Wednesday, October 7, 2015

ROCKTOBER: The Dancingest Man In Rock and Roll

You probably think it is Mick Jagger.  Or maybe Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis.  Maybe even Michael Jackson or Bo Diddley.  You would be wrong.

The Dancingest man in rock and roll is none other than.....................Neil Young!

That's right.  There is no person in the history of rock more obsessed with dancing than that flannel-wearing Canadian you have seen awkwardly stalking and stomping across the stage in time to his ragged music and scattershot solos.

So, maybe it isn't him dancing that this post is about.  Instead, it is his obsession with a girl or woman dancing that has pervaded his music, probably as the dominant motif in the canon of a man known more for  iconic protest songs, experimental sidetracks, grunge guitar, and idiosyncratic career moves.  But through it all, the songs have been about dancing.

Start with his earliest tunes, like the never-recorded-by-him "Dance, Dance, Dance", to know that his dance obsession has been going on for seven decades now.  By his second solo record, he was asserting that "When you dance/ I can really love."

Even the Spanish conqueror Cortez "came dancing across the water/ with his galleons and guns."  And in the classic guitar workout, "Like a Hurricane," he begins with "Once I thought I saw you in a crowded, hazy bar/ Dancing on the lights from star to star." In the allegorical "Mideast Vacation," he says, " I was Rambo in the disco/ I was shooting to the beat."

The title track of Harvest Moon is an autumn dance under the night sky.  His final song lament on Life is "We Never Danced."  On the recent Psychedelic Pill, both the title track and "She's Always Dancing" focus on the image of a girl dancing, the girl in the former song's moves being compared to a psychedelic pill.  "Wrecking Ball," off of Freedom, urges a woman to "wear something pretty and white/ And we'll go dancing tonight."  On the never-released-on-CD Time Fades Away, the disturbing closer, "The Last Dance," builds its metaphor around the notion of the drudgery of daily life being that sad culmination of who we are.

The other examples, which encompass Young's entire career, are too numerous to mention.  The dude likes women who are moving in time with the beat.  So, what's your theory?  A central motif of his life?  Lazy songwriting that falls back on the same stock ideas over and over again?

Here's my theory:  Neil Young has an expansive vision of freedom, and nothing strikes him as more freeing than the willingness to dance.  It is a chance to lose all inhibitions, to become one with music or rhythm or nature.  So the image of the girl dancing, the woman dancing, the goddess dancing is the ultimate attraction for Young, an image that always calls to him like a Siren from the distant shores of a romanticized vision.

I'm not much of a dancer myself.  Neither, I suspect, is Neil Young.  When he explodes on his guitar, with frenetic runs and random squawks, he isn't typically rhythmic.  He is above the rhythm.  It is there to allow him to go as far out as he wants and to try to come back.  But underneath, there's always an awkwardness to his playing, a blistering clunk.

And then there is that woman dancing.  "See the girl dance," he writes.  "I want to see you dance again," he writes.  "When you dance I can really love," he writes.  He almost seems to want to say, Tell me how'd you get so free?

And then there is Sun Green, the heroine of Young's Greendale CD novel.  Eventually, she breaks the bonds of society, but it won't let her go, especially the FBI:

"Now when she goes dancin'
She has to watch her back."

Until she finds Earth Brown, who dances with her in perfect unison and off they go on a cosmic quest to save the planet.  I don't quite pretend to understand all of it, but I'm pretty certain of this:  in Neil Young's universe, you connect to someone by dancing because it represents the potential freedom in both of you.


Anonymous said...

According to kim gordon from sonic youth, he likes strippers. Apparently, they can really dance.

troutking said...

Great post! Wonder if anyone has made this observation before about Neil. His song does make this list: