Written In My Soul: Rock's Great Songwriters Talk About Creating Their Music: Neil Young
by Bill Flanagan
Contemporary Books Inc., Chicago: 1986
His whole career is in some measure a triumph of belief and will over technical restrictions. Neil Young's voice is a limited instrument - in his early bands he rarely sang - yet he has turned it into a compelling and instantly recognizable asset. His guitar playing lacks control and sophistication - he often hits bad notes - yet his extended solos can be electrifying, filled with passion and aggression and joy.
Neil Young is rock's honest man, able to resist any temptation except the temptation to martyrdom. When the Buffalo Springfield was approaching the commercial major leagues in the mid-sixties, Young quit the group to record aural collages such as "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow" (both of which were later released on 'Buffalo Springfield Again'), "Here We Are in the Years" and "I've Loved Her So Long" (which surfaced on his first solo LP, Neil Young). As quickly as he was acclaimed for those carefully constructed tracks, he abandoned that technique to record live-in-the-studio guitar rave-ups such as "Cinnamon Girl" and "Down by the River" (on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere). These did even better than their predecessors. Neil wanted to be a hobo but everything he touched turned to gold. He moved on to acoustic ballads sung in a cracking, not-quite-falsetto and the resulting album, After the Goldrush, brought him rock stardom of great proportions. He joined Crosby, Stills and Nash for one album and they became one of the hottest bands in the world. He headed down to Nashville to record a half-country album called Harvest, and that went straight to number one. Everything the guy did made him bigger than before. And that made Neil Young nervous. After all, how do you achieve martyrdom if you can't get the crowds to quit cheering and bowing before you?
The enormous commercial success he achieved with often lonely and obscure work seemed to confuse Young to no end. He was determined to shake off any taint of the sellout. So he released a raw live album of all new songs called Time Fades Away. Young later wrote that that after his solo smash "Heart of Gold" deposited him in the middle of the road, he headed for the ditch, "A rougher ride, but you meet more interesting people."
Thus began Neil Young's dark period, which was also his richest. On the Beach swelled with 1973 paranoia. It was an album filled with images of Watergate and Charles Manson and Young's own desire to find an oasis from the pressures inside and outside himself. Tonight's the Night was a drunken wake, full of pain and off-key screeching, for two friends who died from heroin abuse. Dawn started to break with Zuma, a folk-rock album that conceded at least the hope for redemption through love.
In following his muse through such a maze, Young let his Top Forty status slip, but also pulled himself away from dependence on pop music trends. When the craze for sensitive folkies passed, Young's career was unthreatened. He had set himself up as a loner and movements in the greater world of the rock industry had little effect on him. In 1978 he returned to the Nashville melodicism of Comes a Time, only to quickly turn and embrace punk rock with Rust Never Sleeps.
He's a goddamn wild man is what he is.
What is constant in so varied a body of work? Well, there are those technical limits on Young's musical range - his high, compelling voice and jagged guitar playing bestowed on his different styles at least a superficial consistency. More important, Young's vision remained remarkably steady through all of his shifts. He wrote in the voice of characters independent by nature and prone to constant migration; they might have been truck drivers or Indians or salmon, but they were always moving. They were at ease with nature, and a little paranoid in urban environs. They mated loyally, but not for life.
Politically the Canadian-born Young is a Libertarian with a wide streak of laissez-faire. He wants the government to leave him alone, and drifts from left to right depending on which side is butting into his business. Young wrote and sang "Ohio" (with Crosby, Stills and Nash) in the wake of the Kent State shootings, and created a radical anthem with his opening salvo, "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We're finally on our own." Yet he found that consistent with support for Ronald Reagan, whom he rather eloquently defended as a decent man trying to save a great country from it's own worst impulses.
