Neil Young, December 9, 1969, San Diego, photo © Henry Diltz.
On the occasion of Neil Young's recent resurgence—two new back-to-back albums with Crazy Horse, for which they are currently on tour, and his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, marking his 67th birthday—I’d like to take a moment to consider one of our most accomplished and complicated artists. If our feelings about the man are alternately warm and cool, near and far, reverent and bewildered, and even at the same time, why should it be any different? He himself has always measured closeness and distance by degrees—socially antisocial, you might say—a characteristic that has endeared him to so many fans who are similarly inclined.The man who sang "The Loner" was telling us that we're not alone, and in a voice whose vulnerability made it all feel true. The fact that Neil wrote "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," and not "Love the One You're With," should be clear enough, for over the course of countless songs and years and miles traveled, he has often reminded us, though not in these exact words: Love the one you miss… Love the one you left… Love the one you lost. That's one of the undeniable consequences of moving on, of absence, the emptiness of it. After all, don't we think more intently about people who aren't there? And when we ourselves are absent, it's how we make others feel about us. Then again, to be on the receiving end, some might see it differently. In the song, "On the Beach," Neil writes:
All my pictures are fallin'
from the wall where I placed them yesterday.
The world is turnin,'
I hope it don't turn away.
For a moment there's an echo of the great country artist George Jones and his classic ode to heartbreak, "Things Have Gone To Pieces":
Oh, the faucet started drippin' in the kitchen,
And last night your picture fell down from the wall.
Today the boss said: "Sorry, I can't use you any more."
And tonight the light bulb went out in the hall.
For George Jones, it's the loss of love that occasions the collapse around him, and his personal downfall—"Things have gone to pieces since you left me"—even though he's able to conclude with the hopeful line, "But I'm holding to the pieces of my dream." While it may not be Jones who walked out the door, we don't know if it was his fault. Although Neil admits that he "needs a crowd of people," he "can't face them day to day." For some, the response might be: Join the club. For others, a contradiction will immediately appear: the loner who doesn't want to be on his own. Nosing around Neil's lyrics, or anyone's for that matter, is not a particular pastime of mine. He himself probably doesn't worry about it very much, at least once a song's done, though he sometimes wonders aloud in the midst of the writing. On "Ambulance Blues," Neil's complex 60s/70s saga, he conjures and overlays images of innocent hippie days with the deceptions of Richard Nixon and the fractured fairytale of Patty Hearst (with the specter of William Randolph never far behind), and self-reflexively observes: "It's hard to know the meaning of this song." Sometimes Neil comes right out and says just what you're sure he means. For anyone still puzzled over the line, "Think I'll roll another number for the road," patience please, all will be revealed.
Like a lot people, I would rather kick back and feel supremely bummed or elated—and occasionally both in the very same song—by the music and words than submit them to analysis. There are any number of websites for that. The sad songs are usually his best, and it's worth considering that his darkest times may have produced his most golden work.
Left: Neil on the beach. Right: Neil, age 17.
Early on in his career he did something unusual on an album, he covered someone else's song, in this case Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me," and in slowing the tune way down and stripping it bare, he revealed the ache at its core. One listen and you're convinced that Neil could have written these words himself, especially at the (broken) heart of the song: "I can't get over how she set me free." The woman hasn't left her lover behind, he's been set free. If freedom, for Neil, is everything, it always has a price, and in this masterful rendition, it's beautifully and painfully articulated. You have the sense that for all his instinctive and ingenious tunes, particularly in his first ten or so years, his art begins with the lyrics, giving voice to what might otherwise remain unspoken. Neil Young has never said, “I sing it because I can't say it.” But then, he's never had to.
