Neil Young

Legend of a Loner

by Adam Swetting

Melody Maker, September 7, 1985

The bus paused for breath at traffic lights, wheezing a little. After all, it had been on the road for 10 years. It had reached a place called Troy in upstate New York, the original one horse town. Old men in trucker's caps sat on benches in the deserted streets, watching it. On the roof, the top halves of a couple of old Studebakers had been welded into place like twin observation turrets, silently surveying the passing scenery. One of them had a windsurfer board strapped on top of it. The sides of the bus were covered with weather beaten wooden ribbing. As it accelerated away from the lights in a growl of exhaust smoke, bystanders could see the legend "BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD" across its rear. The vehicle could have been wandering the plains forever.

Inside the bus, a hound called Elvis sat in the front seat, keeping an eye on the road. Fittings, shelves, seats and sideboards were all made from hand carved wood, right through from the kitchen area at the front, via the central lounge section to the bedroom in the rear. The vehicle's owner patted the dog, who rolled his eyes mournfully upward. "I played here once with the Buffalo Springfield" he recalled in a voice which managed to be both dark, and nasal at the same time. "I remember we didn't get our money. The guy drew a gun on us, told us to get the fuck out. Those were the good old days."

Nearly 20 years later, Neil Young had returned with his latest ensemble, a squad of veteran Nashville musicians called The International Harvesters. His new country album, Old Ways is as the author sees it, the third in a sequence of records which began with the best selling Harvest in 1972, continued with the winsome Comes A Time in 1978, and after assorted diversions has brought him back to the road in 1985.

Old Ways is a skilfully crafted piece of work, full of perfectly assured melodies and impeccable performances from familiar Young sidemen like steel guitarist Ben Keith and Drummer Karl Himmel. More significantly, the record captures the state of mind of a man who's shot the rapids of rock 'n' roll, lost some good friends along the way, wilfully turned his back on the charts and pop stardom, and who has managed to become an adult in a field where the odds are stacked against it. Neil Young has survived, and he's grown too. And changed. "I think in some ways - only in some ways, but in some ways rock n roll has let me down," he said. "It really doesn't leave you a way to grow old gracefully and continue to work."

Why's that? Because you're supposed to die before you get old?

"Yeah, right. If you're gonna rock you better burn out, 'cos that's the way they wanna see you. They wanna see you right on the edge where you're glowing, right on the living edge, which is where young people are. They're discovering themselves, and rock'n'roll is young people's music. I think that's a reality, and I still love rock'n'roll and I love to play the songs in my set that are sort of rock'n'roll, but I don't see a future for me there."

Young paused; his lank black hair flopping forward, and rubbed his chin which was covered in a heavy overnight stubble. "I see country music, I see people who take care of their own. You got 75 year old guys on the road. That's what I was put here to do, y'know, so I wanna make sure I surround myself with people who are gonna take care of me. 'Cos I'm in it for the long run. Willie Nelson's 54 years old and he's a happy man, doing what he loves to do. I can't think of one rock'n'roller like that. So what am I gonna do?"

Old Ways features guest appearances from country luminaries Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, both of whom will be playing some support dates with Young on his current tour. A lot of the performances find Young and his International Harvesters playing to family audiences at state fairs, huge day-long gatherings of people, animals, carnival sideshows, food and drink, where everyone turns up for the entertainment in the evening. It's miles away from the rock'n'roll crowds who've flocked over the years to see Young play with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills & Nash or his perennial backing band Crazy Horse.

Young is still best known among non-partisan observers as the laid-back whiner who had a hit single with Heart Of Gold in 1972. His early Seventies albums After The Gold Rush and Harvest provided a melancholy soundtrack for any number of mentally unbalanced young people to ponder suicide to. His work with Buffalo Springfield in the Sixties brought him into fierce creative proximity with Stephen Stills, and among a bunch of fine songs recorded by the group, it's still Young's dreamlike mock-symphonies Expecting To Fly and Broken Arrow which remain the most haunting and inexplicable.

