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The Rockologist: Neil Young And Pearl Jam Have “Got Id”

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As many of you already know, I’m writing a book about Neil Young.

I’m also dreadfully behind schedule on the April 2011 delivery date promised by contract to my publisher on it. The good news is, I’m closing in on it being half-done, with about five months to go. The bad news is, yep! you guessed it, I’m not quite half-done with only those damn five months till’ deadline. As hard as breaking up is to do, catching up is even harder. Trust me on that.

That aside — and trust me, it’ll get done — one of the great joys of writing this book has been going back through Neil’s catalog, and especially rediscovering those albums I’d mostly forgotten.

Tonight was just such a case.

Right now, I’m working on a chapter about Neil’s most underrated albums. Albums like Trans and Sleeps With Angels will certainly rank right up there of course. Like they wouldn’t?

But for me, the whole 1995 period with Pearl Jam and Mirror Ball is a particular standout. Honestly, why in God’s name doesn’t anybody remember this? Because it was some amazingly great stuff.

Not only was this a case of the Punks meeting the Godfather — it also stands out as the point where Neil Young, albeit briefly — may have met his most perfect backup band ever. Don’t get me wrong here, because I love Crazy Horse as much as anyone.

But where Crazy Horse is a band whose greatest function has always been to lay down a solid, if slightly sloppy and funky groove for Neil to soar over — Pearl Jam are as tight as a bag of nails on Mirror Ball, and their own accompanying E.P. Merkin Ball.

On songs like “Peace And Love” and “Throw Your Hatred Down,” Neil’s lead guitar snarls and screeches over the deep, bass heavy rhythmic din created by PJ’s then monster drummer Jack Irons and bassist Jeff Ament.

Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready likewise lay down a positively audacious and ferocious groove, inspiring Neil Young to new heights of hallucinogenic flight.

Seriously, I’d forgotten just how great this record is.

Although this is a rare case of Neil’s lyrics taking a backseat — as if they could cut through the din made by Pearl Jam here anyway — there is also an undeniably nostalgic look back towards the sixties hippie era here.

In songs like “Peace And Love,” “Downtown” and “Throw Your Hatred Down,” references to musical icons of the sixties period like John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix (and their peacenik political sentiments) are abundant.

In the song, “Big Green Country,” Neil even sneaks in some of his trademark Indian lyrics (“With folded arms the chief stood watching/painted braves slipped down the hill”).

Amazingly, this mostly goes unnoticed — much as this album has in the greater scheme of Neil Young’s overall catalog.

There’s not a chance in hell you will ever hear “Big Green Country” Or “Peace And Love” played on classic rock radio, and for my money at least, that sucks. This is why I place Mirror Ball clearly in the category of Neil Young’s most underrated albums ever.

Who knew that Seattle grunge-sters could have been Neil Young’s best backing band ever? Well okay, maybe anyone who has ever heard the way that PJ backed Neil Young doing “Rockin’ In The Free World” at MTV’s Video Music Awards in 1993.

That aside, Neil and Pearl Jam pretty much tear the whole damn house down on Mirror Ball and then some. It’s easily Neil Young’s most rocking album of the nineties, and a decent argument could even be made that the album stands out as some of the most cacophonously beautiful noise of his entire career.

On a final note, Pearl Jam’s companion E.P. Merkin Ball also features one of Neil’s best guitar solos ever on the song “I Got Id.” Eddie V’s got the vocal covered here, but there is no mistaking the menacing snarl of Neil and Old Black.

When Neil and Pearl Jam played a “secret” club gig in Seattle back then, I thought I had an “in” with my then drinking buddy Kim Thayil from Soundgarden. No such luck.

I’ll admit I’ve never forgiven him for that. But Kim, if you’re listening, if you can get me a line to Eddie to write me an intro for my book on Neil, I’m all ears. And I’ll even pick up the bar tab. Promise.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “Who knew that Seattle grunge-sters could have been Neil Young’s best backing band ever?”

