Neil Young: Chaos Is Good
The Mountain House is a funky old restaurant with an eclectic, well-stocked jukebox and bar, and it’s a familiar, comfortable place for Neil Young. This is where part of the video for 1992’s “Unknown Legend” was filmed and it served as the location for a rowdy set Young played with his incendiary garage band Crazy Horse on November 12, 1990 to celebrate his 45th birthday. But more important to us, The Mountain House is where we finally get to meet this very well known and often misunderstood legend.
Barreling down Skyline Boulevard, the stereo is blasting Young’s 1979’s epic double live album Rust Never Sleeps and I’ve got the air conditioner cranked but my hands are still sweating. I’m not late for my interview so I must be nervous. My neck is on a swivel, surveying the tiny driveways that break left and right, when out of the corner of my eye I see an old classic American car with a beat-up paint job. As I fly by the automobile I realize I’m definitely looking at Neil Young’s 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe and I’ve just passed The Mountain House.
I turn around, drive back and park my car under a massive redwood tree. There’s not another house in sight, although I know they are around, not a person anywhere and I’m standing on the side of a pristine piece of land. I check my cell phone – not working. The Mountain House isn’t only a convenient interview location for Young due to its proximity to his home, it’s also desolate enough that he doesn’t have to deal with anyone outside his circle – something he’s battled most of his life.
When I enter the unopened restaurant it’s like walking back in time. Everything is wood, old fashioned, a real classic vibe and things seems to be moving a tad slower. Young isn’t quite ready for me so I kick back and go over my notes. When he walks up to introduce himself I’m afraid my clammy hands are gonna freak him out. I wipe them on my jeans, stand up and shake the man’s hand. After exchanging pleasantries, Young walks outside to get some air, and I smile at the fact that he’s wearing a bright red shirt that reads: CANADA.
If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do
Not one for small talk, it’s the title of his film that first launches Young into passionate discourse. Clearly it’s a nod to the CSNY album and song “Déjà Vu,” which works well considering CSNY is the band that is once again touring here, but based upon the material it seems clear that Young is working a double-meaning, drawing attention to past American wars, insinuating that we’re caught in a déjà vu cycle of war and peace. First it was Vietnam, then Desert Storm, then Afghanistan, then Iraq. Maybe Iran or North Korea is next.
“We’re really stupid and we’ve been stupid for a long time,” continues Young. “This is a country that has more ingenuity, and if what we’re known for is American ingenuity, Yankee ingenuity, whatever you want to call it, what happened to it? Where is it? Let’s see it. It’s in somebody’s garage. I like to use the Internet to explore the world, looking for fringe technologies, and it’s great. They’re all out there. They’re on YouTube, all these guys with their ideas – scientists, men and women around the world, universities, people in different countries. They all have different ideas of how to do things and get to zero point energy and all kinds of things that would help to change the world. I think when we can solve that problem then the need for war will go away.”
Young is not only quick to point out how “stupid” he thinks America is, he puts the responsibility for our lack of intelligent decision making squarely on President Bush, demanding that “W” be impeached for (amongst other things) leading us to war on false pretenses, as he outlines through his song “Let’s Impeach The President” from Living With War.
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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?
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?
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.
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DONT BE DENIED
When I was a young boy my mama said to me/ Boy your daddy’s leavin’ home today/
I think he’s gone to stay/ We packed up all our bag and drove out to Winnipeg
On August 31, 1951 a five-year-old Neil Young was pulled from sleep by pain in his shoulder and a high fever. Even before they got him to the specialty hospital in Toronto it was clear he was he had contracted polio. “Damn near died. Gawd, that was awful” recalls Rassy in Skakey.
Polio didn’t take the child’s life, but it would have an ongoing impact on everything Young would encounter from that day on. It ravaged his body, leaving him frail, vulnerable, lacking confidence and with serious, lasting physical ailments. The disease heavily affected his motor function, so much in fact that Young says when he closes his eyes he can’t feel the left side of his body.
“There was a time back in the early ’80s when I couldn’t even lift my guitar up over my shoulder because my rotary cuff was so gone,” recalls Young in between sips of cranberry juice. “I had post-polio syndrome and all this shit. My body was falling apart.”
Fifteen years after battling polio Young would find himself afflicted with another debilitating disease: epilepsy. In 1966, just as Young’s first prominent band, Buffalo Springfield, was getting off the ground, the seizures began and came back with increased frequency. It got so bad that the Springfield had a plan for when Young would go into a seizure while performing. There were signs that a fit was coming on and the band would throw on the house lights while guitarist Richie Furay grabbed Young’s Gretsch guitar as he went down. They would then carry Young off the stage, often reaching into his mouth so he didn’t swallow his tongue.
LIKE A HURRICANE
You are like a hurricane there’s calm in your eye/ And I’m gettin’ blown away/
To somewhere safer where the feeling stays/ I want to love you but I’m getting blown away
This heightened awareness and ability to control and work with electricity along with the debilitating affects of polio have helped define Young’s raw, heavily distorted guitar style.
Violence. Anger. Frustration. Chaos. Volume. These are the cornerstones of Young’s electric guitar playing. He’s one of the greatest songwriters to have ever lived and his success has been partly based on his unique, high- pitched, whining voice. But, without the guitar, Young would never be the Dionysian rock god we love. He balances perfect song structure with messy, expansive, free-flowing jams as he funnels his emotions through his guitar. It’s as if all the years of physical and emotional struggle are being reconciled through his instrument. It’s this high-wire balancing act that allows Young to transcend styles and genres – from the solo acoustic, tender country rock that permeates his career to the electronica influence found on 1982’s Trans to the full-bore guitar meltdowns that fans of Crazy Horse obsess over – it’s all Neil Young.
