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Neil Young

This Young Will Run and Run

by Nick Kent

Vox, November 1990


Neil Young's manager Elliot Roberts told me: "He's doing interviews now because he's got things he wants to say. There's a lot of things going on in the world right now he wants to talk about."

But Neil Young thankfully kept his new supposed "caring humanitarian global" opinions to himself for this interview ("I ain't nobody's ambassador of good will"). He looked awesomely tall, wearing an extraordinary long coat made from a multi-coloured horse blanket that looked like Young had won it from a Red Indian wineo in a card game. On anyone else, the effect would have looked disastrous, on Neil Young it looked . . . well exactly how you would expect Neil Young to look.

Overtly eccentric and very, very funny (when he talks his voice is exactly like the actor James Stewart's stoic US brogue) Young was in Paris during a trip that took him away from putting the final touches to a major Neil Young retrospective both musically and cinematically. Next year all Young's films including the one he directed with Dennis Hopper in 1978 entitled Human Highway and a Crazy Horse documentary a la Don't Look Back·called Muddy Track are being made available on video ("My cinematic vision", he told me "is pretty much all taken from Godard. He's my main influence, him and certain other cineme verite guys") whilst Young is now readying a 180 track compilation of his three decade career for C.D - Decades I, II and III to be made available on Warner Bros late next year.

"There'll be 50 or 60 unreleased songs. There's three whole unreleased albums to go on too - Homegrown, Big Room and Old Ways, the album Geffen sued me over. There's stuff from back in 1962 going on this collection, there's a bunch of stuff with CSNY - a whole aborted album called Human Highway, a-bunch of live Crazy Horse, some of my best stuff. Songs like Nothing Is Perfect, the Hostages song I did at Live Aid and Ordinary People, this 15 minute number I left off Eldorado. Both those songs dated too quickly. They were too topical. But they work in a retrospective like this.

There's also, of course, his new album with Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory, recorded at Young's ranch in just a few weeks and said to contain some of his best work since the first Crazy Horse album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. He's even talking about writing a book and "maybe some painting too" this decade. Neil Young is clearly back and open for business. Just don't expect him to stay in the same place too long.

Young is hunched in the semi-darkness of an 'intimately' lit Paris hotel bar as he informs me somewhat tetchily of his distaste for the subject of 'coming back'... "Listen", he states firmly, "I didn't go away! I just did other things. But I didn't go away, O.K! I'm not like some 6O's band coming back to take advantage of some wave of bullshit nostalgia.

"My whole career is based on systematic destruction. See, that's what keeps me alive. You destroy what you did before and you're free to carry on "...He starts to laugh now, in that weird ironic croak of his. "And now . . . Now I'm just fine!"

"All, I'm saying is ... All these reviewers writing stuff about my comeback ... I don't have to come back 'cos I've never been gone! They write stuff like 'Oh, this year Neil Young's O.K. again'. I don't need them to tell me if I'm O.K. or not. As far as I'm concemed,I've always been O.K."

"I just can't associate with anyone or anything involved in a comeback right now. Well, sure, I can associate with Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. Both their recent albums are great. But with us three, you've got to understand - it's a big time in our lives right now. We've come through, we've survived intact and we're still creatively focussed."

"But I can't - and I won't - relate myself to the Who or the Stones or the Jefferson Airplane. Not in the 90's! No way. And I used to love all those bands, particularly the Stones. Only somewhere along the line they lost it for me. And then what happened in 1989 with those mega-tours - that is not what I love. That was nothing more than a remembrance, a swansong."

"The music the Stones and Who play now has got nothing whatsoever to do with rock'n'roll. Spiritually it's all Perry Como".

Try making sense of Neil Young's career in the 80's - without aid of special knowledge regarding the man's personal circumstances - and you'll soon be throwing up your hands in despair. In the 70's too he'd been hard to pin down, jumping from country rock noodlings to acoustic angst to deranged electric guitar blow-outs often all within the space of the same record. Yet a peculiar dark, ironic vision connected the often disparate, musically primitive likes of the ultra-paranoid On The Beach (74), the drunken wake of Tonight's The Night (75), the ragged but radiant Zuma (also 75) reaching through to the end of the decade with the incendiary Rust Never Sleeps (79).

That's four great albums in one decade - three more than Dylan achieved during the same time- frame, for example - and as a result Young got to be feted as "artist of the 70's" by credible publications like The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. The creative roll he'd been on however was brutally shattered when Young and his new wife Pegi gave birth in 1979 to a son, Ben, who turned on to be a spastic, quadraplegic, nonoral child. His other son by a different marriage, Zeke, also suffers from cerebral palsy.

