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Neil Young and the Bluenotes

Neil Young: "One morning I woke up and all I could hear was rock & roll so loud that I couldn't ignore it."

by James Henke

ROLLING STONE 527, June 2nd, 1988


What prompted you to get back together with Crosby, Stills and Nash? 

Well, there's a certain energy you get from singing with people you've known for twenty-five years. People who have been through all these changes with you. Gone up and down with you. Seen you do things that are wrong and seen you do things that are brilliant. Seen you fucked up to the max, you know? And you've seen them do all these things. And yet we're still here.

Just to hear what it sounds like when we sing together after all these years - I was curious. I've wanted to do it for the last two or three years. And now it's possible.

I think CSNY has a lot to say. Especially Crosby. His presence is very strong. Him being strong and surviving and writing great songs and being part of a winner is really a good role model for a lot of people in the same boat.

What about Stephen Stills? You two have had a stormy relationship.

We're like brothers, you know? We love each other, and we hate each other. We resent each other, but we love playing together. I see and hear so much in Stephen that I'm frustrated when it isn't on record or something. There have been a lot of frustrations through our whole lives with each other, but there's also been a lot of great music. He continuously blows my mind with the ideas that he has for my songs. He's one of the greatest musicians I've ever met in my life. Great singer. Incredible songwriter.

But what's he like as a person?

He's a tormented artist. He's the definition of the tormented artist. And he's a great fucking bluesman. But he's got a lot of monkeys on his back, and they're not letting him do his thing. I just hope he makes it.

Are there plans for a CSNY tour?

They wanted to book a tour, and I said: "No way. I don't want to have anything to do with a tour."

Also, everyone needs to really get in shape if we tour. There's no way getting around the fact that a CSNY tour would be a nostalgia tour to a great degree. CSNY is Woodstock - it's that era, that whole generation. So why go out there and not be at our physical best? If people are looking at us as their brothers who they went through all these changes with, do they want to see somebody who's not together? No, they want to see someone who's superstrong, who's endured, who's a survivor and is still creative and looks better than ever.

If we go out there and fall on our ass, what are we? Dean Martin? All the alcoholics who went to see him, they didn't say: "Wow, look at Dean. He used to drink so much, but he got himself together, and now he's strong, up there with Frank and Sammy." I feel sorry for the guy. He's in the fucking hospital.

That's a weird comparison, but in some way it's very true. They're just another generation's heroes. So I think we have a responsibility, and I don't think we've lived up to it yet.

From time to time, there are also rumors of a Buffalo Springfield reunion. Is there any truth to them?

Well, there actually have been several Buffalo Springfield reunions in the last two years. At Still's house. We just get together every couple of months and play. The original guys - Richie [Furay], Dewey [Martin], Bruce [Palmer], Stephen and I. We've done this three, maybe four times, and I'm sure we'll do it again.

Musically, you seem to be obsessed with change. At Geffen you went through synth rock, country and rockabilly, and now your first album on Reprise is a blues record.

It's just the way I am. When I was in school, I would go for six months wearing the same kind of clothes. Then all of a sudden I'd wear all different clothes. It's change. It's always been like that.

Trans surprised a lot of people. I don't think anyone expected you to make an album with synthesizers.

Trans resulted from a fascination with machines and computers taking over our lives. This image of elevators with digital numbers changing and people going up and down the floors - you know, people changing levels all under the control of a machine. And drum machines, the whole thing. And here I was, like an old hippie out in the woods, with all this electronic equipment. I mean, I was astonished.

What about 1986's Landing On Water? That album holds up pretty well.

That album was like a rebirth, just me coming back to L.A. after having been secluded for so long. I was finding my rock & roll roots again. And my vibrancy as a musician. Something came alive; it was like a bear waking up.

What had you been doing during hibernation?

I had just been up here in the woods. And I'd been working on a program with my son Ben, who has cerebral palsy. It just kind of took me away for a while, made me think about other things. I never really lost interest in music, but there were other things in my life that were real important. My real soul was taken up with things I didn't want to sing about.

Although if you listen to Trans, if you listen to the words to "Transformer Man" and "Computer Age" and "We R In Control," you'll hear a lot of references to my son and to people trying to live a life by pressing buttons, trying to control the things around them and talking with people who can't talk, using computer voices and things like that.

It's a subtle thing, but it's right there. But it has to do with a part of my life that practically no one can relate to. So my music, which is a reflection of my inner self, became something that nobody could relate to. And then I started hiding in styles, just putting little clues in there as to what was really on my mind. I just didn't want to openly share all this stuff in songs that said exactly what I wanted to say in a voice so loud everyone could hear it.

