Sunday , May 26 2024
Neil Young's new Archives site manages to be both charmingly retro and thrillingly cutting-edge.

Neil Young’s New Archives Site Brings Fun Back to the Internet

Neil Young just brought fun back to the internet which, let’s face it folks, has gotten pretty tired. Sure, it was all very exciting in the beginning, when we were all awed by email and chat rooms and YouTube and Vine and here-let-me-Google-that-for-you and GIFS and memes. So fast! So much! So easy! Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and then, for those of us who didn’t just fall into online porn or gambling or gaming addictions, just – boring af. And if it wasn’t boring af, by the time I discovered it, it was already dead – my kids were already off and onto something else I had never heard of and probably couldn’t figure out how to use if I had (that’s right, folks, SnapChat is hard if you’re over 40, I’m not afraid to admit it.)

But suddenly, a light on the horizon: Neil Young has just unveiled his new Archives site and it’s not only awesome in its scope, complexity, and sheer comprehensiveness, it’s just plain fun. Poking around Young’s new website, the Neil Young Archives, is certainly not the same as attending his live shows, of which I am, full disclosure, a fan, but it does have the power to evoke some of the same feelings you get there: The site is mind-blowing in its mastery of the task at hand, intriguing in its artistry, and yet also completely mystifying in its ability to both thrill and comfort. Just like walking out of one of his shows. Let me explain.

When you enter the Archives site – it’s free right now, by the way – it delivers a thrill right off the bat. ALL THIS NEIL YOUNG STUFF to listen to, examine, ponder, read?!? The long-anticipated Holy Grail for Neil Young fans, THE ARCHIVES?! I don’t know a single fan who hasn’t dreamt of waking up and finding him/herself in one of those old Archives barns where we imagine Neil has been keeping this stuff all these years, just walking around blowing dust off of things and climbing on top of one of the giant amplifiers used on the Rust Never Sleeps tour, trying on a Road-Eye costume and dancing around, peering through the bullet holes in the albums he allegedly shot through to make sure they’d never be released, looking into every cardboard box and road trunk marked NYCH, hoping to perhaps find the elusive Never-Released’s like Homegrown, Chrome Dreams, Odeon Budakon, and we-don’t-even-know-what-we-don’t-know kinds of things. Look, when you’re a fan, a serious fan, MORE is better, and DETAIL matters. If you know you know.

It’s hard to know even where to begin at NYA dot com, but that’s okay because there’s someone to tell you how to get started. Oh yeah, it’s NEIL. An easy how-to video features Neil walking you through, showing you how to roll up your sleeves and get busy in here. Let’s just pause there. This is an artist – a living legend, arguably one of the greatest icons of the golden age of rock – showing you personally around his life’s work. Um. Folks, that’s not only new, it’s a m a z i n g. And it’s a perfect use of the weary world wide web.

For Neil Young, the internet provides an elegant solution to several unwieldy problems surrounding the release of his life’s work. First of all, the Archives is a massive compendium of decades and decades of not only his music but the life surrounding it. The ephemera that he has kept is stunning in both quality and quantity. Second, he’s, uh, still alive. So naturally, just as you might be reluctant to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award when your lifetime is still, well, your lifetime, Neil might be reluctant to release his life’s work when it’s still in progress (writer pauses, blesses herself, prayer hands up to heaven, and continues). Neil Young has famously vowed to never retire, saying recently in an interview “you’ll know when I’ve retired because I’ll be dead.” And thank God for that.

But therein lies the beauty of the interwebz, for his Archives, versus a hard release – it’s never final. The beauty of NYA is that it is a living, breathing organism. It has LIFE. It can be added to at will, with never-before-released old material, newly discovered artifacts, and also, and critically at the front end of that file cabinet drawer (you’ll see), with brand new music. Neil himself has said that the NYA site will never be finished, which is a very exciting concept, and it is what is going to be the key to securing subscribers.

