“All the sailors with their seasick mamas hear the sirens on the shore…”
Though my two favorite Neil records—Tonight’s The Night and Zuma—were recorded on either side of this one, On The Beach has never quite reached me. Apart from the songs included on Decade—the single “Walk On” b/w “For The Turnstiles” (a coincidence they are also the two shortest?)—the rest of it always felt ponderous and never held my attention. It’s one of those ‘classic’ records that I simply don’t get. I’m really gonna try now.
“Walk On” is a minor catchy rocker that Neil could crank out pretty reliably at this time. I know some are moved by the ballad “See The Sky About To Rain” but for me its an underbaked idea that doesn’t really go anywhere. And I’m not sure about that woozy Wurlitzer, but I’m a sucker for a steel guitar (the first showcase for multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith). We’re finally onto something with “Revolution Blues” with an urgent drive, arresting guitar hook and palpable paranoia in its haunting account of urban violence with or without a cause (“We got twenty five rifles just to keep the population down.”) “For The Turnstiles” is an indisputable masterpiece, and I’d listen to a whole album of Neil and Ben Keith (on banjo and dobro respectively) kickin’ it on the porch. Its imagery might even be more surreal than “Revolution” and Neil sells it with a soulful but unaffected rasp. There may have been an oil crisis going on, but “Vampire Blues” is pretty feeble as a blues and fangless for an issue song—apart from an inventive sucking-burrowing effect made on guitar.
Neil was a certified rock star by this point, and the title track reveals considerable ambivalence about the deal (“I need a crowd of people / but I can’t face them day to day.”) With this and the threat of revolutionaries taking him down in Laurel Canyon, it’s a rough life for a rich musician. I’ve given side two three listens in the last several days, and “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues” are just languorous and impenetrable. I can listen to Bob Dylan go on verse after verse about anything, or Neil wailing on guitar for fourteen minutes, but if there’s a hazy mood where these songs can operate, it’s an unachievable state for me. Like Astral Weeks, On The Beach may just be one of those lauded, introspective albums that I can’t find my way into. Not even 30 at the time, Neil was already a more reflective old man than I am now, though admittedly being an ardent fan of his was a younger man’s game for me. Still, I managed some takeaways: “Revolution Blues” has emerged as a new favorite, and I’d never fully appreciated the breadth of Ben Keith contribution to Neil’s music—he plays everything here and steals the show repeatedly.