Neil Young: The Silver and Gold Interview
by Jody Denberg
For the past 35 years with bands like Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, Crosby Still Nash & Young, as well as throughout his solo career, Neil Young has given the world some of the purest music around. And his brand new album Silver and Gold is pure acoustic Neil.
Neil, as the first song on Silver and Gold says, good to see you.
Thanks. Good to see you, too.
The songs on Silver and Gold, they're as intense as any rock and roll that you've ever done, but they're in the style of albums like Harvest and Harvest Moon. When you were writing most of these songs, did you know you wanted to produce them this way or did you try various settings?
Most of these songs were written in the last couple of years, maybe the last three years. And I recorded them fairly soon after I wrote them. And the guys playing on them are the same guys playing on all of them, basically. They're just, you know, the right guys for the tunes. And I was into playing that way at the time and had the band come - I'd write two or three tunes and then they'd come - they'd fly in and we'd try to do those two or three tunes and the some other ones that I already had that I had tried to record before that didn't get or something. You know, I've got quite a few of them that's kind of hovering out there. So I add a couple of those into the mix so that we got a lot of songs to play. And then they'd come for three days and we'd just play all the songs and that's it. And then try again when I write some more new ones.
Does your personality have to change in some ways when you're playing with, say, Crazy Horse or Pearl Jam as opposed to when you're in the mode of Silver and Gold?
Well, I don't know if my personality changes, but maybe it does. What changes is the songs. The songs drive the whole thing. And I have no control over what the songs are going to be like. I just - they're just a reflection of what's going on. And I have no control over what's going on (laughs)! So it keeps changing. You know, what can I do with it?
The first song on Silver and Gold, "Good to See You", it sounds so direct. It sounds like you had the feeling and you just sat down and wrote the song. Is it ever that simple?
Yeah, because that's how that one happened. I wrote that one in my bus in Florida somewhere. There was a thunderstorm and the HORDE tour was playing. And, you know, we had to shut down for half an hour or something. And so I went to my bus and I was in the back. And my voice was real low 'cause I'd been playing with Crazy Horse and screaming and yelling and carrying on. So my voice was real low. And I wrote these - a couple of songs. "Good to See You" was one of them. And "Without Rings", I think, was one - the other one that I wrote, either that day or somewhere along in there - on a big piece of newspaper. I remember I had a piece of newspaper with all this felt-tip marker pen stuff written over top of the other writing. I like to see the writing on top of pictures and other stuff, you know, so when you look at it it's not too imposing. It just looks like a big - there's nothing there, really. It's just all jumbled looking. It's comfortable to leave it around like that. You don't have to hide it. Where if you write something on a piece of paper, it's like a note, you know. Anyway, that's probably more than you want to know about that (laughs).
Neil, a couple of the songs on the new album date back to the early '80s. One is the title track, "Silver and Gold". Why would a song like that go unrecorded all these years?
Well, "Silver and Gold" I think I wrote back in - I don't know 1981 or '82. And I did record it several times. I tried it several ways. And it was such a nice - it's just such a song, you know. It just kind of lives with the guitar. It's just there. And it's always a kind of song you do it the first time, its fine, it sounds great. And then you do it the second time and it's like, you know, why are you doing it again? You just - you've already done it. It's such a simple thing that either you - I would get it right the first time and then by the time the band knew it, it sounded so contrived to me that I could never get it. So I really recorded, I think, a total of 11 times with different people in all kinds of different configurations. And we got 'em all, none of them are worth listening to. But this one here finally just got back to the roots of it and just sat down with my guitar and played it and said, "That''s it." Because I love the song and I feel the song now and it means something to me now. And so I just did it. When I got back from the HORDE tour a couple of years ago, I went in the studio, sat down and did this one the second day after I was back, I think.
"Silver and Gold", it's a direct love song. It reminds me a little bit of something like Paul McCartney would have done on his very first solo album. And a little bit more than a year ago, you inducted Paul into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Is it only fans who fantasize that, you know, our heroes would collaborate or would you be open to working with someone like Paul?
