Experience is it, at that point. We all know something about Neil Young. He is a classic rock god who also remains pleasingly lo-fi. He’s Canadian. He had a house somewhere off Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He gives to charity. He wears that hair, those flannels. He writes rock music that should be opera in its storytelling grandness but also is intimate and, just, inside himself. His voice is surprisingly nasal and high when you hear it, and his simple, rough guitar riffs live somewhere between blues and riot girl. He rocks. But the knowledge we don’t share about this artist and this particular album is our ever-individualized experiences of the music.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was the first album I owned by Young, though certainly not the first I’d heard or liked, but probably the first I’d listened to deeply, on my own, not just in passing or at the behest of a male friend or as a familiar low-level Rock background. This was Young’s first album with the band Crazy Horse and was recorded in 1968 while he was also still in Crosby Stills Nash & Young, post-Buffalo Springfield, pre-solo fame that arrived with the release of Harvest.
There is a long guitar solo in “Down By The River” that told me everything I needed to know about Neil Young when I first heard it. His playing holds a transparency not often seen in “guitar guys” – a slow pace that allows itself to find the notes, the progressions, the scales, and a tenderness to the picking that belies the roughshod skill behind it. Just a simple concept, iterated: an exploration of a melody. Little ego on the tape– except of course the ego that allows a guitar solo to own most of a 9-minute song. A willingness to leave the sound as it is sounded, and circle back again, and try a new place, and let things sound the way they sound again. This solo sounds… overheard.
When I listen to this music, I have a feeling of being catapulted into a past both my own and born only of myth. It’s like a drive in a hot car through forests, windows down and the sun fearless on top of you, and you hit the dark curved shade-spots around uneven turns in the mountain road and are blinded for moments by the coolness, the deep green flash before you open back up into light of the day. You have been in this town before, you have known these people.
There is a sense of place I have often talked about with certain friends who are from mid-sized towns with strong personalities — towns in California like Santa Cruz, where I’m from, Grass Valley, and San Luis Obispo. We call this sense of place “hometown, not smalltown.”
The designation “hometown” carries with it a certainty of uniqueness, a strong sense of the place and the intimacy the word implies, but also the experience of growing up with the resources and cultural access to know that this home exists inside a particular bubble, and one day you might leave it, but it will always exist. A hometown is a good place to be from, but maybe not to stay. And when, if, you do go back, whether for a visit or because you sometimes get stuck there between stations, your daily path becomes a strong mix of sense memory actions and smells that can alternately drive you up a wall and shore up, support, the very essence of your “self.”
Everyone who leaves the place they are from knows this experience to varying degrees:
This place is what made me; I gotta get outta this place.
And that is the experience I have to add to the discussion of this incredibly famous record. The experience of hometown. For me this album will always be my hometown, and all the times I listened to this music there or all the times this music made me want to go back there, or want to leave. The “Nowhere” of the title track is both “back home” and the place you yearn to escape, the day-to-day running around of plain old hometown life: Santa Cruz and me in it as a grownup in all the ways that has happened, in short and long bursts, since I left at 16.
These songs solos, words, and silences contain the narrative sense of visiting a smallish place where you know everyone, and their parents. Of summers. Of telephone calls you don’t want overheard, hours spent sitting in cars outside driveways just to have some silence, not knowing the names of streets you know better than your own veins, and of the constricting contradictions of family and how they are near us yet far. The sight of Pacific Avenue on a Saturday night when it looks nothing like it looked in my childhood but it smells like home. Seeing old friends thrive, and escape, and not escape, and not be close friends but still be known.
Certain smells, like the wet of redwood lanes when its hot above them. Knowing what time the fog will come in. Now we are older, but we share a past with others in which some drowned and some thrived and some changed shape to suit a new present. And some of us regret some of it, or romanticize all of it, or recognize only hints of it–but we are all equally here and there at the same time. Nowhere.