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Three Songs No Flash

"I'll Be On Your Side": Neil Young Live In Istanbul
Julian Sayarer , July 18th, 2014 11:44

At Crazy Horse's recent stop in Turkey, Julian Sayarer finds the grizzled veteran's willingness to address politics head-on strikes a pertinent note

For three days there has been no let-up in the heat, the concrete that covers so much of this city soaking in every last degree. On the fourth day, at around 6 pm, the sky turns dark with clouds moving in, on winds from the Black Sea to the north. For an hour the sky growls, lightning spreads horizontal above the falling drizzle and cool winds, and as is always so at this moment in Istanbul, men appear on the streets to start selling umbrellas.

Küçükçitftlik Park sits only just above the level of the Bosphorus' waters, in the nape at the base of two high hills. Throughout their set, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, apropos to the intensity with which they'll play, stand on a stage crowned by breaks of long, silent lightning, the thunder inaudible beneath guitar and drum.

As well as breaking the storm some way distant from the venue, the height of the hills offer a further, locally famous advantage, in that from one bank of the park it is possible to stand with an unobstructed view of the performance, and thus see the act for free. While I climb up onto the branch of a tree, others are content to sit on the grass and simply listen, figures huddled under anoraks and umbrellas, under the rains that come lightly in and out.

As Young walks out to open the set with 'Love And Only Love' from Ragged Glory, I watch a couple go cuddling together under a poncho. My vantage point is too far from the stage to describe faces set with purpose or feeling, only Young in a hat, flanked by his band, and gospel singers bringing up the rear. From the hilltop, I watch Turkey watch Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Above them hang the banners of Vodafone, and while in the UK this would perhaps mar a night with thoughts of £6 billion of evaded tax, in Turkey you have to pick your battles, and fretting corporate affiliation with rock & roll feels like a luxury for after the police have stopped killing protesters.

Directly under me in the arena is the small trolley of a popcorn vendor, the smell of warm salt and corn floating up to my tree. Beside him is a brand new hatchback, buffed and polished, displayed on a demonstration stand so that those less interested in Crazy Horse and protest songs might still have the opportunity to win a new car. A sizeable crowd is never far from the hatchback, hands tenderly stroking its bonnet even as Young and his band gather together to wring sound from guitars in the first of their prolonged instrumentals. Up on the hillside, clambering railings, those who could not afford the ticket price seem more eager not to miss anything than those who paid money to be in front of the stage, a sense that those around me don't recognise a Neil Young currently on autopilot, because this detail is less important than the fact that they can see Neil Young in the first place.

Come the end of 'Goin' Home' and a well-received 'After The Gold Rush', security have pulled me out of my tree, and I join those perched upon the railings, as the band return to the Ragged Glory album for 'Love To Burn'. Love seems to be a theme of the night (we'll also get the classic 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'), and the mood feels affected by the cancellation of a gig in Tel Aviv, owing to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza (the decision based on safety concerns rather than a boycott). As Syrian refugees grow by the thousand in Istanbul, the Crazy Horse tour dates have intersected with geopolitics to leave Turkey, as it was throughout the last century, as about the nearest Western culture can tread towards the Middle East. "How many years can some people exist, before they're allowed to be free?" Young asks in covering Dylan's 'Blowin' In The Wind', and where the question might once have been sung on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, the words resonate differently in 2014.

A string of gentle folk comes to an end with cheers for 'Heart Of Gold', played by Young as he stands alone with an acoustic guitar that resonates from a low lit stage. The band and more volume return for 'Powderfinger', and electricity comes stalking back through the chords for 'Down By The River', giving the sense that the night is rising back up in readiness for something. Young reassures the audience, "Be on my side, I'll be on your side", at which two young boys beside me on the railings, scarcely twenty to look at, begin shouting in rapturous adoration, shaking the iron railing in its concrete footings. A few metres away, people shout down to beleaguered security that they won't be coming down from their tree, and as anticipation of the changing energy builds, brighter lights illuminate the arena and crowd.

After a short pause, there come bars it feels everyone was waiting for, and Young begins to move with a menace over the stage for 'Rockin' In The Free World'. Evident is that where a younger generation of musicians seem to stray no further into politics than individual happiness, like Bruce Springsteen, Young gets angrier with age, playing with the energy that once left Pearl Jam looking bewildered in a duet of this song.

The verses are ripped through in searing fashion, and as with Springsteen's 'Born In The USA', that this was once written as an ironic song – with a 'free world' set against homeless junkies and environmental ruin – is a technicality lost inside the triumph of the refrain. Young switches lyrics, referencing a water cannon and the Standing Man (#duranadam) protest that became one of the symbols of the Gezi movement. Again and again, arms up under the lights, "keep on rockin' in the free world" is bellowed by thousands of Turkish people, precisely aware of the meaning in this string of English words. I look around at the two boys pulling the railing in its concrete, dripping sweat and punching the air as they burst between repeats of the chorus; and I wonder what contemporary artist, in a generation perhaps too self-conscious for anthems, will be the next to provide a talisman such as this song offers those around me.

The music fades to almost nothing, three guitars huddle and regroup, purring together as the crowd applauds. The guitars hum almost for a minute, all but over until suddenly there is a pick up, the instruction to keep on rocking in the free world is loud in our ears again, so that you know this is Neil Young on our side, singing for the protesters that fought for the site of Gezi Park, lying only a few hundred metres from where we stand.

In a country where many still pride themselves in their obedience to an unjust government, where police will now stop students in the street and demand identification, and where too many accept the brutality of the police force as no worse than a fact of life, it's difficult to overstate the value of hearing Neil Young demand that his Istanbul audience keep on rockin' in the free world. Most damning of all, Turkey is now a country where more than 300 coal miners can die underground outside the town of Soma, only for one of the prime minister's closest aides to show up and kick a man who dares protest at government indifference.

With all certainty, the people in the arena below, and on the hill beside me, are the very same people who will stand strong but peaceful before the next baton rounds, water cannon and tear gas canisters. In order to do that, with no certain vision of when or what success might come of it, you have to be filled with something higher and more meaningful than your own individual well-being. Neil Young roars out the refrain with the crowd, arms aloft as they sing along and absorb every blazing word, as if ready to go immediately back to the streets, or perhaps as if, from inside the arena, they're already on them.

The point is driven home by an encore of new song 'Who's Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth'. The words are delivered as a challenge to those who will stand up to the machine, and received by Turkish people from a culture where a person's chosen icon might be Atatürk or might be Erdoğan, but one way or another looks to the ideals of leaders and heroes. "Who's gonna stand up and change the world?" Young asks a final time, with one of the two boys beside me answering directly in English, thick with a Turkish accent, "Me! Me! Me!"

With the smaller crowd dispersing from the hill, I leave after the stage lights have finally been turned down, and 'Greensleeves' plays us out. In a music industry so full of ideas of satisfied customers, and led by a mandate to entertain more than provide meaning, I walk away, feeling I've just witnessed something quite important.

Julian Sayarer is a journalist and author. His book, Life Cycles, is an account of world politics by bicycle, and is available from all good book shops, or Amazon

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