Neil Young is an old man. This is something that happens to rock stars, and seems to take a fair number of them by surprise. Some reinvent themselves into irrelevance, some settle into catatonic nostalgism, and others simplylose control. Young, by these standards, has aged surprisingly well. His two hour set at the Sean Carter Memorial Rustodome this Monday was, with some misguided theatrical exceptions, a triumph: Young seems to be the rare aging musical titan whose newer work (especially the barren ‘Walk Like a Giant’) can be non-humiliatingly played alongside the standards.
The key image from this show is Young with his band Crazy Horse, clustered in a kind of solipsistic huddle at the center of the stage, bouncing on stiff knees as they thrash through the middle of another of Young’s infinite three-verse freak-outs. Young and Crazy Horse, at an age when most four-male-friend-groups are playing shuffleboard, retain the lost art of making the electric guitar sound not only relevant but fresh. It’s related to their interiority. Young’s playing has an intense privacy—although you might say ‘naivete’ or even ‘ferality’—which charms immeasurably in an age still recovering from the formally indulgent solos of the past couple of decades. Most electric guitarists want you to know how good they are at playing electric guitar. Neil Young wants you to know how he feels. That might be the difference between an entertainer and an artist.
Still, Young’s longevity might seem surprising or even hypocritical. Listening to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere in 1969, or to Rust Never Sleeps’ declaration that ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away,’ it would have been difficult to come away with the impression that this was an artist who’d still be performing, let alone making new and mostly-vital music, 43 years later. Even setting stage-exit philosophy aside, the electric virility of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘Down By the River’ seems almost thermodynamically unsustainable. Who could rock that hard for longer than a few years? Where would you even get the calories?
The answer is in his content. Perhaps ironically, Young has since the very beginning of his career written old songs. His one timeless theme, the topic of all his best work, has been failure and regret. This is the songwriter who was able, on ‘Sugar Mountain,’ to make turning twenty sound like an occasion for viaticum. Ever since, from ‘Down by the River’ to ‘Heart of Gold,’ from ‘Powderfinger’ to ‘Cortez the Killer’ and the entirety of Tonight’s the Night and the irreplaceable ‘Helpless’ (the list goes on), Young has been showing us just how much we have to be sad about. He may be the great modern tragic artist, in any medium.
And tragedy is nothing if not durable. If you were Donovan, and you were mainly in the business of selling Panglossian Aquarianism to people just a little younger than yourself, and if you discovered one day that all your friends were addicted to heroin and your hair was coming out and that you were, like the rest of your generation, quite shockingly aging, there wasn’t very much to do. You simply didn’t have the language. But if you were Neil Young, and if you happened to have two children with cerebral palsy and one with epilepsy, or if one of your good friends and roadies overdosed—that was just more fuel for your forty-year fire. It’s still burning, and we might hope it has a few more years in it. Where we’re going, we might need a good regretter.