"It was too big a picture", Young reminisced to a journalist from The Village Voice. "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.

"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.

"So I made up my mind I was gonna take care of Pegi, take care of the kids. We were gonna go on, we weren't gonna be selfish and I wasn't going to hurt. I closed myself down so much that I was making it, doing 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."

Young's domestic upheavals in the 80's seeped into his music, throwing his music a curve it never got to bounce back from until the very end of the decade. Many of the songs on the unspectacular Hawks And Doves are almost private assertions regarding enlarged family responsibility ("Staying power through thick and thin" - Staying Power - "We don't back down from no trouble. We do get up in the morning"- Coastline). The dizzyingly brash and repetitive re-ac-tor was conceived to accompany a gruelling therapy program he commited his child to undertaking ("The program is driving, implacable, repetitive" he was quoted as saying at the time. "And so is re-ac-tor.")

re-ac-tor's failure in the marketplace compelled him to stomp off Reprise Records, where he'd been since his first LP in '69, and to sign instead with the Geffen label. This only precipitated further nightmares for Young. His first album for the label - Trans - made no sense to anyone. Apart from Young that is, who'd fashioned an unintelligible sci-fi rock opera about computers, directly inspired by his own son's inability to communicate ("Trans is about communication, about not getting through. And that's what my son is. You gotta realise - you can't understand the words on Trans and I can't understand my son's words. So feel that!").

After that Young just seemed to get weirder and weirder for a time. A subsequent foray in country music was shunned by Geffen who wanted more rock'n'roll. So Young quite vindictively gave the label Everybody's Rockin: a make-weight and generally pointless 50's rockabilly pastiche session, before returning to the country field and inhabiting a Reagan supporting 'good ole boy' cartoon of a persona that would finally cause Geffen to slap him with a three million dollar lawsuit for continuing to make "unrepresentative" music.

An album of crusty mainstream Nashville country, Old Ways, duly appeared however and this coincided with Young - now in his 40's - doing a number of interviews in which, betwixt voicing a disturbingly pro-Reagan bias, he stated that playing full-tilt rock'n'roll was pretty much all a thing of the past for him now ("Rock'n'roll is like a drug . . . I don't want to do it all the time 'cos it'll kill me.")

However these sentiments didn't hinder him from next recording a loud electric rock album Landing On Water- which featured several 'promising' songs left still-born by ill-concieved arrangements and production. Sensing this, Young reunited with good old Crazy Horse and a passable album in his 70's vein, Life, resulted from the collaboration.

Young celebrated the end of his fractitous Geffen tenure by touring extensively with Crazy Horse whilst at the same time filming a documentary of the event. The tour was frustrating for Young however - Crazy Horse bass-player Billy Talbot was suffering from a drinking problem and as Young would later claim, "I would do the song, lay it out and they wouldn't be able to remember the arrangement ... There's gotta be a memory retention problem."

Consequently there was considerable ugly friction spilling over into the documentary footage which Young edited together, entitling the results Muddy Track. Three years after it's completion it has yet to be shown.

Uglier still was the friction Young next has to face after committing himself to a second album as Crosby Stills Nash And Young. It had started with a promise he'd made during a 1984 radio interview, where he'd vowed to record again with Crosby, Stills and Nash if David Crosby succeeded in conquering his now fabled addiction to free-base cocaine. Three years later Crosby had achieved just that and Young was left with no alternative but to deliver on his word. Only the addiction that almost destroyed Crosby had now turned its grip on Stephen Stills.

By the end of the sessions - which took place in Young's own ranch house studio - Stills was unnerving everybody with his deranged mush-mouthed behaviour. Guns and free-base equipment were often visible around him but what was even more disturbing was his deluded insistence about having served in Vietnam when everybody around him had to gently keep reminding him that he'd in fact playing in the Buffalo Springfield at the time he was claiming to have been on special manoeuvres, killing 'gooks'.

It says a lot for Young that he refuses to get drawn into putting down or talking out of school on his former colleagues. "It only lasted a while", Young told a French TV interviewer. "Then it was over. We made a record... but I've gone so far, I've gone all over the place and they're still doing what they've always done. Coming back together wasn't as easy as I thought it might be."

The question of a Buffalo Springfield reunion was then broached (Young admitted two years ago that the five original members would sometimes get together for informed playing sessions at each other's houses.) "I just can't see it", he replied. "I mean, what would be the point? Buffalo Springfield are all part of the past now. If we reformed we'd be like a statue or something. A monument with pigeons shitting on our heads (laughs to himself). And that just wouldn't be right."

Wasn't this all because of Stephen Stills being a shadow of his former self?, a persistent questioner finally managed to get out.

