Tag Archives: Kneel to Neil

A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective – Pt. 3: Blasphemy!

Pt. 3 of 3. For pt. 1, go here. And for pt. 2, go elsewhere.

Erstwhilishly, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Music “musicially uncharacteristic” of Neil Young…
  • Neil Young as heard by someone also hearing someone else (here’s looking at you, Transformer man, Lou. And at you, too, Drive By Truckers. And then at you three, Booker T.)…
  •  Vampires with long straws, vampires with a tar sands thing…

Having had twice already taken to the stage at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee for the annual WMSE/Bridge School benefit show and Neil Young tribute concert known as Kneel to Neil, and having had once already played Neil Young songs that weren’t much like Neil Young songs (Nov. 11, 2011), and then having had once already played Neil Young songs that were half someone’s else’s songs (Nov. 4, 2013), we knew that in 2015 it was time to have had taken our charge to Kneel to Neil to its fully aporetically alogical conclusion: we would play Neil Young songs that weren’t Neil Young songs at all.

We knew we were playing with fire in taking under such an undertaking. And when baby plays with fire? Sometimes baby gets burned.

November 14, 2015

It was Kneel to Neil, n’est-ce pas? So we figured all those gold heart searchers would be okay with it if The Viper and His Orchestra revived a few songs Neil Young had covered and made his own, even if he hadn’t written them. And we figured that among all the resident cowgirls in the sand, Cortez killers, and sleepless rusters hanging around Linneman’s bar, some might even be kind of excited if we resuscitated some surf-rock curio juvenilia from the Squires, the Winnipeg, Manitoba band with whome a teenage Neil Young learned his way around the guitar.

I mean, Manitoba’s, like, the Wisconsin of Canada, right? Or is that Alberta? I guess it’s Alberta:

Frank Gari’s “Hello, Milwaukee!” Vocal by Frank Gari.

Frank Gari’s “Hello, Calgary!” Vocal by Florence Warner.

But we didn’t know how to figure on how those finding it hard to make arrangements with themselves might take it if we were to up and write some Neil Young songs of our own.

We definitely didn’t figure on the full-throated and whiskey-sized cries of “Blasphemy” coming from the guy in the back of the room, then sadly muttering to himself: “I just really like Neil Young.”

But that’s what happened! We think! Because Liz Hirsch told us!

I hope it’s true, because it’s my favorite live review of our music since the time we played a song called “The Monsters Are Coming” at a kids show in Urbana, Illinois and a mob of distressed children surged toward the front to call us “liars!”

And that’s only one of the many odd happenstances and misfortunes befalling us this time around on our long road to Linneman’s. But that’s all right. We like it nice and rough. Listen to the story.

The Backstory

Some time back, trombonist Rob Henn had posted on Facebook a link to a Newsweek listicle with the clickbait-y title, “The Top 12 Least Essential Neil Young Albums.” But noting that the list only included records Young had actually recorded, I proposed an alternative list of albums that Neil Young had not only not released or even recorded, but hadn’t even considered… yet. Here’s that list:

The Viper’s top 12 least essential not-yet-existing Neil Young albums.

  1. Neil Young Sings “Cha Cha Slide” and Other Party Favorites
  2. Out and About (We Canadians Love To Shout)
  3. The Discourses of Brigham Young, as Read by Neil Young (Namesake Series of Books on Tape)
  4. Archer Daniels Midland: Also Not So Great
  5. There’s a Town in North New Brunswick, Too
  6. Why I Think The Exorcist Could Never Actually Happen (spoken word)
  7. A Ghost Is Born
  8. Heart of Gold II: The Golder Heart
  9. A Man Needs a Maid (This Gun’s for Hire) (Arthur Baker 12-inch remix)
  10. Sleep Apnea Study: Raw Sound Files. Subject # N.Y.636
  11. Ivanhoe
  12. Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone: A Tribute to Glass Tiger

Now, having done the heavy lifting on the album titles, the only thing left was to sit down and write the songs that could go with them. So we got to work.

But first…

“The Gallows Pole”

Not a Neil Young song, true, but not not a Neil Young song either. We wanted to ease folks in to our not-yet-Young concept, and “The Gallows Pole” is a great tune from the collection of drunks, wrecks, and breakdowns that Young covered with Crazy Horse in 2012 on Americana. It asks the musical question: Are you – are you? – coming to the tree? No? Oh. And it turns out no one else is either. Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.

