Out of the blue

a&eletters@sfbg.com

ESSAY This is the briar patch, the place from which all funky thangs flow. On the anniversary of the death of my Afro-Algonquin Southern (re)belle mother, my bare feet are planted in the dirt. Since it’s also the last days of Black Music Month, I am out of my head, thoughts swirling across the amber waves pondering the intersections of family, flesh, and funk, questing after new sounds and cultural concepts even as I journey into my sonic past. The last time it seems I was so enmeshed and empowered by cultural renaissance was just over 21 years ago, when Neil Young first heralded his now released Archives project, and I embraced the notion that Neil Young’s work is black music.

My late mother was a restless adventurer born in Virginia — and I perceive Neil Young as the same via osmosis from his maternal grandfather, Bill Ragland, a Virginian émigré to the Great North and scion of the Southern planter class from Petersburg. The Neil Young I love most is the direct heir of aspects of Daddy Ragland’s personal lore: he had the first radio and gramophone in Winnipeg, Canada; he fiercely retained his American citizenship while big pimpin’ in Manitoba (foreshadowing his grandson’s famous Canadian retentions despite residing in California).

Daddy Ragland boasted that his grandfather had freed the enslaved Africans on the family plantation. But he was also descended from the original British invaders who established Virginia Colony, destroying my people’s lifeways and ecology in process, setting precedents for America’s current crises around violence, resources, and the environment. The glories and tensions in Young’s family fables would appear to be the benefactor of much of his catalog’s leading lights: "Southern Man," "Cortez the Killer," "After the Gold Rush," "Country Girl," "Pocahontas," "Here We Are In the Years," "Alabama," "Broken Arrow," "Powderfinger," and "Down By the River."

Young’s internal narrative of ur-Americana (literally carried on the blood) is enacted again and again and refashioned throughout Reprise’s 10-disc Neil Young Archives — Vol. 1 (1963-1972), a collection that traces his odyssey from Ventures acolyte and early earnest folkie to embryonic trickster of eco-metal. The epic nature of Young’s work, akin to a late modern, machine age substitute for Greek myth — at least for the hippie, Coastopian jet-set — was once lost on me. The voice beaming over the radio waves in "Helpless" and "Sugar Mountain" was repellent to these ears, raised in the 1970s when Mother Nature was on the run and the last universally-recognized golden era of black music abounded with diverse male songbirds (Ronnie Dyson, Carl Anderson) and badass lovemen (Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Levert). But one day, after yet another wearisome visit to a coffeehouse festooned with Harry Chapin songs and some showoff girl’s fey rendition of "Helpless," I encountered three Neil Young masterpieces that forever altered my hearing: "Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing," "Broken Arrow," and "Cinnamon Girl." I became a Buffalo Springfield devotee for life.

What also went down? Somehow, pre-Web and locked away in the wilds with limited resources, I discovered my favorite bit of rock trivia: Neil Young was in a band with Rick James signed to Motown for a seven-year deal, the Mynah Birds. Young’s engagements with psych, punk, and grunge are well-documented — even if most shirk the challenge of unpacking his electro output — but the lurking presence of the funk in his aesthetic is often ignored. Now, I ain’t saying ole Neil could come down to my former hood and swing with a Chocolate City go-go outfit (maybe he could trouble the funk?), but on "Go Ahead and Cry," the ringing of his unleashed 1970s guitar sound is already evident. The sublime meeting of Young’s thang with "The Sound of Young America" makes one lament how differently (black) rock history might have looked had the Mynah Birds triumphed at Hitsville.

My view is that Young couldn’t have written some of his best songs, like "Cinnamon Girl" and "Mr. Soul," plus freakery I dig such as "Sea of Madness," without that brief spell at Motown. (It’s interesting to imagine former auto-line worker Berry Gordy and car enthusiast Young rapping by chance). In a weird way, the shades of Young that appeared on the pop stage and relentlessly morphed between "Clancy" and "When You Dance I Can Really Love" seem to coexist with turn-of-the-’70s Motown mavericks who also flirted with polemics, space rock, and soul yodeling: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Kendricks.

The Mynah Birds are sadly absent from volume one of Archives, despite a fleeting citation in its chronological timeline. But a few months before the box set dropped I acquired my grail of Mynah Birds tracks, and the picture of Young as a potential R&B artist who brought some of the Motown sensibility to bear upon the aesthetics of his next band, the Buffalo Springfield, emerged tantalizingly. Alongside it was the turbulent back story of the striving front man Ricky James Matthews (a Mick Jagger acolyte who later renamed himself), who failed to gain support for his hybrid vision of black rock even as his old bandmate soared from the ashes of Woodstock Nation.

Aside from the future Super Freak, Young’s key ace boons on the funk express were Bruce Palmer (1946-2004) and Danny Whitten (1943-72) — besides Stephen Stills, the stars of this first set. Palmer, a native of Toronto who shared a deep spiritual bond with Young, had been in an all-black Canadian band led by Billy Clarkson even prior to his membership in the Mynah Birds. He subsequently brought his low-end theories to the Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (before being replaced by young Motown bassist Greg Reeves); and Young’s thwarted revolutionary electronic project Trans (Geffen, 1982). Palmer also reunited with Rick James after the Springfield’s implosion, producing the beautiful psych-jazz classic The Cycle Is Complete (Verve, 1971), a rival to Skip Spence’s Oar (Columbia, 1969).

