At the turn of the season he went for a walk on the beach. The day was like a washed-out watercolour. A sky about to rain glowered over the dark sutors of Cromarty. Oil derricks squatted in the firth. Sand blew in particulate streams. The wind at his back harassed him, urged him on. Autumn was hastening by, winter hard on its heels.
He had come to the beach to think, to massage his depressive mood into something of value. Beaches, he felt, possessed a Dali-esque spatiality, where conscious and unconscious, real and surreal, enacted a dialogue. Unlike Salvador Dali’s surrealistic tableaux, on the beach today there was nothing. Sand and sea and sky. Shells and stones and kelp. Driftwood and disinterred tree trunks. The stuff of life.
From this nothing something frequently slithered ashore and wormed its way into his brain. For a moment it was T.S. Eliot, who little over a century ago, had written: On Margate Sands / I can connect / nothing with nothing. Eliot, whose Prufrock and Other Observations and The Waste Land had triggered something within his sixteen-year-old self, a desire to observe the world and record its complexities and contradictions.
Earlier that day he had come across a quote by the German philosopher Frederic Nietzsche. Whenever I climb I am followed by a little dog called Ego. He couldn’t say for certain if Nietzsche had actually said that, as it wasn’t attributed to a particular text, but in The Gay Science Nietzsche had declared: I have given a name to my pain and call it ‘dog’: it is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog.
It was interesting that these two observations by Nietzsche conflated knowledge with pain. For this was how he felt when walking. Not the pain of walking, sore feet, blisters, aching limbs and the like, but the abiding sense that wherever he went by foot he took two little black dogs with him, Crippling Self-Doubt and The Persistence of Memory, yipping and nipping behind him with their sharp little teeth.
For Nietzsche, rationality and the will to power walked, or climbed, hand in hand. It was Ego that drove us to high altitudes to confront the Sublime; it was Ego that pushed humanity on its hubristic pursuits. Nietzsche was sceptical of the value of the Ego, treating it as a negating principle, something which could be manipulated by the powerful. Despair was a more useful motivating principle for the self.
This contrasted with the regulating and enabling function of the ego as conceived by the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In truth, he had only a passing familiarity with the work of the two men. He was a Freudian fraud, a negligible Nietzschean. At times he felt as though he ought to apologise for his intellectual limitations.
Nietzsche’s unholy trinity: self-knowledge, self-determination and self-delusion. Moments of madness and glimmers of possibility. The sprouting corpses of remembrance. And now, another line from The Waste Land: Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men / Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
Black dog. Black eyed dog. Hell hound on my tail.
Ego and ego. Upper and lower. Little and large. Consciousness as the precondition of knowledge and reasoning. Existential phenomenology. Cogito ego sum. Somewhere along the way the two had become confused, and ego had acquired a new meaning. Now ego simply meant arsehole.
On the beach he found a damaged golf ball among a crop of tatty stones. The weathered plastic coating had been partially gouged away, making visible the yellow core underneath. It resembled a perfectly-poached egg, the flaccid white revealing a spherical yolk; or the cross-sectional diagram of a planet from a child’s science book. He held it and considered it for a while, then dropped the ball onto his foot and kicked it over the sand.
Many years before he had played golf on a beach like this, the wide expanse of pale sand at Abersoch, in north Wales. He would have been ten- or eleven-years-old, with his uncle and younger cousin. Technically they weren’t playing golf but merely hitting balls up and down the empty beach, watching the wind play with their shots.
It was the same summer that he sat on a speedboat watching his uncle tinker with the outboard engine. It was particularly hot that day. The sky was almost entirely clear of cloud. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. His uncle was shirtless, his muscular torso bronzed by the sun. Neneh Cherry’s ‘Manchild’ was playing on the radio. Manchild / Will you ever win? / Manchild / Look at the state you’re in.
He had seen the video to ‘Manchild’ on the Chart Show. Neneh rapping on a virtual beach, flanked by her extended family, decrying the fecklessness of men. There was something alluringly exotic about her ethnicity and Swedish heritage, her turbo-charged sexuality and hip-hop feminism of her earlier single ‘Buffalo Stance’, which she performed on Top of the Pops while pregnant. By then he had begun to feel a nascent sensitivity to music as a tangible presence in life. While he didn’t want to make music himself, he wanted to immerse himself in it.