Hey, it’s Child Ballad #95! It even shows up in Béla Bartók’s collection of Hungarian Folk Songs as “Fehrer Anna”! In Young’s liner notes to Americana, he says the source is probably Finnish. But the truth is, he probably learned it from a) Lead Belly or b) Led Zeppelin. In either case, someone’s getting the lead out.

Here’s what it sounds like, scratch-track style. Go on yourself and take the trombone solo when I yell “Ready, Rob?” We’re in G minor.

“Gallows Pole,” practice scratch track

This would be the first song we worked on as a band for this year’s Kneel to Neil. And it came pretty easy. But at a price, as it turns out. (Cue Chopin’s “Funeral March” at this point). We thought we saw our suitcase player a-comin’: Edward Burch, riding many a mile. But we were mistaken. A week out from the show, Burch told us that neither train, nor plane, nor automobile would bear his weary frame Northward from downstate Illinois to the surf-kissed shores of Lake Michigan.

It’s just like what happens in our version of the song. In most versions, the narrator gets saved: neither father, mother, sister, nor brother arrive with the goods needed to bribe the hangman into slacking his rope for a while, but a sweetheart does manage the job.

But when we sing it, The Viper asks, and the Orchestra answers:

Didn’t bring no silver
Didn’t bring no gold
We came to see you hang, Viper
By the gallows pole.

So there’d be no Burch. And the Kneel the Neil world would be the poorer for it.  The universe was speaking – pouring endless rain into a paper cup – but were we listening?

“ADM: They Bought the Farm”

Our first invented Neil Young song of the night: this one from the never-released, never-recorded, never-considered sequel of sorts to Neil Young’s 2015 release, The Monsanto Years – a follow-up album that, in my dreams, is titled, Archer Daniels Midland: Also Not So Great.

The song we devised, “ADM: They Bought the Farm” (not “Cardamom Woman,” as many have thought, forgivably so, given the lyrics), pulls together musical bits and pieces fro “Tonight’s the Night,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Lyrically, it’s one of not-yet-Young’s most withering critiques of the global food economy, inputs-driven Big Agribusiness, and the prices that we pay, personally and politically, for monocrop culture.

Plus, it lets me play an electric guitar with the distortion on in a drop-D tuning!

Here’s the demo version for the band to hear that I recorded at the same desk at which I’m typing this now.

“ADM: They Bought the Farm” (demo)

Or, if you prefer, a video version of the same wankiness:

ADM: They Bought the Farm (staircase version)

I have to assume this is the song that provoked the “blasphemy” charge. And I can’t say the guy was very far wrong.

“I Wonder If I Care As Much”

We moved back out of not-yet-Youngland for a visit to an early song by Phil & Don Everly that had been covered by Neil Young and Jack White for the 2014 album, A Letter Home.

It’s a really lovely record, all of it recorded on White’s own vintage 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, which you can see demonstrated here:

This part of our Viper and His Famous Orchestra set was a pretty straightforward bid at a shot for me to sing in one of my favorite ways: with Edward Burch, in our all-but-patented band-of-brothers (Everly, Louvin, Osborne, Monroe, Nelso) style. Say it with me, Edward!

Edward: I’m Charlie Kennett…

Viper: And I’m Earl Wayne KENNett…

Edward: And we’re the Kennett Brothers. Who wants to hear a song about gentrification?

This kind of song was our meat. But in Edward’s absence, trombonist Rob Henn valiantly rose to the challenge to harmonize in a slightly-behind-the-beat and melancholy way that would have made Phil and Don (and Charlie and Earl Wayne) proud.

The Everly Brothers, “I Wonder If I Care As Much”

“Out of the Blonde on Blonde”

And now we approach the truly awful part of our story.

Our second not-yet-Young song was, in fact, the first one I wrote. This had been purely an exercise to see if I could write a song to order for the non-released, non-recorded, non-considered Neil Young album Heart of Gold II: The Golder Heart.

To write it, I literally just took Young’s line “Rock and roll will never die,” and sang it over and over to myself – making breakfast, drinking coffee in the shower, ironing a shirt, with me little ukulele in me hand – until the alchemy of love & theft, laughter & forgetting, law & order turned it into something else. In this version, an ode to unplanned obsolescence, rock and roll decides it’s better to fade away!

“Out of the Blonde on Blonde” (demo)

But how to tell what I needs next must tell. I suppose I’ll begin with writing the first
sentence – and trusting to the spirit of Kneel to Neil for the second.

