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.