Interview with Neil Young
(the photocopy I have of this is real bad, so I only transcribed the interview itself. Sorry... )
On one of your most poignant and best-loved songs, Helpless, you sing about a town in North Ontario which you keep returning to in your mind for comfort. I've always presumed you're singing about the town in which you were born?
Well, it's not literally a specific town so much as a feeling. Actually, it's a couple of towns. Omemee, Ontario, is one of them. It's where I first went to school and spent my 'formative' years. Actually I was born in Toronto... "I was born in Toronto"... God, that sound like the first line of a Bruce Springsteen song (laughs). But Toronto is only seven miles from Omemee.
Was there a lot of music in the house when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, I remember guys like Frankie Laine. See, around the same time as Elvis, there was also Rawhide and all that cowboy stuff. I loved that stuff - I even covered one of his songs on the Old Ways album. The Wayward Wind. It was one of his biggest hits up in Canada. See, I used to walk by a rail-road track on my way to school everyday. There was even a real 'hobo's shack' there. The song and the image have always stayed with me. When I hear it, I always think of being five or six walking past that old shack and the rail-road tracks gleaming in the sun and on my way to school everyday with my little transistor radio up to my ear.
Another song from that period that I loved, and also ended up doing a version of with Crazy Horse and Jack Nitzsche on piano, that's going to end up on Archives - it's a country waltz called It Might Have Been recorded by Jo London. It was a big hit in Canada though it didn't mean anything in the States. Great record. Real, real soulful rendition. Unfortunately on my version, I screwed up almost all the words (laughs).
Were your parents musically oriented?
Well, of the two of them, my father was definitely more musically-oriented. Mom and Dad used to listen to the old big bands, Lena Horne, Della Reese, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller Orchestra, Cab Calloway...
When you were just beginning your teens, your father Scott Young, a well-known Canadian journalist, left your mother to live with another woman. At 16 you decided to drop out and become a full-time rock musician. How supportive were your parents?
Well, as my Dad wasn't living with me at the time, he didn't have..(sorry...)... he'd have seen how into the music I was but at the same time he'd have been pushing me to stay on at school, just like my mother was. And I definitely think he's have certainly been stronger at persuading me to stay on. But the classic thing that happens in family break-ups...the perspective gets changed. The father will always have a negative reaction to what the mother does particularly if she's being 'soft' on the child. Without the true understanding of what's going on, he'll just say that 'it's wrong'. It's a reaction created out of frustration over not being able to really voice an opinion. So...to say that my father was less into my music than my mother would be unfair. Although my mother was more supportive.
You started playing at 14. What was your first guitar?
My first was this little plastic Arthur Godfrey ukulele, then I seem to remember a baritone 'uke', then I had a banjo. So I had all these different-sounding instruments which I played the same way. I played electric lead guitar first. Then I started rocking out in a community-club teenage band. First we were called The Esquires. Then we changed it to The Stardusters. And after that we settled on being called The Squires. Kinda like Spinal Tap's early days!
Legend has it that Don't Cry No Tears from Zuma is the first song you ever wrote...
No, that was only one of the first 30 or 40 songs I wrote! Oh yeah, there were a lot of them from back then. Unfortunately, we only have 'glimmers' of most of them but we do have actual recordings of five of them which you're going to hear when the Archives finally appear. I really love these tracks, by the way, I'm not embarrassed by them or anything because I was so young. I mean, some of them I wanted to hear over and over again, whereas others were clearly not so successful. I think it's real interesting when you hear the 'bad' ones with the good ones...
After The Squires you joined a band called The Mynah Birds in '65 and apparently even recorded an album with them that never came out...
Yeah, there are tapes of me and The Mynah Birds but I've not been able to get hold of them. I only sang a little bit in that group... Rick James and Bruce Palmer were in the group also.
Right after I left The Mynah Birds I took up as a solo folk singer. Come to think of it, I did a bit of that before The Mynah Birds also. After I arrived in Toronto I tried to keep my band going and then tried to work with several others. But it just never worked out for me there. I could never get anything going in Toronto, never even got one gig with a band. I just couldn't break into that scene. So I moved instead towards acoustic music and immediately became very introspective and musically-inward. That's the beginning of that whole side of my music.
From the outside, it looked like Canada in the early '60s had a very creative scene going for it, with people like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Hawkins and The Band. But from the inside, was there really a 'scene' at all and were you a part of it?
Not really, no. They were all way above me at that time. The Hawks were the best band in Toronto which is the biggest city in Canada musically. And I'd just come from a place called Thunder Bay which is between Winnipeg and Toronto. We'd done really well there but couldn't get a gig to save our lives in Toronto. All we ever did was practice. So I ended up cruising around by myself on acoustic guitar, playing my songs at coffee houses for a while, just showing up at these places. It was quite an experience! I remember it now as... Wow, this is really out-on-the-edge! Walking around in the middle of the night in the snow, wondering where to go next!
Robbie Robertson once said that the power of the songs he wrote for The Band about America came from the fact that he had the perspective of a foreigner arriving in the promised land. Did you feel that way when, at the very beginning of 1966, you left Toronto and drove to Los Angeles in an undertaker's hearse. Is the drive a good memory?
It's pretty good, yeah, but I got burnt out somewhere around Albuquerque. I just collapsed basically. We'd met a bunch of hippies and ended up crashing in their 'pad'. I slept for a couple of days, then went to the hospital for exhaustion. They told me to eat, sleep and rest - the usual. In retrospect, I'm really not sure what it was that kept me up for so long. I'm not sure if any chemicals were involved.
You drove down with Bruce Palmer, looking for Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, whom you'd met playing in a folk revue in New York City. Legend has it you bumped into each other in a traffic jam...
Yeah, that's true. Well, it took us about 10 days to find them but we knew Stephen and Richie were down there. I was looking to hook up with Stephen in particular. When we met them in February '66 The Buffalo Springfield began the same day.
It's been said that at that time, Stills was a folkie who was just beginning to rock. Meanwhile, you were a rocker who was starting to get interested in folk-music...
Yeah, that's pretty accurate but I'd been into Dylan since '63 when I heard his very first album; that left a big impression on me. And later, The Byrds were great. What they did was deeply 'cool'. They really impressed me.
What made you want to work with Stills?
His voice. He was a really great singer. He had the beginnings of being an electric guitar player too. Somehow we could play lead guitar parts simultaneously and not get in each other's way. And that's real rare. It gave the sound a real edge. And it has absolutely nothing to do with what he does by himself and what I do by myself.
Apparently, just as The Buffalo Springfield was starting to get successful, your epilepsy began...
Well, I had been that way before but yeah, I started to have big seizures when the Springfield started to happen.
You actually had a fit onstage while playing. Can you remember what triggered it?
(After a long pause) I'm not sure. Now when it happens, I can control it. I don't know whether I just couldn't control it or whether there just weren't too many new things happening to me. Whatever it was, I'd just get this feeling inside of me and I'd just go..! Now, when I get that feeling, I'll lay back or turn off everything. Close off the input for a while. It's a little hard to do that when you're onstage in front of a lot of people. Although I still do it. I haven't had any 'events' for almost 20 years. None of any real consequence anyway. But I have had... y'know, 'tremors'. I sense it's still there.
Buffalo Springfield played the fabled Monterey Pop festival in 1967. You didn't.
No, I was out of the group at that time. Actually, the reason I initially left the group was because I didn't want to do the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. I thought it was belittling what The Buffalo Springfield was doing. That audience wouldn't have understood us. We'd have been just a fuckin' curiosity to them.
At that time you were linking up creatively with arranger jack Nitzsche, as well as a group called The Rockets who'd become Crazy Horse. Were you actively looking for other people to work with at this time?
Yeah...Well, I just liked these people. I wasn't looking, I just found 'em. All of a sudden, there are these other people and I'd sorta go back and forth between them and the Springfield.
