A Well Considered Lingering Lullaby: Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps At 40

Billed as a “concert fantasy” with Jawa roadies and giant Fender amps, this 1979 masterpiece displayed Crazy Horse at a full gallop

Neil Young + Crazy Horse Rust Never Sleeps, Reprise 1979

It would be tempting to start this treatise off with a standard cliche — one that suggests that if Neil Young never recorded another album, Rust Never Sleeps would stand as one of his most enduring testimonials.

However given his chameleon-like persona, it’s almost inconceivable that that would ever be the case. Although it’s an apt summation of Young’s reckoning at the time, the past 40 years have found him engaged in an ever-evolving artistic evolution which ensures that no single album, no matter how effectively it might size up his stance, could never serve as anything coming close to a complete summation. 

Nevertheless, Rust Never Sleeps serves Young well. Although not nearly as stark as his previous live offering, Tonight’s The Night, it remains nothing less than a stunning set of songs. Recorded primarily at San Francisco’s Boarding House in the midst of Young’s 1978 outing with Crazy Horse, it captures Young’s darker designs, but still manages to cast them in a decidedly demonstrative motif. In fact, the music bore the full weight of his otherwise didactic delivery. Obviously cognizant of punk’s recent organic emergence, Young and Crazy Horse made a point of remaining rough around the edges, making little effort to tidy up the tattered ends. That’s especially apparent on the three songs that were destined to become his set standards from that point on — “My My, Hey Hey,” “Pocahantas” and “Powderfinger in particular. Each was imbued with a decidedly relentless refrain and anthemic-like resolve. On the other hand, some of the material had a relatively short shelf life; it’s notable that “Ride My Llama” and “Sail Away” have rarely been reprised since their initial appearance there.

Original film poster for Rust Never Sleeps

Notably too, despite the live setting, Rust Never Sleeps is often considered a studio album, given that the crowd noise was subverted to fall far down in the mix. Likewise, the half acoustic/half electric format Young employed  allowed for a more decidedly diverse package. Young’s tendency to pontificate was also evidenced as well; the social commentary filtered through “Welfare Mothers,” the outrage over the treatment accorded Native Americans by the White Man as expressed in “Pocahontas” and ultimately of course, his eloquent eulogy for rock ‘n’ roll bookending the album — “My My, Hey Hey” — all remain among the most iconic offerings in Young’s ever expanding catalogue. 

Not surprisingly then, Young himself considered Rust Never Sleeps so essential that he repeated three of its songs soon after. “My My, Hey Hey” (natch), “Powerfinger” and “Sedan Delivery” were recorded in concert for Live Rust, a legitimate live album which appeared later that same year. At that point, Young was clearly on a roll. Ever prolific as always, he held true to his newly proclaimed mantra, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Having witnessed his share of rock ‘n’ roll casualties, he was clearly congizant of the fact that there was a purpose in perseverance, a mantra  and a mission he’s maintained ever since.

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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