I’ve been working on an essay tentatively called “Neil Young Marked for Death” on and off for a couple years now. It’s a play on the title of the famous Lester Bangs essay “James Taylor Marked for Death.”
My main idea is that Neil Young, in particular Neil Young worship, is an unfortunate cultural phenomenon that has as much to do with liking Neil Young’s music as admiring the many admirable facets of Neil Young. These include but are not limited to his musical integrity, his contrarian outlook, his lefty politics, his unwillingness to tour with Crosby, Stills, and Nash or Buffalo Springfield, a tendency to quit bands at the drop of a hat, and the dependable strangeness of his musical output.
You might see me showing my hand already. It’s not that I hate Neil Young; I like a lot of his songs, and even love a couple.
Even so, I think he’s way overrated for what he did and what he continues to do. There are several singer-songwriters from his generation and approximate genre I would rank well above him (we’ll get to one later, but here are a couple for now: Roger McGuinn, Paul Simon, Joni Fucking Mitchell, shit, Rod Stewart and James Taylor if you get a couple beers in me).
But to think about music and only music would be beside many a Neil Young fan’s point, which is that Neil Young has been around so long, man, and he’s still vital and all that, man. He hasn’t sold out, whatever that means these days; he never went Hollywood. And he’s old, you see, so he’s someone Neil-lovers can look up to. Most of this doesn’t have anything to do with Neil Young’s actual music, and has everything to do with admiring a person for who/what s/he is. It’s a classic case of combining lifestyle and biography with someone’s art /music. And that’s fine, but let’s speak plainly: this has led to Neil Young being over-valued, overrated, and annoyingly so, for quite some time.
One night ten years ago, I said something to this effect in a bar with a friend. We argued, this friend and I. At one point I just came out and said it.
“Fucking Neil Diamond is better than Neil Young!”
This sticks for a lot of reasons. They have the same first name, so there’s that. They both started around the same time, and have had long runs as recording artists. One is known for glitzy, showbiz-type shows (Diamond) and the other for stripped-down acoustic affairs or rocking out with some of the worst lead guitar in the history of the instrument (Young). Both have had commercial success, flops, comebacks, career reboots.
It’s pretty safe to say, however, that even after the Rick Rubin-produced albums, the way-late Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and space age bachelor pad revivals, Neil Diamond is still way lower on the prestige list-o-meter than Neil Young. This has a lot to do with music journalists like to think they look more like Young than Diamond, as David Lee Roth might put it.
Anyway, these exchanges led to us to do a Song-by-Song Diamond-or-Young Neil Challenge. What follows is an reconstruction of the score sheet we wrote in our heads that night. Winning songs are in bold. The pairings are random, from lists I pulled off the internet, which led to some ridiculous, period-spanning match-ups (“Love on the Rocks” versus “Cinnamon Girl”?). This seemed to keep the competition honest.
These rulings are mine. Neil Diamond comes out on top, 27 to Young’s 20 with two ties.
A writer for NPR’s blog came up with this comparison as well some years back. So great minds think alike, even though the writer, Robin Hilton, falls in the pro-Young camp.
|1. Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon||1. Old Man|
|2. Cracklin’ Rosie||2. The Needle and the Damage Done|
|3. Song Sung Blue||3. Harvest Moon|
|4. Solitary Man||4. Southern Man|
|5. Forever In Blue Jeans||5. After the Gold Rush|
|6. Cherry, Cherry||6. Only Love Can Break Your Heart|
|7. America||7. Harvest|
|8. Hello Again||8. Out on the Weekend|
|9. Love On The Rocks||9. Cinnamon Girl|
|10. I’m A Believer||10. Tell Me Why|
|11. Play Me||11. A Man Needs a Maid|
|12. Kentucky Woman||12. Don’t Let It Bring You Down|
|13. Shilo||13. Like a Hurricane|
|14. Holly Holy||14. Rockin’ in the Free World|
|15. Beautiful Noise||15. Alabama|
|16. I Am…I Said||16. Down by the River|
|17. Delirious Love||17. There’s a World|
|18. Thank The Lord For The Night Time||18. Till the Morning Comes|
|19. September Morn||19. Helpless|
|20. Red, Red Wine||20. Birds|
|21. Soolaimon||21. I Believe in You|
|22. Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show||22. Ohio|
|23. Heartlight||23. Cowgirl in the Sand|
|24. You Got To Me||24. Cortez the Killer|
|25. Mr. Bojangles [?]||25. Cripple Creek Ferry|
|26. Stones||26. Walk with Me|
|27. If You Know What I Mean||27. Words (Between the Lines of Age)|
|28. Brooklyn Roads||28. Comes a Time|
|29. Longfellow Serenade||29. When You Dance You Can Really Love|
|30. I Am… I Said||30. Unknown Legend|
|31. Pretty Amazing Grace||31. Are You Ready for the Country?|
|33. For the Turnstiles|
|34. Sweet Caroline||34. From Hank to Hendrix|
|35. Walk On Water||35. Walk With Me|
|36. Crunchy Granola Suite||36. See the Sky About to Rain|
|37. Cherry cherry||37. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere|
|38. I Got The Feelin’ (Oh No, No)||38. World on a String|
|39. Desiree||39. The Loner|
|41. My My, Hey Hey – Out Of The Blue|
|42. Be||42. Mr. Soul|
|43. Alone Again (Naturally)||43. Revolution Blues|
|44. You Don’t Bring Me Flowers||44. Sugar Mountain|
|45. And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind||45. Sign Of Love|
|46. Feels Like Home||46. Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)|
|47. Oh Mary||47. The Old Laughing Lady|
|48. Done Too Soon||48. One of These Days|
|49. Hell Yeah||49. Pocahontas|
Final score: Diamond: 27. Young: 20, Tie: 2.