Monday, October 19, 2009

Neil Young - Re-Ac-Tor (1981)

Moving is a pain in the ass. I'll just go ahead and say that. Just sleep on a mat, wash the same outfit every night - and who needs technology? Right?

Guess it's a necessary evil if you want to be able to see the world.

After EIGHT WEEKS without my computer, which I was putting music from home onto right until the morning I left for New York, it finally came in the mail. Of course, six of those weeks were spent in a setting where I couldn't exactly unpack. I had promised to write a review of a bad album, but I couldn't resist this. The tunes from this album were stuck in my head for me to ignore the need to do it, so here it goes - the 1981 album Re-Ac-Tor by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

This album is held in fairly low regard, I've noticed. It isn't as controversial and divisive as Trans (1982), Everybody's Rockin' (1983), or Old Ways (1985), nor is it as hated as Landing On Water (1986) or Life (1987), but all across the board - at least in my experience in reading reviews of the album - it seems like a low-tier Neil Young album, like The Rolling Stones' Black And Blue or any post-1975 solo Beatles album...inconsequential and "just kinda there."

At, Re-Ac-Tor has a rating of two stars, the lowest score awarded to any of his records, and tied for such a distinction with Trans, Everybody's Rockin', Landing On Water, Arc (which is a 35-minute sonic experiment of song fragments, feedback, and the guys in Crazy Horse tuning up - naturally, the mainstream critics hate it and I think it's wonderful), and the 2002 album Are You Passionate?. Not even the real shit-storm records (American Stars & Bars, Hawks & Doves) are that low, each garnering a three-star rating.

Then again, the overrated and overproduced Harvest, the best-selling album of 1972, is given FOUR AND A HALF STARS. For real.

And yet I think this treatment of Reactor (I know the title is hyphenated, but for ease of typing I'll just type it out like a normal word) is unfair. Maybe it's because the reviews had my expectations so damn low that I didn't know what to expect other than 40 minutes of ass-crap. My affection for the record was probably also boosted because I had listened to it alongside Hawks & Doves (1980), which like American Stars & Bars (1977) before it had a good side and a bad side. While the a-side of Stars & Bars featured Nashville-ready country music - not really my thing, but I can listen to it in the right mood - that I consider inferior to its flipside (which includes the majestic yet raucous masterpiece "Like A Hurricane," which I consider one of the best songs ever), the a-side of Hawks & Doves features some wonderful, gentle acoustic Neil.

It wouldn't classify as folk or country, just "acoustic." Those songs are gorgeous, and for my money he does some of the best singing of his career on songs like "Little Wing" (no relation to the Jimi Hendrix tune of the same name) and "The Old Homestead." But then comes the b-side, which features the hokiest crap passed off as country music since...well, I don't know since I'm not a country buff. Still, it's awful. When it isn't cheesy ("Stayin' Power," "Coastline") or head-scratchingly odd ("Union Man"), it features our hero espousing some pretty blatant jingoistic praise towards the United States.

Nothing wrong with celebrating life in the land of the First Amendment (though even that has been taken away from us...thanks, Dubya!), but this is the guy who wrote "Ohio." The guy who wrote "Southern Man." And not only that, the songs themselves are...just...bad. "Boy, this country sure looks good to me!" - That's bad writing, friends. He could have been taking a piss on the Reagan administration (he didn't - he liked the bastard) and I would have thought that was a bad lyric.

So back-to-back, I have an album that starts off really well, I thought, only to go right down the tubes in its latter half, followed by this album, Reactor. How did it stack up?

Read on.
01. Opera Star [10]
Maybe I was expecting some truly bad 80's rock (not naming names...), but when this came on, I cranked it the Hell up! The song kicks off with a catchy riff, and Neil rattles off the first verse like it's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Too Much Monkey Business," with a string of lyrics about a jilted lover. Those "whoo-whoo" backing vocals remind me of "Sympathy For The Devil," one of the innumerable factors leading to my dad hate-hate-HATING what I consider one of The Rolling Stones' best moments.