Waging Heavy Piece
One of Neil's best interviews was done in 1979 by Cameron Crowe, appearing as a Rolling Stone cover story titled "Neil Young: The Last American Hero." Forget of course that he, like other quintessential California singer/songwriters, is actually Canadian by birth—and temperament—the recognition is deserved, and the piece still stands as one of his most revealing. Although more than 30 years have passed since I first read it, one story remains vivid, a particularly telling incident from Neil's school days, one all-too familiar to anyone who was ever bullied in youth, as told in his own words:
"Same old shit," he continued talkatively. "Once, I'd become a victim of a series of chimp attacks by some of the bullies in my room. I looked up and three guys were staring at me, mouthing, 'you low-life prick.' Then the guy who sat in front of me turned around and hit my books off the desk with his elbow. He did this a few times. I guess I wore the wrong color of clothes or something. Maybe I looked too much like a mama's boy for them.
"Anyway, I went up to the teacher and asked if I could have the dictionary. This was the first time I'd broken the ice and put my hand up to ask for anything since I got to the fucking place. Everybody thought I didn't speak. So I got the dictionary, this big Webster's with little indentations for your thumb under every letter. I took it back to my desk, thumbed through it a little bit. Then I just sort of stood up in my seat, raised it up above my head as far as I could and hit the guy in front of me over the head with it. Knocked him out.
"Yeah, I got expelled for a day and a half, but I let those people know just where I was at. That's the way I fight. If you're going to fight, you may as well fight to wipe who or whatever it is out. Or don't fight at all."1
Left: Neil Young, 1967, photo by Ann Moses. Right: Howard Hughes.
Could it be here, in this visceral, astounding moment, that Neil Young literally came to grips with the power and weight of words? Somewhere between the no-nonsense heroics of his "don't get mad, get even" moment and the interview's title, I started to think of Neil, of the man he grew up to be, as a kind of Clint Eastwood/Howard Hughes figure. Both created indelible public images, both were heroes of their age, rising up in the golden West, enigmatic men who did things their way, which of course was the only way. They settled scores, they avenged wrongs, and we cheered for them even when a fine line had to be drawn between the good guys and the bad guys. Both men were enamored of movies, to produce them, to get behind the camera. They hid out, they got weird, and one or the other went mad. Hughes, the brilliant inventor, in love with engines and speed, was able to get inside and for many years dominate the aviation industry. Of course, flying on the ground is wrong, and HH found out the hard way. Neil, despite the whole country vibe, has always been fueled by chrome dreams, preferring horsepower to the four-legged ride. (One of the book's reviewers noted that "the rhapsodic, tenderly detailed way he speaks of the autos he owns or once owned tells you he would have been a great used-car salesman."2) These days, when Neil's not rocking out, he passionately occupies himself as an automotive and audio entrepreneur.
Left: Neil, Seattle, 1967, photo by Jini Dellaccio. Right: Clint lines up a shot for High Plains Drifter, 1973.
Clint Eastwood, who shifted from acting to writing and directing as soon as he had the clout, formed his own production company, eager to pursue his vision, neither indebted nor beholden to the studio system. Neil has had the same manager, Elliot Roberts, for well over 40 years, and since 1968 almost all of his records have appeared on the same label, Reprise, allowing him to remain in the driver's seat for nearly his entire career. He is able to record and release what he wants, when he wants, and in doing so is his own studio system. There is, however, the utterly disastrous exception of five years, the period between '81 and '86, when he was signed to Geffen, who put out five of his most unpopular records, and sued him for creating music they referred to as "uncharacteristic" and “uncommercial,” despite having given him complete artistic control in his contract. Their act more or less redefined the term. “Artistic control” meaning what, exactly? Controlling the artist? By refusing to be cowed and back down from the record company, he would become a hero all over again, and within short order he was back to making music, his most relevant since the end of the 70s.
