Neil Young News
An Interview with icon Neil Young
By: Greg Kot
May 25, 2003
An icon who spans generations talks in his first interview about the multilayered 'Greendale' project, as well as record companies and his lifelong passion for keeping music fresh
Neil Young stares out at the audience from behind his harmonica rack and acoustic guitar. Save for a half-dozen pillar candles, a collection of guitars and three keyboards, he is alone. It is the first of three concerts at the Apollo Theatre in London's West End last weekend, part of his first acoustic tour of Europe in 14 years.
He is talking about a stream of new music he is performing: 10 songs in a row from an as-yet-unreleased album, 105 minutes of uninterrupted exploration from a performer with a four-decade history of classic songs that he is doing his best to completely ignore. "I've never written songs like this before," Young is saying of his newest tunes. "I have no idea how this came along."
The audience titters. Young, at 57, is once again venturing into the wilderness of the new, the unexpected, the career-bending, and the audience is following, not sure they're going to enjoy the ride. But they are out in force for the first two shows of his London stand, the raggle-taggle army of Neil-freaks snapping up tickets that are selling for the American equivalent of $115. There are shaven-headed punks, pony-tailed hippies and at least one walking contradiction: a fist-pumping fan with a dark, Caribbean complexion who wears a Confederate flag dangling from his white denim jeans. They're joined by a good portion of London's rock royalty: Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, the dueling Oasis brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher, Spiritualized's Jason Pierce.
"They're here for the greatest hits," Young's longtime manager, Elliot Roberts, says before the show. "Boy, are they in for a surprise."
Young, dressed down as usual in jeans, T-shirt and brown sport jacket, hunches over an acoustic guitar and bears down on the first song, an unfamiliar but gently insistent melody built around the phrase "a little love and affection will make the world a better place with or without you." It's an invitation to a "musical novel" that touches on everything from a police drug bust gone tragically wrong to big-government conspiracy theories.
Young is feeling it, his gangly marionette legs twitching, bouncing, nearly running in place. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, he addresses the audience between virtually every song, embellishing the lyrics and reminiscing about his own childhood with humor and eloquence. It is a modest, homespun introduction to one of Young's most ambitious creations. The 10 songs comprising "Greendale" will be released in late summer as both an album and DVD; a forthcoming tour of North America (including a June 17 stop at the United Center) with his longtime band, Crazy Horse, will play the album front to back.
"There are no singles on this. We have very little hope of commercial success," Roberts says with a laugh. The manager has recently begun working with Billy Corgan's new post-Smashing Pumpkins band, Zwan, a prestige signing that did not go unnoticed by Roberts' meal ticket: "Neil says to me, `You think you're so hot. See what you can do with this!'"
A `chance to be new'
Young cackles when told of his manager's comment a few days later. He is taking a break from his pre-show routine -- a workout with a trainer, a power walk through London, a light meal and then a nap -- to discuss "Greendale," a project unlike any in his vast 45-album back catalog, and the tour he is devoting to it. "For me, it's about the chance to be new, rather than a big celebration of me, which we had to avoid at all costs," he says of his decision to play nearly two hours of new material before his audience gets its nostalgic itch scratched for oldies such as "Old Man" and "After the Goldrush." "I don't believe in just doing my hits, because you can only do that so many times, and then you just repeat yourself. At this stage in my career, that would be the kissof death. You might as well go to Vegas and just collect. I don't want to do that yet, and hopefully I can avoid doing that for a long time.
"There's a charge in doing all these new songs at once, all in a row. It's a big rebirth for me. I was apprehensive introducing this much new material at once, but it's something I looked forward to, because it's a challenge. A challenge for me, and a challenge for the audience: It's really one long song, and to get your money's worth, you have to pay attention."
Whereas the album hums on Young's telepathic interplay with Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot, Young's acoustic interpretation of "Greendale" in European concert halls highlights the lilting melodies of the new songs with their simple, blues-based chord progressions suggesting a mix of Jimmy Reed and J.J. Cale. The intimacy allows Young to emphasize the narrative, which is so complex that the singer will include an appendix of sorts on his Web site (http://neilyoung.com), including a map, a family tree and biographies of the Green clan, around whom the events revolve: A police officer is murdered, a wayward drug dealer is jailed, a teenage girl runs off to Alaska to become an eco-warrior after the FBI trashes her room and shoots her cat, and the devil roams the streets in a Panama hat and red leather shoes. Meanwhile government and big business conspire to exert their will by manipulating the media, leaving victims in their wake, notably Grandpa Green, who goes down fighting in his battle to remain anonymous.