Even Young's most devoted fans were confused by the range and rapidity of his stylistic turnabouts in the eighties. He cut an album of screaming electric guitar solos (RE-AC-TOR) followed by an album of computer music (Trans) on which his vocals were synthesized until they no longer sounded human. Next came Everybody's Rockin', a camp LP of rockabilly half-filled with covers of other people's songs. That drove Young's record label to such distraction that they sued him for deliberately making uncommercial records, a charge dropped when it became clear that the songwriter's whole career established the precedent for such financial suicide.
When we met in Nashville in late 1985, Young had just finished Old Ways, a country and western record, and was already hatching plans for Landing On Water, a sleek hard-rock LP. His fans were dizzy from all the stylistic shifts, his old compatriots were appalled by his support of Reagan, his record company - faced with another switch in Young's direction - was contemplating hari-kari. No one knew what to expect from him next. Neil Young was happy.
BF: In what circumstances do you write?
NY: I write most of these songs in vehicles, without instruments, and later play along on an instrument.
BF: Name a song you wrote when you were drunk.
NY: "Bar Stool Blues" (Zuma). That's a good one. I just haven't been drunk enough lately.
BF: I would guess that "Albuquerque" (Tonight's the Night), "Thrasher" (Rust Never Sleeps), and "Roll Another Number" (Tonight's the Night) were written while driving.
NY: Yeah, they were written on the road. I scribble them on anything that's around. Newspapers are a big favorite.
BF: How about "Bound for Glory" (Old Ways)?
NY: I wrote that one on a little word processor in the back of my bus while I was rolling. I wrote it with a couple of beers and a little smoke. The bus was rolling down the road and I typed it out and I knew the melody in my head already. That's my favorite one on the Old Ways album.
BF: Some listeners have been confused by the drastic changes of direction in your last four albums. In the seventies your changes seemed natural, and their effects afterthoughts. In the eighties there's been a sense of forcing change.
NY: I think that on my last four albums the change has been kind of like a moth hanging on a lightbulb, this fast flitting from one to another. Not more changes, but more extreme change. There wasn't much relief - the change was obvious, then bang! - over there. Well, that's not so much somebody trying to change consciously as it is somebody who doesn't know where to go. If you don't know where to go and you're aggressive, you go a lot of places to see what's happening. You try things and you get lost in different trips. Rather than a conscious effort to do different things every time, maybe it's just a sign that I was lost and I was searching for new directions, wondering about my own relevance and the continuance of my work; all of the things that one would think about when they've been doing something as long as I have. Where do I fit in? That's where a lot of this country thing comes from. How can I do everything I love to do and keep going?
Now I feel like it doesn't matter, I just want to do whatever I feel like. If I want to do two kinds of music, three kinds of music, or a whole blend of different kinds of music all at once, then that's fine. I talked myself into only doing certain things at one time, so I can just as easily talk myself out of it. I'm just very extreme.
BF: Yet just before you started these experiments you had success with Comes a Time and Rust Never Sleeps. After Rust your stock seemed real high; the Village Voice named you rock artist of the decade and it seemed as if the last resisters were converted. It was a strange time to start having self-doubts.
NY: Well, you know, last time I started doing that was after I had Harvest. After I have a big peak it seems like I don't want to be there anymore. It's like, "Get out of there. Don't do that again." It's too dangerous. It's like looking the devil in the eye. Sure, you can do this over and over for a while and that would be an easy way out. Financially, I'd have everything I wanted because the idea, business-wise, is to go with a winner. But even more than money and everything, I just hate being labeled. I hate to be stuck in one thing. I just don't want to be anything for very long. I don't know why. I just want to keep moving, keep running, play my guitar. I didn't want to play electric guitar last year. I hardly played it. Didn't do "Powderfinger" (Rust Never Sleeps) in the set.
BF: What was the radio reaction to "Payola Blues" (Everybody's Rockin')? Did you get any flak from that?
NY: Yeah. I guess there was a little flak, it was kind of an embarrassment to some people. But it was all in good fun. That's the way it is anyway, everybody knows that. It's all about money, the whole thing. Anybody who thinks it isn't is kidding themselves and everybody else. Because what goes on in parking lots is nobody's business but those people who are there, and believe me they're out there. This is still America. I know what payola is and there are different kinds of payola; there is payola where the artist puts his money into it, and there is payola where the record company puts their money into it.