Jack taught me a lot: I mean, he'd already worked as an arranger for Spector and had played piano on recording sessions with The Rolling Stones. I met him in a club in Hollywood right when the Springfield first started. We were introduced by Greene and Stone who were our managers then. We just liked each other and always had a great time together. I love listening to all his ideas. Plus I liked 'hanging out' with him because he always got all the new records sent to him every week and he'd sit and listen to them, forming his opinions... He worked as an independent arranger back then. He was a very 'sought-after' guy.
When I quit the Springfield, I was living at Jack's house with him, his wife Gracia and his son, 'Little' Jack. 45s would be coming in every week and I remember the day we got the first Jimi Hendrix Experience single - this was way before the first album had been released - and all of us were just awe-struck at how 'raw' the guy sounded.
That first album of mine was basically just Jack and me.
Six months after your fist album comes Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in which you introduce the world to Crazy Horse - and also the sound of you playing guitar in D modal tuning. It gives your songs a very singular power and tone best represented on Cinnamon Girl, for example. Did you actually discover that sound and tuning from playing with Crazy Horse?
Actually, no. Where it comes from originally is... Stills and I on Bluebird. We discovered this D modal tuning at around the same time in '66, I think... We'd play in that tuning together a lot. This was when 'ragas' were happening and D modal made it possible to have that 'droning' sound going on all the time, that's where it started. Only I took it to the next level which is how The Loner and Cinnamon Girl happened. You make a traditional chord shape and any finger that doesn't work, you just lift it up and let the string just ring. I've used that tuning throughout my career right up to today. You can hear it on everything from Fuckin' Up on Ragged Glory to War Of Man and One Of These Days on Harvest Moon. Lots of songs.
You recorded another album with Crazy Horse in '69 straight after Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, that also had Jack Nitzsche on piano. It was apparently a sort of country-rock affair and most of the tracks were recorded live. Then you scrapped it all of a sudden and put out Goldrush instead. Why?
Well, it wasn't really scrapped (pauses). It exists (longer pause). See, things were moving very quickly at that time so it's hard to say... exactly why I went for Goldrush instead of that project. I just remember thinking that Goldrush was the next logical step after Everybody. Just after I'd begun playing with CSN&Y, I went out on the road and did some really funky things that indicated that our next album would be in that particular vein. We recorded Wondering, Dance Dance Dance, It Might have Been, Winterlong and several others. They'll appear on the Archives, I've had them transferred to digital.
Let's move on to After The Goldrush, then. Many of the songs were inspired by a film screenplay written by the actor Dean Stockwell. What was the film actually about?
It was all about the day of the great earthquake in Topanga Canyon when a great wave of water flooded the place. It was a pretty 'off-the-wall' concept, they tried to get some money from Universal Pictures. But that fell through because it was too much of an 'art' project. I think, had it been made, it would stand as a contemporary to Easy Rider and it would have had a similar effect. The script itself was full of imagery, 'change'... It was very unique actually. I really wish that movie had been made, because it could have really defined an important moment in the culture.
With After The Goldrush you became incredibly successful. At the same time, you had this image of someone very confused, isolated, emotionally fragile and introspective. Was that a fair evaluation of your condition?
No, not really, I didn't see myself like that, I always thought there was a funny side to my music. But see, my sense of humor hadn't really been appreciated at that point in my career. Shit, it hadn't even been noticed (laughs). I mean, Last Trip Trip To Tulsa... that's my idea of a really funny song and that's just one of 'em.
Were you concerned about this image?
What image? Listen, there was nothing to be concerned about. I really just wanted to make music... My only concern was to make the fuckin' records sound right. When I finally got the studio together and played, I think, Running Dry [on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere], that was my first live vocal. As was almost the whole of Goldrush after it... Things like I Believe In You - that's when I started recording live.
Yes, but an image is created when you stand in front of an audience and perform and they treat you like a counter-culture icon...
Well, it's like a mirror. And you can't get away from a mirror if you stand in front of it all the time, right. But if you step away from it, you don't notice it any more. And that's what the stage is like for me. See, an image becomes meaningless in as much as it's always temporary.
