Neil, Transformer Man
By Zach Schonfeld
Artwork by Steven Fiche
“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things that I didn’t understand—for getting involved in something that I shouldn’t have been involved in. Well, fuck them.”
—Neil Young, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (2003)
“Sometimes in a bar, you will hear someone try to defend Neil Young’s Eighties albums. This is technically known as a ‘desperate cry for help.’”
—Rob Sheffield, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004)
A process server arrived at Neil Young’s door in early November 1983. It was several days shy of the artist’s birthday and he was visiting on behalf of Geffen Records, but he wasn’t there to deliver royalties. That’s not how royalties are delivered, and that’s not what process servers do. He was there to serve Neil Young with a $3.3 million lawsuit, and in that moment, Neil Young became the first artist ever to be sued for not sounding enough like himself.
Filed by Geffen, which had signed Young less than two years prior, the lawsuit accused the artist of having produced albums deemed “not ‘commercial’ and … musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” His most recent flop had been Everybody’s Rockin’, a goofy-eyed 25-minute jaunt through the rockabilly ’50s. But the conflict really stemmed from a series of misadventures set in motion by Trans, the artist’s intensely bewildering excursion into Vocoder-voiced electronica, which then proved to be his most alienating release to date — literally. By that, I mean it sounded to most listeners as if Neil Young had replaced himself and his backing band with a small army of Martians, beaming his tunes down to Earth by way of some cosmic transmitter he had probably concocted on his California ranch, knowing him. Certainly that was what the campy, sci-fi album cover seemed to suggest.
No one at Geffen — or elsewhere, for that matter — could have known that Trans, in all its neon-tinted, spacey fancy, was an intensely heartfelt project for Young, one that he would later describe as “an expression of something deeply personal.”
How could they have? In the first of many strategic miscalculations, Young kept it all a secret.
* * *
Here’s how I discovered Trans: I couldn’t find it.
Thumbing through my father’s sizable collection of Neil Young vinyl as a teenager, I somehow noticed that Trans was missing. Pretty much everything else up to and including 1987’s Life was there and accounted for, as I recalled in a 2011 essay, even the forgotten Time Fades Away LP and the Journey Through the Past soundtrack, out-of-print rarities that have never been issued on CD and are more likely to be spotted in Graham Nash’s attic than at Amoeba Records. So, why not Trans? If not for my Musichound Essential Album Guide book, I probably wouldn’t have even known that Neil Young had released anything in 1982.
But he did, and as soon as I read some review or another referring to it, dismissively enough, as “Neil Young’s techno album,” I knew I’d end up tracking it down.
So, I hunted it down. I found it used on Amazon, a dog-eared vinyl copy shipped from God knows where, and I was immediately charmed by the album’s geeky song titles, which read like Prince-speak poisoned by some digital totalitarian nightmare, as well as its eerie, synthetic veneer, which is never quite thick enough to obscure Young’s trademark melodicism. I was confused, probably, by the presence of three tracks that didn’t trade in Kraftwerk rhythms and bleepy textures, but maybe I didn’t mind the respite from the Sennheiser Vocoder VSM201 that otherwise swallowed up Young’s vocals whole.
I didn’t, at any rate, know about the son who had been unable to communicate verbally with Young because he had been born with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia, and so I didn’t know about the 15 hours a day Young and his wife Pegi spent in therapy programs, grueling work that would first channel into the pounding, repetitive crunch of 1981’s Re-ac-tor. I didn’t know that the synclavier and vocoder that subsume the record were meant to signify Ben Young’s inability to vocalize in ways comprehensible to those surrounding him 24 hours a day, and I didn’t read between the lines of songs like “Transformer Man”, in which alien-voiced Young bemoans that there are “so many things still left to do/ But we haven’t made it yet.” Nor did I know about the music video Young envisioned for the record, which, in Young’s words, would depict “a lot of scientists and doctors trying to unlock the secrets of a little being who had so much to say and no way to say it.” That video was never made.
I didn’t, in other words, realize that Trans was a concept album about messages lost in translation whose message had been lost in translation.