BF: Well they've got it pretty well laundered down. The record company can give an independent promo man a whole lot of money and look the other way.
NY: Right. That's how much it costs. That's the way it works. Everybody knows that. It's no secret, and it's part of the mechanism of things. That's how Mr. Big stays Mr. Big. That's why the little guy with the independent label has got to have something GREAT to break through to where the people will say, "I want to hear that record! I don't care whether they pay you." They call up the radio station and say, "Play that thing or I'm going to listen to somebody else." That's the kind of music you need to make a break through that. Then after they do a couple of those and everybody loves them, they have one come out that's not quite as good as the first two. So then they grease they're way in because they've got power. The radio stations will pay to get the tapes early. So it's just supply and demand, cause and effect and all that shit workin' at once. The American way, by golly.
BF: Speaking of the American way, I think Hawks and Doves came out on the day that Ronald Reagan was elected, and side two was a sort of suite sung from a working-class, probably southern, perspective. To what degree is that voice your own, and to what degree is it a character?
NY: I walk a fine line, because there is a character in there but he reflects a lot of the ways that I have felt. It's not really like me but it is. I can hide behind it. I can say things through somebody else that I couldn't say myself.
BF: One verse goes, "In history we painted pictures grim / The devil knows we might feel that way again / The big wind blows so the tall grass bends / But for you, don't push too hard my friend." I think that perfectly captures a certain American attitude. But at the same time, I'd be surprised if that were your attitude.
NY: Well, I felt that way when I was thinking about the hostages in Iran. "Just push us one more fuckin' step." I wish Carter had...I'm glad that nobody got killed; that's number one. I just wish we didn't have to sit there and take it for so long. I was on the edge there.
BF: You supported Reagan?
NY: Against Mondale? Yeah. And definitely against Carter. I don't even have a vote. I'm a Canadian. I can come down here and say anything I want, I guess, as long as I pay my taxes. But I do believe Reagan's a good president and that he's a good man. And I think he's a good leader. I don't agree with everything that he does. But I think he's trying to wake America up to the fact that we don't have unlimited money. We cannot just go on getting further and further in debt. And he thinks that the military's gone down. The way I see what he's doing I'm behind it. I'm not behind the way it's happening everywhere, but I know that something has to be done and he's taken responsibility for trying something. Which is more than anybody else did.
BF: In the days of "Ohio" and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, people associated you with a leftist philosophy. Were people off the mark in assigning those beliefs to you fifteen years ago?
NY: No, I'd do the same thing today. Things that I was against then are the same things I'm against now. I don't see Reagan as Nixon. I think they're two different men. Really different! People compare the two just because they're Republican leaders and I don't think there is any comparison. I never would have voted for Nixon, who is our most popular president worldwide. Everybody can't believe what we did to Nixon.
BF: You showed a great deal of sympathy for Nixon in "Campaigner" (Decade), at a time when everybody was kicking him.
NY: Oh yeah, that's the human side. No matter how bad his ideals were or how he mishandled the trust of the country, he is still a human being.
BF: Do you feel like a citizen of the United States?
NY: Yeah. I'm proud to be living in the United States. I'm proud of what this country is doing. Not every nuance, everything isn't right, but I am behind it. I've been all over the world and I feel at home here. I like to move all around the whole continent. That's my place. I don't like to be political. I'm just one person, I don't want to push my political views on everybody. It carries more weight than it should. I don't know Ronald Reagan, but I have this feeling about him that this is a personal thing. It'll be taken to be so much bigger than it should be if it's written, because people glom onto it and make it huge, and it's not a big thing. I already mentioned it to one reporter. He asked the wrong kind of questions and I was in a bad mood. He just attacked Reagan in a matter-of-fact way. And I went on a tirade at the guy for about five minutes. It pisses me off to have anybody ALWAYS attacking, always putting down the leaders. My brother does the same thing. He doesn't have one good thing to say about one government leader anywhere. I'm tired of that. To me that's just trendy discussion. There must be some good in some of these people somewhere. They represent us in the world. We voted for them. We made them what they are. We did it. Just because a guy might be a senator or governor doesn't necessarily mean that he's an insensitive asshole. I just can't say that I hate Reagan. I'm proud of the way he's handled himself. I don't agree with everything he's done, but I'm proud of him as a leader of our country.