Everybody Knows …
Howard Hughes, Clint Eastwood, Neil Young… it was all starting to make sense. When I mentioned my half-assed thesis to a friend and longtime fan of Neil's, she was doubtful and disapproving. Having "been there" back in the day, I thought she would respond to the subtitle of his book, "A Hippie Dream." And she did, but her response was to wince with visible pain and psychic distress. She said that most of the hippies she had the displeasure of getting to know were generally mean-spirited and greedy, not to be trusted and avoided at all costs. Another friend, someone who hadn't encountered the highs and lows and the undertow of the 60s, was of a different mind entirely. Having recently finished the book, he tended to agree with the historical free-association I had put forward. After all, Neil himself liked to time travel with his own cast of characters—Marlon Brando, Crazy Horse, Pocahontas, Citizen Kane—and when you enter the stream of consciousness, as he does in some of his weirdest, most memorable songs, the water runs from muddy to crystal clear, and there's no such thing as simply getting your feet wet. This second friend also mentioned that he thought Neil was probably a libertarian, which made me think of something my older and wiser pal had offered. She believed that if Neil had only written one song, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," he would have given us more than enough. For it's not just a song, but an IDEA, and in all capital letters. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Everybody didn't know. Not until Neil put the idea in our heads. I mean, the pure radicality of that seemingly simple thought. That one line pulls the rug out from under so much of the bullshit that passes for reality, and diversions from same. Undermines the whole notion of trying to fit in—with the crowd, with the system, with the scene. Once you get that, the empire might not crumble, but it has one less believer. It's a very, very heady thing, and once you absorb it and take it to heart, you couldn’t care less what others think, or expect, or demand, and that is truly liberating. From that point onwards, you can really begin to live your own life.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse—Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, Malibu beach, 1975, photo © Henry Diltz.
Up until now, nearly everything I knew about Neil came from his songs, a couple interviews, and Shakey, a 2004 biography, originally "authorized," which Neil later tried to suppress. The title of the bio refers to one of his best known aliases, Bernard Shakey, the name with which he "signs" his movies, a bit of self-deprecation that acknowledges what some of his buddies described as, shall we say, a certain lack of steadiness in his early cinematography. But now he has a book all his own, and unlike other rock stars he wrote it himself, so I went out and bought a copy. Waging Heavy Piece is almost 500 pages long, but the type is generously large (something his older fans must be thankful for), so the writing gets spread out over a bit more real estate than it might otherwise have had. Hardbound, with a cover price of $30 here in the good old USA, and $31.50 in Canada, it's right in line with the other rock bios among the top ten best-selling books of the last couple months, including Bruce (Springsteen), Rod (Stewart), and Who I Am (Pete Townsend). The phenomenon began in 2004 with Bob Dylan's Chronicles, and may have reached its apex in the past year with Keith Richards' Life, which spent 22 weeks on the best-seller list, with more than one million copies sold. Waging Heavy Peace is also available as a limited edition of 1500 books, personally signed and numbered by Neil. These also come with a black satin bookmark and are tucked into a cloth-covered slip case. At $500, the red gilt edges of its pages add an especially deluxe touch. There's a CD version, which is read by the actor Keith Carradine—best known from his turns in Nashville, The Long Riders, The Duellists, and Welcome To L.A.—and although he doesn't sound a lot like Neil (and he used to project more of a Jackson Browne vibe) he probably does a good job nonetheless.
Waging Heavy Peace, limited edition.
As the days after I purchased the book went by, try as I might, it remained nearly untouched. At first I felt guilty, and eventually it passed as it always does, occurring at various speeds for each of us, from quickly to never. I leafed through, pausing whenever a picture popped out, yet read no more than the captions. Quite consciously, by leaving the book where it was I meant to avoid writing "under the influence" of its narrator, particularly as I had no intention of writing a review, or what some like to call a critique. That's what critics do, those who are paid for their professional and sometimes cranky opinions, and what fans do, who blog, flog, gossip, and carp, receiving no remuneration whatsoever—as it should be. The title made me think of the book as a companion to Neil's album, Living with War, which I've never heard. Having endured eight years of the Bush conspiracy, I have never felt the need for its counter-soundtrack, even in the form of what Neil characterized as "metal folk protest music," which is certainly enticing. Although I can fully appreciate that he was moved and compelled to write these songs, and to title one of them, "Let's Impeach the President" (and you have to wonder if he was threatened with an audit by the IRS for that one, or possible deportation), I'll have to go with my own mix: "Powderfinger," "See the Sky About To Rain," "World On a String," "Vampire Blues," and last but not least, "Yonder Stands the Sinner.” Still, Living With War / Waging Heavy Piece… It's not a bad angle, neither too acute nor overly obtuse.
