We, Pete the driver & myself, hit the German/Swiss border at Basel on Wednesday lunchtime. Are those customs controls still there ? Switzerland has kept itself out of the great European upheavals & experiments for the past 200 years & more, it is not a member of the European Union so maybe they are. We had a clear run after a delivery in Aachen, an overnight stop by the Rhine in Baden-Baden, so good they named it twice. A couple of drops in Switzerland, a pickup in Brussels then back home in time for Saturday night beers & a sleep in our own beds. It was a good plan but a signature was missing from some paperwork & the Swiss were not about to welcome us as guests in their country until it was sorted. In those olden, pre-electronic times a crappy fax machine (ask your parents) back in the UK meant that it took 5 days before we got the go-ahead. Hey, this was none of my doing (phew !), I was getting paid by the day, the sun had got its hat on & we had gone on holiday by mistake !
We were carrying an exhibition by the artist who wraps stuff up…Christo, that’s the fellow. This gear was not cheap & neither was the duty due. The helpful customs staff were not about to front us a big bag of their Swiss francs. OK, we were in a car park, our wagon was too big for any back road exploration but we were in Germany, could see Switzerland just over there &, to the West, France was a 10 minute walk away. There was surely a good & interesting time to be had on these three frontiers. We were sleeping in a truck, probably needed more socks, certainly more hash but we had plenty of Neil Young tapes with us.
Oh yes ! How much do I love Neil Young’s music ? Loads…ever since his 5 songs on the debut LP by Buffalo Springfield, never more than when he’s the lead guitarist with Crazy Horse. “Ragged Glory” (1990) followed “Freedom”, regarded as a comeback though I’d been listening through the 80’s, the Rock & Roll one, the Country one, the ones that caused his label to sue him for not sounding like Neil Young ! Form is temporary, class is permanent & while these records didn’t match his truly great ones (another time) each had its moments. With Crazy Horse he kept it simple, the rhythm section of Billy Talbot (bass) & Ralph Molina (drums) providing a monolithic backbeat for the guitar interplay of Neil & Frank Sampedro. On “Ragged Glory” the volume is turned up to 11, the tape left running to capture the distortion & feedback. Resistance was futile, it was impressive that a band was still sounding so fresh & powerful 20 years on & were still contenders for the rock and roll championship belt.
Meanwhile, down by the river we were exploring our patch of the mightily impressive 750 mile long Rhine. Basel is situated on its “knee”, a 90° turn from West to North. I’ve always been fascinated by Ekistics, the science of human settlement, still am. The security of an outcrop protected by a natural barrier attracted Celts & then the Romans, keen to keep an eye on those wild Germanics at the edge of their empire. The city has been a wealthy trade centre for like always. It’s a beautiful place but it’s a bourgeois town & we could have our fill of cosmopolitan back home in London. We were ready for the country.
The bridge had been opened in 1979 but the many shifts of the tectonic plates of European history & the strategic importance of the Rhine had kept these borderlands apart. The Romans left Alsace (that’s where we were) in the 5th century. The Franks showed up from the East, succeeding Germanic empires were around for a 1000 years. The shenanigans involved in the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, the Revolution & Napoleon, the return of the Prussians, affected the area then, in 1918, it was a French spoil of victory in a world war. That would not stand with the Germans who were back for the sequel in 1940. The market square in Village-Neuf included a plaque commemorating the arrival of Allied Forces in 1945 & liberation. The old boys at the “lac du peche” told their stories after my strangled Franglais prompts. We were out here on the perimeter but surely in France, a country Pete & I had enjoyed on earlier trips. Some good bread, fromage, a little charcuterie & a couple of decent bottles of wine were perfect for sunny days just watching the river flow.
“Ragged Glory” Neil toured with the Horse then “Harvest Moon (1992) & “Unplugged” (1993) were LPs that could be marketed to the audience which bought “After the Goldrush” & “Harvest”. He toured with Booker T & the MGs, a gig I missed & shouldn’t have. 1994’s double LP “Sleeps With Angels” was the most atmospheric collection since “Tonight’s the Night” from almost 20 years before. The title track is a eulogy for Kurt Cobain who had quoted Neil’s “Hey Hey My My” in his suicide note. Neil’s influence on a younger generation of musicians went beyond a shared taste for oversized Pendleton shirts.
On the road again by noon on Monday, people were waiting for us. We delivered Christo the wrapper’s doings & headed for Bern with a family of bears (♫it’s a family of bears♫), bright blue life-sized plaster ones for a film producer’s garden…I am not making this up ! Bern was baking hot & we were a little lost. We needed soft drinks & a street map, the Egyptian shop owner insisted on getting in his car & guiding us. Well “As-salamu alaykum, Brother”. The truck was finally emptied, we were days behind schedule & had kilometres to go before bedtime. A plan was made to push it along back into France, we would eat late & eat well. Only that didn’t happen. This time our border crossing was uneventful , we hung a left at Strasbourg but who knew that May 8th was Victory Day, a French national holiday & that the country would be closed ?
Now we were in Lorraine, still a crossroads of French & German geopolitical ambitions, the official language of the area decided by whoever held the upper hand. The autoroute was eerily empty, the idea of going off-road to look for somewhere that was just so but shut didn’t appeal. We kept on moving, for us this was a back-to-work day. Looking at the world through a windshield was getting old after over 350 miles, Pete was way past his allotted driving hours & we were getting white line fever. I, as the truck’s DJ, had the very tune to help us through those final extra miles.
“Change Your Mind” is the 15 minute blockbuster from “Sleeps With Angels”. It’s not as anthemic as “Like a Hurricane” or “Rocking in the Free World”, both songs that reached a wider audience than the dedicated Young Ones. Like other classics “Cortez the Killer” & the later “Be the Rain” it takes its time, draws you in, gets a grip & won’t let go. I love this track. As we drove in the dark through the hills & woodlands of the Ardennes, another region marked by the comings & goings of the century, we grooved on an epic tune to end an epic day.
From Luxembourg to Brussels went smoothly. The small industrial towns of the Ardennes reminded me of the textile mill towns of the English Pennines except that up in Todmorden there are no stalls selling frites (chips) with mayonnaise. What kind of nut first had that idea ! We reached the White Cliffs of Dover a little later & more tanned than we had planned. Pete & I had spent 10 days in close proximity, we had shared an adventure & no-one was harmed.
I have no contact with Pete now. We are both similarly strong-minded individuals and well…it happens. I could make a good case for him being a grumpy control freak &, if he were here, he could tell stories about me that would make it a draw. If he does ever see this then I have other memories of him that are just as good. Me & Neil Young…yeah, we’re still tight.