This song was supposed to have been a duet – a return of the stylophone that John Peacock had wielded like Thor’s mighty hammer in our past years’ performance of “Transformer Man.” Here’s a taste of that sound:

The Viper and His Second String play “Transformer Man” at a John Peacock birthday party

We’d worked it up, and John sounded great. So great that we invited him and his family over for dinner on the night of the show to celebrate his great sound. So great that, as dinner was wrapping up, I commenced to running around the circle connecting dining room to living room to kitchen to dining room, with John’s young son Lowell chasing right behind. So great that Lowell went faster and faster, like a tiger ’round the tree ready to turn into butter. But instead of turning to butter, he was suddenly tripping on a rug, and falling in terrible slow motion toward a coffee table, and hitting his mouth on its corner, and piercing his lip with a tooth, and sending all three Peacocks off to the emergency room for the rest of the evening.

Now, you should know that, with a few stitches, everything was fine for Lowell, and he had the night of his life at the hospital. (When John asked him what his favorite part was, Lowell told him that all the parts were his favorite parts.)

But it sure spooked the rest of us, and suddenly, our Orchestra, once a five-full throng, was down to three.

“The Sultan”

Absent suitcase and stylophone, we were pretty ill-equipped to tackle what we had thought would be the dark and stormy sonic centerpiece of our night: manoeuvering in the dark with our Orchestral take on the surf rock of “The Sultan,” one of Neil Young’s earliest recordings from his teen Winnipeg days with the Squires.

Let’s let Neil Young explain, this to Mojo writer Nick Kent in a December 1995 article.

Q. You started playing at 14. What was your first guitar?

A. My first was this little plastic Arthur Godfrey ukulele…

I knew there was something I liked about this guy!

…then I seem to remember a baritone “uke,” then I had a banjo. So I had all these different-sounding instruments which I played the same way. I played electric lead guitar first. Then I started rocking out in a community-club teenage band. First we were called The Esquires. Then we changed it to The Stardusters. And after that we settled on being called The Squires. Kinda like Spinal Tap’s early days!

Here’s what that sounded like. Turn it up to 11, because tonight’s the night Neil Young is gonna rock you tonight:

Neil Young with the Squires plays “The Sultan” (1963)

Without the stylophone, we were left wordlessly humming the melody. And without the suitcase, we were reduced to stomping our feet as a poor substitute for that big surf backbeat. Blasphemy!

In hindsight, we might have been better off just playing “Vampire Blues” again.

“Four Degrees” aka “After the After the Gold Rush”

And that takes us almost to the end of our story: Edward and his suitcasery stuck in Springfield with the non-mobile blues again, John and his stylophonery stuck in the emergency room with a head full of worry, and Rob, Riley, and I stuck on a stage in the middle of holy war.

So let’s play a last waltz!

When Neil Young wrote about Mother Nature being on the run in the 1970s, I’m not sure he could have known how dire things would be by 2015. His recent and very entertaining memoir of his life with cars, titled Special Deluxe, is largely about his coming to terms with his own complicity as a lover of car culture – and big gas-guzzling cars like 1940s Buicks in particular – with the realities of climate change. Every long drive in the book comes with an accounting of exactly how much poundage of CO2 it put into the atmosphere.

Our own not-yet-Young take on the subject imagines that, pace “After he Gold Rush,”  there’s no silver spaceship coming to take us away to a new home in the sun and that, instead, when the mercury shoots up 4 degrees, and everywhere from Hawaii and Tuvalu to Miami and Perth are submerged under water, our whole species will die off and give the natural order a chance to recover from the failed experiment that was human being.


The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, “Four Degrees.” Aloha, goodbye, adiós, and hooroo!

A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective – pt. 1: Not So Easy to Love

Pt. 1 of 3. For pt. 2, go here. For pt. 3, go somewhere else.

Like a bad penny, and like clockwork — provided you keep a very slow clock, and we’re talking like a Long-Now-style 10,000 Year Clock — The Viper and His Famous Orchestra show up every two years at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee to take their merry part in the annual WMSE/Bridge School benefit show and Neil Young tribute concert known as Kneel to Neil.

Clockwork, on a very Viper scale.

What this means is that when we do our bit this upcoming Saturday night (November 14, 2015 — come and see us!) it’ll be our third time doing it. That’s a lot of pressure. What’s left to be done? How much deeper can we possibly kneel to Neil? If we kneel first, will the faith come? To answer these and other questions, we’ll have to go back to the first two times we played… back in time! Back to the future! Let’s wind up the wayback machine and set it for November 11, 2011. We were younger then. We were all so much younger then. Were any of us ever so Young?