His uncle possessed a technical knowledge which even now remained alien to him. A lover of cars, speedboats and other machines that travelled at high speed, his uncle had spent much of his life up to that point dismantling things and putting them back together. Back when people still fixed things, long before built-in obsolescence and a culture of disposability became the contemporary mode.
That hour or so on the boat still held a peculiar clarity: the warmth of the blue nylon cushions under his bare legs, the feel of the fibreglass prow under his palm, the propeller with its becalmed menace, marvelling at the muscular frame of his uncle, the narcotic backbeat of ‘Manchild’ like a boat swaying on summer water. Past, present and future intertwined like the cord of a rope.
Later that week his uncle took the speedboat down to the beach and launched it on the water. Sitting at the stern, surrounded by his family, peering at the limitless horizon of the ocean. He loved the thrill of skimming over the water at high speed, the fizz of the bow as it cut through the rippled surface.
The next day, in more inclement weather, they went out on the boat to fish for mackerel. Rain hammered the canvas cover, and the anchored boat lurched from side to side on the choppy water. His grandmother, who couldn’t swim, asked to be taken in and he meekly went with her. They returned to her chalet, while his uncle and his family went back out to try again.
His uncle had a dog that liked to chew golf balls, a soft golden Labrador named Tizer. In homage, or so he believed, to the fizzy drink from Cumbernauld, which was the colour of a dehydrated person’s piss and tasted about as good as it looked. Tizer wasn’t remotely Tizer-coloured, but his coat bore enough of a resemblance for the name to have taken root in his uncle’s mind. Or perhaps it was just that his uncle really, really liked the drink.
The dog’s character was a fitting match for his uncle’s rebellious streak, his carefree and occasionally reckless attitude to existence. Tizer would ride around in the cab of his uncle’s van, sat bolt upright in the passenger seat with lolling tongue, or accompanying him to the pub, where his uncle would pour a beer into the dog’s bowl.
Tizer was a different beast to his parents’ dog, Wally, a lumbering, malevolent black Labrador who chewed his toys as an infant and bit him once when he pulled his ears. Wally, who with a school friend he hit on the backside with a tennis racquet so that the enraged dog would chase them into the safety of the apple trees in his back garden. Wally, who in his last days would clamber into his bed in the middle of the night and refuse to get out, growling when bidden to do so. Wally wasn’t a wally. He was something darker.
In his grandparents’ chalet at Abersoch he saw Tizer destroy an old golf ball in a matter of seconds, peeling back the dimpled plastic and chewing to smithereens the compressed bundle of rubber string that made up its inner core, the part which gave the ball weight and flight. After which Tizer slumped his head down onto his outstretched paws, his muzzle mussed with slobber and white plastic shards, and emitted a long, guttural groan.
He couldn’t remember Tizer being on the beach while they hit golf balls that damp day in July, but he was bound to have been out there somewhere, sniffing the salt air and scampering among the dunes, tail whipping the air like a propeller.
Some years after Tizer passed away, he encountered the dog’s doppelganger. Working for his father demolishing a small lean-to cottage at the derelict coach house which was to become their home, he was standing on the first floor when he heard a scuffling in the rooms below. When he looked down there was a golden Labrador determinedly clambering up the step ladder, tongue lolling, wide smile on its face.
The name tag on his collar said ‘Scampi’. There was a contact number, but back then he didn’t have a mobile phone, nor any change for a public telephone. So instead Scampi spent close to an hour with him on the cottage while he continued to demolish its walls. When it came time to pack up and leave he had to carry the dog back down. Once back on terra firma, Scampi slinked off.
Another time he was working indoors when the dog scampered in, hustling around his legs for a fuss. This time the farmer tracked him down and came to retrieve him. Like Tizer his name matched his personality: the colour of a crustacean deep-fried in breadcrumbs; a farm dog who frequently went walkabout, usually drawn by the scent of a female dog in heat - in his nature a scamp.
He walked up the beach, kicking the golf ball in front of him with the toe of his shoe. Last summer he’d walked his in-laws’ black Labrador up and down the same stretch of beach, kicking a tennis ball ahead of him in much the same way as he was doing now, toe-poking it as hard as possible, while the dog, Gracie, tried to catch the ball in her mouth as it left his foot, her nose coated in crumbs of sand.
He and his wife were dog-sitting while his wife’s parents were on holiday. Gracie was an unsettled, if not unwelcome, guest who spent each night pacing the wooden floors. As they lay in bed they could hear Gracie groaning in the kitchen. Six months later she stopped eating and, after the vet identified a blockage in her gut, was put to sleep by his in laws with scant deliberation. A few days later he visited their home and found the house colder, emptier, and his wife’s parent’s grief-stricken.
