"You don't mind doing this on the move, do you?" Neil Young asks as he slides behind the wheel of his 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe, one of the roughly 35 cars in his ever-expanding collection.
Spring has barely arrived, but the temperature in the hills south of San Francisco has already hit the nineties, and Young is dressed accordingly – his shirt is open, and he's wearing a pair of frayed cutoffs, sneakers and blue shades. Bits of gray have streaked his familiar sideburns and shoulder-length hair, but Young still looks very much as he did 17 years ago, when he moved up here to redwood country and bought what he now calls Broken Arrow Ranch.
The ranch was one of the rewards of Young's first burst of success. After the Gold Rush, the third solo album he recorded after leaving Buffalo Springfield, reached the Top 10 in 1970, and both Déjà Vu and 4 Way Street, recorded with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, hit Number One.
For a while, CSNY seemed like the American Beatles, and Young was their John Lennon, the passionate, slightly eccentric rocker who gave the group its edge. But CSNY self-destructed, and after reaching Number One in 1972 with Harvest and the single "Heart of Gold," Young moved away from the mainstream. "This song put me in the middle of the road," Young wrote about "Heart of Gold" in his liner notes to his three-album retrospective, Decade. "Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
By 1979, when Young last sat for an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone, he had reached another peak, both critically and commercially, with the country-tinged Comes a Time and the punk-inspired Rust Never Sleeps. The Village Voice named him Artist of the Decade, and there was every reason to think he'd continue to maintain a high level of success in the Eighties.
But Young signed to David Geffen's newly formed Geffen Records early in the decade, and the pairing proved to be a frustrating one for both sides. The five albums Young recorded for the label rank as the worst selling of his career. His intermittently brilliant but quirky stylistic experiments – techno-rock on Trans (1982), rockabilly on Everybody's Rockin' (1983) and country on Old Ways (1985) – caused even his staunchest supporters to lose their patience.
Young insists that the label is the real villain behind that slump, and he even claims that his best work during the period was never released. Geffen, for its part, refuses to respond to Young's allegations. "I don't want to get into a pissing match with him," says label president Ed Rosenblatt.
No matter who was at fault, Young is clearly delighted to be back on Reprise, the Warner Bros. subsidiary he was with in the Seventies. He is also determined to prove that Geffen – which at one point even sued him for deliberately making noncommercial records – was wrong. But in typical Neil Young style, his first album for Reprise – though his strongest, most consistent effort in years – is hardly a sure commercial bet. This Note's for You features Young and the Bluenotes, a horn-powered nine-piece band; they work up a sweat on 10 blues tunes inspired by such early Young faves as Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker. And the album's title cut finds Young railing against rock & roll's increasing involvement with Madison Avenue.
"There's a line," Young says, "one of the first fucking lines that's ever been drawn where pop stars really have to show their stuff, show where they're really coming from. I mean, if you're going to sing for a product, then you're singing for money. Period. That's it. Money is what you want, and this is how you get it."
Over the course of the two sessions that made up this interview – the second one was also conducted on the move, in Young's 1954 Cadillac limousine – Young, who's now 42, was equally emphatic about his loyalty to the Bluenotes and even indicated that the gut-wrenching rock & roll he's played with Crazy Horse may be a thing of the past.
But Young has never been a one-band man, and he's already recording a new Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album up at his ranch. That LP is expected to be released this fall, and in the meantime Young and the Bluenotes will be hitting the road for an extended U.S. tour. As for the distant future, Young will no doubt keep everyone guessing – just as he has for the past two decades.
What prompted you to get back together with Crosby, Stills and Nash?
Well, there's a certain energy you get from singing with people you've known for 25 years. People who have been through all these changes with you. Gone up and down with you. Seen you do things that are wrong and seen you do things that are brilliant. Seen you fucked up to the max, you know? And you've seen them do all these things. And yet we're still here. Just to hear what it sounds like when we sing together after all these years – I was curious. I've wanted to do it for the last two or three years. And now it's possible. I think that CSNY has a lot to say. Especially Crosby. His presence is very strong. Him being strong and surviving and writing great songs and being part of a winner is really a good role model for a lot of people in the same boat.
So he's really cleaned up?