November 11, 2011 — Not So Easy To Love

When organizer Chris DeMay et. al. invited us to play Kneel to Neil show our first time, I was thrilled but, frankly, kind of paralyzed. I’ve been trying to cover Neil Young since I was in high school and figured out how to use my parent’s double tape deck and a Radio Shack microphone to “multi-track” myself harmonizing with “Harvest.” This involved some literal kneeling as the stereo was on the floor and the mic chord was only about two feet long.

But in 2011, what could the Orchestra do that everyone else who knew this was nowhere wouldn’t already be doing, and louder? The answer:

“Tonight’s the Night I’m Going to Rock You Tonight”

We decided to embrace this particular icon’s deeply ingrained iconoclasm. No one is less likely to kneel to Neil than Neil himself, and we went ahead with that foggy notion as our guiding light. Seafarers, beware.

Now, it just so happened that the date of the show — 11/11/11 — also made this date Nigel Tufnel Day. And, it also just so happened that Neil Young’s dark, sublime, and majestic “Tonight’s the Night” made for a perfect mash-up with Spinal Tap’s decidely un-dark, un-sublime, but still pretty fricking majestic “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.” We couldn’t help ourselves, and we went to eleven.

If you’ll forgive the odd dimensions of this footage, this is what that looked like (thanks to Sue Peacock for filming and posting this).

“Tonight’s the Night I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”


We knew there was some heartfelt musical gold to be mined in some of the more unbeloved crevasses of the Neil Young multiverse. (Probably some pumas, too.) And there was a nice long stretch in the early 1980s where our hero seemed to be releasing records designed to alienate all but his most devoted fans and piss off his record company. Exhibit A: Everybody’s Rockin’. This 1983 quasi-rockabilly album found Young working with a proto-Jersey Boys outfit called the Shocking Pinks and is only 25 minutes long, apparently because the record company pulled the plug on it midway through. In fact, Geffen Records sued Young for $3.3 million after this one for pulling out album after album — like the electronica experiment Trans and the straight-up country AND western of Old Ways — that, in their words were “musically uncharacteristic” of Neil Young’s work.

And they were right! In 2015, of course, we know from hearing 36 albums of Neil Young that nothing’s more musically characteristic of a Neil Young album than something musically uncharacteristic of a Neil Young album. As Young later told Mojo’s Nick Kent, “there was very little depth to the material obviously. They were all ‘surface’ songs. But see, there was a time when music was like that, when all pop stars were like that. And it was good music, really good music… Plus it was a way of further destroying what I’d already set up. Without doing that, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. If I build something up, I have to systematically tear it right down before people decide, ‘Oh that’s how we can define him.'”

This video for “Wonderin'” got played a lot in the early days of MTV if I’m remembering it right. Or maybe it was just that a clip from it was in an MTV station promo that got played a lot. Anyway, it’s a really funny video for a great song, and Neil Young only looks about half as sleazy as the California automotive hellscape he keeps popping up in.


MTV promo

“Speakin’ Out”

This is the second song we did from the 1975 album, Tonight’s the Night, which is a great archive of grief, muddling through, and the sound of things falling apart in general. It’s an album especially about exhaustion, and musical exhaustion in particular. As Neil Young sings in one cut called “Borrowed Tune,” a weed-and-tequila-infused take on the Jagger/Richards song “Lady Jane,”

I’m singing this borrowed tune
I took from the Rolling Stones
Alone in this empty room
Too wasted to write my own

And in “Speakin’ Out,” Young pulls a similar job on a more unlikely source. He writes about about going out to see a show, eating popcorn, getting lost in the cartoon, and watching a movie whose plot “was groovy — it was outta sight!” The song uses part of a melody from a pretty obscure Doc Pomus / Mort Shuman tune called “Doin’ the Best I Can” (everybody’s dropping those g’s!) from my favorite Elvis Presley movie soundtrack, G.I. Blues.

It’s a deep cut. And Young’s pastiche/parody is pretty, funny, sweet, and pretty damn powerful, pretty damn moving, like a popcorn movie-inspired performance should be. And then there’s this great guitar solo by Nils Lofgren (you can see him doing a backflip in the MTV promo I just posted above).

This song stayed in our own set for a while. Here’s us doing it live on WMSE 97.1 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin back in February of 2014.

