These past few months, I've been doing a lot of reading and research about Neil Young for a book I'm writing about him due to be published next year. And I've been learning a whole lot about him — including a surprising amount of information for the first time.
Anyway, in conducting this research, and in reacquainting myself with Neil's amazing story, one thing has struck me above all else. Perhaps it is because of just who he is, or maybe just because he was in the right place at the right time, but as he was working his way up to become an iconic/legendary artist, Neil Young managed to find himself planted dead center in the middle of not one, but several locally based "scenes" that would go on to alter the course of popular music.
He was there in Canada — in Fort William and in Toronto, Ontario — when folk music and rock and roll began to coalesce itself into the hybrid sound that would eventually produce such influential artists as Joni Mitchell on the one hand and the Band on the other (not to mention Young himself).
He was there once again when the American West Coast began to similarly merge these sounds in the mid-'60s to produce the folk-rock boom which gave birth to the Byrds and to Young's own band with Stephen Stills, the Buffalo Springfield.
Neil Young was also there when this same sound evolved into the beautiful, trademark four-part harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — the country/folk-rock supergroup who provided the eventual blueprint for every West Coast country-rock band which would follow in their wake, from the Eagles and Poco on down through latter-day midwest acolytes like the Jayhawks and Wilco.
Anyway, this article is not so much about Neil Young per se, as it is about these geographically indigenous music communities themselves, as well as the many others which both preceded and followed them.
So the big questions here are these: first, how did a guy like Neil Young stumble into such preordained scenes in the first place (and was it actually by accident or, rather, by design), and second, are such localized, organically grown cultural movements even possible within the music landscape of today?
The short answer is, at least in the case of Neil Young, no! Absolutely none of these things happened by accident. Neil Young, in fact, played a major role in helping to shape the future of every movement in which he ever found himself involved.
As for lightning being able to strike twice, history proves that such is absolutely possible, but conditions have to be absolutely right.
From the early days of jazz, blues, and rock and roll to the more recent phenomenons of grunge and hip-hop, the single most unifying factors in such organically grown musical communities have not surprisingly also been the most common ones of satisfying a shared need based on the cultural, musical, and often political conditions of the times.
Here where I live in Seattle, for example, the early '90s grunge-rock movement was a product of everything from the archaic local liquor laws governing live music at the time to our own rather depressing gray and rainy weather — which has no doubt contributed to Seattle's high suicide rate, as well as our unique penchant for breeding serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary "The Green River Killer" Ridgeway.
Back in the late '80s, when local rock musicians found themselves locked out of playing cover tunes at local bars by short-sighted politicians, they instead took to rehearsal studios located in dingy, burned-out downtown warehouses and concentrated on making original music.
Since Seattle has always been at its core a "hard music" sort of town — from the Sonics and Hendrix to Metal Church and Queensryche and finally to Nirvana and Soundgarden — there was never any doubt a music movement out of Seattle wasn't going to be based, at least in part, on metal.
But there was also this uniquely sort of f-you, in-your-face, punk-rock attitude about it. And let's not forget that all that gray Seattle atmosphere can tend to make one's thoughts turn somewhat — well, shall we say, inward?
So this atmosphere of artistic regression eventually led to indie labels like Sub Pop and C/Z Records making homespun recordings, and as news began to spread by both word of mouth and in underground publications like The Rocket, makeshift venues like the all-ages OK Hotel began to promote their own live gigs.
The flannel and the rest of the '90s fashion bullshit was just a product of the natural Seattle environment. It's cold here, okay? The long, flailing, stringy hair likewise served to keep our rain-soaked ears warm. In other words, it was an accident.
Nonetheless, from Charles Peterson's groundbreaking concert photographs to Kurt Cobain's lyrics (which so perfectly captured the Seattle experience of isolation, depression, and natural youthful angst), a national movement was soon born.
Because it captured a need to express the national zeitgeist of its unique time — borne out of the first Bush era with all of the accompanying economic uncertainty, the first Gulf War, and the rest of the social divide that came along with it — as well as the need for '90s Seattle rock fans to emerge from their cubbyholes and just get out there and dance again.
Is that really so hard to understand?
The hip-hop movement which sprang out of New York right around the same time (okay, maybe it was a few years earlier), likewise came about by the same sort of fortunate accident.
In this case, street DJs threw impromptu parties in the parks during the dying days of late-'70s disco. As one DJ would mimic the art of disco mixmasters manipulating records on two turntables, another MC would rap freestyle rhymes over them into a microphone broadcast over a loudspeaker.
The difference here — in what is one of the most remarkable historical cases of such an organically driven musical movement (on record at least) — is the way the New York rap scene so quickly spread across the country and, initially at least, on mostly racial lines. This spawned numerous regional scenes — from the "Miami Bass" of the south coast, to the electro-funk and eventual "gangsta rap" of the west coast.
As the original innovators of the style, New York rappers took things one step further as they began to take on an increasingly strident, political tone (Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions) on the one hand, and incorporate harder rock and metal influences into the mix (Run-DMC, Beastie Boys) on the other.
This sort of organic, populist artistic movement in rock and roll has some of its earliest roots in the psychedelic movements some 35 years prior which sprang up simultaneously in San Francisco (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, etc.) and in London (Pink Floyd) during the mid-to-late '60s. Ditto for the punk-rock movements which burst out of New York (Ramones, New York Dolls) and London (Sex Pistols, The Clash) in the late '70s.
The common denominator in both of these examples is that each organic musical community began with a group of disenfranchised artists reacting to the artistic (and often sociopolitical) conditions of their time, who then banded together to form a uniquely organic community of like-minded outcasts and cultural misfits, ultimately growing to satisfy a much larger void in the general culture, thus forever impacting it.
Could such a thing even be possible now? Color me the eternal optimist, but despite the obstacles involved, I'd like to believe that the answer is yes.
The political and cultural conditions are certainly present. Pop music today exists in a vacuum like no other time since the pre-British Invasion days of white bread pop acts like Pat Boone and the other Fabian-styled teen idols of that particular era.
And thanks to the Internet the ability to zone in on a singularly directed movement with the ability to impact the larger culture has likewise become impossibly diluted. The corporate software executives running sites like MySpace would like you to think of it as some wild, wild west atmosphere when, in fact, it's nothing of the sort.
It's a lie.
While the wide-open atmosphere that such access has provided anyone who thinks that he/she/they can actually create meaningful music has afforded them — not to mention the ability to get it out there to the unguarded masses in a way like never before — the overall result is something more similar to an over-sized cyber junkyard.
Finding that rare diamond in the much-larger coalmine has become something more like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. So when was the last time you went searching for your lost wallet at the garbage dump?
You want to talk corporate rock? At least in the original, old-school music business model, the corporations we were talking about were Warner Brothers, Capitol, and Columbia Records. These days, your music is more likely to come through the delivery systems of folks like Microsoft, Google, Verizon, and Samsung — the same folks who are outsourcing your tech support questions about why your computer just froze to some guy in India.
You have to wonder — hip, pony-tailed IT geek-guy aside of course — just how many actual music guys are in that boardroom meeting come Monday morning?
The political and cultural conditions for the next great revolution in music, however, are as right as rain, right? Perhaps more now than ever. So, please, for the sake of humanity… let's just get on with it.
Step away from your computers, your iPods, and your cellphones. Get out of the house and learn to smell humanity again.
And while you're at it, if you are a musician, it's time to get on with creating the next big thing. If you are a listener or even an armchair critic, it's also time to get out there in the trenches and learn to dance again. The future of humanity hangs in the balance. Seriously.
For the sake of God, country, and the world, we are counting on you!
Vive La Révolution!