The presence and absence of dogs. Our relation to them governed not by rationality, but emotion, our ownership an expression of self-worth. Loyal, faithful and affectionate, they took over the lives of their owners, who in turn anthropomorphised their behaviour and treated them like children.
Those who sought to own dogs were every bit as dumb as the beasts they revered. The death of a much-loved dog was never less than traumatic, usually characterised by a sudden physical collapse followed by a trip to the vet’s for the inevitable needle. It almost always left a profound emptiness in their owners’ lives.
For all their apparent domestication, dogs were scavengers who will eat unattended food given half the chance. They remorselessly annihilated prized possessions, deposited their hair everywhere and always ensured an audience when their owner bent to pick up their shit. To observe a dog one was to become aware of its inherent stupidity.
In recent years, their supposed social intelligence had stimulated several pseudo-scientific investigations into the canine psyche. A Dog’s Purpose. The Genius of Dogs. How Dogs Love Us. At the Other End of the Leash. After his beloved golden Labrador died, John Grogan, then a journalist, recounted his life with his destructive pet in a bestselling autobiography, Marley and Me, later made into a Hollywood movie, a tearjerker starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston released in 2008, and an series of children’s books, following in the footprints of Spot, Shiloh, Old Yeller, What-a-mess, Kipper, Hairy McClarey and countless others.
He could hardly blame Grogan. It was a license to print money, one which had its roots in antiquity. Aesthetic representations of dogs were traceable to prehistoric times. Grogan’s cave dwelling ancestors first sketched dog-like figures onto the walls of their dank caves, while Grecian and Roman potters studded their ceramics with canine imagery. As a dog’s purpose changed from hunter’s retriever to companionable pet, so their presence in paintings, especially portraits, proliferated.
The Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt’s ironic street snaps of dogs and their owners catalogued the enduring strength of this bond, while William Wegman’s colour portraits of Weinaramas were to fine art what the incarnations of Marley and Me were to high literature and the golden age of celluloid. C.M. Coolidge’s anthropomorphised dogs playing cards, which borrowed scenes from Caravaggio and Paul Cezanne, were infinitely more interesting than Mr Wegman’s hang-dog subjects.
Books about dogs and films about dogs and paintings of dogs and photographs of dogs and sculptures of dogs and, less frequently, TV programmes about dogs. Watching episodes of The Littlest Hobo as a child had taught him valuable lessons about solitude and sorrow. Even today, the first bars of the theme tune triggered a wave of emotion that he could not bear.
Sometimes it paid to keep it simple. Perhaps he should write more about dogs. Take more photographs of dogs. Try his hand at painting them.
Some years after the death of their first black Labrador, his parents had acquired another. Meg was quite different to Wally. Smaller, less aggressive, more affectionate. Home from university, he had gone with his mother to collect Meg from a farm not far from their home. When they arrived the breeder led them to a small shed in the yard. A welter of small cries emanated from inside, and when she opened the door it was full of Labrador puppies tumbling over one another to get to the door. The breeder handed one his mother, and she passed it to him. As he cradled the puppy in his arms he thought, This must be how it feels to become a father.
After university, when he was back living with his parents, directionless, rootless and restless, Meg became his closest companion. In the morning he would wake to the sound of her paws scratching the floorboards on the landing, followed by a sniffing at the gap between the floor and the door. In those days of doing nothing while figuring out what to do, while his parents worked they took long walks through the fields of Brereton, him stoned or ruminating, her springing along the path up ahead. Come the evening, she would sit with him as he got high and listened to music in his room. After he left home, his mother would sometimes find Meg lying on his bed.
She became a different kind of dog after he left, mollycoddled and neurotic, spoilt with scraps from the table, welcomed on the furniture. He was partly to blame for this, teasing her when she had phantom pregnancies, bothering her with the hoover. His mother, frequently depressive and antisocial, used the dog as a reason to avoid human contact, addressing her as one would an infant in the presence of their friends.
After his mother’s brain tumour diagnosis the dog became increasingly prone to tremors and fits. His parents, fearful of the passing of their beloved pet, allowed her condition to worsen. He visited frequently that year and often felt that her decline mirrored that of his mother. The nadir came when, one evening over dinner, the aged dog began to defecate in the kitchen and his mother chased after her with a sheet of kitchen roll pressed against the dog’s anus. Not long after that the dog refused to leave her bed and his parents took her on that final journey to the vet.
