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Q&A: The News According to Neil Young

Angry with Bush, the war in Iraq and American Idol, Young strikes back with Greendale, a concept album

Neil Young

Neil Young during 2003 Toronto Film Festival - 'Greendale' Press Conference at Delta Chelsea Hotel in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 6th, 2003.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty

IT’S LIKE A HUGE OVERCOAT: No matter how hot it gets, I have to fucking wear my overcoat,” Neil Young says in a hard, even voice. He is referring to that which he likes to discuss least: the past; his classic records and four decades as one of rock’s best-loved singer-songwriters. “I’m trying to get rid of it,” he says over coffee in a Los Angeles hotel suite. “It drags me down. I want to be as creative as I was when I started – to be as free as that.” On his current tour with distortion warriors Crazy Horse, Young, 57, proves how serious he is. Most of each night is given to Greendale, a new ten-song cycle that Young has turned into an album, a full-length movie and an eccentric stage production. Greendale is the story of a fictional American town and the extended family, the Greens, who live, love and struggle there: Grandpa, the outspoken patriarch and pioneer spirit of the clan; his son Earl, an unemployed artist and Vietnam vet; Earl’s daughter Sun, an aspiring environmental activist; and Jed, the black-sheep Green who kills a cop in a moment of panic and sets off a chain reaction of further tragedy and rebirth. Greendale is not Young’s first plunge into multimedia. He has directed idiosyncratic, loosely scripted films (usually under the nom de lens Bernard Shakey) since the early 1970s. In 1978, Young dramatized his own teenage rock & roll fantasies in Rust Never Sleeps, a legendary theatrical tour that spilled over into an album and concert movie of the same Neil Young name. But Greendale is a bold leap, in execution and theme, for Young. In concert and in the film (to be issued on DVD this fall), Young sings all the words; he and the Horse play the stark, bluesy music. But the cast – mostly Young’s family, friends and road crew – lip-sync and act out the lyrics with a home-spun earnestness that suits both Young’s zero tolerance for slickness and the urgent truth inside his sprawling tale: America is in deep crisis but not beyond redemption.

The Greendale concerts have met with mixed critical and public reaction, from confused disappointment to, at a recent run of dates at L.A’s Greek Theater, standing ovations. Young is pleased by the latter, unmoved by the former. “It’s easy to go out and play a bunch of songs people already think they know,” he says at the start of a tow-hour conversation that also covers America under Bush, American Idol, his songwriting methods and the sorry state of the music business. (Young is currently between record deals; Greendale is the last album under his contract with longtime label Reprise.) “I cannot assume the position,” he says, “where I do a rehash of everything I’ve already done. It’s either stop, or do something else. I chose to clean the plate.”

You were on the road with Crazy Horse when America went to war with Iraq in 1991, under a president named Bush. Twelve years later, you’re singing these new songs to a nation at war in Iraq, under another Bush. Does the déjà vu scare you?
This is a time, I believe, of great inner turmoil for the majority of the American people. There is a new morality coming out of this administration – fundamentalist religious views; a holier-than-thou attitude towards the rest of the world – that is not classically American.

I don’t think Americans felt holier-than-thou in the twentieth century. We were happy and successful, with a great lifestyle. But something else is going on now. That’s what Greendale is about. That’s what Grandpa’s problem is. He can’t understand what’s going on. He sees all of these things that the Patriot Act has taken away from what he feels is America.

The other night, you ended “Rockin’ in the Free World” with military funeral music – a feedback quote from “Taps.”
That’s for the soldiers who die in Iraq every day, because of this stupid plan that the administration didn’t have. They didn’t know what the hell was going to happen. Bush makes Clinton look like sandpaper – that’s how slippery he is.

A lot of people in this country obviously think President Bush is a great leader. If they’re happy, they should vote to keep him in office. But if you’re not happy, you should also go and vote. Everybody has a right to their opinion, only now it’s at the risk of not being patriotic. And you might wonder what difference it makes to me, being a Canadian citizen.

That’s my next question.
I have an American family: three American children and an American wife. I pay taxes. I do everything other citizens do, except I’m not allowed to serve on juries, vote or serve in the military. That gives me a right to say whatever I feel like saying.

One video image in the Greendale show is a cartoon of a Clear Channel billboard with the words SUPPORT OUR WAR! It gets an eerie mix of cheers and laughs, as if the audience can’t tell which side you’re on.
It’s a disturbing image. Some people have the immediate point of view: “Yeah! Support the war.” On the other side, it’s “No! We don’t want war.” Then you have people going, “What is Neil doing, supporting the war? Is Neil married to Clear Channel?” This is all from one billboard. That’s what’s going on in this country. Everybody is disturbed inside, because no one really knows what to believe.

