Thursday, November 18, 2004

The buffalo joins the card game

Glimpsed last night on television while channel-surfing: a surprising concession to the bottom-line fervor of these times. It’s an ad for the just-released CD, “Neil Young’s Greatest Hits.” (!) Yes, folks, it’s finally happened; the last buffalo on the prairie has joined the card game. With this compendium of many of Young’s best (and/or most chartworthy) individual songs, Neil Young joins Barry Manilow, Andrea Bocelli, the indelible Zamfir and everyone else out there in Musicworld with a musically competent but utterly predictable package appearing, needless to say, to coincide with the holidays, released with all the kinetic, rapid-fire earmarks of modern mercantilism the phrase “greatest hits” imparts.

There are most of the recognizable songs from early in his solo career, but most of the choices are so, well, anticipated that it seems to run counter to the music-industry rebel who, to his eternal credit, told the people at Budweiser to fuck off when they wanted his music for an ad campaign some years back. “Cinnamon Girl” (from “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”) is a lock for a retrospective collection, of course, but why not some of “Everybody’s” other expressions — less immediately recognized but more evocative of Young’s deeper, less-commercially-motivated side?

There’s nothing here from “Trans” or “Re-ac-tor,” two of his more experimental efforts. The work from “Zuma,” “Time Fades Away” and “On the Beach” is missing, as well as anything from his period with Buffalo Springfield. Curiously, though, “Greatest Hits” includes “The Needle and the Damage Done” from the brilliant “Harvest” collection, a song whose personal underpinnings — as a tribute to close friend and charter Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who died of a heroin overdose in November 1972 — run counter to the snappy, radio-ready dictates of the greatest-hits construct.

Maybe this is all sour grapes on my part; maybe I’m not willing to concede the idea that, like any popular performer with a considerable catalog built up over a number of years, Neil Young has both options and responsibilities. He’s got to move laser-compatible goods available at Best Buy like everyone else. Perhaps my beef is with the greatest-hits idea itself; for an artist of Neil Young’s stature, it would seem that the buying public would be just as receptive, or maybe more receptive, to getting their hands on Neil Young music they hadn’t already heard many times before.

A happy thought: It could be that the maverick is already plotting his next move — Yeah! Next Christmas we’ll get a retrospective of the other side of Neil Young’s musical and narrative ambitions, everything right on up to “Greendale”!

If that doesn’t get you up and out of bed in the brand-new official Era of Bush II, maybe nothing will.

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