Neil Young: Chaos Is Good

 
I opened my mouth so wide saying that I wasn't going to be corporately sponsored because I felt like I had a bond with my audience, and to sell that bond was not a good thing considering what I was singing about. Now if I'm singing about bootie and shake your ass and sequins, then okay, Pepsi's great. But, if I'm singing about 'Don't blow off your neighbor's head' then Pepsi's no good. And I've sung about all kinds of things but the fact that I had my own opinions about students being killed and demonstrating the war and racism and change, since I sang about those things I felt like it really wasn't a good idea to sell out to the corporate thing.

-Neil Young

 
Photo of Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg

It's one thing to have a personal opinion and it's another to present that opinion to paying customers, most of who purchase your album or are out for a night of entertainment at one of your expensive concerts. And when you watch the crowd reaction - especially audiences in the South - to much of the material CSNY play during this film, it's clear they believe Young should keep his damn opinions to himself. This, of course, is nothing new for Neil Young. He's been shooting from the hip, saying whatever the fuck he wants whenever he wants since day one. Ruffling feathers is part of his game. But when it comes to politics and art, how does he walk the line?

Neil Young
"Same way we did in the '60s," he says with a sharp two-syllable chortle. "We sang about how we felt, because that's what freedom is all about. People paid, they came and saw us. At that point [in the '60s] they were all young because we were young and everybody was young. Now they're all old. People have had a chance to temper their idealism with realism, and some of them have decided that what we were saying back then was - I guess they've abandoned that. But we haven't abandoned it. And so we applied it to this situation. We went out and did it again. The difference is in the audience, not in the band."

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Neil Young's opinions or politics, he's never tried to leverage those beliefs for a profit, and in a world where everything appears to be for sale, there's something comforting about Young's unwavering sense of soul. The hippies who waved peace symbols and supported CSNY in the '60s turned into yuppies ready to sell anything and anyone, but not Young.

"I opened my mouth so wide saying that I wasn't going to be corporately sponsored because I felt like I had a bond with my audience, and to sell that bond was not a good thing," reflects Young. "No matter how much financial gain I could have gotten from it, I just didn't think it was good considering what I was singing about. Now if I'm singing about bootie and shake your ass and sequins, then okay, Pepsi's great. But, if I'm singing about 'Don't blow off your neighbor's head' then Pepsi's no good. So that's where I was at, and I've sung about all kinds of things but the fact that I had my own opinions about students being killed and demonstrating the war and racism and change, since I sang about those things I felt like it really wasn't a good idea to sell out to the corporate thing. So I didn't."

While Young has always blazed his own path, that's not to say his opinions haven't varied greatly. One of his closest allies, Young's manager since the CSNY days, Elliot Roberts describes Young's politics, like everything else about him, as changeable and extreme. "I don't know where it comes from," Roberts told Young biographer Jimmy McDonough in his comprehensive, 800-page book Shakey. "One minute he's a leftist Democrat, and the next minute he's a Conservative. You never know which Neil you're dealing with."

The Neil Young who protested Vietnam in the '60s and Iraq today is a very different Neil Young than the one who supported Ronald Reagan and once defended the former President by saying, "I'm very pro-American... very patriotic. I'm tired of feeling like America has to be sorry for the things that it's done."* But how is it possible that a person could support Reagan yet hate Bush? For many, there's a direct line from Reagan to Bush and the idea of loving one and hating the other is preposterous.

Neil Young: I was a vocal supporter of Reagan in some ways - and I'm not backing down from that for an instant – but, you know, not across the board.

JamBase: One thing that you said was, "Who cares if he's a trigger-happy cowboy," or something of that nature. And that's sort of the way I feel about George Bush today, like he's this trigger-happy cowboy. So do you see Reagan any differently now?

Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg
Young: Well, it's a different time right now than it was then, but if you're comparing Reagan and Bush, there is no comparison. I can't see a comparison. He appeared to be a trigger-happy cowboy. He never pulled the trigger. Where did he go? Grenada? He went to Grenada. And what did they do in Grenada? They kill a whole bunch of people? I don't think they did. But did he create the aura of High Noon? Yes, he did. Did he talk about 'Star Wars' like it existed to scare the hell out of everybody? Yeah, he did. So, in his own way, he was a trigger-happy cowboy without a loaded gun. Because we didn't have 'Star Wars' technology, but no one knew we didn't. So, he was using his Hollywood know-how, and some stuff that happened there was good. Some people think it ended up in the Berlin Wall coming down because of the amazing amount of money that the Soviet Union spent trying to keep up with Reagan, and Reagan didn't even have anything!

So, how did Young go from the '60s counter-culture icon who wrote the definitive anti-war anthem "Ohio" in 1970 to the Reagan supporter who recorded the right-wing leaning Hawks & Doves in 1980, then to the guy who swung back to the far left with an album and film attacking President Bush and America's actions in the world?

For Young it's the same as it's always been. Change and disruption are constants for him. In addition to music, change might be the only thing that's always been a part of Neil Young.

"That's the way I was brought up — to keep changing," Young told journalist Johnny Walker in 1992. "I went to twelve different schools before I finished grade eleven or whenever I dropped out, and my family moved around a lot. So, in my life I can roll with that."*

He's a complex individual full of contradictions and paradoxes, and it seems possible that these schizophrenic shifts in what some would consider basic principles stem from his childhood.

Continue reading for more on Neil Young...


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