I still remember the very first thoughts I had when I heard this album for the first time. I couldn’t believe my ears when faint sounds of the audience cheering and clapping came through on the first track, ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’. They went thus:

1. This is an amazingly clean recording, for a live performance. It sounds like a studio recording.

2. This is live. LIVE. He’s playing that acoustic guitar and blowing that harmonica and singing perfectly, all at once, and live.

3. Eeks. I hope there isn’t going to be audible cheering and clapping all throughout the recording.

No worries on that last account. I understand that the audience track was removed from what was indeed a series of recordings made of new, unreleased songs that Mr. Young was trying out on a previous tour. But Rust Never Sleeps is more than just a pioneering effort. Had it been a conventional Neil Young studio effort (if there is such a thing), it would still have been an astounding musical achievement. Especially that guitar-playing. This is the album that made me want to learn guitar. Whether acoustic or electric, I didn’t care – and there’s plenty of both on the album – I just wanted to be able to produce the gorgeous/ferocious combination of sounds that was assailing my ears.

Not that Rust Never Sleeps is all harsh on the ears. I wasn’t paying full attention on first listen, but I got a vague feeling that the songs were getting more and more fierce/wild/loud/fast as the album progressed. It was quite a surprise to find out subsequently that the album had in fact been neatly split into acoustic and electric halves, coinciding nicely with the two sides of a vinyl record in, ahem, the days of vinyl. I listen to it in CD form, of course, but it’s still a nice idea. At any rate, it showcases to good effect the two (main) sides of Mr. Young’s musical personality – elegiac acoustic folk and heavy electric rock – as became apparent to me the more of his albums I heard.

I like both sides. Both sides of Rust Never Sleeps and of Neil Young’s musical personality, that is. The acoustic portion of Rust Never Sleeps has some of the most lovely music he has ever written and performed, in particular the gorgeous bridge of ‘Ride My Llama’, which juxtaposes jerky, rhythmic acoustic guitar and bass and the silky-smooth unison singing of Mr. Young and Nicolette Larson to incredible polyphonic effect. But ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Sail Away’ have no less beautiful, though simple, melodies and arrangements. The appeal of the really loud electric half, with its distorted guitars, occasional feedback and extended soloing (never mind if it sometimes consists only of repeated single notes) is more… visceral. Crazy Horse, Mr. Young’s usual ‘back-up band’ (although I don’t think the term does them justice) are tremendously sympathetic in their playing and vocal harmonies. And I’m very fond of the percussive clapping used in ‘Welfare Mothers’ (at least, I think it’s clapping): I wonder just who did that; perhaps the stagehands were roped in? Plus, the huge contrast between the two versions of what is essentially the same song – the acoustic album opener ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and the electric album closer ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ – is a wonder to behold.

Rust Never Sleeps is also special to me because this is where I first recognised Neil Young’s wonderful and essential lyrical weirdness. He is real knacky where the music is concerned, but he’s no slouch with the words either. The songs on Rust Never Sleeps are tied together loosely by a few motifs, including Native American history, time travel, a long journey, &c, and sometimes they come together in a bizarre but highly pleasing mix of imagery. To wit, ‘Pocahontas’:

I wish I was a trapper, I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt

In the morning, on the fields of green

In a homeland we’ve never seen

And maybe Marlon Brando would be there by the fire

We’d sit and talk of Hollywood, and the good things there for hire

And the Astradome, and the first tepee

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me

The idea of a long journey – often an allegory for the artistic quest – is not exactly ground-breaking in rock music. But few, if any, have written about it in such an interesting manner, I think. From ‘Thrasher’:

It was then that I knew I’d had enough

Burned my credit card for fuel

Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

With a one-way ticket to the land of truth

And my suitcase in my hand

How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.

The above evokes the most important idea in Rust Never Sleeps: that the artist must vigilantly fight the temptation and tendency to stagnate. Even the album title serves as a rather lyrical admonishment: Wikipedia informs me that ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was the slogan of an anti-rust paint, Rustoleum. This theme, together with the acoustic/electric split, makes for quite a concept, and is itself fully embodied in Neil Young’s work on this album.

Rust Never Sleeps was released in 1979 (strangely enough, in the same year as my favourite album London Calling). The musical event which provoked Mr. Young’s reflections was, of course, the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s. Punk rock was anti-establishment in both its musical style (short, loud, ferocious, simple to the point of simplistic) and lyrical preoccupations (aggressively rebellious, politically and socially aware, and sometimes anarchic). It was uncomfortable and uncomforting, a direct counterpoint to the popular music that came before, and emphatically not inclined to rest on its laurels. A secondary musical event was perhaps the 1977 death of Elvis Presley, himself a pioneer in his prime. So Neil Young pays tribute to those newcomers – like the Sex Pistols – who were, at that point, forcing established artists like himself to keep staying relevant or suffer artistic death:

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

This is the story of a Johnny Rotten

It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

And to underscore the crucial importance of guarding against artistic complacency, Mr. Young made it the subject of the album’s ‘bookends’, viz. ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’. The late Kurt Cobain may have shared this belief, including a now infamous line from the former – ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – in his suicide note. (I say ‘may’ because there is controversy over the rather romantic suggestion that Mr. Cobain killed himself because he simply could not deal with the massive and unexpected success of Nirvana.) And I did quite a double-take when I re-watched the film High Fidelity (one of my favourites, in part because of John Cusack), and finally recognised the line, coming out of Jack Black’s mouth while his character Barry was ranting to Cusack’s character Rob:

‘Rob. Top 5 musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s: Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticise a formerly-great artist for his latter-day sins? Is it better to burn out or to fade away?’

That line, that theme, and Neil Young by extension, have certainly entered pop culture. A funny incident occurred the other day. I mentioned to a colleague that Mr. Young’s 1970s retrospective compilation album Decade was going for a rather exorbitant price in a music shop in Singapore, and my colleague replied: ‘Oh, but Neil Young is rather esoteric, isn’t he?’ Well, perhaps he’s considered esoteric here. But even though 10 months ago I myself had never heard of Neil Young, I find it funny now to hear him spoken of as if he weren’t a Major Artist in the history of popular music. Rust Never Sleeps plays a big part in that.