If you thought that Neil Young was turning into a cranky old coot, his new album, “Greendale,” is proof that he already is one. There are many who think he was cranky as far back as 1969, when he shot his baby down by the river. And in one of his two (count ’em!) hit singles, he identifies fully with an “Old Man” (“I’m a lot like you”). Young embodies the paradox of the hippie misanthrope better than any singer-songwriter: No matter how much he yearns for love and peace, resentment and paranoia are always standing in the wings to bring him down.
Young has never been shy about expressing his politics, but since 1980 those politics have become increasingly woolly. People who applauded the anti-imperialism of “Cortez the Killer” scratched their heads at the barely concealed Reaganism of “Hawks and Doves.” He’s also a paradox in other ways. Though he sometimes gives the impression of being a Luddite (he only recently allowed three of his late ’70s and early ’80s records to be released on CD, a format he still doesn’t like) he once made a techno album, and seems fairly comfortable with the Internet.
Though “Greendale” is mostly allegorical, its social idealism is crystal clear. Like Grandpa Green, the closest thing to a protagonist in the story, Young wants to sit on his front porch and rail about the world. Crankiness can be liberating, but it doesn’t demand logic. “How can all these people afford so many things,” Grandpa complains. “When I was young, people wore what they had on.” In any case, Grandpa isn’t a rock star. Young says the album came out of his contempt for the policies of the present Bush administration. His targets are monoliths. The most obvious object of contempt is the media, but his anger has room for all the usual ’60s nemeses, except maybe the military, whose role in the story is neutral (many of the characters served).
Young brought “Greendale” to Budokan on Nov. 14, complete with stage sets, back-projected videos and a cast of dozens who lip-synced the lyrics as Young sang them live with his band, Crazy Horse. “Greendale” is Young’s most straightforward album since “Ragged Glory” (1990), which also alternated songs of love-and-peace with cranky rants while kicking up a sonic ruckus. The main difference is that with “Greendale” Young put more effort into the nonmusical components. The CD booklet includes a long, seemingly dictated essay that apologizes for the album’s excess while at the same time reveling in it (“Who cares what chapter this is . . . only you people on the Internet . . . “), and special editions include a DVD with all the same songs performed live and acoustic. At Budokan, playbills were distributed outlining the characters in detail, though most of these characters don’t appear on stage. The Web site is even more complicated. And there’s a movie, too.
Young described the action between numbers. All this explication might be necessary if “Greendale” were a Tolstoy novel, but it’s a simple tale told simply. The production had a deliberately amateurish feel to it, like an earnest high-school play: The actors are family and friends. As a CD, the 78-minute work, comprising 10 songs, is perhaps too drawn out; and with all this didacticism and dramaturgy, the songs felt overloaded.
Grandpa Green, whose old-fashioned bedrock American values are presented as honorable and worthy of preserving, is the voice of conscience for Greendale, a fictional town situated between the sea and the mountains in Northern California. The several generations of Greens who populate the tale include a Vietnam War veteran, a retired singer, a disillusioned sea captain and a teenage performance artist. The central event is a killing of a cop that brings the media in full force to Grandpa’s house, where the old guy tries to drive them off with a shotgun (“It ain’t an honor to be on TV, and it ain’t a duty either”). The epiphanic climax involves a young girl escaping the town and heading for Alaska, where she will make a last stand against those who are destroying Mother Earth.
Throughout, Young mixes hippie bromides with cranky conservative claptrap. “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” he sings in “Devil’s Sidewalk,” and immediately cites the source: “John Lennon said that — and I believe in love.” However, the next line sounds more Rumsfeld than Lennon: “And I believe in action, when push comes to shove.”
Young constantly reminds the listener that all this stuff exists only in his head. “Seems like that guy singin’ this song been doin’ it for a long time,” Grandpa observes at one point. “Is there anything he knows that he hasn’t said?” That, in fact, seems to be the point of the stage production: to cover all the things that Young wants to talk about but didn’t include in the songs. The doomed cop, Officer Carmichael, hides behind a billboard to catch speeders. But only attending a concert do you realize that the billboard is paid for by American radio cartel Clear Channel and announces to all that pass it, “Support Our War.”
