Neil Young Interview

Pulse Magazine, April 2002

"Hello, Mr. Soul" by Tom Lanham

Neil Young News

Analysis of "Mr. Soul" Lyrics


It was one of those moments you never forget.

Friday evening, September 21st, some of film, television and music's biggest stars gathered for a two-hour telethon, simulcast live from London, New York and Los Angeles on the four major TV networks and the Internet. A benefit for families directly affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the "America: A Tribute To Heroes" event was witnessed by an estimated 89 million viewers and netted roughly $230 million, not counting subsequent sales of CD and DVD versions.

Although it might not have shocked his fans--or anyone familiar with the man's charitable nature--it was still surprising to see the Godfather of Grunge, Neil Young, sitting quietly at his piano as he struck the first memorable chords of John Lennon's "Imagine." And equally stunning to hear the emotion rippling through his fragile, already quavering voice as he sang those prophetic, praying-for-peace lyrics.

(NOTE: More on John Lennon's song "Imagine" and Neil Young.)

A few selections later, the straw-hatted, muttonchop-whiskered Young was back on camera, providing backup for his old pals Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, on Vedder's moving lament "The Long Road" from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. That camaraderie appeared to lift Young's spirits; having worked with the musicians before on the Mirror Ball album and as regular guests of his annual Bridge School Benefits, he relaxed in their company, slid lithely into the sideman role and remained there, almost grateful to be in the shadows of Vedder's rafter-rattling vocals.

Young doesn't trumpet his generosity, just subtly orchestrates things from behind the scenes. Such as Farm Aid, the farmer's relief fund he started back in '85 with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. Or the Hillsborough, Calif.-based Bridge School run by he and his wife Pegi, that gives severely disabled children a fighting chance to fit in to everyday society. Or the Big Red Button train-controlling program he invented for his cerebral-palsy-afflicted son Ben, once he purchased his favorite toy company, Lionel Trains (see sidebar, page 60).

Or even something as low-key as the undisclosed sum of money he secretly donated to the Todd M. Beamer Foundation, as he was writing "Let's Roll," a "Walk This Way"-funky track--from his new Are You Passionate? album for Reprise. The song tells the story of Beamer's terrorist-foiling heroism on United Airlines doomed Flight 93 (which crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 after passengers, it's believed, fought to regain control of the cockpit).

Tack on other benevolent undertakings like '83's Vocoder/synthed Trans set --an outgrowth of electronic communication experiments with Ben-- and Young's ongoing stature as rock icon/role model/sonic adventurer/decent human being becomes even more understandable. Since his first folky forays with Buffalo Springfield in the late '60s (the subject of a recent four-disc boxed set from Rhino), the Toronto-born, Northern California-based composer has embodied the tie-dyed ideal of "good karma."

Which in no way dimishes Young's striking musical accomplishments. Inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in '95--then later as a member of Buffalo Springfield--he's followed his muse down a serpentine stylistic trail that bounced from Springfield to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (with whom he's currently touring) in '69, then back into the rootsy, vaguely country solo career that he initiated in January of '69 with his Neil Young debut. Launching his own combo, Crazy Horse, he strolled through such stellar '70s efforts as Harvest, the harrowing addiction-themed Tonight's the Night, and a platinum decade-closer, the punk-rock-endorsing Rust Never Sleeps.

In '83, he revved his rockabilly, Sun Sessions engine with Everybody's Rockin', then set himself up in Nashville to record the twangy Old Ways with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. For This Note's For You in '88, he was backed by an all-r&b combo, the Blue Notes (the title track was a scathing putdown of rock's embrace of corporate sponsorship; MTV refused to air the video, then later honored it with Video Of the Year honors). The Crazy Horse-fueled Ragged Glory in '91 (plus subsequent live releases Weld and the feedback-squealing Arc-Weld) cemented Young's greasy, gutteral guitar style--a sound that inspired Seattle sludge-slingers like Nirvana, Soundgarden and, of course, Pearl Jam. '92 found Young in a suddenly reflective mood, tracking a 20-years-on echo of '72's Harvest via the similarly rustic Harvest Moon. Then he enlisted the legendary Booker T. & the MGs for touring purposes, before slipping into the melancholy tribute to the late Kurt Cobain, '94's Sleeps With Angels.

Now, just when fans thought they had him pegged with his latest studio set, the homespun, almost hillbilly-ish Silver & Gold, Young is darting in another direction with Are You Passionate?, an old-school, Muscle Shoals-cool rhythm and blues barnstormer that once again features Booker T. and Duck Dunn of the MGs (along with Crazy Horse alum Frank "Poncho" Sampedro on guitar).