Just listen to the band, and you'll hear guitar tones that we'd first met on Rust Never Sleeps, which I love. This album greets you like an old friend. It wasn't just the contrapuntal experience of hearing rightist jingo country back-to-back with this neanderthal rock. I've re-listened to Reactor several times, and "Opera Star" is fist-pumping rock, with Crazy Horse living up to the equine connotations by charging out like a race is on.

This song also confirmed what I suspected since I first heard Rust, and that is that Neil had to have heard Cheap Trick during this period. Had to. Between the driving tempo, the singing, the guitars, and the comical "ha-ha-HA, ha-HA!" at the end of every verse, he's rocking that same combination of rock and roll delivered with a knowing smirk rather than a pretentious sneer.

"So your girlfriend slammed the door shut in your face tonight, but that's all right
Then she took off to the opera with some highbrow from the city lights.
Well, you grew up on the corner, you never missed a moonlit night.

Some things never change,
They stay the way they are

(Ha-ha-HA, ha-HA [ho-ho-ho])

You were born to rock, you'll never be an opera star!

That's the first verse and the chorus. I detect a bit of self-mockery. Just a few months back I read a guitar magazine where Neil talked about his playing and said something to the effect of how he plays with intensity and passion, only to add, "But I suck. I've heard myself!" He has a very wry sense of humor, and it's no more obvious to me than it is on this song, where the rock 'n' roller gets ditched for some opera-going schmuck. The idea of low art versus high art is something that belies serious discussions of rock and roll (or for that matter, in many circles still, popular culture studies in general), that "It's only rock and roll" or "It's only jukebox music" (these Kink references come left and right when I'm talking about anyone but The Kinks!). To avoid a blog post-derailing tangent, let me just say that thought is pure nonsense.

The sustained notes coming from the synthesizer - and again, not an intrusively obnoxious brassy synth that one would expect on an 80's album - are in a string voice. Maybe it's the Stringman synth we first heard on "Like A Hurricane." Still, it reminds me of some Sleepwalker-era Kinks (they were probably not the first, but it's the memory I associate with that tone).

Oh, and he says "fuck" in the second verse, making references to "gettin' fucked up in that rock 'n' roll bar / And you never get tired 'cause all your drugs are in a little jar." He later did a song called "Fuckin' Up" on Ragged Glory (1990), but it caught me off-guard in the best possible way. I'm not endorsing booze and drugs as a way of life, and even with Neil - who makes drug references in this song and the next - he's got a stance against "hard drugs" (see "The Needle And The Damage Done" and all of his so-called "Ditch Trilogy") while still advocating marijuana use. McCartney has the same position. Still, it's shocking to hear Neil mention drugs without talking about someone dying "out on the mainline" or how he "watched the needle take another man." Then comes that great guitar solo, heralded by Neil's declaration "I was born to rock!", showing Neil favoring the flannel/t-shirt/holey jeans image on this disc, rather than the tasseled-jacket and cowboy hat-donning bard of his softer modes.

One of the best opening tracks ever. It's defiant, it's mildly profane, and it's fun. I'm still really weird about live albums, even if Rust Never Sleeps was originally live but heavily overdubbed (or, in the case of some of the side A tracks, leftovers from the aborted Homegrown album or 1978's Comes A Time). For me, this is the first time we've heard from Crazy Horse in the studio since "Like A Hurricane," and even that was recorded two years before it was put out - a candidate for Homegrown and possibly Zuma (1975).

02. Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze [9]
This song keeps a fun, this-album-should-be-played-at-parties vibe going. The chorus beckons us to join Neil and the Horse "for a pleasure cruise / Plenty of women and plenty of booze." Though there's little significance to the nomenclature, it's allegedly a playful ribbing of Reprise honchos Joe Smith and Mo Ostin. Of all the songs on the album, this one, "Southern Pacific," and "Shots" are largely praised as the ones worth a damn. Alexis Petridis, in his entry on Neil in the Kill Your Idols series, blasts the rest of the album in favor of this song.

