Neil Young: Chaos Is Good

By Team JamBase Jul 31, 2008 6:44 pm PDT

By: Kayceman

Neil Young
Skyline Boulevard cuts a breathtaking path through towering redwood groves, stunning eucalyptus trees, rolling green hills and expansive panoramic views. It’s the type of road that exemplifies Northern California’s abundant natural beauty, and if you want to get to The Mountain House, a secluded restaurant that resides in the small, exclusive town of Woodside, California, it’s the only route to take. Situated on the San Francisco Peninsula between the S.F. Bay to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Woodside may not have always been home to wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, as it is today, but perhaps dating back to 1970 when Neil Young paid $340,000 cash for a 140-acre piece of property he named The Broken Arrow Ranch, it’s been a place where the rich could get away.

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

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Young comes back in and we take a seat at a corner table. He hasn’t removed his dark sunglasses and he won’t at any point during our talk. We’re sitting alone, no one else is in the room and Young is picking over a small plate of jumbo shrimp. I’ve been trying to interview Neil Young for more than a decade and there are a number of topics I plan to address, but before going back into the past I want to talk about the future. Specifically I’m curious about the film CSNY: Déjà Vu (released on July 25). Produced by Young, the film follows Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on their “Freedom of Speech 2006” tour and features music from Young’s controversial Living With War album. With “embedded” Emmy winning, ABC News correspondent Mike Cerre (one of the first journalists to embed with a military unit during the U.S. invasion of Iraq) along for the ride, the film is a mix of concert footage, audience reactions, news clips and archival material set against the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. As political as it is musical, CSNY: Déjà Vu is yet another polarizing moment in the blindingly prolific, wildly diverse career of Neil Young.

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.

Neil Young
“I don’t think we’re getting anywhere. I think we’re repeating ourselves, failure upon failure,” says Young. “I think we should try to address the root problem rather than the symptom, and the root problem is energy.”

“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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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.

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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.

Neil Young

Photo of Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg

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

Neil Young
Neil Percival Young was born on November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Canada. Things were never all that great at home as his parents, Scott Young and Edna “Rassy” Ragland, fought through two decades of bitter turbulence before they were officially divorced in 1960. A well-known sports columnist and author, Scott often gave into temptation and Rassy raked him over the coals for his infidelity. It was a messy split and the experience only sent Neil deeper into the solitary world of sound. After the divorce, Rassy and Neil moved back to Winnipeg, where the family was originally from. It was in icy Winnipeg that Young’s music career began, but not before he would battle for his young life.

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.

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

Neil Young is not like the rest of us; he’s literally wired in a different way. His epilepsy produced brief disturbances in the electrical function of his brain and some argue that the disease led Young to his unique relationship with electricity and the guitar (although Young isn’t so sure of that). He can literally hear and feel the difference in watts coming out of the speakers, so much that he can tell his guitar tech Larry Cragg exactly how many volts are pumping through the walls.

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.

Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg
“There’s some musicians [that get it] – Jimi [Hendrix] knew what he was doing – but some guitar players don’t understand that aspect of it. They don’t want to,” explains Young. “First of all, they have two hands that work really well, and so they can do all this by themselves. They don’t need the help of something else, but I do. I need the help of power. I need to have that resonance. I need to have that availability of a space between me and the source, and fucking with that – bending notes and doing things to make the sounds happen. It’s more physical, so I enjoy that. But, it’s unpredictable and sometimes has edgy, bottomless or shallow results.”

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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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.

Neil Young on playing guitar

Photo of Neil Young :: 06.22.08 by Andrea Barsanti

Hey hey, my my/ Rock and roll can never die/ There’s more to the picture than meets the eye

Stills & Young by Jay Blakesberg
CSNY’s troubled past has been well documented. From creative battles to drug abuse to the two major Alpha Dogs in Young and Stephen Stills butting heads, it’s a wonder they’ve been able to split and regroup so often while retaining such genuine appreciation for the group dynamic and the individuals in it. Each member could be a bandleader under different circumstances, but no one tells Young what to do, and it was Neil who brought the band together for the “Freedom of Speech 2006” tour.

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?

Neil Young
Young: Well, when you’re distracted by a certain number of all the kinds of things happening, that’s when creativity happens. I don’t know how to explain it. But creativity does happen in those situations. And the older I get, of course, the less chaos there is because you’re numb. You don’t realize how much chaos is going on. But, I still manage to get my jolt every now and again. It comes in and I just write songs when they come to me, but I don’t go looking for ’em. So, the creativity is a gift, and I accept it with great gratitude.

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.”

Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg
So even though Young knows that CSNY: Déjà Vu and Living With War won’t change the world he doesn’t care. That’s not the point. He’s not trying to sway public opinion; he just wants to snap people from their 21st Century daze.

“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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