In rock and roll there are certain elephants one is not permitted to acknowledge. Any recounting of The Clash, for example, is not to include the execrable Cut the Crap album. Van Morrison, despite barely showing up for his last dozen or so albums, continues to craft masterpieces. And Neil Young, one of the most gifted and influential artists this nation has given to the world, should never be dismissed as a self-indulgent old curmudgeon.
Which, frankly, is what he is. Oh, that’s not to take anything away from the greatness displayed at the Palladium Saturday evening. Hell, the veteran rocker nearly rose to the challenge put before him by a Patti Smith performance that seems likely to stand as the finest thing locals will see at our distant hockey arena this season.
A few classics. A favourite Woodstock soundbite. A tribute to Ontario. A whole lot of guitar. Even one new gem of a song. All in all, a fine show by a legendary performer savvy enough to open his concert with the playing of O Canada. But, seriously, the 10-plus-minute, single-chord finale to the otherwise-excellent Walk Like a Giant? That embarrassing, uncomfortably-salacious exchange between Young and Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sempedro during an overlong troll through the functional oldie Fuckin’ Up? Neil Young chose a line of work that celebrates narcissism. And, in that, he is in a class of his own.
A good as well as a bad thing, mind you. I mean, I’m pretty sure the not-exactly-shy Barbra Streisand did not, at her recent Ottawa show, point to members of the audience and inform them: “You’re a fuck-up!” Ditto, as far as I have heard, Justin Bieber. (Though, in fairness to Bieber, it’s too soon to tell whether or not his fans are fuck-ups. And while we’re on the subject, must I defend poor Justin once more? I have little use for the guy myself, and hope never to hear his music again, but to boo him simply for taking to the stage to perform? Did Torontonians briefly mistake the Grey Cup halftimer for Rob Ford or something? Please, people, save your boos until after the performance.)
The full extent of the self-indulgence of Neil Young hit me only recently, on the heels of a previous Palladium show. That concert, like others on Young’s 2008-09 tour, climaxed with a fierce performance of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, replete with much feedback and gnashing of strings. In summer 2009, at London’s Hyde Park, Neil agreed to treat the fans to a surprise appearance by Paul McCartney, who bounded onstage to sing his storied “woke up, fell out of bed” section. Unfortunately, Beatle Paul had to jostle with the evening’s headliner for proximity to the microphone, his gracious host not being about to surrender the lead for even a few bars.
Hence, when talk turned Saturday to whether Neil Young, who embellished even the concise Cinnamon Girl with an additional guitar solo, would invite Patti Smith to join him for a number, I knew better. Patti, for the record, has been known in concert to cover Rockin’ in the Free World, a song Neil openly dismissed early in the set via a nifty “time-machine” device — “There goes Rockin’ in the Free World,” he deadpanned as he took us back. Patti’s inspired set, meanwhile, had included a tribute to Neil.
(Several years ago, at a Toronto show, I watched as Chrissie Hynde paid tribute to Neil during a Pretenders opening set by not only singing one of his songs but also kissing the stage. Neil did not invite her to join him either.)
But then, it all adds to the legend. And there is no denying the man’s greatness. You have to respect that. Certainly, the members of Crazy Horse do, even if Young’s former Buffalo Springfield bandmates do not. This is the guy that signed a big-money deal with Geffen Records, only to release a bizarre electronic album and a rockabilly record before being sued for making non-Neil Young music. Then there was the Arc release, which consisted solely of feedback culled from live shows. Or my personal favourite crusty Neil moment, from a tempestuous 1973 tour that found the newly-crowned folk-rock king playing to audiences anticipating songs from Harvest, and instead receiving the entire Tonight’s the Night album. A recording exists of one memorable night that has the crowd becoming openly hostile as Neil gives them one unfamiliar (though, incidentally, utterly brilliant) song after another. “OK,” Neil says at one point in an apparent effort to placate the restless masses, “we’ll play something you’ve heard before, ladies and gentlemen. Something you’ve heard before.” At which point, he leads the band through a second rendition of Tonight’s the Night‘s title track.
Genius. And if nearly 40 years later he’s giving us 10 minutes of a single repeated chord and telling us all we’re fuck-ups, well, you have to give the man credit. He’s still got it.