Neil Young (Almost) Ruined My Life: High School Encounters with a Callow White Bard, Part One  

 

I first learned about Neil Young in a friend’s basement in 1978, when I was a junior in high school. My pal had reckoned that, since I loved Rush’s 2112 (ahhhh—‘70s FM radio and its tendency to showcase entire albums upon release), I would also love Neil. Neither of us were Canucks, nor did we have any special interest in or knowledge about the land geographically above us, but he insisted I come over for a listening session.

He got royally high; I abstained, having recently been gotten high, and had a couple plug wires detached from my car by my “benefactors.” It took me an hour that night to drive the five miles between the party locale and my house—but that hour allowed me to get deeply acquainted with Journey’s Infinity album, which clicked relentlessly through my eight-track player. I mention this only to assure the reader that I wasn’t in an altered state when I got gobsmacked by Decade, a perfect choice for a benighted soul such as I was. Already a Dylan fan, I’d become inured to “bad” voices, but Young? Who else has wielded such an untutored, seemingly technically deficient, yet so yearning a voice? I suppose that yearning was the first thing about him that appealed to me: I yearned to get laid, to express my difference, to connect with people, but I had no vocal, mental, or sexually social tools. Thus, he seemed not only miraculous to me, but a brother in arms as well. Also, he had a nose for injustice. My jones was (and still is) racial injustice; his seemed mostly ecological, romantic, cultural—but then there was “Southern Man”! On top of those things, dude could write a melody: “Sugar Mountain,” “Love is a Rose” and “Heart of Gold” infected my ear, but so did the equally hummable but amped-up “Like a Hurricane” and “Cinnamon Girl.” Yep, amped-up. His GUITAR! Acoustic, but especially electric, it resonated with, I dunno, my sense of my own dissonance against the harmony of the crowd.

After that basement session, Neil was soldered to my soul. That could only bode well, right? Well, you might not remember the Seventies well. In fact, Young’s music was an agent in two of the most humiliating experiences of my youth—but, friends, humiliation is the pathway to enlightenment, or should be, depending on your willingness to reflect, analyze, and adjust.

Music fans know that there are private passions and public passions. We love certain recordings (for me, one is Roland Kirk’s quiet but virtuosic and weird I Talk to The Spirits) that are so eccentric we keep them to ourselves or a very tight circle, because we don’t want them (or us) to be assaulted by the tin-eared. Others seem to communicate so directly and broadly we don’t hesitate to share—in my life I’ve found Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta (or NOLA r&b in general) to be so life-affirming as to entail no risk of rejection. In early ’79, I heard Neil’s Live Rust in its entirety on Joplin, Missouri’s KSYN, and categorized it as public—a) it was a perfect summation of Young’s best work, which had made him famous; b) it sounded like it was being transmitted from the cosmos—which I considered unweird because spacey was lingua franca in the late ‘70s; and c) it was sensitive and balls-out rockin’—how do you remember the 1970s? To my mind, Young’s top-shelf creations were ready to share in situations which demanded it. Situations, though, in which the potential for humiliation lurked.

I grew up in southwest Missouri. My elementary school (’68-’74) was racially segregated—whether on purpose or by location, I know not. My father worked with a black man who came over occasionally for a beer—I don’t think his melanin content registered with me then. My 6th grade teacher introduced me to the concept of race during a civil rights lesson. After we had read (in a precious few pages—maybe even one) about Dr. King’s accomplishments, Mr. Lawhon, a Baptist minister on the side, passed around a postcard showing Dr. King at a Communist party meeting—and labeled him an enemy of America. That was the first time I’d heard a teacher teach against the textbook; I was a natural B+ student who overachieved and competed into As, but the whole moment smelled rotten. A session with my favorite sitter (the town library) confirmed that either it was an outpost of Bible Belt Communism, or my teacher was full of shit. I put my money on the latter.

The next year fed all of the elementaries into one junior high. Along with the one ultra-hot girl who didn’t go to Columbian Elementary, black citizens were now my classmates. Unsurprisingly, that was also the first year I heard my pals toss the verbal Molotov cocktail “nigger” around—casually. My thinking was conflicted by several things. One, a 15-year-old seventh-grader named Barry Clark, Black Power Afro-pick sticking out of his puff and shit-eating grin ever-gleaming, was the reason to never miss science class, which otherwise was an endless procession of transparencies (only the notes were transparent). He was funnier than a motherfucker, and the first example I’d ever seen seen of cool. He made nothing but Fs—but he was obviously smart. His side-eyes during lecture indicated a 36-on-the-ACT social IQ. Beyond that, he provided my personal highlight of that year: we could play pick-up basketball during lunch, and he chose me as part of his three-on-three team. He was already 6’ 3” and pretty skilled; I was 5’ 10” and a basketball Pete Rose—that was probably why he chose me, but I didn’t get it then. During one of our first games, a white upperclassman on the other team took offense to my pestering defense and kamikaze drives to the basket, and clocked me, out of nowhere. Tears welling up, feeling my prestige drain away, I pushed myself up off the court only to see Barry nail the guy with a haymaker and send him down like a sack of potatoes. A principal hustled him off—he had no interest in the guy that punched me–but I was blown away: he had my back. I don’t mean to paint Barry as a saint. That year, he also lit a girl’s hair on fire with a Zippo, and he often referred to me as “Buddha-rini,” which I thought referred to my wisdom but in fact implied that I was ripe for buggering. Still, it made a difference that he was black and he kicked a white kid’s ass ‘cause that kid kicked mine.

