Sunday, August 18, 2019

Catching Up With Neil Young at Woodstock


Ten minutes from now is the moment I’ve been waiting for all weekend while enjoying the marathon broadcast of Woodstock “as it happened” 50 years ago. That’s when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young will take the stage, and I’ll get to hear the only performance I regretted missing the first time around. I’m sure the wait will be worth it.
There are two reasons why I didn’t catch CSNY back at Yasgur’s Farm. There’s no excuse for one of them. I simply didn’t know who they were. It was only their second concert--“we’re scared shitless,” Steven Stills assured us in the clip from the movie which has been as close as I’ve come to knowing what I truly missed—and I didn’t realize that it was a necessity. The other reason is, in retrospect, understandable. CSNY took the stage at 3AM on Sunday night, after I had gotten almost no sleep for 36 hours—until the previous act. On Sunday night, my routine was to go up somewhere on the hill between acts and lie down. Hay bales had been brought in after the afternoon storm, so I could lie cowboy-style on the straw, gaze up at the sky, listen to Chip Monck’s soothing announcements of dire emergencies, and rest or even catnap. Eventually, the next act would tune up, and snatches of melody might help me guess who was on next. Almost every time, once I found out, I hauled ass down through the muck to station myself in the first few rows of people right in front of the stage. This time, it was Blood, Sweat and Tears. I stayed on the straw and dozed off midway through their set. It felt good. The next time, it was Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, names that did not register. I dozed.
I wish I could say that in half-sleep in the middle of the night, I heard the gorgeous version of “Blackbird” which I’m listening to right now, their most exquisite harmony. That got a huge response from the crowd. I hope I heard them. They opened with “Suite, Judy Blue Eyes”and now it’s “Helpless Hoping,” and the crowd is already awed by that mix of voices. Those harmonies—Nash and Crosby are two of the best, and these last two songs have had just a single acoustic guitar accompaniment. That sets them apart from the bulk of the groups I saw those last two day/nights at Woodstock.
Through the 1970s, partly because of the CSNY songs which did make it onto the “Woodstock” albums, I did buy several of their albums, just CSN after awhile. Actually, I was hooked on them after they recorded “Ohio”. However, I was a late arrival on the Neil Young bandwagon, not until the 80s. Once on, I never got off. Both of my wives reserved the right to leave me for him and nobody else, after all. 
Judy turned me onto his solo albums in the early 1980s. Like Linda later, she went nuts over “Harvest” most of all—well, like just about everybody. Among those early favorites with Judy, I preferred “American Stars and Bars”. Later, Linda and I listened to “Unplugged” nonstop in the car for two or three months. That encouraged me to do something I have almost never done: learn the lyrics to a rock song and sing along with it. The song was "Pocahontas".
They’re playing “Guinnevere” now, and a story goes with it. In 2000, Judy and I went to see CSNY at the United Center in Chicago, the big arena. We sit in the front row of the balcony; I was on the aisle. Great seats and a fantastic concert, except for the yahoo a few rows behind us who was letting a buddy enjoy the concert via a cell phone, punctuating the music every few minutes with some loud blurting. Nobody sitting near him said anything to him about it, or nothing that got him to stop. Not a word. Until the lads played “Guinnevere,” possibly their quietest song. Here came that cackle--“this concert is the greatest”—and that’s when I turned around and blurted up the steep row of steps, “it would be if you’d let us hear it.”
I turned back to the music without waiting for a response, and Judy was appalled. “Why did you do that? If he’s that big an asshole in the first place, you just gave him an excuse to come down here and attack you.” I dismissed that. But not more than a minute  later, here came something heavy crashing against my right shoulder and the back of my head and neck—and again, another crash, softer, a body banging against me—I wasn’t hurt, but holy shit, Judy was right, I thought. After the third crash, I dared to turn and look. I found myself just a few inches from a little miniskirted ass attached to a lovely young lady who had tripped drunkenly on the stairs and fallen against me. Without any further introduction, she skedaddled. I shrugged at the man sitting behind me and said, “If I’d known that’s what it was, I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more.” Even tonight, I can’t hear that song without thinking of that concert.
I see. They played a half-dozen songs as just CSN, then brought Young out and did a couple of Buffalo Springfield songs, starting with “Mr. Soul,” and now they’ve promised another song or two with acoustic guitar—they’ve done more than a half-hour already—before they crank up the electric toys, which will be Young and Stills rasslin’ for attention, I’m guessing. I’ll find out soon enough. What stands out so far is the voices. As Nash just put it, it’s just about the music and the songs. If any group’s lyrics stood for their value system, it was CSNY, so yeah, just let the songs tell the story. Now it’s time to get electric and for Stills to get silly, starting with “Pre-Road Downs” with Stills on vocal, then Crosby doing “Long Time Coming.” I’ve wondered just how good they were in their second gig in front of people. They are very damn good.
The other time I saw CSN with Judy was in the late 1990s, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Don’t ask her about it. She would’ve been all right with the booze and drugs she smuggled into the concert, but someone else gave her some home-mixed gunk to drink, and she got so wasted that I had to deposit her back in the van before the intermission. She missed a helluva concert. I stood in front of the stage, just like old times, and when they played “Ohio,” Neil Young drifted onto the stage, pounded out a ten-minute guitar solo, and drifted back into the wings. Perfect.
Linda and I saw Neil Young perform several times, and never with the same support. One was an acoustic concert, probably my favorite. One was with Crazy Horse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, shortly after Psychedelic Pill came out. The high point that night was meeting and talking to Young’s son Ben, shortly after reading Young’s book detailing Ben’s remarkable life.
But our last Neil Young experience is the one I’d like to leave you with, as a measure of the kind of devotion that he engenders in his fans. Fittingly, this one took place in the summer of 2015 at the Bethel Woods venue. Just one field over from the site of the 1969 festival, it was the ideal place to catch up with him.
At the time, Linda was recovering from serious leg surgeries, and she was using one of those walkers with a seat which she could relax on while I pushed her around. Push it I did. Times had changed, though the landscape hadn’t changed much. This day, we parked at the racetrack in Monticello and took a shuttle bus to Bethel Woods. From the bus, I had to push Linda and that walker over a hundred yards to the top of the hill where we could sit. That was quite a haul, but it was Neil Young. We found a spot only a dozen feet down the hill; we had binoculars if we wanted a close view. The opening act featured Norah Jones, an unexpected treat, and then it was time for Neil.
After a ton of applause which involved a standing ovation of sorts, the band—this time, Neil performed with the newly formed Promise of the Real, including two sons of Willie Nelson—was ready to go, and people sat down. Everybody, that is, except one fortyish woman about fifteen feet down the hill, who stood and swayed with the first notes, completely blocking Linda’s view of the stage. Some people called to the woman to sit down, but she ignored them. Linda was much less happy than she had been a moment earlier. A few more shouts reached the woman and bounced off.
Having learned my lesson at the United Center, I marched down the hill and stood next to the woman. “You’re blocking our view,” I said simply. She was still moving with the music, but she wasn’t moved by my words. “I’ve been waiting a long time to see Neil Young, and I can see him better standing up.” I made another attempt, but she didn’t budge from her gist.
Off I went in search of security, up at the top of the hill. That took a moment, and soon I was explaining the problem with the woman who was blocking our view. I got quickly to our gist, which was that “my wife is in a walker, she can’t walk, that’s her spot, and now she can’t see.” The security person understood. “Where is she?”
I turned to point—and there was Linda, standing toe to toe with the woman and explaining why she ought to sit down. The woman sat down.
Linda was happy again. And that’s why I’m so happy listening to CSNY right now.
Yes, definitely worth the wait.