Nearing 30, Neil Young is the most enigmatic of all the superstars to emerge from Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. His often cryptic studies of lonely desperation and shaky-voiced antiheroics have led many to brand him a loner and a recluse. Harvest was the last time that he struck the delicate balance between critical and commercial acceptance, and his subsequent albums have grown increasingly inaccessible to a mass audience.
Young's first comprehensive interview comes at a seeming turning point in his life and career. After an amicable breakup with actress Carrie Snodgrass, he's moved from his Northern California ranch to the relative hustle and bustle of Malibu. In the words of a close friend, he seems "frisky...in an incredible mood." Young has unwound to the point where he can approach a story about his career as potentially "a lot of fun."
The interview was held while cruising down Sunset Boulevard in a rented red Mercedes and on the back porch of his Malibu beach house. Cooperative throughout, Young only made a single request: "Just keep one thing in mind," he said as soon as the tape recorder had been turned off for the last time. "I may remember it all differently tomorrow."
Why is it that you've finally decided to talk now? For the past five years journalists requesting Neil Young interviews were told you had nothing to say.
There's a lot I have to say. I never did interviews because they always got me in trouble. Always. They never came out right. I just don't like them. As a matter of fact, the more I didn't do them the more they wanted them; the more I said by not saying anything. But things change, you know. I feel very free now. I don't have an old lady anymore. I relate it a lot to that. I'm back living in Southern California. I feel more open than I have in a long while. I'm coming out and speaking to a lot of people. I feel like something new is happening in my life.
I'm really turned on by the new music I'm making now, back with Crazy Horse. Today, even as I'm talking, the songs are running through my head. I'm excited. I think everything I've done is valid or else I wouldn't have released it, but I do realize the last three albums have been a certain way. I know I've gotten a lot of bad publicity for them. Somehow I feel like I've surfaced out of some kind of murk. And the proof will be in my next album. Tonight's the Night, I would say, is the final chapter of a period I went through.
Why the murky period?
Oh, I don't know. Danny's death probably tripped it off. Danny Whitten [leader of Crazy Horse and Young's rhythm guitarist/second vocalist]. It happened right before the Time Fades Away tour. He was supposed to be in the group. We [Ben Keith, steel guitar; Jack Nitzche, piano; Tim Drummond, bass; Kenny Buttrey, drums; and Young] were rehearsing with him and he just couldn't cut it. He couldn't remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to L.A. "It's not happening, man. You're not together enough." He just said, "I've got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?" And he split. That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he'd ODed. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and...insecure.
Why, then, did you release a live album?
I thought it was valid. Time Fades Away was a very nervous album. And that's exactly where I was at on the tour. If you ever sat down and listened to all my records, there'd be a place for it in there. Not that you'd go there every time you wanted to enjoy some music, but if you're on the trip it's important. Every one of my records, to me, is like an ongoing autobiography. I can't write the same book every time. There are artists that can. They put out three or four albums every year and everything fucking sounds the same. That's great. Somebody's trying to communicate to a lot of people and give them the kind of music that they know they want to hear. That isn't my trip. My trip is to express what's on my mind. I don't expect people to listen to my music all the time. Sometimes it's too intense. If you're gonna put a record on at 11:00 in the morning, don't put on Tonight's the Night. Put on the Doobie Brothers.
Time Fades Away, as the followup to Harvest, could have been a huge album . . .
If it had been commercial.
As it is, it's one of your least selling solo albums. Did you realize what you were sacrificing at the time?
I probably did. I imagine I could have come up with the perfect followup album. A real winner. But it would have been something that everybody was expecting. And when it got there they would have thought that they understood what I was all about and that would have been it for me. I would have painted myself in the corner. The fact is I'm not that lone, laid-back figure with a guitar. I'm just not that way anymore. I don't want to feel like people expect me to be a certain way. Nobody expected Time Fades Away and I'm not sorry I put it out. I didn't need the money, I didn't need the fame. You gotta keep changing. Shirts, old ladies, whatever. I'd rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way. If that's the price, I'll pay it. I don't give a shit if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million. It doesn't make any difference to me. I'm convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it's coincidence. I just appreciate the freedom to put out an album like Tonight's the Night if I want to.
