Equal Parts Past, Present, and Future: First skin, then a white thermal shirt, then a “My Wife And My Dead Wife” shirt, then a tight black dress shirt, then a big black coat, then my new vintageish suit jacket from Marcella, topped off with the chocolate kiss of a brown fedora and the strawberry licorice of a black and red scarf.
I didn’t bring a guest, so I’d like to bring you. But not in real time. I’m a bit tired, anyway. It is better to hear the thoughts after they have been condensed and compressed. We are time traveling today.
I unfocus my eyes and see raindrops outside the train windows like little gray specks on a painting that I’m standing too close to, power lines dancing schizophrenically behind them. Flashing sign warns “STAND BACK” at Hamilton station. Early America’s train bridges are in the corner, quiet and proud, tucked away and repainted a shade of blah by the morning rain.
I remember being twelve and my peers seemed to be scrambling to pick an identity. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to be real and be new. I mostly hang out in towns with the word New in them. They are all north of me and they get progressively expensive based on their distance from my home in Tullytown.
You can always be a clean slate in New York. Alone in a crowd. Anonymous and brand new.
Since the last time I looked up from my notebook, the rain turned to snow. The cars at Princeton Junction were already covered like a municipal parking lot in a snow globe. Nature reclaims. And it doesn’t ask us first. Industrial America of past and present. Rural America. Even the railside trash is fucking gorgeous. A broken door next to New Brunswick station. The snow equalizes the otherwise disparate landscape so it looks like one big Christmas-themed model train layout.
I bet Neil Young would like that line; did you know that a Patti Smith/Neil Young & Crazy Horse show is at the other side of today’s train ride? I am traveling through three states to warm my bones by the light that shines from these geniuses. I could’ve driven half an hour to see him in Philadelphia in two days, but there’s no rush like emerging from Penn Station and seeing how Manhattan will write an unwritten afternoon.
The snow seems to be traveling south as I travel up the Northeast Corridor. The snow travels light, fast, and free. The river cutting through New Brunswick seems to almost glow fluorescent gray. The flakes are now the perfectly formed, fat kind that fall straight down as if there is no wind at all. They look like the pattern of falling dots you sometimes see in your peripheral vision if you keep your eyeball in the same spot.
The conductor told someone “nineteen-seventy-five” and I imagined that the passenger had purchased a time-traveling ticket rather than a distance-traveling ticket. I wondered which aspects of the environment would be most confusing to a time traveler from 1975. The dings, marimbas, and vibraphones coming out of the pockets of every man, woman, and child? The power and complexity of 2012’s portable typewriters?
Thanks for continuing to ride with me. Right now, we are passing by a wheat field and the snow is blowing sideways so hard and fast that it could be mistaken for fog by a blurry-eyed rider who has just awoken from a nap. A little girl is counting from one to fifty-four, but then we enter a tunnel and all you hear is motion and a businessman’s cough from the other side of the car. We are on the top of a double-decker train traveling to New York City. We have enough money to eat and have a drink. We are free in America.
Now, we’re in New York and, despite a great lunch at Galway, we’re feeling like a waterlogged copy of a 1997 edition of Village Voice jammed in the wall of a Chinese restaurant to block a draft or slow down a parade of rats. Water-resistant shoes are a must in my very improvisational life.
Someone asked where I would go next and I could only think of eras I wanted to visit. Fillmore East 1970. Jazz’s golden era. CBGB in the ’70s. Sonic Youth in the ‘80s.
Ya walk into the street ‘cause there’s no sidewalk right now. New Yorkers adjust. Neil’s equipment trucks line the block in spaces most of us will never park. We look to the right and, hey, there’s Neil’s bus! We look closer and see somebody close a blind. Anything can happen in New York City.
Now, we’re going to Mustang Harry’s for a drink. My friend Marilyn’s smile put my mood back on the right track.
I entered Madison Square Garden and caught Everest’s great, brief set, then Patti Smith. I marveled at the strength and purity of her voice. I marveled at her command of the stage. I marveled at the simple fact that I get to see her - people with brains wired like that are not guaranteed a long, healthy life. But she decided to live and there she is.