Columbus, Ga.,-bred Whitten might still be Young’s most fabled collaborator. His premature death by heroin overdose inspired "The Needle and the Damage Done" (included amongst other Harvest tracks on disc eight of Vol. 1) and the dark and stark standout of the "Ditch Trilogy," Tonight’s the Night (Reprise, 1975), which will feature in the next Archives installment. Even before starting the Laurel Canyon-based Rockets (which became Crazy Horse), Whitten had been a live R&B dancer and seems to have restored some genuine Southern rock ‘n’ soul flava to the mix of his boy twice-removed from Dixie. Every time I hear the vainglorious funk bomb that is "Cinnamon Girl," I recognize that element is there and regret Whitten’s passing even more.

I first and foremost swear fealty to Buffalo Springfield. But for all his seemingly mercurial guises, the plaid-and-denim-clad Young who conjured Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise, 1969) and the songs from the Ditch in company with Crazy Horse and other canyon pickers appears to be the most enduring direct influence on later generations. To try to make sense of Young’s legend, I consulted an amen corner: Harry Weinger, VP of A&R at Universal Motown; famed Harvest producer Elliot Mazer; and young J. Tillman.

I also saw my Alabama-bred friend Patterson Hood at the Bowery Ballroom, bringing an element of Stills and Young’s guitar duels and Young’s volume to the stage, backed by the Screwtopians. Brother Hood’s chief band, Drive-By Truckers, came to most folks’ attention with 2001’s Sept. 12 Soul Dump release Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling masterwork in two acts that dealt with — among other Southern myths — the complex relationship between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd icon Ronnie Van Zant (see "Ronnie and Neil"). When we discussed the Archives before the gig, Patterson professed to be waiting on tenterhooks for the next volume, due to the Ditch releases: TTN, Time Fades Away (Reprise, 1973), and my favorite, On the Beach (Reprise, 1974).

Tillman — Pacific Northwest-dwelling solo artist and multi-instrumentalist member of Fleet Foxes — was illuminating on the subject of Young as artistic forebear. This year, the Foxes were summoned by Young to tour with him and perform at his annual Bridge School benefit, even as Tillman promoted Vacilando Territory Blues (Bella Union) and began to develop his next solo recording Year In the Kingdom. Kindly, he paused amid all this flurry to speak on Young’s influence when we crossed paths earlier this year:

"Neil is a figure to follow and not follow. Following him is kind of antithetical to the spirit of his music, but it’s hard to resist the mythology …

"Neil’s understanding of the technical side of the recording process, and his obsession with gear and tone, stands in total contrast to his completely intuitive approach to making records." he continued. "Each of his records has an environment that is as big a part of the record as the songs. Recording in a barn, an SIR storage space, doing honey-slides with Rusty Kershaw — he always positions himself for moments of magic."

Despite Young’s great capacity for harnessing magic, what Archives demonstrates beyond the master’s curatorial intent is the vast gulf between the violent-but-halcyon time that begat his earliest works and now, when ever more plastic reigns in our common culture. When I cited surprise at a sudden small surge in younger folk and country-rockin’ artists who profess overt adoration of and respect for Buffalo Springfield and Stills’ Manassas, Tillman voiced skepticism:

"Our generation has been told that we can buy authenticity. Advertising is so enmeshed in our thought life we’ve developed Stockholm syndrome. People buy the idea of the ’60s and ’70s like a product, like it’s something you can own by buying things, or conversely, by becoming a product fashioned in the style of the ’70s. There are plenty of people dying to make a buck off that. It’s sad how commodified music has become, how people just do it to be it, instead of doing it because they are it. Neil refused to be bought or sold or owned in his own time, like any of the greats."

As for Young followers on the blackhand side, they may not be legion but today — more than four decades after he was meant to produce Love’s masterpiece Forever Changes (Elektra, 1967) and long after his road dawgin’ with former Malibu neighbor Booker T. Jones — there are more than you might think. Richie Havens still cut what might rate as the best-ever Young cover: his desperate, electric, heavy metal "The Loner" on Mixed Bag II (Stormy Forest, 1974). The other week I attended a taping of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and after the show, when Roots’ guitarist Kirk Douglas spotted the behemoth Archives box I was toting, he ripped a few blazing riffs from "Cinnamon Girl."

Outlaws don’t always go out in a blaze of glory. Some, like Young, abide, too ornery for entropy to overtake them. I expect him to continue restlessly exploring where he and Sudanese bluenote sound intersect in the eye of the volt. As for the native rights supporter who came off like the inscrutable brave in Buffalo Springfield’s dynamic cowboy movie — but who totes a cigar store Indian onstage? The rebel in me that thrills to Young’s peculiarly suhthuhn quixotic qualities and access to American African’s obsession with freedom wants him to account for these lyrics about my ancestral sovereign Wahunsunacock’s martyred daughter, Matoaka:

I wish I was a trapper

I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas

And find out how she felt

In the mornin’ on the fields of green

In the homeland we’ve never seen.

Hey now hey … my my my. Aren’t we both, the contested bodies, still looking for America?