Time Capsule: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re zeroing in on Neil Young’s theatrical, enigmatic career resurrection that became an epitaph for a decade of grief.

Music Reviews Neil Young
Time Capsule: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps

Rust Never Sleeps is an exodus, an exorcism of a curse. And it all begins with an acoustic guitar and one man playing it. At the Boarding House in San Francisco on May 26th, 1978, Neil Young—draped in a white T-shirt and white painter pants—stands alone on stage, strumming the opening chords of “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” a song he co-wrote with Jeff Blackburn, his former bandmate in his short-lived side-project, The Ducks. Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse (Poncho Sampedro, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina), isn’t behind him.

At this point, Young is on autopilot, at least critically. In back-to-back years, he put out American Stars ‘n Bars and Comes a Time, albums that failed to really grasp the kind of singularity that makes LPs like Harvest or even Tonight’s the Night hold up. There were flickers of genius here and there, especially on songs like “Like a Hurricane” and “Human Highway,” but Young had largely forgone the inventive, rebellious edge that defined the first chapter of his career. This is especially true for every prolific artist; no single musician can put out more than 30 albums in a career and craft them all into beloved, bulletproof affairs. Bob Dylan certainly couldn’t do it, and neither could Neil Young.

“It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” Young sings. “The king is gone, but he’s not forgotten.” He’s never sounded like this before; instead choosing to burn down everything we once thought we knew about Neil Young. He wants you to know that being a rock ‘n’ roll hero ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be. He calls out Elvis, he calls out Johnny Rotten, he calls out Marlon Brando, he calls out his deceased former bandmate Danny Whitten. 20 minutes later, Young tells the story of a 22-year-old graduating from boyhood into adulthood the moment he picks up a gun and must defend his family’s land from an incoming gunship. But that man is dead just as the song begins, as is Young. He wants you to know that, the moment you become a rock ‘n’ roll singer is the day you die. Rust Never Sleeps is a mortuary, yet Neil Young can give you hope and rip you apart all in one breath.

Rust Never Sleeps is a unique entry in Young’s catalog, because its release caught no inclusion in some immaculate, critically-acclaimed run of music, nor was it the mark of a late-career renaissance. It exists as a lighthouse stuck in-between Young’s greatest chapter and his most middling. By the time the Boarding House gig came around in 1978, he’d already been to the top of the mountain, back down and halfway back up again. After the Gold Rush put him in the echelons of Dylan in 1970, and then Harvest sent him to the moon two years later—crowned the best-selling album of the year in the United States. On the inverse, after Rust Never Sleeps, Young would go on to unveil five of his least successful LPs (at the time) in succession—Hawks & Doves, Re·ac·tor, Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’ and Old Ways.

While the Boarding House gig was momentous in catalyzing what Rust Never Sleeps would become, the album captures performances at McNichols Arena in Denver, St. Paul Civic Center in Indiana and The Cow Palace in San Francisco. “Sail Away” was recorded at Triiad Studios in Ft. Lauderdale and overdubbed at Woodland Studio in Nashville, while “Pocahontas” was first put to tape at Indigo Ranch Studio in Malibu and later overdubbed at Triiad. Perpendicular to how Elton John recorded “Bennie and the Jets” in-studio and then dubbed a live audience into the final cut, Young and Crazy Horse tracked seven of nine songs live on two separate tours—a string of solo acoustic performances and the eventual “Rust Never Sleeps” tour where each show was split in half, with one half acoustic and the other electric, much like Rust Never Sleeps’s two-sided layout—and then overdubbed them in-studio, removing much of the live atmosphere.

The tour was theatrical, as Neil Young and Crazy Horse played in front of gigantic amps, had Star Wars Jawas as roadies and gave audience members 3-D “Rust-O-Vision” glasses before shows. They labeled the whole ordeal a “concert fantasy” and played it out as such—touting the unreleased stuff yet packing each setlist with the familiars. Crazy Horse had never played so thickly, permeating a mangled and matter-of-fact. The tones on “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” quake with imperfections and slightly cracked arpeggios; the harmonica notes on “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” tell a story all on their own.