World on a string.
… This Is Nowhere
The book's title also reminds me of that high school episode with the big dictionary, words used as a weapon, and an image of that asshole being splayed out on the floor, knocked out cold, getting what he rightly deserved. On behalf of all who have been tormented by those insecure, infantile assholes, and those yet to be, we salute you, Neil. You have our most humble admiration. Of course, as even Neil might agree—and you don't need to be a physics major to appreciate the analogy—there are simply times when rage and matter collide. This occurred to me as I quickly scanned a web site called thrasherswheat.org, which has a lengthy page of "Most frequently asked questions about Neil Young." Some are innocuous enough, such as "When was Neil Young born?" and "What films has Neil directed?" (If you hadn't already noticed, we are all on a first-name basis with someone we have never met, and probably never will.) But there are many more inquiries that are simply preposterous:
—Is it true that Neil really owns Lionel Trains?
—Can Neil really out jam Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page?
—Can you show me a sign that Neil's music is important, relevant, and has an impact?
Some are ridiculously sublime:
—What is the color when black is burned?
—What is a “Honey Slide”? How do I find the recipe to make “Honey Slides”?
—Why can't you be 20 on Sugar Mountain?
Still others even I was eager to know the answers to:
—Is that rumor true that Neil tried to produce a Broadway play based on Tonight's the Night?
—Why was the song "Cortez the Killer" banned in Spain?
—Which album did Neil shoot full of bullet holes? Why?
Here I'm reminded of the interview where Neil was asked questions based on his song titles.
—So Neil, are you ready for the country?
—Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself?
—Does a man need a maid?
Left: Roll another number. Right: Barstool blues.
Some questions I am willing to take on myself. All misinformation made up on the spot, guaranteed 100 percent, with no claims to veracity, opacity, or truth and its various permutations.
—What kind of amp does Neil use? I must know more about his rig equipment and gear. —Neil's music has never been amplified. The giant speakers behind him are stage props. The volume of the music is an acoustic phenomenon in which the mood of the room or stadium, and everyone in it is mapped and pitched dramatically. Time and space are perceived as filled by successive waves of sound and fury. For the unplugged country numbers, the amps are turned to minus-ten. There is a similar, inverse effect.
—From an opening act's perspective, what is it like touring with Neil Young and Crazy Horse? —You go on first, your dressing room is larger, and the memories last a bit longer than the ice on the beer.
—What was the name of the 1953 Pontiac hearse that Neil drove from Canada to California, which served as the inspiration for the song, "Long May You Run"? —Mort. Full name, Mortimer Hearseberg, and it was actually a 1948 Buick Roadmaster. Neil was driving, Mort II, the '53 Pontiac, when he caught the eye of Richie Furay and Stephen Stills on Sunset Boulevard in 1966, and which reportedly precipitated their forming Buffalo Springfield.
—Is it true that Neil wrote "Down by the River," "Cinnamon Girl," and "Cowgirl in the Sand" all in a single afternoon while sick with a 103-degree fever? —Yes. When the “thermostat” in the brain rises, one result may be hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain—something that Neil is familiar with on a highly emotive/poetic level—and between 103 and 106 degrees there is the possibility of visual and auditory hallucinations. As almost any artist will tell you, no matter which way you expect to go, you always follow the heat.
—What was it like in Neil's hometown in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1960s? —Just like Hollywood in the 1970s, though not as well air-conditioned.
—How can you explain Neil's political views? —How do you explain yours? Better yet, let the next question and answer be your guide.