Young joined Crosby Stills & Nash as additional instrumentalist and dark horse. His stint with them barely lasted a year, but it got him some prime exposure on their album Deja Vu and set Young up perfectly for his subsequent solo career. The association also proved to be something of an albatross, but as the years passed and Young's own albums pursued a grim and tortuous path, it became clear that while CSNY had given him a priceless commercial boost, it had scarcely hinted at the depth and range of his talent.

Records like Tonight's The Night, On The Beach and Time Fades Away were to prove emphatically that Young could hardly have been less like the hippy peacenik the media fondly imagined him to be. Crosby Stills & Nash are still playing together and grossing wads of dollars, but Young won't have anything to do with them until David Crosby kicks his cocaine habit.

The topic brings out a hard puritanical streak in him, probably because he's seen several friends die from drug abuse. "David says that he loves to play music with Crosby Stills Nash & Young more than anything in the world. I told them when they could prove that to me that that's really what he wanted to do with his life and give up drugs, that I would go out with them. I told them that three years ago, and it hasn't happened yet".

"The way I look at it, either he's going to OD and die or we're going to play together sometime. It's pretty simple. But until one of those things happens until he cleans up, I'm not gonna do it, Live Aid was an exception to the rule which I made up on the spot. They all know how I feel.

"I will not go out with CSNY, have everyone scrutinise the band, how big it is and how much it meant, and see this guy that's so fucked up that he can't come back because we've all seen him when he's been clean recently, where he's very sharp just like he always was. But he seems to feel like he wants to do that, or he would stop doing it. So y'know, until he has more respect for life and his effects on the young people... why should some young person who loves CSNY's old records from listening to their parents play them, some young kid 12 years old, why should he see CSNY on TV and know that this guy's a cocaine addict, been freebasing for fuckin' years and years, and he looks like a vegetable but they're still on TV and they're still making it and they're still big stars? I don't wanna show anybody that. That's something no one should see."

On the recent Live Aid broadcast, Young and his band were seen delivering a song called Nothing Is Perfect. It's not included on Old Ways and is a strikingly forthright declaration of Young's current absorption with his family life and an almost gung-ho enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan's America. Young in the main steered clear of the loudmouth leftism politics of Crosby Stills & Nash, but wrote the scorching Ohio after National Guardsmen shot four students at Kent State University. It's something of a shock to find him supporting Reagan's arms build-up. The Loner has turned Republican.

"In the Carter years, everybody was walking around with their tails between their legs talking with their head down, y'know, thinking America's been so bad, we've done all these things wrong. But, especially militarily, we had a lot of disasters and a lot of things that never should have happened and that maybe were mistakes in the first place, although it's hard to say. People were being killed everywhere before we went over to try to help, and we went over and tried to help them and we fucked up. But y'know, you can't always feel sorry for everything that you did. Obviously I wish no-one had to die in any war, but war is, ah, is a dirty game".

"It seems like the Soviets, it doesn't bother them that much to walk into Afghanistan and kill people left and right and take the fucking country and do all that shit. You can't just let them keep on fucking doing that without saying enough's enough. So to do that, to have the strength to do that, you have to be strong".

"Ten years ago the US was starting to really drag ass, way behind the Soviets in build-up. All that's happened lately is more or less to catch up, just to be equal, reach equality in arms. At best it's a bad situation, but I think it would be worse to be weak when the stronger nation in the aggressor against freedom".

"So I stand behind Reagan when it comes to build-up, to stand, be able to play hardball with other countries that are aggressive towards free countries. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

But would you have thought that way in 1967?

"No, no I wouldn't have thought that in 1967. But I'm an older man now, I have a family. I see other people with families. There' s no immediate threat to American families, but there is an immediate threat to other families in free countries, y'know, a lot of the countries on the borders of the Iron Curtain. To stand there and say it could never happen is wrong, because it's happened. We just don't want it to happen any more - at least, I don't".

It seems utterly insane when you think of the billions of pounds or dollars that have been spent since 1945 on weapons that have never been used, surely?

