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Neil Young on the road to Germany
all we have is each other
More opening of the palms, this week.
Tour diary: Reeperbahn
On the road to Germany. The roads are exceptionally flat, and the lads joke that the Earth is, too. I can’t explain the European “look”; only that England maybe never belonged. And I’m sad about that. Is it the perfectly spaced trees, planted to be pretty, at least, or the twisting billboard architecture? You have to pay for toilets at service stations, and bird songs croon out of them.
Amsterdam. We arrive at Darina’s at 1am. A man stops us outside, all-grey in the monochrome streetlight. Our untrustworthy London instinct kicks in, but he’s just telling us where to find food so late. He is being kind.
We sleep. I fucking love this. I love travelling. I could live this life forever, I could sleep in a million different rooms every night. In the morning, lovely Darina cooks us breakfast - hash brown and egg bagels. And then we’re off. Six hours now.
I know we’ve arrived because I recognise the Feldstrasse fortress in Hamburg from last time, built in World War Two, now host to a live music venue, several night clubs and a large music store. And trees stand atop it, new growth.
A lot of food shops are cash only. I lay on the hotel bed and look out to a neon sign of a dancing woman, the size of a small building, right next to the window. I’m strangely excited to see it on, later, to listen to the buzz drown out all thoughts, even if the light somehow seeps through the blackout curtains and keeps me awake. I can’t move. No, I can - I manage to drag myself out of the hotel room and go meet a whole gang of new people.
Upon being asked by a very funny man, “do you reckon you’ve drank an acre of pints in your lifetime?”, I realise I’m too out of it to join in with the fun. I need to eat at least a few hours before we play, so kind manager Alfie takes me to get some kind of food that isn’t Burger King (there are many Burger Kings in Germany and we are all sick of “long chicken”.) We talk about song lyrics and anger, we have this shared feeling of looking back at our youthful rage and laughing a little bit. “Why was I so angry?”.
And then the gig. A bright white light glares in my face as I realise I am too used to darkness now. No thanks - I like hiding. Burn The Way, then Avalanche. Ah, I love Germany. I love performing anywhere in Europe. There’s still gig etiquette and a genuine love for music. Before we know it, we’ve flown through the set, finishing with Psychopath. Fans have bought tickets just to see us - they wanted to fly to the London show, but they saw we were playing on their doorstep. After, we meet the manager of the Hives. I ask him how he became a manager. I’ve forgotten the answer now. He was nice.
Next morning. Ten hour drive home, but spirits in the van are high. Jack plays a song, Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”.
Sometimes, songs just instantly click with me, and I have to listen again and again. So I put on my headphones and click repeat. Songs like this have a purpose, a reason to exist. You can tell they’re someone trying to communicate, someone being truthful. ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ is the second and darkest song on the album, hidden in there among beautiful love ballads. It signified a change in Neil Young’s direction that would calcify into existence on later albums. After listening a few times, I realise the desire to be liked is holding me back, because art is about the truth of things.
It’s rarely celebrated - the truth - but that’s what being an artist is, being an uncomfortable reflection. “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”, someone, somewhere said (the authors of quotes don’t mean much anymore, everything is harvested and repurposed as little sound-bites now. I saw this quoted next to the name ‘Banksy’ on the side of a bus stop - it was originally said by Mexican poet and academic, Cesar A. Cruz, although Banksy made it popular now).
When I was younger, everything I did was to make others comfortable. I was inviting, onstage, and that had its purpose. But performing has to become about standing there despite everything. It has to become vulnerable. You have to show the truth of yourself. This world has morphed into a monster (who honestly feels ‘good’ right now?), but the truth of us lies underneath everything, and the truth can only be communicated through vulnerability.
It’s very hard to be that vulnerable, though, to be too exposing, especially in a society of broken, working bodies who have lost time and dreams, so the only channel of self-expression left for us is to externalise ourselves onto bigger artists. Only for us to become let down and disappointed, only for the artists so revered and loved to become unwitting sacrifices, offerings even, for us to tear at so we can recreate the holes in ourselves (projection) and watch how others, namely not us, perform when confronted with their flaws. And it’s okay, right? Because they’re rich and successful? Because we’re too normal for it to ever happen to us? (see - “crazy plane lady”, clearly someone having a breakdown who needed help, and the man pictured expressing himself on the Fabric dancefloor and shared virally against his will).
I have been thinking a lot about this recently, all this talk about ‘mental health awareness’, but not in the face of really difficult mental health problems like psychiatric breakdowns, and how the social code around privacy has completely broken down. And how everything is starting to look a lot like witch-hunting.
That might be why I’m obsessed with older artists at the moment, who existed in an also not-so-great-time, but seemed to have more of a sense of community and meaning. Neil Young is a truth-teller. Our capitalistic society has transformed into a narcissistic mass-abuser; buy this product to feel whole, fall in line or you’ll get filmed and shared, do this job and lose everything about yourself in the pursuit of something you’ll never attain. “It’s only castles burning”. Neil Young never quite said what the song is about, just that it’s a bit of a trick of a song. The way I read it is that it’s about the dichotomy of ignoring the suffering of others with the excuse of ‘hope’. Toxic positivity with no action.
I really do believe in hope above all else, but it’s interesting to zoom out and look at how the mysticism of ‘hope’ enables us to do absolutely nothing. It’s a good reminder.
I feel like ever since 2020, I have been standing at the edge of a cliff, like the line in Watching Basinski. It’s a metaphorical cliff; it isn’t necessarily a plummet to my death, but it is a plummet into the unknown. And I have been waiting there, like purgatory. The water below looks terrifying. But sometimes I wonder if it might be warm. The urge to jump is ever-growing, and it’s only me there, now. There used to be a crowd of people. But everyone else has left, they moved on long ago.
I am taking it really slow. I really believe Michaela Coel when she said “see what comes in the silence”. Short term gain versus long term gain - I really feel that to make your best work, you have to take your time. I am forcing myself to do that, and not because I believe my art will take over the world and I’ll live happily ever after, but simply because in my soul, I know I have to take the chance, take that leap of faith. An art teacher said that to me, once, he said, “if you don’t do art, something in you will die”, and while I don’t think that advice works for everyone, I knew it was the right advice for me. We pick the advice we listen to, don’t we? We do ultimately choose our fate under the guise of asking people’s permission.
I reached out to a composer on Instagram a while back just to say, “hey, I really love your work”. In return, they’ve asked me to compose something for a sound-walk! It’s going to be on a compilation album.
I found a piano piece I did years ago, then decided to add a second section with my nylon guitar at the Lake District. I took my zoom. The outside world sounded like tape hiss. I did something I never do - I allowed the first thing to come out to be the thing - I sang about mountains and boats and clichéd things that don’t actually sound too clichéd when they’re just naming what I actually saw. It just felt quite present and in the moment. “Waves from a boat”.
I’ve finished it. Here’s a pic of the line six. I ran the track through all of Jack’s ridiculous pedals, my favourite (and only) production technique:
Here’s the end of it:
Well, thank you Neil Young. Me and Jack also sat down to write a song inspired by him (not the one above) - Jack’s amazing guitar playing really comes through. When we finished, we just sat and stared at each other. I said as earnestly as possible, “no one can play guitar anymore because everyone’s just sat on their damn screens”, then laughed at myself. Old man yells at cloud.
Wasn’t this a new music blog? Okay, well; Laurel Halo released an album, featuring Bendik Giske and Coby Sey (!!!). I’m getting real excited about Chartreuse’s album (midlands represent). Uma has a really interesting new album, as well as Mitski, James Blake and This Is The Kit.
And I’ve thrown Troye Sivan in there for good measure.