BF: : "Revolution Blues" (On the Beach) was a great portrait of the distance between being a rock star, a supposed counter-culture leader, and a revolutionary with dreams of "dune buggies coming down the mountains." What inspired that?
NY: Living in L.A. Knowing Manson.
BF: How did you know Manson?
NY: I met him through Dennis Wilson. He wanted to make records. He wanted me to introduce him to Mo Ostin at Reprise. He had this kind of music that no one was doing. He would sit down with the guitar and start playing and make up stuff, different every time, it just kept comin' out, comin' out, comin' out. Then he would stop and you would never hear that one again.
Musically I thought he was very unique. I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet. It was always coming out. He had a lot of girls around at the time and I thought, "Well, this guy has a lot of girlfriends." He was very intense. I met him two or three times.
BF: This is a weird kind of speculation but I've got to ask: Do you think if the guy had gotten an outlet he would have been a worthwhile artist?
NY: I think he was a worthwhile artist anyway. I don't know why he did what he did. But I think he was very frustrated in not being able to get it - and he blamed somebody. It had to do with Terry Melcher, who was a producer of records at that time. He wanted very much to make a record. And he really was unique.
BF: And thank goodness.
NY: But I don't know what happened. I don't know what they got into. I remember there was a lot of energy whenever he was around. And he was different. You can tell he's different. All you have to do is look at him. Once you've seen him you can never forget him. I'll tell you that. Something about him that's...I can't forget it. I don't know what you would call it, but I wouldn't want to call it anything in an interview. I would just like to forget about it.
BF: That album - On The Beach - is one of my favorites. But it seems so tied to the early seventies, references to Watergate, Patty Hearst, Manson, that I wonder if a kid hearing it for the first time today would be able to relate to it.
NY: I don't think so. That record wouldn't have been as successful at any other time. The side with "Ambulance Blues" is interesting in a musical sense. It's very down. There's quite a mood to that record.
BF: Even your voice was lower. Were you down at the time, or was that just a mood you wanted to convey?
NY: I think it was a lot of honey slides. Do you know what honey slides are? Marijuana and honey fried on a plate. Close you right down, make your voice lower.
BF: "Thrasher" described the point where old friends become dead weight and have to be left behind. I figured it was about Crosby, Stills and Nash.
NY: Yeah. Parts of it were. Just dead weight. Well, at that point I felt like it was kind of dead weight for me. Not for them. For me. I could go somewhere and they couldn't go there. I wasn't going to pull them along, they were doing fine without me. It might have come off a little more harsh than I meant it, but once I write I can't say, "Oh, I'm going to hurt someone's feelings." Poetically and on feeling it made good sense to me and it came right out. I think I'd be doing a disservice to change it based on what I think a reaction would be. I try not to do that.
BF: Is there anything you wanted to write about and haven't been able to?
NY: No. Writing is deceptive because you're always writing about things that you don't want anybody to know about. And you hide them in your words. So you get to say it but nobody gets to nail you for it. And that's the stream that goes through my music. Just glimmers of some things here and there that might give you some kind of feeling. So I get those things out of the way. That's one of the great things about music. It's got a lot of depth to it and maybe that's what video is taking a little bite out of.
