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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.

Enjoy!

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