    Sure, PJ could be considered a great backing band to someone of Neil’s stature but when they got involved with Mr. Young is where they lost me. No where did I ever read that they were influenced to such a degree by the man especially after listening to Ten & Vs.. To me, those albums don’t highlight even an ounce of Neil Young. There was a tightly controlled wildness & electricity to those albums that were lost when they reflected upon their “newly” enamored love of all things Young. No offense, but, on Mirror Ball I hear the noise but no beauty. But, I am a Pearl Jam fan (their old stuff), so, I’m a tad bit biased.

    By the way, if you talk to Kim, tell him not to rush the new Soundgarden album cuz I would like to hear a return to Badmotorfinger but maybe a bit heavier this time:)

  • buckswope

    Glen,

    Completely agree on MirrorBall being such an under-appreciated gem. Good stuff.

    [note: NeilJam played RITFW at the 1993 MTV VMAs not SNL]

    Brian,

    Respectfully agree to disagree…the shift in direction as guided by Neil and esp Jack Irons is what saved the band. No Code is a revelation. I do concur they were a different animal with Abbruzzese, but as good as they were it wasn’t sustainable long-term unit.

  • RedmondNeilFan

    Mirrorball is a seminal grunge recording of Neil Young at his psychedelic best. The album spanned the divide between late 1970’s Neil Young and the freight train of sound that the Grunge era created. It added a new dimension to Grunge that pushed bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden even further musically. My guess is that Neil was really mad about the state of the world; his best albums always seem to come when he’s angry and has something to say. Throw Your Hatred Down is fantastic rocker with waves of sound from Young, McCready and Gossard crashing over the rhythms being laid down by Irons and Ament. Loved Mirrorball when it was released and love still it every time I play it. Thanks for reminding me and I look forward to another book on Mr. Young.

    I also have to agree with buckscope. I think Pearl Jam became a tighter band after Mirrorball and made some pretty amazing music since. I’ve been a Pearl Jam fan since Ten and their one of the few acts that I’ll see every night they play in town. I still like what they are doing and appreciate their desire to evolve as a band.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    buckswope,

    I don’t doubt that their collaboration with Young & adding a toned down drummer, like Irons, saved them as a band – financially- BUT, imho, it didn’t save their musicianship & creative drive. Certainly, some may love the direction they went, personally, I feel it was because Vedder couldn’t withstand the vocal range that he pursued on Ten (very apparent in a live setting especially in 1994 – goto Wolfgang’s Vault and Irons doesn’t come close to the chops that Abbruzzese had. My favorites are, still, the two songs from Singles. I always felt that that was their true direction but they would’ve had to find a replacement for Vedder which would have been impossible.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    You’re writing a book?

    “Honestly, why in God’s name doesn’t anybody remember this?”

    Speak for yourself, Kemosabe. I saw them in ’95 at Golden Gate park when Eddie got sick and Neil took over the show. PJ fans were disappointed but I had a good time. There’s a boot of it floating around and it may even still be up on Brewster’s site.

    Good piece.

  • http://racinglikeapro.com buckswope

    brian,

    “I don’t doubt that their collaboration with Young & adding a toned down drummer, like Irons, saved them as a band – financially- BUT, imho, it didn’t save their musicianship & creative drive.”

    Again agree to disagree. However, I would maintain this exact scenario occurred when they switched from Irons to Cameron.

    Irons pushed them (specifically Ed) to places creatively they otherwise wouldn’t have gone. No Code and Yield were their last great albums in my book. At this point, nothing would make me happier than to see Neil, Stone, Jeff, Mike, and Jack to re-unite for another album + tour (I suppose Ed can tag along too).

    re: Ed’s vocals

    Agree about Ed’s voice not being the same post-1994, but the shift in vocal style in the songwriting (away from the Ten-era range) was evident on Vs and Vitalogy – thus precluding the evident deterioration in his vocal range.

    re: Irons flavored Pearl Jam vs Abbruzzese flavored Pearl Jam

    Everyone has their personal preference. I won’t deny Dave’s chops were superior, but they evolved into something different (and arguably better) with Jack.

    “My favorites are, still, the two songs from Singles. I always felt that that was their true direction but they would’ve had to find a replacement for Vedder which would have been impossible.”

