Fucking Up With Neil Young: Too Far Gone
by Jimmy McDonough
Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter 1989
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 Biaritz, 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 Snodgrass, 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."
Released in October of '81, Re*ac*tor had all the elements of a great Neil Young record - Crazy Horse and a bunch of tough electric songs. Despite its hard-rock sound, Re*ac*tor is a sober, contained and maniacally repetitious record: "Got mashed potatoes / Ain't got no T-bone," warbles Young for over nine minutes. Even his singing sounds distracted. It's like Young was somewhere else, and he was: with the Program.
"It affected everything. Everything. Even the recording process - the only time I could record was between two and six in the afternoon. I used to record only in the middle of the night. Now I couldn't, because I was doing the program." Re*ac*tor bombed, and Young took his frustrations out on Warner/Reprise, stomping off the label for a six-year association with Geffen. It was on Geffen that Young began to lose himself in characters, first with Trans, in 1982. Replete with synthesizers and vocodered vocals, it wasn't exactly "Heart of Gold."
"Trans was about all these robot-humanoid people working in this hospital and the one thing they were trying to do was teach this little baby to push a button. That's what the record's about. Read the lyrics, listen to all the mechanical voices, disregard everything but that computerized thing, and it's clear Trans is the beginning of my search for communication with a severely handicapped nonoral person. 'Transformer man' is a song for my kid. If you read the words to that song - and look at my child with his little button and his train set and his transformer - the whole thing is for Ben.
"People completely misunderstood Trans. They put me down for fuckin' around with things I shouldn't have been involved with. Well, fuck them. But it hurt, because this was for my kid."
But how could anybody have known what it was about, I argue. The whole thing was so obscure. "It was very obscure," says Young. "They didn't have a fuckin' chance in the world. The whole thing is, Trans is about communication, but it's not getting through. And that's what my son is. You gotta realize - you can't understand the words on Trans, and I can't understand my son's words. So feel that.
"I had made up my mind I was gonna take care of Pegi, take care of the kids," says Young slowly. "We were gonna go on, we weren't gonna be selfish. That's what I was gonna do, and I wasn't going to hurt. And if you shut yourself off and say, 'This isn't going to hurt me,' you can't shut it down without shutting it down totally. I closed myself down so much that I was makin' it, doin' great with surviving - but my soul was completely encased. I didn't even consider that I would need a soul to play my music, that when I shut the door on pain, I shut the door on my music. That's what I did. And that's how people get old. I made up my mind I wasn't going to hurt, and because I wasn't going to get hurt..."
You couldn't sing a song that was emotionally out there, like "Tired Eyes" or "Mellow My Mind"? I ask.
And that's the price you had to pay for cutting yourself off from your feelings?
"That's it. That's right. I kept it all inside. But I dumped the load on Trans. I told the whole fucking story right there. It was so fucking well disguised that only I knew what it was. So for me, it's great. To me, Trans is one of my highest moments."
Young drove so fast around the winding road I thought I would puke. Couldn't he have addressed the situation more directly in his music?
"No - no, that wouldn't have worked," Young says forcefully. "That's not my expression. That's too direct. For me, even talking about this is very difficult. Because I want my children to read what I say and feel loved and know that everything is okay. And I don't want to sound like I'm copping out, that I did what I did because of my kids. It's just life. That's all it is."
No one said anything in the car for awhile. I was more confused than ever. Young admitted how distant his music had been, yet didn't feel like apologizing for any of it. Maybe he'll explain it all on Decade II.
Young feels he will be vindicated by this seven-CD anthology he's preparing for next year, his 25th anniversary in the music business. A compilation of approximately 100 songs - nearly half unreleased material - Decade II will encompass the original Decade, deleting some songs and adding some new ones, and then take on Young's work in the '80s.
"It's a big task, it wears me out just thinking about it," says Young. "I'd rather be making new music. But I want to set the record straight as much as I can. Through outtakes and chosen cuts I'm going to try to bring out more of the feeling that's hidden in those records. I think I can enhance the experience by putting them all in a long line, shortening them, and changing them." What I've heard of the unreleased material Young performed live certainly surpasses the '80s records. But can Young really make us understand Trans, Everybody's Rockin', and Old Ways?
