Sunday, July 22, 2018

Certain Songs #1269: Neil Young & The International Harvesters – “Southern Pacific (St. Paul 9-1-1985)” | Medialoper

Album: A Treasure
Year: 1985

Recorded at the Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul on September 1, 1985

After Trans, things got weird. Think about that for a second.

Changing gears again, Neil recorded a full-blown country album called Old Ways. Geffen flat-out rejected it, saying that he wanted something that was rock ‘n’ roll. What he meant, of course, was Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere or Zuma, of course; what he got was Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere Close to Rockin’ Except For Techniclaly, shortened to Everybody’s Rockin’ & credited to Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks.

From what I could tell, Neil started with a “fuck him, if he wants rock ‘n’ roll, I’ll go straight to the source” and so Everybody’s Rockin’ was a full-out rockabilly album — the only thing it was missing was good songs — by the end of which, he was as into the rockabilly guy as he was into the new wave guy: fully and completely right up until the moment he wasn’t. That commitment led to the only good thing to come from the project, the weirdly hilarious video for “Wonderin,” which was part of the pattern during this lost period: even when the records weren’t all that great, there was always some kind of performance that was still compelling.

In any event, after Everybody’s Rockin’ tanked, Geffen sued Neil Young for making “unrepresentative” albums, which seemed strange at the time and downright hilarious today. While the lawsuit was pending, he put together a band of Nashville vets and Neil vets, dubbed them the “International Harvesters” and played shows with them from 1984 – 1986, including Live Aid, Farm Aid, and Austin City Limits.

So while the version of Old Ways (which Neil calls Old Ways II) that finally came out in October, 1985 after the lawsuit was settled was fine — check the raucous version of “Get Back to The Country” w/ my man Waylon Jennings — by that time, I’d seen some of the International Harvester performances, and wanted a full album of that. Because even without Crazy Horse or grungy guitars, Neil could still bring it live, and in fact, it was seeing him kill it with the International Harvesters that stoked my fandom the most during this period.

Not only did Neil bring it — expected, but still nice to see — I was surprised how the fiddles and banjos of the International Harvesters added new dimensions to songs like “Helpless,” “Powderfinger,” and (especially) “Southern Pacific,” a train song from Re*ac*tor that took on a whole new life during these performances.

Down the mountainside
To the coastline
Past the angry tide
The mighty diesel whines

On Re*ac*tor, while Billy Talbot’s bass lines were pretty cool, Ralph Molina’s drum part kept “Southern Pacific” tied to the tracks, but with Rufus Thibodeaux making his fiddle sound like a mournful train whistle and Anthony Crawford’s banjo providing the momentum, “Southern Pacific” feels like a locomotive just chugging through the landscape. All the more to highlight Neil’s sympathetic lyric about a train conductor who had given his life to a railroad.

And the tunnel comes
And the tunnel goes
Round another bend
The giant drivers roll
I rode the Highball
I fired the Daylight
When I turned sixty-five
I couldn’t see right
It was “Mr. Jones
We’ve got to let you go
It’s company policy
You’ve got a pension though”

Alternating electric guitar leads with steel guitar leads with fiddle leads with banjo leads, the International Harvesters completely cook throughout, but especially they all combine voices for the chorus.

Roll on, Southern Pacific
On your silver rails
On your silver rails
Roll on, Southern Pacific
On your silver rails

Of course, this performance stayed in the can for nearly 30 years, and wasn’t released until 2011’s A Treasure, one of the greatest of Neil’s releases of live material that had been sitting in the archives. David Geffen would have had a conniption, of course, had Neil released A Treasure in 1985 instead of Old Ways (II), but it would have stood as his greatest album of the 1980s (outside of Freedom, of course).

In the end, Neil inhabits the conductor, calling out the number of the train, as well as the next stop, and as they pull into the stop, the train slows down and pulls right into the station.

“Southern Pacific” (St Paul 9-1-1985) (audio only)

“Southern Pacific” live in Toronto 1985

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