Rolling Stone caught up with Neil Young in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I was impressed with how well the new songs came off live — the crowd really liked them. Do you get that sense from the stage?
On the stage, I’m mostly so into what I’m doing that I don’t really realize what the crowd is up to, but I can hear them at the end, and each song, they seem to react more and more to, and there are some that they’re kind of shocked at, like when we do “Families,” and they see all of those soldiers over there and they see some of the images that go with it, it reminds them of what the songs are about. The songs are important songs, even though they’re just folk songs. They’re no big deal, but they’re just talking about things that some people feel. When they hear what you say, what they think, it just frees them up, it’s like someone having a voice for them.
“Find the Cost of Freedom” was very powerful. I have rarely heard a crowd so still and quiet.
It’s the real deal, it’s not about entertainment. This is what’s so funny about what’s going on today. People make a record, I make a whole album about this war, and some people are still stupid enough to say that I just did it for the money because I’m an old fart. They’re out of touch. It’s not about the entertainment business, it’s about a fucking war that people are getting killed in. Musicians, you can only ignore things for so long, and things that people say start soaking in on you, and it just reflects everything you hear on the street. There’s nothing new in any of this.
I think that of all the upsetting things going on, not letting us see the caskets. . .
If he went to a funeral, which he has never done, if he did, they’re afraid it would cause more television coverage for the war. I’m pretty sure — I would even go out on a limb and say that by the time this is printed, that he will finally go to a funeral, because he’s slowly starting to do the things that are obvious that he’s done that don’t make any difference to anything other than people’s feelings. Those are the things he can fix. The other things, where he screwed the country out of billions and billions of dollars, and thousands of lives, and ruined our reputation around the world, those things aren’t going to change by going to a funeral.
When you first booked this tour, you didn’t have those songs yet, right?
No. I felt them.
How quickly did they come to you?
They came in a period of about a week and a half.
Is that the fastest you’ve done an album?
I don’t know. Tonight’s the Night was pretty fast. I’ve done a few fast ones. Quickness has nothing to do with it, it’s how into it you are, and how important it is to be good. It’s not important to have every note perfect, but it’s important to have the message felt, and I like to record a version where I’m singing live. I don’t like to overdub. So if I’m delivering and I can see the picture and I can feel like I’m talking to people with my performance, that’s it for me. That’s all I need, I don’t need anything else. If I’m into something a lot, like I was this, then it happens real fast. That doesn’t mean I threw it off or anything. It’s physically draining and mentally exhausting to do it that fast, but when it’s coming, it’s a gift. It’s all a gift. You can’t turn it down. You’ve got to stay open all the time.
They worked well with Crosby, Stills and Nash, they took the place of the choir, really. I felt that when they translated to stage, they sounded almost better.
Yeah, well, it’s live, and I love to hear the choir singing along with us, too. In some cases, in the audience, you can hear the audience singing the songs, and time is going by, and they’re getting to know them better. So it’s the real thing, real people and their feelings.
How did you put together the show’s set list?
We rehearsed for about ten days for the tour. We tried sprinkling my songs throughout the show, and that didn’t work, because they disturbed everything. We put them all together, basically, and isolated other ones. Having four in a row here and having the bulk of it done in one place, that took us almost two weeks to discover, that that was the way to do it. We mostly worked on remembering what we were doing and the old songs, you have to practice and remember them.
For a good twenty-five years, you didn’t tour with these guys. Why, in the past six years, have you done three of them?
I think it’s a time of life where this reuniting with your friends that you had when you were a kid and when you were growing up, it’s a big part of life, keeping those relationships going. I like playing with these guys, and I like playing with Crazy Horse. It’s all different.
Have you thought at all about what’s next?
I really don’t know right now. Maybe by the end of the tour I’ll have some idea, maybe I won’t. I really haven’t thought about it. I just wait for it to happen.
You’ve been off the road for about two years, right?
Yes. The longest I’ve been off the road since I started touring.
How does it feel to be back in the swing of things?