The Losing End
"We were just wore out. We couldn't take it any more. There wasn't a great deal of progress with all the things we were doing in the program, there was just a lot of pain. So we went to this seminar for the National Academy for Child Development, which was a similar type thing, but they told us, 'Listen, you only need to do this four hours a day. You have to live your life.'"
In February 1982, the Youngs switched to the new program - and in November Young went on the road supporting Trans. It was his first tour since Ben's birth in 1978.
Young toured incessantly in the '80s. "I started going out on the road and putting out music, out of myself, live," he says. "Not so much on records, but live. In order to find myself I had to keep playing and playing and playing and not take a break. I felt disconnected. When I played music I said, 'What's going on? Where is it? Where am I?' Playing live got me back. That was the only way I could do it."
Next Young wanted to release Old Ways, a country record he cut in a two-day Nashville session. He felt it was a strong, commercial work, part of a series that included After the Gold Rush and Comes A Time. Geffen felt differently. They rejected it.
"They said it scared them," says Young. "They wanted more rock and roll. Okay, fine. I'll give ya some rock and roll. I almost vindictively gave them Everybody's Rockin'." He greased back his hair, put on shades, and went out on the road with a '50s-styled band called the Shocking Pinks. "I got way into that guy," says Young. "I was that guy for months. He was out there. It was a movie to me. Nobody saw it but me, but who gives a shit."
Everybody's Rockin', along with Old Ways and even This Note's for You, are Young's investigation of older genres, but while authentic enough in look and sound, the records are weird museum pieces. Young had already plunged to the depths of American music, and he did it on one record: Tonight's the Night. It is the kind of boozy out-of-tune party Jimmy Reed would've sat in for, with the best spoken recitations by a white man since Hank Williams. And you couldn't get more gone than a bunch of stoned musicians hell-bent on chasing the groove, wherever it took them. Tonight's the Night is the last great rockabilly record, and Young didn't even have to hire a stand-up bass or wear his hair in a pomp.
Young went back to playing country music and Geffen slapped him with a $3-million lawsuit, accusing him of making "unrepresentative" music. Geffen and Young entered a bitter, public feud that wasn't settled until Old Ways finally came out in August of '85.
It's not that Young can't play country music - an ancient honky-tonk number called "It Might've Been" was one of the highlights of his 1970 tour with Crazy Horse, and even "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks," a sombre rock song from the 1987 Life, has a structure similar to many country ballads. But the longer Young tinkers with something, the worse it gets, and the two years Geffen sat on the record gave Young the opportunity to create a patronizing hillbilly cartoon. The music is pure Nashville kitsch: a million session players nodling away, hungry for that overtime check. "Get back to the country! Get back the barn again!" Young advises us, a jew's harp twanging in the background. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a joke. And maybe it was. The released Old Ways, Young told Rolling Stones, "was much more of a country record - which was a direct result of being sued for playing country music. The more they tried to stop me, the more I did it. Just to let them know that no one's gonna tell me what to do."
Yet Young realizes the position he had put Geffen in. "I could understand where he was comin' from. Geffen had a rough row to hoe - he wanted to make a million dollars" - Young laughs - "and I was in another world."
In the middle of all his troubles, Young made some of his best music, although few have heard it. Young reunited with Crazy Horse for two nights of live shows in February '84 at a club not far away from his home, the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. Augmented by the crude honking of Ben Keith's saxophone, Young ripped through a string of nasty originals - "Rock Forever," "So Tired," "I Got a Problem," "Violent Side," "Your Love," "Touch the Night," plus a sublimely ridiculous rocker called "Stand by Me" written by bassist Billy Talbot. There were no characters to hide behind here, just 90-mph rock songs with deliriously simple lyrics that verged on a Zen-like beauty. In the past, even on the fast numbers, Crazy Horse had played in hypnotic slow motion - the groove was as good as the pot. But this was all scraping, choppy riffs, and ugly music that could have followed the Ramones or Howlin' Wolf. "Me and my shadow are so in despair / 'Cause we keep hurtin' someone who cares / Everytime we talk about it I break out in cold sweat / There must be some way out of here but I haven't found it yet," Young sings in "I Got a Problem." It was the kind of choked, uneasy voice you can hear late at night on the subway, coming from someone wearing a hospital bracelet.