Oh, I'd love to work with someone like Paul. I'd love to work with Paul. I mean, I love Paul's music. Paul's like - his potential is great. I mean, he's right there, you know. He doesn't - you know, he can do what - basically whatever he wants to do. I'm available to play with Paul McCartney any time he wants to play. He knows it, too. I already told him. I said, "Listen, if you want to do something with me, I'm ready. So..."
When you've written a love song like "Silver and Gold" is your wife, Peggy, the first one to hear it or is it easier to play it for other folks first?
I think she heard that one first.
"Silver and Gold" is the title track of your brand new album. It's a song about the joys of love and family. And one thing that's a family affair for you and yours, Neil, is the Bridge School. Most music fans know about the annual concerts, but can you explain in a nutshell what the Bridge School's mission is?
Well, the Bridge School's mission is to bring communication to children, young students that are - that can't talk and have, you know, communication problems, have to use an interface, some sort of an interface to communicate. And we try to supply the interface so that they can - so the kids can communicate and, you know, do the things they need to do, go to school and get up to speed on being able to use their devices so they can navigate the world that we navigate. And it's a big challenge. And it's a great school. And it's a model for other schools. There is a program where we share our information that we've garnered over the last 15 years of existence in teaching kids how to use computers to communicate. It's a great idea that my wife had. And, you know, we had our son, Ben, is the inspiration for the school. And he's one of the first students. And so it's been a real family thing for us. And all the musicians who have come to help by playing at the concerts have all come away with a good feeling about it. And it's been a great thing. I think my wife has done a great thing there.
I'd imagine it takes up a lot of your time, maybe almost as much as the music sometimes, keeping up with the Bridge School?
Well, Peggy does that. She's the one. I can't keep track of stuff like that. I - you know, I support it 100 percent. But if they relied on me for anything, they'd be in big trouble. She's the organized one.
And it is like you said, the diversity of the musicians who have played the Bridge School benefits over the years, you've had everyone from Green Day to Brian Wilson to REM to Sheryl Crow. Has it made you feel closer with the music community at large?
Yes, I think it has. I've met a lot of people. And just the way they keep coming, you know. Every year we just get these amazing bills of people. And there's always - you know, we're looking for new people, but we want to keep - maintain our roots with the past with, you know, people like Brian Wilson. I mean, he was unbelievable at the show. I mean, he was just staggering. I couldn't - you know, I couldn't believe my ears.
The thing about the Bridge School and the Bridge School concerts is that it closes this great divide. And your new song "The Great Divide", and "Buffalo Springfield Again" were a couple of the final songs that you wrote for Silver and Gold. It was my understanding that you wrote these new songs for Silver and Gold because you let your friends, Crosby Stills and Nash, cherry-pick some tunes for the latest CSNY disc, Looking Forward. And we're going to hear "Buffalo Springfield Again" in a moment. Was your reunion with CSN, was it sparked by putting together a Buffalo Springfield project that you were working on?
