The careers of Neil Young and Randy Newman prove that one can feel uncomfortable with the world even in California. These two West Coast eccentrics gave us some of our best records during the recently eclipsed Me Decade. Both Young and Newman constantly take musical risks, and thus each new release can be either a curious experiment or a grand success. Young alternates among folk confessional, country-rock and hard-rock styles. Newman alternates between cabaret-rock story-songs and soundtrack music.
Neil Young's latest venture, "Re-ac-tor" (Reprise HS 2304), is his first album in 12 years that rocks hard from start to finish. It moves forward the themes and sound of his 1979 breakthrough, "Rust Never Sleeps"; it is a major work by a major artist. Randy Newman's soundtrack album for "Ragtime" (Elektra 5E-565), is an intriguing instrumental exercise from pop music's most gifted lyricist; it's a minor work from a major artist.
Young's "Rust Never Sleeps" opened and closed with "Hey, Hey, My My," a brooding reflection on the tendency of rock stars from Elvis Presley to Johnny Rotten to burn themselves out. The song struck listeners hard, for rock 'n' roll fans have often shown the same tendency. It was a curious song, though, from a man whose flame has burned steadily over a productive 14-year career. On "Re-ac-tor," Young finds an alternative to the dead-end fast lane in the "timeless traditions" of rock 'n' roll and bohemia.
"Opera Star" opens "Re-ac-tor" by dismissing the notion that rock is a high art that must "progress" like museum painting or hard-cover literature. Like any folk art, rock 'n' roll is also basically conservative: It keeps rediscovering basic techniques and basic truths. "Some things never change," Young sings to himself. "You were born to rock; you'll never be an opera star." On the next song, he evokes both the triumphant possibility and self-destructive danger of the counterculture through two characters: "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze." Moe is "weak in the knees," but Joe "caught the big one, and he let it go. He's somebody." Like any folk art, rock 'n' roll is basically radical in that it celebrates the heroics of the ordinary. On this record, Young celebrates his Army jeep, young peace activists, a railroad retiree and Surfer Joe.
Young implies the key to rock 'n' roll survival may be the surfer's trick of getting on and off each wave at the right time. On "Rapid Transit," he cries: "Let's go trippin'. Every wave is new until it breaks." Like the ocean, rock 'n' roll will always produce more waves, each one a little different, each one basically the same. On "Get It Back," Young substitutes General Custer and Robert E. Lee for the self-destructive martyrdom of Johnny Rotten and Elvis Presley. It may be too late for them, he sings, "but I'll get back on the highway before it's too late for me."
All these themes are fleshed out in the music more than in the lyrics. As the E Street Band does for Bruce Springsteen and the Kinks do for Ray Davies, Crazy Horse has always given rock 'n' roll guts to Young's folkish songs. The music on "Re-ac-tor" captures the danger Young sings of, but also the determination to overcome. Drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot create the steady, eager through-line in each song. Young's 12-string electric guitar and Frank Sampedro's six-string electric guitar grate against that rhythm with dragging drones. The drones break down into stray tangents before reforming around the beat. The guitars climb on and off the rhythmic wave with expert instincts.
This musical approach works on all eight cuts, but is best on the two oblique criticisms the album directs toward the current White House administration. "T-Bone" reduces Reaganomics to an endlessly repeated chant: "Got mashed potatoes; ain' got no T-bone." The buzzing, grinding guitars spell out the pain and anger behind this simple statement for nine minutes. The past year's violent precedents for "Shots" ("I keep hearing shots!") should be obvious. The music, though, condenses all the terror of that violence into seven minutes of piercing, chilling guitar assault. If "Opera Star" admitted that rock 'n' roll may never change, "Shots" expresses hope that young peace demonstrators will succeed in "trying to join their fathers' castles together again."
Randy Newman had the background for writing the "Ragtime" soundtrack. His uncles Alfred (nine Academy Awards), Lionel and Emil Newman composed for films and TV shows in Hollywood. Randy Newman himself scored "Cold Turkey" and conducted Jack Nitzche's score for "Performance." Newman, a voracious reader, admired E.L. Doctorow's evocation of turn-of-the century America in the novel "Ragtime," yet many of Newman's own songs are even better evocations. Newman was first hired by the film's original director, Robert Altman, in 1977. Newman's first effort, "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America," ended up on "Little Criminals" when Altman was fired.
The new director, Milos Forman, didn't want songs but rather period music. Moreover, what screenwriter would want to compete against Newman's perfect miniature three-minute screenplays? So the soundtrack for "Ragtime" contains 17 instrumental snippets (most less than two minutes) and just four vocals. Jennifer Warnes sings Newman's closing song, "One More Hour"; the James Cleveland Choir sings a Newman Gospel hymn; Donald O'Connor sings Newman's rewrite of the standard, "I Could Love a Million Girls," and Newman sings "Change Your Way" (which was dropped from the film). None of these songs compare to Newman's gift for Gershwinesque piano figures and moody orchestration, and never develop into something memorable. His score has more period authenticity and character than Marvin Hamlisch's soundtrack for "The Sting." "Ragtime" is an interesting but nonessential look at the music behind Newman's vocals, much like the Beach Boys' instrumental "Stack-O-Tracks."