Neil Young News
Young and free
Interview with Neil Young
By Patrick Donovan
November 21, 2003
Neil Young has followed his muse across a wide musical landscape, leading most recently to the fictional town of Greendale.
"Well, yeah, the older you get the mellower you are. A lot of things that would have got me into trouble, I just don't bother with any more. But the important things are still there - last time I checked, anyway." Neil Young is talking over the phone from Fukuoka, Japan, having just arrived from Osaka by bullet train. Speaking in a deep drawl - in stark contrast to his falsetto singing voice - he's commenting on how he gets on better with his old bandmates from Buffalo Springfield these days, but every fan who has followed Young's zigzag path can relate to the sentiment.
Young's music affects listeners to a degree few other artists can match, whether it's Kurt Cobain quoting him in his suicide note, Bob Dylan - who rarely mentions contemporaries in his songs - namechecking him in his song Highlands, or Australia's biggest band, Powderfinger, naming themselves after one of his songs.
But if people like his music, it's a coincidence, because Young says he doesn't write to please the fans.
He works on the theory that the first thought is the best. In his biography Shakey, he told author Jimmy McDonough that playing music is a pure expression of the soul - the truth - but that lyrics are contrived and adulterated. So he waits for thoughts to come to him, whether in a dream or on a long drive, and his songs represent snapshots of different phases of his life.
"I don't want to put any thought into it if I can help it; I'd rather just have it come out and try not to edit it."
Young is in town tomorrow for his first Melbourne show in 14 years, and his first here with the legendary Crazy Horse. The show starts with a stage production and performance of the new album, Greendale, followed by a set of old favourites. This is when fans will finally witness the dynamics of the band that in one day wrote Down By the River and Cowgirl In the Sand.
"It's just a natural thing with us," says Young. "We're just happy to be here. We still enjoy it and it's always fun, and now we've got all this new material, so when we play Greendale you get a feeling for us, that we're still alive, not just re-creating old stuff."
On his last tour of Australia, Young showcased both his gentle acoustic work and his brutal, cathartic rock-outs. He says the two sides of his music don't represent extremes of emotions for him, even if they elicit extreme reactions from some of the audience.
"It's just folk music and rock'n'roll. It's pretty straightforward. It's all the same emotions, just different ways of expressing them."
After he opened, on that last tour here, with the relatively obscure Ordinary People, people were yelling for hits off Harvest. How does Young handle his legacy and his fans' expectations of him?
"Well, they're used to me now. I can't surprise them any more with any of that," he says with a laugh. "I really don't see the need to go out of my way to make people happy. I don't think that's what I'm here for. I'm just here to do what I do and play my songs, and a lot of people like them, which is cool, but if they didn't like them, I'd play them anyway.
"It's not that I don't appreciate them; it's just that I don't feel anything other than 'Thank you'.
I don't owe them changing what I do to accommodate them."
The Canadian-born Young struggled to make a living out of music in his home country, but found fame in Los Angeles with Buffalo Springfield, who had a string of hits in the 1960s. He became a star in his own right in 1972 with Harvest, Billboard's top-charting album of that year. However, he alienated many of his new fans when he followed it with dark, jagged albums such as Journey Through the Past, Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight's the Night.
It was considered commercial suicide at the time, but these days the latter two albums are considered classics.
Does he believe this credibility justifies the direction he chose to take back then?
"At the time all I was doing was what I thought I should do. I was only doing it because I had the idea. The idea came to me, so I did it. So it's pretty straight-ahead. There's no planning or thought that goes into it - 'Is this cool?' or 'Is this going to be good?'. I really don't care. All I want to do is what naturally comes out of me. When I first started out I tried to spend a lot more time trying to fix things, and as I started to mature a little more, say, with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I started getting a little more loose and just letting things happen, not judging what I was doing and really respecting the fact that I had a gift, that these things would come through me if I let them."
