It’s rare for a musician to be so unique. They may have an original voice, playing style, or writing style, but rarely all three. Neil Young has all three. You know his voice, you know his guitar playing, and you know his Canadiana-meets-California writing. He’s also as prolific as almost any other artist around, and he’s remained semi-relevant since his greatest commercial peak with “Heart of Gold” on Harvest (1971).
After his initial peak, where copies of Harvest wore all the way through after hundreds of replays, and after Young’s many appearance on late night performance shows, both in North America and in England, he became tired of the spotlight, famously saying, “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”
Living on a beach in California, surrounded by like-minded peers hardly seems like a ditch. Looking back at old pictures of Young on the beach, moving down the sand like an oracle figure, or sitting on the grass cross-legged in Joni Mitchell’s backyard, it all seems like a dream; however, despite, or possibly because of the constant hangers-on and close living quarters that facilitated more than friendly competition, Young felt isolated, and desperate.
On The Beach is as far into the ditch as he ultimately gambled to go. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Young said, “On The Beach is probably one of the most depressing records I’ve ever made. I don’t want to get down to the point where I can’t even get up. …There’s something to going down there and looking around, but I don’t know about sticking around.”
There is definitely something to “going down there”, and unfortunately he ended up having to stick around for an album longer with Tonight’s The Night.
On The Beach is one of Young’s most atmospheric records in his discography. The title track, “On The Beach”, is nearly motionless. On it he admits he still sometimes yearns for attention, despite the troubles it causes him. On “Revolution Blues”, Young has never paired music and lyric so perfectly. A crazed, paranoid, gun-loving Californian alludes to committing sadistic crimes (“Remember your guard dog? / Well I’m afraid that he’s gone / It was such a drag to hear him / whining all night long ” [the sadistic Californian then whines like a dog], “Well I’m a barrel of laughs / with my carbine on / I keep ’em hopping / ’til the ammunition’s gone”) until finally outright saying he’d like to kill L.A.’s famous stars.
Not only is it disturbing in its prescience, it’s a comment on the events six years prior, when the Charles Manson group stalked through the unlocked bungalows nestled in Laurel Canyon’s hills.
The song’s first line, “Well we live in a trailer park at the edge of town / You don’t see us because we don’t come around / We’ve got 25 rifles just to keep the population down”, certainly seems at home in 2017.
One more quick example? On “Vampire Blues”, which is musically out of place yet lyrically relevant, and in character, Young brings his now-widely adopted environmentally conscious attitude to the fore: “I’m a vampire, babe / Suckin’ blood from the earth.”
A lot of On The Beach sounds as though it comes from a black void, not only because of its dark subject matter but because many of its most provocative, moving songs are minimalistic. They come and go like an evening coastal breeze. When Young removes the frills, and allows only the basics to remain, there’s a reason. Look out. He has a message, and a specific way of delivering that message to you. Often it’s ominous, but for his subject matter, Young finds these wide open spaces manipulate subject matter and a listener’s impressions in a way he likes. By virtue of putting frills on some songs, and stripping them from others, whatever remains takes on an elevated role, a greater relevance.
He doesn’t have to say much, or rather, he is sparing with his choice of words. Most of the “On The Beach” consists of this revolving statement: “The world is turning / I hope it don’t turn away”. The shimmering pedal effects on his guitar, notably steely yet anything but harsh, acts like a net that catches and flattens his wish, making it clear something is off.
Hope does arrive, on the penultimate track, “Motion Pictures”, which comes from Young himself rather than the characters he invents and plays to and against. “Well all those headlines / They just bore me now / I’m deep inside myself / but I’ll get out somehow.” His ability to take what would normally seem uncomfortably direct and make it sound subtle and moving may be his greatest asset.
Neil Young and On The Beach become easy to understand with context, and once understood, the title “On The Beach” develops a second life not as a frank title but a name for the point in life where one struggles with what they know they want and should never have.
Not so leisurely as it seems, but greater, too.