Defending The Trick of Disaster

Neil Young’s 'Trans', Reconsidered

by Zach Schonfeld

14 February 2011


Better to Be Fearless and Reckless

Strangest of all,  Trans is entirely reconcilable with the rest of Young’s career. What the album’s most pointed critics fail to realize is that Young’s prolific output (an average of about one album every 18 months between 1969 and 2011) has always tended towards the wild impulse project. Immediacy is key—if too measured and anticipated and composed, Young seems to think, the music loses its bite; better to be fearless and reckless, and if this generates some missteps along the way, at least he’s not playing it safe (see: the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, occasional bandmates Crosby, Still & Nash).

The ‘80s brought us a rapid-fire succession of wildly unstable genre excursions: into trash-rock (Re-Ac-Tor), electronica (Trans), rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’), country (Old Ways), synth-pop (Landing on Water), and blues (This Note’s For You). Beyond that controversial decade, there’s 1975’s Tonight’s the Night (recorded in 1973), a wrenchingly candid tribute to recently deceased friends, written largely in the studio and recorded in single takes over a few raucously drunken nights of tequila-fueled grief.

There’s 2003’s Greendale, a convoluted rock opera about God-knows-what, and there’s Fork in the Road, a 2009 concept album involving Young’s adventures developing electric car technology, and even 1992’s Harvest Moon, a strikingly gorgeous folk-ballad record that followed directly on the heels of Crazy Horse’s most blistering, feedback-laden tour in over a decade (which resulted in 1991’s Weld). Recall, too, that CSNY’s iconic “Ohio” was recorded a mere 11 days after the 1970 Kent State shootings it’s about. Following a similar model, 2006’s Living With War—a fiery, choir-driven protest record dealing explicitly with the Iraq War—was written, recorded, and released entirely within a month’s span.

The point remains: Trans’ particular direction may be especially extreme, or indisputably bizarre. Its spirit—of adventure and whim, of careening, uninhibited artistic impulse—fits squarely within the context of an artist who refuses to keep his wilder inclinations in check. The tendency operates occasionally to mass frustration, to mainstream listeners’ chagrin. It’s also part of what makes Young’s music so frequently exciting, even 40 years into his career. Trans may be his most intensely personal, baffling experiment. It’s also one wildcard excursion among many.

Trans’ greatest failure, then, lies not in its music or lyrics. It lies in its presentation and promotion—or lack thereof. Young failed entirely to convey its personal context to an indifferent audience. He fought confusion with more confusion: the inscrutably sarcastic, if not utterly meaningless, Everybody’s Rockin’.

He even found himself caught in murky legal waters. A $3.3 million lawsuit with Geffen Records followed the release of that record in 1983.Young’s music, Geffen alleged, had become “musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings.” The suit backfired—the prominent label founder later apologized for interfering with his client’s creative process—but its basic complaint expressed a popular sentiment among the singer’s confused audience: Neil Young had successfully alienated his listeners on a creative and commercial level, and Trans would come to be regarded as the fatal turning point in that process.

For that album, the explanation only came years later, explained best in Young’s biography, Shakey:

That’s what the record’s about… It’s the beginning of my search for a way for a nonoral person, a severely physically handicapped nonoral person, to find some sort of interface for communication…  That’s what I was getting at. And that was completely misunderstood.

If ever there was a lucid link connecting Trans The Concept (as conceived by Young) to Trans The Album (as perceived by just about everyone else), however, it existed only inside the artist’s head. During the album’s aimless promotion, Young approached Geffen with an idea for a music video—something to tie together Trans’ baffling loose ends, or at the very least provide a visual counterpart to its confusing aural explorations. The video would take place in a hospital room, where swarms of electronic-voiced nurses and doctors bustle around, consumed with the same simple task: to teach a baby to push a button.  The vignette was to symbolize Young’s central focus: seeking a venue of communication for one to whom the most basic communication is denied, even (or perhaps especially) if that venue is utterly mechanical.

The video, however, was never made. MTV was too new to have demonstrated its commercial potential, and Geffen refused to put up the money—even after Young offered to spend $200,000 of his own. Would such a mystifying vignette even have made a difference anyway? The album bombed, and Young took it hard; his concept, in all its personal and social and musical relevance, had been completely and utterly lost in translation.

How appropriate, then, that this album, so consumed by an unceasing desire to breach the communication barrier, was hopelessly mired by Neil Young’s inability—or unwillingness—to communicate that theme to his baffled listeners. “It’s communication,” quipped the songwriter later, “but it’s not getting through. And that’s what my son is.” Maybe that’s what Trans is, too.

But, maybe that’s what it should be.

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