(Of course, many things have changed since this conversation.Archives, for example. As of this writing (2012), Time Fades Awayhas still not been issued on CD or download. He’s still not happy with the reproduction of recorded sound. There was a Springfield reunion in 2011, a brief one, without Bruce or Dewey – who had both passed away. Young then committed to a full tour with Steve and Richie, but backed out at the last minute. So in a way, the more things change, the more Neil stays the same.)
The original interview:
One of rock ‘n’ roll’s most mercurial figures, Neil Young has been known to say something one minute, and then turn around and do the complete opposite the next. Since his earliest public incarnation, as the “Hollywood Indian” tearing up the lead guitar in Buffalo Springfield, he’s been a mystery man, coming and going in various combinations of shadow and light, never explaining himself, never staying in one place long enough to be pigeonholed. He’s switched from acoustic to electric, from techno to rockabilly, to country, pop and blues, back to acoustic and back to electric. He’s a confounding fellow.
Millions of people love him for these very reasons.
Yet over the course of his 30-plus years in the music business, Young has been assailed as often as he’s been praised: He’s too whiny, his songs are weird, his songs are boring, his guitar playing is rudimentary. All true, in a way, but one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, or so said another gifted songwriter long ago, and the very qualities that so irritate Neil Young’s detractors are what make him special to the people who believe his best intentions run comfortably in their blood.
There is no one in rock ‘n’ roll who sings and plays electric guitar with the symphonic crudeness of Neil Young, not another musician within 100 light years who can hammer an acoustic the way he can, and make it sound like something freshly hewn from the forest. He writes strange, beautiful songs.
The long, repetitive electric ones with Crazy Horse, his longtime backing band, are hypnotic in their simplicity. Anyone who’s ever tranced through the studio version of “Cortez the Killer” can vouch for that. Or “Danger Bird.” Or any of the epic pieces on the Ragged Glory album.
For that matter, anyone who saw Young and Crazy Horse, rockin’ the hell out of the free world on this summer’s H.O.R.D.E. tour, knows first-hand just how intimate Neil Young is with his guitar.
This interview was conducted over the phone just before Young and his mates took the stage to mesmerize another H.O.R.D.E. crowd of never-say-die hippies and slackjawed Squirrel Nut Zippers fans.
Every stop on the tour, this 52-year-old guy blew everybody away like a hurricane.
Lately he’s been riding the rails, figuratively, as part owner of the legendary Lionel Train company. There was another Farm Aid in October, at which he made a long (for him) and impassioned speech about the huge factory farms that are taking over America’s heartland, and another benefit concert for the Bridge School, a facility for physically challenged youngsters operated by his wife, Pegi, in Northern California.
He’s got a movie out, too: Directed by Jim Jarmusch, Year of the Horse is a documentary about Young’s sometimes stormy relationship with the guys in Crazy Horse.
Earlier this year, you declined to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Buffalo Springfield’s induction. Was that something you had to think about, or was there never any question that you would go to the ceremony?
Neil Young: No, I went back and forth several times, trying to make up my mind. But there was always something stopping me from getting excited about going; there was always something there. Finally, what it really came down to was the television of it. I just didn’t want to go.
I’d already been to four or five of those things where it wasn’t televised, and I knew how cool it was. Then I was at one where they televised it, and I could see the difference.
Then, when it went to VH1 you know, the world does not need another awards show. So who cares? I’m saying it’s great to be in the Hall of Fame. I’m already in it. It’s great to be in the Buffalo Springfield, but I’ve already been in the Buffalo Springfield.
And here I’m talking to guys in the Springfield who would like to bring some of their families with them, but can’t afford it because the seats are so expensive. And then the place is filled up with all these high rollers, and it’s all on VH1′s bill, or the TV station, or whoever the heck it is. They all make the money; everybody gets the big sponsorship money, and people in the bands can’t afford to bring their families to the ceremony. There were a lot of things about it that kind of bothered me.
Now, it was expensive to go to the Waldorf in New York, but there wasn’t a big television thing involved in it. No ‘We’re going to cash in,’ or ‘We’re going to make a donation to the Hall of Fame to shore up the building’ or something. I don’t know. So I left that off my itinerary of things that I thought were cool to do.
Did Dewey, Bruce and Richie understand when you made your statement, or were they just pissed off?
Neil Young: Well, I know Dewey and Bruce understood. I guess everybody else understood it, I never really spoke to Richie about it. But I did speak to the other guys about it. I just told them where I was at with it. And they’re used to me.
What was it Stills said onstage: ‘Well, Rich, he quit again.’
Neil Young: Yeah, right. That was great.
Your induction as a solo artist, and performance with Pearl Jam, had been televised just two years earlier. I remember thinking that was great TV. You said you could tell it was different then. How was it different?
Neil Young: What’s different is that your speech, whatever you want to say …. this is the moment of a lifetime for a musician. Did you see the Grammys when they gave Frank Sinatra his Lifetime Achievement Award? How did you feel about that?
Neil Young: Well, television. That’s the way television has to be. They have a corporate thing going there, they got their commercials, they got their slot, and with VH1 it was even worse because they didn’t even do it live. I mean they didn’t even have that excuse.
