From Neil Young, Musical Messages

Posted: June 12, 1989

ATLANTIC CITY — Neil Young is a rock-and-roll Yoda. Hunched, haggard and wearily wise after more than three decades in the tricky business of lending pop a conscience, Young seems as unlikely a rock star as grizzled Yoda was a Hollywood sci-fi hero. But on Saturday's season-opener at Bally's Grandstand Under the Stars, bending over his six-string acoustic guitar and letting out his billy-goat-on- estrogen voice, Young offered music and messages bearing far more force than most of today's mainstream radio fare.

Performing solo - save for steel guitar and ukulele accompaniment on a few tunes - Young mixed vitriol and memory as he darkly recast old hits with new

interpretations and juxtaposed others with unexpected new material.

After opening with a pained "Hey, Hey, My, My (Rust Never Sleeps)," he dug into the new "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World." Right out of Lou Reed's New York school of songwriting, its torrid verses included such viciously timely lyrics as "You got 1,000 points of light / You got a homeless man / You got a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand."

Centering on bitter vignettes about a woman who throws her baby in a dumpster, an adolescent from a broken home and a cop who quits the force to sell crack for a 10-year-old kingpin, "Free World's" verses are accompanied by a slow-tempoed refrain in which the title is ironically chanted. Young has written a song so angry that it will likely be spared the mass cultural appropriation and misinterpretation that befell rock's last great anti-anthem, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."

The simple, earthy pleasures of old favorites "Comes a Time" and "Sugar Mountain" took on a sweet fragility when they pushed through the cracks of the city sidewalk Young had paved with "Free World."

Young, who also sang a new tune about the difficulty of finding positive inspiration for songwriting these days, proved that, through delivery and context, old songs can provide more than nostalgia.

"I don't know why history has to keep repeating itself," he said. "That means I have to keep repeating myself." He then performed "Ohio," a song he wrote in 1970 about the killings at Kent State University, and dedicated it to the students in China.

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