"It is crazy, it's fucking nuts," growled Young. "At least in our countries we have the fucking freedom to stand up and say it's crazy. And that's what we're fighting for, to be able to disagree. Openly. And it's our right, and we have to do everything we can to preserve it".

"So I don't put down anybody who says we should stop building weapons and everything. I disagree with them, practically. Idealistically I agree with them. It's like walking both sides of the fence, but I think there's too much to be responsible for as men and as people, that you have to take care of your own".

"So that's why I have more of a sympathy for Reagan than other people would have, a lot of other people in my walk of life."

But that sounds dangerously like an "every man for himself" philosophy? Correct me if I'm wrong....

"Sort of, but... I think it's more like every man for his brother than is every man for himself. That's how I look at it. I think it's real important to be strong".

Young's attitude has not been formed overnight.

Looking back, it's easy to spot traces of it on his 1980 album Hawks & Doves, a patchy phase in Young's continuing evolution. Union Man was a jokey item apparently supporting the Musician's Union proposition that "live music is better", Young celebrating the idea of communal togetherness with an exhausting slab of hoedown. In Comin' Apart At Every Nail, he avowed that "this country sure looks good to me" even while it was falling to bits in some respects. The concluding Hawks & Doves, a powerful slice of country raunch, examined cycles of history, both in terms of America's past and as they applied to Young's own career. He declared himself "willing to stay and pay".

In 1981 Young released Re-Ac-Tor, an even scrappier piece of work. Thematic continuity could still be discerned occasionally, however, as in Motor City, where he patriotically lamented the demise of the American car industry as the Japanese invaded ("there's already too many Datsuns in this town", don't mention the war....). Then there was the hard-driving Southern Pacific, a paean to the disappearance of the old railroads and the men who worked on them.

Young's current live show contains a powerful reworking of the piece, and it sits comfortably alongside his hymns to home, family and an America dusting off its battered pride. Redneck? Let's hope not.

On tour, Young travels alone. Dave his driver and minder, will motor from the gig and park for the night at a rest area or truck-stop. Young won't see the band until soundcheck the next day, though he's in radio contact with them. On board the bus, Young played the perfect host breaking out the Budweisers and demonstrating his fruit-juice machine. "Natural fruit juice is great, better'n any drug," he explained. "Gives you a natural sugar rush."

By way of a preamble, he also vented some spleen about the mauling doled out to him by the British music press on his last British visit, when he played heavy metal at Wembley Arena. He seemed especially incensed by some impertinent scribe who'd alluded to pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith's blow-dried hair. Reading between the lines, it appears the tour was a shambles on a musical and organisational level.

Today, Young seems balanced, positive and very clear about his objectives. "I think it's time to be positive," he said, looking across the table with eyes that could bore through steel. Tour manager Glenn Palmer says he always knows from a single glance if Young is unhappy about something. If he is, he beats a retreat and comes back later.

"I think if all the hippies and everything from the Sixties, if they're still complaining about every little fucking thing, if they're not happy about anything, it's their own fucking fault. 'Cos they're the ones who should have changed it. Time has gone by now and what we have is what we've done so far, and if they're still putting down everything that they're done then I really don't feel compassion for that."

I thought I heard the sound of distant cheering. "We should be proud of the things we have been able to do, and the positive aspects of who we are in the world. It's our own creativity, ingenuity, whatever you wanna call it. I don't think all that's dead in America, I think it's still there. I feel that the Sixties was a decade of idealism, and the Eighties is more of realism."

On the road, Young has time to think and write. By the time the Maker caught up with him, he'd already written a new song called This Old House and worked it into the set. It's about the enduring strength of family and a sense of identity in the face of hard times and repo men from the bank. "This old house of mine is built on dreams," Young concludes.

His writing has always flirted with cliche, and paradoxically he's often at his best in that area, working the edge between insight and platitude. Consequently, he's always been ready for the country, where homespun philosophy is the order of the day but only if it's been earned by hard experience. But, crucially, Young's work has been distinguished over the years by a mystical dimension beyond the experience of most artists. There' s a feverish, luminous undertow to his best songs. It's difficult to analyze, perhaps because his most powerful images are more visual than verbal.

