Best Album Ever: Neil Young's American Stars 'n Bars
The cover of American Stars 'n Bars
[Editor's Note: In Best Album Ever critics talk about their favorite records and what was happening in their lives when they discovered them.]
When we were good and drunk, we would put Neil Young's American Stars 'n Bars on the record player.
It was the fall of 2011 and I was living with two of my best friends in a dilapidated cottage with a huge ranch-style yard in the middle of Los Angeles. Most of the place was outside-- the doors of my bedroom opened out to a big gravel-covered yard full of overgrown trees and beer cans shot to pieces by our pellet gun. The landlady was an elderly German woman who used to be an avant-garde filmmaker in Berlin. All she did to keep up the place was to retain the "services" of a wet-eyed, weather-faced old man with a long gray beard, whose idea of maintenance was to aimlessly wander around our orange-less orange tree.
The only reason my friends (let's call them Jack and Nick) and I could afford the place, which we affectionately deemed "The Ranch," was that it hung directly over the 101 freeway and there was always a steady drone of cars going by. We would sit and get piss drunk on whatever was cheap and pretend the sound was a river. After a couple months of living at The Ranch there was a nearly equal mix of broken beer-bottle glass and gravel in our yard.
Often, the melancholy waltz of American Stars 'n Bars would soundtrack our drinking sessions. Stars is Young's eighth studio album, which came out in 1977 on the heels of Zuma and the Ditch Trilogy. Upon its release Rolling Stone declared, "Right now ... it would be just about impossible to overrate Neil Young." The storied guitar work on "Like A Hurricane" is balanced by the earnest yearning of "Hey Babe."
The album's cover art is last call imagined with glass floor: an up-skirt shot of a woman holding a handle of Canadian Whiskey above an obliterated Young. His eyes are barely open, capturing those brutal last moments of consciousness before passing out. It was like looking into an aquarium displaying the state I was in.
It's a lovelorn album--on the album's opener "Old Country Waltz" you enter a kingdom of booze soaked self-pity. Each of the three of us living at The Ranch was lovelorn in his own way. Nick had recently split with a beautiful drummer who immediately moved on to dating a woman. Her new girlfriend had a terrific haircut. Jack had been in that endlessly frustrating up in the air period with a girl for months. As Young remarks on "Saddle Up the Palomino": It's a cold bowl of chili when love lets you down.
I was in a floundering relationship, which has since drowned. Daytimes Jack and Nick would get up and go to work, but I--when I was bored or lonely--would start drinking. I didn't really have to go to work: I had this incredible gig that required little more than updating a couple social media pages. Every time a check came in the mail, I would stare down at it in disbelief, astonished someone was paying me for what I was doing.
I wore out the needle on American Stars 'n Bars on those drinking days. John Rockwell of the New York Times said Young was engaging in "hermetic self-indulgence" during this period, and I was doing my best to recreate that. What actually happened was that I entered a sustained period complete non-movement, spinning my wheels to no good end.
In the winter of that year, Jack and I heard about this town called Williston, North Dakota, that was knee-deep in a massive oil boom. We loaded up my Toyota Highlander with cigarettes, cameras, and Coors and headed north. The only CDs we brought were American Stars 'n Bars and a Townes Van Zandt compilation that turned out to be too scratched to play. So all through Utah and Idaho all we had was Neil.
Williston was a strange and disconcerting place. Men with high-school educations were making six-figures working on rigs--the girls working the strip-clubs the righeads frequented took those paychecks right out of their pockets. The town's small government was trying to deal with the influx of population, crime, violence and, ironically, unemployment that the boom had brought. I was supposed to research a novel while I was there, but spent the majority of my time getting drunk at bowling alleys.
On the way back to Los Angeles, driving through Montana, Jack and I hit a snowstorm. As a powerful flurry rocked the car, Young's voice rang out from the car's stereo: That perfect feeling when time just slips/ Away between us and our foggy trip. It was at this moment I realized I needed some force of change in my life. I was losing time, and fast.
After 65 years of hard living, Young got sober in 2011. Since The Ranch days, I've moved to New York City, I've begun a master's degree, and drink a fraction of what I did in 2011. I remember those times with a foggy fondness, but am glad they are finished. Movement, progress, whatever you want to call it, is crucial in life--you can only romance the gutter for so long before you wake up in one. But when you're in it, all you can really hope for is a record that helps get you through it.
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