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 follow-up to Harvest, could have been a huge album . . .
If it had been commercial.