After the overwhelming success of Harvest, your next new music was Time Fades Away, an abrasive-sounding live album from a 1973 stadium tour that you'd apparently rather forget. Over 20 years later, the memory of that tour and the subsequent record still seems too uncomfortable for you...
Well, we didn't put any of Time Fades Away on Decade, if that's what you mean. See, Decade's good for that reason. It makes a statement about my work from my point of view. Things were added in abundance and omitted. There's different angles in there. It's not like an even editorial.
But Don't Be Denied for example is one of your best songs. It's also your most openly autobiographical...
Yeah, certainly. It's one of them, anyway. The other one's called Hitch-Hiker. It's a contemporary of Don't Be Denied from 1975 and it was all about all the different drugs that I took. I started at the beginning and ran right through my years of drug usage up to that time, drawing parallels with other stuff. It's a very interesting song (laughs). Eventually I mutated it partly into a song called Like An Inca [Trans]. Only the chorus lived, though. All the verses were gone. Hitch-Hiker is now probably bootlegged 'cos I played it six or seven times on some acoustic tour I did in the '70s.
The in 1973 you went out to record Tonight's The Night - a meditation on life, hard drugs and death that's gone on to stand as one of your greatest, if bleakest albums to date. I've always been fascinated by the rumour that you wrote and tried to produce a Broadway play based on the record...
Yeah, we did. The plot was about a roadie who made it and then OD'd on drugs. From Roadie To Riches was the name of it (laughs). For Broadway in 1974 it was a little ahead of its time, as you can imagine.
Straight after recording the album, you took it on the road for a series of extremely controversial live gigs....
Oh, that was a fabulous tour, one of my best. Over in England, The Rainbow... Bristol was the best ever... the Festival hall... those were magical gigs. I did an encore at the latter with nobody there but Ahmet Ertegun who owns Atlantic records. I said, "Ahmet, I played so good tonight I think I deserve my own private encore." So we went out and played Tonight's The Night for the fourth time that evening (bursts out laughing) with no-one left in the theatre.
Actually, you didn't release Tonight's The Night 'til 1975. Instead, you put out On The Beach, a record you are still cagey about releasing on CD. Are a lot of your previous albums too personal to listen to comfortably now?
I'd say so, yeah. There are several records like On The Beach and Time Fades Away. See, that's something you have to understand: I don't make a habit of listening to my old stuff. Ever. I listened to Weld once since I've finished it. Freedom I've heard once. I spend so much time making them that when it's over, I just never want to listen to 'em again. I just send 'em out into the world like an evil father. "OK get out of here now. Be sure to write if you find a home!" (laughs)
At exactly the same moment On The Beach was released, you chose to relocate with CS&N for a financially lucrative but musically unbalanced tour in '74.
Well, 1974 was the swan-song of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for me.
On that tour, you performed a number of excellent songs you've still never released. I'm thinking of titles like Traces, Love-Art Blues and Pushed It Over The End. What happened to those songs?
Well they'll probably be out on the anthology too. Listen, if they'd had new songs with the authority that their old songs had, we could've knocked off four and five of mine so that just the best two surfaced... That would have truly been CSN&Y. But it wasn't to be, so the record never came out.
Let's move on to Zuma. After that dark stretch, it sounded like you'd suddenly been liberated. The most renowned composition on Zuma has to be Cortez The Killer. I've always been intrigued about your personal opinion of the great explorer. Where id you get your information from?
It was a combination of imagination and knowledge. What Cortez represented to me is the explorer with two sides, one benevolent, the other utterly ruthless. I mean, look at Columbus! Everyone now knows he was less than great. And he wasn't even there first (laughs). It always makes me question all these other so-called 'icons' (smiles)
Another musical venture you embarked upon in the mid-'70s was a short tour of West Coast bars with a group called The Ducks...
Oh, The Ducks was basically me having fun and taking a musical vacation. It was a great band and a friend of mine managed them, so I got into them because it presented me with a perfect vehicle for playing in a band without being the leader or having to sing too many songs. I wrote a few songs with them but I was really just the lead guitarist.
