The scene is a college dormitory; the year is 1979. By happenstance, the roommates all play instruments, mostly as a hobby. In one corner, the drummer sets up his kit, and two guitars are plugged into small, album-cover-size amps. Songs are attempted and discarded before one of the students starts the opening chunka-chunka chords to Neil Young’s ”Down by the River.”
The sound is choppy, their attempt at the ooh-oohs in the chorus fairly tuneless, the guitar solos inept. None of it matters. They keep playing, losing themselves in the intoxicating power of amplification, and suddenly a half hour has gone by. Just as suddenly, in comes the older student who oversees the floor and firmly shuts them down — they can’t play live, loud, amplified rock & roll in their room, for Christ’s sake. The party is over, but the students agree that it was fun while it blasted.
Another scene, 16 years later. One of the three roommates is now a man, an adult with a job, a home, and a mortgage, plopped into advancing middle age. In fact, he is 35 today. To maintain some degree of fitness and to stave off whatever physical deterioration will inevitably start to occur, he is perched on an exercise bike at a gym. He has brought along Mirror Ball, the collaboration between Neil Young and Pearl Jam (whose name, incidentally, appears nowhere on the cover, for unspecified legal reasons).
The tape starts just as the wheels of the exercise bicycle begin to turn, and even on the wobbly Walkman headphones, the music crackles. The man has been listening to and buying Neil Young albums for 22 years, and he instantly recognizes that Young is in electric mode once again. Recorded in four days, the album has a spontaneous, bang-it-out casualness that is, to say the least, extremely rare for a rock veteran. Songs open with random studio chatter and sometimes end with decidedly unpolished feedback buzz. Taking a solo on ”Big Green Country,” Young fumbles at first; only after a few halting attempts does he find the right notes and the right ear-piercing tone.
Unlike the overambitious songs on last year’s Sleeps With Angels, these melodies are mostly three-chord stompers, and Pearl Jam seems content to kick out the jams behind him. Being an older fan, the man on the bike finds the music reminiscent of Young’s Zuma period. ”Song X” is an electrified sea chantey; ”Downtown,” a simple paean to seeing live rock at local dives ”where the hippies all go,” is one of Young’s loosiest-goosiest songs in years. It is thrilling in itself to hear Young pushed along by a young, eager-to-bash drummer, Jack Irons, as opposed to the weathered peers he has used for the past quarter century.
Mirror Ball isn’t quite the summit meeting one would have hoped for. Except for taking two solo verses on ”Peace and Love,” Eddie Vedder is, disappointingly, nowhere to be heard. The album’s lyrics are mostly jumbled rehashes of standard Young imagery — Indians and ”lone riders” all suffocating in a nation of ”media image slaves,” and war as a metaphor for love. The exerciser pedals a little slower during a sluggish tune or two.
And yet the album is such a tossed-off firecracker that the man, groaning his way toward 40 push-ups, forgives it its faults. ”People my age/They don’t do the things I do,” Young sings at one point. And indeed, Neil Young is a miracle, the man realizes. How can anyone at 49 sound so ornery yet youthful, still play such wiry guitar, still sing in that quavering high tenor? And Pearl Jam is like he and his college roommates nearly two decades ago, intently cranking out Neil Young music, but this time with the craggy Rock & Roll Hall of Famer himself.
The man leaves the gym, the headphones still clamped onto his ears, and rewinds the tape to ”Peace and Love.” From its opening razor-blade guitar lead, it aims for that anthemic mode of the Neil Young of old, and despite a few muddled chords and even more muddled lyrics, the collaborative magic works.
It is a pleasant night, warm and inviting, and weaving his way in and around people on the street as these musicians from different generations come together and hit a communal musical peak, the man feels 19 again. It has been nearly a decade since he even picked up a guitar. He wonders where it is now. A-