Neil Young and Crazy Horse
"Rust Never Sleeps"
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
Rare is the act that stays relevant years beyond its peak. There are many a classic rock band that have released one or several huge albums, but twenty or thirty years later, its releases don't get a second glance from the public. For every Tom Petty, there's a hundred Journeys. Neil Young wrestled with this idea more than most. Young first caught the public's attention during the mid-'60s with Buffalo Springfield, forged an acclaimed solo career, and had added his name to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. By 1979, he was wondering what, if anything, could come next.
Young saw the rise of punk music during the '70s, and naturally drew contradictions between the wild abandon of the genre against his own style. Young appreciated the movement, but understood that he couldn't pull it off. The band Crazy Horse offered him an outlet away from his folkie ways. It offered Young an opportunity to play "extra-amplified" rock
"Rust in Peace," the collective's best known album, was largely recorded live. The tour was a peculiar one, featuring oversized amplifiers and crew members dressed like jawas, probably the influence of Young's new friend Mark Mothersbaugh, the ever forward thinking front man of DEVO.
To his credit, Young adjusted to the times without changing what he knew. "Sedan Delivery" is a dramatic jump in pace for him, but it's not trying to be punk. "Welfare Mothers" is significantly heavier than a typical Young joint, but it isn't Zepplinesque hard rock. Young's ability to make his own name with someone else's instrument is impressive, ending up being just as influential as his acoustic approach. His rough, scratchy soloing on the electric guitar on "Powderfinger" inspired J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and a whole generation of Seattle guitarists, thereby earning Young the nickname "godfather of grunge."
As much credit as Young deserves for adjusting with the times, the acoustic first-half of the album is the highlight. During live shows, Young would play an acoustic set before being joined by Crazy Horse onstage, as presented here. Young opens with what would become one of his biggest songs, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of The Blue)." "My My" (which has an electric version titled "Into The Black" closing the album) is a track on which Young considers the question of his own relevance, and whether "burning out" or "fading away" was the better option. It's a sad and haunting song, especially considering events it inspired (see Interesting Fact), and Young is the center of attention with his guitar and harmonica. It stands as the best song in Young's repertoire in my opinion, and the following track, "Thrasher," about his falling out with CSNY, uses the same formula to similar success.
Young ultimately came to the conclusion that it was better to burn out than to fade away. He didn't suggest the even-better option however: to stay relevant for 50 years. Thanks to his ability to readjust his approach to music without reinventing himself, Young has neither burnt out nor faded away, putting him in elite company among those who have lived a full life in music.
INTERESTING FACT: The song "My My, Hey Hey (Into the Blue)" gained newfound attention when Kurt Cobain quoted the line "It's better to burn out than fade away" in his suicide note. Young was shocked by the news, and took to dedicating the song to Cobain while emphasizing the line "Once you're gone, you can't come back" when he plays it live." John Lennon famously objected to the line in question during an interview, saying he would much prefer to fade away than burn out.