Thursday, June 04, 2009

Uncompromising about change

Last night I watched the PBS documentary about Neil Young on its American Masters Series. The faces of the old rockers are haunting. I didn't know this look for Steven Stills. The music is wonderful, but also haunting. Young's speaking voice is normal. I'm not sure whether I had heard it before. He explains his singing voice as emerging from a spontaneous experience where he was screaming in words made up at the moment. His band had been instrumental only till then. The singing was a kind of coming out. He had it in him all along. It needed to be unleashed.

Young's song lyrics represent personal reaction to events, sometimes anger and disgust, but not with a political agenda tied to them. The film makes pretty clear that Young was not driven by politics, at least not during the Viet Nam War period. Instead, he was driven by the music.

The recurring theme is in the movies was that Young wanted and needed to be in groups so he could play off the music of others. The synthesis created artistic benefit. But after a fashion, when the album was done and the touring to promote it over, Young wanted to do something else. Rather than recreate what had already been done, inevitably for the "Return Of" to be poorly received because it wouldn't have the novelty to excite, Young would move on to the next venture. It was hard on friendships formed during the making of the music. But it was true to the need for creativity.

Ultimately the friends grew to understand this loyalty to make new music, to fine one's soul in the act of doing something new. And Young didn't abandon the entirely. His departure would be temporary. Ultimately he would return to the group to make new music and to rekindle friendships developed earlier.

Some of these same themes are in the documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. The artist forces a new direction for the music even when the fans clamor for nostalgia. Apparently Dylan also inspired young about singing, with the distinctive singing voice and the knowledge that, "I'm no opera star."

Young and his contemporaries didn't go to college. By the time they were college age they were on the road, making music. Life on the road itself must encourage a sense of transience, but in this case there was also a different sort of infection. Young crossed paths with many of the great rockers. Each left a little mark, something to take away and integrate in to Young's own style.

Personally, I'm not able to appreciate the distinctive changes in what Young went through, especially within the 1970s, where much of his music is familiar. (Some of the later stuff shown in the film I hadn't heard before.) His falsetto singing voiced remains unchanged as does the rhythmic phrasing of the lyrics. It may be that the backup instrumentals are radically different, but I don't hear it that way. I admit to being without nuance in listening to this. I was never a giant Neil Young fan. It is the character that was more of interest to me in watching the film, what the driver was, where the loyalty lies. The answer to that is clear; the passion was for the new, for taking the next direction.

It is worth thinking about this for Learning Technology, all the more so given by the ripple created earlier in the week from the Chronicle's piece about Jim Groom presenting at CUNY about blogs as an alternative to the LMS. The learning technologist may share with the rocker the desire to push for new directions, to avoid nostalgia for what should come next. And to some extent instructors may be like adoring fans, though I wouldn't push that analogy very far.

Times do change. The mantra now is the learner as the creator. The drive for change should come out of the collective will to create. Where that will lead is hazy for me. Most learners are not nearly so singular in their purpose. Mainly, they want to ride the next wave that presents itself. Therein lies the dilemma. We still need the few who make the new music. Maybe, however, they need to come from outside us.


Jim said...

Hmm. Not driven by politics? I think the producers must be pulling our leg. What about Ohio ("Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in O-hi-o."), Southern Man, After the Goldrush, "For What It's Worth"? Maybe pedantic to dredge all that up. Enjoyed your post and I take your point. Crazy Horse is probably where he did all his screaming.

Lanny Arvan said...

Jim - thanks for the comment and posing the challenge.

My take on what the writers and director were saying is that Young reacted to events very strongly, sure, but he didn't have an ongoing theme or set of themes that he kept pushing. Contrast this with a prior generation of folk singers - Pete Seeger comes to mind - who definitely had a political agenda that was ongoing.

On a personal note, I was at Cornell from 1974-76 and I discussed politics with my friends, sometimes heatedly, in a way that I haven't done since. But I wasn't political. I did see some of the Democratic candidates come through campus, with memory of seeing Mo Udall and Jimmy Carter. But I didn't campaign for any of them. So I could identify with their description of Young not being political, although he clearly had a stage and was outspoken.


Jim said...

Yeah, but the revolution had died by 1974. Remind me to send you a McCarthy (Gene not Joe) button in campus mail.