As a fledgling formalist in an undergraduate aesthetics course, I once said something stupid like “Art doesn’t mean anything—when Andy Warhol painted a picture of a soup can, it was just a picture of a soup can.” Prof gave me a lesson in cultural context that was my most humiliating classroom experience since Sister Maria Butch savaged my ass with a yardstick. So while I’ve always thought rock critics overindulge in the biographical and intentional fallacies, I understand that persona is constitutional in popular culture, and that for many artists celebrity is half the work. Which is why Warren Zevon’s The Wind and Neil Young’s Greendale are each so much more than the uneven, off-peak recordings they sound like. Space is at a premium in this entertainment guide and I should stay on topic. But the topic’s a freakin’ soup can; the context is the whole supermarket of art & life, truth & fiction, love & death.
I was going to write that Young worked overtime producing four different manifestations of Greendale, but that was before I saw his website with its interactive map, family tree, lyrics, audio narration, and virtual art gallery complete with video. Make that five—until he releases a concert movie. At Madison Square Garden in June, Neil Young and Crazy Horse performed Greendale using stage sets, actors (with nonspeaking parts), and giant video screens. Young provides the backstory in folksy between-song monologues. On the CD the connecting tissue is supplied in print with faux woodcuts in the accompanying booklet. The bonus DVD presents the earliest incarnation of the project as a solo acoustic concert filmed in Dublin. And Young has yet to release the feature-length film version he directed, starring family and friends.
The problem with Greendale-the-CD is that too many songs rely on simple blues vamps that neither Young nor Crazy Horse manages to rave up into their trademark protogrunge. Those that carry the narrative weight simply go on too long, and not once does Young explode into the kind of guitar solo that fueled past storysongs like “Powderfinger.” But you keep listening because he’s created real setting, plot, and character. The best moments are when he expresses anger through those characters: with Grandpa’s ornery wisdom (“It ain’t an honor to be on TV. And it ain’t a duty neither”), heroine Sun Green’s eco-activism (“Hey Mr. Clean, you’re dirty now too.”), or the grief of a murdered cop’s widow (“Carmichael you asshole . . . you’re dead now and I’m talking to the wall”). There are a lot of these writerly moments, but in good stage-musical tradition it’s the tracks with the least story to tell, “Bandit” and the closing “Be the Rain,” that make the best music.
Keep Me in Your Heart, a VH1 documentary of the making of Warren Zevon’s The Wind, premiered simultaneously with the album’s release, and continued to air after his death on September 7. Despite its rock-star cast, The Wind doesn’t match the energy or the wit of Zevon’s previous Artemis releases. It’s a haunting and tender record enriched by circumstance. We can forgive the way Springsteen’s guitar solos and backup vocals overrun “Disorder in the House” after seeing a heavily medicated Zevon repeatedly miss his cues. When collaborator Jorge Calderon tells Zevon to come in fresh the next morning to try again, Zevon responds: “I’m dying. I don’t have no fresh!” We can also forgive the all-star chain gang on “Prison Grove” sounding more Atlanta-Braves-stadium-chant than O-Brother-Where-Art-Thou, or Tommy Shaw and Joe Walsh making more of their slide guitar solos than David Lindley and Ry Cooder. There wouldn’t have been time to rethink, or retake.
Which is why, for all its sentimentality, the closing “Keep Me in Your Heart,” home-recorded months after Zevon should have been dead and was too sick to return to the studio, is exactly the memorable goodbye he intended. And why his less than definitive reading of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is heartbreaking, and why his old cigarette-smoking skull logo is suddenly scarier and funnier. It’s context that makes his and Young’s plodding midtempos edgier than such rote, decades-old dynamic devices deserve. It’s not just Zevon’s whole self-fulfilling death-trip mythology or Young’s cross-media blitz, it’s the real biographical facts and artistic intentions that inform these brave, flawed, grasping, late-middle-aged attempts to kick up some desperate honesty. You can love these records for the masterpieces they wanted to be. That Zevon was too sad, sick, scared, and sedated to go less gently into that good night, or that Young is too eccentric, raw, or loose to sustain a great American novel with guitars, bass, and drums, doesn’t mean something just as crazy-ambitious can’t be done. Young has made a career of realizing the improbable. Zevon died trying.