You sound pretty drunk on that album.
I would have to say that's the most liquid album I've ever made. [Laughs] You almost need a life preserver to get through that one. We were all leaning on the ol' cactus...and, again, I think that it's something people should hear. They should hear what the artist sounds like under all circumstances if they want to get a complete portrait. Everybody gets fucked up, man. Everybody gets fucked up sooner or later. You're just pretending if you don't let your music get just as liquid as you are when you're really high.
Is that the point of the album?
No. No. That's the means to an end. Tonight's the Night is like an OD letter. The whole thing is about life, dope and death. When we [Nils Lofgren, guitars and piano, Talbot, Molina and Young] played that music we were all thinking of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, two close members of our unit lost to junk overdoses. The Tonight's the Night sessions were the first time what was left of Crazy Horse had gotten together since Danny died. It was up to us to get the strength together among us to fill the hole he left. The other OD, Bruce Berry, was CSNY's roadie for a long time. His brother Ken runs Studio Instrument Rentals, where we recorded the album. So we had a lot of vibes going for us. There was a lot of spirit in the music we made. It's funny, I remember the whole experience in black and white. We'd go down to S.I.R. about 5:00 in the afternoon and start getting high, drinking tequila and playing pool. About midnight, we'd start playing. And we played Bruce and Danny on their way all through the night. I'm not a junkie and I won't even try it out to check out what it's like...but we all got high enough, right out there on the edge where we felt wide-open to the whole mood. It was spooky. I probably feel this album more than anything else I've ever done.
Why did you wait until now to release 'Tonight's the Night'? Isn't it almost two years old?
I never finished it. I only had nine songs, so I set the whole thing aside and did On the Beach instead. It took Elliot [manager Elliot Roberts] to finish Tonight's the Night. You see, awhile back there were some people who were gonna make a Broadway show out of the story of Bruce Berry and everything. They even had a script written. We were putting together a tape for them and in the process of listening back on the old tracks, Elliot found three even older songs that related to the trip, "Lookout Joe," "Borrowed Tune" and "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown," a live track from when I played the Fillmore East with Crazy Horse. Danny even sings lead on that one. Elliot added those songs to the original nine and sequenced them all into a cohesive story. But I still had no plans whatsoever to release it. I already had another new album called Homegrown in the can. The cover was finished and everything, [laughs] Ah, but they'll never hear that one.
Okay. Why not?
I'll tell you the whole story. I had a playback party for Homegrown for me and about ten friends. We were out of our minds. We all listened to the album and Tonight's the Night happened to be on the same reel. So we listened to that too, just for laughs. No comparison.
So you released 'Tonight's the Night.' Just like that?
Not because Homegrown wasn't as good. A lot of people would probably say that it's better. I know the first time I listened back on Tonight's the Night it was the most out-of-tune thing I'd ever heard. Everyone's off-key. I couldn't hack it. But by listening to those two albums back to back at the party, I started to see the weaknesses in Homegrown. I took Tonight's the Night because of its overall strength in performance and feeling. The theme may be a little depressing, but the general feeling is much more elevating than Homegrown. Putting this album out is almost an experiment. I fully expect some of the most determinedly worst reviews I've ever had. I mean if anybody really wanted to let go, they could do it on this one. And undoubtedly a few people will. That's good for them, though. I like to see people make giant breakthroughs for themselves. It's good for their psyche to get it all off their chests, [laughs] I've seen Tonight's the Night draw a line everywhere it's been played. People who thought they would never dislike anything I did fall on the other side of the line. Others who thought "I can't listen to that cat. He's just too sad,"or whatever..."His voice is funny." They listen another way now. I'm sure parts of Homegrown will surface on other albums of mine. There's some beautiful stuff that Emmylou Harris sings harmony on. I don't know. That record might be more what people would rather hear from me now, but it was just a very down album. It was the darker side to Harvest. A lot of the songs had to do with me breaking up with my old lady. It was a little too personal...it scared me. Plus, I had just released On the Beach, probably one of the most depressing records I've ever made. I don't want to get down to the point where I can't even get up. I mean there's something to going down there and looking around, but I don't know about sticking around.
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