Neil Young on a Good Day
by Steve Erickson
Follow the crack of the Liberty Bell as far as the eye can see and there he is, alone on a park bench in the middle of Philadelphia, as obscure as he wants to be. "Getting a little vitamin D," he says when I reach him, and lifts his face to the first sun either of us has seen after 15 hours on a bus, riding the interstate through the night and into this afternoon.
He's as obscure as he wants to be - except for all those tour buses parked on the other side of the square, his in particular, with the tops of two '49 Buick Roadmasters erupting through the roof and a license plate that reads POCAHONTAS. For a while we talk about the allure of the road ("I like it," he says, "I mean, I miss my family, but. . . . " and then shrugs, a concession not an apology), the music he listens to ("I don't play that much pop these days, mostly Beethoven, Wagner"), about his recent CD, Silver and Gold (his first studio recording in four years). We talk about the eight-disc archival box set he's preparing for release this fall, covering his ascent from obscurity in the mid-60's to 1972, when he had Billboard's No. 1 album of the year; and the two tours he's staging, one on his own and one with three old friends, who, 30 years ago, were the biggest band in America.
Time has finally cornered him long enough to monumentalize him, it seems; but we'll see. Once he wrote songs with titles like Journey Through the Past - barely conscious efforts to conquer the present and cheat the future - and he has always given a very good impression of a man running from his place in musical history as if it were a tomb. When we make our way to the hotel where the bus is parked, a fan works up the nerve to ask for an autograph, but Neil Young says, "No, I don't do that," and walks right on by, breaking his stride not even a little.
Until I actually step on board, everyone assures me the Pocahontas is a sanctuary never breached. Back beyond the special well designed for Ben, his 21-year-old son with cerebral palsy who watches the highway from his wheelchair, Young sprawls on his huge bed. "I was playing in a club in Fort William," he begins, "and we're doing a song called Farmer John, and toward the end of it we started jamming. . . . "
This is way back. This is back in the autumn of 1964 with a band called the Squires, in Canada, where Young was reared in the little town of Omemee with its "blue, blue windows behind the stars" and where at the age of 3 he slipped into a nearby lake and nearly drowned. This is back before his early days as part of a Motown band with Rick James, back before his long exodus to L.A. in a hearse looking for Stephen Stills, whom he would find only at the last minute in a Sunset Strip traffic jam, before they formed Buffalo Springfield. This is before After the Gold Rush and Harvest put him on the map in the early 1970's, and before the subsequent 28 albums that have kept him on and off the map ever since.
This is way back, before a crumbling spinal disc in 1971 and before the epilepsy, which still haunts him onstage. This is before the afternoon he fired his lead guitarist for an uncontrolled heroin problem that took the guitarist's life that very night, and before the subsequent music that Young recorded in a tequila-flooded exorcism of grief and guilt. This is before the Thermidor of late-70's punk, when one rock icon after another fell before its guillotine of cultural relevancy, and Young was the one 60's artist not only spared by the revolution but also embraced as a kindred spirit.
This is back before the nitwitted lawsuit filed against him in the 80's by the head of his record label, David Geffen, for not making true "Neil Young" records, before the 90's, when Kurt Cobain quoted him in his suicide note, before he became the only artist in the year 2000 that one could possibly imagine sharing a concert bill with, say, Merle Haggard on the one hand and Nine Inch Nails on the other.
This is back before he became rock's Man That Time Forgot, making music at once primordial and futuristic, homegrown and surreal, traditional and insurrectionist, beguiling and cataclysmic - before he became, with his distinctive voice and racked Mojave-storm guitar, a one-man vortex for folk, country, blues, psychedelia, grunge, electronica, symphonic sweep, metallic squall.
Way back, playing Farmer John when he wasn't yet 20, Young remembers, the music got really wild. "I had never played like that before. We were just slamming it. We played the song without the song, we played what the song was about ," and in that moment his musical identity was born. If rock has always been driven by two impulses, the utopian and the anarchic, many of its most enduring figures have straddled the two: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young. It's the utopian Neil whose records people buy in droves. But with songs like 1995's sonic Imax I'm the Ocean, or the brilliant Powderfinger, about a young frontier boy killed in an explosion of survivalist pride and madness ("Then I saw black, and my face splashed in the sky"), it's the anarchic Neil who howls into the zeitgeist and alters it.
