of Freedom” (with a melody similar to Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”). There’s a song that calls for Bush’s impeachment and one calling for new leaders to arise. There’s a beautiful, soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful” featuring a choir of 100.

Forgetting the politics and the lyrical content for just a moment, this album is a welcome return for those of us who are mainly fans of Young’s Ragged Glory/Crazy Horse side.

I assumed it was Crazy Horse the first time I heard Living With War, but actually it’s a couple of guys named Chad Cromwell (drums) and Rick Rosas (bass).

The singer underwent brain surgery last year. I was afraid someone had pulled a Clockwork Orange on him. His last album, Prairie Wind, was a snoozer, as far as I’m concerned. And Jonathan Demme’s recently released Neil-cumentary Heart of Gold also shows Young’s mellow side.

But Living With War shows it takes more than brain surgery to keep a good rocker down.

Most of the record was recorded over a five-day period in late March and early April, with a few stray overdubs and “America the Beautiful” added a few days later.

That’s right —recorded a month ago and coming through computer speakers all over the world days later. (“Hard copy” CDs come out next week.)

Obviously, Young wanted these songs out immediately. And it’s that urgency that gives Living With War much of its power.

Actually, this has been Young’s modus operandi before. Back in 1970, after National Guard troops at Kent State University shot and killed four war protesters, we were rocking and rolling to “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming” in a matter of weeks, after Young rushed to record and release “Ohio.”

Less remembered is “War Song,” another political rush job — released in May 1972 — by Young and Graham Nash. “There’s a man who says he can put an end to war,” Nash and Young sang. With images of jet fighters, napalm, and even the George Wallace assassination attempt, the song was meant to raise money and awareness for anti-war candidate George McGovern.

Zap ahead nearly 30 years to Sept. 11, 2001. Young, inspired by an account of the passenger revolt aboard the hijacked Flight 93, writes and records “Let’s Roll.” By now there was an Internet, so within days, Young released it as a free download. (Months later, he included it on his Are You Passionate CD.)

“No one has the answer/But one thing is true/You’ve got to turn on evil/When it’s coming after you,”

Some of Young’s lefty fans thought this song was an endorsement of Bush’s war policies. Indeed, Young’s politics through the years have been complicated. At one point in the 1980s he was praising Ronald Reagan. But by 1989, Young was angrily mocking some of George Bush the First’s most famous rhetoric. “We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand.” (I always thought Peggy Noonan should have been listed as a co-writer of “Rockin’ in the Free World.”)

Even on this album, there’s at least a token bipartisan gesture. On “Lookin’ For a Leader” (“Someone walks among us ... and I hope he hears the call”), Young nominates two possibilities: “Maybe it’s Obama, but he thinks that he’s too young/Maybe it’s Colin Powell to right what he’s done wrong.” (What, no mention of Bill Richardson?)

But there’s no mercy shown for Bush: “Let’s impeach the president/For hijacking our religion and using it to get elected/Dividing our country into colors/And still leaving black people neglected.”

Of course, cynics say Young is playing it safe, waiting until Bush’s popularity has sunk to the point that there’s no real danger of a Dixie Chicks-like backlash. (The same is being said for Pink, who just released “Dear Mr. President,” and Pearl Jam, who just released the anti-war “World Wide Suicide.”)

Give me a break. Does anyone really think that Neil Young is looking at poll numbers?

A common right-wing beef against the album is that Young is not really an American but a (gasp) Canadian. Next thing you know someone’s going to want to rename a popular pizza ingredient “freedom bacon.” Besides the fact that Young has paid American taxes for 40 years or so, sometimes we can get insights about America by listening to foreigners. Remember, The Band was four-fifths Cannuck.

The immediacy of Living With War and the near-subversive spirit in which Young got it out help make the project exciting. But there’s that nagging question about political works in general: Will it pass the test of time? Will it be remembered like “Ohio” or forgotten like “War Song” (or John Lennon’s Sometime in New York, a dated political curiosity that did have some rocking moments)?

Actually, I don’t think it matters, and I’m pretty sure Young’s not that concerned about whether this album is enshrined as a classic.

Sometimes it’s the now that’s important.

Right now Neil Young is raging.

You can listen to Living With War for free HERE. There’s a lot of information on the album HERE.

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