After that, you returned to the studio to make Comes A Time, your most mellow, middle of the road recording since Harvest...
Well, I was going one way and then needed to move in entirely the opposite direction just for some kind of 'release'. My career is built around a pattern that just keeps repeating itself over and over again. There's nothing surprising about it at all. My changes are as easy to predict as the sun coming up and down.
It's become something of a cliche to say that Rust Never Sleeps, the raucous follow-up to Comes A Time, was very influenced by the UK punk-rock scene at the time...
No, I wasn't really influenced by that scene. Most of the songs on that album had been written well before the Sex Pistols were ever heard of. The Thrasher was pretty much me writing about me experiences with Crosby, Stills & Nash in the mid-'70s. Do you know Lynyrd Skynyrd almost ended up recording Powderfinger before my version came out? We sent them an early demo of it because they wanted to do one of my songs.
Surprising, that. After all, Lynyrd Skynyrd put you down by name on Sweet Home Alabama, their first hit single...
Oh, they didn't really put me down! But then again, maybe they did! (laughs) But not in a way that matters. Shit, I think Sweet Home Alabama is a great song. I've actually performed it live a couple of times myself.
After the major critical and sales success of Rust Never Sleeps, you embark on yet another long unsettling journey away from the mainstream. A journey that begins with Hawks And Doves.
Well, it's what you might call a transitional album for me. But that's not to say there aren't some really interesting things on there. Comin' Apart At Every Nail is good and I really like Union Man. It's no big thing: just a funky little record that represents where I was at and what I was doing at that time.
Re-ac-tor reunited you with Crazy Horse again. But the music on that record sounded so willfully primitive and brutal.
We didn't spend as much time recording Re-ac-tor as we should've. The life of both that record and the one after it - Trans - were sucked up by the regime we'd committed ourselves to. See, we were involved in this programme with my young son Ben for 18 months which consumed between 15 and 18 hours of every day we had. It was just all-encompassing and it had a direct effect on the music of Re-ac-tor and Trans. You see, my son is severely handicapped, and at that time was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That's what Trans is all about. And that's why, on that record, you know I'm saying something but you can't understand what it is. Well, that's the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.
You seem to feel Trans is particularly underrated?
Underrated! Well, let's say I don't underrate Trans. I really like it, and think if anything is wrong, then it's down to the mixing. We had a lot of technical problems on that record, but the content of the record is great.
The release of Trans began your ill-starred liaison with Geffen Records. Actually, hadn't you already offered them an album entitled Island In The Sun which they refused?
Yeah, I offered that to Geffen just before Trans. It was a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water. Actually two or three songs ended up on Trans.
Then came Everybody's Rockin', a curious and underwhelming collection of '50s rock pastiches and easily your most mystifying record to date. You lost a lot of your audience with that record, I reckon...
Well, that was a good as Tonight's The Night as far as I'm concerned. The character was strong, the story was great but unfortunately, the story never got to appear on the album. Before I got a chance to finish it - I got stopped from recording. Geffen cancelled a couple of sessions where I was going to do two songs - Get Gone and Don't Take Your Love Away From Me - that would've given a lot more depth to The Shocking Pinks. But if you didn't see the shows you wouldn't be able get into it fully. Of course, it wasn't anywhere near as intense as Tonight's The Night. There was very little depth to the material obviously. They were all 'surface' songs. But see, there was a time when music was like that, when all pop stars were like that. (Ardently) And it was good music, really good music.
See, when I made albums like Everybody's Rockin' and everyone takes the shit out of 'em... I knew they could do that. What am I? Stupid? Did people really think I put that out thinking it was the greatest fuckin' thing I'd ever recorded? Obviously I'm aware it's not. Plus it was a way of further destroying what I'd already set up. Without doing that, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now. If I build something up, I have to systematically tear it right down before people decide, "Oh, that's how we can define him".