In much of his work, Young's music is defined by simple strumming or jamming on a couple of chords, given meaning by his heartfelt delivery. But for Greendale, Young offers in-depth liner notes, a film (which he wrote, shot and directed under his alias, Bernard Shakey) and stage play.
Young says the concept was born out of one song, but then the same characters kept re-emerging in other songs, and soon he had created the fictional town of Greendale (based on many places he's known, he says) for the cast to live in.
There's stubborn old-timers Grandpa and Grandma Green; their Vietnam veteran, psychedelic painter son-in-law Earl; hippie activist daughter Sun; and her gun-toting cousin, Jed, who shoots and kills a policeman, Carmichael. The media descend on the Green household for an explanation, causing Grandpa to have a heart attack, which spurs Sun into action.
It's not rocket science - Bruce Springsteen did it better in one song, Highway Patrolman, on his Nebraska album - but it gives Young the platform to voice his feelings about the arrogance of Western society and the loss of community values.
I explain that with the current Howard Government, many Australians can relate to Greendale's themes: the erosion of personal freedoms, trial by media and the destruction of the environment.
"Well, I'm glad it has, because a lot of changes need to be made. It's too bad that Australia went along with the coalition, but I guess the leaders felt that by co-operating with Bush's agenda they were making the right move. They were probably acting on the same information that America had, which has turned out to be a bunch of bullshit."
Steve Earle, the Dixie Chicks and Michael Moore have been slammed in the US as being unpatriotic for questioning their president, but Young says he's had a mostly positive reaction to Greendale.
"I've had more emotionally charged reactions to Greendale from the audience. When people come up and talk to me, they sound different about it than they have about anything I've done."
Are the problems in Greendale limited to the West?
"I think they relate to the entire free world, particularly Australia and Japan - anywhere where people are on the edge of co-operating with the US agenda and trying to figure out what they should be doing. All the governments seem to be polarising rather than bringing people together, which I think is interesting."
Like Bob Dylan's previous two albums, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, Young seems to be pining for simpler, more innocent times when he namechecks Leave It To Beaver and sings: "When I was young, people wore what they had on."
"There's always room for reflection on what's going on," he says. "You can always find things that are wrong and things that are right at any time. And right now the seeds for revolution - not a huge, violent revolution, but like the one they had in the '60s - are a very ripe environment for it. I don't think the youth have had a target like Bush since Nixon, so we'll see what happens in the colleges. It's got to start with the young people."
The visual extension of his work isn't an attempt to capture some of the younger TV-fed generation, he says. It's simply to help tell the story. The music, though, still comes first.
"That's what makes the whole record work."
As the tour progresses, so, too, does the Greendale show, and Young says Melbourne, being the last show on the tour, will see it in its most evolved form.
The album has polarised the critics. Some say it comprises little more than hippie cliches and student sloganeering atop plodding blues. Believers say it's Crazy Horse at their grooviest, and that a line such as "A little love and affection, in everything you do/We'll make the world a better place, with or without you" is appropriate for such troubled times.
Young does use cliches - they were all over Harvest - but they're honest ones, and he believes that sometimes they're the purest form of communication.
Physically, Young has been dealt a horrid hand that has also left scars on his psyche. He suffered polio as a child, which left him rake-thin and shy, which was compounded when his parents divorced. As a teenager he suffered epileptic fits and migraines, and he was so spaced-out that a doctor warned him never to take LSD or "you'll never come back".
As a parent and husband he has also had his share of heartache - both his sons were born with cerebral palsy, and his wife Pegi survived surgery for a brain tumour after being given a 50/50 chance of pulling through.
Young isn't the only artist to endure such trials, but he's managed to overcome his obstacles with compassion and truth. Even if it's a cliche, fans believe him.
He says some critics have changed their mind about Greendale and are seeing it in a more positive light. I suggest that although some of his albums appear to offer their wares up front, some, such as Silver and Gold, take a few listens to fully reveal themselves.
"I just try to perform the songs so that I feel them when I'm singing them. Lately we've tried to not worry about the mistakes; we don't even fix them up, because it seems like a mistake is almost a feature in today's sterile world, the way that people make records these days."
