Let’s just get it out there at the start: Neil Young is a pain in the arse. I mean that in the nicest possible way but there is no escaping the fact that he can drive you up the wall.
He has certainly been sending me around the bend for the last five years – ever since Mrs S flew off to Copenhagen for a Leonard Cohen concert and returned as a convert to the way of the Horse.
Prior to that trip, the music in the house had varied, old friends such as Cohen, Morrissey and Strummer rubbing shoulders with some of the new kids on the block, bands like The View, The Fratellis, Fleet Foxes. We even threw on some of our Greek friends like Mickey Pantelous and the Chessmates, Old House Playground and the Dead City Jetz.
But once she came back, these guys were consigned to history. It was wall to wall Neil Young, his whiny voice creeping through the timbers and insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of Iliados 48. I missed our old friends,
I missed the variety. I grew to scowl at the very mention of Neil sodding Young. In that mood, I didn’t listen; I closed my ears to him and his flipping horse.
As with any addiction things got worse as Mrs S found friends among other Neil Young fans. She even became a Rustie, a member of the unofficial fan club that meets up prior and post gig, that holds festivals in various parts of the world to celebrate His Youngness’ genius and listens religiously to old gigs played out on Rust Radio.
And then she began to box clever, turning my new-found loathing inside out.
The first strategy came in the summer of 2012 when she announced that we were going to go camping in Spain. She had found a nice campsite in Torredembarra, about 90 kilometres south of Barcelona.
“There’s a little bit of something for everyone,” she announced. “It is right by the sea so the kids can go swimming every day, there are plenty of Roman ruins around so you should fit right in.”
“But what about you?” I asked. “You aren’t too keen on the sun and the heat. What is there for you?”
“Oh don’t worry about me, I will be going to the Spanish Rustfest. You can come too if you like.”
Dead sneaky. But brilliant. Presented with the fait accompli and with so many other temptations, who wouldn’t want to go to Catalonia for a week? Besides, I have always been a sucker for live music and she promised me plenty of cold beer so it was a no-brainer.
And we had a ball. A great three days of music, bands and beer. Sure Neil Young was the common factor but they weren’t nuts or celebrity chasers. They just loved his music and loved to play it themselves. I surprised myself by making some new friends while we were there.
And then came this year, the announcement that Neil Young was touring with Crazy Horse was met with semi-hysteria by the Rusties. The last time that happened was back in 2003 with the Greendale tour. Maybe this would be the last tour for them. Mrs S booked tickets for a couple of concerts and then asked me if I had ever been to Nimes.
“It sounds a lovely old town, it even has a Roman arena,” she said.
“Sounds good,” I replied.
“In fact, Neil is playing there…I thought we could all go, you, me, the kids. I would love them to experience Neil and Crazy Horse.”
There was a pause as I digested the wonderful sleight of hand – I was just too darn dim to spot it. She sensed the hesitation and let it ride for a few moments before delivering the punchline.
“Oh, and Patti Smith is on the same bill.”
JULY IN NIMES
And so it came to pass that on July 17, 2013, la famille Spender found themselves in Nimes.
When we arrived at the Roman arena shortly after 1pm, there was just one other person there, waiting for the gates to open in five hours time.
“I am always number one,” announced Uwe proudly.
Ah Uwe. Where to begin? The kids and I had met him for the first time a couple of nights previously when he and Mrs S went to see NY in Vienne in another Roman theatre.
Pushing 50 with a shock of spikey white hair, the charmingly crazy German was criss-crossing Europe in the path of the Horse. He drove with terrifying speed through roundabouts, apparently not at ease with the notion of going “around” them and expanded the kids’ vocabulary tenfold as he cussed his way through the English-German Lexicon of Cusswords.
On our first meeting, as we sat outside our tents sucking on a cold beer, he booked a place in family folklore.
“Do you fancy some nibbles?” I asked.
He looked puzzled, shocked even, quite lost for words. I reached into a large shopping bag and produced a packet of crinkle-cut crisps. He blinked and did a double-take.
“Nipples? You call these nipples?”
And nipples they remained.
Rusties get their name from the album Rust Never Sleeps so it is no surprise to find they are a dedicated bunch. Uwe was the first but the line quickly began to lengthen, Rusties from around the world greeting each other as old friends or meeting each other for the first time after years of verbal exchanges on the Rustie website.