Peter Buck once told me that you and R.E.M. had been planning to record an album together in the mid-'80s (possibly using material that ended up on Landing On Water), but you couldn't enter into a studio with them without being sued by Geffen...
There was certainly something like that going on back then. Actually it's funny: R.E.M. were going to go with Geffen, then they heard I was being sued and everything, they just dropped all contact with Geffen and signed with Warner Bros. instead. Geffen actually lost R.E.M. simply for suing me over Everybody's Rockin'!
At the end of your problems with Geffen, you got back together with Crosby, Stills & Nash to make American Dream. The experience was not a happy one. Yet you still talk about possibly reuniting with them in some form.
Damn, you'd have thought our performance on Live Aid would have been enough to finish off any wave of nostalgia, wouldn't you? (laughs) Seriously though, I think CSN&Y reminds people of a certain feeling. Our audience want to see it alive again because somehow it verifies the feeling that they're alive too. CSN&Y - when it works - can make music that is very committed, heartfelt and sincere. It's not easy to get it out and it's not easy to overcome some of the bullshit around it. American Dream was an attempt that failed to reach anything like its true potential. But that's no reason for me to not try it again sometime.
After that, you suddenly seemed to get back to the state of real creative focus. Firstly with Eldorado, then Freedom shortly followed by Ragged Glory. What changed for you?
I really can't say. Just 'life'. I've been doing this for a long time. When the '80s started, I'd been making music for 15 years professionally. Now the '80s are usually the period that people tell me they lost me or I lost them. What happened was that I just wasn't being accessible. See, as far as I'm concerned, those records (Trans, Everybody's Rockin', Old Ways) are as good as any record I've ever made. Maybe my '80s music should just be looked at as one record. Maybe it would be easier for people to understand.
You regrouped with Crazy Horse for Ragged Glory in 1990 with spectacular results. Yet after the Rusted-Out Garage Tour in '86-'87, you publicly vowed never to work with them again...
Well, that was a bad period for us. We weren't playing well then. Overall, the material wasn't up to much. I made a film about that tour, the legendary Muddy Track! (laughs) I still want the films I directed to all come out in a special six-pack: Human Highway, Rust Never Sleeps, Journey Through The Past... Muddy Track is really my favorite of all of them, though. It's dark as hell. God, it's a heavy one! (laughs) But it's funky.
On Ragged Glory I notice a real jazz feel to the way you improvise now. In fact, the way you operate puts me in mind of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Miles and Coltrane yeah, they're two of my favorites. My guitar improvisations with Crazy Horse are very, very Coltrane-influenced. I'm particularly taken by work like Equinox and My Favorite Things. Miles I love just because of his overall attitude towards the concept of "creation", which is one of constant change. There's no reason to stay there once you've done it. You could stay for the rest of your life and it would become like a regular job.
One person we haven't mentioned who has been an almost constant musical cohort of yours is your producer David Briggs, whom you've been working with for 25 years. Could you define your working relationship with him?
I'll show you how we work, OK. He told me what was wrong with my performance at Bob-Aid. Everyone else was telling me how great it was. He didn't belabor the fact that it was great. His opinion was: "Yeah, it was great, OK. It was great BUT forget about that because what was wrong was... this, this and this. You sang it in the wrong key, your voice was too low, the drums weren't tight enough 'til half-way through... No-one's probably notice but... It's not usable." (Laughs)
And I always listen to what he has to say and take note of it.
It was great to hear the return of Jack Nitzsche in your music on Harvest Moon.
Yeah, on Such A Woman, that's our sound (smiles). Expecting To Fly has that sound too. That's what that track is supposed to relate to.
Didn't you have a serious falling-out sometime in the '70s though?
Yeah, we did. We get on great now but, at a certain point, Jack made the call on me that I had copped/sold out. Maybe it was something I did in the early '70s, during Harvest or Goldrush - I don't know when exactly it happened, but somewhere along the line it happened. It was his opinion that I wasn't living up to my potential even at that early stage. He was one of the guys who could see how fucked up I was compared to what I could really do. He was one of my earliest critics. He was a trailblazer in that respect.
