In Neil Young's world--to paraphrase John Lennon (who was quoting Harry Nilsson)--everything is the opposite of what it is. The fragile is epic, the epic is personal, the personal is a collective dream. Young's best songs are like Tennyson's poems, somehow always shimmering under scrutiny, somehow all the more soulful for evading fixed points of meaning. While there was nothing evasive about Young's negative opinions of MTV in the 1980s, both he and the cable channel had broad enough shoulders to collaborate on an Unplugged installment in 1993 featuring Young and a few of his friends. The result was one of the best events in the innovative series, a strong but relaxed, sharp but dreamy acoustic performance with several of Young's best live recordings in the '90s. Starting with a couple of folk-rock mysteries--the sorrowful "The Old Laughing Lady" and eerie classic "Mr. Soul"--Young lumbers beautifully from the fantastic, hippie elegy of "Pocahontas" to an unlikely psychedelic spin on "Like a Hurricane" (sounding a bit like "Strawberry Fields Forever").
The second half of the show finds a few other musicians strolling in, including Young's old ally, Nils Lofgren, with accordian, guitar, and harmonies at the ready. Young's unequivocally nongrungy sister, Astrid, and the late Nicolette Larson sweeten the vocals and add warmth to the instant-community atmosphere. Together, everyone reshapes the never-quite-on-the-money CSN&Y classic "Helpless" into a taut, private prayer, teases the tenderness and fun out of "Transformer Man," and makes "Harvest Moon" sound so delicate that anything else on the radio seems slightly obscene. The program ends with an encore performance of "From Hank to Hendrix," which, in this MTV context, comes across as a nonsubtle plea from a rock godfather to beware the momentum of time and change on popular music, to "still get it together" despite the pressures of fashion. A very satisfying experience all around. --Tom Keogh