Joe Lapointe, a regular contributor to Deadline Detroit, is a former Detroit Free Press and New York Times reporter.
By Joe Lapointe
Between somber and serious songs, Neil Young told funny stories. One was about leaving a show in Detroit in the mid-1960s to discover an unpleasant surprise at the curb.
“We came out of the Chessmate Club and found somebody had left with part of our car,” Young said.
Because it was the middle of the night, it took time to straighten out the mess. So Young sat down at “the White Tower at the corner of Livernois-and-Something” and wrote a new song called “The Old Laughing Lady” on a paper napkin.
He said it was hard to concentrate in his creative surroundings.
“Guys propositioning me and everything,” Young said, “at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Young didn’t tell this story Tuesday night at Detroit’s Fox Theater during his beautiful, mostly acoustic, solo performance of almost two hours. Oh, no. He told this story almost 50 years ago at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor right after his 23rd birthday in November of 1968. Back then, the small audience listened politely.
You can hear it on an album called “Sugar Mountain” that shows on its cover a Linda McCartney photo of Young when he was young and on his own. He might have told the same story again a half-century later on Tuesday at the Fox except for all those loudmouths shouting out song requests – demands, really – whenever Young tried to talk.
Known in the past to scold unruly audiences, the 72-year-old Young seemed to take this one in stride Tuesday, playing it mostly for laughs and teasing the yellers back.
“Which one of you guys is the loudest?” he asked.
About a hundred guys belched in affirmation.
“You can call out whatever you want,” Young told them. “I never will play it.”
After the Gold Rush
Instead, he began with “On the Way Home” – the same song that opened his Ann Arbor gig in 1968. Other evocative oldies included “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and a gorgeous, organ-based version of “After the Gold Rush” with a twist to the lyrics.
“Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st. Century,” he sang, instead of his original phrase “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.”
Young performed most of his songs while sitting down, sometimes surrounded by guitars, a banjo and a ukulele. He wore a harmonica and made good use of it.
Behind him were three pianos and an organ with candles on it and he moved among those instruments, too, deliberately and without haste, sometimes feigning indecision. In front of Young was a small lighted sign with red letters that spelled “LOVE.”
From beneath Young’s narrow-brimmed fedora, gray hair and sideburns tumbled. His sartorial style was hipster / grunge / layered look, with a black T shirt under an unbuttoned and untucked dark plaid shirt with long sleeves. He wore sneakers and baggy jeans.
Also wearing well were his 21-song set and his high voice -- that eerie, ethereal voice – sounding as fine as it did back when “records” were pressed in grooves on black vinyl discs.
“I know I can’t sing,” Young said late last year when inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
So, how to describe Young’s unique voice? Is it just a tenor or a peculiar falsetto revealing longing and tenderness and vulnerability and regret? Is it a counter-tenor, similar to a female contralto?
His voice is easy to mock. Dana Loesch, mouthpiece for the National Rifle Association, has compared Young’s voice to “the vocal tonality of a dying cow fart.”
But even detractors must admit that few artists of Young’s generation and genre combine so well the musical tools of songwriting, singing and the playing of instruments.
This combination sparkled in the best moment of Tuesday Fox show, with Young playing the pipe organ and singing in a hymnal way:
I was lying in a burned out basement, with the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement when the sun burst through the sky
There was a band playing in my head and I felt like getting high
As Young sang. organ music swirled and filled the ornate old movie palace with a loud and aggressive sound that added dimension not heard on the original studio recording.
Anyone who liked “After the Gold Rush” back in the day would have tingled to the collective Baby Boomer-goose bumps that filled the Fox during this version.
When the audience allowed Young to tell stories on Tuesday, he recalled hanging around Detroit in the 1960s with artists such as Joni Mitchell, who lived here with her husband, Chuck Mitchell.
In that era, Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s father) was prime minister of Canada and some American young men fled there to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam war. Conversely, Detroit drew young, rising Canadian musicians including Young, Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot to its progressive music scene.
Young’s Canadian roots are deep around Toronto and Winnipeg. His father, a journalist named Scott Young, appeared between periods on “Hockey Night in Canada” and wrote hockey books like “Scrubs on Skates,” “Boy on Defence” and “A Boy at the Leafs’ Camp.”
In a magazine article for “Toronto Life” in 1980, Scott wrote of Neil’s survival from polio and of how Neil “in his playpen, when the record player or radio was on, he would jig to the music even before he could stand up by himself. His whole body moved to the rhythm.”
Limited Political Commentary
Young did very little jigging (or jiggling) Tuesday. Nor did he provide much sharp political commentary, as he often does in interviews and in songs. He reached back for an electric version of “Ohio” (“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming . . . “) about the massacre of four students in an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970.
Young didn’t mention President Donald Trump’s trade war with Canada. Nor did he note that a top Trump official recently said current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son) will burn in hell for speaking out against Trump’s economic attacks.
But – in introducing “I Am a Child” from his Buffalo Springfield period -- Young made a pointed comment about how Trump’s immigration crackdown has torn refugee children away from their parents at the border with Mexico.
“This is the one for these children out there, the ones in the boxes,” Young said. “The ones the United States of America put in little boxes.” Then he added an aside that sounded like mockery of Trumpspeak: “Lot of people looking at that.”
Perhaps the minority of unsatisfied customers Tuesday night were not aware that Young’s brief tour this summer features his softer side and not his edgy hard rock side with patriotic anthems like “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”
On the right side of the balcony, one man with a sturdy build and a short, gray beard kept bellowing “Hurricane! Hurricane!” When this man left after Young’s one-song encore of “Tumbleweed” on the ukulele, this guy shouted “His encore was a Tiny Tim song! . . . You’re a fraud, Young! . . . Southern man don’t want you around anyhow! . . . Go back to Canada!”
This man was the ur-jerk of about 100 clods who fouled the 5,000-seat building and did their best to ruin the evening for one extraordinary performer and 4,900 others who appreciated him. Eventually, one of them heckled the hecklers.
“Shut the fuck up!” he suggested in a loud voice from the left side of the balcony.
Young handled the challenge with the poise of a polished pro. Perhaps, for his next Michigan gig, he can find a small, cool place in Ann Arbor where bellicose customers are politely asked to leave or bounced out the door.