Maybe it's the guitar solo.

The reason this song, as much as I enjoy it, merited a 9 rather than a 10 is because it borrows a little too much from two other, distinct songs: "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival in a quick blast before the first verse and, surprisingly, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by The Beatles during the verses and solo, with that minor-key descending pattern ringing just a little too familiar. But it's too damn fun for me to demerit it to anything below a 9.

03. T-Bone [10]
"The night we recorded that we didn't have anything else happening [...] I just made up the lyrics and we did the whole thing that night. It was a one-take thing. It seems the lyrics were just on my mind. It's very repetitive but I'm not such an inventive guy. I thought those two lines were good." -- Neil Young

The two lines, that make up the entire lyric for this sprawling 9-minute, 15-second jam?

"Got mashed potato, ain't got no t-bone!"

I wish I was making this up. Neil considers this his favorite off the album, not unlike his favoring of "Union Man" off Hawks & Doves. The more I learn about the guy - in early November I'll be speaking on Rust Never Sleeps at a popular culture conference in Boston, so Neil's been on the brain of late - the weirder he gets! With Zappa, you expect weirdness and instead find a very articulate composer masquerading as a rock guitarist. But with Neil, it's this weird dude from Manitoba who - as if genres are really worth a shit - is as much garage rock as he is folk/country, with notable forays into electronica, rockabilly, Stax-ready R&B, brassy jazz/blues...and that's just his oeuvre.

This is saying nothing about the man behind the sideburns. Eighteen days into a three-month tour with The Stills-Young Band, he asked his bus driver to turn around from Atlanta and take him to LA, leaving a note for Stephen Stills that read:
"Dear Stephen,
Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way.
Eat a peach,

Um, huh?

"T-Bone" presents Neil at his head-scratchingly weirdest thus far, with Crazy Horse providing a hypnotic garage drone while he solos away, occasionally stepping up to the mic to remind us that he still has no meat entree to accompany his starchy side-dish, and in no uncertain terms.

Now, I can see the potential for why any sane individual would hate this song. But that's where John Q. Public and I differ. When I think of this song as a logical treatment of minimalist aesthetics, with a static background to support Neil's wonderful improvisations as he increasingly distorts his guitar tone, it's bloody brilliant. Give those guitar solos a chance...he does some interesting things.

Bottom line: they're having fun. If this had turned up on a concert bootleg, critics would fawn over it as a deft guitar workout. We're all fickle little bitches.

04. Get Back On It [5.5]
The first two seconds, with its chugging snare pattern and galloping piano, paired with that title, almost immediately made me think of The Beatles' own "Get Back," which McCartney had described as "a song to rollercoast to." Thankfully, Neil has already made a Beatles quote once already, before we climbed that musical Everest that is "T-Bone." The song quickly turns into a song's about driving to escape something. Not quite sure what. Neil hadn't toured in three years by this point, so unless this rather inconsequential number had been in the can for a while (though this sounds more like hastily-written filler), it's just a ditty about hitting the highway. It's harmless, kind of a 12-bar blues pattern set to an accented 16th-note snare beat, but it's short and a little too static (yeah, because "T-Bone" wasn't static - not at all!).

Throw in that it's closing an otherwise stellar A-side and the fact that Neil just sounds tired here (must have worn himself out lamenting for a damn t-bone!) and, I'm sorry, we have a dud. I don't hate it, I won't skip over it in the course of listening to the album...but it's just kinda there.

