Way back in the mists of time, October 1990 I left my farm in a little hidden away valley in West Wales and headed for the big city. Amongst all the glam rock cassettes loaded into a specially designated suitcase was a recent purchase picked up on a whim the week before following a good review and the fact it had a track on it called ‘Fuckin Up’*. This tape very soon got to be a real firm favourite of mine, especially during those times when all the excitement** wore off, as it did occasionally and I’d feel a crushing homesickness for my little green valley, for somewhere I could be alone outside in nature; good therapeutic tears were shed to the sound of it. Over the years I must have played this LP and its opening track two hundred trigazillion times and it still gets a very regular run out, take a bow Neil Young & Crazy Horse Ragged Glory.
Recorded in a barn on Neil’s ranch, I love every nanosecond of this big beast. This is an astonishing work of outstanding genius, right from the cover on in, a fish-eyed lens cover shot, which makes Crazy Horse look like the coolest bunch of no-frills gnarly old garage rocking barn burners in existence, especially the back cover pic of an unspooked horse. Ragged Glory has some great tunes, some on-and-on-til-the-very-crack-of-the-motherfucking-apocalypse-itself guitar soloing, and a great warm immediate sound, but what sets it out from everything else around it, then and now, was an almost frightening sense of total commitment. Forget all that fucking about Mr Young did for Geffen Records, forget all the good tunes and very good songwriting on the two LPs that formed his creative rehabilitation before Ragged Glory, This Notes For You and Freedom are both (in parts) very good albums, but mere foothills to this raggedly glorious Everest.
Opener ‘Country Home’ is the emotional one for me, I can remember lying in bed late at night listening to this on my Walkman at a volume that made my brain vibrate audibly, over and over again. It says everything I felt about my geographical situation then and now:
I guess I need that city life
It sure has lots of style
But pretty soon it wears me out
And I have to think to smile.
I’m thankful for my country home
It gives me peace of mind
Somewhere I can walk alone
And leave myself behind.
I struggle to tell you just how uplifted I feel when I drop the needle in the groove and hear that opening totally overdriven salvo of notes, then the band click into place and carry me up and away. The soloing is damn fine, as you’d expect but everything here serves the tune which is the size of a continent. I don’t think music gets much better than this.
After the pleasant enough diversion that is ‘White Line’ something very heavy lumbers into view over the horizon, ‘Fuckin’ Up’^. Again the band take this one to the very edge of sanity, the sound so LOUD and raw it puts you right into that barn hugging the biggest amp you can find. The evergreen targets of hypocrisy and self-righteousness are firmly in Neil’s crosshairs here and he really lets rip, lyrically and sonically, as you might expect from a man who can sound heavier than most metal bands when playing an acoustic guitar, the results are excoriating:
I can see you on a hill
Comatose but walking still
your flowing gown
Only I could
bring you down.
Then Ragged Glory gets even better with ‘Over And Over’, which is sometimes my favourite ever Neil Young track. A sweet balm of overwhelming love and everything again, overdriven and cranked hard into the red, it gets better every time I listen to it, not bad after 27 years. Neil’s vocals really hover at the edge of his range, the way he delivers the lines ‘Somewhere in the fire of love /
our dreams went up in smoke / We danced beneath silver rain’, just gets me, nothing held back, nothing spared, damn the torpedoes – total commitment; this song matters to him. When he isn’t singing it he’s playing it, genuinely some of his best playing is right here – Crazy Horse plodding on beneath him all the while in the best possible way. Romantic regrets, eh?
At 8:28 ‘Over And Over’ is a mere stripling compared to the epic ‘Love To Burn’ which follows. Sweet, strident, epic it ticks all the right boxes and boasts some astonishingly good guitar extemporizing, sounding like most of the album, simultaneously classic and of the moment. On this track, more than any of the others, Crazy Horse really give it everything they have, Ralph Molina’s drumming is incredibly good throughout. This track by itself totally justifies the evolution of ears. True story.
Flip the sides and we get pure garage grunge on the band’s cover of ‘Farmer John’, a Nuggets fave of mine. The band play it like the most ornery hard-handed bar band of all-time – good luck asking for a request from this lot. Then we get two gentle shots of bitter sweet nostalgia in ‘Mansion On the Hill’ and ‘Days That Used To be’, both meditations on the doomed hippy dream, the reconciliation of ideals and possessions and the only two songs on Ragged Glory that don’t end snarled in feedback; maybe there is a hard-fought peace to be won in middle age after all.
Saddle up folks we’re off up Epic Gulch again next for the 10 minute ‘Love And Only Love’, which is not a second too long either. This tale of the triumph of love over everything is kept firmly on the rails by the spritely kicking rhythm of the band and the sweet harmonies of the song. Sure, Neil fires up his trusty guitar and takes us on a flight over the whole Earth but it never flags for a second, never feels like self-indulgence at all. The lyrics may not be very subtle but he MEANS it, he really does.
Ragged Glory ends with an absolute corker, of course. An amp protests with a crackle as a guitar picks out a simple refrain which is slightly redolent of Hendrix torching ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and then ‘Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)’ emerges as an environmentally conscious folk chorale, backed by the lingering tingling threat of that barely-checked guitar; a little like seeing a Glock totin’ gopher. I never used to be able to see the point of the track, which was recorded live, I thought it jangled the continuity of the LP, but now it has grown on me until the point where I think it is one of the real highlights here. Neil doesn’t heed your rules, he just is, like the mountains.
I have written way more than I meant to here, but this is one that means a lot to me. Forget all my words here, the LP title tells you all you need to know – ragged and glorious.
PS: These men are definitely old enough to know better:
PPS: You want a quote to sum up the whole of Ragged Glory? maybe the whole of Neil Young? take us back to our ‘Country Home’:
It’s only someone else’s potatoes
If you’re pickin’ someone else’s patch
And if you go down there anyway
It very seldom lasts.
I found that out once long ago
And it sure got me confused
I still don’t know which way to go
To lose those old spud blues.
*obviously I’m way more mature now.
**Booze! Bands!! New Friends!!! Record Shops!!!!
^written as ‘F*!#in’ Up’ on the cover and label to avoid getting a PMRC sticker, Mr Young was adamant he wouldn’t allow them to slap one on his LP – it’s also the reason why we have a blank black sheet on the inner sleeve, which makes a statement pretty eloquently methinks.