I asked him about the new song Misfits. It's the odd-man-out on Old Ways, a strange collage of science fiction and apparently disconnected scenes, "all related" (according to the LA Times) "only by a modern isolation as profound as any ever experienced on the open range".

Young scratched his head, turned to look ahead through the windscreen, then pivoted back again. "There are a lot of science fiction overtones, time travel overtones, in Misfits at different places geographically, it could all have been happening at exactly the same time. All of the scenes in that song could have been happening simultaneously, and yet they're also separate. It's an interesting thing...."

"I dunno, it only took me a few minutes to write it. I picked up my electric guitar one night in the studio, I was by myself and I turned it up real loud and started playing and, I wrote it just that night. Just got into it. Jotted it down on a piece of paper.

"I try not to think about the songs that I write, I just try to write them. And I try not to edit them, because I think editing is a form of, ah..., I know there's a source where the music comes through you and words come through you, and editing is really, uh, something you do to something that you've thought about. If you think about it and you try to put it down, then you can edit it. If you're not thinking about it, you just open up and let it come through you, then editing it is... you're really taking a lot of, what's the word, ah, a lotta liberties by editing."

But if it's yours, aren't you allowed to edit it?

"Well that's the thing, I'm not sure that everything I write is mine, yhat's the difference. I think some of the things I write are mine, but I think some of it just comes through me. My mind is working behind the scenes and puts these things together without me consciously thinking of it, and then when the time is right it all comes out. That's more like, y'know, creation in the true sense of the word than it is contrivance".

"So it doesn't really need to be edited so long as you get it out right, get it out clean y'know, without second-guessing yourself every line thinking 'what are people gonna think of me if I write this?' That's something I try to stay away from. I try not to worry about what people are gonna think about it till after I've recorded it and it's to late to change it. Then I'll start worrying about it. But then it's too late for me to fuck it up, SO...."

Do you have to be in a certain mood to write?

"Yeah, it just kinda comes and goes. Sometimes I write first thing in the mornings. There's no rules. A lotta times I write driving vehicles or moving in vehicles, with no instruments, and I'll write the whole song and remember it all and know exactly what the music is before I even pick up an instrument. The whole thing, it just falls into place".

Do you ever dry up?

"Yeah. That happens. I just wait. I don't try to think of something cool to write. Because sometimes I won't have a record out for a long time, and then I'll have two or three out really fast. The time between Everybody's Rockin and Old Ways was a longer period of time than Buffalo Springfield or CSNY was together. I still wrote a lotta songs in that period, I wrote two and a half or three albums worth of material, so really I have a lot of stuff in the can that's been recorded, and a few songs that haven't been recorded."

The Neil Young roadshow seems to cut across several generations. The shows I saw in Rochester and Troy were both in arenas in front of some 8,000 people, a lot of them college students. "I just accepted this is what I'm doing now, I'm not 25, I'm not jumping around just doing rock'n'roll, this is me, so I shouldn't try to be something I'm not. And once I accepted that in myself everything was alright. But it is hard sometimes to see a young crowd and to go out there and remember that I played in front of crowds that age when I was that age, and what I was like, and try not to be that way."

Doesn't it feel strange, singing songs like Once An Angel and talking about your family to a bunch of kids?

"If they can get something from that then fine, and last night they seemed to," said Young the day after the Rochester show. "Even though they're young, most of 'em are only a couple of years away from being married or having a meaningful relationship, and a lot of them are married. There's a lot more older people at the back that aren't running up to the front, so it's there for all of them. A lot of them come because to them it's history - they're seeing things they've only heard about."

The sets contain material from every phase of Young's career, though he's whittled down the demented electric side of his music. His main chance to stretch out guitar is in Down By The River, where he attacks his familiar black Gibson as Joe Alien modifies the long-familiar bassline slightly. Rufus Thibodeaux, the cajun fiddler from Louisiana who's built like Mount Rushmore, perches himself immovably stage left, jigging massively in time to Young's twisted soloing - though it's noticeable that Young's playing is more organised and better sculptured than it might have been in a show with Crazy Horse. Young's even written a punchy new song about his band, called Grey Riders.