Well, the project was pretty well complete and I wanted Stephen to come up to the ranch and check it out, see what we'd put together and see how he felt about it and what perspective he could bring to it. And we also had Richie Furay come in and listen to it. And so it - you know, we listened. It's a four-CD box set. And it's - like all of my box sets I'm working on, it is in chronological order. So it doesn't go in the order that the records were released in. It goes in order of the recordings. So you have - at the beginning, you have all these demos that we did when we first came to L.A. for the first Buffalo Springfield record. And then it goes into the - I believe, the mono masters of the Buffalo Springfield record that we made - that Stephen and Richie and I mixed. And then it - and then there's a lot of - you know, a fair amount of unreleased Buffalo Springfield things in there. But it's chronological. So the thing is, you hear us, you hear us as just, we're just kids. You hear us coming together and you can hear the sound growing. And then you can hear it kind of breaking up and falling apart. You know, it's kind of a sad thing. And then at the end, you know, the group - they sound pretty watered down and it's pretty obvious that it's not the same group as it was in the beginning. And, you know, people come and go, changes and stuff. And so when Stephen and I listened to it, we realized, you know - I mean, we're laughing and crying and carrying on, talking to each other while this thing's playing. And we realized that, you know, we really didn't reach our potential at all. So that was a dawn on us: that we both knew that we hadn't reached the potential of what we could do together. And so we - you know, he played a song for me, a new song that was a great song and asked me if I wanted to play on it. So he - you know, when I went down to L.A. a couple of - oh, a month or so later, I played on the song and I played on a few other ones. And I just kept listening to the tapes and I played on them. And it was like, not really the way I like to do things. I like to play all at once and everything, so... But these songs that they had were done. And so I played on them. And then we played on some new ones where we played all at once. And that's more fun. But it's kind of like a process of coming back together again. I mean, working on each others' tapes and then creating new stuff and then, you know, finally we had what we thought was an album. But in the making of it, I - I only worked on their songs at first. I played on about 12 or 13 of their songs before I played any of my own songs. And then I just played them the 14 songs or so that I'd recorded for Silver and Gold, which had no title at the time or anything. And I said, "Just go ahead, just take whatever ones you want. Just take however many. Just take 'em. We'll sing on 'em and we'll - you know, we'll see what else they need, if anything, and then we'll put them on this record. They'll match everything" 'cause that's the way we did this record, basically. So it'll work. So they chose the ones they chose.
And then what happened in the meanwhile to the Buffalo Springfield box set?
We finished it and it's - I believe it's coming out pretty soon.
You know, it's good to hear you sing about playing with Buffalo Springfield again. So many of us, we think of Neil Young as being in the moment. And yet, this is kind of a nostalgic song. Could Buffalo Springfield really ever play together again?
Well, I'm sure they could, but I don't know if they will. I mean, I don't know if that'll ever happen. It's more like a musing of, you know, situation, just, you know, reflecting. Sunday afternoon philosophy.
Neil, the live version of "Looking Forward" doesn't appear on the studio album Silver and Gold. But it's part of a digital video disc concert release that's also called Silver and Gold. It's recorded here at Austin's Bass Concert Hall. Isn't it a little confusing that the CD and DVD have the same title but they're two, they're two different projects?
Well, you know, it is kind of confusing, but look at the money we saved on artwork. I mean, we passed the savings on to the consumer (laughter).
I was watching the DVD and actually was at the shows here in Austin. You're onstage and you're surrounded in that semi-circle of guitars and a banjo. And when I watch you, I was wondering, what goes through your mind when you're, you're changing guitars and choosing a song?
Well, you know, the show's got kind of a structure to it. And the songs are interchangeable. So I'm not really sure what songs I'm going to be doing when I go out there. Although there's a pattern that develops. And sometimes I deviate from it and sometimes I don't. But when I go out there and sit down with the guitars all around me and everything, it's very comfortable. And on the floor to my left there's generally a big loose-leaf binder with about 600 songs in it or 400 or something. And they're all in there alphabetically so I can go through and - if I can't remember a song or something I can skim through it. And after I just take a glance at it, I can remember it. And then - I mean, it's pretty straight ahead. I've been playing acoustic solo shows since, you know, the mid '60s. And I've always gone back and forth between playing with a band and playing acoustic solo. This is just - a lot of the songs - the reason why we called the DVD Silver and Gold is because I think there's eight songs on it that are from the new record. So what it is - and there's older ones, too. There's, you know, a couple of - there's "Philadelphia" and "Harvest Moon" and "Long May You Run" and something else might be on there. But the thing is that it's primarily the same material that's on the album, but it's a live performance of it. And in this era that we're in where, you know, you have to format - your songs fit into a format or they don't. There really isn't much of a format that my songs fit into on - that are on this record. So the idea of me releasing the DVD of my performing these records is, I'm trying to create another way for people to become familiar with this music because, in case they don't hear it on the radio. You know, I mean, we're playing it here tonight because that's what we're doing. But - and that's a great thing. But in reality, when you listen to these songs, they're so subtle that they may never make it on the radio. I mean - so you've got to do everything that you can do to let people know. There's so much going on so if I don't do anything, people won't even know that the record came out. And I love this record. So I put a lot of my heart and soul into it. So I'm supporting it as much as I can within the boundaries of good taste (laughs). Hopefully?
