Fu##in’ Up

The significance of the Rivoli to Toronto music lore cannot be overstated. Upon opening in 1982, the Queen Street West venue became an epicenter of local bohemia, with a streetfront restaurant serving up pad thai to art students on first dates, a second-floor pool hall where you could wager away the last of your beer money, and most crucially, an intimate, 200-capacity brick-walled performance room where the city’s freaks had free rein. Through the ’80s, it was the space where queercore pioneers Fifth Column turned their gigs into Super 8 film happenings, the Cowboy Junkies perfected their brand of codeined country, and a pre-TV Kids in the Hall pushed sketch comedy to anarchic extremes. In the late ’90s, it was the place where a young Leslie Feist workshopped songs and tended bar. And a decade after that, you might’ve caught a teenage Aubrey Graham trying his hand at improv. Even now, long after the Queen West neighborhood’s cachet has diminished, the Rivoli is still a place where music history is made: Last November, it hosted arguably the strangest Neil Young and Crazy Horse gig ever.

There’s nothing that shocking about an artist of Neil Young’s stature playing a room as tiny as the Riv—the surprise small-venue underplay is a fairly common move for arena-level acts promoting a new album or warming up for a big tour. But the circumstances surrounding the Rivoli show—a private 50th-birthday party for billionaire Canada Goose parka poobah Dani Reiss—raised a few eyebrows, given that Neil’s spent a good chunk of his career putting corporations in his crosshairs. (Maybe, after spending his formative years in Winnipeg, Neil just really appreciates a warm winter coat.) What’s even more unfathomable is that Neil Young and Crazy Horse were actually the opening act—in keeping with the party’s theme of “age before beauty,” their set was followed by an appearance from Canadian rock-radio mainstays the Arkells. But the live-album document of the gig, titled Fu##in’ Up, is more than just a glorified souvenir from the sort of birthday party that presumably required its guests to sign NDAs.

At the Rivoli, Neil and the Horse performed a track-by-track (minus one) run-through of 1990’s Ragged Glory, and in a nod to the gig’s secretive logistics, all of the songs—save for the cover of the ’60s garage-band standard “Farmer John”—have been rebranded for Fu##in’ Up with new titles pulled from their respective lyrics. If 1989’s course-correcting Freedom offered an encouraging sign that Neil hadn’t completely lost the plot during his infamous ’80s wilderness years, Ragged Glory affirmed his elder-statesman status for a new generation of flannel-clad feedback addicts, prompting tours with Sonic Youth and a million “godfather of grunge” plaudits. The album topped the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll and was widely hailed as an electrifying display of vitality from a veteran band entering their third decade together—and that was 34 years ago. Now that Neil and his bandmates are pushing 80 (if not already there) Ragged Glory’s spirit of camaraderie, perseverance, and bittersweet nostalgia feels all the more trenchant. If a line like “There’s very few of us left, my friend, from the days that used to be” carried a whiff of melancholy in 1991, imagine what it feels like to sing it now.

But where Ragged Glory captured Crazy Horse rocking out with the volume and vigor of a band half its age, Fu##in’ Up highlights both the corroding effects and uncanny advantages of aging. For decades now, we’ve watched our classic-rock heroes grapple with getting old: The Stones would have you believe they’re still horny 20-year-olds; the tinnitus-plagued surviving members of the Who traded smashed guitars for orchestral embellishment; Paul McCartney is the hip grandad. But on Fu##in’ Up, Neil Young and Crazy Horse embody what it really means to age. They move a bit slower but sound a lot crankier. They’re blithely unconcerned with formalities—like hitting the chorus of “City Life (Country Home)” at the right moment—because they don’t really give a shit about impressing anybody anymore. And they rumble into Fu##in’ Up’s agitated titled track (aka “Heart of Steel”) with all the subtlety of an uncontrolled bowel movement.

The Crazy Horse heard here isn’t exactly the same one that cut the original Ragged Glory: Early ’70s-era member Nils Lofgren returns to the right-hand-man slot occupied by Frank Sampedro for several decades, while the perennial quartet appears as a quintet with the recruitment of Promise of the Real guitarist/pianist Micah Nelson (who’ll be taking over Lofgren’s position on the Horse’s 2024 dates). The piano actually adds some surprising grace notes to all the grimy guitarnage: “Feels Like a Railroad (River of Pride) [White Line]” acquires some saloon-door swing, while the ivory-boosted bounce of “Walkin’ in My Place (Road of Tears) [Mansion on the Hill]” more clearly identifies the song as a direct descendent of the After the Gold Rush rager “Southern Man.” Ultimately, Fu##in’ Up is less a snapshot of a specific event than a proudly moldy monument to Crazy Horse’s long-may-you-runitude. There’s no stage banter, and the between-song applause is edited out of the mix as it was on Rust Never Sleeps. The lack of contextual detail puts the focus squarely on Crazy Horse’s incandescent noise and slack yet unfailingly steady momentum.

As a result, Fu##in’ Up makes a convincing case for Ragged Glory as the definitive Crazy Horse album, showcasing the group in their purest, crudest state, without any of the counter-balancing pop singles or acoustic reprieves that colored more hallowed classics like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Zuma. And with the Fu##in’ Up versions, the traditional divide between Neil’s melodic accessibility and avant-grunge odysseys is completely blurred, while the long songs get to grind on even longer. Whether it’s a withering anthem like “Broken Circle (Over and Over)” or a tension-wracked 15-minute workout like “A Chance on Love (Love and Only Love),” Crazy Horse approach each song as an extended late-night drive on a lost highway, with Neil’s needling solos serving as the high-beam guiding light, and each verse/chorus passage appearing like a fleeting sign of civilization before we slip back into the desert. On the cover of Ragged Glory, we see a photo of Crazy Horse jamming away at Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California, transforming the vaulted, wood-lined space into their own private cathedral of sound. It’s a hermetic scene that couldn’t be further removed from a posh VIP-only party for one of Canada’s wealthiest men held at a popular downtown Toronto bar. But the beauty of Fu##in’ Up is that Neil Young and Crazy Horse play as though they’re still locked in the barn.

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Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Fu##in’ Up