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Box of Dreams: Decades in the Making, Neil Young's Archives, Vol. 1 Is Unveiled 

And it's a masterpiece

Wednesday, Apr 29 2009
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Longtime L.A. record man and Neil Young spokesman Bill Bentley says he first saw a listing for a Neil Young archival project when he was working at Warner Bros. in the late 1980s. The release was supposed to be a follow-up to Young’s classic collection Decade, a three-record set that came out in 1977. This rumored sequel, Decade II, was supposed to be of similar scope but soon became something else.

It was known that Young obsessively documented all of his voluminous endeavors — indeed, he employed an archivist, Joel Bernstein, to gather film, video and audio. In hardcore fans’ imaginations, somewhere there existed a vast basement or barn (or something equally Youngian/rustic) with piles of files and rows of master tape — and not just of himself: Young is known to have possessed some of the best copies of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes masters.

After another decade and countless mentions in the press, the unnamed “Neil Young Boxed Set” project became a sort of Ark of the Covenant or King Arthur’s sword — this mythical thing with a powerful presence but that exists only in our imagination. By the early ’00s, it had expanded to include film, studio outtakes, legendary concert tapes, photos, lyric sheets and “every possible kind of thing we could find that we could put together and he could form,” recalls archivist Bernstein. It was a running joke among Young fans: “Will this thing ever come out — and if so, could it ever live up to what exists in our imagination?” Over the years, the project grew bigger, thicker, as though Young and his longtime collaborators had secured the philosopher’s stone and were teaching themselves alchemy.

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Turns out the stone they had acquired was Blu-ray technology, which allowed Young, Bernstein, producer Larry Johnson and a Warner Bros. team to create the multimedia feast that is Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1, which they unveiled last week at the Sunset Marquis.

Twenty-three years is a long time, but on the basis of an hourlong demo of the Blu-ray version, it was worth it — and not just because I walked out with the advance 10-DVD version of Archives (don’t have Blu-ray yet). Watching the creators of the Archives box — which a longtime Young designer described as “a piece of furniture” — wend their way through the many offerings is pretty astounding. There’s video of Neil Young recording in a barn, an intimate in-studio Young performance of a medley featuring “The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl.” We watch him open old copyright letters containing songs he sent to himself to prove authorship, see him read and laugh at old newspaper reviews. There’s live footage from a Massey Hall performance in Toronto, 1970, as well a recording of the entire concert. Young’s first feature film, Journey Through the Past, directed by Johnson, is a gorgeous and surreal trip through Young’s life in the early 1970s, when he was in the middle of his first and highest creative peak. It’s a goddamn feast, one that promises to keep on giving. With the technology they used, Young and his colleagues are able to offer new content that owners of the Blu-ray version can download when the material is made available.

“Since Neil and I have been working together, since, like, ’71, we’ve always collected material, knowing that we’d set aside stuff that we thought was archival,” Johnson says on the phone from New York. “We wouldn’t just put it on the shelf and forget about it. We always had a database — a paper database in those days — and then, as time went on, we kept updating our files to make sure we knew what everything was and what the choices were. And he’d already had a pretty clear picture of the kind of film material with Joel and the archival stuff, and by, I think, ’78, we started thinking about having it as a ‘collection.’”

The Blu-ray and DVD versions have 128 tracks, the CD version has 116. The Blu-ray and DVD both have way more stuff than that, though, including 12 hidden tracks and bonus “Easter eggs” planted on various pages, which, when clicked, reveal video clips and other extras. Blu-ray also allows for updates and extras, which will appear in coming years to fill in holes or provide new archival discoveries.

It’s all pretty amazing, but it wouldn’t mean anything if the music wasn’t there.

Young is a stickler for sound quality, and whatever they did to the music within, it’s as if Neil Young is singing on your back porch, and strumming on his guitar. Astounding. I heard layers of sound in “The Loner” — from one of three “Topanga”-titled discs in the collection featuring music Young made when he was living in the canyon — that I’d never heard before. Listening to “Round and Round,” one of my favorite of his songs (among about 50 others), on headphones, which I’m doing right now, is a jaw-droppingly beautiful experience. Analog warmth, it seems, has finally been infused into the new technology. The depth is incredible.

More remarkable is the Live at the Riverboat disc, featuring Young in a Toronto club in 1969 on a return from Los Angeles. The week of sets was recorded. The dynamics are stunning. The highlight is “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong,” which he calls his “drug song.” But even more revealing is Young’s easygoing demeanor. He’s chatty and funny, totally open, telling the crowd stories between songs, affable at times, a bit testy at others, apologizing for being grumpy the night before. “I hope nobody minds I didn’t wash my hair today,” he jokes at one point.

Archives, Vol. 1is an expensive proposition, for sure, especially for the Neil Young completist. After all, to really get the most out of their past 23 years of collecting and compiling, you’re not only going to have to pony up the $300 for the 10-Blu-ray set, but, chances are, you’ll also pay another $300 for a decent Blu-ray player. That would be $600 for the full experience.

But to Young, it’s worth it. As he said in Jimmy McDonough’s biography, Shakey:

“I don’t give a shit whether anybody BUYS it or not. I just wanna do it. And there may only be 200 copies, signed by me. But it’s gonna fuckin’ exist. When it’s done, people can do whatever the fuck they want, make any fuckin’ order they want out of it. But they’re gonna have the whole fuckin’ thing to choose from. They’re not gonna get part of it. Everything — the good, the bad, the ugly.”

At least four more volumes of Archives will arrive in the coming years, Johnson promises, all sharing the design aesthetic of this first volume. They’ll come at a regular clip over the next five years, following a timeline started in Vol. 1 and continuing to the present. “When we’re done, the timeline will be a mile and a half long, and since we can update it all the time, it will continue to grow — and that’s the design.

“Neil’s already made his selections pretty much all the way up till now,” Johnson adds, “and he’s starting to write a more personal side of it, because what we’re really trying to do is give you a picture of him as an artist, and how he’s transformed through the years. I think he is going to be sharing more and more of that personally as we go through. That’s one of his goals on the content side, not just to make it like it’s a technical thing, this multimedia trip, but where you start to get an insight into what he was thinking and what was going on and have it be more personal.”

Johnson says that the work has sparked a lot of memories of a heady time working with the artist, but for a documentary director (he also worked on the original Woodstock film; Martin Scorcese’s documentary of The Band, The Last Waltz; and Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara, among others), it comes with the territory. “It’s easier for me than it is for Neil,” Johnson says. “To get him to go back and live his life all over again and go over those moments, sometimes it’s so personal it’s kind of difficult.”

But the measure of Young’s artistry is that he constantly opens himself up for scrutiny. As he told McDonough in Shakey: “I want people to know how fuckin’ terrible I was. How scared I was and how great I was. The real picture — that’s what I’m looking for. Not a product. And I think that’s what the die-hard fans want — the whole fuckin’ thing.”

Start saving your money. It comes out on June 2 — the whole fuckin’ thing.

Reach the writer at rroberts@laweekly.com

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