He's doing fine. His emotions are slightly shattered, because he's just abused his emotions for so long by not letting them out. But now that he's pure and can let his emotions out, his highs are real high, and his lows are real low. Those are just the extremes of his personality. But he pulls out of his lows, and they don't turn him toward any problem areas or anything.
How about Stills?
He's definitely the rowdiest of the four of us, as far as abuses and things like that. But he's at a time in his life when things are real important. He's just been married, and his wife's pregnant. There are a lot of new things happening. And he and I playing together is a nice resurgence.
He didn't seem so together when they profiled CSN on West 57th.
The thing that surprised me was the fact that CSN actually did the show. I mean, what are they gonna do next, Geraldo? And they obviously weren't thinking clearly, because every tour that CSN has ever done, Stephen has gone out the window. He blows out before he goes on the road. He blows out heavily. So what do they do? They set up a TV guy to be there when it happens. What kind of stupid move is that?
You two have had a stormy relationship.
We're like brothers, you know? We love each other, and we hate each other. We resent each other, but we love playing together. I see and hear so much in Stephen that I'm frustrated when it isn't on record or something. There have been a lot of frustrations through our whole lives with each other, but there's also been a lot of great music. He continuously blows my mind with the ideas that he has for my songs. He's one of the greatest musicians I've ever met in my life. Great singer. Incredible songwriter.
But what's he like as a person? He came off like a jerk on that show.
He's a tormented artist. He's the definition of the tormented artist. And he's a great fucking bluesman. But he's got a lot of monkeys on his back, and they're not letting him do his thing. I just hope he makes it.
And what's Nash like?
Nash is a very straight, very sincere kind of organized guy, dedicated to quality and very reliable. And he's an extremely good singer. Amazing pitch. He likes to be on top of it. He takes a lot of pride in being totally able to accomplish whatever it is that has to be done. Without Nash, there would be no Crosby, Stills and Nash at all. It would have been over a long time ago.
Are there plans for a CSNY tour?
They wanted to book a tour, and I said no way. I don't want to have anything to do with a tour. When the record's finished and we know what we've got, that's the time to talk about a tour.
Also, everyone needs to really get in shape if we tour. There's no way getting around the fact that a CSNY tour would be a nostalgia tour to a great degree. CSNY is Woodstock – it's that era, that whole generation. So why go out there and not be at our physical best? If people are looking at us as their brothers who they went through all these changes with, do they want to see somebody who's not together? No, they want to see someone who's super-strong, who's endured, who's a survivor and is still creative and looks better than ever.
If we go out there and fall on our ass, what are we? Dean Martin? All the alcoholics who went to see him, they didn't say, "Wow, look at Dean. He used to drink so much, but he got himself together and now he's strong, up there with Frank and Sammy." I feel sorry for the guy. He's in the fucking hospital.
That's a weird comparison, but in some ways it's very true. They're just another generation's heroes. So I think we have a responsibility, and I don't think we've lived up to it yet.
Crosby's recovered to a point. But he needs to recover his physical strength and endurance. His endurance is low because he's very big. And he moves very slowly. This is a problem that has to be solved. You can't go out there with all the spirit in the world. You have to have a physical body that can sustain the gruel of a world tour.
Well, there actually have been several Buffalo Springfield reunions in the last two years. At Stills's house. We just get together every couple of months and play. The original guys – Richie [Furay], Dewey [Martin], Bruce [Palmer], Stephen and I. We've done this three, maybe four times, and I'm sure we'll do it again.
Is there a chance you'll record with them?
It's crossed my mind, but I'm committed to CSNY, and there's no way I'm gonna do CSNY and Buffalo Springfield.
When you look back at that time – Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, the Sixties – how does it all seem now?
I had a great time. I think a lot of us had a great time back then. But I don't see myself as being stuck in the Sixties or anything like that – except that I still have long hair.
What about the idealism of the period? In "Hippie Dream," you sang, "The wooden ships are a hippie dream, capsized in excess."
I wrote that one for Crosby. But I guess it could have been for me, or for anybody. It's really about the excesses of our whole generation. From hippie to yuppie – I mean, it's been quite an evolution.
What do you think about drugs? A lot of people have an image of you as having been a big druggie.
