If nothing else, Neil Young’s latest archival release, Live At The Cellar Door, serves to remind us that the Neil we know now is the Neil that existed then: capable of doling out tunes that easily settle into your DNA and become part of your being; a near mono-syllabic speaker at times – who can tell a good story when moved to; and an artist who doesn’t honor the art as much as he does/did honor the moment. (That last observation is best represented on Cellar Door by “Cinnamon Girl”, offered here as a solo piano-and-vocal piece – on one hand, a far cry from the Crazy Horsed version on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, but on the other hand, chock full of its own kind of power and emotion.)
Recorded at Washington, D.C.’s Cellar Door during a six-show run in late November/early December, 1970, the 13-track set finds Young on his own after CSNY dissolved (for the first time of … how many?) and having just released After The Goldrush. If the 25-year-old Young was feeling any sort of pressure at that point, it’s certainly not obvious in his performance … and even when the going gets weird (we’ll get to that), he’s cool.
Here we have some classic examples of Young’s acoustic guitar picky/strummy technique: listen to the between-verses rhythm chug during “Down By The River”; the stately chordal work of “Old Man”; the happy dirt road bounce of “Tell Me Why”; and the same dirt road taken for “I Am A Child”, only flavored with an occasional minor-chorded pothole. We have some classic Neil piano (“After The Gold Rush”; the complex and beautifully jarring “Expecting To Fly”) and some unexpected piano as well (the aforementioned “Cinnamon Girl”). We get to hear the first live performances of “Old Man” and “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” along the way.
And then comes the ring-tailed crown jewel of Live At The Cellar Door, “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”.
“Thank you,” says Young softly as the crowd applauds the conclusion of “Down By The River”. It’s obvious he’s moved over to the piano again as he ripples the keys; then he starts to mess with the innards of the piano – emitting a series of unearthly noises. Young utters a “Hmmph” of satisfaction to himself, followed by a short, evil laugh, which delights the audience.
There’s a moment of silence and then we hear the quiet, gentle Neil again: “Well …” He seems to be gathering himself up as he meanders for a bit, shyly admitting to having only played piano “seriously … for almost a year.” He jokes (we think) that he’d had it put in his contract that “I would only play on a nine foot Steinway grand piano … just for a little eccentricity.” The audience loves it.
“This next song is … a very old song,” says Young, before making some more ominous noises with the piano strings. He laughs the evil little laugh again; the crowd titters (a little nervously, perhaps?); and Neil pauses to tell them: “You’d laugh, too, you know … if this is what you did for a living.”
They roar, of course – and the weirdness is diffused until Young announces that, “This song is about dope.” There are a few “Yeah”s and some light laughter, but Young is riffing almost to himself now, stroking the strings inside the piano to punctuate his description of what happens when you’re still using, but your friends have stopped: “When they don’t get high and you do … [more Lon Chaney piano sounds] … and your girlfriend … she doesn’t understand [he laughs and strokes the piano; more scary noise] … your life is crazy …”
And then some gentle chords take over and the actual song begins – and even though we now all know what the song is really about, it’s gentle and pretty and odds are that Neil ISN’T GOING TO HAVE SOME SORT OF A BREAKDOWN RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. It becomes obvious that the seemingly-absentminded piano torture was the soundtrack/setup to the emotions that fueled the birth of “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” – part of the performance; a prelude if you will. The track is timed at 7:11 and almost half of it is taken up by the unsettled Neilness … but all is forgiven because the music is so sweet:
But if crying and holding on
And flying on the ground is wrong
Then I’m sorry to let you down
But you’re from my side of town
And I miss you
… even though it’s still just a song about dope.
And that is why we loved Neil Young – and we still do, 43 years later.
Brian Robbins keeps the snow shoveled away from the cellar door over at www.brian-robbins.com