The question of course is whether people will pay for it, and there are some clear signs that the answer is yes. First of all, it would be cheap at twice the price for this kind of access to this kind of collection ($1.99/month or $19.99 for the year). And if you had your ear to the ground on the information highway this week you would have heard the buzz and excitement rippling through the Neil Young Fan Community when a note was posted on NYA saying that coming soon would be a drop of 15 unreleased tracks from 1976.

WHAT! After I picked myself up from off the floor I happily joined in the exciting, anticipatory, maybe-it’s-this-maybe-it’s-that discussions, giddy with the feeling that the NYA was going to be exactly the wonderland I and many others had always hoped it would be. Or, in fact, much better than we might have hoped for, because now it’s a living, breathing, still happening thing on the internet, rather than a final hard box release, which, let’s face it, often ends up gathering dust on a shelf, or via a clunky distribution system that doesn’t always work.

Which brings me to this: the NYA site works. Even though the amount of material here is mind-bogglingly immense, intense, and undoubtedly cumbersome – it’s hard to even wrap your head around the work that went into building this thing, the files go back to 1963 – it is organized in such a way that it is accessible, understandable, and easy to manipulate.

There are three main tools to get around. First, of course, a search button for those of us who are impatient and need to find a certain something or other RIGHT NOW. It may take you a minute to find, but that’s part of the fun. And then – the main beasts – a timeline and a file cabinet. The former because, duh, time travel (an aura of time travel wafts through so many of Neil’s songs), and the latter with delightfully satisfying real-life sound effects (especially when the entire drawer closes with a startling and definitive BANG; you can practically see the dust cloud rising in the air). Pull out the retro file cabinet drawer, click-click-click, and you can feel your fingers walking through the file tabs. Choose a song, pull out the file, select a version. Acoustic? Electric? Live? Studio? All of them? Click. Listen. Repeat.

Neil Young’s thrillingly retro file cabinet on his new website, Neil Young Archives dot com

Check out The Roxy from 1973 (an absolutely spellbinding show, with a “Mellow My Mind” that would have not have mellowed my mind but rather had me, had I been there in ’73, following him around the countryside trying to get a ticket to the next show and the next and the next), and The Hitchhiker (Hawaiiiiii) from 1976 (ditto the result above, had I been there, then), and tell me you are not in awe of that raw, real Neil Young sound. Or fall into a trance watching the not-so-long-ago intimate acoustic performance videos from Le Noise one after the other without having to hunt them down on the clusterf*ck that is YouTube (indeed, the whole internet) today. Or listen to Cowgirl in the Sand from the Fillmore East in 1970, and if that electric opus doesn’t rev your engine then don’t worry about any of this because you’re already dead.

Or, maybe, if you’re like me, pick up some tiny tidbits that only an obsessive would notice or love. For example, poke around and stumble upon Roll Another Number set to video footage of Neil Young, his longtime friend and early beloved producer David Briggs, and band members Ben Keith & Nils Lofgren roaming around town in Neil’s car in 1973, laid-back and laughing, Briggs filming. Um, what. OMG. Notice, even, that the original lyric here was “those flashing message lights” not “those flashing red lights” as I have always known it to be, from later versions. Which makes me think about not police car siren lights in the rearview, as I always had, but flashing message lights on the hotel phone, indicating a missed wake-up call, or calls from home, suddenly painting a picture in my imagination of the young-but-already-world-weary rock star coming to terms with the darker side of, as they say in the theatre, the smell of the grease paint, the roar of the crowd.

More? Okay, well I can tell you that although I have always known that “Welcome to Miami Beach!” was something Neil said at the start of the wild Tonight’s the Night shows, I didn’t know where it originated. On NYA I easily found and read an article from the time, carefully preserved and charmingly presented in its original newspaper form, and the origin of Neil’s now-famous quote was right there in black and white newsprint, as being from the Roxy show, even before I listened to the show and heard it myself. Small detail? Sure. But interesting to crazy fans like me? Absolutely.

