Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with current NER writers in all genres.
This month, NER associate editor J. M. Tyree speaks with writer Chris Nelson,
author of “Speaking of Neil Young”
JMT: I read your essay on Neil Young just before seeing him perform in Hyde Park in London. Listening to him play live, with your essay fresh in my mind, raised the hairs on my arms. I felt connected to his music in a way I never had before, and I wanted to thank you for that. You’re really able express how it’s not technical expertise but…something else…out of which Young makes his musical magic. How would you describe that “something else,” as a sort of introduction to your NER essay?
CN: There’s at least some magic in pretty much all the different kinds of Young’s music: the California psychedelia of his contributions to Buffalo Springfield and of his eponymous solo debut; the country-tinged sound of Harvest, Harvest Moon, and many other albums; even—God help me—the synthesized and overdubbed tracks on clunkers like Trans. But to me it’s his electric guitar-heavy work where that “something else” is most distinct. You hear his solos and stop and think, “What is this?” It’s clearly rock and roll, but unlike most of his contemporaries, Young didn’t emerge from that blues tradition. The word most often tied to his style is “grunge,” but it’s worth noting that Young had been playing in that way long before the term even existed in the music world, which, come to think of it, is the perfect metaphor for that “something else” of his electric guitar-playing: it’s “pre-language.” Young’s anti-technique both resists definition and actually sounds like somebody struggling to speak. It’s the sound of emotion before you can make sense of it.
JMT: Our student interns had a really interesting question for you after reading your essay. They asked, “How do you experience the act of writing in relation to your experience of the spoken word, given that these modes of communication are simultaneously completely different and yet also very similar?”
CN: Speaking and especially writing are both distilled forms of thinking. Much of what goes on in our heads is so messy, noisy, and recursive that it’s often only when we speak or write that we’re able to order or confer meaning on it all. This similarity between the two modes of communication doesn’t really apply to those like me who do not speak fluently, however. For people who stutter, what comes out of our mouths is just more incoherence, and we ironically end up even more beholden to the very confusion, indecisiveness, and ambivalence that may have prompted us to speak in the first place. If you accept my essay’s governing metaphor of guitar-playing-as-speech, Neil Young doubled-down on his disfluency by turning it into an aesthetic.
I’m sure part of the reason I like to write has to do with the refuge afforded by my authorial absence. There’s nobody watching me as I write, and I’m not there to watch them read, assuming I’m lucky enough to even have readers. Of course, I also write simply because my hands can do what my mouth cannot.
JMT: You relate a conversation about how you think Young’s guitar-playing sometimes “sucks” and yet how much you love it as a personal expression. I could see this idea applied to some paintings and possibly to some novels as well, where certain weaknesses or imperfections can be turned to the artist’s advantage. But that would be considered unusual in most cases, I think. So, do you think this effect—the imperfect sublime—is best suited to rock music, especially live performances? Why do you suppose that is?
CN: Young’s electric guitar-playing very often sucks, I’m afraid, at least when judged from any traditional standard. He won’t bother retuning his guitar mid-performance or even mid-recording, he’ll go minutes without producing a coherent musical phrase, and sometimes his playing is so loud and screechy it literally hurts your ears. And yet here I am, blasting “Goin’ Home” at the gym or popping in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere for my August drives at dusk. In some ways, it is simply the nature of music that allows Young to achieve this effect of the imperfect sublime. The quicker and easier it is to receive an art form through the senses—a painting with our eyes, a song with our ears—the more readily and intensely we react to it on an emotional level. Think about the way hearing merely the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth can stop you dead in your tracks. There’s really no equivalent to that sense of emotional immediacy in literature, at least not in prose and especially not in narrative prose.
There are plenty of anti-musicians like Young in all genres—I think rockers are just louder about it. Though there is something singularly visceral about that electric guitar. Especially at live performances, when musicians like Young enter into a symbiotic relationship with the crowd, and you feel their bends and vibrato and feedback deep in your chest, and if they play the wrong note or the same one over and over you can’t skip past the song and they can’t pause the recording and say, “let me try again,” because it’s just the two of you, bare.
JMT: I guess Neil Young’s difficulties and imperfections make his songs like life, don’t they?
CN: I definitely hear the range of human experience in Young’s songs, especially his electric work, in which his imperfections as a guitarist allow him to capture and evoke the urgency and unpredictability of life. This realness is a far cry from guitarists who seem virtually incapable of missing a note. Young’s playing strikes me as mimicking not just life, but modern life in all its tensions, anxieties, and paradoxes. Mimesis, however, isn’t enough. If what you feel is confused, confined, and helpless, what’s more confusion, confinement, and helplessness going to do? The antidote to noise cannot be simply more noise. Art has to offer a way out. Fortunately, Young’s songs and specifically his guitar-playing often do offer that way out. After soloing for almost the entirety of a song like “Slip Away” and producing nothing but incoherence—albeit very raw and affecting incoherence—he’ll suddenly arrive at a climax where every note is not just loud, but clear, and you know whatever connection he’s making is true because he had to go through the muck to get there, much like how happiness means nothing if you haven’t first experienced despair. So, Young’s songs are like life, especially modern life, but they’re also something else, and thank God for that.
[read the essay] Chris Nelson is a writer living in New York City.