"Those songs live were probably the last great thing I did with Crazy Horse," says Young, who took the band to New York to record. The addition of a couple of horn players - "real musicians," as Young calls them - destroyed the session. "I can always tell when a real musician is around Crazy Horse, because a real musician always says, 'What the fuck do you play with those guys for? I can play that good. Anybody can play that good.' We knew we weren't any good. We knew none of us can really play. Fuck, we'd get it in the first take every time and it was never right - but we would never do it any better. We're fuckin' up, we're makin' mistakes, but what happens is we get so into the music it sounds great. But when a real musician enters that, it fucks it all up. It made everybody conscious that they were dumb players. The sessions sucked. It ended up a big fuckin' bum-out because we had never failed so completely to get anything. Crazy Horse didn't do anything for a long time after that."
We got to Santa Cruz. Young navigated us through the narrow streets, many of which were blocked off after the recent earthquake. An old car parked on the roadside caught his eye, and he whipped around to look at it. "Dodge Polaris," said Young, his eyes glassy. "A very stylish car. Quite a looking unit." As we sped up again I asked him about Crazy Horse.
Young reunited with the band to tour behind two albums - 1986's Landing on Water, a drum-heavy, overproduced rock album recorded without Crazy Horse on which Young massacres several of the Catalyst songs, and 1987's Life, a more successful rock record basically recorded live with the Horse.
Neither tour was Crazy Horse at their best, and for the most part Young blames himself. "The playing wasn't as good. On the Landing on Water tour, it was the material. They should never be forced to do covers of other songs I've done." Young was also working with computerized effects that only got in the Horse's way. "It was a fuckin' disaster. It wasn't right. I really didn't do Crazy Horse justice that last time out.
"But as much as I love the guys, you gotta dig what my problem with Crazy Horse was. I would do the song, lay it out, and they wouldn't be able to remember the arrangement. So I'd be halfway through delivering the master, and one guy would stop playing or wouldn't know where to go, and y'know, that's really hard to deal with, after you've done the song over and over again. There's gotta be a memory retention problem."
Don't Be Denied
By 1988's This Note's for You, Young's much ballyhooed return to Warner/Reprise, things seemed to be settling down. He was off Geffen, enjoying a new popularity, and he and Pegi had started the Bridge School in San Francisco, a learning center dedicated to trying to solve the communication problems of handicapped kids like Ben.
The fake blues of This Note's for You was just another disappearing act for Young, but live, it developed into something else. I saw the band at Jones Beach in August of '88. Young plowed through a half-dozen new songs that were much more personal than anything on the record, and he was playing guitar with more fire than he had in years. After a desultory "After the Gold Rush" at the piano - the night's only concession to the past and the only number to get a roar out of the limp crowd - Young snarled "well, that was then" and strapped on his electric guitar to lead the band, minus horns, into a blistering rocker called "60 to 0" that matched Crazy Horse in its prime. "Got thrown out of Bible school / For givin' the finger to the preacher!" Young screeched in the song's best line, ironically one which never made it to vinyl. He seemed tremendously angry. A few days later at the Pier in New York City, Young played a feverish 20-minute version of "Tonight's the Night," kicking mike stands off the stage and breaking all the strings on his guitar.
After that, nothing could stop Young. Early in '89, he stripped the Bluenotes band down to a three-piece - bass, drums, guitar - and blasted through the Midwest and Northwest for a couple of short tours. He opened with more new songs - "Cocaine Eyes," "Don't Cry," and "Heavy Love." They were rockers equal to anything he'd ever done.
By April the band got to Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The music had coalesced into one big throbbing noise, culminating in long hallucinogenic versions of "Mr. Soul." He jokingly nicknamed this new sound "Popular Music," and it came with a stage show that was more like Popular Mechanics: a psychedelic slide show, and crunching loops of machine noises stuck between songs. There were even hard hats for the roadies onstage.
Singing the new material night after night blew Young's voice out. "Those are high fuckin' songs. All of 'em are right out there. The actual pitch of the fuckin' notes is way up there. To do it every night is a bitch. My music is very physical. People don't realize how fuckin' physical it is. There's no way to breathe deep and sing 'Heavy Love.' You can't do, that. You can't have 'good technique.' Get the fuckin' technique out. Get rid of it. Every fuckin' note is my last so it better be fuckin' good."