Speaking of listening to the show, though, let’s get back to the reason we’re all here, the music.

I don’t know about you, but this is what I always wanted my own personal Neil Young music collection to be like, rather than the frustrating jumble of incomplete playlists on my computer and iPhone or jumbled boxes of tapes, CDs, and albums it actually is. (There, I’ve said it, now you know.) The NYA material is all so satisfyingly organized and right there. Well it’s not ALL there, yet, but eventually it will be (July is right around the corner, fellow fans). Or at least all Neil wants us to have. And it’s clear that this is what NYA is all about, by the way. It’s what Neil wants us to have. Neil said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune recently, about the shows with Crazy Horse in May,

This is not a job, this is our lives. I won’t make the gig if I’m not totally into what I’m doing at the moment. I only play for me. I’m not going to play what they (he means us) want. I believe that if we are in the groove, that the audience will groove too. And if they leave and don’t come back, we won’t miss ’em.

I think we can assume he feels the same way about the Archives. He’s curating this for himself, not for us. This is his record of his history, not a dispassionate or even objective perspective, not what he thinks we want – but that’s part of the added value, and that’s precisely why we’ll be back. Neil has always had an audience because he has always kept the art pure – it’s about him, not about him trying to please us – and that’s where the spook is, in any art. I don’t want to turn this into a discourse on the nature of what is and isn’t art, but Tolstoy’s perspective on the matter has always resonated. He said that a real work of art “destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist,” and that’s it right there, folks, isn’t it? That’s why we’re all here with Neil in the first place. His music makes us pause, saying to ourselves (and in our minds, to him): “Oh, you too? I know that feeling. I know how that feels.” Or, in the parlance of the day, “I feel you, Bro. I feel you.” More to the point, we hear him saying that to us.

And with NYA he’s still talking, and we’re still listening. Make no mistake, it is curated. This is not just a data dump, there for us to sift through and make sense of, which, frankly, so much of the internet is, and what a lot of fans think they want. This is not that. This is a thoughtful presentation of an artist’s life work, presented BY THE ARTIST. You get the sense that Neil is having fun with this, and that makes it fun for all of us. As he breathes life into his immense catalogue, it becomes more alive for all of us – the best movie version of the book ever, perfectly cast, just as we imagined, with none of the good parts left out. It’s unique, and wildly appealing – artists would be wise to well consider this as the gold standard for the presentation of music past, present, and future.

The music business has, as we all know, long been on a downward spiral. It’s hard for artists to make money anymore. Artists who take control of their work, and their presentation of it on the internet, and in digital form, because that’s where and how people are listening to it, via terraced subscription models are the ones who will have the power to retain and build their audiences now and in the future. The internet isn’t going away anytime soon. (CDs? Maybe. For general consumer music use there is already an entire generation, now in their 20s, and the generations behind them, who wouldn’t know what to do with a CD if it bit them in the ass. They don’t have CD drives in their laptops or in their cars, and they’d be hard pressed to tell you if a single one of their peers owns a player.)

A subscription model internet home allows artists the opportunity to provide unique benefits, like a cool digital atmosphere in the otherwise pretty soulless landscape of the now boring af internet, one you want to hang around in and interact with; easy access to their catalogue; early access to new releases or live show tickets; rare access to direct artist insight and, in Neil’s case, massive amounts – Jesus H. Christ he saved everything – of supporting memorabilia that provide fascinating depth and context to the story. Other businesses have been wise to the ticket aspect of this forever (hello Citi card presales), when in fact artists should have been the ones offering, crafting, curating, and controlling premium access to their art, live or recorded, in the digital space all along, because it’s not going away anytime soon, or ever.

