Monday, June 21, 2004

Dave Marsh: Neil Hata

It's a waste of time to critique an article that's 25 years old. The author has had time to reevaluate his views, and it's ultimately meaningless. Nevertheless, Dave Marsh's putdown of Neil Young for a 1979 Rolling Stone book ticked me off so much that I wrote a pedantic letter to Diane about it, which I reproduce here for no particular reason.

The chapter's here:

Points to make:
"Bob Dylan changed rock fundamentally. He gave it a sense of tradition, rooted in white folk music and high culture. He showed a distrust for the very technology it exploited, a disdain for conventional celebrity, a brooding lyrical seriousness and a yearning for high art credibility. "

Having learned more about Dylan, do you agree with this? I certainly don't: when Dylan went electric, there was as much black as white in the music; mentioning Beethoven does not "high culture" make; I don't get what that "technology" crap is about; I don't buy the celebrity thing -- an icon disappears if it doesn't stay mysterious, no? It still doesn't stop it from being famous and worshipped; and "brooding lyrical seriousness" is about the antithesis of 'Blonde on Blonde'. I don't contest the last one. What it comes down to for both Dylan and Young is that they're ruthless, talented assholes who insist on controlling how they're perceived -- and succeed. Dylan at his best beats Young's best lyrics, but Young's most wrenching guitar tone eats Dylan's alive and makes damn good coffee afterwards, IYKWIM.

"by emphasizing certain highlights and disregarding the rest, Young has managed to avoid close analysis, leaving most critics gaping in awe of an image greater than the work that supports it--the ultimate Dylanesque trick."

Do Dylan's musical abilities or lyric-writing skills stand up to "close analysis"? I don't think so. I don't think the great majority of pop music does. (The Beatles and Radiohead stand up to close musical analysis. Lyrical -- well, I don't feel most great opera does, so my standards are probably too high.)

"Young's role was to play lead guitar, write a few songs (most notably "Mr.Soul") and conduct a few experiments in recording montage ("Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow")."

Wow, that's condescending. I'm no big fan of Springfield, I admit, but Young's work with them smashes what I've heard from the rest of them (grudgingly excepting FWIW). Who denies that Broken Arrow is a great song? I think "Expecting to Fly" is a great song, too, and easily Young's most successful experiment with orchestral backing.

"But Harvest was pure formula product, the kind of commercially conservative record that came to characterize too much of California pop rock in the Seventies. "

My good lord. Harvest may be terminally overrated, but I'm betting Marsh has only heard the tracks from Decade. Why? Well, you've heard the album: "Words" and "There's a World" are not commercially conservative. Shit they may be, but they're not "typical of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell" or any other singer-songwriters of the period.

His perception of Journey Thru the Past is pretty accurate. He gets Time Fades Away wrong (calling it a "live album" is deceptive, and misses the real problem with the album -- the lack of interaction between the band), and then really plunges into crap with his treatment of the rest of the Doom Trilogy.

To neglect TtT, are "recycled riffs ... from Buffalo Springfield and ['Everybody knows this is nowhere']" really the substance of On the Beach? Does Young mention Indians? Most irritating is the sentence "But [the net effect of the music] can also be simply silly, especially in the quasi-apocalyptic "Revolution Blues" from OTB, where Armageddon arrives by dune buggy." Marsh somehow manages to miss the whole Manson thing entirely and grossly exaggerates the "armageddon" part. I don't think that's a good-faith mistake -- it seems intentional.

Next is 'American Stars and Bars' -- is "Like a Hurricane" bathetic country pop, or "stunted"? He then confuses "Homegrown" (an admittedly idiotic pot ditty; I blame CSN) with "Roll Another Number" (a blackhearted tune from 'Tonight's the Night') -- another indication that he probably DIDN'T ACTUALLY LISTEN TO THE ALBUMS.

Marsh then tries to tie it together with a sad psychological analysis: "Rather it is symptomatic of that refusal to commit himself fully, which is the bane of everything he's ever created. Instead of a unified body of work, Neil Young has forged only a series of fragments, some relatively inspired, some absolutely awful. "

*cough* 'Nashville Skyline'? Dylan's *entire 80s work*? 'Self fucking Portrait'?

"Yet if there is a major difference between Bob Dylan and Neil Young, it is that Dylan has always managed to make each of his shifting perspectives seem final and irrevocable, while Young makes each seem tentative and equivocal."