Rust Never Sleeps would eventually see a wide release in June 1979, and it has become largely defined by one line—“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” which Young lifted from a line in a song by Blackburn. 15 years later, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain would write those nine words at the end of his suicide note, forever immortalizing “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” by tragic proxy. “When [Cobain] died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me,” Young recalled in his memoir, Shakey. “It fucked with me. I wrote some music for that feeling: ‘Sleeps With Angels.’ What that suicide has done is return me to my roots. Makes me go back and investigate where I started. Where I came from. Why am I here and why is he not here? Does my music suffer because I survived?”

That final question—“Does my music suffer because I survived?”—had already been lingering across Rust Never Sleeps before Cobain was even a teenager. I’ve written a lot about the pessimistic bleakness of Young’s post-Harvest work, dissecting how the deaths of his good friends, Bruce Berry and Danny Whitten, effectively rewrote what direction the entire course his career was meant to take after putting out one of the most successful folk-rock albums of the 1970s. When you look at After the Gold Rush and Harvest and nothing else, it wouldn’t be outlandish to assume that what came next for Young was a bonafide hot-streak of political disavowals and talismanic ruminations on strange, surreal and polyvocal histories. But then Berry and Whitten died, each of overdoses less than a year apart.

And then came the Ditch Trilogy (Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night) from 1973 through ‘75, which signaled a jarring, reflective turn in Neil Young’s songwriting—as he wrote, quite often, about despair and about trauma and about death and about, really, hopelessness. Those three albums were containers for grief and were autobiographical in spirit and, sometimes, execution. Between ‘73 and ‘78, too, Young filtered his own damage through various distillations of instrumentation—like the stripped-down, loose, sludgy guitar accoutrements of Zuma in 1975 or, even, the country-inspired jamboree of Comes a Time in 1978. Hell, even the all-over-the-place continuum of American Stars ‘n Bars in 1977 felt immediately like the bedlam it was—a smattering of songs unearthed from the ashes of many shelved albums, namely Chrome Dreams, Homegrown and Hitchhiker.

You have to give Young’s catalog the grace it demands of you, by meeting it first as an audience and then as a listener. Rust Never Sleeps is a picture-perfect Neil Young album because—when you scale back its emotional currency—it showcases the two sides of him we know and adore best. Side one boasts an all acoustic batch of songs, while side two is a thunderous, shredding affair that revels in punk and a distortion that would go on to lay a certain foundation for grunge. For all of the reasons a song like “Sail Away” showcases why Young is one of our most brilliant storytellers, a song like “Powderfinger” is an education on why he’s one of the greatest axemen in the history of rock ‘n’ roll—and this all happens in a matter of nine consecutive minutes.

The titular phrase, “rust never sleeps,” was coined by Devo vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh, who had recently appeared in (with Devo) and scored Young’s film, Human Highway. Mothersbaugh recalled the line as being the slogan from a Rust-Oleum advertisement, and Young reconfigured it into “it’s better to burn out, because rust never sleeps”—to make sense as the title of a batch of songs he was writing and singing about the pitfalls and perils of having a music career. Rust Never Sleeps is an album that acts as a reparation. Sure, it’s about Whitten and Berry, but it’s also about Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Just like how the Tonight’s the Night tour in 1973 was enraptured by the looming grief of all of those rock heroes’ too-soon deaths, Rust Never Sleeps is a token of a man five, six years removed from watching death trickle into his own band finally marking a momentary goodbye to those tragedies. But, then again, we can never truly outrun our grief and, for all of the ways that the album is a cautionary tale, it is, too, a startling arrangement of someone’s own desire to go out ambitiously rather than corrode alongside those who play it safe.

