There was a moment in my life where this album, a live adventure done at the end of the 1970s when I was a mere two years of age, became the album that defined my 1994. It was by accident, for sure, at least, in a way. Kurt Cobain purposefully quoted Neil Young’s line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. The line itself is a massive lie, but believed by a personal hero of mine. For the first time in my young life I bought my own Neil Young record. Okay, I copied to tape my own Neil Young record.
As a Canadian, Young is pretty much a part of the Muzak I hear everyday- “Heart of Gold” is a radio standard. But my parents weren’t fans, so my exposure to him was on the outskirts, and judging by his early 80s output, I wasn’t missing a lot. By the time I was a teenager, Neil had “This Note’s For You”, which had a kinda funny video. But he wasn’t being played, at least, not where I was in Southern Alberta. It wasn’t until the “Godfather of Grunge” label came about that I even clued into his reputation. He was a national treasure yet I knew nothing about him.
I borrowed Rust Never Sleeps and Decade from a friend of mine one weekend after Cobain’s death and immersed myself into Neil Young’s world. I could have gone with Decade if it didn’t break the arbitrary “No Compilations/Greatest Hits Albums” rule I have. But Rust Never Sleeps is possibly my favourite Neil record- yes, even more than Harvest and Freedom.
For me, the album hangs on the lovely dreamscapes of “Pocahontas”, a story of North America from Aurora Borealis to Marlon Brando, it spares nothing about the brutal history of settlement nor the stunning beauty of the natural world we live in. One of the two non-live tracks on the album, its simple acoustic guitar and Young’s own nasal voice makes for a beautiful, magical song about my world, my history, which isn’t pretty. Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and me. How lovely. (An even better version of this song does appear live on his Unplugged album, and that’s the one below. Surprisingly, there is no version of the Rust “Pocahontas” that I can find on YouTube. The primary difference is the harmonica solos in between verses).
There is the lovely and hyperpoetic “Thrasher”, a song about his dissatisfaction with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, laced with childhood images and prairie winds. Simple and melodic, it’s the height of Young’s lyrical skills, and one of his most beloved songs.
The best known tracks, though, are the bookends “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”. They are the same song, one a messy acoustic version, the other a thrash punk noise cavalcade. The lyrics reference Johnny Rotten, the assholish Sex Pistols frontman whom Young identified with and whom critics were using to announce the death of singer songwriters like Young. Unlike many others of his time, Young was adventurous and ornery enough to be able to create music that people identified with even when the genres change. Neil Young may always sound like Neil Young, but he always sounds current as well. I’ve always preferred the acoustic opener to the punkish closer, simply because Young is such a great lyricist and musician that I feel in his case, stripped down and bare is best.
The other five album tracks are the “extra-terrestrial folk song” (as described once in a live demo by Young himself) “Ride My Llama”, the rawness and musical schizophrenia of “Sedan Delivery”, the stomp and sneer of “Welfare Mothers”, the richness of storytelling of “Powderfinger”, and the gentle, sweet “Sail Away”. Overall, Rust Never Sleeps is Young’s most consistent and greatest achievement. The 80s would be tough for the Canadian icon, but as a new generation came up and Pearl Jam and Nirvana spoke of Neil as an influence, his standing as the greatest of the singer-songwriters was recaptured.
Cobain famously used “It’s better to burn out than fade away” in his suicide note. The line, a direct quote from Young’s “My My, Hey Hey”, was misconstrued by a troubled man, and when Young now sings the song, he deemphasizes it in favour of “Once you’re gone then you can’t come back”. The album may be Young’s most famous now because of this one unfortunate connection, but it should be his most famous because it is his best.