Tuesday, June 15, 2010

June 15: Neil Young, "My My, Hey Hey"

Artist: Neil Young
Song: "My My, Hey Hey"
Album: Rust Never Sleeps
Year: 1979

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab) ("Out Of The Blue")

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab) ("Into The Black")

While it is easy to write songs of the past, or even of the present, one would be hard pressed to find a great number of songs that not only speak of the future, but are correct in retrospect.  Then, there is the small, strange group of songs that somehow reinvent themselves with every generation, and are able to take on new meanings as the decades pass.  Though there are a number of good examples of this musical phenomena, few are as clear or as moving as Neil Young and his iconic song, "My My, Hey Hey."  The song itself is split into two different versions, which bookend his 1979 record, Rust Never Sleeps.  The album opens with the acoustic, "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)," and it closes with the loud and aggressive, "Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)."  Aside from the difference in musical approach, there is a slight lyrical change, and the acoustic version, much like many of the songs on the album, was taken from a live performance.  Looking at the overall impact of the song, it is amazing to think that in the age of punk, Neil Young had managed to once again reinvent himself, and with both the song and album, he was able to prove that folk-based rock music could yet again survive within a changing musical trend.  It is this ability, among others, that make Neil Young perhaps the most important folk musician in history, as over the decades, few performers have been as successful at bridging the "classic" sound of a genre with the changing trends of the world.  Proving his amazing musical brilliance, and remaining one of the most powerful songs in his catalog, Neil Young achieves musical perfection with the 1979 pairing of songs, "My My, Hey Hey."

The "Out Of The Blue" version of "My My, Hey Hey" is about as "classic" a Neil Young sound as one will find anywhere.  Sporting little more than Young and his acoustic guitar, there is a certain purity and unquestionably honesty that comes through on the song.  Though he had his band, Crazy Horse, in tow at the time this live version was recorded, the stripped down nature of the song not only makes it more powerful, but certainly helped to keep Young's longtime fans satisfied.  This version of the song is also able to "bridge" the classic folk sound with the newer musical sensibilities, as one can clearly hear a more aggressive tone within the acoustic sound.  Recorded in an era when punk and louder sounds ruled the charts, this simple, softer number proved that great songwriting and performance would shine through, regardless of the trends of the time.  Conversely, the "Into The Black" version of the song shows just how much Neil Young understood the ideals behind the punk movement.  Leading off with the core riff being played with heavy distortion by Young, as well as guitarist Frank Sampedro and bassist Joe Osborn, the song becomes a murky mess that is oddly similar to the "grunge" sound that would explode more than a decade later.  Drummer Karl Himmel helps to further the songs' overall sense of urgency, and the hard-driving mood remains one of the most moving, and darkest moments in the entire catalog of Neil Young.  Through the style in which it is played is vastly different, the pairing of these two versions proves without question that one can get just as much emotion from a quieter arrangement as one can from a loud, "rock-style" instrumentation.

With the two musical performances being unique, the key to making the songs work as a duo lies within the vocals and writing of Neil Young.  More than four decades after his first recordings, Young still possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in music history, and one would be hard pressed to find a singer from any era that sings with more conviction and raw, open honestly more often than Young does.  Whether it is just him and his acoustic guitar, or he is rocking along with Crazy Horse, Young's voice carries easily over the music and asserts itself as the focal point of the song.  Having already proven over the years that he was one of the finest lyricists in history, "My My, Hey Hey" pushes Young into a class al his own, as at every turn, the song is eerily prophetic, and at times, nothing short of heartbreaking.  The two subtitles for the song actually come from a phrase used during the Vietnam War that referred to the effect of coming out of a tunnel on a battle front and into the darkness of war.  Both the music and lyrics push this mood home, and there are few songs in music history that are as dark, yet strangely, "My My, Hey Hey" is also one of the most brutal, and clearly accurate descriptions of the music industry that has ever been penned.  Young leaves no question as to the songs' inspiration, as on the "Into The Blue" version, he outright states, "...this is the story of Johnny Rotten..."  Taking a sharp shot at the former Sex Pistols frontman, Young was clearly questioning how he (Rotten) could so easily abandon his band and persona as he had done a few months earlier.  Though Young calls into question the overall integrity behind both musicians and the industry as a whole, there is one more statement within the song that rings with far more power and tragedy.

Though it would not come full circle for over a decade, one would be hard pressed to find a more moving and timeless line than when Neil Young sings, "...it's better to burn out, than to fade away..."  Within this line, Young sums up the entire beast that is the music industry, as it feeds on "flash in the pan" artists who expel all of their potential quickly and then disappear.  The duality in musical approaches found on "My My, Hey Hey" would go on to influence countless artists across musical styles, as everyone from System Of A Down to Dave Matthews to Nirvana have cited the record as a major influence.  It was the latter of these three where the song was tragically reborn, and the completely impact and meaning behind the words were revealed.  Regardless of the questionable circumstances behind the event itself, one cannot deny the devastating significance behind that chilling phrase being used verbatim within the suicide note of the late Kurt Cobain.  The presence of the phrase within the letter moved an entire generation, as well as disturbing Young so much that not only did he dedicate his 1994 record, Sleeps With Angels, to Cobain, but since the event, in live performances, he puts far more emphasis on the later line, "...and once you're gone, you can't come back..."  The fact that the "Into The Black" version sounds so similar to the "grunge" sound proves that Neil Young was an artist FAR ahead of his time, and the fact that his lyrics remain so revered to this day and still have as much impact serve as a testament to just how phenomenal a performer and musical visionary he was, and all his genius can be found in his iconic 1979 song, "My My, Hey Hey."

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