The Latest From Neil Young
By JON PARELES
PARIS The way Neil Young tells it, his latest project, which he describes as a "musical novel" called "Greendale," was unpremeditated. He wasn't setting out to write a 10-song cycle that would lead to a full-length DVD and a stage show with actors and sets. "I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. Perhaps he never has.
Mr. Young, 57, has followed no logical path to become one of rock's most unpredictable and respected elders. Since he made his name in the 1960's with Buffalo Springfield, Mr. Young has written, recorded, performed and released his music as the whims strike him. He has sung achingly vulnerable songs alone with his acoustic guitar, as he did on his recent European tour, where he performed all the songs from "Greendale" and told its story.
And he has periodically plugged in to the distorted stomp of his band Crazy Horse, which is touring with him this summer and comes to Madison Square Garden on June 26. Mr. Young will be releasing "Greendale" on Reprise Records in August as an album and a DVD. He made the video (under his director alias, Bernard Shakey) with his family, friends and acquaintances portraying the residents of a fictional coastal California town called Greendale.
And on his summer tour, he is leading Crazy Horse through all of the album's songs alongside the actors. It is the first time he is performing an entire album of new material onstage since he toured with the songs from the 1975 album "Tonight's the Night," he said. "At this stage of my life to have all these new songs is a gift," he added over dinner after a solo concert at the Palais des Congrés here. "I think it would be disrespectful to not do them, to not share them, to not try to do it."
On stage, Mr. Young told two parallel stories. One was from "Greendale," about the teenage Sun Green, visiting her father, Earl, a Vietnam veteran who painted psychedelic canvases — an artist, in other words, of approximately Mr. Young's vintage. Looking at Earl's paintings in his studio, his daughter wonders why nobody buys them. "If you look at them for long enough," Mr. Young said, "you see everything in the world in these paintings, and you even hear voices."
The other story was about himself as a 3-year-old boy, coming up to the attic to watch his father, a Canadian writer named Scott Young, working at his typewriter. When he asked his father what he was doing, he said, "I'm writing." And when he asked what he was writing, his father said "I don't know until I write, and then I read it, and then I know what it is."
Mr. Young has sung parables and protests, love songs and oracular conundrums. He has made genre excursions into country, blues, electro, rockabilly, soul (with Booker T. and the MG's) and grunge (with Pearl Jam). He has joined and left and rejoined and left Crosby, Stills and Nash. He has made indelible hits and has been sued (by Geffen Records in 1983) for releasing uncommercial material. He has recorded and shelved countless songs, and he has put out some wheel-spinners and duds.
An eight-CD collection of released and unreleased material, Volume 1 of a project called Archives, has been completed and awaits release if Mr. Young's songwriting ever runs dry. When Mr. Young started what became "Greendale," he shook up his routines. He stopped working out for the first time in 20 years, changed guitars, set up a 16-track recorder instead of a 48-track, sent home his longtime sound engineers and worked with their assistants.
"There were fewer people, fewer things going on, less distraction," he said "I just tried to focus right in on the core and get back to the roots of what we do." The first song to emerge was "Devil's Sidewalk," a two-chord rumination on the state of humanity: "There's a garden growing and a million weeds/There's no way of knowing who has done which deeds," the song observes.
"I didn't even know what it was," Mr. Young said. "I said, what the hell is this? What is that? What am I talking about?" Then came another song, "Falling From Above." And another, "Double E." For the first time in Mr. Young's career, they both mentioned the same characters: Grandpa, his son Earl and Earl's wife, Edith, and a granddaughter.
Mr. Young wanted to get the songs on tape, so he contacted Crazy Horse. He decided to keep the music sparse — just guitar, bass and drums — so Frank Sampedro, Crazy Horse's guitarist, agreed to sit out the album, although he is with Crazy Horse on tour. By the time Ralph Molina on drums and Billy Talbot on bass joined Mr. Young for recording sessions two days later, Mr. Young had another two connected songs. Each uses only a few chords. "Simple form enables you to get complex with the actual muse," Mr. Young said. "You're not distracted by technicalities. It's like if you had to write a story for the paper, but you had to write it in iambic pentameter. That's what having a lot of chord changes is. You've got all of this stuff you've got to keep track of. Mostly for this stuff, it was all about the content, and I just felt like with Crazy Horse the more simple it is, the better it is."
"I didn't fix anything," he added. "All the screw-ups, all the mistakes, everything's on there. There's bad guitar notes and everything. I've had it with fixing them. I'd rather hear it. You can't fix it, it's real. I said, `I'm not going to polish it.' " Eventually there were 10 songs, long ones, all set in Greendale. In them — among other incidents and observations — a cop is shot, the Devil polishes an artist's glasses, a pushy television reporter gives Grandpa a heart attack and Sun Green creates a brouhaha at a power company and later heads to Alaska to "save Mother Earth."
"I just let it out," Mr. Young said. "I never tried to make things fit together or anything. I just kept on going. Luckily I could jump from character to character and so continuity wasn't that important. And I found out later that the continuity was golden all the way through."
Like an extended version of a typical Young song, "Greendale" is not so much one story as a tangle of them: some detailed and realistic, some drifting through past and present, some switching perspective from local to cosmic and some with environmental slogans and warnings: "Be the river as it rolls along/ It has three-eyed fish and it's smellin' strong."
The "Greendale" DVD, made in three weeks on grainy video with a handheld camera, spares most expense. Although there are a few helicopter shots, geographical transitions are shown with a camera panning across a hand-drawn map, and the scenes were shot quickly around the Northern California town where Mr. Young lives. ("No permits," said his manager, Elliot Roberts.)
The performers include Mr. Young's wife, Pegi, as Edith, and his longtime steel guitarist, Ben Keith, as Grandpa. Mr. Young makes a cameo appearance dressed as Wayne Newton, but spent most of his time behind the camera. He made some barely scripted movies in the 1970's — "Journey Through the Past" and "Human Highway" — and released a concert film of his "Rust Never Sleeps" tour.
"I could never write a script," Mr. Young said. "So when I wrote `Greendale' and did all these recordings, I looked back and I said, `Oh my God, this is it.' You take the script from the songs." "Nobody had to learn anything," he continued. "All they had to do was lip synch my voice. And I told them, `Whatever you do, you're not singing and there's no band. This is real life. You're talking.' The greatest pleasure of this whole project is that I did a video for 10 songs without ever lip synching myself."
He makes no pretense of being a professional film director. "I can't compete with movies," he said. "I wanted this to be like a song you can look at. I'm trying to create an area where there is no competition, where I can just do what I want to do, where I can tell a story the way I want to tell it." "I keep trying to do things that I can't do," Mr. Young added. "And then I'm always doing it for the first time. And that's the look I want."