Perhaps this seems more ridiculous with hindsight; it was written in '79, after all. But the real tempest -- Young's 80s work -- was still to come -- as were both Young's and Dylan's renaissances in the 90s. For my money, Neil Young's career seems more coherent, more internally consistent, and more meaningful than Dylan's periodic bops between styles. IMO, even if Marsh's comment ever was true, they've traded places now.

In closing, and this may be a low blow, I'll take Sun Green over Jakob Dylan anyday.


Blogger Thrasher said...

Hi Cognomen,

Interesting deconstruction of Marsh's harsh critique of Neil. Yes, time has disproven Marsh's theory that Neil is just an imitator as his legacy continues to build.

But Marsh still seems to be on a vendetta 25 years on for some reason.

I linked to your article on the Thrasher's Wheat page @

Keep on Rockin!
ps - the link in your article doesn't seem to be active?

5:45 PM  
Blogger lunney said...

I agree with your points in general, though calling Words and There's a World "shit" is just wrong comign from a neil young fan, come on, don't tell me there not some of his best non lyrics, "if i was a junk man, sellin your cars..."

5:45 PM  
Blogger Sam Bill Gill said...

Very good points, and I do have to say I dislike There's A World and Words also.

The original article is mostly offensive I think on the grounds that to dismiss Tonight's The Night and On The Beach, both albums very down and dark, as merely recycling either the rusty stringed energy of Everybody Knows or the eclectic sunshine of the Springfield, is to, as you say, neglect the bare musical facts of the actual albums.

I think there is a patchwork quality to Neil Young's work, for me perhaps part of his charm. There's not too many of his albums where I like every track, but this is made up for by the 'fan factor' he has cleverly built in, with great recordings staying unreleased for years (I had to buy a bootleg CD of On The Beach when I first got into him, and Time Fades Away still on vinyl only I think?) as well as the numerous gems from Homegrown, Decade (how could anyone leave Down To the Wire unreleased for so long? And how just...wrong is the Stills vocal version from the Buffalo Springfield box set?) Chrome Dreams etc. all to collect.

I've not been a fan of much since about Rust period though, excepting the Dead Man soundtrack. Wish he'd do more weird effected harmonica wheezy and delayed guitar stuff, get a little more futuristic without losing his essential charm.

Of course, he's still living the lyrics of Mr. Soul, 'raised by the praise of a fan/who said I upset her' so I presume he'll continue to give his fans what they don't want, which, will, in time, be what they do want perhaps? Weird.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Lepus Europaeus said...

Intelligent and well-documented reaction on Marsh's more or less offensive article. Thanks for this.

I only recently heard Chrome Dreams for the first time, did some research and stumbled upon Marsh's article and this one. I'm glad you put some things in perspective.

Neil's legacy can be considered as a World Heritage. But same can be said of Dylan's. I think we should judge artists on their top performances only, not on their total output. As we do with Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and come to think of it Maradonna.

4:36 PM  
Blogger MIchael said...

Just wanted to add to the chorus that the opinion that "Words" and "There's a World" are bad songs is not a universal notion.

People perceive Harvest as overrated simply because of the sheer volume of acceptance. For years it was the only Young album in collections of people with only marginal interest- the same people would only have "Are You Experienced" because of Purple Haze," or Highway 61 Revisited because of "Like a Rolling Stone." Does this equate to overinflation of quality? No.

9:31 AM  
Blogger saintjames said...

Dave Marsh should probably listen to the records he reviews. I have never read a more ridiculous career overview. It was hard to read, not because of it being critical of Neil Young, but because it's obvious he didn't listen to the music or do any research.
Dave really isn't much of a journalist.

5:15 PM  
Blogger saintjames said...

I think the rebuttal is fine except that it starts to concentrate on comparing Bob and Neil. The only valid comparison is that they are two great artists with the 80s as a time that was hard for most to fathom musically. It's idiotic to compare the two, just as it's idiotic to compare that one person likes dogs and the other cats. Who gives a shit? I like both.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Tom H said...

I'm surprised Neil hasn't used this Marsh article on any liner note. Neil has never cared what "rock" critics had to say.He does what Neil does come along for the ride. Or not. Hang on there's always a change up ahead .

2:28 PM  

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