Serendipity

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Neil Young At The Hop Farm



I don’t really know where to start about the day there are so many conflicting things that I want to say and no obvious way for me to knit them together. I’ll go for chronological order and see how it goes.

I have a been a huge fan of Neil Young’s ever since I was on holiday as a kid and staying with relatives in Portsmouth. Whilst up there we went on a day trip to the Isle of Wight and whilst there I was nosing around in a record shop and my Dad offered to buy me a record. The one I chose pretty much at random was Rust Never Sleeps which was a newly released at the time. Carried the bag around with great pride all day eager to get back to Uncle Frank’s and listen to it. From the first few bars of the solo acoustic My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) to the closing of the wall of noise which was My My, Hey Hey (Into The Black) I was hooked. I loved the album. I was also deeply impressed that my older cousins liked it too. I loved the art work, the printed lyric sheet, the fact that one side was so gentle and so melodic and that the other side was so cacophonous. There was a dichotomy here that I did not understand. I did not need to. I just loved it to bits.

I was 14 at the time. Punk was all the rage (1979) and here was something that stood comparison, half of the time at least, with the anger, the energy, the rawness but there was far more there besides. I had to explore further and I did. Being a kid I had, basically, no money and the cash to buy an LP in those days was something that had to be acquired over time and once it was acquired it had to be very carefully spent. I went to a City Centre school and we used to have extraordinarily long lunchtimes – almost 2 hours – and it offered the opportunity to browse record shops at some length. Arcadia in the now demolished and replaced Drake’s Circus was the favourite because it was closest and NY’s extensive back catalogue was available to me except for Decade which as a triple album was always too expensive to consider. Even back then there was over a dozen albums to choose from. Eventually I did what all cash strapped kids since time began had decided to do and bought the cheapest one. Luckily that was After The Goldrush. The first two NY albums I bought were bona fide all-time classics. I was mesmerised.

Once I was 16 I started going to gigs. Concerts in Plymouth were rare in those days. More accurately concerts I could go to were rare. Most gigs took place in pubs and clubs and I was too young to go to them. This became an irrelevance once the Cornwall Coliseum opened down in Carlyon Bay. At the time it was the 6th biggest indoor venue in the country and every major touring act went there and my baptism came when I went to see Black Sabbath. It was at that gig that I got matey with Plymouth DJ Andy Howard. He used to make a bit of money on the side organising concert travel and he asked if I would be a coach rep for him. No wages but free travel and entry to the gig!! You bet I would. I saw loads of bands over a 12 month period but the real highlight came when I was asked if I would take a coach to Wembley to see Neil Young. Neil Young? Wembley Arena? Free of charge? You bet!!

At the time NY was touring the Trans album (if you elect to give one of his albums a miss make it this one or maybe Landing On Water). It was an awesome experience. Utterly magical. I didn’t ever really realise how good live music could be until then. It remains the best concert I ever saw. He played many songs that I didn’t know but it made no difference. If there was any disappointment it was that he didn’t play any acoustic stuff. There was vocorder stuff and then there was a raunch through the electric back catalogue. His band included Nils Lofgren… for a fan of guitar based rock music it was a fantastic evening and I have discovered a website (http://www.sugarmtn.org) that has the set list for that night back in ’82:

On The Way Home / Don't Cry No Tears / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Cortez The Killer / Computer Age / Are You Ready For The Country? / Southern Man / A Little Thing Called Love / Old Man / The Needle And The Damage Done / Comes A Time / Birds / Transformer Man / Beggars Day / Like An Inca / Hey Hey, My My / Cinnamon Girl / Like A Hurricane / I Am A Child / Sample And Hold / Mr. Soul

(At least that’s what I think it was. It turns out he did 3 nights and I can’t remember which one I went to.)

I’ve been longing to see him in concert again ever since.

Since then the opportunity just never arose to go again. This is in no small part, I suspect, to living in Plymouth. Somebody like him is never likely to come to our part of the world and getting tickets for gigs up the line was always difficult in pre-internet days. For one reason or another it just never happened. Never even came close to happening.

One day recently I was reading the Observer and there was an ad. Neil Young at Manchester, Edinburgh and London. Yes!! I thought. There was a website. I am on-line. Sadly the tickets had gone. They were available through ticket agencies (that’s what used to be touts to you and me) at prices upwards of £200. That’s a lot of money to pay for a single act gig. Too much.

