eil Young doesn't listen to records. "I'm more interested in what the music of the times is," he explains over juice and coffee in the café of his Chicago hotel, still wearing the same Chicago Blackhawks T-shirt he put on after the preceding night's show. "If it's on the radio or somebody else is playing a tape, that's how I hear music. It's what I hear in the environment." He must travel in a wide-open environment indeed, for he casually drops references to artists ranging from Trisha Yearwood to Pearl Jam, from R.E.M. to Patty Smyth. He flashes a goofy grin on the Harvest Moon inner sleeve bedecked in a Fishbone T-shirt.
Young discusses music – any music – with unabashed love; it's incredible to hear anyone talk about bands without a shred of attitude or exclusion. As one who helped popularize country rock in the Seventies, for instance, he maintains that today's country boom is the result of listeners losing interest in singer-songwriters like himself.
"I drove a lot of people away by singing so loud and abrasive and the feedback and all, and I'm not the only one who's done that to them," Young says. "A lot of people turned to country because it's more like Seventies rock & roll. Pop and rock have just changed their name to country. Garth Brooks – he's a pop star, like what's his name, Bryan Adams. But he sings about things that are more rural, more country values. People like to hear about things they can relate to, not just some posey kind of antilifestyle attitude or whatever."
As for rap, the bane of many of his peers' musical existence, Young practically jumps out of his chair with enthusiasm. "I love rap!" he declares with a sparkle in those familiar, piercing eyes, professing a particular fondness for Ice-T. "It's speaking to the people on the streets. It's a whole new way of communicating that's so open to saying exactly what the hell's on people's minds in a clever way, a way that you can listen to and move your body to. Similar to, like, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.' Dylan is early rap. What the hell's the difference?" To those who resist rap's charms, he adds, "This is the shit that's going to keep music alive – don't close it off because you don't understand it."
The new music with the clearest links to Young's work is grungy guitar rock. His turbulent instrumental squalls and Crazy Horse's thunderous backing – not to mention his flannel-centric wardrobe – echo through the work of Seattle's rising stars and a range of alternative artists from Dinosaur Jr. to the Jayhawks to Matthew Sweet. Many of today's postpunk college guitar bands claim him as a spiritual godfather; some of them – including Soul Asylum and the Pixies – covered Young songs on The Bridge, a 1989 tribute album.
Young is loath, however, to take credit as an influence on anyone. "It's not me, it's just the music," he says wearily. "I play it, and they play it. Link Wray was doing it a long time ago. Then Hendrix, now we've got all the grungers and the distortion thing. It's just going farther and farther, which it should. It's being developed."
Not since Young put Johnny Rotten and Elvis in the same song on Rust Never Sleeps in 1979, however, did he embrace the next wave as he did when he took Sonic Youth on the road with Crazy Horse in 1991. "They've got this thing happening that I enjoy," he says of the art-punk superheroes. "It's soothing to me; it was very soothing before I went onstage to hear that feedback through the cement walls."
The summit of noisy icons from two generations took its toll on Young, however. Playing in the center of a jacked-up guitar blitzkrieg for six months damaged his ears. "I had hyperacoustis," he says. "I heard everything very loudly. Now it's back to normal, but I still don't like going into loud places. I had to rest for a long time and get everything together.
"Those shows were really fucking loud," Young continues. "Loud in the way a crashing plane is loud, amped up for that war sound, that kind of thing. That's what we were going for."
The entire tour was shot through with the spirit of war, which started while Young and Crazy Horse were in rehearsals. Most overtly, Young put a huge microphone stand tied with a yellow ribbon at center stage and added a blistering version of "Blowin' in the Wind" to the set. "That war really left a mark on me," he whispers back in the bus. "We were playing so raucously, so violently, really like a bombardment. It was like we were there. It was very military sounding at times – big machinery, unbelievable power and destruction. That was our sound."
Young's bitterness over the gulf war, which lies behind a track on Harvest Moon titled "War of Man," has given way to excitement, tinged with skepticism, about Washington's new administration. "It has its comedic side," he says of the Clinton regime, "but it's cool that you go to places and a lot of working people are happy. They think that if things don't change right away, at least they've got somebody who knows who they are.
"But," Young adds, "I always try to get behind the guy steering the ship. That's the kind of guy I am."
It was a similar attitude that resulted in Young's most notorious political statements when he spoke out in support of Ronald Reagan in the early Eighties. Despite his ultimate dissatisfaction with the past twelve years of Republican rule, though, he has no wish to recant those opinions.
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