Another thing that conflicted my thinking was a black girl a grade above me called me incessantly for a date. And she was cute! I didn’t take her up on it, but it had nothing to do with race. I was scared out of my mind about “going steady” under normal circumstances, I believed that women had no sex drive and only tolerated men’s existence, and I couldn’t process the idea of a girl aggressively pursuing me. My loss. I saw her several years later working concessions at a Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball game, and one locked-in glance brought it all back.

Two of the most important disruptors to my view of race—and to many of my peers’, who were otherwise outwardly racist—were Richard Pryor and Julius Erving. No one was funnier than Rich, no one was smarter, he was black, and you couldn’t deny it. He made Cheech and Chong seem minor leaguers, George Carlin a mere intern. He skewered white folks—and we laughed just as hard as black folks (though maybe we didn’t learn enough). The Doctor? Words do not suffice; spend a few hours on YouTube. In terms of gravity and basketball, he was as Louis Armstrong was to jazz.

By far the most important contributor to my developing view of—I’m sorry, I can’t acknowledge the word race—melanin difference was school-sponsored sports, basketball in particular. Little do I need to explain. The first adult I knew who talked to me as if I were an adult was Lee Stevens, my junior high basketball coach, and a black man. He respected my intelligence, my desire, my eagerness to be down for a program that worked. The night he coached us to a victory in Cassville, Missouri, as fans screamed racial slurs at him and our black players, changed my life. Plus, two black families, the Stricklands and the Wrights, placed their scions on those junior and high school teams, and through myriad conditioning drills and scrimmages and more wins than losses, they came to seem my own brothers. I didn’t have any reason to feel differently, though in school, for some reason (whatever it was, I felt even at the time, it was indefensible), they were never in my classes, which further underlines the significance of their being on our team.

So what does Neil Young have to do with all that? A lot. I’d come to feel very comfortable with my black peers. I thought that was great. That’s about as much as I thought. Before my ’79 senior year, a new basketball coach arrived on the scene, with new ideas. One of the coolest was that, for away games, we could take turns bringing jam boxes on the bus and playing music to get us psyched up. Long before deeply hypnotized by music’s power, I vibrated restlessly, waiting for my turn—we were chosen randomly, or I would have leapt to the front of the line. My turn came shortly after a hip KSYN programmer ran Live Rust in its entirety across the airwaves—I happened to be listening in, and I was mesmerized. I couldn’t wait to share Young’s insights, melodies, and wailings; again, the record (liked its studio companion Rust Never Sleeps) seemed, again, beamed in from some galactic room—someone could write a great article if not book on their ambiance, which flowed into Hawks and Doves and disappeared. In particular, the song “Sugar Mountain”—more so than its earlier incarnation (Young wrote it in ’64, at 19)—pierced right through my 12th grade male athlete armor to what I thought was my core:

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.

It’s so noisy at the fair
But all your friends are there
And the candy floss you had
And your mother and your dad.

There’s a girl just down the aisle,
Oh, to turn and see her smile.
You can hear the words she wrote
As you read the hidden note.

Now you’re underneath the stairs
And you’re givin’ back some glares
To the people who you met
And it’s your first cigarette.

Now you say you’re leavin’ home
‘Cause you want to be alone.
Ain’t it funny how you feel
When you’re findin’ out it’s real?

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.

I couldn’t wait to share it. I thought it had to speak to where everyone was. My consideration didn’t flow to lives that didn’t fully intersect with mine (beyond school—with its mean, mean compartmentalizations—and sports). I knew (in a lazy, knowing way) that some folks’ residences were red-lined into a far corner of the town map; that some folks never seemed to be at the big town pool; that some folks were never represented at my church or the churches at which I occasionally slummed. But that knowledge is of the floating sort, that doesn’t take hold—a very American sort.

We boarded the bus. I found a seat up front, so I could aim my jam box back through space. My expectations? That all my teammates would be elevated by Neil’s flat-out nailing of their personal moment in time and execute a, yes, balletic victory on the hardwood. The Strickland and Wrights, as per usual, were sitting in my vicinity. I had speculated that, yes, they, too, probably had had their first cigarette, and had begun finding out that, yes, in fact, it was real. The bus lurched onto the highway—maybe it was on its way to Seneca, Missouri (that town’s name’s genesis then dim to me)—and, as the vehicle began to sail, I balanced my jam box on the back of my seat and pushed “Play.”

As that fragile, yearning, oddly beautiful voice occupied the bus’ temporarily quiet space, I saw particular bodies stiffen.

The Stricklands, Nathan and Jerome, looked at each other, looked at me, and were stricken with convulsive laughter. They composed themselves, kept listening, then exploded into very physical guffaws. They loudly but politely demanded I push the “Stop” button. I obliged.

Together, they launched into a witheringly sarcastic chorale. Which they repeated, ad nauseum, in wickedly wavering falsettos, for most of the rest of the trip. They may, in fact, have surpassed even Richard Pryor in their spot-on nailing of white liberal obliviousness.

I myself was not experientially or academically equipped (I use both of those adverbs gingerly) to perfectly parse Nathan’s and Jerome’s most excellent satire; I wouldn’t find out until later that the concept of “Sugar Mountain” was, for the Stricklands and Wrights—people of greater melanin content—even deeper bullshit than Neil was suggesting. I was staggered by their ridicule of my passionately and sincerely offered paean, but, really, it was the first notice I’d been given of my white privilege, long before that was a buzz word. Fuck “Sugar Mountain”–they hadn’t even had access to the fair, period. Take that how you wish.

Neil’s music’s fix on me could have ended there—but I was dogged enough to carry it into my romantic life, too.

To Be Continued

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s