It’s doubtful that Young supports the invasion of Iraq (though one can’t be 100 percent sure), but he wouldn’t put down people who might. Monoliths like Clear Channel are one thing, individuals are another. He saves his tenderest observations for Earl Green, who paints “psychedelic pictures” to blot out his memories of Vietnam. In the only acoustic number of the evening, “Bandit,” Young, letting the bass string on his guitar vibrate uncontrollably, as if it were Earl’s wobbly psyche, prizes the man’s troubled mind sotto voce, until the chorus, when the unmistakable Young falsetto intones reassuringly, “Someday, you’ll find everything you’re looking for.”
It was the only song in the “Greendale” show that prompted a standing ovation, partly because it’s a beautiful song, but mainly because the audience prefers Young in this uncranky mode. In the ’70s, before he became the proto-grunge legend, Young’s main suit as a rock personality was his vulnerability. Love and mythology were his obsessions. “After the Gold Rush,” his best collection of songs, is mostly ballads, an outgrowth of the abstract “Helpless,” which he wrote and sang with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Until he embraced punk on “Rust Never Sleeps” he worked this vulnerable side skillfully and honestly. Once he bought the rock nihilism line (“it’s better to burn out than fade away”) the crankiness settled over him like a shroud.
This paradox — the love-obsessed romantic who turned into a sour defender of individuality — reached fullness on “Be the Rain,” the closing number, in which he combined mystical entreaties (“be the ocean when it meets the sky”) and full-blown crank (“Greek freighters are dumping crap somewhere right now”) while a horde of young Japanese hip-hoppers joined the entire cast for one last dance. It looked more like an audition for a production of “Fame.” Neil Young isn’t, and never has been, a “We Are the World” type of artist. Whether you’re a hopeless romantic or a crank, you’re always alone.
After a break, the sets were covered with cloth and Young and Crazy Horse came out and played five songs for the next one hour. The audience had put up with the “Greendale” epic because they interpreted the crankiness as artistic vision, and while they clearly enjoyed it they preferred Neil in the raw. They wanted that famous knot of musicians on the stage — Young, Billy Talbot, and Frank Sampedro (the Incredible Hulk of rhythm guitarists) huddled in front of Ralph Molina’s drum set like a clenched fist.
There aren’t many musicians of Young’s age or stature who can do so much with so little. “Hey Hey, My My,” the song that liberated him from his vulnerable image, is rawer than most punk songs. Those coarse, atonal bar chords scrape the wax from your ears as he goes on about Johnny Rotten, a person whose relevance 25 years after the fact is historical, while Young’s is still immediate. Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” hewed closer to the Hendrix rendition, and he drew out the solo for the express purpose of delaying the climactic line — “the wind began to howl” — for full dramatic effect. Who needs props and actors?
But it was “Powderfinger” that set the entirety of “Greendale” on its butt. As a story-song, it’s close to perfect: terse, idiomatic, fueled by feelings rather than convictions. The languid beauty of the signature guitar line that comes at the end of every verse describes Young’s passion for total freedom better than anything else he’s done, even though in the song that freedom is embodied by a 22-year-old mountain kid who is about to take on the authorities with only a rifle and the realization “that I was left here to do all the thinkin’.”
Freedom is Young’s obsession — he even used it as the title of an album. “Keep on rockin’ in the free world,” he sang in the last song of the evening, and whatever his political views about the primacy of individual freedom, he expressed it best in those long, tortured, very loud solos, which were totally free and felt, unmediated by thought. It’s axiomatic that as people get older they believe they have more of a right to express their opinion, and “Greendale” is mostly the sound of a cranky old coot sitting on the porch complaining about the world. But that coot sure can play guitar.