Photo of Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg
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.
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?
"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?
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!
|Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg
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...