They get there early to get into pole position for the run to the rail. These are the fans who cannot be doing with the comfort of a numbered seat up in the Gods; these are the groundlings who want to gather in the pit, to count the droplets of sweat rolling down Poncho’s neck or make genuine eye contact with the great man. They want the best view in the house.
Waiting five hours is not much fun for the kids especially when they are meant to be on holiday but they settled into it. Syd, who is 11, took her sketch block to draw the arena while ten-year-old Nat attempted to use a box of pretzels to recreate Salvador Dali’s moustache under his nose.
Finally it was time to run. The kids were like Usain Bolt out of the blocks; I was more in the John Candy bracket. Even so, we were up on the rail next to Uwe, ready for the action.
Of course, this was still only 6pm so after five hours in line outside we now had another two hours to wait inside. But at least we were in.
Looking behind us, the arena was a peculiar sight. Evening sunshine had cut through the flurry of rain we had had outside, the pit was filling fast but there was no one in the seats above us.
In fact, the arena possessed little charm – all advertising hoardings and a lattice of bucket seats and metal railings an ugly smear across the antiquity of the original. A distant cry from what you find at the Herod Atticus or the Kalimarmaro in Athens where today’s audiences park their backsides on the same marble as their predecessors, the wise remembering to bring their own cushions.
But the atmosphere still crept through to all of us, the kids indulging in a grand debate about the nature of ancient history.
“It’s pretty cool to think that where we are standing was where the gladiators used to fight each other. Do you think anyone died right here?” asked Syd.
“Duh, I think they changed the floor since then,” replied Nat.
BECAUSE THE NIGHT
First on was Patti Smith who stopped after the first song to send some ear defenders down to Syd and Nat on the rail. As it was they already had some but it was a great way of engaging them in the concert. She later sent down a bottle of water for them.
She and the band were in outstanding form, the crowd of Neil lovers warming to her to the point that the roof – had there been one – would have come off during People have the Power and Gloria. She served up several songs from her new album Banga, the title-track of which also proved an instant hit with the crowd, and she produced a short acoustic song in support of Edward Snowden, the CIA whistle-blower who is still on the run.
It was outstanding. From my point of view, I had had my money’s worth but there was something else on the menu.
“Neil Young. And Crazy Horse. My favourite band in the world….apart from my own of course,” said Patti Smith in slightly awed tones towards the end of her set. She was later spotted dancing in the wings as the Horse began to gallop.
I don’t want to gush as it just doesn’t seem right. But it quickly became apparent that I had been wrong about Neil Young. He wasn’t a whiny pain in the arse. He was a legend. And Crazy Horse too. The chemistry between the four of them – Neil, Billy, Poncho and Ralph – something very special, not surprising perhaps given that they have been together, off and on, since the 1970s.
At various points, Neil, Billy and Poncho would stand in a circle, challenging each other with their guitars; all of them in the sixties, they were like a bunch of naughty schoolboys jamming in their parents’ garage and loving every minute of it – Ralph, the drummer with the pirate flag, lending his voice to the harmonies.
The low point was the acoustic rendition of Heart of Gold – and the Bob Dylan classic Blowin’ in the Wind. Not that this was Neil’s fault. He did them as they were meant to be done. Or at least I think he did; it was difficult to hear anything as 16,000 people launched into community karaoke, drowning out the one song that many of them had probably paid their entrance money to hear.
No chance of drowning him out on most of the others, especially once he strapped on Old Black – Walk like a Giant breaking into Hole in the Sky and a rousing rendition of Rockin’ in the Free World some of the highlights.
Like Patti Smith he also engaged with the kids, winking at Syd during Cinnamon Girl and getting into a finger-jabbing fight with Nat on Roll Another Number.
The end came in a breathless rush of drums, guitars, feedback and orchestrated mayhem. And I recognized that I had undergone a kind of epiphany, not quite walked the road to Damascus but maybe the path to Ontario. I had realised I was too young to rust on my musical laurels. Neil Horse and Crazy Young were all they were cracked up to be. Truly outstanding.
“I need a beer, “ I heard myself say.
“Yah,” said an emotionally drained Uwe. “And some nipples.”
©Barney Spender 2013