He likes it when the zeitgeist howls back. With Crazy Horse, a band just cacophonous and primal enough to capture Farmer John on record with Young a quarter-century after Fort William, he makes a point of recording around a full moon, when "a lot of mechanical things go wrong, technical difficulties, things that usually work don't work." And in the congenitally enlightened company of Crosby, Stills and Nash, unabashed utopians who have always sounded a little funny singing "Down by the river I shot my baby," Neil Young is Baader-Meinhof: when he performs Rockin' in the Free World in Philadelphia, it seems he simply won't let go of the song, until it becomes clear the song won't let go of him. As the lights glide across the audience, 60,000 people stand slack-jawed at the sight, except for a few zombies in the front row who go the entire show without responding at all until finally, just to get a reaction, Young lies flat on the stage in front of them playing all the more dementedly. "A whorish move," he allows sheepishly the next morning on the bus, "but. . . . "
From out of the conflict between utopia and anarchy has emerged moral ambiguity and complexity. In 1970, when he wrote "Ohio" following the murder of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, his rage was more instinctive than political: "My lyrics get personal about it," he acknowledges. "I'm singing: 'What if you knew her and saw her dead on the ground? How could you run when you know? "'But that anger was also answered a few years later by "Campaigner," when alone among major spokesmen for the counterculture he expressed compassion for a disgraced president who lost everything ("Even Richard Nixon has got soul"); and conspicuously over the years he has refused to adopt any ideological line. At one time or another he has supported Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson. His ideal ticket in 2000 is Gore-McCain.
The utopia of his early music succumbed to anarchy most spectacularly during an unhinged 1973 tour that was his rude answer to superstardom. The shows would routinely climax with Young screaming, "Wake up!" at his audiences as the 60's crashed down around him in a rain of dead junkies; now, at the back of the Pocahontas, all he can manage to say of the period is, "I'm glad I made it through it," before a pall settles over the interview. Whenever Young "tried to get away from success," his manager, Elliot Roberts, remarks of the period, "it just turned into a bigger success," which wasn't just confusing but mortifying, since success wasn't particularly subtle about its human toll. Young went on to chronicle the deaths of the people around him in a series of anti-drug songs - The Needle and the Damage Done, Tired Eyes, Tonight's the Night - that were all the more authoritative for the way they were reportorial rather than judgmental, never denying for a moment the attraction of excess and darkness.
"I just didn't like people telling me what to do," he explains almost offhandedly. "I didn't like people telling me if I made more records like Harvest, I would be successful. That's when I came up with the concept of destroying what I created in order to move on. I wanted to do what I called audio verite.
He pauses and looks out the window. "At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians" - which is to say, not him - hit the wall . They don't go there very often, they don't have the tools to go through the wall, because it's the end of notes . It's the other side, where there's only tone, sound, ambience, landscape, earthquakes, pictures, fireworks, the sky opening, buildings falling, subways collapsing. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn't translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can't go back. I don't know too many musicians who try to go through the wall." He stops for a moment. "I love to go through the wall," as if you ever doubted it for a moment.
In the collective memory of his longtime audience, he may forever be the brooding figure reclining alone in the shadowy gatefold of After the Gold Rush. But in fact virtually everyone who has ever known him attests to his humor - sometimes zany, sometimes wry, mischievous. Over six feet tall, he has an easy yet determined stride that encompasses all his contradictions: zen yet a little obsessive, open yet a little unapproachable, lurching toward his ambitions yet held back by his wariness of having to explain himself.
During a disgruntled taping with Crosby, Stills and Nash of "Storytellers," the VH-1 series in which songwriters relate the stories behind their songs, he paces the small stage like a caged animal and cracks, "I thought the song was supposed to tell the story." And when I bump into him in a hotel lobby one afternoon after failing to pin him down for an interview, and he assures me, "I'm really not avoiding you, I'm just waiting until I feel more alert ," personally I feel quite certain he's avoiding me. But I'm in the curious position of respecting him all the more for it.
Similarly, though the archival box set - the first of four planned - seems truly imminent, it has been delayed by Young so many times in so many different incarnations over the last decade that his own record company will believe it only when it finally reaches the stores, and maybe not then. His career is cratered with last-minute flip-flops and bailouts on myriad album releases and interviews and tours and reunions. "I've left some charred paths behind me," he admits.
The line between such capriciousness and outright manipulation can be hazy. Years ago, Elliot Roberts was just a 22-year-old from the Bronx managing Buffalo Springfield when Young abruptly stopped a rehearsal one afternoon to demand Roberts be fired on the spot. "I was shocked," Roberts recalls. "It blew my mind." For days he wandered L.A. stunned, trying to figure out what hit him, only for Young to appear suddenly one night at 2 A.M. to explain he was leaving the band and wanted Roberts to manage him.
"Oh, he had plotted it all out," Roberts now laughs. "I thought, Wow, cool - this guy is as devious as I am." To those who have watched him over the years, Young comes off as a mastermind of unpredictability. But sometimes he can appear less integrated and more genuinely divided against himself than people think. The utopian-anarchic "schizophrenia" (Young's word) of his music reveals both a Spontaneous Neil and a Control-Freak Neil, each real and each peering over the other's shoulder, each trying to correct the other's misjudgments, each averting the other from perceived disaster.
There is no better example of this than the recent misadventures of Young's authorized biographer. After signing a contract with both Young and Random House, Jimmy McDonough, a journalist, spent eight years writing, researching and interviewing more than 300 people, all with Young's cooperation. But when McDonough delivered a manuscript at the end of 1998, Young suddenly - according to the publisher - "sabotaged" the book by withholding his approval of it, and Random House dropped the biography.