05. Southern Pacific [10]
Remember under "T-Bone" when I talked about how weird Neil is? Neil owned a stake in Lionel Trains until last year. Maybe he's just an overgrown kid - bringing us to the stage show that accompanied the Rust Never Sleeps tour...but I'll save that for the conference speech... - but that's alternately cool and just plain odd. It's one thing to write songs about cars. They're manly, and while I don't consider myself a "car guy" I still recognize makes and models, and yes, driving is fun. I kind of miss it here in New York. So it's not at all odd for Neil to sing about hitting the road, it's not even all that strange that he took a 1959 Lincoln and had it engineered to get over 100 miles per gallon. It isn't even that strange that he wrote an album about it...but trains? Trains?

Hmm. It almost - ALMOST - suffers from having the same beat, just a hair slower, than on "Get Back On It," but the rest of the group is in great form. Then there's the lyrics, where the narrator is a train engineer forced into retirement due to bad vision (as you know, Neil was 65 years old at the time and a former train engineer himself. Not really. That's what makes it so WEIRD!) and ruminates on who/what he used to be. It's essentially a folk tune, championing the working man, but set to thumping, brooding music. And his guitar growls and screeches like a locomotive.

"Now I'm left to roll / On the long decline" - what a heart-wrenching stance on the protagonist's forced retirement.

Naysayers of this record be damned!

06. Motor City [9.5]
A double-time electric country, its main lick cribbing both Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" and a drop of "It Ain't Me Babe" by Bob Dylan. Ignore that, though, it's a funny song, about a cranky feller upset to hear that Detroit isn't the heart of car production, that there's "too many Datsuns / In this town." He favors driving around an old army jeep that "ain't got no digital clock" while the backing vocals add, as a comedic aside, "ain't got no clock." It rollicks along until the chorus, where Neil sings quite well - a bit of an oddity on his heavier albums - and aside from the occasional blast of what I call Neil's "farting guitar tone" (see "Hey, Hey, My, My") this is a fairly clean number. A very memorable song, unique for not being the overdrive-based rock that propels most of this album, but also for clever lyrics and a dual solo between Neil and rhythm guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro.

I should also give props to Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, respectively on bass and drums, who make up a rhythm section as solid as concrete. They give old Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts a run for their money, except Mr. Molina doesn't have the jazz training of Charlie Watts, making Crazy Horse's backbone almost unrepentantly solid. The phrase "no bullshit" is used - by me - to describe their playing, and I mean that with the utmost respect.

07. Rapid Transit [10]
The reviews of Reactor I've read all mention this song for being Neil's venture into New Wave; the reactions of the writers vary. Some think he's taking a swipe at the music, but having read the (fairly minimalist) lyrics, I don't quite see that. That staggered riff smacks of "I'm A Man" by The Spencer Davis Group, while Neil's absurdist "R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rapid transit" (rolling his r's) and his other stuttering intros to each line channels David Byrne of Talking Heads.

He sings "Every wave is new until it breaks," after a repeated phrase of "Hang ten pipeline, let's go trippin'!", but again I don't think that's a dig at New Wave. This is the guy whose "Sedan Delivery" on Rust Never Sleeps some two years prior, melding the electric amphetamine Dylan with punk, with another memorable "What the Hell?" Neil lyric to boot. To me, that line about new waves is more about the term itself. It's a dumb name...much like in the art world how "Modernism" was a trend, only now we've since had "Post-Modernism" and "Contemporary" arts. I've mused to Shelley that in another ten years it will be "New Art," then "Just Made Art," before we eventually return to just calling it art.

Perhaps it's a warning, and why not? He asked before if Johnny Rotten would go the way of Elvis in "Hey, Hey, My, My" after declaring in its acoustic counterpart that it would be, imparting that old versus new is simply a state of mind. Neil was all of 36 when Reactor was released, but he'd lived a lifetime in the 1970's. He'd been lumped in with the darlings of singer-songwriters because of Harvest's runaway success in 1972, created among the most harrowing music in the rock world with Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight's The Night, never mind his earlier outings with Crazy Horse, where their garage-ready sounds (they literally recorded their first album, when they were called The Rockets, in a garage) proved a perfect match after Young quit Buffalo Springfield.