Last spring, you did the solo tour. This spring you did the tour with CSNY. What do you enjoy about playing with a band versus playing, as you say, solo, which you've done for 30 years?
Well, there's another one, too. There's playing in the band that I lead. There's three things here, you know. And playing by myself is simple, but - and it's great and it's direct and it's really rewarding. But, you know, after playing about 40 shows like that, I can hardly - you know, I get, I get kind of boxed in. I feel like everybody's looking at me all the time. It's kind of like you're - you sit out there for two hours and you're the only one out there. And after a while, that kind of adds up. So it has a - even though it's fun, after a while I think my nerves get a little shattered. So I stop doing that. Then, you know, the playing with CSNY, when I was doing that, it's really great. I mean, because I'm part of a band. I'm - I don't have to be in the front line all the time. I'm not always singing the lead. Sometimes I don't even sing in the song. I just play my guitar. And that's a lot like the way Buffalo Springfield was. And I like that, because that's where I really feel comfortable is in a band where I'm not the leader of the band. Then you have Crazy Horse where I am the leader of the band. And I like to get down and play with them. So I have to have - you know, keep changing from one thing to another to keep it - you know, to keep the balance going. And also, as long as the songs keep going, that's what dictates the pace of the change is the arrival of the new tunes.
Neil, how did you and David and Stephen and Graham come up with a set list for the CSNY reunion tour shows? Seems like that was a big challenge.
Well, we rehearsed a lot and we learned a lot of songs. And then, you know, it was - we had to - we worked on an acoustic set. We worked on - we decided on the form of the show, having that opening set an electric set, and then taking a break. It just all kind of came together one night. We had to pace it because we knew it was going to be long. So we had to figure out a way to - you don't want to come out - we were thinking of coming out acoustic, but we nixed that idea of playing acoustic when we came out in favor of playing with the band so that we could, you know, introduce the band and kind of get everybody loosened up. It was almost like an opening act, our first set. It's about an hour long. And then we took a break and then played the acoustic set, about an hour long acoustic set. And then instead of - our problem was taking the break, another break. We didn't want two breaks. So we came up with this seventh inning stretch, which was kind of a fly by the seat of the pants kind of concept thing for the audience to get into. And it worked. So we got Harry Carey singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and everything on the videos. And we're all out there just hanging out, while they're changing the set. And Crosby's out there carrying on. And, you know, it's just - we've got these little tents we can go into that are out there like the Dead used to have. So we managed to put it together, put their songs in there, you know. It wasn't that hard, really.
Did the set list vary at all throughout the tour?
At first we stuck with pretty well the same set list. And then we varied it a little bit. And then we kind of got into another groove for a while. And then we started adding new songs after we started getting really confident. We added "Eight Miles High". That was the first one we added, which really rocked. And it was cool to be playing that with Crosby. It was like the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds playing "Eight Miles High" with the Hollies singing along, you know. (Smiles) I'm telling you, that was pretty good. No, we just - you know, we try to, we try to mix it up as much as we can, but it's a long show. And soundchecks are - you know, they take a little bit out of you. So you want to save what you have for the show, you know.
How did you feel about the public's response to the new songs from Looking Forward and the album?
Well, you know, I think the album was a disappointment because I don't think it reached out. For some reason, it didn't, it didn't really get the acceptance that I hoped it would. But as far as the music goes, you know, my songs that they picked from my selection from - that I had recorded for Silver and Gold, they took three of my songs. I thought they came out really well. I like the way they sang on 'em and everything. It sounds really good to me. And the funny thing is, when those songs were taken from the mix, were taken from the other songs, they - the songs that were left were - you know, there were too many songs. And they were all - originally there were too many songs for Silver and Gold. And they were all struggling and kind of holding each other down. And when CSN picked those three songs out and then I was left with the other ten or eleven, they suddenly just fell into place. It was really a great feeling, because I was struggling with trying to put it together. And when they took those three songs out, it just - everything else was left. I mean, I just wrote them out in order of what I wanted to hear and that was it. It never changed again. The running order was right. Everything was right. So there was something about it that was really right, where you give something away and you get something back. You know, it's like a reward for sharing or something. I don't know. It's a good feeling.