The album starts on a strong deja vu note with "You're My Girl," an "I Can't Help Myself"-evocative elegy to Young's college-bound daughter as she leaves the family nest. And his voice--shivering like a snowed-in chihuahua over the doo-wop chorus--conjures the uneasy emotion of the moment, just as it did on "Imagine." Young's guitar begins to sing--a la vintage Steve Cropper--on the somber, shuffling, growing-old observance "Mr. Disappointment" and the retro-rocking life-choices recollection "Differently." "Are you passionate?" he queries in the title cut. "Are you negative in a world that never stops turning on you?" And it's delivered softly, soulfully, like he really wants to know the answer.

The album itself is Young's most questioning in years. In addition to the 9/11-motivated "Let's Roll," it also uses a smooth Southern-soul backdrop to discuss the saving grace of family ("When I Hold You In My Arms"), simple pleasures like fishing, friends ("Be With You"), and a hypothetical conversation between God and a preacher who's "dreaming of a time when love and music is everywhere." Sadly, the Lord responds, "No my son, that time has gone, there's things to do/ The world has changed since I first met you."

At 56, Neil Young still may not comprehend all the changes rocking our universe, signaling the end to some, a fresh new beginning for others. But he is using his art to question, to spark discussion, to attempt to make sense of it all. And what surfaces from Are You Passionate? is perhaps the deepest riddle of all: If the brilliant, disparate, artistic talent of one nation can come together for a single night, a single important cause as it did for the "Tribute To Heroes," couldn't separate nations of the world unite under a similar banner of love and music? Young dearly hopes so. And through his words, songs and actions, he's doing what he can.

Neil Young Interview

What emotions were going through on the night of "A Tribute to Heroes?"

Well, first of all, I guess it was the night before that we first practiced it. So we ran through it about 10 times, until finally it started to gel and we knew what we were doing. We used the original charts from the original record, and did everything we could to do justice to the original version--we weren't trying to do anything other than that. Just trying to make it like John Lennon, basically. It was just such a great song for the moment. Pegi, my wife, got an email from a friend of hers after the 11th with the words to "Imagine" on it. And it was at the same time as I was trying to figure out what to play, because we only had two-and-a-half, three days' notice to do the show. And that seemed to be a good sign to me. So we went ahead and got the lyrics, the ones I couldn't remember, and I just learned it, practiced it, and when we did it that night everything just came together. And obviously, those are the nuts and bolts, but the real emotional part ... Well, it's just so obvious why it was the way it was. That's one of the things about being a musician or a singer or a songwriter--when these things come up, it's a chance to do your job, to do what you do and have it really be what it's supposed to be.

Judging by your song "Let's Roll," you were deeply affected by the Flight 93 tragedy, maybe even more than you thought at the time.

Obviously, watching the whole thing unfold on television, I'm doing what everybody else is doing. Then I heard the wife of one of the passengers --Lisa Beamer--talking about the phone call that her husband made to the operator, and the operator relaying that he said "Let's roll." And she was talking about how he always used to say that with the kids when they'd go out and do something, that it's what he said a lot when he had a job to do. And it's just so poignant, and there's no more of a legendary, heroic act than what those people did. With no promise of martyrdom, no promise of any reward anywhere for this, other than just knowing that you did the right thing. And not even having a chance to think about it or plan it or do anything--just a gut reaction that was heroic and ultimately cost them all their lives. What more can you say? It was just so obvious that somebody had to write something or do something.

I thought to myself, "Well, there's gonna be ten songs called 'Let's roll' within the next week." So I said, "Nah, I'm gonna let somebody else do this. I don't wanna be opportunistic about it, I'm sure there will be three or four country songs called 'Let's Roll' immediately." Because it's just such a great image--the whole story about the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93. I think it's a legendary story that's gonna go down through the ages--it'll never be forgotten. So I was very surprised that I didn't hear any songs. And I'm thinking, "I can hear this song in my head, nobody else has written it when I thought everybody was gonna write it." So I just wrote it. I couldn't stop it anymore.

When did you first understand that part of being alive is giving back?

Well, ya know, I get it a lot better now than I did when I was in my early 20s. But I think that a lot of people today in their early 20s are much more advanced than I was at that time, and they realize that you've gotta give back. But for me, I didn't have that quality really developed at that age, in the early 20s. Because I remember when we did "Ohio." If I'd written "Ohio" today, then we would've used the money to give to the [Kent State victims'] families to cover expenses or we would've done something. But we didn't even think of that--it was a completely different time, we weren't even thinking about the money we were gonna make from it. That never entered our minds. We weren't doing it to make the money, but the money did come in. So it's different; there's a different awareness today about social things. And if you're gonna make a statement about some social issue that's important, that's affected a lot of people--now I know--if you're gonna profit from that, then you should give it back and try and turn it into something positive.