Not that its themes were entirely without precedent. Like so much of Shakey’s best songwriting, it concerns itself with a break in communication — but this time not with a love interest (“Will to Love”) or a dead junkie friend (“The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Tired Eyes”) or a shallow, posturing celebrity culture (“On the Beach”). It’s a failure to communicate, in the most literal of ways, with one’s young son, which somehow makes it all the more personal and all the more devastating. “That’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is,” Young would later explain to Mojo. “Well, that’s the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”
Except, of course, that the message was lost on pretty much everyone who heard it in 1982. That’s probably because the record was drowned by its own obsessions, an LP about miscommunication that happened to be garbled and choked on the way to its audience. Young used every instrumental tool at his disposal to channel disconnection to his listeners, and in 1982, those instrumental tools had become all too heady for a popular audience that had been weaned on the pastoral tones of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the even-footed country-folk of Harvest, an audience that thought Kraftwerk was a type of salami, not a musical outfit of any consequence. Too heady, too much, too soon.
That the artist responded to calls for a rock ‘n’ roll record in the most caustic and sneering possible manner — by throwing together a jokey ’50s-rock outing — did little to improve the glass wall that had emerged between Young, his audience, and his increasingly impatient record label.
But it made for a thrilling contrast. Everybody’s Rockin’, for all its grinning, old-timey spirit, turned out to sound a hell of a lot colder than the LP that was designed to sound like a bubble bath with robots. Trans, by comparison, was a disarmingly honest, if excessively weird, statement. Ignored by thousands and despised by many others, it contains some of the most unusual, inventive, and even catchy material of Young’s career.
* * *
So, here’s the thing. Neil Young was sued — made a “Prisoner of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, as he would joke on 1987’s Life LP — for making music deemed “not commercial and … musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” But it wasn’t. Well, sure, it was uncommercial. Of course it was. Synthpop hadn’t yet broken through to the mainstream, and even if it had, Young hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was supposed to sound like, a fact that gives Trans its distant, alien edge. But it wasn’t unrepresentative of the impulsive, follow-every-rabbit-hole spirit that had characterized the artist’s tireless and careening muse since well before 1980. Consider the ditch trilogy (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night) or the odd country excursion (Comes a Time).
All of which is to say, Trans wasn’t “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings,” not really, not unless you focus only on the bewildering sonic properties that overwhelm the songs, which is a preposterous distinction to make because of course you are going to focus on the bewildering sonic properties that overwhelm the songs; that was all anyone focused on in 1983, how could it not be, who the hell am I to suggest otherwise?
Look: Imagine you are the process server guy made to serve papers to Neil Young in 1983, the hapless nobody tasked with rapping on a Real Live Rock Star’s door and meekly informing him that he is in trouble — label trouble and maybe also legal trouble — because his records are getting too freaky. Imagine being that guy. He must have known who he was speaking to, what sort of bewildering message he was delivering. How do you do that? Did he prepare for this meeting, rehearsing his lines in front of a mirror? Did he take a mental inventory of the look on Neil Young’s face, the artist slack-jawed, waving a joint, let’s imagine, smoke curling in circles around his flannel shirt, and did he carry it with him for three decades so that someday he might relate it to his grandchildren? “I was the one,” he might boast, “who put Neil Young under arrest” — come on, you have to exaggerate when you are talking to children — “for not sounding enough like Neil Young.”
Now imagine that the case wasn’t settled and here we are in court and I am the defense attorney. I am the one who goes before the judge and endeavors to defend Trans — not Everybody’s Rockin’, only Trans — against charges of uncommercial villainy and treason or whatever. I don’t have to prove that it is perfect, because of course it’s flawed; it’s a messy and confusing record, but that never was the impetus for the lawsuit. I just have to prove that it isn’t altogether uncharacteristic of Young’s career, that beneath the alien-voiced specter lies genuine melodicism and heart, that some of its songs might even contain traces of what might modestly be called commercial potential.
Anyway, that’s sort of what this essay is. So, here we are. The defense rests his case.