The Infinite Jukebox: Neil Young’s ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)’

This time we’ll have a double-header of the same song, by the same artist, only the two songs couldn’t be more different, nor one of them more brilliant.
In 1979, Neil Young was in danger of disappearing. Since the commercial success and reception of Harvest, and hitting the British Top 10 with ‘Heart of Gold’, his albums had grown dark and dense, sales failures with only the odd highlight here and there. Punk and New Wave had threatened the status quo of the ProgRock Gods era, with its short, sharp bursts of intensity and drive and, fairly or not, Young was among those titanic icons we were looking to sweep away.
But Young still had the intensity as well, and the integrity to see Punk as a challenge, a demand to be different, be raw, and personal. He came back with the lengthy ‘Live Rust’ tour, out of which came the mostly live Rust Never Sleeps album, a set split into an acoustic side of Young, a guitar and a harmonica, up there, up front, alone, and an electric side, joined by Crazy Horse.
Young chose one song to start and end the album, to bookend it and to mark the distance travelled between the opening and the closing of the set, with words and small differences to the lyrics to mark how great a gulf lies between the two performances.
In the beginning, it is ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’. It’s clean, it’s bright. Young picks out the notes with brio, an elemental melody alternating between notes and chords. His voice, that enigmatic cracked falsetto, rises about the music. He sings about the simple power of rock’n’roll. Because the meaningless words of the title are arranged this way, he can sing/repeat that the music is here to stay, drawing into line the essential unity of the music since the beginning.
And that gives him the famous line: it’s better to burn out than to fade away, the one everyone heeds, the one that Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note, so understandable yet so unfitting, from a song whose ethos is life. Young’s out to tie music into everything.
Out of the Blue, though. Not the suddenness of an unexpected change, but rather the leaving of a state of sky-high magnificence. But where does anyone go who has come out of the Blue. Young has a simple answer. They go Into the Black. And they never return.
Young asks if what he sings is the story of a Johnny Rotten, comparing the already crashed-and-burned Sex Pistols with the once equally dangerous Elvis Presley, who became an icon as bloated as everything his youthful energy threatened.
Is this the story of a Johnny Rotten? Young answers himself with a harmonica solo before returning to his theme, only this time it has been reversed. Hey Hey, My My. Rock’n’Roll will never die. But already we’re seeing it in another light, the light of Death.
Seven songs intervene, at least two of them astonishingly brilliant, before Young returns to his leading song. Hey Hey, My My. The simple, acoustic music, with its brightness, its clarity, is insufficient to handle the other side of the coin, to go. Young needs the force of the band, he needs to bury the song in a crushing mountain of sonic fury, in the dirtiest, loudest, deepest and most grungy sound he and they can develop, the blueprint, a decade later, for grunge, for Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who will not fade away.
We’ve passed into some kind of inferno. Young repeats the words that ended the first version, telling us now that there’s more to the picture than meets the eye. He repeats what happens when you go from Blue to Black. A guitar solo replaces the harmonica. Johnny Rotten is introduced but now he is ‘the’ Johnny Rotten, not ‘a’. And that line we remember is itself changed. It’s better to burn out because Rust Never Sleeps. Decay, deterioration, diminution awaits all of us unless we fight it.
For now this is a war, a war for Young to stay what we must all be, difficult, demanding, tearing down what restricts us, what makes us comfortable, self-satisfied. And Crazy Horse surround him like the band for Hell: how can only four men sound so big as this?
Of the two, my heart lies in ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, for its sheer power, for its determination to look entropy in the eye and spit in it. For all that it is the sound of darkness, and flame everlasting, it is the sound of Life, more so even that its little brother with its openness. Neil Young met the challenge of irrelevance and threw it down.
Would that we all could do that so well.