Outspoken master of protest and guitar squall on the CSNY
film and wielding raw fretboard power.
BY AARON KAYCE
Neil Young can be a walking paradox. He’s as adept at tender
acoustic folk songs as he is at distorted guitar meltdowns. He supported
Reagan, yet hates Bush. He penned the protest song “Ohio” in the ‘70s and also recorded the
right-wing colored Hawks & Doves (1980). One constant, though, is
that he always speaks up for what he feels is right: he famously protested Vietnam
with CSNY, and lately, he rages against the Iraq War.
CSNY: Déjà Vu, a film directed by Young chronicling
the events of CSNY’s “Freedom of Speech 2006” tour, is his latest act of
dissent. With “embedded” reporter Mike Cerre riding along, the film blends concert
footage, interviews, news clips, and audience reactions into a controversial
cocktail of music and politics. Young agreed to meet BLURT at the Mountain
House in Woodside, CA to discuss the film. The secluded
restaurant isn’t open yet, but we find him browsing the eclectic jukebox.
Adjourning to a corner table, he keeps his sunglasses on, but his steely eyes
intermittently pierce the tint to punctuate his point. He’s intense, but also
talkative and engaging, tempering his opinions with a joyous cackle.
BLURT: It’s one thing to stand for something as an
individual, and it’s another to write and sing about it to paying customers.
How do you ride the line between politics and music?
Same way we did in the ‘60s. We just sang about how we felt,
because that’s what freedom is all about. People paid, they came and saw us. At
that point they were all young, now they’re all old. People have had a chance
to temper their idealism with realism, and some of them have abandoned what we
were saying back then. 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.
BLURT: A lot of those idealistic hippies turned into
yuppies and have sort of lost their soul, but you don’t seem like you have.
I’ve been lucky. 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. 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 booty 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, I felt like it really wasn’t a good idea to sell out… so I didn’t.
BLURT: Can a song, an album, maybe a film, change the
I’ve felt that way in the past, but I just don’t think so.
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.
Some people are looking at the gas prices; they’re thinking about what they’re
going to drive next year. Trucks used to be popular; now nobody wants a truck.
I’m looking at that going, We’re stupid. We can have big vehicles. Big vehicles can be big generators, big vehicles can
be power sources.
BLURT: There is some speck of spirituality in a
transcendent live show.
I’m with you on that, may the force be with you. That’s the
energy; that is God. 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, and then you can
just feel it. That’s just more than a show.
BLURT: Speaking of spirituality and power, you have a
unique relationship with electricity. When you play live and do some of the
more intense guitar stuff, does that play into it?
There’s some musicians-Jimi [Hendrix] knew what he was
doing. Some guitar players don’t understand that aspect of it. They don’t want
to. 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. And it’s more physical, so I enjoy that
more. But it’s unpredictable and sometimes has [an] edgy or a bottomless kind
of shallow result.
BLURT: So with your music and this film, you’re not
trying to exercise power over people, or try to get them to agree with you, but
rather urge them to get in touch with-and think for-themselves?
That’s what the movie is about, what the record [Living
with War] is about. 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.
They should just go with what they feel, but they should watch and see what it
is we’re saying, and see what other people are saying. And I think people got
lulled into this [Iraq War], or they got positioned by the Bush administration
into being Red or Blue, and then they got positioned into [thinking] if you
disagree you’re not patriotic, and then they just got fooled. It’s possible to
disagree and still be patriotic.
Both sides can be represented, because that’s what the
country’s all about. So we were just trying to bring that back. And I think we
[Photo Credit: Pegi Young]