On the stereo: Neil Young, Harvest, 1972
This album has been in my CD player for more than a month now. Too lazy to swap CDs, I just press play whenever I want music while having a bath or washing dishes or cooking. But for years I have been captivated by its songs, and I know somewhere in the future a verse or two from Harvest is going to become an epigraph to a poem or two. Or rather, as I listen to the songs, there is invariably a verse that stirs something in me; not enough to have driven me to the page yet, but something stirring nevertheless.
Growing up on a steady diet of radio pop in the 1980s and the music being played in ‘coloured’ nightclubs (the disco-funk which, unlike Abba and the Bee Gees, didn’t really get radioplay, unless for that one hour afternoon show on Radio Good Hope with Dmitri Jagels’s show, ‘Push up production’ [!]), as well as reggae, it was only on joining student radio at UCT, that my interest in music diversified and grew. Some schoolfriends and I were already into Pink Floyd before my university days, but that was it as far as Rock went. Some older brothers of a friend – brothers who, incidentally, in their own youth (1970s) had formed a band called ‘The The’ – they had scattered bits of Santana, Roxy Music and so on. So I could recognize songs outside of the reggae and disco-funk sphere, but not very many.
Among the rockers and most of my peers at UCT Radio, Neil Young’s Harvest was an often referenced album, some via first hand knowledge, some via older siblings. This was the late 1980s, when UCT Radio was serious about media and politics, when the committee was made up of graduate students, and when student journalists would report on political matters while most newspapers were gagged. Admittedly, UCT Radio broadcast only to a canteen (it was closed down and had transmitters sealed by state authorities whenever it engaged in pirate broadcasts.) But the atmosphere was one of a student organisation generally sussed about politics, a lounge where discussion often touched, of course, on music (and art) and politics. Some members might remember a lounge becoming more and more ‘politically correct’, and general meetings with some pythonesque moments a la The Life of Brian as terms and phrases and pronouns could be subjected to a chain of recommendations and corrections. But I cannot recall it ever being stifling. Besides, at that time, the phrase ‘politically correct’ had no currency outside of debates within the Left, reserved normally for the ideologues wanting to stick to their precise readings of whatever valued texts. Linguistic issues such as terminology and pronouns were, for students, just a new terrain on which to rebel – a new terrain on which to discard the old and herald the new. So the lefties at UCT Radio were the ones resisting, were the new force, rather than the hegemonic – we had to contend, in any case, with a university culture still unconcerned with racism and sexism in language.
But I digress.
Two of the older committee members became sorts of mentors to me: Ian, the station director, and Alan, the news director. I remember hanging out with them, at dinner at Ian and his partner, Leigh’s house in Mowbray, or at The Joint in Observatory. And always there was music, in the background while people were cooking, with Alan and Ian breaking into occasional harmonising along with the music, and music also as a topic of enthusiastic discussion. Their music collections were impressively large and diverse, but the names I remember most from those days (1988, 1989) are the folky ones: Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, the Guthries, Simon and Garfunkel, Jethro Tull, Neil Young. Neil Young’s Harvest, though, was a classic which almost everyone in the UCT Radio lounge, in 1988, knew and could and would recommend as a classic. Apart from the alternatives, who were pushing Bauhaus and Talking Heads.
Folk music was also enjoying a revival via musicians like Michelle Shocked, Cowboy Junkies, Indigo Girls. Since I listened to this ‘neo-folk’, people would recommend Harvest, but I never latched onto it.
Then one night I heard ‘Crime in the city’ on the radio (Chris Prior), a ballad off Young’s then new album Freedom (1989; although I think I heard this sometime late in 1990). And this verse captivated me:
The artist looked at the producer The producer sat back He said, What we have got here Is a perfect track But we don't have a vocal And we don't have a song If we could get these things accomplished Nothin' else could go wrong. So he balanced the ashtray As he picked up the phone And said, Send me a songwriter Who's drifted far from home And make sure that he's hungry Make sure he's alone Send me a cheeseburger And a new Rolling Stone.
What is it about this verse that captivated me? (will be continued)