Young says plenty of young people are attending his shows, and I suggest that some of them should buy 1974's On the Beach (recently released on CD for the first time, along with American Stars 'n Bars, Hawks and Doves and Re-ac-tor), as it covers similar themes to Greendale, such as environmental destruction and intrusions from the mass media.
"On the Beach is a record that reflected what was going on at that time, and what was going on in my life at that time, and I think, like anything, if it's true in the first place, it'll be true forever. It should just ring differently, but it will still ring. If you're contriving it or working too hard to create something, then it's not going to ring true later on. So I'm glad On the Beach is happening now, and I hope people get something out of it."
He says he's has remastered all of his other albums, so fans can soon expect to hear Journey Through the Past and Time Fades Away on CD.
Those curious about the meanings behind Young's songs were enlightened by the release of the 800-page Shakey last year.
Was it a big decision to let someone into his life, or was it just an extension of his songwriting?
"I think it was a mistake, but I did it, and I chose him because I like Jimmy and he's a great writer, but I think it was a mistake to put it out."
After giving author Jimmy McDonough unprecedented access to his personal life, Young then tried to block the book's release, and McDonough, fearing that eight years of research and 300 interviews would go to waste, sued Young for $US1.8 million.
Young, though, says he was just trying to delay its release until his daughter was old enough to read it.
"My daughter wasn't even 17 when they wanted to put it out, and I didn't get a chance to go through it before they handed it in to the publisher, which was the way I thought it should be. So I was a little upset about it, so I did what I could to hold it up as long as possible, which was 18 months, which made everything work out fine, because she was over 18 then, and if she was going to read it, then fine."
Many of this year's best albums, from bands such as Songs: Ohio, My Morning Jacket, Grandaddy, Will Oldham and the Autumn Defense, have their roots in Young's soulful country sound. But Young says he's too busy with his own work to keep tabs on new music.
"I listen to the radio, where you only hear what the corporate people decide you should listen to, so that's not rewarding. Hopefully now with the implosion of the record business, the radio waves will open up a bit. I just listen to stuff at parties, but I don't have time to go out and check on things."
In his 34-year solo recording career, Young has meandered between rock, folk, blues, country, psychedelia, grunge and electronica. He says that after this tour he will continue to take Greendale on the road in the US in the lead-up to the next election. But what kind of music does he think he will dream up next?
"I haven't heard anything in my head that I felt like I wanted to grab. I don't like to write a song if I can't record it straight away. I don't go looking for songs. I want to feel fresh about it."
Neil Young and Crazy Horse play at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl tomorrow night, with support from Lisa Miller (gates open at 7pm). Greendale is out through Warner.
SOUND AND VISION
Greendale isn't Neil Young's first venture into film.
As Ry Cooder did on Paris, Texas, Young wrote the soundtrack music while watching the film.
"There was a circle of 20 different-sized TV monitors. There was nowhere you could go that you couldn't see the pictures or hear the dialogue. They played back the film three times and I played my piano and the organ and we did it in one day.
"I love that film. Jim Jarmusch (who also made the Crazy Horse documentary The Year of the Horse) is a great filmmaker. The first time I saw it, it didn't have any music, just dialogue. I need to get another copy."
That film inspired some of Young's most beautiful playing. Does he often conjure a picture in his mind before he writes?
"Usually a song is pretty new when I'm recording it. It's just organic and it just happens, and usually when you feel that you're delivering the song, that's when you see the pictures."
THE LAST WALTZ
Young performed alongside Bob Dylan, Dr John, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison at the Band's final gig, captured by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.
"It was a great night. I was actually pretty toasty at that show - we'd been up about 48 years. The night before, we played a double show in Atlanta. I don't really remember a lot of it, but I think everybody was having a good time."
Originally published at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/21/1069027300353.html
More on interviews and reviews on the Greendale page.
Neil Young InterviewsThrasher's Wheat - A Neil Young Archives