With his father he’d taken Meg to the beach once, on another wide expanse of sand just outside Rhyl. He remembers little of their conversation. Possibly they walked and talked about his aspirations and future plans. Perhaps they didn’t speak at all. He remembered that the dog, off her lead, ran to a family eating their lunch and scared their little girl. The father told his father to keep the dog on his lead. He’d never seen her as a danger before then. Dog people never do.
On the beach that day, he had taken some photographs with the old Canon camera his father no longer used. A picture of his father walking ahead with the dog on her lead at heel. A tyre half buried in the sand. Months earlier he’d found a folder containing black and white prints his father had developed some twenty years prior. Portraits of his parents and their friends from before he was born, several of him as a newborn and a pack of small black Labradors, looking plaintively at the camera.
Now he thought of another dog, the enigmatic canine in the foreground on the cover of the Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young’s second album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. He was unsure of the breed of the dog, but by process of elimination narrowed it down to the American white shepherd. Young had named the dog Winnipeg after the town in Manitoba where he and his mother relocated after his parents separated. The dog featured in several photographs of Young from the late 60s and early 70s, mostly taken by Henry Diltz at Young’s Broken Arrow ranch in California.
The grain of the film used gives the album cover the appearance of a pointillist painting, raw and unpolished like the music inside, and is to all intents and purposes a portrait of an English country squire learning against a tree, with his faithful retriever at his side, and the peaks and valleys of Topanga Canyon, Young’s then-home, in the background.
Searching on the internet, he came across a number of photographs of Young with dogs, not all taken by Diltz, which serve to underscore his lonesome hippy-boy persona. Here were career-spanning photographs of Young hugger mugger with some hound or other. This even extended to the taxidermised hunting dog in the foreground of the sepia-hued band portrait of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 album Déjà-Vu.
The most recent photo he had seen was taken from the rear of his Hitchhiker album, released a couple of years earlier. The photo dated from 1976 and showed Young walking up a beach, sun just about to dip under the horizon, his narrow frame as slim as his shadow. A few strides ahead of him, yet another nameless dog loped in the surf.
He had come across Young’s rangy, scrawny music by accident one day, when idly flicking through his parents’ CD collection, a selection as uninspired as it was sparse. Among the Paul Simon, Tears for Fears and Steely Dan albums there was Young’s Harvest, his best-selling, most enduring and, some might say, most endearing album from 1972.
Later he learned that his father was a fan of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, though without any actual commitment to having acquired the ensembles records. Tellingly, his parents also owned a copy of America’s Greatest Hits, the band whose sound was so indebted to Harvest-era Young they sounded like a tribute act.
The more he found out about Young, the more of his music he listened to, the more he grew to like him, the more his obsession grew. Young was a loner, first and foremost, one fundamentally committed to his craft and his vision, his individualism. Sometimes he burned those closest to him, but still they respected him for it, for following the Muse at the expense of personal relationships. He possessed a steely determination, a will-to-power, that was positively Nietzschean. Nietzsche Young.
Harvest, with its delicate country arrangements, keening earnestness and languorous air, was the most common entry-point to the work of the Canadian troubadour. Anyone with a passing interest in rock music was familiar with the opening bars to his sole number one hit, ‘Heart of Gold’, with its chugging acoustic guitar and wailing harmonica; the finger-picked intro and rinky-dink banjo licks of ‘Old Man’, which also charted in 1972; or, less likely, the lonesome cowboy sway of title track ‘Harvest’. Music with a mellow gold hue. Music for when you felt like getting high.
‘Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road’, Young remarked a few years later. ‘Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.’ The three records that followed Harvest (Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach), which became known as ‘the Ditch Trilogy’, comprise one of the most determinedly iconoclastic and idiosyncratic artistic statements in rock music. The ‘Ditch trilogy’ saw Young jettison the woody, country-rock ambience of Harvest for a more ragged, under-rehearsed and authentic sound that documented Young’s growing disillusionment. Years later Young would describe that period:
I guess at that point I'd attained a lot of fame and everything that you dream about when you're a teenager. I was still only 23 or 24, and I realised I had a long way to go and this wasn't going to be the most satisfying thing, just sittin' around basking in the glory of having a hit record. It's really a very shallow experience, it's actually a very empty experience. It's nothing concrete except ego-gratification, which is an extremely unnerving kind of feeling. So I think subconsciously I set out to destroy that and rip it down, before it surrounded me.
