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Opening Neil Young's music box

Neil Young's Music Box.jpg

Sexy Intellectual‘s Here We Are in the Years: Neil Young‘s Music Box DVD does present quite the journey through the past.

Right off the bat, young Neil’s original drummer, Ken Smyth of The Squires, drives home how Elvis Presley shook to its very foundation the hitherto genteel teenaged population of Winnipeg, Canada, circa 1956.

Putting our eyes where Smyth’s mouth is, we’re treated to a vintage clip of Presley mauling Little Richard‘s “Tutti Frutti” all across the Dorsey Brothers‘ televised Stage Show: One can’t help but draw socio-musical connections with those Shocking Pinks to come — to say nothing of Live Rust. Similarly, footage of a live “Birds” draws undeniable parallels with and to another unmistakable early influence: that “opera singer with a backbeat” (as Young once called him), Roy Orbison.

Next, George Tomsco of The Fireballs explains how such instrumental combos provided the foundation upon which those early Squires were built, along with The Shadows from Britain and their brilliant guitarist Hank Marvin. Luckily, our hero soon found his very own homegrown, hometown tutor of the electrified six strings in Randy Bachman, whose own baby bands were at this point already filling Winnipeg community clubs with sounds until then only heard deep within Young’s head.

But as it did countless others in 1964, the music of The Beatles abruptly pointed Young, the hitherto self-confessed guitar nerd, in a bold new direction. Choosing the opening and closing numbers off Capitol Canada’s Beatlemania! album, “It Won’t Be Long” and “Money,” to make his vocal debut in Squires performances — ignoring catcalls from the audience to “stick to the instrumentals” — Young the singer/songwriter was born. A years-later clip of “When You Dance I Can Really Love” draws that fab line clear back to “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” by Young’s fave Beatle, George Harrison.

“Mr. Soul” would later demonstrate Young’s admiration for those anti-Beatles, The Rolling Stones (and their “Satisfaction” in particular): We can all hear just how much “Lady Jane” still inhabits that admittedly “Borrowed Tune” of his. Funny, then, how Young’s career would later straddle similarly opposing camps, doing time in both his own Beatles alongside Messrs. David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash whilst simultaneously taking rougher rides atop that wholly Stone-headed Crazy Horse. One guess as to which affiliation Young preferred.

This musical duality is even more pronounced when in 1965 Young returns to Toronto, enthralled and active within that city’s hard-knocking Yonge Street Strip as well as the comparatively refined Yorkville Avenue coffeehouse scene. All of which prepares him perfectly for a subsequent escape to Los Angeles and his first major successes with the one and only Buffalo Springfield. Here, finally, was a band that allowed Young to vent the entire gamut of his myriad musical upbringings clear back to Elvis and the Big O via Beatles, Stones and Yorkville’s resident Bob Dylan disciples.

Many musicians, documentary makers and viewers alike would be happy to rest upon the many laurels 21-year-old Young had already racked up so far. But this story is far from over, and Here We Are in the Years enters the 1970s with Neil Young: Stories Behind the Songs author Nigel Williamson making quite the case for Neil the pioneer, as opposed to mere practitioner of country-rock. Yet no sooner are we lulled into such Old Ways with a Willie Nelson duet than we’re bolted into a Sex Pistols-poppin’ “Pretty Vacant” clip as, oh dear, Neil the Punk rears its recently shorn head. Warning: Excerpts from director Bernard Shakey‘s Human Highway will only leave you hankering for more, so I hereby direct one and all to the nearest YouTube — keywords Devo + Hey Hey My My.

None other than Kraftwerk enters the Music Box at this critical juncture: I never realized just how well Trans worked onstage until I was reminded with the vocoder-drenched performance footage here. Then come the 1990s: Neil Young — or at least his wardrobe — finds itself in perfect sync with what Seattle Weekly‘s Ned Raggett calls “lumberjacks in flannel playing huge heavy riffs.” Or grunge, to the uninitiated. But, in case you forgot, Young joined no less than Pearl Jam with a benedictorial “Rockin’ in the Free World” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards.

Enough said.

All in all, this is a splendid audio/visual overview — at least as much as can be crammed into 117 minutes with a career as big and boxed set(s)-worthy as Young’s. This is one production that clearly and completely focuses on the man’s music — even to the point the bonus featurette “A Brief History of the Squires” explains in heartbreaking detail just how Young’s first bandmates doomed themselves forever to the Where Are They Now? drawer by not showing up for a planned weeklong gig many summers ago on Falcon Lake, Manitoba.

Such are the tall rock tales only good docs are made of. Here We Are in the Years: Neil Young’s Music Box is one of them.

Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.