That's a myth. I mean, how would I have kept this together for so long if I was on drugs? It'd be impossible. You could not do what I have done if you were into drugs. I mean, I used a few drugs. I smoked a lot of grass in the Sixties, continued to smoke grass into the Seventies and dabbled around in other drugs. But I never got hooked on... you know, never got out of hand with the harder drugs. I experimented, but I think I'm basically a survivor. I've never been an alcoholic. Never used heroin.
There was never any heroin directly around me, 'cause people knew how I felt about it. Anything that killed people, I didn't want to have. Anything that you had to have, that was bigger than you, I'm not for that.
"The Needle and the Damage Done," from Harvest, was one of the first anti-drug songs.
I wrote that about Danny Whitten. He'd gotten so wasted, so strung out, that he OD'd and almost died.
He finally did OD and die shortly after Harvest was released. Had he known the song was about him?
He must have. I never sat down with him and said, "Danny, listen to this." I don't believe that a song should be for one person. I just tried to make something that everyone could relate to.
What about cocaine? At the Last Waltz, you came on stage with a lump of cocaine under your nose.
I was fried for the Last Waltz. I was on my way out, falling onstage, and someone said, "Here, have some of this." I'd been up for two days, so I had some. And I was gone, you know? I'm not proud of it; I don't think people should see that and think, "Wow, that's cool."
When they were editing the film, they asked me if I wanted to have that removed. And Robbie Robertson said, "The way you are is kinda like what the whole movie's about – if you keep on doin' this, you're just gonna die, so we're going to stop doing it." They just caught me at a bad time. I had been on the road for 45 days, and I'd done two shows the night before in Atlanta, and I just got carried away, and we just blew it out the window. So I was still up.
But I don't do that anymore. I'm one of the lucky ones who was able to do that and able to stop. But it wasn't that easy to stop that lifestyle. I had to spend some time. The monster kept coming back every once in a while. I could stop for three or four weeks or a couple of months, then I'd get back into it, just for one or two nights, then I'd stop again. It took a long time. I don't even know if it's over now.
I haven't smoked any since October 7th. The main reason is that on October 7th, Elliot Roberts, my manager, called and told me that it looked like I was going to get off Geffen Records. And I had just smoked this big bomber, and I almost had a heart attack. I was so happy, but I was too high to enjoy it. So I stopped. I just didn't have my senses, my faculties together enough to enjoy the moment.
You'd been trying to get off Geffen for a long time.
They had a very negative viewpoint of anything that I wanted to do, other than straight pop records that were exactly what they wanted to hear. They saw me as a product that was not living up to their expectations. They didn't see me as an artist.
Geffen actually sued you for not making commercial records around the time of Old Ways.
There was a whole other record, the original Old Ways, which Geffen rejected. It was like Harvest II. It was a combination of the musicians from Harvest and Comes a Time. It was done in Nashville in only a few days, basically the same way Harvest was done, and it was co-produced by Elliot Mazer, who produced Harvest. There's Harvest, Comes a Time and Old Ways I, which is more of a Neil Young record than Old Ways II. Old Ways II was more of a country record – which was a direct result of being sued for playing country music. The more they tried to stop me, the more I did it. Just to let them know that no one's gonna tell me what to do.
I would have thought that Geffen would have wanted another Comes a Time or Harvest.
That's what we thought. I was so stoked about that record. I sent them a tape of it that had eight songs on it. I called them up a week later, 'cause I hadn't heard anything, and they said, "Well, frankly, Neil, this record scares us a lot. We don't think this is the right direction for you to be going in." The techno-pop thing was happening, and they had Peter Gabriel, and they were totally into that kind of trip. I guess they just saw me as some old hippie from the Sixties still trying to make acoustic music or something. They didn't look at me as an artist; they looked at me as a product, and this product didn't fit in with their marketing scheme.
When you look back at the five albums you made for Geffen, how do you think they stand up?
It's hard for me to disassociate the frustrations that I had during that period from the actual works I was able to create. I really tried to do my best during that period, but I felt that I was working under duress.
In all my time at Warner Bros., they never canceled a session. For any reason. And it happened several times at Geffen. It was blatant manipulation. It was just so different from anything I'd ever experienced.