In the Young camp, nobody will comment for the record about why he killed the project. But the unofficially stated reason - that McDonough submitted the book to Random House before submitting it to Young and thereby breached the contract, betraying Young's trust - sounds flimsy, a technical end run around an agreement that granted McDonough wide editorial freedom with the sole exception of the privacy of Young's immediate family, which neither side in the dispute cites as an issue. One can hardly discount the possibility that Neil Young is just being his ruthlessly whimsical self again. McDonough is now suing him for $1.8 million.
The melodrama of Neil Young's early life reached critical mass in November 1978 with the birth of his second son - by his wife, Pegi - and the subsequent realization that, like Young's first son, Zeke, by the actress Carrie Snodgrass, Ben had cerebral palsy.
Zeke's case is mild (he is 27 and works as a sound engineer on a number of his father's projects), but Ben is a quadriplegic. Young would later recount walking out of the hospital and "looking at the sky , looking for a sign, wondering: What did I do? There must be something wrong with me." But cerebral palsy is a twist of fate, not of genetics - Young's daughter, Amber, doesn't have the disease. If all this weren't overwhelming enough, not long after Ben's birth, Pegi was found to have a brain tumor, from which, at the time, she had only a 50-50 chance of recovering.
So in the early 80's, the man whose obsession with his music was supposedly all-consuming set the music aside to devote himself to his family. "There were a lot of thoughts in my mind at that time," he says now, "that I wasn't ready to share with the world," and the matter of Ben's health was so personal that in 1982, when Young released a strange album called Trans with electronically distorted vocals, few knew it grew out of an effort to communicate with his speechless son by computer. During the rest of the decade, Young's music seemed at loose ends on a series of recordings that in hindsight appear redeemed as stylistic explorations of an artistic identity in turmoil - out of which ultimately emerged one of his best albums, Freedom, in 1989. He then spent the 90's making one important record after another.
One afternoon in Philadelphia, when we had once again scheduled an interview and he had once again vanished, I found out he had gone to a school for children with cerebral palsy. Along with Pegi, Young is a major supporter of such a school in California, and during tours he often arranges for young people with the disease to see the shows. I was annoyed that I hadn't been with him to get the scene at the school for the story; in true Neil Young fashion, it even happened during a full moon, when an elevator at the school suddenly malfunctioned and the singer hovered for several precarious minutes between floors. But then it occurred to me that 99 out of 100 rock stars would have jumped at the chance to drag me along and put their humanitarianism on display, and that like so much else with Young, maybe this was private, too.
And sometimes, you know, he just wings it. Sometimes it's not a matter of a personal code (which he obviously has), or a Machiavellian ploy (of which he's clearly capable); it's a matter of impulse. Standing in the middle of a shopping-center parking lot on the highway to Cleveland, waiting for the bus to refuel, Young is talking about spending some time with his family after the tour on the volcanic Big Island of Hawaii, when a young woman pulls up in a pickup truck. She leans over and rolls down the window on the passenger side, and on her face is the disbelief of her own eyes. "Are you who I think you are?" she asks.
"Who do you think I am?" he says.
"Are you Neil Young?
"Yeah," he finally answers.
Suspended between astonishment and opportunity, she sputters, "Would you sign your name for me?"
She scrambles to find something for him to write on - a beer coaster, a highway map, a gas receipt. There's a pause that seems longer than it probably is, and who knows what he's thinking; of course I'm remembering the autograph hound outside the hotel in Philadelphia. Now this woman in a pickup truck on her way to get her kid from school maybe, or coming home from a job waiting on tables, in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot that everybody knows is nowhere, happens to peer through her windshield to see, standing over on a small square of grass waiting for his dog to relieve himself, the full-moon genius of rock 'n' roll. And then she makes two decisions: the first, to have faith in what her eyes tell her; and the second, to confront it.
"Sure," he says. He steps up to the truck, leans in and scrawls his name on whatever she has offered him, a gut reaction to the purity of her wonder; and then as she drives away, with a story she'll tell for the next 50 years, he goes back to contemplating volcanoes and the sea, and the tropical winds where utopia and anarchy converge.
As he now seems eternally young, in earlier days Young was old before his time. "I'm getting old," he sang in his most famous song, Heart of Gold, written when he was 24. In Phoenix, after another show, as the others in the band celebrate with friends backstage, Young sits alone in a dark, hushed room with a few candles burning low nearby, nursing his back with an ice pack; he seems every one of his 54 years. Earlier onstage he lost himself in a deranged Down by the River as he had with Rockin' in the Free World in Philadelphia, the Man That Time Forgot shredding time to ribbons. But back here in the dark he's the Man That Time Remembers, and it's remembering him in his lower back.
So for a while we make small talk that he probably finds more awkward than his graciousness allows him to admit. And then I finally leave, after he has just "slammed "one more time through the wall of age, the wall of fear, the wall of passion, to the end of the night. As if you ever doubted it for a moment, he loves to go through the wall, beyond the end of notes.
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