    I’ve met many people like yourself never got over it. Those of us who did enjoyed a hell of a ride in the period that followed.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    #2 – Buckswope: Noted and corrected, and thanks for pointing it out.

    -Glen

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Binaural is their last great album to me

  • Shanna

    I remember standing with my ear to the side door at Mo in Seattle trying to hear anything I could of the Pearl Jam/Neil Young show going on inside. We were trying for hours before to try to somehow worm our way into the show, but no dice. Ah, the good ole days

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Buckswope,

    Sorry to have left the conversation, I had band practice.

    re: Irons to Cameron

    Hmmm, that’s where my hopes went up, sorta, cuz Cameron’s got better chops than him as well (No Offense to Irons). BUT, imho, they lost their power & passion by that time, so, I didn’t see Cameron as being such a great fit.

    re: Irons flavored Pearl Jam vs Abbruzzese flavored Pearl Jam

    Agree to disagree. Abbruzzese was the one that pushed them, to me. He brought that power & musicianship that was missing from other “Grunge/Alt” acts of that time.

    “I’ve met many people like yourself never got over it. Those of us who did enjoyed a hell of a ride in the period that followed.”

    Sorry man. I never cared for the watered down version of PJ after Vs.. Believe me, I tried to love Vitalogy and only came away with Tremor Christ. After that, it got boring for me. But, that’s my opinion. I didn’t miss out, I went on to listen to some killer Punk bands at the time.

  • http://infoscussion.wordpress.com Jordan

    Glen:
    Thank you for this! Although I know this article is supposed to be about the NY/PJ hookup, I just wanted to say I’m glad you mentioned Sleeps with Angels. Still one of my favorites ;) and it reminded me to haul it out of a box of CDs (!) for more listens.
    I look forward to reading your book!

  • Teamocil

    Hey Glen,

    Thanks for the article. I’ve been listening to Mirror Ball lately, and it has held up well over the years. In fact, listening to it I feel a nostalgia for the 90’s that seems much in line with the way people talk about the 60’s, even though I know the era wasn’t as rose-tinted as I’d like to remember it. But there was a sincerity to it, and you could hear how much PJ & NY loved what they were doing, and even though a lot of the playing on the record is sloppy, it’s got more heart than just about anything you hear nowadays.

    Anyway, my other favorite Neil record of the era was his MTV Unplugged show, just himself onstage with 50 guitars and organs to choose from, depending on what he felt like playing at the time. That show & soundtrack CD had a very huge impact on me becoming a Neil fan, especially his epic pipe organ rendition of Like a Hurricane. Loved it.

    Good luck with the book!

    T

  • martin lav

    Hey Glen,
    Nice article I agree wholeheartedly with you. I love Mirror Ball.
    Funny thing, I was at the Bridge School Benefit Concert on Saturday night and Eddie talked about being together as a band for 20 years (celebrated the day before I believe) and how if they hadn’t met “Uncle Neil” they wouldn’t have lasted 4 or 5 years. Oh and by the way, I’ve seen PJ at at least 3 Bridge Benefits and this was by far their best outing yet. They covered one of Neil’s new songs (Walk With Me) and Neil came out and joined them and when it was over they thanked their 5 piece string backups (all acoustic remember) and said they needed that many to cover one Neil guitar. Eddie also gave the nod to the Bridge School pointing out the irony of the fact that they don’t go to the school, yet “the school has taught us so much”. It was a great night ending with RITFW with Eddie singing most of the lead.
    Looking forward to your book.
    Should have a chapter or two about the Bridge School by the way.

    Peace

  • LoveAndOnlyLove

    Nice blog and very well written. Best of luck in meeting your “contractual obligations”, I’m certain you’ll come shining through.

    Sorry to be late to the party, just returned from the 24th annual Bridge School Benefit concerts… you’ll have to add Neil’s new song, “Walk With Me”, to the epic Neil Young/Pearl Jam collaborations, IMHO. Stunning work.

  • martin lav

    “I lost some people I was traveling with
    I miss the soul and the old friendship”

    Is this a precursor to a NY/PJ reunion tour?

    Glen — You may need another chapter….