'Raw, Real And Truthful...': Primal Screams BOBBY GILLESPIE on Neil Young and Tonight's The Night
interview: Michael Bonner
When did you first hear Neil Young?
"When we started Primal Scream, we were really influenced by Love, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. When I first really got into Neil Young it was 1987, when Alan McGee took us all down to Wembley Arena to see him play. It was Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
"I always like Neil when he's got Crazy Horse behind him - it's the best, they're like the American Rolling Stones or something, they're dead funky and dirty, great rock'n'roll."
Do you remember when you first heard On The Beach and Tonight's The Night?
"I got them back then. I always liked 'Tonight's The Night', the song, and 'Tired Eyes', but the rest of the album was a bit of a puzzle to me. Recently, that and On The Beach have been the records I've been listening to the most, even before this interview came up. I've been listening to them non-stop for the last couple of months."
What appeals to you about them?
"I love the music, I totally fucking love the music! I love the feel of them, too, especially Tonight's The Night. It sounds absolutely fucking wiped out. The band sound drunk, but there's more to it than alcohol - they sound stoned and coked up. It's great the way it's almost slovenly. It's got the same kind of sleazy, rough, broken feel as Exile On Main Street. I like the subject matter of the songs, the way Neil Young was documenting the culture of the time, he was telling it like it was. It seems very truthful and naked, very emotional. It's almost as if you can feel the disgust in some of the songs. If you listen to the lyrics, you can hear that On The Beach is a very introspective record, which I like, but Tonight's The Night is him at his most descriptive, writing about the scene and the people of the time, in an incredibly truthful way. I think it's a fantastic record - it's very dark, but as much as he's got songs on there about the death of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, there's songs like 'Albuquerque' and 'New Mama', which are songs about escape. There's a sense of wanting to get away from everybody and everything that Neil was involved with. I can completely relate to the subject matter of the songs. I guess I just love it.
"I love the weariness of the album, the darkness, the cynicism of some of it. 'Lookout Joe' makes you shudder - that line, 'Lookout Joe, old times were good times,' you feel like 'Were they?' - I mean, the song's about scoring heroin. And the guitars are fantastic on it: they're so out of tune, almost violently so, and they're scraping and scratching, it's so dirty. No one makes a record that fucking raw these days; it's raw and real and truthful. It's a very emotional record. It just feels right for me to listen to. When I was younger, I couldn't understand it, but now I'm older I do.
"I like the sense of wanting to get away on some of the songs, of moving on, going onto something else. I guess that's what he's always been like - you can sense it if you've followed his career. But that album was like escaping a fucking lifestyle, certain people, a culture. It documents drug culture very well, that record. It ends in death and darkness. Some people just never come out of that darkness, and some people do. Some people are just stuck there and some people move on. It's a catharsis, I guess. It's not a celebration, he's taking stock, telling it like it is, saying, 'This is what went down, I was there, but now I'm getting out of it.' I think it's still as relevant today as it was in 1975, when it came out.
"People are still going through the same problems. I don't think the culture has changed that much in terms of rock'n'roll or drug culture, but this album doesn't glorify it, it's very descriptive. Just listen to it.
"As a unified album, it's better than On The Beach. I love the second side of On The Beach - 'Motion Pictures' and 'Ambulance Blues' are very soft, very beautiful. There's some great lines on it, like 'There's nothing like a friend to tell you when you're pissing in the wind,' and those references to Richard Nixon: 'I never knew a man could tell so many lies, he had a different story for every set of eyes, I don't know who it is he's talking to, but it sure ain't me and I hope it ain't you.' It's fucking fantastic.
"Another great track on the album is 'Revolution Blues', which he wrote about Charlie Manson. Apparently, Neil went out with one of the Manson girls, and he actually went to Mo Ostin, the head of Warner Brothers, and asked him to sign Charlie Manson. If you read Nick Kent's book, The Dark Stuff, Neil is quoted as saying that if Charlie had had a band as good as Dylan had when he recorded 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', he's have been a superstar. He also said, 'I knew these Hollywood people and I could kind of sympathize with Charlie.'
"You've got that now with those survivalists and the Militia and white supremacists with their compounds and their crazy fucking beliefs about Judgement Day and the righteousness of the white man. It's Manson, but it's been maximized a million times: 'I hear Laurel Canyon's full of famous stars / I hate them worse than lepers and I'll shot them in their cars' - but you know what? I kind of know what he means. I wouldn't mind seeing Hollywood stars murdered, it doesn't bother me [laughter]. I don't care, you know. What was it Dennis Hopper said about the Tates and the Polanskis? 'These people fell into bestiality and sadomasochism.' Me? I'm in the 'Tex' Watson fanclub..."
Do you think Tonight's The Night walks a thin line between rock verite and indulgence?
"Not at all, no. It's all real. He'd been there, seen those scenes, done those things. He'd been up on the hill with Bill. That song ['Lookout Joe'] is riddled with disgust. The whole culture is so diseased and drug riddled and venal and sick, and Neil knows it. But it's not without humour - there's a really black streak running through it. While Crosby, Stills and Nash were singing about the Woodstock generation and how they could change the world, Neil knew how fucked up it all was. He was almost weary about it, cynical and disgusted; totally self-aware. He was watching his friends dropping one by one. We know about Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, but how many other people died? Friends of friends, associates... some people just never get out of that hole. That's not to say those people who are fucked-up are bad, it's just where they are. That's why I like that record. It's seven years on for me for a lot of things that have happened to my band. I've seen things - I've seen some people take a bad roll of the dice, so I can relate to it."
How familiar were you with the story of Whitten?