While overseas Young released an EP of the new material, but only pressed 5000 of the import-only Eldorado. This wasn't some obscure demo tape designed to squeeze extra bucks out of maniac collectors - this was the real thing, the most personal music Young had released in 10 years. But why put the record out in New Zealand? If you listen to Young talk, it's a wonder Eldorado even came out at all.
Originally Young was going to release an album of the material called Times Square, but he chickened out. "I thought people were so used to me doing a style they might think I was just doing a style. I think it was a paranoid kind of a thing. Just the fact I'm worried about what people think is completely wrong, completely fucked. Thank God I didn't let that bother me on Eldorado. I did that for me."
So Young took the most abrasive cuts from the session and stuck them on the EP. "What I did was take all the sweetness out of Times Square and made it more abusive than it already was and put it out of reach. So there it is - the weird workings of my mind. It's self-defeating but still makes its point in some weird way."
Does it ever. Outside of "Eldorado" itself, the songs sound so new they threaten to collapse at any second, as if the band hadn't quite learned the tunes. Young's solos have never sounded more jagged and insane. The music picks up where the Catalyst shows left off.
"Heavy Love" ends with Young barely able to scream the lyrics; "On Broadway" collapses into a funny, tasteless plea of crack. "Don't Cry " is the EP's center-piece. We hear the doomy clanking of a bell, then Young describes a relationship he has just demolished. "I'll help you pack your things, I'll walk with you out to the car." A nice thought, but Young spits out "things" with all the warmth of a serial killer. After the second verse he lets go with a piercing shriek, then a chaotic noise that is more buildings falling than guitar solo. Forget those pretty, ringing high tones of the past, this is the bottom, pure electric sludge. When it finally ends, Young's voice seeps out of the smoldering feedback for one last howl. "Don't cry my sweet girl... you won't really be alone." Maybe she'd rather be.
"There's a lot of violence, a lot of anger inside me for things that have happened, injustices. I've had to basically overcome this brainwashing technique that was done to us during that first program that we worked on for Ben. You get on this schedule where you do everything over and over again. You can't open up.
"I'm a little angry about that, and when I say a little angry ... I mean it. And then there's seeing Ben try so hard to crawl and not being able to do it but wanting so badly to do it because we wanted him to. People talk every day about struggling, but I'm not impressed by superficial struggling because I've seen a real struggle."
Young says Ben is communicating more now, and, with Eldorado, so is his father. "I put Eldorado out so people would know I was still here. There's something about the way things have gone for me that made me want to put it out and make sure my handwriting was on it. Pick the artwork, do everything with my friends, and put out this little record. But then, I'm sick. I only made 5000. I said, 'That's all, that's it.' That's the way I did it - it reemerged. Just like I'm reemerging from myself. It's a funny thing. I feel my feelings coming back."
With Eldorado, and the live shows he was doing overseas, it seemed like Young was finally back. But once he returned to the States, he rusted fast. He went out on a solo tour that was - other than the handful of new songs - a trip to the oldies morgue. Young could easily have picked unexpected and fresh material from the past - some of his best work is acoustic - but live it's generally the least creative part of his set. This tour was no exception. For an artist who professes to love change, Young sure doesn't seem to mind singing "Sugar Mountain" night after night.
We stop for a bit at Jim Mazzeo's tiny waterfront apartment. A bear of a man with kind twinkling eyes, Mazzeo has been a cohort of Young's forever - working on his tours, contributing artwork to his albums, like Zuma, one of the most deranged album covers of all time. The apartment was loaded with his cartoonish, obtuse paintings.
Young wants Mazzeo's paintings on the CD covers of Decade II. "To get to me, they'll have to experience you," he says gleefully. It was the first chance I had gotten to sneak a glance at Young outside the car. Up close that huge face can be intimidating, but with Young sitting there, curled up on the floor in front of Mazzeo's latest work, he looked almost frail, nothing but skin and bones.
Young and Mazzeo took a couple of hits off a joint, and we got back in the car and headed to a nearby seafood restaurant overlooking the Pacific. "What about 'Florida' and 'Kansas'? They're off the wall - kinda like road songs," says Mazzeo. Over dinner he and Young threw out a few hints at what may or may not be showing up on Decade II.