Do you think you'd ever tour again with CSNY or make another record?
Sure. No reason not to. It's like returning to the mothership now.
You alluded to this earlier, Neil, but for so many years, we've been hearing that you're putting together some sort of retrospective box set from your archives. We talked about the Buffalo Springfield box. But this is different. This is the Neil Young - well, what is it and where is it happening, because we've heard about a lot of incarnations?
Well, it's almost ready to come out, actually. It's in its final phases of production - of post-production. And its form is - it comes in a box - in a square box, tall box. And it has the package of CDs. There's eight CDs. And it's - the music is chronological from the beginning of my recording all the way through. And it's - there's selections. It's not every song. But there's a lot of selections from different - from different periods and some, a lot of unknown ones and unreleased ones and different versions of things. But the thing that makes it interesting is the chronological order that it's in. You know, you can really sense a growth and a change as it goes through it. And it reveals things about where songs actually fit, because a lot of times I'll record songs and just hold on to them for three or four years and then drop them into a record. So as this thing unfolds, it kind of puts my earlier records in another perspective. And then there are a few performances in there of one live record that I did with Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East that was never released. And it's in there. And some other early performances. So I - of - at the River Boat in Toronto where I played in a kind of folk acoustic, little, small coffeehouse setting where you can hear, you know, the glasses tinkling and there's only about 20 people there. And I'm singing really soft and, you know, it sounds very young and very open. Anyway, there's a lot of chronological - it just goes from, I think, 1962 or '63 to something like 1972 or something like that.
So this is going to be Volume One then?
Yeah, it's Volume One. And along with that, there's a book that comes in there that's got all kinds of - it's a different approach to a book. What it is is, it's all the things that people wrote about us, about me and about the songs and everything. Negative and positive. They're just all in there. Everything that we could find we just crammed in. It's like a scrapbook of comments and stuff. And that's all it is. It doesn't draw any conclusions. And then on top of that, there's a DVD of the - of all of the film and video, et cetera, that I did back in those years. And so that's a chronological DVD also that covers the same period. And there's a lot of stuff in there with - that's never been seen. The original Harvest recording sessions that we filmed and the recording "A Man Needs a Maid" with the London Symphony Orchestra, the sessions. "There's a World" with the London Symphony. All this stuff. And there's just a lot of information in there that has never been released before. And that's in one DVD. And the other DVD in there is a film that I made back in, I think, 1971 or '2, called Journey Through the Past. And that has - it's kind of a collage film.
And this box ends around '72. Are we expecting this around the end of the year this year?
I think we are expecting it in the early fall.
And then after '72, there's a series of your records, albums like On the Beach, American Stars and Bars. And for some reason, you've never chosen to release these half dozen records on compact disc. Is there any reason why these certain discs weren't released on CD and are they ever going to be?