The disappointment was short-lived. The Hop Farm gig was lined up soon afterwards. Yes!! I could go. The only problem was that I had nobody to go with and that Kent was a long way away. I asked around… "Where?" "Kent." "When?" "July." "What date?" "Sunday the 6th" “A Sunday? Kent? No – work the day after.” It was conversation I had more than once. No takers. I resigned myself to not going until fate intervened.

Readers of this blog will be aware that my Dad died last week in the small hours of Tuesday morning. I’m sure I don’t need to describe the sort of week I have had in any detail. It has been a desperately horrible time. Out of the blue I received an email from an old college mate. We were really close back along but he has been abroad for several years and now lives in Kuala Lumpur. "I’ll be back in Blighty next week. Fancy meeting up?" Emails were exchanged and he said that he was staying at Bromley in Kent. "Fancy going to see Neil young?" I asked and a plan started to come together.

There were two problems. Work and weather. I was supposed to be working on the Monday following the gig and the weather forecast was for heavy rain. For the first time in what had seemed like a long time something fell my way and I had to call off work anyway. Weather apart there was no reason not to go. A Saturday tea-time phone discussion followed. “Blustery” he said. “Let’s do it.” I said.

I was up at 6:30 am, showered and hit the road. It was bucketing down. If you are ever going to drive anywhere in this country then do it at 7am on a Sunday. Hardly a car on the road. The only problem was the rain and my footwear. It was completely unsuitable for what loomed ahead. Wellies. That was what I needed so I thought I’d stop somewhere along the way to get some. As 10 am approached I was nearing Andover. "Big enough to have a super market and a garden centre" I thought. "Here will do." As I drove into Andover Andy rang me.

This had been pre-arranged. If he rang me en route the day was off. He wasn’t going. I feared for the worst but had not managed to get to my phone in time to speak to him. I carried on into Andover and parked up at Asda, had breakfast, went to the loo, put some credit on my phone and bought a paper; then I tried to ring him.

Disaster. "This number is barred." His Malaysian mobile network (I had put 20 quid on) seemed to have only a one-way arrangement with mine. He could ring me but I could not ring him. I rang home and got Mrs B to try him on a landline. No luck there either. What to do?

I decided to track down a pair of wellies anyway and found a Garden Centre which was on the road back to Salisbury (i.e. in the wrong direction) and located a pair of wellies. I had a cup of tea. Read the paper. Waited and waited. Surely he'd ring me back. He did. Eventually. We were still on!!

"I'll be about 2 hours" I guessed, as it turned out rather hopefully, bought some wellies and was off. The delay had cost me nearly 2 hours. Little did I realise how lucky I was. The traffic on the 303 was now far busier. The rain was still teeming down. The 303 turned into the M3. The M3 ground to a stop. Stop-start-stop-start all way onto the M25. Another hour lost. More torrential rain. Loads of phone calls: "are you here yet?"

Eventually I got there and was directed into Car Park Red 26. There was only one way in and one way out of The Hop Farm and, though I did not realise it, I was right on the outer periphery of the site. I met Andy and in we went. We'd missed half of the bill: Everest, Laura Marling (Andy saw her: "some dreary woman" was his verdict),and Guillemots finished just as we got there. Still it rained and rained but I was prepared!! I had wellies on my feet, a good waterproof on and an umbrella too.

Anybody could have been on stage to be honest. It was so long since we had seen each other that there was loads of catching up to do. We found some shelter in the lee of a line of toilet cubicles (no smell - too cold and wet), put the brolly up and chewed the fat as you do in such circumstances. Rufus Wainwright came on and did a solo slot at his piano wearing a hat. He seemed a bit on the earnest side to me but a half-interested audience in the pouring rain was never going to favour his set. I didn't even notice him much to be honest other than his between song proclamation from the stage that he was gay. I don't think he could have told more less concerned people if he tried. I was puzzled. Is that a thing that makes any difference these days? "So what Rufus? I can live with it if you can." I thought.

Something rather wonderful did happen during his last song (Hallejujah which I am sure is a Leonard Cohen cover but no matter) though. The rain not only stopped but the sun broke through the clouds. There was a cheer from the crowd. Things suddenly looked much better.