I'm not against video - I'm really video oriented; but I just don't like the way it's being used in a lot of ways. Maybe there could be a whole new way of doing videos that's not designed to sell a record. Maybe it doesn't have to be like a commercial. Where do you draw the line? You've got guys making Pepsi commercials, then the same guy goes across and does the video with the same guy who is in the Pepsi commercial! What's the difference? What are you selling? Somebody comes up with a great song, you're listening away, and then you're watching TV and you hear the same fuckin' song in a commercial! You say, "Oh those assholes, man, they sold me down the river. There I was believing this song and now they say it's NOT really what I was dreaming it was. It's some product!" I say if you're going to give a song to a commercial, then don't give it to the people. That's abusive. Because if you're making the kind of music I like, you're getting right into people's soul, and the biggest insult you could ever give them is to get inside their souls and move them and then have them discover when they're watching TV that what they were thinking about in this song is not really it, that it's really this PRODUCT. It bothers me. I don't want to burst any bubbles. I'd rather leave it open for people's imaginations, to dream along.
BF: A lot of your songs hint at reincarnation. "Cortez the Killer" (Zuma) suddenly jumps into the past and into the first person when you sing, "I know she's living there, and she loves me to this day." The same sense of past comes up in "Like an Inca" (Trans) and in many of your other songs. Do you believe in reincarnation?
NY: Sometimes when I'm writing a song I can feel there's other things in me that are not me. That's why I hesitate to edit my songs. If it's something I have to think about and contrive, work at, it's usually not that good. My best work just comes through me. A lot of times what comes through to me is coming from somewhere else. That's why I believe in reincarnation. Not in the conventional way; I think we're all vehicles for each other. You hide your subconscious, but your subconscious is picking up things from around the other side of the planet, maybe something that happened to you in another lifetime, or maybe something happening to someone else right now, and you're tuned into it for some reason. Your conscious mind says, "That's a bunch of bullshit, now we're in this restaurant and you want a drink, or are you going to sit there and stare out the window?" So you have this one side of your mind keeping down the other communication, the thing that's really tuned into what's going on. But if you open up that back part of your mind and find yourself in the right set of circumstances, you might be able to come out with something that didn't come from you.
BF: Your songs about going to outer space are tied up with songs about ecology.
NY: Well, that's preservation of nature, too. Maybe that's what we're supposed to do. Pollen spreads like dust in the air. Maybe that's what we're supposed to be. We're smart, so technologically we could build ourselves seeds, take off, and plant ourselves again. I think machines are as natural as anything else. All the little rocket ships moving through space would be as natural as pollen through the air. Maybe that's why I have this bus that looks so far out. I figure if they come down from the sky they might see this bus and say, "Well who the hell is in there? This guy is obviously different."
BF: Sex and sin seem tied up in your songs. When you mention sex - in "Saddle Up the Palomino" (American Stars 'n Bars), "Love in Mind" (Time Fades Away), "Cowgirl in the Sand" (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) - it's usually with a sense of guilt.
NY: I don't know. It keeps coming back, though, in all these songs...I think sex is an avenue I haven't explored deeply enough in my music. Maybe it is constant learning. Somehow it's made me feel I don't know enough about it to throw it around. "The Bridge" (Time Fades Away) really is like first discovery: "A river on your skin." "I Believe in You" (After the Goldrush) is another one.
BF: Do you have songs that are too personal to sing to an audience?
NY: Well, some songs are just too hard to do live. Like "Will to Love" (American Stars 'n Bars), I don't know how I could ever do it. I just would feel too open, too wide open. You don't sing all that stuff on TV.
BF: "Will to Love" is an amazing song. You describe a fish struggling upstream. Randy Newman's praised your nature writing. You've written from the perspective of the animals in "Thrasher," enough birds to fill an aviary. Can you really immerse yourself so completely in the creative process that you feel your fins swimming upstream?
NY: Yeah, I can. "Will to Love" was written in one night, in one sitting, in front of the fireplace. I was all alone in my house and I was really high on a bunch of things. This was a long time ago. I really don't abuse myself like I used to. I don't think I'd still be here if I did. But I was really out there and I wrote the whole thing and put it together. None of the verses are exactly the same length. They're all a little different. I made it through once on the tape. And then I went to record with Crosby, Stills and Nash in Florida after that. I took the cassette along and said, "Listen to this song I wrote." I played it for David and he loved it. He said, "Wow, that's great just the way it is." We tried to learn it but could never get it as a band song. I couldn't sing it. I couldn't sing past the second verse without forgetting what I was doing, losing it totally, and getting all pissed off because it didn't sound right. I couldn't get through it.