Enhanced by the movie
The multilayered songs are enhanced by the movie, which Young filmed himself with a hand-held Super-8 camera. It has a grainy documentary-style look and no dialogue, only the music of Young and Crazy Horse playing over the characters, a motley collection drawn from Young's inner circle, including his road manager Eric Johnson as the devil and longtime Stray Gators pedal-steel guitarist Ben Keith as Grandpa Green. The notion of Young once again behind the camera might make even some of his most ardent fans cringe, as they flash back to cryptic indulgences such as "Human Highway" (1982) and "Journey Through the Past" (1972). When once asked what the latter movie was "about," Young's movie collaborator Larry Johnson replied: "About 90 minutes."
"I've learned a few things since then," Young says. "This is a more evolved, mature work, though I don't know if it's mature in a way that makes sense."
It's not the type of work digested in a single sitting. After hearing the songs performed twice in concert and seeing the movie, I picked up different themes and nuances each time. Some of Young's messages can come off as hippie sloganeering -- "Save the planet for another day!" -- but the work is so dense with detail that it rewards close attention. Except for the fist-waving would-be ecology anthem that closes the album and the movie, Young has created a personal passion play that is poignant, comic, subversive and surreal. With Crazy Horse stripped down to a power trio, Molina's kick drum and cymbal work create a big wave on which Young's guitar and Talbot's bass dance, dip and flicker.
What kick-started such an ambitious project? "It might have been the death of my father-in-law, which was a real family experience," says Young, who travels with his wife, Pegi, and their children: Ben, 24, and Amber, 19. They are by his side when he raises a glass of French wine to toast his road crew at a late-night dinner after the second Apollo concert. Young cast one of Amber's friends in the role of Sun Green, the "environmental superhero" whose youthful idealism becomes the movie's conscience.
Underground breeding ground
"The environment is becoming a much bigger issue for today's young people than anyone thought it would be, and they're banding together much like we did in the '60s," Young says. "The conditions in the world today -- the war, the rise of conservatism, the corporate monopolies, the way media has made everything about the surface impression rather than the issues underneath -- are a breeding ground for an underground the likes of which we haven't seen since Nixon was in power."
Is this Generation Y Young is talking about? The 71 million Americans born between 1977 and '94 who have been the target of the biggest marketing barrage in history? The generation that elevated Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit to the status of cultural heroes?
"It's all backfiring," Young says. "It's all too slick and it's all going away, soon. Britney Spears -- she's peaked. It was a great success for a while, but you can't keep doing that. You gotta go further, you gotta have some depth, and the kids are realizing that."
This from a man who makes albums for a record label affiliated with Time-Warner AOL and tours under the aegis of Clear Channel Communications, which has a monopoly over both the touring and radio industries in North America.
"Clear Channel is going to be very upset with me, very soon," he says. "They have to be exposed for what they are, and they know what they are. They are anti-music, and they don't get the spirit of it. I'm sorry we're touring under these circumstances, because it's difficult to do it any other way. But it won't be forever. It's part of what I'm talking about. There is a backlash brewing."
Young's relationship with his corporate employers has been ambivalent at best. He remains one of the few artists who practically has carte-blanche to make any kind of music he wants, no matter what the powers-that-be are selling at the moment.
"[Time Warner] perceive, and rightly so, that they should hang onto me, because without me they don't have the same kind of reach with the younger generation of bands coming up. They obviously don't need me to sell records, because Clear Channel doesn't play my records on the radio. I'm not threatened by that. I'm not threatened by being stopped, because I have nothing to lose with these people. If I ever get stopped, it'll be the worst damn thing they could ever do."
That leverage enables him to embrace guerrilla projects like "Greendale," which was recorded and filmed inexpensively in and around his home in California, the ranch he bought after his first flush of success with the old, pre-consolidation era Warner Brothers in the '70s.
In a sense, "Greendale" is a throwback to that era: a work packed with ideas, almost too many ideas to be absorbed quickly, the very antithesis of what the corporate world wants in this quick-turnover, bottom-line conscious era.
"Greendale," Young says, "is basically one long song that is meant to be listened to over and over again. It isn't a simple thing and there is no quick and profitable way to do something like that. That would be boring, so I don't do it. It's not about selling anything. People who know my music know who I am, and I don't need the support of large corporations to reach them. And if they come down on me for disagreeing with them, they'll just make me stronger. It's just like when I got sued for being `non-commercial' [by record mogul David Geffen in the '80s]. That was the best thing to happen to me in that decade."
Young smiles, his eyes agleam with mischief. "I'm like Mexico," he says. "Everything that works above the border turns against you below the border. Things are reversed. That's who I am."
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