Life at 33 1/3: Drunk and epic

Neil Young: American Stars ‘n Bars (Reprise)

Neil Young: American Stars ‘n Bars (Reprise)

Released: June 1977

(All songs written by Neil Young, except as indicated)

Side One

“The Old Country Waltz” – 2:58

“Saddle Up the Palomino” (Neil Young, Tim Drummond, Bobby Charles) – 3:00

“Hey Babe” – 3:35

“Hold Back the Tears” – 4:18

“Bite the Bullet” – 3:30

Side Two

“Star of Bethlehem” – 2:42

“Will to Love” – 7:11

“Like a Hurricane” – 8:20

“Homegrown” – 2:20

Produced by: Neil Young & David Briggs with Tim Mulligan, Elliot Mazer

Personnel: Neil Young, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Tim Drummond, Karl T. Himmel, Carole Mayedo, Linda Ronstadt, Nicolette Larson.

One of my favorite Neil Young albums.  I like him rough and scrawny, and he is here.  The album is a wily stew of fresh material and outtakes.  The new stuff, a kind of country hoe down with fiddle, steel guitar and hollering barn-girls (Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson) lays claim on side 1.

These ramshackle songs sound like an unpretentious, don’t give a damn, drunken celebration of life, chewing on a straw and waving a jug of moonshine in the air.  A cousin of the redneck-tracks on side 2 of the later “Hawks And Doves” (1980).  But the lyrics are a strange mix of emotions, part brokenhearted, part desperate for some intimate encounter (he’s even after the neighbour’s wife), horny self-pity, drunk on tears and testosterone. The wonderfully disgusting cover photo was probably shot two seconds after the band finished playing “Bite The Bullet” (last track on side 1):  “Carolina queen/ She’s a walking love machine./I’d like to make her scream,/When I bite the bullet./Bite the bullet.”

Side 2, however, is a completely different story.  Four outtakes from 1974, 1975 and 1976.  The oldest is the delicate, exquisitely beautiful “Star Of Bethlehem”.  The most recent is the 7 minutes long, spooky, rambling love epic “Will To Love”.  Neil uses the metaphor of a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and it’s a long journey probably meant as a demo-recording, the crackling noise you hear is from the fireplace.  Neil later tried to re-record it in the studio, but he couldn’t capture the nerve of the original, so he decided to use the strange and haunting recording as it was, warts and all.  The contours are hazy, the sound dreamlike.

After the seven hushed, whispery minutes of the magical “Will To Love”, the album explodes with “Like A Hurricane”.  Neil Young’s definitive electrical outburst.  The pace is surprisingly slow, like running under water, the drums keep Crazy Horse on a tight leash, but the sonic power is simply stunning, and indeed it does explode, or rather catch fire with the most classic of all Neil Young’s solos on electric guitar.  Slightly distorted and luminescent it glides through the air, shimmering, weightless, so electrically beautiful  that you feel like crying and getting down on your knees to thank the guy.  Neil Young at his epic best.

The album’s conclusion, “Homegrown,” is from the same session as “Like A Hurricane”, but rough, tongue-in-cheek and ramshackle as it is, it has much more in common with the songs on side 1.  And thus the circle is complete and the album achieves a sense of wholeness which really is not there.  Neil cheats and gets away with it.  A classic?  You bet!

First Published in Pattaya Mail on April 17, 2013