Live fast, die young. How many of our rock & roll heroes have done just that? Drug overdoses, cirrhosis, car crashes, suicide, you-name-it, rock & rollers have been making grand exits for as long there’s been rock & roll. Even Elvis checked out too soon, only 42 years old. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain never saw 30. Scores more barely made it past that. We’ll never know what other great music they might have given us, never witnessed them getting better and better at what they do. But that’s rock & roll, a crap shoot for its big stars.
Then you have guys like The Rolling Stones, still performing and improving as a band well into their 60s. Who knew Keith Richards would last so long? Go figure. Mick Jagger always looked after #1 pretty well, so he figured to last, but did anyone think it would still be with the band he started with Richards and Charlie Watts over 45 years ago? The original bass player, Bill Wyman, actually retired from the band several years ago, no doubt with a generous old age pension to share with a wife young enough to be his granddaughter. The “new guy” in the band is guitarist Ron Wood, a 32-year member. Some people question the validity of old rockers like the Stones and Neil Young, but never bat an eye at old blues singers still plying their craft, old jazzmen and women, or singers of standards. Rock music started as a youth movement, but here it is still going strong almost 60 years later, and some of its early stars are still quite active. Take Neil (Forever) Young, for example.
If you listen to Young’s recent work, he hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to song writing, and has improved in both his Jeckyll and Hyde dual performing personalities, the quiet acoustic semi-folk singer/songwriter and the majestically loud and grungy guitar hero leading the band Crazy Horse. He even has an occasional third incarnation when he reunites with Crosby Stills and Nash as a solid band collaborator contributing both lead and harmony vocals and lending his impeccable musicianship to some fine ensemble instrumentation, holding his own with those other 3 aging giants of musical artistry and vocal gymnastics, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and that other surprise survivor of the Rock & Roller Coaster, David Crosby.
But Canadian transplant Young stands on his own, never content to play endless rounds of Greatest Hits tours, which he could easily do given his extensive body of work. He may be getting old, but his writing and performing certainly aren’t. His output has never slowed down or fell prone to years-long gaps. He doesn’t rewrite endless variations of the same few songs either, but lets his muse take him where it will and records the results. Some of his most brilliant work has come in recent years, very rare for a rocker, most of whom seem to peak and burn out early. While some of his records over his 40-plus years in the recording business have been so-so, none have been bad and every one of them is stamped with his personal musical integrity.
Check out his latest song “Fork In The Road” about “a bailout comin’ but it’s not for you.” There’s a video for the tune on YouTube that has the look and feel of a whacky home movie, which is probably what it is. Neil Young prefers to let his music do the talking, leaving the glitzy Hollywood video production to those artists whose music needs that kind of help. His doesn’t. He doesn’t pander to anyone but his own vision and like it or not, you get what he wants to play, not what is expected of him by fans, music executives or critics. He finds new fans in every generation coming of age, not because he mimics the newer sounds they prefer, but because he mimics no one.
He wrote a song singing the praises of Johnny Rotten 29 years ago at a time when Johnny Rotten’s music with his band The Sex Pistols threatened to topple the pedestals upon which Mr. Young and his fellow old guard rock stars stood. Neil Young thought that was a healthy thing and said so in a commanding song called “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).” He rhymed “Hey hey, my my” with the lines “rock & roll will never die” and “more to the picture than meets the eye.” Neil Young and his continuing evolution and astounding creative output is one of the main reasons why the first rhyme is a true statement and the second is a pretty good description of himself and his music. The Rock & Roller Coaster keeps careening along, just like another old roller coaster in Coney Island called The Cyclone, a rickety, flimsy wooden affair that just keeps getting scarier looking and more exciting as the years pass and it defies the wrecking ball, old yet forever young.