What do you believe? Where is the hope in the Greendale songs and story?
The energy in the last couple of songs [“Sun Green” and “Be the Rain”] – that’s youth rising out of this. It hasn’t gotten to the point where things have started moving yet, but this period is the biggest breeding ground for revolution in this country since the mid-Sixties. I don’t think there’s been a more ripe time for a generation to come along and rebel against all this.

Many people your age see a generation lined up to buy Justin Timberlake albums.
That’s not what I see. You can’t fool youth. There’s a lot of kids who do not like what’s going on. They don’t like the country the way it’s being run. They don’t like the corporations getting off scot-free.

Will those kids relate to Greendale?
I don’t think they’ll ever get to hear it. The whole system of getting music around has passed me by. I don’t fit into that anymore. I’m more concerned with making records I believe in. I try to create a place where my art can live – writing and singing songs, filming things myself, going my own way.

You’ve been playing all of Greendale live onstage every night since April, as a solo act in Europe and here with Crazy Horse. Aren’t you asking a lot of your fans – to deal with ten new songs and a complex family saga before the album is even out?
No. It’s a breath of fresh air, after seeing the same thing over and over, hearing the same old songs, seeing the same guys getting older and older. OK, it’s nice, it’s a ritual. Is that the way you want to live your life? Great – there’s a lot of other acts to do that with. But my audience is used to this. If they’ve been with me for a long time, they’re real used to it.

That’s true. You followed up the 1972 album Harvest, a Number One hit, with an arena tour of all new songs, which ended up on the live record Time Fades Away.
And when Comes a Time came out [in 1978], I went out and did the Rust Never Sleeps songs. People are watching giant amplifiers flying around, the “road-eyes” running around. Years later, people go, “Wow, how many of those shows were there? I’ve seen the movie. I wish I’d seen the show.”

You wouldn’t have asked this question in 1978. Our culture has become so rigid, with all of the little boxes of expectations. I wrote these songs, and I would be untrue to myself if I didn’t go out and sing ’em.

Was the Green family saga all worked out when you started writing the songs?
“Devil’s Sidewalk” was the first lyric. You could tell it was describing a place. As the songs started to unravel, I saw the story, what happened next. I wrote the songs one at a time and recorded each one before I’d write the next one.

The songs just happened. First thing in the morning, I’d pick up a guitar, play two or three chords and go, “That’s the blueprint. That’s what my soul told me, so that’s what it is.” Then I’d go to the studio. I would write the words, without guitar, in my car. I’d keep stopping on the way – write two verses, go a hundred yards, stop, write some more. I kept moving, and writing, until I got to the studio. Whatever I had then, that was the song. “Devil’s Sidewalk” – the recording is the first time I sang it, the first time the band had ever heard it.

Which characters do you most identify with? You speak through all of them, like a combination of God and the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
These characters are all part of me, part of my family and my life – and part of the greater family, the American family. The beautiful thing about the Greendale show is that I’m standing there for an hour and a half, singing these new songs, and people are not looking at me. They’re looking all over. And in the film, I play the music. I sing everything. I see images I want to see, because I filmed a lot of them myself. But I’m not lip-syncing. I’m not faking. I really hate that shit.

As a director, you have an aversion to polish. Your films, including Greendale, all have a fuzzy, home-movie quality – some would say amateurish.
The ambience is the message. That’s what Journey Through the Past (1972) and Human Highway (1982) were about. Well, Human Highway is just ridiculous [laughs]. But who gives a shit about moviemaking? My goal is not to be in a theater in Westwood following some big blockbuster.

The Greendale stage show has the low-budget earnestness of the movie, like a high-school production of The Fantasticks.
The girl who plays Sun Green – Sarah White – is a friend of my daughter’s from high school. I watched her and my daughter Amber in productions all through high school, and I became very impressed with what could be done with a couple of pieces of plywood. I don’t need anything more. It fit with my sketchiness of things.

What kinds of movies did you see and love as a boy?
Japanese horror and science-fiction movies – Invaders From Mars and stuff like that. I loved the fantasy. I also liked old Westerns, but I really liked the interplanetary stuff the best. It takes me away.

I’m very uneducated. I used to think Abbott and Costello were really funny. I loved Jerry Lewis movies. I thought they were fine art. But I also like the long shots and ambience of the early Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard pictures.