They buried Everybody's Rockin'. They did less than nothing. They decided, "That record's not gonna get noticed. We're gonna press as few of those as possible and not do anything."
There was another record of mine, called Island in the Sun, which will probably never be heard. It was the first record I made for Geffen. The three acoustic songs on Trans are from it. But they advised me not to put it out. Because it was my first record for Geffen, I thought, "Well, this is a fresh, new thing. He's got some new ideas." It didn't really register to me that I was being manipulated. Until the second record. Then I realized this is the way it is all the time. Whatever I do, it's not what they want.
I'm gonna try and expose those things that I tried to do on Decade II, which should come out next year. Now that I'm back on Reprise, I can do whatever I want. So I can do Decade II. On Geffen, Decade II would have been impossible, 'cause it's a three-record set, and they would never do that. There's no way they could make the money they want to make out of it.
Trans surprised a lot of people. I don't think anyone expected you to make an album with synthesizers.
Trans resulted from a fascination with machines and computers taking over our lives. This image of elevators with digital numbers changing and people going up and down the floors – you know, people changing levels all under the control of a machine. And drum machines, the whole thing. And here I was, like an old hippie out in the woods, with all this electronic equipment. I mean, I was astonished.
I had a whole video thing in mind for that record. I had characters and images of beings that went with all the voices. There was one guy I called Tabulon, who sang on "Computer Age." He had a big speaker in his chest, and his face was a keypad, and he kept hitting his face. [He demonstrates, with a quick blow to his face.] But I could never get anybody to make the videos. I could never get anybody to believe that the fucking idea was any good.
What about 1986's Landing on Water? That album holds up pretty well.
That album was like a rebirth, just me coming back to L.A. after having been secluded for so long. I was finding my rock & roll roots again. And my vibrancy as a musician. Something came alive; it was like a bear waking up.
What had you been doing during hibernation?
I had just been up here in the woods. And I'd been working on a program with my son Ben, who has cerebral palsy. It just kind of took me away for a while, made me think about other things. I never really lost interest in music, but there were other things in my life that were real important. My real soul was taken up with things I didn't want to sing about.
Although if you listen to Trans, if you listen to the words to "Transformer Man" and "Computer Age" and "We R in Control," you'll hear a lot of references to my son and to people trying to live a life by pressing buttons, trying to control the things around them, and talking with people who can't talk, using computer voices and things like that.
It's a subtle thing, but it's right there. But it has to do with a part of my life that practically no one can relate to. So my music, which is a reflection of my inner self, became something that nobody could relate to. And then I started hiding in styles, just putting little clues in there as to what was really on my mind. I just didn't want to openly share all this stuff in songs that said exactly what I wanted to say in a voice so loud everyone could hear it.
Both of your sons have cerebral palsy. How badly handicapped are they?
Well, Ben, who's nine, is a great little guy, a wonderful little human being. He's got a really beautiful little face, and he's got a great heart, and he's a lot of fun to play with. We've got a really great train set that we play with, a huge train set that he controls with buttons and stuff.
He's learning how to communicate and play games and solve problems using a computer. And he is handicapped inasmuch as he has severe cerebral palsy, and he is a quadriplegic, and he's a nonoral child. So he has a lot of handicaps. Cerebral palsy is a condition of life, not a disease. It's the way he is, the condition he's in. He was brought into the world in this form, and this is the way he is. A lot of the things that we take for granted, that we can do, he can't do. But his soul is there, and I'm sure that he has an outlook on the world that we don't have because of the disabilities.
My son Zeke has very mild cerebral palsy. He's a wonderful boy, and he's growing up to be a strong kid. He's going to be 16 in September, and one of the things he really wants to do now is get his driver's license. He's a great guy, a great kid, and he's got a great heart.
What causes cerebral palsy?