It feels pretty good. I feel good about the way we’re doing it and everything, we still have energy to play. We played a show last night and traveled and still have energy, so I’m grateful for that. I’m enjoying it. I’m having a great time doing it.
How about the boxed set? It’s been sixteen years —
Yeah, it’s been a long time. It’s a lot of music. It’s going to come out, and we get closer and closer to having it finished. I’m not exactly sure when it’s coming out, but I don’t think it’s going to be a year from now when it will be out, I think it will be out before then. We have a lot of it finished now.
Will it be chronological?
Yeah, there will be a series of sets. There are four volumes, and each volume has a number of CDs in it. It’s a big set, but it’s a chronological thing. It’s a trip from my first recording up through the most recent ones. That’s how we can divide it up.
Where will the first one stop?
The first one stops in 1971 or ’72, I think it’s ’72.
Is there Squires stuff on there?
Yeah, there’s four Squires songs. There’s a lot of stuff people haven’t heard before.
Is there going to be a video component?
Yes. There’s a lot of video stuff that’s going to be in it. There’s going to be a live performance, actually, two live acoustic performances, solo acoustic performances, that are groups of songs, long groups of songs, full sets. And it’s kind of interesting to see the early Seventies and late Sixties that way. With this funky old 16-millimeter film and everything.
I’ve heard about that Fillmore East show from ’70 with Crazy Horse — is that going to be on there?
I believe that’s going to be in the first volume. That’s a very, very hot little number right there.
I’ve heard some of the shows, but never with great sound quality.
These are good. These are eight-tracks — or eight-track multi-track mix downs.
So do you tape every show you do?
These ones, we’re running a digital. I’ve done a lot of recording and filming of things over the years, just to keep a record. I like to collect things, so I just keep track of it.
Are you thinking of something like Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series one day?
That’s kind of like what the archives are like, really. It’s that kind of a thing. It will be similar to Bob’s thing. It’s going to be a series of live records — there are live records over a period of about four years. That’s a numbered set that will come out periodically. Some of them will be free; they will be on compilation records where there are new things in them. They’re all new things, but some of them are things that have never been on record.
How about the unreleased albums?
Those are all in the archives, and as you chronologically get to that period, if there was a finished album, it will be there, and it will also be possible to listen to the songs in the order they were recorded, so everything in the order it was recorded, that’s the way the archive works. You can get to a certain period in time and you see, “Oh, four of these songs were in Homegrown, and that was released a year and a half later,” and with the DVD and computers and everything, you can jump around and see how things are connected. It’s good, the technology makes it real possible to develop all that. It’s almost like a video game of music or something, where you can choose tracks, where they come from in chronology and what albums they were in, even though they’re all spread out chronologically. Stuff like that. It’s interesting for collectors.
I’m fascinated by your Hank Williams guitar. Can you tell me how you got that?
I bought it from a friend in Nashville. A friend turned me on to this old dude who had it, and I went right down there and I didn’t know which one it was, and I tried it all, and I chose that one, and I said, “This is the one I like, I don’t know if this is the one.” And it was the one so he had it there, and he had several D-28’s. But he didn’t want anybody to take it if they didn’t know what it was. And then I had to buy it. It was a good guitar. It plays really well. I’ve been using it. I know some people think I shouldn’t, because it’s Hank Williams’ guitar, but I think it’s made to play. I get a lot out of it.
Have you given any thought to where it’s going next? You sang in the song that “It’s just yours for a while.’
I don’t know, I don’t know where it’s going. I hope it’s not going too far.
I’ve heard you say that you were hesitant about working again with Crazy Horse because of the noise onstage and everything. Is that still a concern?
It’s one of the concerns, but I don’t think that would stop me from working with them. I think it’s just that we have to plan on it. There’s a lot of physical abuse that happens during those shows, and it’s just a matter of how long you can do that. I still love doing it. I’m not going to stop doing it. I love playing with Crazy Horse, they’re great. They don’t sing like these guys, but they play like — it brings out a whole other part of me.