Neil Young Interview

Fuckin' Up With Neil Young: Too Far Gone

by Jimmy McDonough

Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter 1989

Neil Young News

So I'm sitting in a dark blue limo, surrounded by huge redwoods and thick fog, somewhere near Santa Cruz, California, waiting for Neil Young. The limo driver, a clean-cut kid, scurries across the empty two-lane highway, and he hops in the car, obviously relieved Young didn't drive up as he was taking a piss. It's four o'clock, already starting to get dark. Young is nowhere in sight.

By now I was used to waiting. At half past nine Warner Brothers had called my San Francisco hotel room, assuring me Young would be calling. Ten o'clock came. Then 11, 12, and one. At two his management called, saying a limo would take me to a rendezvous not far from Young's home in San Mateo County.

I had plenty to think about in the limo. To me, Neil Young is just Jerry Lee Lewis with longer hair. Fuck "Sugar Mountain" - Young's music is only good when he's crazy. His best records are his most obsessed - Tonight's The Night, Zuma, or On The Beach. While Young still seems crazy in the '80s, the records he made were straitjacketed by Young's insistence on playing characters: first he was a techno-rocker, then a rockabilly hipster, then a country conservative. He did everything but make music about Neil Young. And all the great material that he was playing live never made it to vinyl.

The past year found Young performing intense live shows packed with new songs and set to release a searing rock record, Times Square. But at the last minute, Young opted for Freedom, an album calculated to make everyone rave "come-back." The Times Square sessions - his best work in a decade - got dumped on an import EP that's already out of print. What the fuck has been going on with this guy for the past decade?

We arrived at the restaurant, a dark country inn where Young was supposed to meet us. Except for our limo, the gravel parking lot was vacant. The restaurant was closed. There we sat, in the middle of nowhere, the redwoods silent except for the barking of a distant dog.

Suddenly a white '57 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, polished and gleaming, emerged from the fog, pulling up next to the limo. Out popped Neil Young. Dressed in a leather touring jacket, baggy pants and sandals with socks, Young looked more wrecked than usual. His hair was an uncombed tangle, his eyes bulging and bloodshot. The night before Young had celebrated his 44th birthday by whooping it up at a Sinatra concert. "I'm so fucked up from dancing." he says with a grin. "My legs are killing me."

He told the limo driver we'd catch up with him later and I hopped in the front seat. "Can I start the questions, or do I have to provide a urine sample?" Young laughed, and that's how the interview started - barreling down the road, Young hunched over the wheel and me struggling to be heard over the roar of the engine, shouting my questions in his face.

For the Turnstiles

"I feel really good about what I've done in the '80s," says Young. "Even though I've taken a lot of shit for it. Everything I did made sense to me, yet everywhere I went people were telling me, 'What the fuck are you doing? Why are you doing this? You're systematically dismantling your record sales.' There was this huge abyss between me and everybody else.

"Everybody felt that wall," he says. "Everybody around me has felt it - for a long time. My wife, my family, they've all mentioned it to me. I haven't been a lot of fun." So what was on his mind? Why did his records seem to distant?

As the car wound up and down the mountain highway leading to Santa Cruz, Young told an agonizing story, one that began back in November of '78. It was a good time for Young - Comes A Time was released, and he had just finished the Rust Never Sleeps tour. He had married Pegi Morton that summer, and they'd had a son named Ben. But there were problems. "Pegi kept saying, 'Something's wrong, things aren't right. He's not doing what other babies do.'" Ben had trouble holding his head up and cried continually. His development seemed much slower than other babies.

The couple took their son to Stanford for a battery of tests. Ignoring the Youngs in the hospital room, the head of neurology told another doctor his diagnosis - Ben had cerebral palsy. That's how they learned their son was a spastic, quadriplegic, nonoral child. The couple was stunned. Neil's first son Zeke, born in 1972 by Carrie Snodgress, also suffers from cerebral palsy.

"It was too big a picture to comprehend," says Young. "Too big. Pegi's heartbroken, we're both shocked. I couldn't believe it. There were two different mothers. It couldn't have happened twice.

"Somehow we made it out to the car. I remember looking at the sky, looking for a sign, wondering, 'What the fuck is going on? Why are the kids in this situation? What the hell caused this? What did I do? There must be something wrong with me.'"

The couple began an exhaustive search to find help for Ben, and after attending a weeklong workshop in Philadelphia in the fall of  '80 they decided to join the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential. The institute's method of teaching handicapped kids is called "patterning" - a rigorous, 12-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week home program that put incredible demands on both Ben and his parents.

"You manipulate the kid through a crawling pattern." says Young. "He's crawling down the hallways, he's banging his head trying to crawl. But he can't crawl, and these people have told us that if he didn't make it, it was gonna be our fault, that we didn't do the program right. You're brainwashed to think the only thing that you can do that's gonna save your kid is this program, and they have you so scared that if they call and you're not at the house, you're off the program, forget it. You've ruined it for your kid. We lasted 18 months. 18 months of not going out. 18 months of not doing anything. And during those 18 months I made Re*ac*tor. That's the turning point right there."

Go to Part #2 of Fuckin' Up with NEIL YOUNG by Jimmy McDonough, Village Voice Winter 1989

Jimmy McDonough's Book "Shakey" - Neil Young Biography

Interviews of Neil Young

Neil Young Archives - Thrasher's Wheat