Classic Tracks: Neil Young "Rockin' in the Free World"
Mar 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson
Pick an era, almost any era since the mid-’60s, and you can make a “Classic Tracks” argument for a Neil Young tune: Maybe “Mr. Soul” from Buffalo Springfield; “Down By the River” from his second solo album; “Helpless” by CSNY; “Heart of Gold” from Harvest; “Comes a Time”; “Hey Hey, My My”; “Like a Hurricane”; “Cortez the Killer”; “Harvest Moon”—stop me ’cause I can think of a lot more. This month’s classic is relatively recent—it comes from his 1989 album, Freedom, but just to show you how prolific this guy is, he’s made more than 20 albums since then!
In the early and mid-’80s, Young was hopping all over the map stylistically: Trans ventured into electronic textures (including extensive early use of a Vocoder); Everybody’s Rockin’ was a stab at modern rockabilly; Old Ways was a wonderful (and criminally underrated) exploration of hard-core country stylings; and This Note’s for You introduced a big, brassy R&B/blues band called The Bluenotes.
A few years before that rollicking Bluenotes album, L.A. engineer Niko Bolas drifted into Young’s orbit. “I came in around 1984 or ’85 when Neil was working on Landing on Water,” he recalls today. “Danny Kortchmar was producing the record and wanted me to engineer it because I’d worked on Don Henley’s record with him. So Neil and I met and we became good friends, and after that record he called me and asked me to continue working on Life with David Briggs, and after that one I actually called Neil and said I wanted to do a Big Band record because I really like horns. So he called me back, and said, ‘Well, I want to do this thing called The Bluenotes, and I want you to produce it.’ It was one of those kismet things where I wanted to do horns and he had these songs that needed horns.”
That album and band marked quite a departure for Young, not just stylistically, but also in terms of personnel—this is a guy who thrived using certain “go-to” players on most of his albums, whether it was Crazy Horse or perennials like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, yet this was largely a new cast of characters. “I got into The Bluenotes through Niko,” says drummer Chad Cromwell, who today lives in Nashville and works with the likes of Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and many others. “At the time, Neil was trying to do this blues thing and he ran through his typical list of guys he always wanted to work with, but I guess they didn’t work out, and I think it was Niko, who I’d worked with on a project in 1986, who was able to convince him to try a couple of outside guys. At that point, [bassist] Rick Rosas and I were playing for Joe Walsh, and that led us into an invitation to come out and give it a go.
“The subsequent Bluenotes record and tours happened, and then we started a second Bluenotes record, but somehow that got put on hold because Neil suddenly drifted off into wanting to do a much heavier rock sort of thing again. Rick and I and Poncho [Frank Sampedro of Crazy Horse fame; he also toured with The Bluenotes] fell into this four-piece hard rock—almost punk rock—thing with Neil, and that was the band known as The Restless. The Freedom record was a culmination of the end of The Bluenotes sessions that sort of melded into the heavier rock stuff that became The Restless and finally, ultimately, became the Freedom record.” Indeed, Freedom is a typical Young hodge-podge with some tracks featuring members of The Bluenotes (like the epic “Crime in the City”), others based around The Restless (like the album-ending “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Cocaine Eyes”), and for good measure there’s a solo live acoustic version of “Rockin’ in the Free World” to kick off the disc.
The exact origins of “Rockin’ in the Free World” are a little hazy. In Jimmy McDonough’s definitive Young biography, Shakey, he says that Young and Poncho were watching TV footage of the bedlam surrounding the funeral of Iran’s ruler Ayatollah Khomeini, when Poncho casually said, “Whatever we do, we shouldn’t go near the Mideast. It’s probably better we just keep on rockin’ in the free world.” Young was immediately struck by the phrase and asked if he could write a song around it. (This is a good story but cannot be correct, as Khomeini didn’t die until many months after the song was written and premiered. Maybe it’s just the wrong mullah.) Though often thought of as a patriotic flag-waver (because of the chorus), the song is actually a bleak portrait of an American landscape that includes the homeless, drug addicts and selfish energy consumption.
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