Rock and roll has never produced much in the way of mentors. Influences, sure; rock interviews are rich with stories about how this Chuck Berry record or that Beatles show changed somebody's life. But unlike their counterparts in jazz, blues or folk, rock musicians rarely learn their craft at the feet of those masters.
In fact, about the only time rising young rockers wind up working with their idols is when they've reached a similar level of stardom. Yet even that happens so rarely that an album like Neil Young's "Mirror Ball" (Reprise 45934, arriving in stores today), which finds the recently installed Rock and Roll Hall of Famer backed by the members of Pearl Jam, has become one of the most talked-about events of the summer.
Not that Young's connection with Pearl Jam comes as any surprise. The two have been sharing stages since Pearl Jam opened for Young on his 1993 European tour, and in January, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder inducted Young into the Hall of Fame.
But even if "Mirror Ball" does stem from the mutual admiration society the two have established, it's not quite the collaboration many listeners will be expecting. Rather than meeting as equals, Pearl Jam is clearly playing on Young's turf. It's his album and his songs; the words "Pearl Jam" do not even appear on the album. The liner notes refer simply to "the band."
Yet "the band" has hardly put aside its own musical identity for the project. Though Vedder's voice is hardly heard, apart from a few verses of "Peace and Love" and the hey-ho sing-along in "Song X," Pearl Jam's presence is unmistakable.
For one thing, Young has rarely recorded with a rhythm as vital as this. It isn't just that Pearl Jam trades the metallic slo-mo of Crazy Horse for a leaner, more light-footed approach (anyone who remembers the loud, lugubrious version of "Peace and Love" that Young and Crazy Horse offered at the Voters for Choice benefit in Washington earlier this year will be stunned at how punchy the Pearl Jam version is); the band also brings a much broader range of color and style to the music.
From the pedal-to-the-metal acceleration of "The Ocean" and punk-schooled aggression of "Throw Your Hatred Down," to the chooglin' pulse of "Downtown" and chantey-like cadences of "Song X," the playing gives us a fresh new window on Young's music, one that affirms old strengths (such as the plaintive power of his voice) while revealing new ones (such as the rhythmic vitality of his lyrics). Even when it seems to be retracing familiar territory, as on the rambling, distortion-soaked "Scenery," the music seems different, thanks to the way producer Brendan O'Brien's roadhouse piano balances the noisy interplay between Young and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready.
The significance of "Mirror Ball" doesn't just lie with the music, though, for where the lyrics of Young's last album, "Sleeps with Angels," found the singer focused on personal concerns (including his feelings of complicity in Kurt Cobain's suicide), this new album puts its emphasis on the political. It opens with a two-song blast at the anti-abortion movement, describing it as a "holy war . . . slowly building" in "Act of Love" and alluding to the DTC shooting of abortion clinic doctors in "Song X." It goes on to attack the tobacco industry for using the beauty of nature to sell cancer-causing products ("Big Green Country") and the way political factionalism promotes social violence ("Throw Your Hatred Down").
Still, it's worth noting that the album's most instructive moment is also its most collaborative. Although "Peace and Love" starts off sounding like one more paean to '60s-era optimism, with Young invoking the dream of finding "love in the people/Living in a sacred land," Eddie Vedder begs to differ. "Found love, found hate, saw my mistake," he sings, writing his own counterpoint to Young's lyrics. "Broke walls of pain to walk again." It's a different kind of transcendence, to be sure, but as the surging, anthemic finale suggests, the two views are more easily reconciled than the usual view of the '60s/'90s split suggests.
That's the real magic of "Mirror Ball." Like rock and roll itself, the album shows both how past informs the present and how the present reinterprets the past. It may not be the traditional form of mentoring, but it's clearly one where both generations benefit.
To hear excerpts from the Neil Young album "Mirror Ball," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6132 after you hear the greeting.