Suicide and overdoses are, often, inevitable endings met by those who are hurtling towards it, and Neil Young never opts to turn his art into a vacuum that aims to boil loss down into an explanation or reasoning that makes sense for him and no one else. Instead, Young is impelled to better understand those deaths through his own continued living here on Earth—how they make their mark on the small details of his day-to-day that would, otherwise, go unnoticed. With that nuance, it is an entirely tangible kind of haunting. That is why Bruce Berry was a working man who used to load an Econoline van with a sparkle in his eye in 1974, why Danny Whitten raves on in a motel with a heated pool and bar in 1979. There’s a certain humanity when we say the names of those we’ve lost with the baked-in hope that, maybe, it can undo what’s been done. But, like Young sings on “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” once you’re gone, you can’t come back.

But Rust Never Sleeps is categorically not just an album about loss. It’s a political record spun into a tapestry of love, be it through measures of praise for single mothers or acknowledging the hypocrisy of white men with power by acknowledging cavalry slaughters of Native Americans or making it out alive from a ribboned road stretching from Phoenix to Salinas. Across 38 minutes, Neil Young conveys a lifetime’s worth of American iconography and pensive, passionate and racking bluntness laced with poetic language like arsenic on a sweet tooth. And, through all of it, the recurring thesis of Rust Never Sleeps remains Young’s catatonic, beguiling lament for stardom and how, as he pinpoints on “Sedan Delivery,” it’s a job he’s going to keep because it wasn’t easy to find.

Young wrote “Pocahontas” while decamped at Taylor Phelps’—the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young road manager—house after Marlon Brando won a Best Actor Oscar and sent Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the award on his behalf and speak about the mistreatment of Native Americans in the film industry. Young juxtaposes beauty (“Aurora borealis, the icy sky at night, paddles cut the water in a long and hurried flight”) with brutality (“They killed us in our tepee and they cut our women down”) between verses, ping-ponging back-and-forth while also poking fun at Brando’s virtue signaling (“I would give a thousand pelts to sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt,” “And maybe Marlon Brando will be there by the fire / We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood and the good things there for hire”).

While the immediate cornerstones of Rust Never Sleeps are obvious anti-pastorals of the dense nuances of America’s widened and, sometimes, consequential utopia— “Powderfinger,” “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” “Ride My Llama”—it is on “Thrasher” where Young uses the frontier to make the most sense of his own morality with allusions to farmland, passerine birds, full moons and hightailing across the country before dawn. “Thrasher” is, in no short terms, a song about Danny Whitten. And it’s a particularly damning and heartbreaking one at that—a text that conjures allusions to heroin use and the $50 plane ticket Young gave to Whitten when he kicked him out of the Stray Gators ahead of the Harvest tour. The entire second verse, in particular, remains a crucial tableaux of Young’s grief: “I searched out my companions, who were lost in crystal canyons when the aimless blade of science slashed the pearly gates,” he sings; “Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand with a one-way ticket to the land of truth and my suitcase in my hand. How I lost my friends, I still don’t understand,” he continues.

I think Young becomes our most striking songwriter when he surrenders his own godhead for the sake of turbulent and reciprocal humility. “How I lost my friends, I still don’t understand” is not a calculated archival of conclusions but a fit of language meant to question open-ended memories and ponder the rhetoric of closure, who deserves it and who doesn’t—or if any of us, really, even deserve it at all. Young lets himself spread out on Rust Never Sleeps, too, especially on “Ride My Llama,” which softens the blow of “Thrasher” by existing as an “extraterrestrial folk song” about “close encounters of the finest kind”—or, at least, that’s what Young told a crowd at the Boarding House 46 years ago.

Much of Rust Never Sleeps’s emotional potency exists where the album transitions from acoustic to electric, when “Sail Away”—a Comes a Time outtake that features harmonies from Nicolette Larson and embodies the country-rock charm Young so deftly has proctored throughout his career—fades into “Powderfinger,” an admonitory gesture that spins folklore into a loud, iconoclastic derailment of coming-of-age stories. It took Young years to write “Powderfinger” (he came up with the first line in 1967 and didn’t finish the whole thing until 1975), and he even offered it to Lynyrd Skynyrd for inclusion on Street Survivors in 1977 (frontman Ronnie Van Zant and other band members perished in a plane crash before the collaboration could come to fruition) but it endures as his single greatest song.