—Where did the phrase "Rust Never Sleeps" come from and what does it mean? —It comes from the Rust Belt, as opposed to the Bible Belt or the Dust Bowl, and can be understood as part of the theory of “devolution,” which was formed by Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, of the band Devo, in the late 70s. Casale, who had been a student at Kent State University in 1970, was part of an antiwar demonstration on May 4th of that year, when National Guardsmen fired on the unarmed crowd, killing four of his classmates, and wounding nine others, one of whom was paralyzed for life. As Casale recalled in an interview more than 40 years later:
Whatever I would say, would probably not all touch upon the significance or gravity of the situation at this point of time. It may sound trite or glib. All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. We were all running our asses off from these motherfuckers. It was total utter bullshit. Live ammunition and gasmasks—none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running. I stopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.
VR: Does Neil Young’s "Ohio" strike close to your heart?
JC: Of course. It was strange that the first person that we met, as Devo emerged, was Neil Young. He asked us to be in his movie, Human Highway. It was so strange–San Francisco in 1977. Talk about life being karmic, small and cyclical–it’s absolutely true. I still remember it so crystal clear, like a dream you will never forget … or a nightmare. I still remember every moment. It kind of went in slow motion, like a car accident. Until then I was a hippie. I thought that the world was essentially good. If people were evil, there was justice and the law mattered. All of those silly naïve things. I saw the depths of the horrors and lies and the evil. In the paper that evening, the Akron Beacon Journal said that students were running around armed and that officers had been hurt. So deputy sheriffs went out and deputized citizens. They drove around with shotguns and there was martial law for ten days. 7 PM curfew. It was open season on the students. We lived in fear. Helicopters surrounding the city with hourly rotating runs out to the West Side and back downtown. All first amendment rights are suspended at the instance when the governor gives the order. All of the class action suits by the parents of the slain students were all dismissed out of court because once the governor announced martial law, they had no right to assemble.3
—In Human Highway, Devo and Neil perform a long, intense version of his song, "Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)," in which his howling guitar collides head-on with their regimented quantum mechanics. Even if their gait is that of an animatronic horse, Devo has much in common with Neil's most frequently enlisted musicians, the workmanlike Crazy Horse. Here, it's possible to see the roots and frayed wires of Neil's mostly misunderstood foray into electro, 1982's Trans.
—What filmmaker said in an interview: "If Neil were a native American he would be a ‘contrary,' a medicine man. He'd have to walk backwards, because everything Neil does is contrary to what is natural." —Orson Welles? Edwin S.Curtis? Jim Jarmusch?
—What is the connection between Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and Neil Young's "Southern Man"? —Keep on rockin' with the free bird.
—Why is Sleeps With Angels considered to be the sequel to Tonight's The Night? —In Native American culture, shamans speak with the spirits of the dead. In ours, some among us are attuned in such an empathic way that they are able to pick up on and channel spectral emanations. This form of translation, which is also a means to exorcise our own psychic wounds, is most often achieved through the "medium" of music and the human voice, and Neil, particularly on these two records, has inhabited these parallel worlds. It's been said that the difference between a groove and a grave is only a matter of depth, and so an album, like a house, can also be haunted.
—Does Neil do drugs?—Only chemicals and sacred roots. But he has always been sober, straightforward in character, with a true sense of gravity, reasonable, and self-controlled. Of course sober is merely somber with a letter removed. Consult your dentist, or typist, and wheel in a tank of nitrous oxide.
—Can Neil's style be defined? —Ask David Geffen.
Long may you run.