"Well, 'Florida' - that's not even a song, that's a narrative with sound effects," said Young, who obviously had a better choice. "What about 'Mexico'?" Young warbles a few bars. "'Think I'll go to Mexico, gonna take my t-i-i-ime...' And what about that jazz thing we did - "Diggin' my Bad Self'?" Young improvises a lyric or two, complete with scat singing. He's confident Decade II will make sense of the last 10 years. "You'll get Trans on this thing - it'll be undiluted, like Eldorado."
Finally, Freedom came up. Not that there isn't good shit on Freedom. "No More" and "Rockin' in the Free World" are tough songs, and "Hangin' on a Limb" is the kind of aching acoustic ballad only Young can craft. But only three of the five Eldorado songs are included, and he edited out the grungiest part of "Don't Cry"'s solo. Why?
"Look, you got it - it's on Eldorado," mutters Young, flashing a wiseass grin. But, I say, none of my friends can hear it because the 5000 copies you released in New Zealand are already sold out.
"Aah, some bootlegger'll put it out," says Young. "It wouldn't have got changed if it hadn't been out there right. There's something wrong with me where I keep fuckin' around with somethin' for a long time. In retrospect, what I did with 'Don't Cry' is the biggest sin on Freedom."
There's another sin on Freedom - overproduced inferior versions of older songs that he's performed much better live. "Crime in the City," a/k/a "60 to 0," in the album's shortened acoustic version, fails to capture the heat of the live electric performance. "Ways of Love," "Someday," and one of Young's greatest songs, "Too Far Gone," all suffer from hopelessly square arrangements, especially "Someday," with it's bland horns and polka band chorus. It has all the excitement of Perry Como, I tell him.
"Perry Como - yeah, right, I love that," says Young, laughing. "You're absolutely right. But these ideas aren't new to me, because that part of me lost out.
"Take 'Too Far Gone,' "Ways of Love,' 'Someday,' and 'Don't Cry' off the record. Those are the songs that bother me. The older songs all escaped when I wrote them. 'Ways of Love' was a great song when I wrote it in '75, and if I had recorded it then ... But I made a remake of it. It's hard for me to go back when I feel like I should be taking care of the new ones. If I don't get it when it's new, forget it. Then it gets fucked up. That's another frustration of making records. But I don't really make records - I do performances and I record them.
"That's why I never sing a song until I record it. I write it, but I still haven't sung it. If there had been a few new songs that fit Freedom, it would've been a better record. But I wanted it to have the depth of the different styles and that's where the compromise was made. It's disappointing. Freedom had to e slightly pasteurized."
The dinner talk turns to the Rolling Stones and their budweiser commercials. "I think they suck," says Young. "And the Stones suck, and I love the Stones. Somewhere along the line they lost it for me. I hope that doesn't happen to me." Young asks what happened to Johnny Rotten. I tell him Rotten became an artist. "Artist is a bad word now, so many of 'em have sold but, they don't have any respect," he says.
Yeah, but what about Neil Young? How could Young make another record with Crosby, Stills and Nash? They've become my generation's Liza, Sammy and Frank, I say. "Who's Sammy? Better yet - who's Liza?" says Young. "It could've been great. I did it to keep a promise." Young told Crosby if he got straight, they'd record. They made American Dream, and Young doesn't want to say any more about it.
Then there's that wonderfully mean-spirited video for "This Note's for You." It gets banned by MTV, and MTV, in an obvious attempt to stop the flood of bad publicity, reinstates the video and gives Young their "Best Video of the Year" award. Why did he accept it?
"I dunno - must be the Perry Como in me. I could to the hard-line Marlon Brando thing, not accept the award, give it to the Indians. But that's almost the predictable thing to do. You can't get money to make videos if MTV won't play them. In accepting the award I thought I'd be able to make more videos and get 'em played." So it was a business decision, albeit an unsuccessful one. "Rockin' in the Free World," Young's new video directed by Julien Temple - who also did "This Note's for You" - hasn't gotten much airplay. "They play it once a day. So that's the fuckin' support we got."
Into the Black
With the September 30 appearance on Saturday Night Live, Young arrested any signs of rust - at least for the moment. Backed by Charlie Drayton, Steve Jordan, and longtime sideman Frank "Poncho" Samperdro - a new band Young's tentatively calling Young, CS&P - he was all over the stage, jumping on the drum stand, lunging out of camera range, whipping off earsplitting solos that sounded like falling power lines. It was the loudest thing I've ever heard on TV, the lyrics to "Rockin' in the Free World" barely audible. This is easily his best band since Crazy Horse. Just the look on his face was enough. He really seemed insane.