At five-and-a-half minutes on the dot, “Powderfinger” is shouldered by a two-part guitar solo from Young, who careens his Les Paul into a heat-seeking missile of mythical proportions. He sings of a young man forced to protect his family from a gunboat, and the disastrous mortality of having to act alone in the wake of other man’s inactions is a fictional anecdote that—while it harkens back to Young’s complicated relationship with fame and the legions of trauma intertwined within it—remains spiritually timeless. “You fade away so young, there’s so much left undone,” he laments. “Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her.” With Crazy Horse behind him, few rock songs have ever felt so explosive, so massive and so righteously epic.

On May 27th, 1978, Young took the stage at Mabuhay Gardens—a notorious punk club in San Francisco—with Devo and, a day later, he and Crazy Horse tracked the first electric playthrough of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Looking onwards at the song’s eventual recording for Rust Never Sleeps, Young had one mission of intentionality for his band: sound as ferocious and as intense on-stage as Devo. You can hear that mantra on “Sedan Delivery,” a song that moves through high-voltage distortion with an intensity that bruises and crashes like blood rushing to your head.

On side two of Rust Never Sleeps, Molina’s drumming is especially vital, as it whips and revolts beneath Talbot’s crawling, liquid basslines and Poncho’s time-keeping six-string. Those four tracks on side two are illustrations of something Talbot told me last year. I asked him how Young approached Crazy Horse about doing the Rust Never Sleeps tour. “He just said, ‘I have some songs. Let’s get together,’” Talbot said. And that’s what Rust Never Sleeps is, really. Neil Young had some songs and he wanted to perform them and then put them on a record, so he called up the best band he knew. And let it be known that this was only Crazy Horse’s third credited album with Young as a unit. While side one conjures the mellow densities of After the Gold Rush and Harvest, side two offers something new completely—a batch of tracks that were, somehow, already a universe removed from the enigmatic otherworldliness of a song like “Like a Hurricane,” which had only come out two years prior.

I came to Rust Never Sleeps by chance, when a few buddies of mine blared “Powderfinger” out of a speaker in our high school’s computer lab. “This song’s about cocaine,” one of them confidently remarked. I believed them until I didn’t. Now, a decade later and a few-hundred listens in, the part of Rust Never Sleeps that I return to the most is “Sail Away.” Here, Young couples hope and romance with an impending fall from grace. It’s a huge piece of humanity that he approaches through juxtaposition, contrasting minutiae images of tepees and freeways in an attempt to make sense of a world that might be moving on without him. “See the losers in the best bars, meet the winners in the dives,” Young backgrounds, “where the people are the real stars all the rest of their lives.”

The album-long convergence of violence—both self-inflicted and systematic—with the American Dream-scape of rock music’s supposed Shangri-La and the grief of deceased loved ones evokes a gospel of alienation, confusion and aimless wandering in the wake of displaced celebrity—whether it’s children in the lineage of colonizers sending children in the lineage of the Native Americans they massacred to speak before a room of people booing them or the strange, scrambled fallout of overdose and its unknowable and unexpected symptoms.

The message Neil Young aims to convey on the bookends of Rust Never Sleeps is one that could only be fashioned by someone who is a survivor yet has deemed himself anything but. Grief can point us in numerous directions and, on Rust Never Sleeps, Young first-and-foremost likens rock ‘n’ roll to an immortal machine that has already lived a thousand lives and then some. But Young refuses to exit without making explicit note that, on Rust Never Sleeps, the men and women who make rock ‘n’ roll are doomed, too—their own finality serving as their language, their beauty always in close-proximity to a type of gone-ness that can last centuries or longer.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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