Young looked at him evenly. He still wasn't going to be drawn into anything, you could tell. "Well, I'm a shadow of my former self'', he replied smoothly. "I know it. But there's nothing I can do about it. And anyway", he added, "I kind of like it that way.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that for the last year and a half Young has been anything but a shadow of his former self.

A return to Reprise in 1988 sired another of Young's genre excursions, this time as a stetson-hatted Jimmy Reed styled blues wailer and guitarist fronting the Bluenotes, a tough R'n'B collective. The album's title track This Note's For You accompanied by a Julian Temple video clip, voiced disgust at musicians selling out to advertising corporations and the ensuing controversy served to make Young seem oddly contemporary and meaningful again to the MTV generation (Young now shakes his head in disbelief that "such a dumb little song" should have sparked off such heated debate).

But it was Eldorado, a 5 track CD released only in Japan, Australia and New Zealand with a 5,000 limit to the pressing, that marked Young's true return from the wild blue yonder of self-defeating genre workouts and numbed emotions.

"Oh, you're one of my 'abrasive music' fans", Neil Young remarks when I query him about the record. "Well I got no problem with that. I made Eldorado just for people like you. But see, 'abrasiveness' wasn't totally where I was at in 1989. I wanted Freedom to be a 'wider and deeper' ... uh... 'kinder and gentler' kind of album" (starts laughing).

Don't you think though that you've always done your greatest work with Crazy Horse?

"Right now, here, this minute I'd probably agree with you, yeah! I love to do that kind of music. That's the most natural thing for me, playing with Crazy Horse. But it's not everything and right now it's not enough. Plus I can only play the way I play with Crazy Horse occasionally these days.

"You'll like this film I made that's called Muddy Tracks. That one's a documentary of me and Crazy Horse on the road two or three years ago. There's a sequence where I filmed all the interviewers who came to interview me. Then I picked the most ridiculous questions. And didn't answer them."

You 've always entertained a special antipathy for journalists and their work·. Hasn 't this got a lot to do with your father being a journalist?

"Maybe. I saw the 'inside' of the hard journalism business when he'd take me to the office when I was just a kid. I saw how a story could be 'manipulated'. I never trusted it then and I don't trust it now.I never believed 'em when they said I'd made a bad album. Why should I believe 'em when they say I've made a good one?"

You've been been quoted as saying you found The Bridge, the recent tribute album "threatening". Why?

"Well I made that statement before I'd actually heard the record. I love that record now. Before, I saw it as all these groups saying 'O.K. Uncle Neil, time for that rocking chair'. I love all those guys on the record - The Pixies, Sonic Youth and that Nick Cave guy in particular. When I heard it, it really touched me.

I interviewed Roy Orbison just before his death and he told me you'd approached him once and told him that after seeing a gig in Winnipeg when you were a teenager you'd decided to become a Professional musician. Is that true?

"Oh absolutely yeah! This was years ago - '62 maybe. I saw him in Winnipeg, saw him all over the place that year. Got to talk to him once outside a gig. He was coming out of his motor-home with his backing band the Candymen. That had a profound effect on my life. I always loved Roy. I looked up to the way he was, admired the way he handled himself. That aloofness he had influenced me profoundly. It was the way he carried himself, y'know, with this benign dignity... His music was always more important than the media. It wasn't a fashion statement. It wasn't about being in the right place at the right time making the right moves. That didn't matter to Roy. Just like it doesn't matter to me.

"Anyway I've always put a piece of Roy Orbison on every album I've made. His influence is on so many of my songs... I even had his photograph on the sleeve of Tonight's The Night for no reason, really. Just recognizing his presence. There's a big Orbison tribute song on Eldorado called Don't Cry. That's totally me under the Roy Orbison... spell. When I wrote it and recorded it I was thinking 'Roy Orbison meets trash metal' ( laughs). Seriously."

There's one passage in the book Neil And Me - that your father Scott Young wrote about you that I found highly revealing of the way you work. Apparently Cortez The Killer which is probably...

"Some of my best guitar playing ever, yeah!" he interrupts

... Was being recorded and you had several other verses written and you were playing this one perfect take when...

". . .When there was a power-cut in the recording studio, yeah. They missed a whole verse, a whole section! You can hear the splice on the recording where we stop and start again. It's a messy edit. But yeah that's true . . . incredible!"

What I'm asking is was the whole effect of that song its pacing, the lyric flow, everything - just an accident based around that powerfailure?

"Yeah it was a total accident. But that's how I see my best art, as one magical accident after another. That's what is so incredible. You see, with lyrics I try not to edit anything. I just let it all come through. I actually believe that if it was meant to be written down in the first place, it has a place there. I only ever edit at all after I've actually performed a song live. And I like to record 'em fast. Record 'em quickly and move on to the next batch."