Later on, they went in and Editor D, from Room C, was designated by Executive A to leave half of some guy’s heartfelt speech on the cutting room floor. And cut out almost everything that he said, and put in just what VH1 thought was cool. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not hip. Doesn’t get it for me.
It reminded me, and a lot of people, of this ‘This Note’s For You’ thing with MTV. That was the last TV controversy I could think of involving you.
Neil Young: Well, you know, there’s a place for ‘em. They do a good service to the community. (laughs) Wasn’t that diplomatic? You won’t be seeing any of my videos on VH1, I’ll tell you that.
As I remember, MTV didn’t play ‘This Note’s For You’ until it won their big award
Neil Young: Yeah, they didn’t play it until it won Video of the Year, so they aired it.
How did you feel about that?
Neil Young: For me, it was a lucky break. I didn’t have to have anybody see it, so they didn’t recognize me when I was walking down the street.
How much of Lionel Trains do you own?
Neil Young: Well, the partners and I have control of the company.
How did you get involved with Lionel? I know it had something to do with your son.
Neil Young: Well, I bought part of Lionel along with my partners, Wellspring, an investment group. I had a history with Lionel before that, where I developed a control system that the company uses for controlling the trains. It was developed with an eye for doing a lot of things with my son, using a controller that was accessible to a physically challenged individual. Who had different ways of accessing switches.
So I came up with this idea, and came up with concepts for supplying auditory feedback, and visual feedback, for every command issued. So that every time you made a command, you heard or saw something happen. You got action back.
And then you can select the commands by remote control, with a wireless controller, that can be accessed by your physically challenged friend. And so whatever you do with the controller, then when they hit their switch, it happens. So there’s no plugging things in or changing things. It’s fast and easy.
Were you a model train aficionado before this?
Neil Young: Yeah! I sort of developed this because of that. I kept thinking how all my kids loved trains so much, and I did too, so we just enjoyed playing with them.
And I just happen to have this son, Ben, who’s physically challenged, and wants to have a lot of fun. So we share this together.
And it just turns out that through the development of it, it’s made it possible for a lot of other things to happen for everybody who plays with trains. That really couldn’t happen before.
There’s a tent at H.O.R.D.E. with a train setup.
Neil Young: Yeah, Lionel has a display of electric trains, and a thing called LionelVision, which is cameras mounted in the trains. The trains fly around with little color cameras and stereo microphones mounted in them, listening and looking everywhere they go.
So will we eventually see your face on the packaging? ‘Neil Young says….’
Neil Young: No. (Laughing). No, I don’t think so.
You’re 51 now. What does life look like to you?
Neil Young: Well, I love playing. I love playing music, and I love being around lots of other people who play music. That’s why the H.O.R.D.E. tour is so much fun.
It absolutely feels just as good.
You turned down the Lollapalooza tour. What appealed to you about H.O.R.D.E.?
Neil Young: Really, the diversity of the music. There’s just so many different bands out that are all so different, and all of the different kinds of music, from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and on the tour we’ve had other groups that have visited and stayed for two or three weeks, like Beck, Primus, Blues Traveler.
There’s always new bands that nobody knows too much about, which is always cool, because their energy is so good, and they’re so positive. It’s just good to be around all of that, for me.
Does that make the audience primed and already vibrating when you get out there?
Neil Young: Well, actually, they get a day of music that’s all different, so they’re wide open by the time I see them. So it works real well. I just like the energy out here.
Is it a younger crowd, or is it really mixed aged groups?
Neil Young: Oh, it’s definitely a younger crowd. I have to say that at least 50 percent of the people I play for have never seen me. So that’s great, that’s a big plus. Because it’s just more of a challenge it’s just different. And at this stage, something different is something great.
Does it have to be Crazy Horse for this audience; could you, for example, have used the acoustic band or the Bluenotes for H.O.R.D.E.? Is that what makes the most sense for you?
Neil Young: Yeah, I would say that’s true, that Crazy Horse is the band for this. And that’s had a lot to do with us choosing this, and doing it this way. Whereas the Bluenotes would have been great, but not as the position I’m in, as the headliner. They would have been a great band to play during the day or in the afternoon, if it wasn’t ‘Neil Young.’ The band itself, without having to drag my name along with it, would’ve been fantastic at this show. Because the same kind of diversity represented in that band is represented all over this show.
You’re doing a lot of re-arranging lately. It was nice to hear ‘Barstool Blues’ again, on the live album Year of the Horse. Can you take any song out of your bag and say ‘Crazy Horse could do this’? An acoustic song, or something from Trans, for example.
Neil Young: Well, “Barstool Blues” was a Crazy Horse song in the first place. And Crazy Horse was on a lot of Trans, on the songs I sang with the vocoder, so it would be possible.
See, they’re there all the time. People seem to think that through all these changes and everything that they’re gone, but the core of Crazy Horse is always around, on most of the albums. And of course the other albums that I’ve done that don’t have this core music thing happening, that I have with Crazy Horse, a lot of those songs don’t fit with Crazy Horse.
The opposite to that is true of the album I did with Pearl Jam, where most of the songs on that album fit great with Crazy Horse.
