Music by VICE

Neil Young and the Restless Need to Keep Making Protest Music

We talk to the icon about spending his birthday protesting at Standing Rock and keeping the spirit of the 60s alive in Trump's America.

by Steve Baltin
Dec 15 2016, 5:55pm

For more than five decades, Neil Young has crafted the reputation and legacy of being an artist who answers to no one and follows his artistic muse, whether that's to create synthesizer-driven albums like 1982's Trans, write a whole collection of tunes about Monsanto as was the case with 2016's The Monsanto Years, or turn "Cowgirl in the Sand" into a 20-minute guitar jam. As a live performer he possesses that same rebellious streak of independence. One of the high points of his incendiary, holy fuck set during weekend two of this past October's Desert Trip was when he was throwing organic seeds into the front rows to protest what he deemed California's "stupid" seed law. When someone from the front who only wanted to hear Young's greatest hits said something, Young sarcastically apologized and said, "I'm just trying to connect this to the real world."

For Young, now 71, music today is all about connecting to the real world. His new album, Peace Trail, was greatly inspired by the events of Standing Rock, where he spent his birthday singing for the protesters. We spoke with him about the album and his surprisingly optimistic outlook that there can be some positives out of this past November's continuingly surreal election, namely that the people will rise up and we'll see an outpouring of activism that rivals the 60s. 

Noisey: Audience always take songs and make them their own. Have any of the new songs changed for you based on audience response?
Neil Young: There's a song called "Show Me" that has the verse "When the women of the world are free to stand up for themselves" and we were doing the song, did the first couple of verses in the pocket and it feels really good and having a good time, then we sing that verse and all the women in the audience went off and you could really hear them. I've never heard that sound before, so the next time I played it, it happened again. It's a unison chorus of female voices that was pretty miraculous, I really enjoyed hearing that and I looked forward to it as we did the song in other places. 

How did the new stuff differ though at Standing Rock playing for your birthday?
When I was playing at Standing Rock it wasn't like a concert, I just walked around and played my guitar and harmonica and walked from camp to camp and stood with them and played and then moved on because I just wanted to give them the support of my being there and I knew they were there and I wanted them to hear a little bit of music. It's more of a gentle thing, so that was a great feeling. But I can't compare that to anything else cause I'd never done anything like that before. 

How did that inspire you both musically and as an activist since it was a new experience for you and when you're playing for 80,000 people at Desert Trip you don't get that same immediate feedback?
I can feel the people and you can feel the energy of the people and it's great, especially when they react really positively to a song they've never heard before. That's the kind of thing that gives me the energy to keep on going and play the old songs cause the old songs are fun to play, but you have to respect them. They're not just throwaways, so that's why it's so cool with this band to be able to do one group of songs on time and another group the next time. We really tried to mix it up as far as the two Desert Trip shows. We played different song lists completely. Some of the new songs were the same, probably a lot of them, but the older songs we tried to mix up and do or not do. So that was fun, this band really makes it possible to do that. You can't wear out the old songs, you have to go from one to another and give them a rest. But the new songs you can play all the time because they give you an identity and a sense of reality about what you're doing. This is really what we do right now. 

How does it excite you as an activist to be at Standing Rock and see younger generations take on the activist role for social change? You mentioned with our surprise president there is opportunity. Do you feel people are more inspired right now?
I think everything that's happening is going to make activism and independence and people's voice all just grow and grow and grow. And the numbers will grow because the power of these things is becoming evident. What's happening here is historic and we got to watch it very closely. If anybody doubts that the corporations are in charge they ought to check this situation out and corporations have been responsible for people being there, people being hit with water cannons in below freezing weather, mace, rubber bullets, great bodily harm done to many people who were standing there praying or standing there silently. I was there, that wasn't a bad place; it wasn't an aggressive place. The aggression was all coming from the police and the security forces for Dakota Access and the National Guard. But this is all not that newsworthy for mainstream media. You don't really hear much about it because it's just not happening, I don't know why. Maybe corporate sponsors of the media are the same corporations that are doing this, hard to say. 

Talk about the role of social media and was it your responsibility to pass along the knowledge of how to fight for change?
I was there because I believed in it, Daryl [Hannah, his girlfriend and actress] believes in it. We went there together and she filmed me walking around and we put it on social media. We're both into social media, we like to keep abreast of what's going on and she really helps me to be able to watch live feeds, live streams of things that are actually happening at the moment, get on the draw cams, see it from the sky, see all kinds of stuff that you'd never see in the national media. I really think the situation now is yeah, we got social media. That's another one of the great things that's happening and music is music, music is always going to be music. It's been with us forever and social media is new. The two of them together are phenomenal and I really think this illustrates what can happen when people get together and work together to make a change and bring light to some injustice. It's like the 60s; I think that now the youth of today has got a target just like in the 60s the youth had a target. It was something in authority that was going in the wrong direction and the youth are all against it. They see things the authorities don't see, they care about climate change, they care about equality and people living together and all races, all colors, all languages being able to coexist. That's what America is all about. It's not about paranoia and hiding behind walls. That's not what America is about. So I think this is a really robust moment for activism.

Is 2017 then a big year for politically active music and does Peace Trail help lead the way?
I think it's inevitable that it's gonna come back. It doesn't always have to be overt, like some of the songs I've written are very overt and very direct, some other ones I've written are not like that, they're more image-laden with metaphors and everything and give you a chance to see it through different light, but the subject is always there. Art always reflects the times and these times are very intense. I would expect the art to get very intense and I would expect the generation of the youth to get very intense. 

Is there a greatest song of social change?
No, there hasn't been. It's a combination of all of those songs and all of those people working together that makes it happen, not one song, not one person. It's not one artist, it's everybody together with one goal and that is to share the feeling that they have against things that are happening or for things that are happening. There's a lot of power now with the combination of youth, social media, music, just the energy of all of that already reminds me of the 60s. You can see it coming. 

Steve Baltin is a writer based in California. Follow him on Twitter.

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