There's a famous Miles Davis quote 'I've got to change, it's like a c urse ". Like Davis you've changed groups, styles, idioms relentlessly often without any apparent regard for commercial potential. Isn't this thirst for change, as you grow older, starting to become a curse for you too?

"I don't see it as a curse... It's just part of my make-up. It's the structure. Without change, the whole thing will just fall apart. I'm not just talking about rock'n'roll here, I'm talking about my life. I have to keep moving somewhere.

It's a cliche now 'In the 80's the whole context of rock changed and lessened dramatically.' But that doesn't mean it's not true...

"Well the context changed because of MTV and the rock video. That's really it. Because by MTV trying to visualise the music they automatically stripped it of most of its natural mystery and depth. Before rock video, when people where confronted with the music, they had to rely on their own natural ability to utilise their imagination.... If they weren't also opting for some kind of state of enhancement via some drug or other."

"Today in America for better or worse rock'n'roll is Guns'N'Roses. People call them evil but they're just kids. At least they were. You've got to remember it's the kids that made Guns'N'Roses what they are, not Guns'N'Roses making the kids what they are today.

I interviewed their guitarist Izzy Stradlin some months ago and he kept telling me America was poised on some kind of drug war. Many of the lyrics on Freedom portray the streets of your country as a drug war-zone...

"I think he's probably right, yeah. I think it's happening already. I mean, the lyrics to Rockin' In The Free World are just a description of events going on everyday in America. Sure, I'm concerned for my children particularly my eldest son. And he's a Guns'N'Roses fan! He has to face "drugs" everyday in the school yard, drugs that are way stronger than anything I got offered in most of my years as a professional musician...

"But I've got to say right here, I think "drugs" from my experience are beatable. Drugs are transitory. The environment's a whole different issue. We've simply got to come to terms with the fact that we've done damage to this world which we may not be able to undo. We've got to try and save this planet. That's it for me. I mean, the chances are anyway it's gonna blow up on us all soon enough. I mean, compared to that reality, "drugs" are really... just drugs.

Four years ago you gave a couple of interviews to promote your country album Old Ways and stated then you were finished with playing rock'n'roll because you felt the music demanded too much of you that it was, by its very nature, a totally destructive drug-fuelled music...

"But I am a naturally very destructive person. As a guitar player... That's where you get to hear how destructive I really am in my life. Man, if you think of guitar playing in terms of 'boxing' O.K... well let's just say I'm not the kind of guitarist you'd want to play against" (laughs).

"Rock'n'roll is a drug-fuelled music... maybe I said it but there's a lot of different drugs. And a drug doesn't have to necessarily be a chemical substance so much as a metaphor for something that stimulates you, that charges you up. For me now, physical training is like a drug. I do that now to get 'charged up'. It works too... mostly.

"At the same time, drugs as chemical substances, I still find very threatening. I've had a thing for drugs but I don't think it's scarred me. I'm just scarred by life. Nothing in particular. No more scarred than anyone else. Only other people often don't let themselves know how damaged they are, like I do and deal with it."

Your ill-fated, often litigious 80's years with Geffen Records, was it a personal thing, David Geffen being against you?

"I think it was, yeah. We went through a lot of changes when he managed Crosby Stills Nash and Young and when he signed me in the 80's he didn't seem to comprehend how... uh, diverse my musical career could become. So he took it personally when I handed him a straight country album or a rockabilly album. He thought I was making those albums to laugh at him, as a joke at his expense.

Many of your audience felt you were doing the same thing to them with at least a couple of those records...

"Yeah, I know. But it was no joke. None of those records was meant just as a joke. I was deadly serious about what I was doing 'cos I desperately needed to do something. But at the same time thru' most of the 80's I didn't want my most innermost feelings about life and everything to come out. Back then I had a lot of dark thoughts weighing on my mind tied in to experiences that happened in my immediate family.

"Things happened to me over those years I had no possible reason or way to expect or capacity to explain. And it took me a long time to get over it and come to terms with my life to date. For better or worse, Eldorado, Freedom and Ragged Glory are the result."

A constant theme in your songs is migration, people or things on the move...

"Yeah that's right. I even write 'em that way. I've written most of my best songs driving on a long journey scribbling lyrics on cigarette packets whilst steering."

Many of your characters are running away...

"Well so am I. It's all running away. I've been running all my life. Where I'm going... Who the fuck knows? But that's not the point."

The point is how long you can keep going.

"Absolutely. And right now there is no end. I mean, the only end is the big end OK? I can keep going for a long time..."


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