No one knows. That's the thing. Just why they were born with cerebral palsy is a question that Pegi [Young's wife] and I ask, and Carrie [Snodgress, Zeke's mother] and I ask. There's no way to tell. My third child, Amber, is just a little flower, growing like a little flower should. It took Pegi a lot of preparation to get ready to have another kid because it was really hard for us to face the chance that things might not work out right. But so many doctors told us that it had nothing to do with anything. I went and got myself checked, because I was the father of both kids. And the doctors said, "It may be hard for you to believe this, but you had two kids, and there's no connection between them at all. It's a fluke that both have cerebral palsy." Often in my life I've felt that I was singled out for one reason or another for extreme things to happen. This was hard to deal with. We've been dealing with it, and we've learned to turn it around into a positive thing and to keep on going. It was something that brought Pegi and I really close together, just having the strength to have another child and having her be such a beautiful little girl and having everything work out. Just believing. Coming around to believing that it's okay for us to try again.
In 1986 you put on a concert to raise money for a school for the handicapped.
The Bridge School. We've got it going now. Ben goes there. Learning how to communicate, basically, is what the school is all about.
We spent two years in another program. It was an almost Nazi kind of program. They had us doing these things that didn't help our child, but they had us convinced that if we didn't do the program, we were not doing the right thing for the kid. And it kept us busy all the waking hours of the day, seven days a week, forever – until the kid was better.
We had no time to ourselves. Can you imagine what that's like? We couldn't leave the house. We had to be there doing this program, and it was an excruciatingly difficult thing for the kid to go through, because he was crying almost all day, it was so hard. We lasted a couple of years before we just couldn't do it anymore.
When we left that, we went to a simpler type of program, and we decided to stop concentrating on the physical side so much and start trying to get the kid to communicate. It's our life's work almost now.
It was the most difficult thing I think I've ever done. That's why when someone says they can't do something because it's too hard, it makes me mad. I get upset about that.
How much has your kids' condition affected your political outlook?
I think it's affected it quite a bit. I became much more involved in family, taking care of the family, making sure the family was secure. And I related to Reagan's original concept of big government and federal programs fading away so that communities could handle their own programs, like day care. That was the crux of his domestic message, and I thought the idea was good. I thought it would bring people together. But it was a real idealistic thing, and people didn't really come together.
You got a lot of flak for coming out in support of Reagan in 1984. Were there other reasons he appealed to you?
I was very disillusioned with Jimmy Carter. On a political level, I don't think we ever should have given back the Panama Canal. I just have a gut feeling that that was a huge mistake made out of guilt, not out of reasoning. He was going to make up for all the other bad things we'd done in the world by giving back the Panama Canal. I also think it was wrong to have let the armed forces deteriorate to a point where our strength was less than it had been at a time when other superpowers were growing. I just don't think it was good ball playing. I'm not a hawk. I'm not one who wants to go to war and flex muscles and everything, but I just don't believe that you can talk from a weakness. I think it is as straightforward as that. Everybody in the world is playing hardball, and if we say we're not going to play hardball anymore, we're playing powder puff, we're going to start by putting down the hardball, I don't think it's going to work. People are going to confuse that as a weakness and take advantage of it.
Mondale, as far as I was concerned, was not going to do much different from what Carter had done. So I was for Reagan, and I thought it was an important issue. Now, to be for a president doesn't mean that you agree with everything that president does. But I thought that was an important issue, and I thought that was the right way to go, and I still stand behind it.
What do you think about the way things turned out?
Well, so many things have happened. I think he really did want to do the things that he said he wanted to do. I was disappointed in many of the things that happened during his administration. But I thought that the ideas that were behind a lot of the things he tried to do were things that I could relate to. I just couldn't back away from that.
Who do you support in the current presidential race?
Well, I would not like to see George Bush as president of the United States. I don't think the former leader of the CIA should be president. We need someone with compassion, someone who has a lot of feelings and a lot of savvy. That's why I don't see one person at this point. I think that the one person I would like to see as president of the United States is Bill Bradley. But he's not going to be a candidate. Unfortunately, I don't think the Democrats have anyone who can beat Bush. I like Jackson, and I kind of like Dukakis. But I think Jackson's the best. He's the guy I would like to see just for interest's sake. I would like to see what would happen, because there would be a lot of change.
Musically, you seem to be obsessed with change. At Geffen you went through synth rock, country and rockabilly, and now your first album on Reprise is a blues record.
It's just the way I am. When I was in school, I would go for six months wearing the same kind of clothes. Then all of a sudden I'd wear all different clothes. It's change. It's always been like that.
You've taken a lot of heat for all the stylistic changes.