My Morning Jacket came on and did their stuff. Andy and I continued to chat. They were OK but the sound system did them no favours. "Blustery" Andy had said it would be and it was. They did their best and seemed to try hard. It just was not the venue or occasion for them but the wind that blew the sound away actually seemed to dry the whole place up in no time. I guess that chalky Kentish soil helps too. If that had been Glastonbury or Elephant then the whole place would have been under mud for the duration.

Supergrass came on and did their bit with great enthusiasm and actually got the crowd going a little for the first time since the sun came out during RW's set. They ended up with the one you just knew they would. They perked everybody up. A bite to eat and a sit down on the now dry ground was most welcome too. The main event drew near. "It's time to start getting near the front" I said and we made our way into the main throng.

Primal Scream were pretty good I must say. They had the PA up a bit louder and did as damned fine a rock 'n' roll set as you could wish to see. I'm sure this has been said before but they didn't half remind me of The Rolling Stones at times. They also continued the theme of facial hair and ever ageing groups. These boys made Supergrass look like kids and, yes, they too ended up with the ones you'd hope they would. Their set list was:

Can't Go Back/Dolls/Jailbird/Beautiful Future/I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have/Suicide Bomb/Beautiful Summer/Shoot Speed,Kill Light/Swastika Eyes/Rocks/Movin' On Up

They are not a band that I know that well but I'd love to them indoors. I reckon they'd really kick ass. I'd go and see them again.

The main event drew near. Andy and I wheedled our way forward as far as we could before we were banjaxed by people who seemed to have pitched tend and set up an impegnable barrier of camping chairs and other equipment. Later on some stumbling drunks barged through their little line of defences and we slip-streamed them through the crowd as far as we could. We ended up about 40 yards back and a bit to the right but still in front of the stage which has to be considered a result.

Then it started raining again. Groans all round. Brollies (not mine I hasten to add) were put up and brollie owners were bombarded with projectiles. Eventually brollies were put down. Eventually the rain stopped.

Neil Young took the stage more or less bang on 9 pm.

What can I say? He said nothing much. Walked on picked up his guitar, a battered, black electric job of indeterminate manufacture (it's an old fave of his apparently and he calls it Old Black ~ it certainly earned it's money later on), to me at least. Immediately it began to hum. He punched the body of it twice. The hum was now more like a growl and he launched into as blistering a playing of Love and Only Love as you could wish to hear. The volume was well and truly cranked up now and NY lurched and semi-stumbled around the stage as he played in his trademark manner rather like a drunken grizzly bear might. I can't describe how I felt at this stage. It was just an awesome start to the gig. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has a style of playing like him when he has his electric head on. If you're familiar with his output then you'll know what I mean. If you aren't then you probably aren't reading this.

The next song was Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black). This was noise, passion, rage, distortion and it was loud. Nothing this ugly was ever so beautiful. I can't begin to describe the way the music felt in a physical sense deep inside my chest. Sound cannot get any more intense without things exploding. It was a stunning opening to the set. Stunning. The people stood near me were agape. Lower jaws were around boot level. I don't think any of us were ready for the ferocity of the first two numbers.

After that he settled into a whistle stop tour of his extensive back catalogue. "I don't play this one live very often I don't know why not" and he played Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Then "this is a song you won't have heard before" and he played I've Been Waiting For You. He and his band were just hitting the groove.

The band deserves a mention here. There were all positively ancient but they sure could rock. They were name-checked and acknowledged and they were Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Chad Cromwell, Anthony Crawford and Pegi Young and a damned fine job they did.

Andy and I had been wondering before the show about what we were likely to get. We'd hypothesised that he would do 2 separate sets with one electric and one acoustic. Maybe he'd have Crazy Horse with him (I hoped he would). Pearl Jam? Devo? (Are they still going?) Maybe he'd just strum his acoustic? Maybe we'd get 2 hours of feedback? One thing with NY is that what you get is what he wants to do and if you don't like that then you know where the exit is. This actually displays a rather arrogant and autocratic streak which maybe explains why he has collaborated with so many different musicians over the years. He gets bored. Does something new. Then gets bored again. I get the impression that once a piece of music is recorded it is pretty much finished. For him it is the creative process that is important rather than the end result itself. It's the journey and not necessarily the destination that matters.

