So I’m watching an old episode of Saturday Night Live from September of 1989, starring Bruce Willis, with Neil Young as musical guest.
The whole show is steeped in the deadliest of deadly late-’80s. It opens with Dana Carvey doing “wouldn’t be prudent” and talking about Hurricane Hugo and Dan Quayle. (Then he goes into a weird bit about how the Medellin Cartel has threatened to kill his family. “Let me see you try!” he taunts. Jeb, he explains, is “packing heat,” while Neil “knows 30 ways to kill a man … Doro, my only daughter, just graduated from an evasive driving course,” and Bar is “ready to die.” George Bush Jr. is obscure enough that he does not rate a mention.) After that, Bruce Willis comes out in a spangled black MC Hammer shirt and balloon pants, and he proceeds to sing in full-on Return of Bruno mode. Then we get a long fake commercial for Thirtysomething breakfast cereal. Later, Wayne and Garth will make an appearance.
But right in the middle of all that, Neil Young arrives to rock the free world, and he’s completely in the ’90s. His band isn’t even with him yet — his drummer looks like someone from Living Colour, his bassist looks like an ad for Gold’s Gym — but Neil looks tattered: his jeans aren’t ripped, but patched all over, his black leather jacket is baggy on his scrawny frame, his hair is a spray of confused scraggle, his rock-star shoes are filthy sneakers. And the sound, too, is fuzzed and crackled, riding the feedback in a way that would sound magical and freeing in a year or two, as Neil tells it like it is about homeless people. Now and then, as he flaps and stomps around the stage in an unchoreographed dance of anger and bliss, we catch glimpses of his T-shirt. Is it? It is! That’s Johnny Cash’s fucking head right there, in profile on Neil Young’s chest, in 198fucking9, when Johnny Cash wasn’t remotely cool yet with hipsters — American Recordings, his collaboration with Rick Rubin, wasn’t until 1994.
Bush 41 wasn’t out of his first year in office, alternative still was, the 1970s were still taboo, Nevermind was still two years away. But Neil Young knew, and he was already there.