Comin' Apart At Every Neil
Neil's restlessness, wherever he is at any point along his path, is a testament to how willing he is to reinvent himself, as he responds to both inner and external imperatives, and how he doesn't want to play the same part year after year, or be typecast by anyone. In this sense he is simultaneously the director, the star, and all the character actors who step out onto the stage. In 1983, when the rock critic Paul Nelson pitched the idea of Neil's bio to a publisher, he wrote:
"After fifteen years, there's still no predicting what he'll do! … Needless to say, such a performer does not follow trends, even those he sets. Indeed, Young's wide-ranging artistry as both a songwriter and instrumentalist seems resolutely wed to instinct, to a need not to be tied down to anything but communication."4
Although the proposal was accepted, Nelson—always a slow, meticulous writer—worked on and off for two years, making very little progress, and the book never appeared. It was to have been titled, Rust Never Sleeps: The Neil Young Story. (Interestingly enough, Nelson had previously done numerous interviews over the course of five years for a book on Clint Eastwood, which was also never finished. It's tempting to imagine the comparisons Nelson would have made between Eastwood and Neil, since this was a writer for whom movies and music were intimately entwined.)5 The question of restlessness, artistic or otherwise, remains worth considering: Can Neil's style be defined? In his first and longest decade, he drew parallel and fluidly wavering lines between folk, country, blues, and soul, embedded them in rock, discovered that punk is a form of them all—protest music at greater volume—and showed us that those connections resonate emotionally, and are often dark. You could ask this question of the many bands and singers who have covered his songs over the years. That's what I did, as I plugged into my own personal jukebox and went through as many as I could recall, and those I went on to discover, with some wonderful surprises and any number of clunkers. But just as with Neil, you take the good with the bad as you search for that heart of gold. As I'm listening back to this mix, I'm reminded of something a friend told me after she had been to a concert of Neil's, during which he had endured many fans calling out for their favorite songs. It's all too common at a show, and for any performer it can be incredibly annoying, interrupting the flow they're working toward, their need for concentration. Amid a stream of shouted requests from the audience, Neil leaned into the microphone and wearily said, "It's all the same song."
Two of a kind?
Dear Bernard Shakey,
Although we've never met, I hope you don't mind my taking the liberty to drop you this note. I know that you and Neil have always been close, so I wouldn't want you to think that I'm trying to "get to him" through you, and I certainly don't want to impose. But you've managed on many occasions to give an image to his vision, add a movie to the soundtrack, so to speak. With a few artists, when their thought and expression is so vivid and uncanny, when their songs take on an undeniable intimacy at certain points in our lives, especially those that feel like points of no return, we can't help but sense a connection. Neil is one of these artists. At the same time, although we know that the songs weren't written for us, we take them to heart. "Though my problems are meaningless, that don't make them go away." They're Neil's words, but who among us can't relate?
I'm writing this letter in a little cabin above the creek that runs through Topanga Canyon. The main house, I'm told, is one of the area's oldest standing structures, built around 1875. Coincidentally or not, in the late 1960s/early 70s, it was owned by a well-known drug dealer—who you may have come across at one point or another—and Neil recorded After the Gold Rush just up the road. It's one of his best albums, and it really captures the feel of Topanga. When I told a friend that I was coming here and would be staying on this particular property, he said, "Great that you get to finish up your column in that cabin. You'll be able to soak up the vibrations where soaking up vibrations was practically invented." As it turns out, after four days in TC, as much as I've gotten into the rusticity, the occasional morning fog, its quiet, gentle pace, falling asleep to the lonely moans of coyotes coming down the mountain, and kicking back in front of the old stone fireplace at night—the hot tub perched on the hillside is unfortunately out of commission—the only thing golden is the smell of late November and flickering light on the leaves. As for those vibes, the trace of whatever it was, and even the ghosts we miss the most, you can't hold on to everything and everyone, and would you really want to? Funny how time fades away...
1. Cameron Crowe, "Neil Young: The Last American Hero," Rolling Stone, no. 284, February 8, 1979.
2. Howard Hampton, "After the Gold Rush," The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 28, 2012, p. 14.
3. Brian L. Knight, "Oh Yes, It’s Devo: An Interview with Jerry Casale," The Vermont Review, November 20, 2012.
4. In Kevin Avery, Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, Fantagraphics Books, 2011, p. 298.
5. Kevin Avery, Conversations With Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews With Clint Eastwood, 1979-1983, Continuum, 2011.