"Yeah, well I was. I don't like TV. Never have. It always sucks and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't just walk on and do 'Rockin' in the Free World,' or you'll look like a fuckin' idiot. To perform that song the way it's supposed to be performed you have to be at peak blood level, everything has to be up, the machine has to be stoked. To do that I had to ignore Saturday Night Live completely. I had to pretend I wasn't there." So Young developed "a brand new technique for doing TV" - a half-hour before going on he worked out with his trainer, lifting weights and doing calisthenics to get himself wired.
It worked. All the other rockers from his generation are ready for Mme. Toussand's; here was Young, frighteningly alive. Time is running out, and he knows it. It was like a line in "Eldorado": "He comes dancing out / Dressed in gold lame / He kills the bull / And lives another day." Young wasn't dressed in gold lame - he had on an Elvis T-shirt - but a bull died that night. The Elvis T-shirt was appropriate; for a moment all those '80s records became bad Elvis movies, and this was Young's '68 special.
Young says he's recorded a song with the new band called "Fuckin' Up" that's "hotter than what we did on TV." Yeah, but the question is, will I have to go to fucking New Zealand to hear it? "Naaah - Iceland. They got a nice club in Iceland, gonna premiere it there. I'm even gonna go down and sign albums. But I'm only gonna put out 500 this time. Iceland's a small market."
"I had a dream. I had a dream that I was in this hotel. And it was a big fuckin' hotel, painted kind of pea green. And it was in a golf course. This was an old '40s or '50s stucco Spanish-type of building, sort of a hotel and school in one. And it had this huge fuckin' gymnasium in it, and I'm in there with my producer, David Briggs. And I say, "Briggs, you gotta hear these fuckin' songs, I can't believe I wrote these fuckin' songs, I don't know where these songs come from, but listen to this.' and I put in the cassette and we were just blown away. They were so fuckin' great I get goose bumps myself just remembering what it was like to listen to these songs. I have glimmers of something, they come and go - one word, a chord progression - it's so weird because I know they're in there because I sang them in the dream. It's part of me that just hasn't been able to come out yet."
We're in the car again, barreling down Highway 1, heading back to where Young picked me up. Outside the car it was pitch black, nothing but mountains, ocean, and night. "This road is so fuckin' cosmic." says Young. "I love this road."
There are still a handful of acoustic dates left for Young in Europe. "That acoustic thing is a trip," he says. "You really get to know yourself. I did some great versions of '60 to 0' on that last tour. Where I would lose it would be on the older songs. They won't be there when I go out again." Good, I say, because if I hear "Sugar Mountain" one more time, I'm buying a gun. Young laughs. "When I started that tour it was just to meet myself again. Now I gotta take it out the window before I put it to bed."
The car began to pick up speed, the convertible top flapping wildly in the wind. That song "No More" came up. It's a slow, brooding rocker about drugs. I tell Young that many people have taken the song as a farewell to a habit.
Young frowns. "If you listen to the lyrics - really listen to the lyrics - I'm not saying anything definitely. It's completely fuckin' ambiguous what's goin' on. And that's the feeling of 'no more.' How many times do you have to say 'no more' before it means no more? Because that song doesn't mean 'no more.'"
All night long we had been talking about obsession - obsession with family, music, career, drugs. Did Young think that being obsessed was a bad thing? "Well, I'm obsessed with a lot of things." He pauses. "Can't be bad." He let go with a slow, dark chuckle.
As the car tore through the night I tell him how much I liked that line in "Cocaine Eyes": "Ain't a day goes by I don't burn a little bit of my soul."
"Yeah, 'Cocaine Eyes,' "Don't Cry' ... I love all those songs. But you can't do that all the time. You gotta make it count. You gotta find it when you can, chase, it, grab it, take every chance to get it. But you burn it when you do it. I love to burn it, but I wanna be able to burn it for a long time. I don't wanna kill myself doing this - like a lotta people have - if I can possible avoid it.
"The farther you go into this abyss called 'obsession,' the more dangerous it becomes. It's like a drug. You can completely lose touch with your family, people who count on you, people who would do anything to help you." He paused. "But I'm goin' back in there."
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