What I don’t want to do is videos. Video got usurped. It was an art form with a lot of promise when it came along in the early Eighties and rapidly became a commercial. It became about how cool this person looked, how many dancers you had. It had nothing to do with anything except sell the image. I don’t have an image I want to sell. I’d rather hide it [grins]. It’s detrimental.

Describe your daily life as a songwriter. Do you try to write a new song every day?
I have other interests. When I become focused on writing songs and creating music, my first task is to get rid of the other interests, so they don’t get in the way. I clear the decks for months. For this record, I discontinued all the physical-fitness training that I was doing – weightlifting, yoga, swimming. That opened up a couple of hours a day, when you take in travel and actual training.

What was the last song you wrote?
“Be the Rain.”

Literally the final song on Greendale.
Yeah. It was about nine months ago.

Isn’t that a long time between new songs?
No. You gotta give things a chance to settle down. There was a song at the beginning of Greendale, a hangover from Are You Passionate?, called “I Don’t Want to Be Sorry.” It’s a cool song – me and the Horse. But I didn’t use it. It was a transition song.

I’m not worried. I have a melody in my head and a guitar thing that I’ve been playing. But I don’t want to have anything to do with new lyrics yet.

Which Greendale songs can you imagine playing a year or two from now, as part of a regular Neil Young show?
[Long pause] I don’t know. Already, I’ve heard people saying, “This is worse than Trans.”

That’s cold.
Yeah, it is [grins]. But if I had the technology I have today when I did Trans, and the confidence in myself as a filmmaker, I could have told the whole Trans story the same way I’ve done this. I wanted to make videos for all of the songs, but the record company couldn’t afford it. I should have done it myself. Then I could have taken better blame for Trans, because I would have presented it more fully.

In the Greendale song “Grandpa’s Interview,” you sing, “It ain’t an honor to be on TV/It ain’t a duty, either.” Do you watch much TV? If so, what do you watch?
I sometimes watch TV, but I always end up getting narky, talking back to the screen, until I just turn it off. The Sci Fi Channel – I’ll go to that. I watch Star Trek. But these reality shows – who are they kidding? What reality is that, with a camera on you all the time? How stupid are people?

Have you ever watched American Idol?
I got roped into watching it. I happened to be in a room where people were watching it one day. And that guy came on – he was in Rolling Stone, on the cover.

Clay Aiken –
Yeah, Clay. You want my opinion? When I saw Clay on the cover of Rolling Stone, I thought, “Well, it’s not Jerry Garcia. Things have really changed.” We went from music and a movement – people living the music and loving the message, the freedom.

Is there any current pop music that you like? What was the last record you bought?
A Jimmy Reed record. What I like to listen to listen to is not pop music. I’m interested in the roots of the blues and folk music. I’m out of touch, a lost cause. You can write me off.

You take a few choice shots at yourself on Greendale, like Grandpa’s lines in “Falling From Above”: “It seems like that guy singing this song/Has been doing it for a long time/Is there anything he knows/That he ain’t said?” Do you worry that someday you’ll run out of things to say or that people will just stop caring?
No. As long as I’m interested, I’ll find a way to say things that is today instead of yesterday. My perspective on things is just the way I am. I’m not discouraged by what’s going on in this country, because I can still speak out against it – make my little reflective pool for people to look in.

But how do you feel about the future of rock & roll – as music, as a weapon of expression and change – in an era offierce conservatism and falling record sales?
Rock & roll has still got a lot of legs. But I consider rock & roll and rap to be the same. It’s popular music with an edge. If the edge doesn’t have a guitar, that doesn’t mean it’s not rock & roll.

I do know it’s a huge business, and it’s lost its idealism in the face of Internet downloading and the RIAA suing people for listening to music – people who get a couple of songs from my new album, or the whole album, because they never would have heard it on the radio.

The issue of not getting paid doesn’t bother you?
I’m a very wealthy person. I’ve been managed very well. I’m not greedy to the point that I need to get paid for every little thing I do. I’m an artist. I should be fucking doing art, not standing up for artists’ rights. We got Sheryl Crow and Don Henley – it’s covered. I don’t have to do it. When the copyright law is all over and I’m dead and gone, I’ll have more songs. I’ll have three or four more albums.

That’s what I know how to do, and I do that OK. Sometimes I do it, and people really like it. Sometimes I do it, and they get pissed off at me [smiles]. Whatever.

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