I guess as we get older we get less, and not more as you might expect and hope, tolerant of others. I suppose it is a product of the time that you have left on the planet and as you age then so you become ever more aware that you are only here so long. Every 15 year old thinks he is immortal. Every 50 year old knows that he is not. It is a cruel journey that leads us to such wisdom. Neil Young is now 63 and has had more than his fair share of tragedy in recent years. I am pretty sure he has 2 kids with disabilities; last year his father died (for those who don't know his father was an ice hockey commentator in his native Canada); NY himself had surgery following an aneurism which threatened to kill him. He recovered and began a prolific phase of releases: some old and some new. You can check out what they are for yourself but Prairie Wind stands alone for me and sits alongside Harvest and Harvest Moon as a trilogy of recordings that trace his life from young man to middle age and beyond and the lyrical theme of each tells it's own story.

This same kind of retrospective look at his life's work continued. There is a clear native American theme to much of his work and this was represented by Spirit Road and the opening electric section of the show was completed by F**kin' Up.

This Native American spritual aspect of the show is the only explanation I can give for the presence of a Red Indian Chief statue being on stage with him. There was another theme too. As he played then so an artist at the back of the stage painted a succession of abstract representations of each song; each picture was adorned with a song title and each painting was placed on an easel at the front of the stage whilst that song was being played. The song finished and the painting went too. There was a tie-in here, NY himself was wearing a black paint-spattered jacket which he removed to reveal a white pain spattered shirt. Quite what this was about or what it represented beats the hell out of me.

I mentioned the physicality of his guitar playing already. There is something mesmeric about the way he moves as he plays. He doesn't so much play the music as it plays him. He is the music. The music is him. He's a fairly big fella. He must stand well over 6 feet tall and to be honest he isn't as lithe as he once was. His hair is shorter now than it once was but it still isn't as short as it probably should be. He now sports a not inconsiderable bald patch. He looked not unlike his younger self crossed with Meatloaf with a touch of Wurzel Gummidge thrown in. Then again I guess I have looked better too so who am I to criticise?

Next came the acoustic section of his set. Classic followed classic. Each though with a melancholy theme running through them. If I tell you the songs then you can check out the lyrics for yourself:

Oh, Lonesome Me/Mother Earth/The Needle And The Damage Done/Unknown Legend/Heart Of Gold/Old Man

Believe me there's a common theme of loss there in amongst all that we have heard so far. Maybe I was being too sensitive given the week I had just endured. I think not though. This was a man raging, and I mean raging against the injustice of it all. As he put it in one of his songs "it's better to burn out than it is to rust" and I couldn't help but half remember the Dylan Thomas poem here he talks of raging against the dying of the light:


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


I'm sure NY knows exactly where this is coming from. I'm sure I do now in a way I never did before. I could be over-sensitive here but I think not.

The acoustic interlude over and it was back into electric mode. He played Get Back To The Country and Words (for the first time in years apparently) before the final song of the main set. I guess he thought he’d done his bit by way of greatest hits and it was time to indulge himself and indulge himself he did. He played a song I didn’t know (and nor did anybody else near me) called No Hidden Path. NY and his band went off on one here and I get the impression that NY is never actually more happy than when he is jamming with his buddies. So jam he did. Jam they did and on went the song as 30000 people tapped their feet and folded their arms. I didn’t time it but it must have lasted 20 minutes, maybe more, the guitar playing getting more and more ragged as he went along and the feedback levels growing all the time. The set ended pretty much as it began with a cacophonous din. The audience was pretty stunned to be honest. Had we just seen genius? Had we just seen a massive bout of over-blown self-indulgence? Whatever we had seen it was played dead straight without a glimpse of humour. He’d done it on purpose. Whatever it actually was.

That was it bar the encore. People started leaving "trying to catch an hour on the sun" as it were but we stayed in place and waited. What followed was even more extraordinary and he closed with a cover of The Beatles’ Day In The Life. Nobody could ever have imagined that the song would sound like this. I can’t really describe it. Intense, I guess, is the word. Never have I seen anybody do the old trash their guitar thing quite like this. There was only one string left on it at the end. The show finished with NY wailing the aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh… refrain and his guitar howling in objection as the distortion levels reached pretty much unbearable and then surged on some more. This wasn’t music any more in any conventional sense. I’m not sure what it was. Performance art? Aural sculpture? Beats the hell out of me what it was. One thing that was pretty obvious was that this was The End. There would be no more. And there was not.