When people think that I'm just doing this on a whim, it discounts the music. Music is immediate to me. It's something that's happening right now, and it's a reflection of what's going on with the people who are making it. It has nothing to do with what they did or what they are going to do.
You know, I used to be pissed off at Bobby Darin because he changed styles so much. Now I look at him and I think he was a fucking genius. I mean, from "Queen of the Hop" to "Mack the Knife." Dig that. And it didn't mean that he didn't believe in "Queen of the Hop" when he turned around and did a Frank Sinatra thing.
Yet I come up against this because I experiment around and I play different kinds of music. In my eyes, it doesn't make what I'm doing any less valid. Right now I love the Bluenotes, to a point where it feels so right to me. I'll do other things, but I think I'm gonna come back to this over and over again. I mean, playing with a horn section and playing with this band is just so great.
I think it's the best support I've had for the kind of music I was into.Everything has come together at the right time for this. There's a special thing that happens when the music is right. When it's not hard to do. When things aren't a problem. And you just play, and everybody likes it, and they start grooving. That makes me write a new song every morning when I wake up, instead of thinking, "Well, if I write this, are the guys gonna be able to play it, or have I got the right band, or do I know anybody who really understands who I am, who I can actually play music with?"
Yet you said something similar when you did the Old Ways record and toured with the International Harvesters – that you were happy and that country was what you'd be doing from then on.
At the time, I really did feel good doing it. And it was a lot of fun. And then one morning I woke up and all I could hear was this massive fucking beat. And my guitar was just rising out of it. I just heard rock & roll in my head, so fucking loud that I couldn't ignore it.
And so you went back to Crazy Horse – something you've done time and again throughout your career.
That's true, and I may come back to Crazy Horse again some day, but it seems more and more doubtful to me. The kind of music I played with Crazy Horse was a younger kind of music. And I'm not younger –I'm older. And the experience that I have of playing all the different kinds of music that I've played so intensely has a place to come to in the Bluenotes. I can incorporate everything I've done in my life into this band – blues, country, rock & roll. Nothing else that I had done in the past had the kind of passion that Crazy Horse had, but the Bluenotes do. So this is what makes me wonder what's gonna happen with Crazy Horse.
You've just finished a full-length video called "Muddy Track," which is about one of your last tours with Crazy Horse.
I had two little video-8 cameras, which I left running all the time. I would just come into rooms and put them down on the table. And the point of view is really from the camera. The camera takes on an identity – its name is Otto – and people start talking to the camera. And this camera saw a lot of things that really go down on a tour that are not cute or funsy-wunsy. It's not like the pop-band-on-the-road type of thing. There's a lot of guts in it, a lot of feeling.
The great thing about Crazy Horse is that they're not technically great players, but they have a lot of passion.
Well, that's what Crazy Horse is all about. And they bring out a part of me that's very primitive. We really put out a lot of emotion – which is easy for a kid to relate to. So it's very childlike. I've had some great times with Crazy Horse.
How do you feel about playing that kind of rock & roll when you're in your forties?
Muddy Track covers a lot of that. Covers that feeling, you know? There's some wild stuff in there where we do speed metal. A lot of the music is only the beginnings and ends of songs. The songs themselves aren't there. It's like the interviews are only the interviewer. And you hardly ever see me. You only hear questions. It's an interesting concept of your point of view. And it talks about what it's like to be 41, 42, and still be doing that kind of music. And the question is, how long can you keep doing it? And really be doing it? Or do you become a reenactment of an earlier happening? That's a question I ask myself.
Do you think Crazy Horse started to become a reenactment?
Toward the end, it was starting to. I could feel it starting to slip away. And I never wanted to be in front of people and have them pay to see me when I'm not 100 percent there. And if you feel that energy slipping away, then you've got to fold your deck, you know, get out.
So are you saying that rock & roll is really a younger person's medium?
I'm not really sure. There's no doubt that it is a younger person's medium. The question is whether it can also be an older person's medium. That's why I love the Bluenotes. They afford me the same kind of passion and expression as rock & roll, but in a more experienced and evolved way. So that's why I feel real good about the music I'm playing now. It's something that I believe in and that I'm comfortable with. It's real; it's what's really happening to me now in my life.