“Vampire Blues”

A fun one, from 1974’s On the Beach. In re-animating this ode to the life-sucking power of crude oil, we made everybody’s job at Linneman’s a lot harder by asking them to figure out how to mic our washtub bass that we were also planning to use simultaneously as a drum — for one song! In the middle of the set! In the middle of about 20 other bands!

But it sounded great, and we added a new verse of our own (see part 2 for yet another new verse for the “Vampire Blues”).

I’m a pumpjack, mama, with a five-mile boom
I’m a nodding donkey, with a five-mile boom
I can drink your milkshake from across the fracking room

“Transformer Man”

Our set was really centered around this song, from the 1982 Trans album that’s probably the most difficult Neil Young album for fans of “musically characteristic” Neil Young albums to embrace: light on guitars, long on electronics, vocals filtered through a Sennheiser Vocoder, etc. But Young has talked about this album in a context of learning to communicate with young Ben Young, whose cerebral palsy meant that communication was largely non-verbal, and whose routine at the time involved a pretty intensive regimen of repetition and technology-assisted interaction, including a model train he was able to track switch with a remote control, directing the action with the push of a button. “Transformer Man” is a lovely father-to-child tribute to the transformative power of that relationship. And in that relationship, technology mediates: it distances, but it also bridges. The Bridge School started in part by Ben’s mother Pegi Young — and the occasion for these Kneel to Neil shows — similarly grew out of this context.

Plus it gave us a chance to introduce the Orchestra to John Peacock’s 1970s-ear retro-futurist stylophone — a palm-sized keypad played with plastic stylus, and an addition to our skiffle sound entirely in keeping with the spirit of Trans.

Here’s a great live version from a 1982 show in Berlin. More Nils Lofgren dancing.

“Transformer Man”

“This Note’s For You”

The Neil Young who writes with such bracing directness about emotional states and life stages we didn’t know we all had until we heard it in one of his songs (“doesn’t mean that much to me to mean that much to you,” right?) also writes with bracing directness about cellulosic ethanol, genetically modified organisms, the lossy quality of mp3s, impeaching the president, government sponsored violence, and corporate sponsored rock. Not for everyone! But definitely for us! And in “This Note’s For You” — the video for which was both banned from MTV and then won MTV’s video of the year award in 1989 — that anti-corporate message gets wrapped in some very corporate sounding 80s blues rock. (I always imagine the band Blues Hammer from the movie Ghost World doing this song.)

Plus, whenever I can find an excuse to break out my electric Konablaster ukulele played through the pocket-sized battery-powered Marshall stack I hang on my belt, I take it! This note’s for you!

Riley Broach and John Peacock with The Viper & His Famous Orchestra, Kneel to Neil (Young) benefit for The Bridge School and WMSE, Linneman's Riverwest Inn, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photograph by Sue Peacock.
John Peacock offers up this note — for you! Photograph by Sue Peacock.


Next time, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Booker T., with and without the MGs!
  • The “Dirt” on Lou Reed!
  • More vampires!

Show announcement: Kneel to Neil benefit at Linneman’s in Milwaukee, Saturday, November 14

If, like me, you need a fix every two years or so of The Viper and His Famous Orchestra at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee (1001 E. Locust St. | (414) 263-9844), then you’re in luck. We’ll be there again on Saturday, November 15, 2015 as part of the all-night, all-singing, all-playing Kneel to Neil show going on that evening.

This is annual event — the eleventh one! — of local Milwaukee stalwarts, upstarts, and icons doing their best to take on the fugitive, classic, and anti-iconic music of Neil Young, and to do so for the greater good. And by “greater good” I mean benefiting the folks at WMSE who keep local Milwaukee radio weird and also benefiting the Bridge School. The Bridge School is a California-based non-profit that works with alternative technologies and modes of communication to enable children with severe speech and physical impairments to participate more fully in their schools and communities. It was started, along with few others, by Pegi Young — mother of transformer man, Ben Young, and wife of Neil Young (provider of Ben Young’s blue jeep rides).

Sure, Neil Young himself plays at the annual benefit concert that happens in Mountain View, California. But if you want The Viper, you’ve got to come to Milwaukee!

I don’t know if a start time has been set or the order of performers, but last time it started at 7:30 and we went on about four or five acts in. Here’s what it looked like the first time we did it back in 2011 (though we didn’t look nearly as squatty as this footage makes it seem):

Shot and posted by Sue Peacock