"Every wave is new until it breaks." Separate that from the music. It's a profound statement on the impermanence of life, hinted at on "Southern Pacific" and played up a great deal on the bookending tracks from Rust. That's a line just as striking as "Once you're gone / You can't come back / When you're out of the blue and into the black."

In short, since there's only one song left, I don't think it's any sort of rockist indictment of New Wave music. If he'd had some bone to pick he would have found himself rendered irrelevant in the late 1970's, when all the lads from his generation had to prove their worth against the young upstarts and art students at CBGB's, the politicized English punks, and the even more diverse punk scenes on the West Coast. And seriously, if Neil hated New Wave, I don't think he would have done it while paying homage to the band I consider its poster child: Talking Heads.

So there.

08. Shots [11]
And here we are at the album's feels like I'm talking about an action movie, but it is quite literally an explosive tune, with gunshots and other violent sounds throughout.

Neil breaks out the farting Rust tone again on his guitar, at times indiscernible from the guns and machine noises. He solos at every possible chance, and in what I consider a compliment, his vocal is reminiscent of Pete Townshend's. Molina's marching cadence sustains for the song's entire 7:40 run-time, and yet the song never drags or feels stagnant. With or without the gunshots, this is epic music that even haters of "T-Bone" can enjoy.

Then there's the lyrics. It's a plea for unity - "Who knows where or when old wounds will mend?" - and also a proclamation of hatred for the ills of the world, from sexual infidelity to border disputes to the "shots" he keeps hearing. In spite of the song's musically brutal nature, there is some sense of beauty in such a frank artistic expression. There's passion in this song. Unlike too many other songs that run over six minutes in length which go flat like Diet Coke in a warm can (laugh if you want, try it - in fifteen minutes you'll be holding aspartame-sweetened caramel-flavored acid in an aluminum can), this stays interesting without shifting direction or tone.

Sure, that guitar tone is the exact same six-stringed buzzsaw we heard on "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)," but damn it's good.

Subtotal: 93.75% A

Replayability Factor: 3
I could replay this album again and again. And I have. In the week that I've had my desktop back I've heard this record three times. It's terrific, and while it's hardly the only Neil album I can do this with - Rust, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Time Fades Away - it certainly bears an elite status as being something that doesn't drive me up the wall. Okay, maybe it does...but in a good way. (See "T-Bone.")

Consistency Factor: 1.5
Pegging Neil down is tricky. Don't even try. You think you have him figured out, but then you pick up Trans and go, "Oh. Sounds like Kraftwerk. Neil Young sounding like Kraftwerk?" and promptly phone up the Devil and ask how he's faring amidst the massive snowfall that has hit the Kingdom of Hell. But as far as the true essentials - one column I do enjoy at The A.V. Club is their "Gateways To Geekery," where noobs are given a bit of guidance in terms of approaching what would be an otherwise daunting source of entertainment; they've done French New Wave cinema, Kiss, anime, etc. - and I say this with "Gateways To Geekery" firmly in mind as the standard, I'd say the essential Neil Young is the stuff just about everyone seems to agree upon. This omits Harvest right out if you ask me, but I think we can all agree on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Tonight's The Night and even Rust Never Sleeps, each for their own merits. I wrote about Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere a small eternity ago, but I can still say it's probably the safest catch-all "Here you go, let me know how you like it" album in his catalog.

That said, and I apologize for one of my tilt factors being so overlong, I would say Reactor straddles being among the immediate runner-up tier and the "for the fans" tier. It's somewhere in between those two; if you liked Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, you'll probably like Zuma as well as Reactor (that's why I'm so shocked by the dislike awarded to this album, to me it feels like a logical continuation of manifesto-free rock and roll from those two earlier ones!) I guess this means I have a new numerical ranking, the 1.5, the rating for albums with "if you liked album X, then you'll probably like THIS."