The sets open with an old song, Country Home. There are several tunes from Old Ways, plus Looking For A Love, Helpless and a beautifully loping Comes A Time as reference points. The best reception of the night, though is not for Heart Of Gold but for the haunted Old Man, with the evergreen Sugar Mountain running it a close second.

"I do Sugar Mountain really for the people more than I do for myself," Young explained. "I think I owe it to them, 'cos it seems to really make them feel happy, so that's why I do that. They pay a lotta money to come and see me and I lay a lotta things on 'em that they've never heard before, and I think I owe it to them to do things they can really identify with. It's such a friendly song, and the older I get and the older my audience gets the more relevant it becomes, especially since they've been singing it for 20 years. It really means a lot to them, so I like to give 'em the chance to enjoy that moment." He paused for a moment, then the familiar wolfish grin spread across his face. "I had it on the B side of almost every single that I had out for 10 years".

No doubt this careful consideration of the audience's wishes stems from the balance Young has managed to strike in both his personal and professional lives. His wife isn't on the road with him this time as she usually is - she's back at the California ranch looking after the kids, a brother and sister. Young has another son, who suffers from cerebral palsy. This has profoundly influenced his outlook on life. "I've always felt that God made my son the way he is because he was trying to show me something, so I try to do as much positive as I can for people like that, and for families of kids who are handicapped. I have a lot of compassion for those people and a lot of understanding for them that I didn't have before, and I think it's made me a better person.

"And I think since I have the power to influence so many people, it was only natural that I should be shown so many extremes of life, so I could reflect it somehow. Nothing is perfect y'know, that's it."

Looking back 10 years or more, Young can now put his well documented bleak period into a longer perspective, After Harvest had clocked up sales running into millions, Young's fans were horrified first by the release of the double album Journey Through The Past, a bitty and meaningless "soundtrack" for Young's rarely-seen film of the same name. After the album came out, the film company refused to release the movie, to Young's continuing disgust.

Next came the nerve-shredding live album Time Fades Away, a dingy and macabre affair notably devoid of the pure melodies beloved of his soft-rockin' aficionados. Young, feeling boxed in by commercial success, had steered away from it. The chart performance of Heart Of Gold had brought him a lot of things he found he didn't want.

"I guess at that point I'd attained a lot of fame and everything that you dream about when you're a teenager. I was still only 23 or 24, and I realised I had a long way to go and this wasn't going to be the most satisfying thing, just sittin' around basking in the glory of having a hit record. It's really a very shallow experience, it's actually a very empty experience".

"It's nothing concrete except ego-gratification, which is extremely unnerving kind of feeling. So I think subconsciously I set out to destroy that and rip it down, before it surrounded me. I could feel a wall building up around me."

To add insult to injury, his next studio recording was the harrowing Tonight's The Night, though with a perversity that was becoming typical of him. The latter wasn't released until after the subsequently-cut On The Beach. Both albums stand up strongly to this day. Both use the rock format as a means of redemption and rejuvenation, the very act of recording (no overdubs) serving as therapy.

"Tonight's The Night and On The Beach were pretty free records," Young pondered, lighting another unfiltered Pall Mall. "I was pretty down I guess at the time, but I just did what I wanted to do, at that time. I think if everybody looks back at their own lives they'll realise that they went through something like that. There's periods of depression, periods of elation, optimism and scepticism, the whole thing is.... it just keeps coming in waves".

"You go down to the beach and watch the same thing, just imagine every wave is a different set of emotions coming in. Just keep coming. As long as you don't ignore it, it'll still be there. If you start shutting yourself off and not letting yourself live through the things that are coming through you, I think that's when people start getting old really fast, that's when they really age".

"'Cos they decide that, they're happy to be what they were at a certain time in their lives when they were the happiest, and they say 'that's where I'm gonna be for the rest of my life'. From that minute on they're dead, y'know, just walking around. I try to avoid that."