I also marveled at the man sitting next to me who, faced with the choice of looking at a screen or looking at one of best rock & roll performers on the planet, chose the smartphone. I thought, “this must be the way religious people feel when they hear sacrilegious humor.” I took a picture of the juxtaposition of the beauty on stage and the blankness of the smartphone guy. You can lead a horse to water.
As a younger man, my heart was coated with a layer of rusted, moldy metal, padlocks lining the door. Patti Smith is one of the people who found a way to open that door. The door is sometimes blown shut by the cold wind of heartbreak, but Patti knows how to jiggle the locks and break in. You believe her because you know she’s been through the whole human experience and a little more. You believe her.
Patti spoke of unity. Protecting our homes and our home planet. And she got New York City to give one huge cheer for Jimi Hendrix in honor of his seventieth birthday. That was the moment where Patti first reached my cold, wet-sock heart and pumped some free-flowing raw joy back into it. To hear Patti make light of Jimi’s bottomless well of music was beautiful, but when they played “Beneath The Southern Cross,” we saw them take a big drink from it. How do you explain the feeling of witnessing a moment of genius? Orgasm of the soul. Hits of sunshine. Hey, I wonder if anyone from Sonic Youth is here.
I felt the spirit of unity again when Neil’s crew started playing The Beatles’ recording of “A Day In The Life.” Everybody likes The Beatles and almost everybody likes Neil Young, but we’re all part of a tribe that need to actually put out the money and spend the time traveling. We’re the ones who need to GO there.
Suddenly, there’s a psychedelic light show, a rhythm section playing huge, sturdy rhythms while a guy in a flannel shirt who looks a lot like Neil Young - because he’s Neil Young - plays a black guitar that looks like his famous “Old Black” Les Paul - ‘cause it is.
When I was six years old, Neil said, “jamming is a lost art.” It takes a certain kind of boldness to leave huge sections of your shows unwritten. Most people do rock & roll wrong. Rock & roll isn’t about simply playing guitars and drums loudly. It’s about seeing if you can make them bleed.
Neil sang “we were trying to make it better” and I wrote it on my arm.
How does he transfix his audience, many of whom are the Classic Rock radio bunch and might not even have the patience for the most timeless, classic jazz, while playing a ten-minute improvisation in a song they’ve never heard? I guess it comes down to years of trust that, if Neil is trying to take them on a journey, it’ll be worth it to ride along. It’s not a song - it’s a movie. “We play rock like jazz,” Ralph Molina said.
“Love And Only Love,” “Powderfinger,” “Born In Ontario,” “Walk Like A Giant.” ‘Ontario’ and ‘Giant’ had no trouble walking among his decades-old classics. A song that’s classically him, a performance that’s classically Crazy Horse. However, the song doesn’t end when the beat ends. They also play rock like free jazz. And how can the segment of the crowd who don’t get JAZZ get FREE jazz??
An eight-minute noise coda tested their patience. From my seat in the nosebleeds, I could hear that he’d lost much of the crowd, or at least those of us sitting the closest to the New York City night sky. All I could hear was indistinct audience chatter like an erratic wind blowing down the human highway. I couldn’t make out a single word, just the smudged sounds of an audience split between confused anger and an eagerness to stay on the horse even after it’s started to reveal that the bucking horse IS fucking crazy, riding into a place where there are no structures, no walls, nothing recognizable - only textures and colors. A place that’s scary. A place that’s free.
As if to drive home the image of reaching through a wall, Neil put his hand through a hole in one of the prop amps and fucked with the dials of a real amp, making Old Black groan and scream a little more desperately than it already was. Roadies blew trash onto the stage with fans. The big-screen-disguised-as-a-’50s-TV alternated between live visuals of the band and distorted, vintage video clips. Those of us who stayed on the journey were in the past and present at the same time.
I realized the genius of this moment. It was like experiment in audience dynamics. Like something John Cage might have concocted with Neil. A Certified Rock Hero packing a room with 20,000 of his fans and assaulting them with noise because that’s simply how one of the songs currently in his heart goes.
It’s not that he’s trying to fuck with them. It’s just that he doesn’t give a fuck. I would spend $10 on recording of the sound of the AUDIENCE during these eight minutes.
He’s not an entertainer; he’s an artist who entertains. The world of difference between the two is as vast as the difference between talent and genius. The best part is that, at 67, he’s just as hungry for the next wave as ever before.