Darkness had overtaken the Young camp. On the eve of a sixty-two-date arena tour tour to promote Harvest, Young had dismissed his soul brother Danny Whitten, Crazy Horse’s heroin-addicted songwriter and lead guitarist, out of frustration with Whitten’s inability to stay clean, learn the Harvest songs and gel with the touring band. Despondent at his dismissal, Whitten overdosed that night.
The subsequent tour was a disaster, with arguments over money and Young’s isolation from his bandmates. After experiencing a torrid time at the hands of the perfectionist and mercurial Young during the Harvest sessions, Nashville session drummer Kenny Buttrey quit mid-tour (having first instigating the free-for-all over salaries which had peeved Young). Audiences favouring the downbeat mood of Harvest didn’t respond well to the new electrified songs of the touring band, while Young found himself reduced to little more than ‘a dot in the distance’ for the booze-soaked and quaalude-crazed crowds.
Like a trampled ticket stub, Time Fades Away offers a scrappy document of the calamitous tour. The album cover comprises a photograph of a vast, nameless arena. A bilious grey-green cloud hangs over the crowd, obscuring the rear balcony. Among the score of definable faces visible in the foreground, a bearded young man flashes the peace sign for the camera. At the front of the stage, a single red rose lies bleeding.
The centrepiece of the album was the song ‘Don’t Be Denied’, an ironic reflection on identity formation, which Young wrote the day he learned of Whitten’s death. A hollow laugh of a song, the ambivalent lyrics traced the painful experiences of Young’s childhood and adolescence: his parent’s separation, his relocation to Winnipeg, being beaten up at school, moving to LA. Suffering lead to success, to paraphrase Nietzsche. The sentiment of Young’s song is closer to that of Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of the will-to-live, the purest survival instinct which drives all organisms to self-preservation.
The will-to-live. How often he thought of moments in his own life which may once have shown an artist coming into being. Those years of endlessly writing, serving an apprenticeship of sorts, but for the want of a scrap of Young’s songwriting chops, dry charisma, dark mystique, his remorseless drive and dogged determination. He was too easily given to giving up, of accepting failure as the natural order of things. His suffering wasn’t Nietzschean enough.
Dissatisfied with the tour and the album, which was released to critical and commercial indifference, Young prevented his label from re-releasing Time Fades Away. Back in Los Angeles, he reconvened with a composite band of surviving members of Crazy Horse and The Stray Gators, in addition to young protege Nils Lofgren, for a series of debauched and drunken recording sessions which mined the collective grief at the deaths of Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. The resultant album, Tonight’s the Night, was so far removed from the plodding, lovelorn pondering of Harvest that it seemed specifically designed to alienate Young’s fans. His manager, Elliott Roberts, begged him not to release it, and his label baulked.
The release of Tonight’s the Night was temporarily shelved while Young, ever the contrarian, now toured the unreleased album, confounding and alienating scores of Harvest-adoring acolytes by bombarding them with the rawest, darkest music he’d recorded, before returning to the studio to record the final cathartic part of the ditch trilogy, On the Beach.
With the release of Tonight’s the Night indefinitely paused, another series of debauched recording sessions followed in early 1974. This time the ebullient presence of fiddle player Rusty Kershaw brought new impetus to the recording process. Kershaw was anarchic and outspoken during the sessions, terrorising and mocking CSNY superstars Stephen Stills and David Crosby during their visits to the studio. Meanwhile a marijuana concoction cooked up by Kershaw’s wife Julie, dubbed ‘honey slides’, debilitated the musicians and slowed the album’s pace to that of a narcotised crawl.
On the Beach was located deep in the emotional privations and psychic turmoil of the Seventies, that decadent, self-centred decade when the collective aspirations of the previous one had been buried under the impact of political disturbances. The messy end to the Vietnam War. Watergate rumbling on. Los Angeles had been further spooked by the murders committed by Charlie Manson and his Family members. Young had known Manson from his Topanga Canyon days, later reflecting with typical understatement that the songwriter-turned-cult leader ‘didn’t handle rejection well’. Young’s marriage to the actor Carrie Snodgress was in terminal decline. The loss of Whitten continued to gnaw away at him.
