Neil Young's "Trans" and "Re-Ac-Tor"

Continuing the discussion from Christian extremist mom performs anti-trans hate rap:

aw man i love that album

a review(ish)

background/interview - pt1 pt2:

As the car wound up and down the mountain highway leading to Santa Cruz, Young told an agonizing story, one that began back in November of '78. It was a good time for Young - Comes A Time was released, and he had just finished the Rust Never Sleeps tour. He had married Pegi Morton that summer, and they’d had a son named Ben. But there were problems. “Pegi kept saying, ‘Something’s wrong, things aren’t right. He’s not doing what other babies do.’” Ben had trouble holding his head up and cried continually. His development seemed much slower than other babies.

The couple took their son to Stanford for a battery of tests. Ignoring the Youngs in the hospital room, the head of neurology told another doctor his diagnosis - Ben had cerebral palsy. That’s how they learned their son was a spastic, quadriplegic, nonoral child. The couple was stunned. Neil’s first son Zeke, born in 1972 by Carrie Snodgress, also suffers from cerebral palsy.

“It was too big a picture to comprehend,” says Young. "Too big. Pegi’s heartbroken, we’re both shocked. I couldn’t believe it. There were two different mothers. It couldn’t have happened twice.

“Somehow we made it out to the car. I remember looking at the sky, looking for a sign, wondering, ‘What the fuck is going on? Why are the kids in this situation? What the hell caused this? What did I do? There must be something wrong with me.’”

The couple began an exhaustive search to find help for Ben, and after attending a weeklong workshop in Philadelphia in the fall of '80 they decided to join the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential. The institute’s method of teaching handicapped kids is called “patterning” - a rigorous, 12-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week home program that put incredible demands on both Ben and his parents.

“You manipulate the kid through a crawling pattern.” says Young. “He’s crawling down the hallways, he’s banging his head trying to crawl. But he can’t crawl, and these people have told us that if he didn’t make it, it was gonna be our fault, that we didn’t do the program right. You’re brainwashed to think the only thing that you can do that’s gonna save your kid is this program, and they have you so scared that if they call and you’re not at the house, you’re off the program, forget it. You’ve ruined it for your kid. We lasted 18 months. 18 months of not going out. 18 months of not doing anything. And during those 18 months I made Reactor. That’s the turning point right there.”

Released in October of '81, Reactor had all the elements of a great Neil Young record - Crazy Horse and a bunch of tough electric songs. Despite its hard-rock sound, Reactor is a sober, contained and maniacally repetitious record: “Got mashed potatoes / Ain’t got no T-bone,” warbles Young for over nine minutes. Even his singing sounds distracted. It’s like Young was somewhere else, and he was: with the Program.

“It affected everything. Everything. Even the recording process - the only time I could record was between two and six in the afternoon. I used to record only in the middle of the night. Now I couldn’t, because I was doing the program.” Reactor bombed, and Young took his frustrations out on Warner/Reprise, stomping off the label for a six-year association with Geffen. It was on Geffen that Young began to lose himself in characters, first with Trans, in 1982. Replete with synthesizers and vocodered vocals, it wasn’t exactly “Heart of Gold.”

"Trans was about all these robot-humanoid people working in this hospital and the one thing they were trying to do was teach this little baby to push a button. That’s what the record’s about. Read the lyrics, listen to all the mechanical voices, disregard everything but that computerized thing, and it’s clear Trans is the beginning of my search for communication with a severely handicapped nonoral person. ‘Transformer man’ is a song for my kid. If you read the words to that song - and look at my child with his little button and his train set and his transformer - the whole thing is for Ben.

“People completely misunderstood Trans. They put me down for fuckin’ around with things I shouldn’t have been involved with. Well, fuck them. But it hurt, because this was for my kid.”

But how could anybody have known what it was about, I argue. The whole thing was so obscure. “It was very obscure,” says Young. "They didn’t have a fuckin’ chance in the world. The whole thing is, Trans is about communication, but it’s not getting through. And that’s what my son is. You gotta realize - you can’t understand the words on Trans, and I can’t understand my son’s words. So feel that.





Interesting read!

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Yeah, I get it, I’ve heard this story before. I give him credit for trying something new (he’s always doing it, like Bowie or Miles), but musically it doesn’t hit me. In a weird way, a concept album about failing to communicate, that fails to communicate that idea is kind of an ironic aesthetic victory.

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