Before your current union with Pearl jam, there was apparently serious talk about you recording with Sonic Youth, possibly for the album that became Sleeps With Angels.
With Sonic Youth? Well, that sounds like it came from a news story that was in fact wrong. Hell, if they wanted to play, I'd be there. It sounds like too much fun to pass by. Sonic Youth are great. Same with R.E.M.: I'd love to work with those guys if the right conditions prevailed.
Sleeps With Angels seems deeply haunted by the specter of Kurt Cobain and his sad end...
Sleeps With Angels has a lot of overtones to it, from different situations that were described in it. A lot of sad scenes (pause), I've never really spoken about why I made that album. I don't want to start now.
Has it anything to do with the similarity of Kurt Cobain's death to Crazy Horse Danny Whitten's death in 1972? They both looked so much alike...
I just don't want to talk about that. That's my decision. I've made a choice not to talk about it and I'm sticking to it.
Let's not discuss Cobain's death then. But what about his life? Did his music inspire you?
He really, really inspired me. He was so great. Wonderful. One of the best, but more than that. Kurt was one of the absolute best of all time for me.
Scenery on Mirror Ball seems equally haunted by Cobain's doomed image. It's like there's OJ Simpson on one side and Kurt Cobain on the other: two very different victims of celebrity madness?
Well, the problems with celebrity and rock'n'roll start with the fact that nowadays it gets way too big too fast. Back in the '50s and '60s, rock'n'roll was 'big' but it was only 'big' to people who cared about it. Now it's big to people who don't care about it. So they can't begin to understand it. They just make ill-informed judgements on performers without first comprehending why or what it was that made the person famous in the first place.
In the '60s there was a bond between the artists and the audience. It's harder to see now because so much these days is simply down to image projection. But today's pessimistic bands have a vision and an attitude that's unified their generation just like the 'peace and love' groups helped unify the '60s generation.
This brings us neatly to the subject of Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder. I can't help wondering whether you truly sympathize with Vedder when he moans on and on about the price of fame. Doesn't it all come with the job?
The way most people seem to regard Eddie - it's a little out of perspective. No matter what he says, it all gets taken down and quoted back at him. Who else do you know who's his age and going through the things he's going through because he just wants to make music for a living and travel around a bit? Hopefully, though, he'll get used to it. People will get used to him being around and they'll leave him alone a little more.
Surely you're no stranger to obsessive fans yourself. Have you had your share of stalkers and lunatics running all over your property?
Oh, yeah, I've had all kinds of people trying to get to me over the years. I've had some real nutcases looking for answers that I couldn't begin to give 'em. There's only one way to deal with them: ignore them and escape them as quickly as possible. Because the more you dwell on those people and their problems, the worse it gets for you. You just end up being the 'dickhead' all your worst critics think you are anyway. (Laughs) You need to surround yourself with regular people - people who can treat you like a human being. If you don't have any of those in your life, you're finished.
But by the same token, if you have a good situation and can make music whenever you want with a whole bunch of people who are cool and you have nothing else to do, then it's ultimately going to get shallow. Because there's not enough challenge going on in your life. That's why I went out of town over to Seattle to make this record. Recording Mirror Ball was like audio verite, just a snapshot of what's happening. Sometimes I didn't know who was playing. I was just conscious of this big smouldering mass of sound.
The whole record was recorded in four days and all the songs, barring Song X and Act Of Love, were written in that four day stretch. I played Act Of Love with Crazy Horse in January at The rock'n'roll Hall Of Fame. Then, the following night, I played it with Pearl Jam at a Pro-Choice benefit concert and the version was so powerful! I decided there and then to record it with them as soon as possible. On a purely musical level, this is the first time I've been in a band with three potential lead guitarists since The Buffalo Springfield. Plus there's Jack Irons, their drummer, who was just unbelievable. He just played his ass off on every take at every session. I can't say enough good things about him.
