Neil Young and no sense of an ending

Some old men resign themselves to death; others rock out, failing to convince. Philip Roth, age 79, has said that he plans to write no more books. Neil Young turned 67 this month and, to celebrate, reunited with “Crazy Horse” at Madison Square Garden last night. We were there for part of the evening.

In his review of last night’s performance, James Reed of The Boston Globe called it an “epic ride.” If it was, then it was epic in the older sense of the word. Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses returns, after 20 years of war and wandering, to Ithaca. He is old but is, he says, not fit to rule. Ruling does not run in his blood the way it does in his son’s. With his men, therefore, all old friends, he will strike off again to see whether death can be bent back or held off by a supreme act of will.

Neil is old Ulysses yet bordering on bathos. It’s strange to hear an old man–looking, my love said, like a “colicky baby”–sing in the key of bathos in a cracking building before an aging audience. The two classics–“Cinnamon Girl” and “The Needle and the Damage Done”–were softly song and it was these that showed heart. Yet it was the rest of the set that made me think of melodrama (young girls and broken dreams–that sort of thing), of boundless striving and never yielding (“Walk Like a Giant” power-chorded on for 23 unbearable minutes), of massive amps set against any good sense of an ending. The newer songs were filled with cliches, the lyrics undone by tiredness, but there was nevertheless something sorrowful about watching a man who, unlike Dylan, could still sing but who had nothing to sing about. Was it the dishonesty or the pretense that got to us?