In 120 seconds of “The Needle And The Damage Done,” the audience is back in the palm of his hand.
“Twisted Road” is another new song, but its inviting melody and allusions to The Grateful Dead, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and weed helped to ecstatically bring back all of, as Neil later put it, “the doubters.” This was followed by a gorgeous song called “Singer Without A Song” that fulfilled the tour’s original promise of “Equal Parts Past, Present, and Future.” It’s newer than the album he released LAST MONTH. A young actress played the part of the song’s subject, wandering the stage wistfully, holding an acoustic guitar.
I thought about Japan. Japan is the only place Neil plays where they don’t applaud until the last drop of feedback has reverberated from his amp to the back of the hall. In The States, they applaud when the drum beat ends. But there’s also something beautiful about our permanent teenager energy. Isn’t that what rock & roll is?
Whatever rock & roll is, it was exemplified by the one-two-three-four punch of “Cinnamon Girl,” “Fuckin’ Up,” “Mr. Soul,” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).” “Fuckin’ Up” was one of the best ever; an intense 6+ minutes of singing and jamming, and then a bizarre interlude in which Poncho played the role of “the fuck-up.” “I’m just a fuck-up. But she LIKES it!” “How about all of you New Yorkers?!” The crowd started singing back, “you’re just a fuck-up!” Poncho sang in his confidently slippery way: “but it feels so gooood.” These four guys brought us to many places in two hours, but this part was just pure, goofy joy. You could see it on almost every face in the room.
This music makes ya high. The ever-present weed floating around the arena was merely a garnish. The meal itself was more than enough. Psyched-out lights spun on the oversized amps as the boys served us “Roll Another Number” for dessert. Every note was imprecise perfection dripping with spirit and psychedelic paint drops.
I grabbed my coat and said to the couple in front of me, “thank you for the smoke.” I walked away and took photos of the scattered people and plastic cups in the pit. In the wake of a poorly-timed escalator malfunction, the crowd trudged at a glacial pace through the hallways and staircases, but with the peaceful reserve of a tribe that just had the annual blessing from their tribal leader. He’s just a guy, of course, but he somehow has the capacity to make magic with the right songs and the right band at the right time.
Did you know that Madison Square Garden is directly above Penn Station? You go upstairs to have your favorite band rock you out of the stratosphere, then you go downstairs and sit down in a chair that transports you to your earthly safety of your car. I’m not much of a city guy, but that sure is a hell of a lot of functionality for one city block.
Traveling home toward South Jersey, someone asks: “Is Patti Smith from the States?”
The two men sitting in front of us are proving exactly HOW 2012 it is by watching a video of ‘Hey Hey, My My’ from the concert we JUST attended. It blew my mind, but not as much as it would for a time traveler from 1975.
Moments later, I realized the person sitting behind me is playing Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s performance of “Winterlong” from Fillmore East, March 1970. I squint my mind’s eye and simply decide that I’m there. We have successfully time traveled. Our evening is equal parts past, present, and future. Two shows in the same day is quite a feat, especially when they span two millennia.
I reflect on the essence of Neil. The rarity of a life spent following creative impulses. Instinct. The desire to wake as a clean slate. The desire to hear the outside world no louder than one’s inner voice. The desire to have your creative work pour out of you like water from a faucet. The balance of love/art. Money. Celebrity. The notion that Neil Young only could’ve been received on the large scale on which he was received during one tiny sliver of one century. How does such a radical thinker have such a general audience? How do you live in your imagination and also take care of a world of worldly concerns? How do you operate on instinct without frustrating your loved ones so much that they go away? And how the fuck do you keep getting better and better, with no drop in energy levels?
I walk to the elevator in the parking garage in Trenton and a tall, impeccably dressed businessman looks at me, decides not to waste time asking whether or not I just saw Neil Young, and simply asks, “how was it?”
We share a smile and I get off at Level 4. I walk to my car and take advantage of the nearly empty 2 AM parking garage by singing the latest Neil Young melody that’s wormed its way into my cerebral jukebox.
I sit down in the drivers’ seat and slam the door shut like one last snare drum hit echoing through the endless concrete of a late night Trenton parking garage.