External Factors: 2
Maybe I'm over-sensitive about this, as someone who has settling down and raising a family in the (still somewhat) distant future, but Neil and his wife Pegi's son Ben was born with cerebral palsy. He became the center of the world, and somewhere in the midst of that Pegi had a brain operation done to save her own life. That he focused on being a caring, devoted husband and father to a physically handicapped child is most noble and admirable. His music took a back-burner on this album and the last, although the song "Staying Power" was a salute to his and Pegi's marriage, which is going strong in its 31st year as of this writing.

At allmusic, William Ruhlmann rather cruelly concludes his review of Reactor with this:
"Still, he might have been better advised to have suspended record-making for a few years instead of turning out half-baked efforts like this one."

The idea of turning to art (music, prose, painting) as therapy or escape is one of the fundamental purposes of art, neck and neck with portraying beauty or what one's definition of beauty is. Who the Hell are we to say Neil Young should have taken a hiatus from doing what he loved?

Beyond the personal reasons there's the fact that this album doesn't suffer sounding like the 1980's. It could have been a shelved Crazy Horse album from 1978. Or 1976. Much further and their heavy tones would have been brand-spankin' new, especially in the wake of punk.

Total: 100.25%, rounded to 100.3% A+

Welcome to The 100 Plus Club, Neil. I am no doubt in the minority holding this disc in such high regard, but we mustn't forget this is and not

On a slightly personal note, it's good to be back, with my feet firmly on the ground and my iTunes library just a few clicks away. Soon to be unearthed and listened to (probably not until after the conference in Boston) are Buffalo Springfield, who come highly recommended from Glenn Gass himself, Todd Rundgren's work beyond the coked-out A Wizard, A True Star, Patti Smith, Love, Be Bop Deluxe, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, The Moody Blues, Smashing Pumpkins, never mind the artists I already know and love, but just haven't gotten to yet...I promise I'll get to The Residents, eventually. It's just the album I'm really keen on, The Third Reich And Roll (1976), is hard to write about being two separate LP-side length sound collages.

And seriously, Dylan.

Be back again soon.


Andrew said...

I really enjoy Harvest, but I rank it low on my favorite Neil Young albums. But then again I tend to like country music. Not so much the stuff that's popular, but stuff like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, George Jones, etc. I do think Harvest is overrated. I like it for the lesser known tracks, but especially the last song on it. I listened to American Stars & Bars recently. I agree with you about it being uneven. I went in expecting that, since I knew it was a collection of stuff from Homegrown and various other Neil projects. This review really makes me want to check out Re-Ac-Tor.

Shelley said...

(You changed the margins! I like it)

I love this album. Everything you say about I whole-heatedly agree. This album does not sound like the 80s at all. I mean, I don't really hear any other band (i.e.Talking Heads - although I do need to listen to more) except Neil Young.

And Opera Star is AMAZING. It kind of reminds me of Keep On Rocking In The Free World (or I should say that song reminds me of Opera Star). But still, Keep On Rocking was a success, how could critics go back to Opera Star and think its bad?

I can definitely listen to this album over and over again. I think its one of Neil's best. I bet critics saw the year it came out, skimmed over it, and said it was bad. They couldn't have listened to it all the way through. There is just no way.

And T-Bone kicks ass.

Unknown said...

I just listend to Spencer Davis Band "I'm A Man" this morning and the riff was stuck in my head...damn...what song have I heard this riff in before...then it clicked...Neil Young's "Rapid Transit"...I made a note when I got to my computer to check if anyone else heard the same thing...Alex's review was spot-on! Rock on, dude! -Chris

puckfisher said...

Why can't I find this CD anywhere? My vinyl has long since disappeared. I read your review and shook my head up and down throughout. Reactor was one of our go-to records to party to in university in the early '80s. Say what you want about "T-bone", I haven't heard the song for 20 years, and it still plays around in my head -- though now I can have T-bone, unlike the mashed potato of 1982.