Neil Young Interview

Spin Magazine, 11/95

Neil Young News

With the concert still in his ears, Young went back to his hotel room and wrote "I'm the Ocean," Mirror Ball's most glorious tune, a summation and maybe a boast. "People my age/They don't do the things I do," he sings over a crinkled riff that repeats forever. He pledges love to his wife and family, voice quavering, then contemplates the baseball strike and O.J. Simpson. "They're symptoms of social upheaval. America is really not ready for some sports hero to carve up a couple of people and for the baseball guys to not even play. The facts, they just keep piling up. And the ones that hit me hard enough end up in a song somewhere."

But the song moves past facts, as he marvels at our need for entertainment, violence, and myth. Young may hate the media flow of heroes and icons, but he also recognizes his contradictory compulsion to remain one of the giants, almost poking fun at himself for it. "I'm the ocean," he ends the song chanting, "I'm the giant undertow." The only rock dinosaur ever to manifest an acutely bad conscience about it, the only avant-rocker ever to consistently tour stadiums, Young has an unerring ability to divine rock's mythical core. He embraced the '60s counterculture and '70s singer-songwriter era with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Harvest, then became as much of an alternative forefather as Big Star or the Velvet Underground with '70s albums like Tonight's the Night and the punk salute Rust Never Sleeps. As mainstream rock died in the '80s, he stopped bothering with rock. When alternative rock started to become mainstream, he grew interested again.

Young's music can be irritating, his guitar epics overblown, his eagerness to be a cultural spokesman overbearing. But then, the ocean has never been afraid of bigness. He can also be subtle and compact--"Don't Cry No Tears," "Winterlong," "Truth Be Known"--because he's large in the only redeemable way: He contains multitudes. Where today's rockers mumble and hedge, Young is incredibly sure of himself--then changes his mind. He loves deliberate contrasts: playing the same song twice on a single album, recasting the line "let's go downtown," so doomed and fatalistic on Tonight's the Night, as a party anthem (with just a touch of the whirlpool) on Mirror Ball's "Downtown."

At a time when rock is an overly familiar force in our culture, Young's honed ambiguities are one of the last enduring scraps of mystery we have left. We've reached the real ocean now, by the crumbling cliffs of Half Moon Bay, and as we sit nuzzling Young's three-year-old shepherd mix Bear, he tells me about some of his other projects. A Crazy Horse album (as opposed to a Neil Young and Crazy Horse album), for which he's written two songs, is currently being recorded. A soundtrack for the Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man, which Young composed by improvising in real time--playing guitar, piano, and pump organ while watching the film on three separate occasions--should be released shortly.

Our talk feels almost intimate, until the wrong question produces an "I don't want to talk about that" delivered with the imperiousness of a man who's spent half his life talking into tape recorders. When Sleeps With Angels was released last summer, Reprise took out an ad in Billboard announcing that Neil Young would be doing no press interviews for the album--an oddly public way of staying private. Released just months after Cobain's suicide, the album must have fallen into place almost as quickly as Mirror Ball. Hard to say, since Young is still keeping mum. Though his own work has long addressed the spectacle of death--"Ohio" was rushed out as a CSN&Y single within days of the Kent State shooting--he's developed a Seattle attitude toward the press and commercializing grief. "I'm not doing anything with that album. It stands on its own. That's why I made the record. Too sensitive of a subject to isolate comments on. When you speak to someone who can write things down, you have to remember that they only write what they select. And it appears next to something that they can't control, like an ad. And then that article can be quoted, and over time. . .I've seen the way things happen."

When I ask if he could at least share how he's navigated some of the pressures that '90s artists have found so difficult, Young offers his odd '80s albums as a parable. "I did a lot of records that were not popular commercial records, [but] they were the right records for me to make at the time." He denounces commercialism and "media image slaves" as often as any dour grunge god, but his rhetoric is healthier, if no less airy. Purism in the face of profit isn't the goal; "good music" is.

Explaining his well-chronicled antipathy to digital recording (mollified somewhat on Mirror Ball with the introduction of a new technology called High Definition Compatible Digital), Young stresses, perhaps needlessly, "I'm a real freak for retaining the feel of the music." It's only when talking about his musical ideals that Young is comfortable invoking Cobain. "How about 'Drain You' from the MTV New Year's? Was that fucking nasty or what?" Young, who hates to listen to recorded music because it seems bland to him, made an exception and listened to tapes of Nirvana--he never saw the band live or met its leader.

He dismisses Cobain's attack on Pearl Jam as corporate sellouts: "That's an immature comment by a guy who's young, and trying to find his place, and a little confused. Because Pearl Jam is good. Why put 'em down? Just because they live in the same city and they're both big bands? It's pointless." But Young completely identifies with Cobain's impulses toward intransigence and loner individuality. "I really could hear his music. There's not that many absolutely real performers. In that sense, he was a gem. He was bothered by the fact that he would end up following schedules, have to go on when he didn't feel like it, and be faking, and that would be very hard for him because of his commitment.