“It’s a marriage of all kinds of things. The emotion in the song has got to be – you gotta have a feeling about what you’re singing, and then when you’re finished singing, then you play,” smiles Young from across the table. “Then, there’s no rules; you can do whatever you want. Sometimes the notes don’t matter. Sometimes just noise is required. Sometimes it has to explode, deconstruct. It’s not an exercise in technical prowess or anything like that, because I’m not really very good. But, I can really beat the shit out of it if I feel like it, and I can be melodic and gentle if I feel like. Between those two extremes, if you have a song that means something to you, all those things kind of fit together and you never know what’s going to happen.”
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HEY HEY, MY MY (INTO THE BLACK)
Hey hey, my my/ Rock and roll can never die/ There’s more to the picture than meets the eye
Young trusts David Crosby, Stills and Graham Nash. There’s a great deal of history and he knows how to get the most out of them, but there’s more to it than that. Young uses his different configurations to achieve different goals. He’s got his solo thing, where there’s no one else’s input. There’s Crazy Horse, where he gives exact orders and they follow without a word. Then there’s CSNY. As much as Young might lead the outfit, they are still a band – a remarkably talented one, each bursting with their own creative desires. And when Young asserts his dominance it’s not always pretty, but maybe that rub is exactly why he still works with his old friends.
JamBase: Thinking about CSNY and your somewhat volatile history, some folks seem to shut down under tension and pressure, other folks seem to thrive off of it and use it to their advantage. Do you find that friction can be good for your art?
Young: Chaos is really good for art, and sometimes friction causes chaos. But chaos is really the catalyst. I really think that chaos is like gas. It’s like energy.
JamBase: How so, in a musical context?
JamBase: As you’ve gotten older has anything changed in terms of what inspires you?
Young: You just never know. Can’t predict it, can’t pigeonhole it, can’t label it. Just be aware of it. That’s what I try to do. I respect it. If I have an idea, [it] comes from wherever the hell it comes from, and I can’t stop it, it’s time for me to stop what I’m doing and go and write that down, or play my guitar, find a place to be by myself.
Recently Young has been obsessed with “the search for clean energy.” He’s been working with Wichita mechanic Jonathan Goodwin on converting his 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible to make it run on an electric battery. Young has invested about $120,000 into the project thus far and he hopes the return will be a model for the world’s first mass-produced electric car; which in turn would allow countries like America to be free of overseas oil dependency.
Seems like ol’ Neil is trying to change the world again, this time with a car. It’s not the first time Young has put his hands around the planet, squeezing inspiration from her turmoil. Classic rock staples like “Alabama,” “Southern Man,” “Ohio,” “Rockin’ In The Free World” and more obscure cuts like “Revolution Blues,” “Welfare Mothers,” “Cortez The Killer” and “Powderfinger” all have vast social and political implications, and they certainly influenced the counterculture that was rising in the ’60s and ’70s. Even his recent work like “No Wonder” from 2005’s Prairie Wind, everything on 2006’s Living With War, “Ordinary People” off 2007’s Chrome Dreams II and 2008’s CSNY: Déjà Vu fall into the socio-political category. But does Young really believe a song, an album or a film can change the world?
“I’ve felt that way in the past [but] I just don’t think so,” he says, fiddling with a piece of paper on the table in front of him. “The world today requires physics, science and politics to change. Spirituality is important, more important than politics, but I think physics and science, really, that’s where the playground is right now. It’s the age of innovation. We’re in it. Some people really know it, some people don’t.”
“I don’t think they should listen to me at all. They should listen to their own souls, and they should vote with their own souls and they should think with their own hearts. I’m just another voice in the crowd,” proclaims Young. “I think people got lulled into this, or they got positioned by the Bush administration into being ‘Red’ or ‘Blue,’ and then they got positioned into, ‘If you disagree you’re not patriotic,’ and then they just got fooled. And all this [CSNY: Déjà Vu and Living With War] was doing was going, ‘Hey, it’s possible to disagree and still be patriotic.’ Both sides can be represented, because that’s what the country’s all about. We were just trying to bring that back and I think we did.”
Young may often work outside the realm of music, dipping into politics and the environment, but it’s with his guitar that he wields the most power. At age 62, Young is still a mean, ragged rock & roller capable of serious destruction when plugged in. Having apparently made a full recovery from the brain aneurysm that struck in 2005, Young is revisiting his love of playing live and wrestling with his guitar.
“Took me a while to get back into it after I had a health scare a couple years ago,” offers a reflective Young. “I had to take some medicine there for a while to get straightened out and it took me a while to get a grip on who I was again and what I could do. But now, I think I’m ready to go out and play festivals and jam and just have a good time. I feel confident in my abilities to do that.”
“You usually have only four good shows out of a tour of 35 or 40 shows,” continues Young. And when good goes to great, at times it can be transcendent. Even though he probably won’t admit it, Young knows he’s special. He’s always been different, tapped into the Big Spirit, a conduit for something more, and it’s onstage with his guitar where he’s closest to the source.
“That’s the energy, that’s God,” says Young as he drops his shades down the tip of his nose, locking his steel-gray eyes on mine, paralyzing me in his tractor beam. “We’ve all been created, whether you think of God as a being or you think of God as just a force, this is a manifestation of it, when people come together and the music rises to a certain level you can just feel it, that’s just more than a show.”
Special thanks to Jimmy McDonough for his incredibly complete book on Young. * Indicates a quote taken from his book: Shakey – Neil Young’s Biography.
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