To most fans and even musicians, rock 'n' roll has been and always will be an entertainment medium.

And entertainment means nice, safe songs about love lost, love found and even love hoped for. It's the kind of music that garners trophies at the Grammy awards, soars to the top of the Billboard charts and sells millions of copies and blares from the car windows of most teenagers.Like it or not, rock 'n' roll has become flag-waving respectable. It's downright establishment.

And somewhere along the way, people forgot what rock 'n' roll was all about. In the beginning.

It was about discontent and rebellion and trying to create a better world. It was the voice of young people demanding a role in their future. It was Elvis and Fats Domino and the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the Byrds and Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

And it was, and continues to be, Neil Young - an original member of legendary Los Angeles rock band Buffalo Springfield and the heart of the folk-rock Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He is the quintessential garage-band rocker now entering his fourth decade of creating songs that pack messages that transcend the music.

People say don't rock the boat,

Let things go their own way,

Ideas that once seemed so right,

Now are kind of hard to say

I wish that I could talk to you

And you could talk to me

'Cause there's very few of us left, my friend,

From the days that used to be.

Next to Bob Dylan, Young - who will be in concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, at the University of Utah's Huntsman Center - has often been described as the most important rock composer North America has ever produced, though modifiers like "enigmatic," "eccentric," "antisocial" and "wry" usually accompany any description of the Canadian-born artist. They should add "persistent."

While most performers from the 1960s are doing little more than nostalgia tours these days, the 45-year-old Young is still creating music - some say the finest music he's ever written. Last year's "Ragged Glory" was just voted best album of 1990 by 300 music critics responding to an annual poll sponsored by the Village Voice. The year before that, his "Freedom" album was named one of the year's best by Rolling Stone.

That was nothing new. "After the Gold Rush" was album of the year in the early 1970s in a Melody Maker poll, and "Comes a Time" and "Rust Never Sleeps" won similar accolades from prominent publications.

And then there was "Harvest," the biggest-selling album of 1972, which landed him his only No. 1 single, "Heart of Gold."

While stardom sought Young, he did not seek stardom. He once quipped that with "Harvest" he was traveling in the middle of the road. "Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there."

The trip to the ditch included the brutally direct "Tonight's the Night," a release that revealed a tortured side of Young as he came to grips with the death of Crazy Horse guitarist and friend Danny Whitten. As one prominent critic wrote, the "evocation of drugs, death and naked impotence deliberately dispensed with all the niceties associated with L.A. rock."

Young's journey took detours here and there, and he was thoroughly raked over the coals for a rash of tepid releases. But compile a list of the best rock albums of the past three decades, and Neil Young, in one form or another, will pop up a half dozen times or more.

Why? Because his poetic music, though deceptively understated, has a metaphorical flare that strikes a familiar chord with anyone who remembers when rock music actually stood for something.

However, his current bout of success has a lot of critics scratching their heads in bewilderment. It was not that long ago that many had written Young off as a has-been. And few could blame them, what with a successive string of commercially unappealing releases that featured everything from rockabilly to techno-rock to country and rhythm and blues.

It wasn't that those albums were necessarily bad. They were just different, perhaps reflecting the turmoil in his personal life.

But the past two releases have featured the kind of rusty-edged rock 'n' roll that has made Young a favorite of critics and fans alike.Seems like such a simple thing,

To follow one's own dreams,

But possessions and concessions,

Are not often what they seem,

They drag you down,

And load you down,

In the skies of security,

But we never had to make those deals,

In the days that used to be.While no one disputes the commercial appeal of the recent tours by the Rolling Stones and the Who, Young is arguably the most critically successful performer-songwriter left from the 1960s (apologies to Lou Reed and Paul Simon).

Young is touring with off-and-on backup band Crazy Horse, with whom he recorded such great albums as "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," "Rust Never Sleeps" and "Zuma," not to mention "Ragged Glory."

Young decided to reunite with Crazy Horse (for the "Ragged Glory" album and current tour) after weeding through old recordings for a planned boxed set. And he realized his best work had been done with the band.

The tour, which has garnered critical acclaim wherever it has gone, will feature such Young classics as "Cortez the Killer," "Hurricane," "Tonight's the Night," "Cinnamon Girl," "Out of the Blue" and "Powderfinger," among them. There also are a few songs from the "Freedom" album, such as "Rockin' in the Free World" and "60 to 0," and a cover of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."

And it will no doubt feature a smattering of material from "Ragged Glory," an album that cuts bluntly and directly to the soul. The way music did in the old days.Talk to me my long lost friend,

Tell me how you are,

Are you happy with your circumstance,

Are you driving a new car,

Does it get you where you want to be

With a seven-year warranty

Or just another hundred thousand miles

From the days that used to be.And whether it be through his acoustic folk or his electric (and eclectic) guitar, for Neil Young and students of his music, the "days that used to be" are still happening.

Two or three generations in the future, when music historians study the turbulent genesis of rock 'n' roll, Young's name will be among the greats who not only created socially relevant rock 'n' roll, but perpetuated it long after most contemporaries had given up or sold out.