Certain Songs #1263: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)”

Album: Rust Never Sleeps
Year: 1979

Recorded at the Cow Palace, San Francisco on October 22, 1978

Believe it or not, when Live Rust came out, there was actually some debate as to whether or not it even needed to exist.

After all, Neil had recently put out the career-spanning retrospective, Decade, on which you could find near-definitive versions of many of the songs, and even more scandalous, Live Rust repeated four tracks from Rust Never Sleeps, including the exact same recording of “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” making it the only song that used the exact same performance on all three documents that came from that tour: Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust and the film Rust Never Sleeps, though this version has some overdubs.

Confused? You won’t be. Actually, you probably will still be, because it’s pretty fucking confusing, and the only way I’ve been able to keep it straight is extensive research on Neil Young’s Archives website, where the most useful thing I’ve learned is that it’s somehow easier to search “My My, Hey Hey” than it is to search “Hey Hey, My My.”

Hey hey, my my
Rock and roll can never die
There’s more to the picture than meets the eye
Hey hey, my my

In 1978, that was a relatively safe statement: despite people declaring rock ‘n’ roll dead from the moment it started, it was pretty much at its cultural apex in the late 1970s, especially as punk gave it new life.

40 years later, and rock and roll is, of course, not dead, but it’s nowhere near the apex of what is now a completely fractured culture, especially as Neil Young’s peers are dropping or retiring left and right. (For a great book about all of that, check out Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock.) Which was at least part of the reason that I wanted to see at least one of the NYCH shows: who knows if they’ll ever tour again?

Out of the blue and into the black
You pay for this, but they give you that
And once you’re gone, you can’t come back
When you’re out of the blue and into the black

Neil’s guitar — and to a lesser extent, Frank Sampedro’s — is so incredibly overdriven, so fuzzed out and fucked up, that it almost seems like an accident: like somebody poured liquid distortion on the tape. This right here, is where the “godfather of grunge” sound was born: Neil trying to outnoise the punks, knowing he can’t outspeed them (sorry, “Sedan Delivery“) all the while understanding how they’re the future.

The King is gone, but he’s not forgotten
(Johnny Rotten, Johnny Rotten)
Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?
(Johnny Rotten, Rotten Johnny)
It’s better to burn out, ’cause rust never sleeps
The king is gone, but he’s not forgotten

Or at least that’s how I’ve always chosen to interpret it: Neil tying Elvis Presley’s death to the Sex Pistols flame out, and thus the first quarter century of rock ‘n’ roll. Especially on the acoustic version where he doesn’t ask the question but declares that it’s the story of Johnny Rotten (and also reminds us that it’s better to burn out than to either fade away or rust).

Ironically, Johnny Rotten almost immediately anachronised this lyric by changing his name back to “Johnny Lydon,” though I’ve always maintained that he could just change the lyrics to “The king is gone but he’s still exciting / Johnny Lydon, Johnny Lydon

So is the story of Elvis Presley or is it the story of Johnny Rotten? Both, but more importantly it’s also the story of Neil Young: no matter how he phrased it, he truly believed in burning out — giving it all until the end — and honestly, he’s still doing it. The thing about burning out, of course, is that some fires are bigger than others.

Hey hey, my my
Rock and roll can never die
There’s more to the picture than meets the eye
Hey hey, my my

And it’s also the story of me, or you. Trying to strike a balance between burning out and fading away, still believing in the power of rock and roll, still thrilling to how Neil just ripped notes out of his guitar throughout this improbably stupidly perfect song, which of course we covered in Sedan Delivery, and might even do so again.

“Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”

“Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), live in Berlin, 1982

“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” solo acoustic at Live Aid, 1985

“Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” live w/ Crazy Horse in SF, 1986

“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” live w/Crazy Horse, 1991

“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” live w/ Crazy Horse, Bonnaroo 2003

“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) live w/ Crazy Horse on Austin City Limits, 2012

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