I never have sung it except for that one time. That's what I used for the record. A Sony cassette machine which I transferred to twenty-four-track and then I played it back through my Magnetone stereo reverb amp. I bought two tracks of the cassette up on a couple of faders with the stereo vibrato in it, then I mixed them in with the original cassette for that sound of the fish. I overdubbed all of the instruments on it and mixed it in the same night. Up in a place called Indigo Ranch. It was on a full moon. What a night it was, man, unbelievable. I ordered all of the instruments from Studio Instrument Rentals, the drums, the bass, the amps, the vibes, all the percussion stuff. We had them set it up like a live date. I made the transfer of the cassette onto the sixteen-track and then I started overdubbing all the parts. They thought it was going to be a live session! They were all set up and ready to go. I just walked from one instrument to another and did them all, mostly in the first take. And then mixed it at the end of the night. It took us about eight hours to finish the whole thing and make it sound like it does now. I think it might be one of the best records I've ever made. I think as a piece of music, and sound and lyric and spirit, it's one of the best. And that's why it's important for me as an artist to able to record a song when I want to. I will never stand for anybody trying to take that away from me.
BF: Another big subject of yours is extinction. Of dinosaurs, Atlantis, the Indians, and the postnuclear world.
NY: To me it's just like when a forest gets burned, and it grows up again. That's extinction to me. Tearing down things to build new things. You build a beautiful thing, it can be the greatest thing and it's your dream to build it, but as soon as it's done, it's gotta go. You've got to tear it down because there's not enough room to build another new thing anymore. And if you stay with that first thing, you'll stop living. When you say, "This is it - THIS is what I want," that's when you start dying. You don't WANT anymore. Better to move away and do another thing somewhere else, leave that first thing for somebody else to appreciate. That's why possessions are so confusing. I really reinforce myself with possessions, I have lots of possessions. Maybe that's why I'm saying: tear the whole thing down, let me start over, let me be a baby again.
BF: Does Old Ways mean that in some cases it might be better to rust than to burn out? Better to go slow?
NY: I think in most cases it is, if you're not talkin' about rock & roll. If you're talking about rock & roll, it's better to burn out.
BF: Even if you're "gonna quite this grass, give up all this drinking?"
NY: Rock & roll is like a drug. I don't take very much rock & roll, but when I DO rock & roll, I fuckin' do it. But I don't want to do it all the time cause it'll kill me. The way I do it, I don't want to fuck around with it. It's just like a drug. When you're singing and playing rock & roll, you're on the leading edge of yourself. You're trying to vibrate, tryin' to make something happen. It's like there's somethin' alive and exposed. And it's there in country, but it's not the same way. It's INSIDE country, there's a soulful feeling that comes from knowing that you're with your friends and people work for a living and everybody has families and they love each other and when things go wrong you feel it. That's the difference. To really rock & roll you have to burn as brightly as you can until you turn it off altogether. Then turn it on again some other time. If I tried to do every tour goin' full-out rock & roll, and every album full-out rock & roll, I would die. I would burn out. So it's a little bit at a time. So I can still be doing it when I'm fifty-five or sixty. Like Willie Nelson.
BF: The only thing that rock & roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequences. In country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself into church. Or when you didn't drag yourself into church.
NY: That's right. Rock & roll is reckless abandon. Rock & roll is the CAUSE of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock & roll's place in the chain of events is dispersed.
BF: Because country and blues is the whole arc and rock & roll is just...
NY: Just the "up."
BF: Just the "up." Without the consequences.
NY: So if you taper off rock & roll, and not go full-out, then you're not going as far as you should.
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