Way back in 1971, one of the forefathers of the internet, Paul Baran, rightly predicted*, among other things, that the internet would one day yield online library access and that people would be able to download plays and movies from a video library (“color and good sound are required”), all of which has come true and then some. Which is to say, the internet has been with us for a long, long time, and it’s just going to keep on going. The future of access to anything is on the internet, and also, in the very near future, in the Internet of Things, where all our devices talk to us and to each other. In a few years, when you can tell your computer to not only preheat the toaster but also to turn the heat on in your car and hey while you’re at it crank up Cowgirl in the Sand for the drive to work, and oh, make it the Fillmore East version from 1970, nobody’s looking back. The love affair between us and the internet only deepens from there.

Convenience and accessibility have made and will continue to make the internet king, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw our hands up in despair and resign ourselves to an impoverished daily life, void of art, in an internet-dependent world choking on bleak, vapid “content” created by people paid to create clickbait, or go off the grid and lock ourselves into a closet with a solar-powered record player.

There’s an alternative, which is to recognize that the everlasting internet is going to be an internet populated with something, so it might as well be something we want, like excellent art presented by thoughtfully curated sites like NYA, the digital archives of the Met, and so on. (In 2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art made all images of public-domain works in its collection available: 375,000 works to use, share, and remix without restriction. A strong statement about the internet and the Museum’s obligation in a digital age.) Avoidance of technological innovation may be futile, but life online doesn’t have to be a forced march in a cultural wasteland.

To put it another way, Neil Young is smart. He’s always been forward-thinking, and he’s again leading the way here. He is crafting his legacy with NYA, and although he is and has always been a stickler for sound quality, in the end he wants people to be able to hear the music he spent his life creating. And you can rail against it all you want, but all signs point to the fact that in the future, or maybe already in the now, if it doesn’t exist on the internet, it almost doesn’t exist. Does the Roxy album sound better on a record to my ears? Sure. Am I going to put the record on the record player every time I want to hear it? Not so far. It’s about 100 to 1. (And geez when did record sides get so short? I have to get up and flip the record again? WTF. See what I mean?)

Resisting the internet’s digital presentation of music is tilting at windmills. And for the record, accessing music on the internet does not preclude you from also listening to a record (see what I did there). They are not mutually exclusive, this is not a zero-sum game. There’s a time and a place for everything. But future generations literally will not be able to access this stuff if it is NOT online – this is the museum of the future. And I hope that true to form, Neil Young will break all museum rules and let us raise some hell in here.

Like, make playlists. Yes, purists and sticklers, I read the NYA FAQs which clearly state that personal playlists are not an option because “you have Spotify for that” and that we should think of NYA “as a library.” I hope they change their mind about that. Spotify doesn’t have all these tracks and a subscription-based site depends on the continued interest and attention of its subscribers to stay vibrant. A steady stream of new material helps that along, certainly, but you can’t underestimate the importance of capturing the imagination (and ego) of the subscriber: People want to interact with the material, to make that music their own, just the way they do in real life. (You need look no further than the oft-consulted and well-loved Neil Young fan site Sugar Mountain to see how this plays out. A site that has painstakingly and amazingly amassed a list of every single live show Neil Young has ever done, including set lists, has a little teensy tiny button somewhere at the top called “my sugarmtn” where users can easily compile their own list of shows attended. I bet if you asked the folks what the most popular feature on the site is it would be that, by a mile. I did. It is.)

People want to be part of, to sloppily paraphrase an iconic NY lyric. At a minimum, NYA might consider occasionally featuring playlists created by guest curators or even Neil himself – his current Song of the Day, where he posts a song that’s on his mind on any given day, is a current feature that thrills. A themed playlist from him would be too. (Although of course it’s impossible for him to hear his music as we do. But that’s another topic for another day.)

I hope that NYA will continue to do things that let us be “part of,” because that’s part of the intrinsic beauty of this thing – anything is possible. The mind reels with the possibilities. Podcasts! Maybe they’ll add podcasts. A window into the mind of the artist is a stunning use of the technology that exists and it’s something only the artist can give. Isn’t the art enough, you might be thinking. Sure it is, but a podcast with Neil pre or post show or studio would be amazing! And discussion forums. We’re talking about all this stuff in vibrant community pages on Facebook, why not bring that in-house, create your own private, loyal community?