One of the key tracks from On The Beach was Revolution Blues, a predatory rocker in which Young adopts the persona of a trigger-happy psychotic, eager to slaughter Laurel Canyon's pampered superstar residents. Reflecting on the song prods Young into some unsettling areas.

"That was based on my experiences with Charlie Manson. I met him a couple of times, and er.... very interesting person. Obviously he was quite keyed up."

Gulp. Before or.... after the Sharon Tate killings?

"Before. About six months before. He' s quite a writer and a singer, really unique - very unique, and he wanted very badly to get a recording contract. I was at (Beach Boys) Dennis Wilson's house when I met Charlie. Coupla times".

"The thing about Charlie Manson was you'd never hear the same song twice. It was one of the interesting things about him. He had a very mysterious power about him which I'm hesitant to even fuckin' think about, it's so strong and it was so dark, so I really don't like to talk about it very much. I don't even know why I brought it up."

Young stopped talking for a moment. Thought we'd lost him, but he continued.

"There is a saying that if you don't look the devil in the eye you're alright, but once you've looked him in the eye you'll never forget him, and there'll always be more devil in you than there was before".

"And it's hard to say, you know. The devil is not a cartoon character, like God is on one side of the page and he's on the other. The devil lives in every one and God lives in every one. There's no book that tells you when the devil said to God 'fuck you' and God said (makes a raspberry noise). All those books that are written are just one person's opinion".

"I can't follow that, but I can see these things in other people. You can see it and feel it. But Manson would sing a song and just make it up as he went along, for three or four minutes, and he never would repeat one word, and it all made perfect sense and it shook you up to listen to it. It was so good that it scared you."

A couple of years later, then, Young wrote Revolution Blues: "well I'm a barrel of laughs with my carbine on, I keep hopping till my ammunition's gone...."

So how did the superstar community take it, Neil?

"Well, see, I wasn't touring at the time, so I didn't really feel the reaction of On The Beach. Then when I went out on the road I didn't do any of it, so...."

He did however, perform the song on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion tour, to the discomfiture of the others. "David Crosby especially was very uncomfortable, because it was so much the darker side. They all wanted to put out the light, y'know, make people feel good and happy and everything, and that song was like a wart or something on the perfect beast."

When it came to the release of Tonight's The Night, Young again incurred the wrath and disbelief of people who thought they knew him fairly well. The album had been recorded with a Crazy Horse reconstituted after the death of songwriter and guitarist Danny Whitten, a close friend of Young's who'd given him early encouragement in his career. Whitten had been due to go out on tour with Young, but was too heavily dependent on heroin to cope. Young sent him home. The same night, Whitten died of an overdose. Time Fades Away documented the subsequent tour while Tonight's The Night was made in memory of Whitten and Bruce Berry, a CSNY roadie who also died from heroin.

Young rememberd the day he'd taken Tonight into the offices of Reprise, his record company at the time. "It was pretty rocky," he grinned. "I would describe that as a rocky day. They couldn't believe how sloppy and rough it was, they couldn't believe that I really wanted to put it out".

"I said 'that's the way it's going out'. It's a very important record, I think, in my general field of things. It still stands up. The original'Tonight's The Night was much heavier than the one that hit the stands. The original one had only nine songs on it. It was the same takes, but the songs that were missing were Lookout Joe and Borrowed Tune, a couple of songs that I added. They fit lyrically but they softened the blow a little bit".

"What happened was the original had only nine songs but it had a lot of talking, a lot of mumbling and talking between the group and me, more disorganised and fucked-up sounding than the songs, but they were intro's to the songs. Not counts but little discussions, three and four word conversations between songs, and it left it with a spooky feeling. It was like you didn't know if these guys were still gonna be alive in the morning, the way they were talking. More like a wake than anything else."

Why did you take it off, then?

"It was too strong," said Young slowly. "It was really too strong. I never even played it for the record company like that. We made our own decision not to do that. If they thought Tonight's The Night was too much the way it came out which they did, a lot of people - they're lucky they didn't hear the other one."

