Neil Young - More To The Picture Than Meets The Eye

If you ever meet anyone who can accurately predict what Neil Young is going to do next, ask them to buy lottery tickets for you, too. Since emerging with Buffalo Springfield during the mid-'60s, the Canadian born Young has made a career out of being utterly unpredictable. He'll craft a roaring rock fury with Crazy Horse, then follow it up with something smooth and mellow like Harvest or Harvest Moon. He's taken stabs at electronic rock, rockabilly, country and blues. He could be in the middle of a couple projects -- like the acoustic effort Silver and Gold or the long-awaited, multi-volume career anthology -- and then scrap both to re-form Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. After that...well, who knows. But don't make too many wagers. Everyone else has taken their turn, how would you describe your guitar style?

Neil Young: It's just a big, distorted mess. Occasionally other things come out of it, a lot of clear things. I like that. How do you know when it's time to play some more with Crazy Horse?

Young: I just feel it. I can feel my body wanting to play guitar the way I play with Crazy Horse. It's not really more; it's more like an us. It really is a band. The songs are really band songs, being played like a band. It's set up to be overdubbing or anything like that. It's very pure. I always wince when someone says Neil Young & Crazy Horse. It's [just] Crazy Horse. What is it about Crazy Horse music that distinguishes it even from your other electric music?

Young: It's jut big, a lot like classical music, as far as I can tell. It's like a Wagnerian, melodic kind of thing that envelopes all different kinds of emotions and sweeps through things. It goes off on tangents and returns. There are no rules of the road in this band; there are places I can go that I don't necessarily get to on my own. Can you think of an example?

Young: Something like "Farmer John" [from 1990's Ragged Glory]. We were towards the end of [the album] and no one knew what kind of song to play. One of the guys said, "Why don't you do something that you did with your old high school band back in Canada?" You had a brief encounter with censorship when the song [email protected]' Up'' earned Ragged Glory a warning label. It was early in the labeling game, but did that surprise you?

Young: Nah, I think it was going on for a while, and people had just started to notice. At first, record companies didn't want you to be saying things like that, but they just asked you not to say it and everybody figured, they'll never do anything more than that. So groups kept developing more freedom, and here we are. It really started breaking through and being accepted on a wide level by the public. If something happened to Elvis in Florida in the `50s, how would you have known? Back then, the news wasn't going to do a big story on a rock 'n' roll singer. But today, because music is such a big business, it's news. When they arrest 2 Live Crew in Florida, it's on the evening news -- instead of something more important, of course.

Young: Yeah. I'll tell you something. I think the people that find themselves carrying the flag for censorship or anything like that should take a walk downtown, take a look around. Don't worry about "[email protected]' Up." Don't worry about someone's sexual desires or a song that possesses some kind of demonic message. Look at the crime rate. Look at the homeless. That's what they should be worried about. Was working with Pearl Jam, on Mirror Ball and at the assorted shows you played with them, different than working with Crazy Horse?

Young: There's more singing in Crazy Horse. But it's hard to compare them. They're different; they have different rhythms. Both are very sincere, very intense, very real and very raw. But they are different. But I just played my songs the way I would play them with anybody else. Actually, I played them like I was sure everything was going to be there. It was evident to me right away they were gonna be able to deliver the goods. They picked things up real well. I'm fortunate to have these great musicians -- them and Crazy Horse -- to play with. They're great bands. Do you think you'll work with Pearl Jam again at some point?

Young: I think so. We honestly don't discuss any of that. We just play and let it happen. Whatever happens is fine. It's a natural, musical thing, not a business thing. It doesn't have to be worked out. It's just real. So many modern rock groups, particularly during the early and mid-'90s, cited you as an influence. Did that strike a chord with you?

Young: I can hear some of the influence I've had on some of these bands. I'll hear a certain guitar chord or a sound or a lyrical attitude that comes popping through that's reminiscent of some idea I had somewhere. Mostly I hear a lot of questions like yours; that's all I hear about it. I'm kind of removed from reality. I live out in the trees, concentrate on my family and my music and electronics projects I'm working on and different things. I'm kind of out of touch, so people's questions are informative to me. When you're writing songs, do you hear the full arrangement in your head?

Young: Yeah, I hear all the parts in my head, but I don't bother to do all that. When you go for the emotion that sets you off in the first place, you get something. It's like instant gratification. Then you go on to the next thing. Do you ever, in hindsight, regret not spending more time with a particular song or album?

Young: Not really. I have done records where I spent a lot of time arranging and producing. That was a long time ago. They're not as much fun, and I don't want to do that again. If you want to hear that, you can go back to when I started, Buffalo Springfield and the early Neil Young records, like my first solo album. I tried doing very arranged things, with a whole bunch of work in the studio. It was great at the time, but I wouldn't want to make a life out of that. Now what I like to do is sing and play. There have been several songs during your career that you started at one point and finished later -- sometimes years later. What brings you back to those songs?

Young: It's a unique thing when you start a song at one point and finish it years later. It doesn't happen very often with me; the real good ones come right away, just in one sitting. But sometimes something stops you. It could be anything, some distraction that happens and takes your mind away from it. Or you could be trying too hard. "Powderfinger" took a long time; I wrote the first line in 1967 and didn't finish the song 'til 1975. It was funny to pick up right where I left off. Something blocks me once in awhile, and I don't try to make anything work that's not. Don't try to force it. I just put it away, and if it's something really good then it will call me back to it again. During the past few years in particular, your songs seem to have taken a gentler and more sentimental turn. Are you less fueled now by anger or the need to make pointed commentary?

Young: I think I'm singing about the same subjects, but with 20 years more experience. All the lyrics come from the combinations of things that go on in my life at the time they're written. I have a pretty busy life; I do a lot of things that are off the beaten path. I travel around and see things that jerk me one way or another. Sometimes I'm in a room full of businessmen and later that day I'm on stage with Pearl Jam. It's a whirlwind. I do look on some of the songs, and actually get some help from them myself. I think that's nice, to be able to listen to a few things once in awhile that can straighten me out about some things. (Laughs) Of course, I don't know how long that's going to last, either.

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