I’m not sure what the weather is like this week in New York, and there are at least one or two occasions where I can recall visiting the beaches of Coney Island as late as mid-October, but here in Glasgow, it is most definitely autumn. There were a handful of days that still felt like the very tail end of summer — days when I actually used one of the pairs of sunglasses I brought because I foolishly told myself, “there’s no way it can rain that much” — but the weather has shifted for the better.
With the turn of the season came the turn of the weather, and most of the trees here are now a brilliant gold or burnt orange color. The Glasgow Necropolis (quite literally the “city of the dead”) is my favorite place to walk to. Up a short hill, you get a fresh breeze and a view of the city’s massive Gothic cathedral. Just beneath your feet are over 50,000 buried individuals, some with unmarked graves, dating back to the early 19th century.
The Scottish absolutely love Halloween. Decorations have lined shop windows for weeks and bags of candy are flying off the shelves. Maybe the Scots really do enjoy this holiday, but they’re also pretty relieved about the news of a Brexit delay. The original departure date was scheduled for Halloween, perhaps an eerie omen of the conflict that inevitably lies just beyond the UK’s withdrawal. There’s nothing spookier than your entire country facing the biggest political, economic, social, and moral decision of the century.
Maybe it’s corny, but when I think of autumn I think of Neil Young, mainly thanks to “Harvest Moon.” A real harvest moon usually presents itself in September, signifying the official start of the season, but Young’s version carries through the months. “We know where the music’s playing, let’s go out and feel the night.”
Perhaps Neil Young also has sentimental feelings for this time of year, because he’s just released a new record with his reliable backing band, Crazy Horse, called Colorado. Young has faced some criticism over the last few years, mostly complaints that he wasn’t making music that sounded like himself. But what is the Neil Young sound? For me, it’s this album.
Young has always been a rock legend. He’s never flaunted glamour like Mick Jagger or shocked audiences like Iggy Pop, but instead has become a role model for those interested in putting their nose to the ground and making real rock n’ roll music. He will be honest and upfront with you, and is one of the kings of the songwriting style I like to call “complex simplicity”.
The record opens with a harmonica, an instrument that we’ve come to associate with Neil Young. Guitarist Nils Lofgren, apparently on a break from the E Street Band, rejoins Young’s band for the first time since 1971, and Crazy Horse provides the rest of the brash, messy, no-nonsense kind of sound we’re used to hearing on his records. Clearly, whatever relationship he has with Crazy Horse as a backing group is working – that’s tricky to nail in the music business.
But, as always with Young, it goes far beyond just the written music. He has always had something to say, and he talks on this record just as much as he sings, both figuratively and literally. He’s trying to tell you something, sometimes on a personal level, and sometimes on a larger scale.
This time, he’s mainly talking about climate change. “You might say I’m an old white guy, I saw old white guys try to kill mother nature […] I saw young folks fighting to save mother nature, I saw them standing for themselves,” he sings on “She Showed Me Love.” He simultaneously points fingers at those who deserve blame, doesn’t let himself and his generation off the hook, and acknowledges the youth trying to do something about it.
He also notes the destruction beyond the environment. “What about the animals? What about the birds and bees? What about the bookshelves? What about the histories?,” he sings on “Shut It Down”, a song about the need for an entire system reboot. It’s not a secret that Young isn’t on the Trump bandwagon: you might remember that he firmly (and legally) demanded for Trump to be banned from playing “Rockin’ in the Free World” at his rallies.
And this is Neil Young we’re talking about. This is the man who wrote “Ohio” in 1970 in response to the Kent State shootings. This is the man who wrote the biggest “fuck you” to the most corrupt president America had ever known. Nixon may have seemed awful at the time, but little did anyone know what 2016 would have in store. Neil Young, for better or for worse, has served as a sort of musical documentarian of political deceit for decades, as one of the voices for teen angst and protest for years. He is the last person you want to piss off if you’re president of the United States. (Perhaps Trump didn’t get the memo.)
“I got a voice that does its damage,” he says on “Help Me Lose My Mind.” If you get upset by all the political messages on Colorado, you really haven’t been paying attention to his music at all. This is his 39th album, he’s not trying to impress anyone — this is who he is.
Next month, the Canadian-born Young will officially become an American citizen, able to vote in the next election — an astonishing step for someone who’s played such an integral part in American protest music since the 60s. Why now? “We long for a better day,” he sings on “Green is Blue.” Isn’t that all we really want? Nothing more, nothing less, just a light at the end of the tunnel. Parts of Young’s message on Colorado are grave — we’re running out of time to make a change — but parts of it are hopeful. It’s never too late to get involved – even at 74.
I’m thinking about Neil Young this autumn — I found footage of him busking in the train station in Glasgow in 1976. As he sang back in the day on “The Old Laughing Lady,” “you got to move, there’s no time left to stall.”