I didn't even think about recording a whole album when we went in to cut Act Of Love. I had two days with Pearl Jam initially. Two days and just two songs - that wasn't enough for me so I had five written by the time I went in. Recorded five of them, left one out. Then I came back for another two-day session with two more new songs. Plus I re-recorded the fifth one from the first session again. Then the day after that, I wrote another two new songs. Throw Your Weapons Down - maybe. Maybe not, tho' there's a large part of making this new album that's pretty foggy... (laughs)
The song Act Of Love is about the issue of abortion. It throws together images like Rockin' In The Free World did...
Yeah, there's no bias so you have to make up your own mind, finally. See, personally, I'm pro-choice. But the song isn't! This isn't an easy subject to confront head-on. People who say that human beings shouldn't have the right to dismiss a human life - they have a point. You can't dismiss that point. But then there's the reality. There's idealism and reality, the two have to come together yet there are always major problems when they do. Maybe that's the crux of what I'm trying to say in this new album. It's also a commentary of the differences between my peace and love '60s generation and the more cynical '90s generation. Like this term 'love'. We hear the word so much it gets devalued and you need to - if not redefine it - then at least re-examine what it really stands for. We all need to get back inside ourselves and take another look. You can't just keep coasting along on the previous analysis because it isn't working any more.
I'm The Ocean strikes me as one of the most blatantly autobiographical songs of your career. The line "people my age don't do the things I do / They go somewhere whilst I run away with you." The "you" is your audience, the people who listen to your music...
(Pause) I think so. Definitely. I'm referring to the people who listen to music - they don't have to be there with me but they're still out there listening. We're together because we're both escaping through the music. It's like that line "I'm a drug that makes you dream." That's me trying to define the power of music.
Now you're 50, how do you physically manage to do what you do?
I just work out a lot. Make sure I stay in good shape. If you'll notice, I'm not exactly that skinny-looking guy from the '60 and '70s any more. I weigh over 40 pounds more than I used to back then. And none of it is fat - it's all muscle.
After the Ragged Glory tour, you started suffering from tinnitus and had to stop playing electric rock music for a couple of years. How's your hearing now you're confronting the heavy volume of Pearl Jam?
I made Harvest Moon because I didn't want to hear any loud sounds. I still have a little bit of tinnitus but fortunately now I'm not as sensitive to loud sounds as I was for a year after the mixing of Weld. My hearing's not perfect but it's OK. I'm not sure what's going on but the point is I can still hear well enough to get off on what I'm doing. There's still a lot of detail I can pick up. I'm a fanatic for hearing detail and that's not been lost, tho' I've got these other sounds I have to deal with too.
Joni Mitchell recently admitted she suffers from a wasting disease known as post-polio syndrome...
I've had that too. It affected me particularly in the mid-'80s, when I couldn't even pick up my guitar. My body was starting to fall apart on me. That's when I started 'working out'. It's proven to be my salvation too. Lifting weights and exercising have completely changed everything for me, with regard to my health.
Let's return to the forthcoming project. How has it been sifting through your past so meticulously?
In a lot of ways, it's been a real inspiration to me. It re-orientates me to the things I've done. In certain ways, it's been a lot of fun though I wouldn't want to spend a lifetime doing it. Plus it's woken me up to certain things about my talent.
Well, it's weird. The things I thought weren't very good are really good. And things I thought were really good - where I thought I was really at the top of things -aren't so good. They sound more shallow somehow. Maybe when you think you're being real good, that's when you're not. At least that's what doing this project has got me thinking.
Is this the right time for that kind of thing?
Well, there is no right time for this kind of undertaking, I believe. It was just something that had to be done. I need to get up to date. I want to catch up to 'now'. I'm doing the Archives so my work will be organized, so that people will know what I thought. They won't have to guess. Everything'll be in there. There'll be grades and chronological orders. In the end I want to leave a record of what I've done that's definitive and organized. Not because I want it out of the way. I want to get up-to-date. I've been 30 years behind myself.
Finally, how easy is it being as prolific a songwriter as Neil Young?
Oh, it's pretty easy (laughs). Just as long as I don't try.
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