And livestreams, which they have already done once, and brilliantly. I’ve still got chills from the NYA livestream of the opening show of the NYCH mini-tour in May; it was one of the best concerts I ever went to in my life and I wasn’t even there. I was watching from the East Coast in my bed in the middle of the night, chatting with some of my friends and fellow fans from around the world who were also watching, a conversation that consisted mainly of OMG and HOLY SHIT. And I hope that they add some permanent fixtures on the homepage that are only forward-looking – a permanent tour page, for one (one of the most exciting pages of his former website). Because no one wants this to just be about the past. And no one wants Neil Young to stop touring, like ever.

The real promise of the internet was and has always been convenience, access, and connection, and judging by the fact that the entire world is on their phone all the time, it’s got a foothold. (Ha.) What was never part of the promise or equation, but maybe should have been, was synthesis and curation of available information, elegance, intimacy, community. Where is the thoughtful, knowledgeable librarian, the over-educated but seriously enthusiastic museum curator, the sympathetic, low rumble of the late-night radio DJ? Where are these guiding forces and voices of our youth on today’s internet, where left to our own devices we fall into wormholes of meaningless drivel on Facebook for hours at a time and fritter away the only thing we really have – time?

Enter NYA, and ideally more sites like it in the future. Go wander around NYA while it’s still free, and see what I mean. And although Neil Young has said that parts of NYA will always be free, when subscriptions becomes available, secure a safe haven for yourself on the vast wasteland of the internet, and subscribe. Support the arts and the artists and populate the internet with that-which-is-real, and that-which-is-not-crap. It’s cheaper than your Starbucks habit and will do you, and the whole world, a whole lot more good.

And for all those of you out there who may be resisting the intersection of art and internet, don’t fret. Your subscription here won’t break the bank, and it won’t prevent Neil Young from releasing anything past, present, or future in traditional formats, if he chooses to do so, just the way revealing your past does not preclude you from creating a future.

Neil Young’s body of work lives, and will live on forever, on the information superhighway, and that’s a good thing. It bodes well for the future of the internet and its content, and for us. Music builds your reservoirs. It makes you more resilient to the push and slog of existence, keeping stores for you to draw on between the bright spots. And regardless of how many other formats you own, I’d be willing to bet that eventually you’ll use NYA the most. It’s a place you’re going to want to hang around, and breathe deep.

Neil has created an atmosphere on the NYA site that feels, well, like him. Just the way he does in his songs, his albums, his shows, there’s a distinct picture painted here, a vibe. Hang around long enough and you can almost see the flannel shirt hanging off the edge of a chair, the fringed leather jacket on a hook, or smell the crackling fire in the background of Will to Love (sigh.) The site somehow manages to be both comfortingly retro and thrillingly cutting-edge – just like the man himself.

In “Hitchhiker,” with vulnerable voice and relentless rhythm – you can just feel yourself pushing through with him – Neil sings: “When I was a hitchhiker on the road I had to count on you. I needed you to ease the load, and for conversation too.”

Well, now it’s our turn, Neil. We’re all just hitchhikers out here on this information superhighway, and we had to count on you. We needed you to ease the load, and for conversation, too. Thanks for singlehandedly making the Interwebz fun again. Sign me up! I call shotgun.

*In 1971 Paul Baran wrote a report titled “Toward a Study of Future Urban High-Capacity Telecommunications Systems,” which included a handbook of forecasts for what was then called “broadband telecommunication and information services,” or, as we know it today, the Internet. Here’s his list:


About Karen Barry Schwarz

Note: Karen Barry Schwarz is probably writing to you from the road, bleary-eyed and half deaf from last night's concert. Or maybe from the middle of a laundry pile somewhere in Connecticut. She likes writing more than housecleaning, and music more than anything.

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