Neil Young's Rough Ride: A Look Back at the Freedom of Speech Tour

The rocker opens up on his new documentary "CSNY Déjà Vu," the presidential election and the future

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When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tore into "Let's Impeach the President" in Atlanta in August 2006, they faced an overwhelming chorus of boos and raised middle fingers. The band seemed calm onstage, but today Neil Young says he feared for his safety throughout the entire Freedom of Speech Tour.

"I was a nervous wreck by the end of that thing," he says. "We had to deal with death threats and bomb-sniffing dogs the whole time." The Atlanta concert is a pivotal scene in CSNY Déjà Vu, a documentary chronicling the tour, directed by Bernard Shakey (a.k.a. Young), which premiered at this year's Sundance. Young recently spoke with Rolling Stone about the documentary, the presidential election and his plans for the future.

Rolling Stone: Why do you call yourself Bernard Shakey when you make a movie?

Neil Young: Well, Neil Young's kind of a musician. I just think that my name is a distraction from the films that I make. Bernard Shakey doesn't do interviews, either.

RS: How did you first get the idea to make this movie?

Young: After I wrote Living With War I was making videos for all the songs for the Web site. That's how I met [television journalist] Mike Cerre. He had some ideas for me, possibly going on MSNBC and CNN and doing little special things on there that had to do with the album. It was interesting, but that wasn't something that I really wanted to do.

I did become interested in the footage. When we decided to go on the road, it just seemed to be a natural step to have him come and cover the tour, since he had covered all of this footage that had to do with what the songs were about. And then, all of the other people that Mike Cerre had met through his news stories about the Iraq war and about Afghanistan, all the human interest things that he'd done yielded this incredible group of people that we had come to the concert.

So we would just go with them and go through the experience of coming and hearing the songs and seeing how other people reacted to them. So it really turns out to be a lot more about those people than it is about anything else.

RS: The movie really captures that crazy period of time just before the midterm elections.

Young: It was not a good time. It was a time when the country was so divided. That time was the turning point. And even though people's dreams didn't come true because the tide changed, it didn't really make a huge difference in what we were doing. Apparently, the Democratic Congress didn't have much of an effect, but at least you didn't feel so in the minority after that election.

RS: Do you think the country is in a better place now than it was when you made the film?

Young: I think there's been a shift. I think that time has a way of eroding things. The basis for this war was basically sand. The whole thing is a matter of how you look at it. And that's what the film is about. There's people who are looking at it one way and people looking at it another way. It's about what happens when a country does something like we're doing. There's very few times in American history this can compare to. Even though we tried to compare it to the Sixties in the film, it really doesn't compare to the Sixties. There are similarities, and yeah, we were there and we're still here and we're doing the same thing, and that's the "déjà vu" part of it. But really, it's pretty different.

I think after 9/11, people got kind of raw. Their nerves were raw. Their emotions were raw. And we took a very positive sentiment in the world towards us. And were able to convert it into something else. And there's a lot of — I think a lot of loss associated with that, that people feel in their hearts.

RS: Were you fully aware of audiences' negative reactions to the show in places like Georgia?

Young: We were aware of it, and we could see it. It was intense in Georgia. I was a nervous wreck by the end of that tour. I never want to do another tour like that in my life. I mean, that was so different from every other tour I've done. RS: What exactly made you nervous on the tour?

Young: Well, you know, death threats and bomb-sniffing dogs and everything every night, and people were glaring at you and standing up and giving you the finger. Just getting up in front of a lot of people makes you nervous. But when you know that some of them are really going to be angry at you, and you're in a crowd and it's a volatile situation, people have been drinking, whatever — you know, it makes you nervous. It was just that critical time in history where things were turning. Things were changing. At least, they didn't change that much, but the balance shifted. Those who feel the way we do had some hope and those who don't feel the way we do were angry that the change happened. And those people have got a voice and they have a reason for feeling the way they do. They strongly believe in the convictions. They believe in the military. They believe that we're doing the right thing for the world and they have every reason to be respected for their beliefs.

RS: I was interested in the part of the movie when you said that you made your Web site to sort of go around the media and talk directly to the people. Do you think that the media has dropped the ball on this whole war?

Young: Well, that's a loaded question. There's just so much media. There's just so much that it becomes saturation and people are numbed. Whether the media is telling the real story or not … They've told the story so many different ways at so many different times and they'll tell a story over and over again and then, they'll interview each other about it if they can't find anything new. It's mind-numbing. If you wanted to brainwash someone, you just give them the same information over and over and over again. So now, we have many multiple channels on television that do that. And if you watch one, you get slanted one way. If you watch the other, you get slanted the other way. So you've got to move around the variety to keep it balanced. And then, you know, even doing that, that means you're watching too much TV.

RS: Are you thinking about getting involved at all with the next election?

Young: I think I am involved, but I don't know, officially, what I'm going to be doing. I don't know really what to do as a citizen of Canada other than to voice my opinion. I don't have a vote at this time. I may support someone, if it looks like that person is a candidate.

RS: Are you inspired at all by the field of the candidates now?

Young: Definitely. I think there's interesting candidates on both sides of the fence. I like Obama. I think Hillary's got a lot of experience. It's a great feeling to hear Obama speak and to hear the way he can say things that many of us really feel. And that's a great feeling. There's nothing else like it out there. But is that enough? That's a question.

RS: Now that the movie has premiered at Sundance, what do you have coming up?

Young: Well, I just did thirty-one dates in the States, and I'm going over to do another twenty or so in Europe now. And I don't have any plans after that.

RS: What inspired you to play such rare songs as "Kansas," "Mexico" and "Campaigner" on that recent tour? What drew you back to that time period and those early songs?

Young: Well, you know, I wanted to be able to sing songs that I wanted to sing that felt right to me at the time. And I had done so many songs too many times that if I was going to do another tour, it had to be good for me. I had to want to do it, musically, in my soul. On this tour, I try to only do the songs that I feel like doing. And I'm doing songs that are mostly about relationships and feelings, and not doing any political songs for this tour. But that could change depending on how I feel.