Well, that's a deep question, because I was hoping that technology would come along to the point where it obviously could be at this point. We have - the record companies have a huge problem right now with - they have the DVD audio standard, which we worked for years to establish. And it's - the quality is just unbelievably better than the CD. I mean, it is - it approaches what you expected from digital in the first place. And it's much better. But someone cracked the code after we set it all up and there was all these committees and everything and we got it all together. And I was working with Warner Brothers and their representatives in that working group for - that was called to make the DVD audio standards. And it's a wonderful standard where the artist has creativity, has control and you program the DVD so that when you put it in, it configures your system to play it back optimum for what's on the disc. I mean, if you had 40 minutes of music on the disc, you could have a higher sampling rate. You might decide you want to listen in stereo or you might want to listen in 5-1. The artist decides. And the format keeps changing as the artist programmed it to be. So you get to take advantage of all of the digital information that the DVD has, the storage. By configuring your information to fit - to maximize it, much like on an old RPM record that you would - a vinyl record that you would have to keep the length down to 18 or 19 minutes if you wanted the thing to really hammer when it came out of the radio. So you know, if you get too long, the tone goes away. So if you try to pack too much stuff into a DVD or a CD - well, not a CD. CDs don't sound good no matter what you do. But DVDs you can put so much information into them. But if you only have like - suppose I made a record that was 39 minutes long. That thing would kill on DVD. I would use all of the computing in the DVD and focus - and raise the level of quality of the sampling and the rates and everything to the point where the shorter it is, the higher the quality is. So the artist can control the quality vector - you know, the quality level. And that's - that was a great thing. So what happened? We got it all together and then somebody figured out how to crack it, so that, of course, now it could be duplicated and so nobody - you know, the record companies couldn't make any money off of it. But, you know, that's already happened with the CD, so what's the big deal? Why not put out the quality? If there are people who are going to crack - you know, if they're going to crack it and send it around on napsters and whatever, you know, MP3, who cares? You know, I say, just let it go. We've got to work it out. It's music. If people can't afford music - if they can't afford it but they can get it with a napster, they can get music. Around the world, people who couldn't get it and have it in their houses and listen to it over and over again are going to be able to do it. Now, what's the difference - why doesn't the record companies come out with the higher quality? And then they'd have something to - well, okay. We've got the higher quality, but maybe the napster or whatever can' transfer the DVD quality or whatever. Maybe it's only a CD quality. The MP3 is less than CD. I mean, MP3 is dog. The quality sucks. It's all compressed and the data compression - it's terrible. They've - it's - that's not good. But the DVD stuff was approaching the way it should be. And it was frustrating to me. So the answer to your question is: I didn't really see things in CD because they don't sound good. So I like the original analog masters. And I don't want people to have CDs to listen to for the rest of time. I want to wait until these things are ready to be dumped into a format that I can understand is really relative to the original format in quality. (Laughter) There you go?
I'm never going to hear On the Beach again.
You might hear it. You might hear it. I'm sure that - I mean, now - I mean, that's why I waited so long. I had to - you know, but they're coming out now HDCD. I mean, it's the best CDs you can make.
Neil, you're always been interested in making movies and videos and the DVD of Silver and Gold comes out Tuesday, the album comes out. And you've done - you've done films before, Rust Never Sleeps and Year of the Horse. They both featured Crazy Horse. First of all, do you ever think you'll ride the horse again?
But Silver and Gold is - it's so far removed from what you do with the Horse. Was that your vision for this video?
For the DVD?
Well, the DVD is a - basically, it's just me playing. You know, it's the way I play acoustic. It's a performance. And it was a good performance. It was here in Austin and it was played - you know, it just was a good night. And the crowds are great. You come to Austin and it's like a music church or something. They listen to the music. You know, people don't yell and scream through the whole song and they don't feel compelled to show their enthusiasm while the song is happening. They're more musically sensitive. I think basically the people in the South and the people in Texas are just - they're moving at a pace where they can - where they have time to listen.
And speaking of a music church, one of the songs you do on the DVD, "Long May You Run" you play on some sort of church organ. Is it a pipe organ?
It's a pump organ, actually. I bought it in a junk store about 15 years ago in Redwood City. It's a funky pump organ. You just pump it. It's got a good sound.
Neil, our conversation is taking place close to Earth Day. And as a supporter of Farm Aid, you told audiences on your solo tour about some real ways that the family farm is good for our environment. Could you tell me what those were again?
Well, the fact is that family farms, today, a lot of them are - in able to survive, are turning to organic agriculture and providing organic food. So if you want to help the family farmer and if you want to make a good contribution towards the future of our farming lands, you can buy organic food and that would be good statement to make for Earth Day, I think. And you could just continue doing it all year long and feel good about the food you're giving your children or feel good about what you're eating yourself. Because the organic food is safe, it tastes better and it's good for the planet.
Thanks, Neil, those are some good words to remember this Earth Day. And thanks for joining us.
Thank you for having me. I enjoyed myself. Thanks.
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