Both of your sons have cerebral palsy. How badly handicapped are they?

Well, Ben, who's nine, is a great little guy, a wonderful little human being. He's got a really beautiful little face, and he's got a great heart, and he's fun to play with. We've got a really great train set that we play with, a huge train set that he controls with buttons and stuff.

He's learning how to communicate and play games and solve problems using a computer. And he is handicapped inasmuch as he has severe cerebral palsy, and he is a quadriplegic, and he's a nonoral child. So he has a lot of handicaps. Cerebral palsy is a condition of life, not a disease. It's the way he is, the condition he's in. He was brought into the world in this form, and this is the way he is. A lot of the things that we take for granted, that we can do, he can't do. But his soul is there, and I'm sure that he has an outlook on the world that we don't have, because of the disabilities.

My son Zeke has very mild cerebral palsy. He's a wonderful boy, and he's growing up to be a strong kid. He's going to be sixteen in September, and one of the things he really wants to do now is get his driver's license. He's a great guy, a great kid, and he's got a great heart.

What causes cerebral palsy?

No one knows. That's the thing. Just why they were born with cerebral palsy is a question that Pegi [Young's wife] and I ask and Carrie [Snodgrass, Zeke's mother] and I ask. There's no way to tell. My third child, Amber, is just a little flower, growing like a little flower should. It took Pegi a lot of preparation to get ready to have another kid because it was really hard for us to face the chance that things might not work out right. But so many doctors told us that it had nothing to do with anything. I went and got myself checked, because I was the father of both kids. And the doctors said, "It may be hard for you to believe this, but you had two kids and there's no connection between them at all. It's a fluke that both have cerebral palsy."

Often in my life, I've felt that I was singled out for one reason or another for extreme things to happen. This was hard to deal with. We've been dealing with it, and we've learned to turn it around into a positive thing and to keep on going. It was something that brought Pegi and I really close together, just having the strength to have another child and having her be such a beautiful little girl and having everything work out.

You've taken a lot of heat for all the stylistic changes you've made over the years.

You know, I used to be pissed off at Bobby Darin because he changed styles so much. Now I look at him, and I think he was a fucking genius. I mean, from "Queen of the Hop" to "Mack the Knife." Dig that. And it didn't mean that he didn't believe in "Queen of the Hop" when he turned around and did a Frank Sinatra thing.

Yet I come against this because I experiment around and I play different kinds of music. In my eyes, it doesn't make what I'm doing any less valid. Right now I love the Bluenotes, to a point where it feels so right to me. I'll do other things, but I think I'm gonna come back to this over and over again. I mean, playing with a horn section and playing with this band is just so great.

Yet you said something similar when you did Old Ways and toured with the International Harvesters - that you were happy and that country was what you'd be doing from then on.

At the time, I really did feel good doing it. And it was a lot of fun. And then one morning I woke up and all I could hear was this massive fucking beat. And my guitar was just rising out of it. I just heard rock & roll in my head so fucking loud that I couldn't ignore it.

And so you went back to Crazy Horse - something you've done time and again throughout your career.

That's true, and I may come back to Crazy Horse again someday, but it seems more and more doubtful to me. The kind of music I played with Crazy Horse was a younger kind of music. And I'm not younger - I'm older.

The great thing about Crazy Horse is that its members are not technically great players, but they have a lot of passion.

Well, that's what Crazy Horse is all about. And they bring out a part of me that's very primitive. We really put out a lot of emotion - which is easy for a kid to relate to. So it's very childlike. I've had some great times with Crazy Horse.

How do you feel about playing that kind of rock & roll when you're in your forties?

The question is, how long can you keep doing it? And really be doing it? Or do you become a reenactment of an earlier happening? That's a question I ask myself.

Do you think Crazy Horse started to become a reenactment?

Toward the end it was starting to. I could feel it starting to slip away. And I never wanted to be in front of people and have them pay to see me when I'm not 100 percent there. And if you feel that energy slipping away, then you've got to fold your deck - get out.

So are you saying that rock & roll is really a younger person's medium?

There's no doubt that it is a younger person's medium. The question is whether it can also be an older person's medium. That's why I love the Bluenotes. They afford me the same kind of passion and expression as rock & roll, but in a more experienced, evolved way.

So that's why I feel real good about the music I'm playing now. It's something that I believe in and that I'm comfortable with. It's real; it's what's really happening to me now in my life.


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