I just go through my songs to figure out what would be the right ones to do that night.
Down the road, does that mean Crazy Horse might play songs from Harvest Moon? Is that conceivable?
Neil Young: Hey, anything’s possible.
Six of your catalog albums remain unavailable on compact disc. Recently, you told an interviewer you would burn the tapes before you let them come out on CD. Why?
Neil Young: Until we get the technology. I’m pushing for better technology. And CDs don’t cut it, to me. HDCD is a real great improvement on digital sound, no matter what the format of the sound is. That’s a process you can make CDs through, and it makes them sound more detailed. If you have an HDCD playback system, it sounds incredibly more detailed.
Is that one of those technologies that we’ll ‘see by the year 2000′?
Neil Young: It’s out there now. There’s about 40 different companies, small audiophile companies that make stereo equipment that carries the HDCD chip.
There are something like 15 of your albums out on CD on Reprise. How come they’re out, and these six aren’t?
Neil Young: Those were made during the beginning of CDs. When it hadn’t really dawned on everybody how inferior the CD was. But during the mastering of all of those, and listening to what we ended up with compared to what we started with, everyone became aware of the problems. And that was maybe more than 15 years ago. And there’s been no improvement, in 15 years, from a bad standard.
Meanwhile, we got 64-bit video games, and 32-bit this, and 16-bit sound. Running at a slow speed. So we really need to get a standard together for recorded sound that doesn’t destroy it.
But Reprise is still making those discs.
Neil Young: Oh yeah, that’s right, you can’t stop that. But I’m not gonna do any new ones until there’s a standard.
Let me play devil’s advocate. Since you’re committed to this, can’t you just put a stop to those that are still in print? Can’t you tell the label ‘They sound like shit; let’s take ‘em out’?
Neil Young: You can do that with the new ones. When you put out a master, you put it out, OK, it’s out. Until then, you have it.
You know, those six albums aren’t available on vinyl or cassettes, either. They’ve all been deleted.
I ‘m trying to use that leverage to get some tonal quality on the recordings.
Well, what can I do? I’ll make a call. As a fan, it bugs me that I can’t put, say,American Stars ‘n’ Bars on the CD player.
Neil Young: It’s tough for me, too, but I’m not gonna put out ‘Hurricane’ sounding like a piece of shit. That’s the way it is. There’s the ability to have it better, and I can make a statement. I’m not gonna let it keep happening.
Hawks and Doves, a great record. Can’t hear it. That makes me a little sad.
Neil Young: Right, me too! I feel the same way. When it comes out, it’ll sound great.
What about your long-rumored multi-disc Archives project?
Neil Young: It’s the same thing there. We’re close enough to the new standard. There’s all kinds of people throwing ideas for the new standard around. The latest new standard that came out for sound is worse than the CD. That’s the DVD. That is totally a piece of crap. A thousand times more distortion, and I’m not exaggerating. That is a clinical number.
It’s a terrible thing, and they say that you can play CDs on it. You can play ‘em, but they have to be interpolated and translated and everything before your ear hears ‘em; by then, they’re so distorted, they’re just not there any more.
So what they’ve done is, they’re killing an art form through greed, and not being able to focus on using a decent standard. They’re more interested, it seems, in putting out more product, and more real time information on a disc, than they are in putting out more quality on a disc. And one plays against the other.
So a lot of things have to be worked out before the new standard is set, but the wheels are turning right now, it’s happening.
Do you have a time frame, i.e. ‘They’ll be out in four years’ or something?
Neil Young: They may never be out on the market if the standard’s not right.
What exactly is the Archives? And how close to getting it done did you get?
Neil Young: Pretty close, now. It’s a set of volumes. Each volume carries a number of CDs, but none of those numbers are locked in.
Didn’t you record Time Fades Away digitally in ’73?
Neil Young: No, it was recorded through a Quad-8 CompuMix board, one of the first computer boards. It was mixed directly to masters; instead of copying masters, it made masters over and over again. But actually it was kind of a misfire.
Tell me about the Year of the Horse movie. Was Dead Man your first collaboration with Jim Jarmusch, and did it lead to this?
Neil Young: Dead Man was definitely first. That was just getting to know Jim. And we did a video together, for Dead Man, and then we did a video for Broken Arrow, And then we decided to do this … actually, we didn’t really decide to make a film, we just decided ‘Let’s film some stuff and see what we get. If it looks like it’s gonna be good, and fun, we’ll keep going.’
The Dead Man soundtrack was issued on your label, Vapor Records. Does Vapor Records still exist?
Neil Young: Yeah! We’re not a big record company, we’re a real record company. Real small, too.
You cut your hand a while ago. What was the deal with that?
Neil Young: It was just a regular accident. If I hadn’t been so famous, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I was slicing a sandwich.
And you had to cancel some dates in Europe?
Neil Young: Yeah. If it had been Joe Schmoe, it wouldn’t have made any darn difference, but now I gotta live with people going ‘Hey, you cut your hand a few months ago.” Pretty soon it’s gonna be like ‘Hey, back in ’97, you cut your finger.” When I’m 88.