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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 03:46 pm

On our side again

Neil YoungÂ’s ideological vicissitudes defy all reason

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Neil Young Living with War (Reprise)
Now that President George W. Bush’s approval ratings are stagnating around 30 percent, protest songs are fashionable again, with everyone from Pink to Pearl Jam clamoring to kick ol’ Dubya while he’s down. Sure, indie rockers such as Jay Farrar and Conor Oberst had already been there and done that, but big whoop: Most of their fans knew enough to hate King George from the beginning, back when slightly more than half the country thought he pooped marshmallows and the mainstream media ate gratefully from his plutocratic palm. While the lumpenproles make the painful adjustment to reality — their fearless leader is an incompetent fraud controlled by a cabal of imperialist Iagos — they need someone to give voice to their confusion. They don’t want some nerdy Nation subscriber to tell them they’ve been had; they want to commiserate with someone as inconstant and uncertain as themselves, someone who was lulled by the lies for awhile and woke up feeling angry, scared, and betrayed. They don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; they need a weathervane. It might as well be Neil Young, whose ideological vicissitudes defy all reason. He is like a hurricane, to borrow a simile from one of his songs. The right-wing bloggers call him a moonbat, but the term is inapt: A moonbat, as defined by Adriana Cronin-Lukas, is “someone who sacrifices sanity for the sake of consistency.” Only through the most abstruse calculations of advanced chaos theory could anyone discern a consistent pattern in Young’s political opinions. In the ’70s, he went from excoriating Richard Nixon (“Ohio”) to exculpating him (“Campaigner”). In the ’80s, he embraced nukes and Reaganomics and fretted about AIDS-infected “faggots” fouling the supermarket produce. By the end of that decade, he was ragging on Bush père with “Rockin’ in the Free World” (“We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand”). Like so many others, he freaked out after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, endorsing the Patriot Act and releasing the hawkish “Let’s Roll.” Now, not quite five years later, he’s trippin’ down the hippie highway again: Living with War, his new album, is a 10-track indictment of Bush Jr.’s presidency, the misadventure in Iraq, and the malignancy of consumer culture. To top it all off, Young, who has lived in this country since the late ’60s and whose children were born here, remains a Canadian citizen. He can’t even vote! The Fox News diatribes pretty much write themselves. But maybe this zeitgeist-coasting, whiplash-inducing impulsivity makes Young the ideal American everyman. Like Walt Whitman, he contradicts himself because he is large and contains multitudes. Leave Michelle Malkin and her small-minded minions to carp about consistency; Neil sounds his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. There’s something indescribably thrilling in the way he preaches to the choir with the help of a literal choir, the way those bellicose trumpets bolster his trademark six-string snarl, the way his sorrowful yelp subsides into a sea of anonymous gospel voices. Who cares if he bit most of the melodies from his own back catalog? Who cares if the album’s centerpiece, “Let’s Impeach the President,” with its bridge cobbled together from Bush soundbites and its gleeful fillips of “flip” and “flop,” is more like a bumper-sticker collage than a finished song? The entire CD was written and recorded in a mere two weeks this past April, and it sounds like it — all ragged glory, reckless ranting, and righteous outrage. Even if we know from hard experience that it’s only temporary, having him on our side again feels too damned good to resist.
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