It was here that Young hit the lowest patch, spiritually, of his career, probably of his life. His impatience nowadays with the hippy generation, and his endorsement of a right-wing President, believed by many to be a dangerous lunatic, can probably be traced back to the traumas around the time of Tonight's The Night. Until then, the ride had been more or less free.

Was it, I queried, a case of Whitten's death being not only a personal tragedy, but a metaphor for a generation and a way of life? Or death?

"It just seemed like it really stood for a lot of what was going on," Young answered. "It was like the freedom of the sixties and free love and drugs and everything.... it was the price tag. This is your bill. Friends, young guys dying, kids that didn't even know what they were doing, didn't know what they were fucking around with. It hit me pretty hard, a lot of those things, so at that time I did sort of exorcise myself."

Did you feel guilty that perhaps you and people in your position had encouraged that?

"Somewhat, yeah, I think so. That's part of the responsibility of freedom. Freedom to do what you want with not much experience to realise the consequences. I didn't feel guilty, but I felt a little guilty."

It's fitting that Young's re-emergence in public with yet another shift in musical direction should coincide with a wave of new groups who acknowledge a debt to his past work. Green On Red's Dan Stuart freely admits that their Gas Food Lodging LP was heavily influenced by Young's epic Zuma collection ("If your gonna steal, steal from the best," as Stuart puts it). Jason & The Scorchers play Are You Ready For The Country, The Beat Farmers turn in a welt-raising treatment of Powderfinger, and Pete Wylie's just cut a version of The Needle And The Damage Done as an anti-heroin gesture. And Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn will reminisce about Young and Crazy Horse any time you like.

With half the material for a follow-up album to Old Ways already in the can, Young is in the middle of a renaissance of sorts. Not even the AIDS terror can dent his confidence.

"It is scary. You go to the supermarket and you see a faggot behind the fuckin' cash register. You don't want him to handle your potatoes. It's true! It's paranoid but that's the way it is even though it's not just gay people, they're taking the rap. There's a lotta religious people, of course, who feel that this is God's work. God's saying, y'know, "no more buttfucking or we're gonna getcha'."

Young cackled dementedly. "I don't know what it is. It's natural, that's one thing about it. It's a living organism or virus, whatever it is. I hope they find something to stop it. It's worse than the Killer Bees."

Young obviously isn't making a play for the Gay vote. They probably don't hold with that sort of thing in the country.

But his conception of the entire universe is, to say the least, unorthodox. "I'm not into organised religion. I'm into believing in a higher source of creation, realising that we're all just part of nature and we're all animals. We're very highly evolved and we should be very responsible for what we've learned.

"I even go as far as to think that in the plan of things, the natural plan of things, that the rockets and the satellites, spaceships, that we're creating now are really... we're pollinating, as a universe, and it's part of the universe. Earth is a flower and it's pollinating.

"It's starting to send out things, and now we're evolving, they're getting bigger and they're able to go further. And they have to, because we need to spread out now in the universe. I think in 100 years we'll be living on other planets."

On a more earthly plane, Young's excited about the prospect of playing a benefit for the people of Cheyenne, Wyoming, whose houses and land have been devastated by a freak sequence of natural disasters. Young's band and equipment will be airlifted in for the show, by National Guard C130 transport aircraft and by private jets loaned for the occasion by some giant corporations.

"There's something different about it," Young mused, "having the government help us get there so we can help the farmers. The National Guard's gonna help us load and unload, get in and outta the place, help us set up the stage. It's interesting."

But it's something else, above and beyond his this-land-is-your-land preoccupations, that gives Neil Young his lingering aura of menace and strange purpose. You can feel it when you talk to him, and it permeates all his best music.

He sees it something like this: "I've got a few demons, but I manage to co-exist with them. The demons are there all the time y'know, that's what makes you crazy, that's what makes me play my guitar the way I play it sometimes. Depends on the balance, how strong the demons are that night, how strong the good is".

"There's always a battle between good and evil in every second in your life, I think. In every judgment you make both sides are represented in your mind. You may hide the bad side, but it's there."

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