"I know it. We've been in that position. We've had people in the band too smacked up to learn the songs, too smacked up to turn up to sessions, too smacked up to play the songs. You try your hardest, but you've got to keep working, and you have to make a decision about whether they can contribute to the band or not. It becomes impossible when you're setting off on a 22-week tour - America, Japan, and Britain - and one of the musicians hasn't learned any of the songs and he's nodding out you try and sack them, but it's difficult because you've got some emotional ties with them, but it gets to the point where you've got to cut them loose. If the guy's a musician and he can't play the fucking music, then he's no fucking use to you. So we've been in the position that Neil's been in, but luckily the guy in question is fine now. I can see how truthful Tonight's The Night is: I've been through that culture. When you've got a whole band of people, plus management, roadies, friends, everybody's addicted to drugs of some sort over a period of years. Some people get stuck in a hole, some get out. You're having a great time - because it is, at first - then people start dropping, one by one, and there's nothing you can do for them: they've got to do it for themselves.
"We had to sack someone because they were too far gone on the eve of a 22-week fucking tour, our fist tour in two years, and it was horrible but it had to be done. And that guy got worse after that - he ended up on the street - but he's OK now, he's a stronger person.
"I believe if you call it on, you've got to deal with it. You can't run away from it, or blame anyone else. That's the big thing about drug addicts - they're always trying to blame other people for taking drugs. But that's bullshit, you do drugs because you enjoy them. You don't do them because your mum won't speak to you if you do.
"The album captures the anger and the sadness of being in that scene - that's why I think it's a beautiful album. It's as confused and bitter and cynical and tired as you feel when you're involved in that. When you're coming out of it, you develop a feeling of cynicism, of distance, of emerging from the filth - a feeling of self-disgust as well as disgust with other people - and it captures that, too. The thing about that record is that his strength, his survival, informs it. You get the sense of what it's done to him and his friends, but he's strong enough to get out of it. That's the thing."
Do you think the emotional impact is greater on you for having been involved with drug culture?
"I definitely think so. I played 'Tired Eyes' to a friend a couple of weeks ago. He's been a long-term heroin addict, he'd never heard the song before - he's not even a particularly big Neil Young fan- and he said it was too close to home. That's why Neil Young is a great writer, because he can convey emotions so well, he's very descriptive with his words, and I think the emotion with which he plays - especially with Crazy Horse - is married well to the feeling of the lyric. He writes great rock'n'roll songs, songs about experience. Tonight's The Night couldn't have been written unless Neil Young had lived that life."
But this creates a difficult moral situation - it's a great album, but it only came about because someone died.
"I know what you're saying, but I don't think that was Neil Young's fault. It was Danny Whitten who chose to become a heroin addict, no one made him, least of all Neil Young. It cost two lives, but there was more than that at stake. There were a lot of casualties: long-term addicts, people gone insane, long-term psychological damage. I can see the same thing happening in our culture. Not many people write songs that you can relate to these days, anyway.
"I don't think you can blame Neil for Whitten's death. He gave him the money for his plane fare home, but if you give a junkie money they're going to spend it on drugs. There's that line in the Nirvana song, 'Pennyroyal Tea', where Cobain sings: 'I'm a liar, I'm a thief'. What's the one thing everyone says about junkies? They're liars and thieves. Cobain was another one who was living in that culture, describing it, but unfortunately it got too much for him. I love Cobain; the rawness of his songs is astonishing. The way he turns that Louvin Brothers song, 'In The Pines', into a junkie song: 'I'll shiver the whole night through,' it's a cold turkey song.
"That was probably why Young liked him so much; he saw something familiar in Cobain. Cobain was as great a songwriter as Young."
Are these your favourite Neil Young albums?
"I think Tonight's The Night and Zuma are my favourites. I do like On The Beach: it's a lighter album, 'See The Sky About To Rain', 'For The Turnstiles'. The second side, even though it's very introspective. 'On The Beach' is a beautiful song: 'The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away', and on 'Motion Pictures': 'I'm deep inside myself but I'll get out somehow.' I think that's beautiful, incredible. I put that on when I'm maybe feeling down, and it makes me feel great. maybe it matches the mood I'm in. It's nice to hear music like that, that you can connect with. The weird thing is that On The Beach has never been issued on CD. It's more of a soul album, more personal, while Tonight's The Night is more externalized. One deals with the man, the other with the scene. 'I went to the radio interview, sat alone at the microphone,' it's superstar blues, isn't it? 'I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day,' it's rock star blues - it's like that, you know?
"Zuma's great: raw, ragged rock'n'roll, it's on the edge of falling apart, funky as fuck. They're great songs, especially 'Barstool Blues'. Those three as complete albums are my favourites - On The Beach, Tonight's The Night and Zuma. But I just love Neil Young, I love his songs. I think it's important to say that Neil with Crazy Horse is a great combination, because I don't think that Neil with any other band is as good. I'm not very keen on After The Goldrush and Harvest - I love 'Heart Of Gold', it's a great song, but Tonight's The Night and Zuma are incredible.
"I saw Neil with Crazy Horse when they were doing a video in LA in 1990. It was for 'Country Home', off Ragged Glory. It was in the backyard of a Mexican restaurant, and I was standing there with this girl, Darcy, from Warner Brothers watching them. They were miming the songs, but they had the guitars plugged in and the amps were on. Billy Talbot came over and I said: 'Can you do me a favour? Can you play "Barstool Blues" for me?' And Billy goes 'I'd love to do it, man, but we've got to do this video,' and he started singing: 'If I could hold on to just one thought for long enough to know why my mind is moving so fast,' and we're both face to face shouting the lyrics at each other. It was fucking great. But there were 10 people in front of the stage and what I really should have done was gone up to Neil and asked him to play it. I reckon he would have done it, too, but I fucked up - I could have had Neil Young and Crazy Horse play 'Barstool Blues' just for me!"
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