Regarding your album title, what is it that's kept you so passionate about life and work over the years?

I was born this way. It's never been a problem for me. The only thing that I do that makes it possible for me to keep on going is, if I have to change something, I change it. A lot of people won't make changes out of loyalty, out of their perception of what loyalty is. Like, "Well, you know, I've known this person for so long, and they've always been there and I can't change this." But if you're on a path and there's a fork, and you know which way you have to go and you know that something's stopping you ... Well, I mean, if you're on your life path, then you follow it. And that means making some changes when it's not really very easy to do that, but ultimately that keeps you alive, I think. And makes it so you can be engaged in whatever you're doing and fulfilled and keep on going. Picasso was still painting at--what? --80, 90 years old? So what's to stop somebody else from going on and doing the same thing, as long as they're not distracted?

But which came first for you this time around? These serious questions you've been asking yourself in the lyrics, or the idea to do an old-school r&b album with Booker T. and the MGs?

Well, this record works really well and I'm really proud of it. I really like the way everything sounds. But actually, I started writing these songs during the Crazy Horse sessions which preceded this record. Four or five of the songs were written during the Crazy Horse sessions, and they just evolved. And then when I started recording with Booker and Duck and Steve and Poncho, everything just kept evolving, and the songs came back and they were where they need to be to really happen. So it all just fell together as easily as you could imagine--I just let it go, I just let it happen. I knew what was making me feel good, and I knew that I wanted to play my guitar more like a saxophone this time. And I felt more like a horn player while I was playing my guitar.

And you step right into that classic Steve Cropper sound so well.

Well, when the sound calls for a certain thing, it's a classic sound that's been defined and re-defined over the years, so it's really like playing the classics. You just go there, and that's the neighborhood you're in, and so these are the things that make that happen. You just play the way it feels. And my music history and my education in music have supplied all the ingredients I can use in this music. I've been a constant fan of the blues and rhythm and blues since the very beginning--it was the first music I listened to. I used to listen to a radio station in Chicago when I was ten years old.

WLS? I used to get that on my little transistor, growing up in Indianapolis.

Yeah! I'd get that station and I was way up in Winnepeg, Canada. I'd listen to that and also another station that was broadcast from somewhere down in the Southwest that was also really a megawatt station. So we heard all this early r&b and great rock 'n' roll, and the first records that I bought were Jimmy Reed albums. I had his whole collection, every record he ever made, and that's how I learned to play, listening to him. So, y'know, the jump to playing with Booker T. and the MGs is ... I mean, I love all those records they made. And also, I listen a lot to the original Motown stuff that you don't hear that much. So that and my love for Jimmy Reed and the early folk/blues artists--Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor--all these guys who played so great. And I also really loved the fellow who sang in Canned Heat--he was a great singer with a wonderful voice, a great blues voice. I can't remember his name [Bob "The Bear" Hite]. But I love that kind of music. And I can't sing as well those guys, but I can have a good time and make up my own songs.

In the song "Differently," you talk about things you might've done differently over the years. What would you have done differently, if you could?

Hmmmm. We don't have enough time! No, actually I'm happy with the route that I've chosen. Not every opportunity was correctly managed, I wish there could've been a little less damage, but I can't see that I would've done anything again differently.

So what's your take on death, then? For everyone who's born curious, it's the last possible mystery.

"There's very few of us left"--that's what Waylon Jennings used to say to me. We'd be sitting in some tour bus or somewhere and he'd say, "Ya know, Hoss, there's very few of us left." And those words are still echoing around in my head.

"You're My Girl"--that's about your daughter, right?

Yeah. She's going to college. But she's not gonna forget me.

As you said it on "When I Hold You In My Arms," "You've gotta hold on to something in this life." And it's all about the love of family keeping you centered in these turbulent times.

Well, that's it, and you can see it anywhere, in any circumstance. Have you seen Black Hawk Down? Well, there's a scene in the middle, of some terrible fight and it's awful, just the worst bummer you could ever expect. And in the middle of all these missiles flying up and down streets, helicopters crashing and tanks running into things, guys with machine guns on the back of pickup trucks, then you see this one old person walking through the middle of it, walking through all these gunshots carrying a kid who's obviously injured or dead. And the person is just totally in shock, doesn't know what to do. So for that person, the natural thing to do is just hold on to something you love, just hold on. And I think it's just there, I think it's in everybody. And some of the things I've seen lately in movies, you take it with the world that we're in now, put these images together with what's going on? It's pretty scary stuff.

You mean there's more to Britney Spears' Crossroads than I initially imagined?

Ha! Oh yeah--there's a lot more to it! That's a good one...

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