Then the rain started pouring down yet again as we made our way out of the arena. It became immediately obvious that there was going to be serious carnage in the car park. It was chaos. Luckily I was parked right out on the edge of the site. It may have taken half an hour to walk to the car but once in it I drove around the edge of the field, Andy leapt out and lifted a rope, a car let me in and I was out of the site. All told it could not have taken me more than about 2 minutes from when I started the engine. It’s 3 days later now and I suspect that people are still trying to get out.

Although the event itself was very good the travel arrangements were poor to the point of ridiculous. There was no camping so everybody had to travel. There was no public transport after the show and the last train from nearby Paddock Wood left well before NY was due to finish so the vast majority of the 30000 who were there had to drive. Even my mate Andy was stuffed so I said I’d take him back to Bromley which although not far away was in totally the wrong direction ~ mind you he’d earned his lift by lifting the rope that allowed me to get away so quickly!!

I dropped him off and made for home. Fatigue set in somewhere in Wiltshire so I stacked some Zs in a lay-by at around 3 am. Eventually I got home at about 7:30am which was just in time to take Mrs B and the B~Ling to work and to school before hitting the sack so that I could be at Mum's for the afternoon.

It was a mad, mad day and reminded me a little of the trip to Kapfenburg minus the alcohol. I think I owed it to myself to go once the chance arose to do so. I felt that I had to get away from it all. The preceding week had been the worst of my life, I think. I can't think of one worse anyway. Funnily enough I think it lent me insight into what the show had been about. I had the same rage in me that NY displayed, I think. I, too, wanted to rail against it. Against the way I felt. Against the unfairness of it all. I wanted to celebrate my disenchantment. I didn’t want to ignore it or pretend it wasn’t there. It was there. It is here. My Dad is dead. I don’t like it. He doesn’t deserve it. It is not right or fair or just or decent but it is. It just is. I can’t alter it but I don’t have to like it and I don’t have to give in to it.

That’s pretty much it. Just one more thing. I have been to 2 gigs this year: NY and Jonathan Richman. Each had an utterly stunning finale. Each dealing with the loss of a parent, I think, albeit in different ways. Could fate have been preparing me? I don’t think so. I don’t think there is anything but randomness and science. Definitely odd though. Coincidences, eh?

If you are still here then thanks for reading.

7 Comments:

At 12:57 am, Blogger Thrasher said...

Sorry ab.out your dad. nice review. he would have been proud i think

 
At 2:07 am, Blogger Babararacucudada said...

Thanks for the kind thought.

I still don't know quite how to describe the gig.

NY did not seem like a happy bunny.

I just can't emphasise just how emotional it all was as a piece. It was a performance drenched in passion.

It was as if NY was trying to rationalise so many different themes and at the heart of them all was a sense of loss and I felt that all too keenly.

I'd love to hear other comments about it all.

 
At 2:33 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, stumbled across your post as I was googling the set list, and this came up.

Read the whole post, and I must say, it really touched me - raised hairs on the back of my neck that i haven't felt since that day at Hop Farm. It was the most perfect day I could have ever hoped for, seeing Young play - I'm glad you wrote it down in such complete honesty and detail, so I will always have a record of what happened that day!

Sorry to hear about your father passing - I imagine it was the perfect way to see him out that, to tribute him in such a way.

Let's hope it doesn't take Young another few years to tour in the UK again!

 
At 8:59 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes a good review of a day i couldnt get too. Im not sure neil ever looks that happy when hes onstage...i remember seeing neil young and crazy horse with pearl jam, james and teenage fanclub at finsbury park years and years ago, it pissed down that day too and he winged like hell about the terrible english weather! Pearl Jam and James were at their best and musically if not weather wise it was a great day!

I know what you mean about needing some release after the death of a loved one..my dad died after suffering from alzheimers for an eternity after which i gave up my job and went to Brasil for 3 months and did carnaval and all that.

 
At 6:59 am, Anonymous Matt@MEmO said...

Sorry to learn about your dad, I would like to catch up and am in plymouth with Ems on Wednesday, Are you free?

 
At 4:33 pm, Blogger Babararacucudada said...

Yes I am.

Just one question: do I know you?

Matt? Matthew? Mattie?

Longdon, Mercer or Tremblett? They all seem unlikely to be honest.

Probably just being thick but I really can't guess who you are!!

 
At 8:27 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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