Save for opener ‘Walk On’ the songs are weighed down by sorrow and loss. Young’s lyrics, frequently spare, are simplistic to the point of banality, yet unflinchingly spare and direct. Specific events and interpersonal issues are unpicked and rewoven: the disastrous Harvest tour, the implosion of CSNY, the Manson murders, his marriage to Carrie, Nixon’s lies.
It was the wearied desolation of On The Beach that followed him over the sand that afternoon, the same lyrics recurring in alternative arrangements. There was something more abject in the grizzled persona of this Young than the lonely boy out on the weekend at the decade’s inception. Young’s music, which up to that point had been elegaic in its marriage of American mythology with the counter-cultural considerations was more circumspect, more entropic. On the Beach had a retrospective quality, a critically self-assessing eye, a composite portrait of the self in flux.
The world is turnin’ / I hope it don’t turn away. // Though your confidence may be shattered / it doesn’t matter. // I’m deep inside myself but I’ll get out somehow. // Though my problems are meaningless / that don’t make them go away. // I need a crowd of people / But I can’t face them day to day. // Some are bound for happiness / Some are bound to glory / Some are bound for emptiness / Who can tell their story?
Young was twenty-eight years old when he made On the Beach, a culmination of three records of such bleakness many critics at the time worried about his state of mind. Now it was widely considered to be the high-water mark of his career. Success for Young came early, fast and hard. He’d first tasted it with Buffalo Springfield when he was barely twenty-one. Small wonder that he felt washed up. But Young was lucky. He’d come out on the other side, largely unscathed. Others from that time hadn’t been so fortunate.
Despite the album’s subdued bleakness, One the Beach was possessed of a quietly restorative beauty, most evident in the consoling strains of the interweaving harmonica and fiddle on ‘Ambulance Blues’. The song, much like ‘Don’t Be Denied’, offered another journey through the past, one spiritually redeeming and restorative for the musician:
I think I’ll call it sickness gone / Its hard to say the meaning of this song / An ambulance can only go so fast / Its easy to get buried in the past / When you try to make a good thing last.
On the album cover the de-saturated, honeyed yellows of the surrealistic totems assembled on the beach - a parasol, two folding chairs, Young clad in jacket and slacks, the fin of a buried Cadillac - were counter-posed with the bleached out sand and sky, the grey sliver of water. His back to the camera, Young faced the ocean, the worries of the world and the vicissitudes of success behind him. He was watching the water, looking out on a vast emptiness, with one eye turned inward, connecting nothing with nothing, and recording everything.
I was pretty down I guess at the time, but I just did what I wanted to do, at that time. I think if everybody looks back at their own lives they'll realise that they went through something like that. There's periods of depression, periods of elation, optimism and scepticism, the whole thing is.... it just keeps coming in waves.
You go down to the beach and watch the same thing, just imagine every wave is a different set of emotions coming in. Just keep coming. As long as you don't ignore it, it'll still be there. If you start shutting yourself off and not letting yourself live through the things that are coming through you, I think that's when people start getting old really fast, that's when they really age. 'Cause they decide that, they're happy to be what they were at a certain time in their lives when they were the happiest, and they say 'that's where I'm gonna be for the rest of my life'. From that minute on they're dead, y'know, just walking around.
By the early 80s, after a brief fraternisation with punk and postpunk, and before he’d been rediscovered by the grunge fraternity, Young was truly washed up. In 1985, at the age of forty, he released a country album called Old Ways. The album was his third for Geffen Records, his new label who had the misfortune of signing Young when his career lapsed into irrelevance and near-invisibility. Old Ways was the first release after being sued by Geffen for making music that did not sound like Neil Young. If the Ditch Trilogy marked Young’s first deliberate push against the weight of expectation, it still sounded indisputably like music that Neil Young would, or should, make. The same could not be said for the albums that followed in the early 80s: Re-Actor, Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’, Old Ways and another, less successful collaboration with Crazy Horse, Landing on Water.
Old Ways saw him ploughing his own lonely furrow, walking a familiar, well-trodden path of polished country rock. All his drive and youthful hunger had finally yielded to middle-aged self-satisfaction. Its hard to teach a dinosaur new tricks, he crooned on the title track with a C&W twang. On the songs, and on the album cover, he resembled a man about to enter his dotage, walking a curving path up through a green pasture. Strangely, there is no dog accompanying him. The album was a critical and commercial failure, the music videos for the two singles taken from the album shunned by MTV. But by then Young had little left to prove. He’d already done what he needed to do, had the luxury of a successful career to look back on. Everything else was just a walk in the park. A day on the beach.