The paradox of music is that it's really meant to be played when you feel like playing it. It's not meant to be played like a job. The purest essence of music is an expression, it should be done like a painter. You don't paint when the audience comes in and pays their quarter. I don't think he did a good job of dealing with it. But it's understandable, considering how real he was." I ask Young about how he felt to learn that Cobain had quoted his lyric in the suicide note. Everything shuts down again. "I don't want to talk about that. I can't talk about that. I still sing the song. Now I remember him when I sing it."

(Also, see more on Kurt Cobain and Neil Young.)

Young hunches over the car wheel, using his elbows and forearms to steer the severe mountain curves with slashing strokes, working out the angst he'd refused to articulate. Neil Young, godfather to the postpunks, lives like a hippie lord of the manor on a huge ranch named Broken Arrow, after the Buffalo Springfield song he wrote prior to buying the place in 1970. It's a real ranch, with a foreman named Larry, cattle herds, and trucks with Broken Arrow Ranch stamped on their sides. But it's also a children's paradise, where peacocks step out into the middle of the road and llamas lounge on the grass. From the ridge Young has me drive to, you can see a canyon full of trees, a lake, several roads, and hills off into the distance. All his land. Another vantage point looks down toward the Pacific. The ranch is Young's "private place," the symbol of the deeper stability that's always underlain his restlessness.

He's been married to the same woman, Pegi, since 1978; they've got two children, the oldest of whom, Ben, now 16, has a severe case of cerebral palsy that renders him quadraplegic and unable to speak. (Zeke, an older child by actress Carrie Snodgrass, has far milder cerebral palsy, and now works for a record company in Los Angeles. Neil and Pegi's daughter Amber does not have the disease.) The effort to communicate with Ben was the subtext for 1982's Trans, where the vocals are distorted by Vocoders, and a major reason Young spent the decade uninterested in "using the part of my communication skills" that makes his music accessible. We'll never know if Ben is the real subject of the lyric on "Rockin' in the Free World," about a crack baby: "There's one more kid that will never go to school/Never get to fall in love/Never get to be cool." And maybe we shouldn't. My direct question about how Neil and Ben relate is rebuffed--"he's just like any other kid. Sometimes he tunes you out"--but it's clear that mom and dad have more than coped; they've made Ben integral to their lives.

Pegi is chairperson of the board of the Bridge School, which brings together children with severe physical barriers to learning. The school's success has led to plans to build a new campus on the grounds of an established private school; Young is excited about Bridge kids mixing with others--maybe that lyric won't come true after all. Like any good native of Canada, he's a hockey fan, with season tickets to the San Jose Sharks; Ben is his companion at the games. Neil and Ben also share a love for model trains. Young designs electronic hardware that ensures that trains built by Lionel sound like trains. "My son and I can really enjoy these things together now because there's all this feedback. It goes pretty loud. When he causes something to happen, he can really hear it. When he puts the brakes on and they squeal, and the thing stops, he knows, 'Hey, I got brakes!'" I'm reminded of his hatred of digital recordings, for the passive sterility of the listening experience they generate.

On our brief excursion through a sliver of the ranch, we stop at the "barn" where Young and Crazy Horse recorded Ragged Glory and Sleeps With Angels. It's a multi-room, comfortable space, with a small studio, an area to hang out, computers for record keeping, and a great back area for playing music, with a rear window overlooking the canyons. The barn is also a museum of sorts: all the ancient guitar amps Young has ever used are mounted along the walls of one room; dozens of tour jackets hang from the ceiling, nearby to an even larger collection of promotional baseball caps. Three members of Young's technical crew are at work--they confer briefly with him about which of the giant trunk amplifiers from the Rust Never Sleeps tour should be sent to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which wants to put them on permanent display. The folds of Young's private life and past experiences give him more to mull over than most younger musicians will ever know. It takes a lot to move him at this point. Where everyone in alternative rock obsesses on music and culture, Young's conversation is all but free of those sorts of references; he hasn't heard the Hole album, for example and actually refers to Kurt Cobain's widow as "what's her name?" "For me," he says, "after pla ng music for 35 years or whatever, and going on all these tours, to keep it fresh I like to ration music."

The biggest influence on Young's music in recent years has been listening to the collected works of Neil Young, since he assembled what will eventually be released--now that High Definition Compatible Digital has solved the transferring problem--as a vast set of Neil Young archives. A "consumer" edition will include the best of the released and unreleased work, but he's more deeply interested in the complete archive, which will document every session he ever did for collectors, in chronological order. "From the worst piece of shit to the best thing I ever did--you make the choice." (I get a salivatory taste of things to come when I ask Young if he's ever worked with female musicians and he mentions unreleased recordings with Joni Mitchell from the Tonight's the Night sessions.) Hearing his music all over again seems to have reminded Young of who he was, and just in time. "Ragged Glory was the first album done after I listened to everything. Freedom, I'd listened to some of it."

Neil Young Interviews

Neil Young