Originally published in Uncut’s December 2004 issue
In this epic archive feature, Neil Young himself explains the making of every single song on his Greatest Hits album. “I wrote a lot of songs when I couldn’t talk…”
Neil Young is just back from playing several dates on the “Vote For Change” tour and he’s still sporting the button badge and a custom-made “Canadians For Kerry” T-shirt to prove it. “Too bad you guys in Europe don’t get to vote. Then it would be a landslide, right?” he jokes.
Politically, Young has often appeared an ambivalent figure. He made potent early socio-political statements with songs such as “Ohio” and “Southern Man”, both of which have a prominent place on his forthcoming best-of compilation (reviewed on p168). But then in the ’80s he appeared to flirt with Reaganism. At the end of the decade, as the Cold War was coming to an end and global communism was collapsing, he wrote “Rockin’ In The Free World”. It’s also on the new ‘hits’ collection, and is one of those ambiguous songs claimed equally by both sides. To the right it’s a celebration of capitalism’s ultimate triumph. To the left it’s a critique of ‘freedom’ American-style, with its litany of victims who fall between democracy’s cracks.
On the Vote For Change tour, it’s become a ‘stop Bush’ anthem, Young performing the song with the likes of Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band.
“It seems to be resonating again,” he says. “But it depends on how you cut it and what words you leave in and what you take out.”
He’s clearly pleased with the way Michael Moore adapted the song for the soundtrack of his recent Fahrenheit 9/11. “The way he edited in the film made it very topical for now,” he enthuses, and reveals that Moore has now made a four-minute video for the song. “I just saw it for the first time half an hour ago,” Young says. “He’s done a great job.”
There are two ways of viewing rock stars who pontificate about politics. On the one hand, there’s the ’60s notion that artists have a duty to “speak out against the madness”, as David Crosby put it on CSN&Y’s “Almost Cut My Hair”. The other holds that just because we enjoy the music of citizens Springsteen, Stipe, Vedder or Young, why should we care a hoot about their political views?
Uncut wonders where Young stands within this spectrum of opinion.
“At both ends, because they’re both right,” he says. “Half the people feel musicians should be listened to simply as artists and shouldn’t step outside their area as political spokesmen. But the other half feel what musicians have to say is meaningful. Maybe it’s not going to change your mind. But it’s going to reinforce what you feel if someone whose music you relate to agrees with you. It can be a very effective thing if people go and vote for whatever they feel the music says.”
Whether humanity has made any progress since the titanic social and cultural battles that rock’n’roll seemed to embody in the ’60s is a moot point.
“It’s 50:50 right now,” Young reckons. “I like to think things are getting better. But there are so many levels of control through the media. It’s confusing. You think you’re making progress. And then you see how strong the other side is and how they’re manipulating the media to change the meaning of things and put out their take on it. People have to learn to think for themselves.”
Away from his contribution to the campaign to oust Bush, Young has been busy readying his new compilation, his first career overview since Decade in 1977. A long-term obsessive about sound quality, typically the record comes in various formats, including not only standard CD but something he calls “super-saturated DVD-Stereo” and a new, enhanced vinyl format he claims is “the best ever”.
“Sound quality hit the dark ages in the early ’80s. But it’s starting to come back thanks to DVD-Stereo,” he enthuses. “There’s just no comparison between that and a regular compact disc or even 5.1 sound. It’s the difference between a true reflection of the music and a mere replica.”
In reality, Young has had very few ‘hits’ in the conventional sense; his only solo Top 30 single to date has been “Heart Of Gold” in 1972. Was the selection his or his record company’s, and what were the criteria?
“There was a large list that was created,” he explains. “Then we based it on sales and airplay and downloading. We took all the information that we could and came up with what would fit.”
The result is a collection on which all but two of the 16 tracks date from the period 1969-79, with only “Rockin’ In The Free World” and “Harvest Moon” to represent the last 25 years.
“Well, that’s when the hottest hits happened, or what you might call hits,” he shrugs. “So that’s real.”
A greatest hits album will hardly satisfy those who were hoping 2004 would see the release of the multi-CD Archives boxset (at various times rumoured to consist of anything between six and 20 CDs) that he’s been promising for years. But, he insists, the project is now “big and real close” and the hits album is intended to “set the bar” for the Archives release.
Yet he denies all this journeying through his past has put him in nostalgic mood. “Like Dylan said, ‘Don’t look back.’ I can only play the old songs if there’s also new material. Greendale is what gave me enough belief in myself to continue and to sing the old songs. If it wasn’t for things like Greendale, I’d just be replicating myself, travelling round the world doing things I’d already done. Which would be very depressing and probably life-threatening.”
At the moment he admits there are no new songs. “I don’t have anything. Greendale completely drained me, to the point where I’m just standing here, the wind is blowing and I’m waiting.”
Perhaps he could fill the time by giving us his literary version of events, like Dylan’s Chronicles?
“Boy, I hope I’ll be too busy doing something else to do that. It’d be a heck of a job. But maybe at some point in my life it will become a relaxing thing to do.”
If he ever does write the book, though, don’t expect too many insights on what inspired the songs.
“Fact is, when it comes to songwriting, it’s all just a bunch of information coming from the same place. And I don’t know how to relate to the thoughts behind it. I really don’t. The songs are on their own little trip, I go out and ride along with them and sing them and sometimes I won’t sing them because I don’t feel like it.”
Despite this protestation, he’s perfectly happy to range over the album’s track selection for Uncut’s edification, and reveals he’s still particularly enamoured of the trio of songs from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which forged the Crazy Horse sound.
“That was the beginning of playing electric guitar and jamming and being able to play those extended instrumentals for me,” says Young. “That was a great band and Danny Whitten was a great guitar player. I love all those records that I made back then. Those tracks still kick ass.”
Then came the success of “Heart Of Gold” and 1972’s Harvest album, which categorised him in the minds of many as a lovelorn troubadour. Did he then make a conscious decision to subvert that image?
“That’s what success does – it will categorise you. But luckily I haven’t had that much success. That was the one time and the first thing an artist will do if he doesn’t want to be categorised is to react and fight back. There’s a spirit inside you that’s like an animal. And it’s cornered when it’s categorised. So we’re not dealing with thought here. It’s an animal reaction.”
And does he still believe it’s better “to burn out than to fade away”? He wrote the line when he was in his thirties. A quarter of a century on, he appears to have successfully avoided both fates.
“I was exactly 33 and a third when I wrote that so I was on long play,” he jokes. “It wasn’t a literal thing. It was a spontaneous description of a feeling rather than endorsing a way of life. But what a line like that means changes every time you sing it, depending on what’s going on in the world. If you really believe in something when you write it or you’re open to some channel and things comes through you, then that’s going to happen. What you write will reapply itself to whatever’s happening around you. And that’s the fun of what I do.”
Next year, Young will turn 60. With Greendale having left him “drained” and no new songs jostling for his attention, perhaps it will be the year that the long-awaited Archives boxset, with its treasure trove of unreleased tracks, finally makes its appearance. In the meantime, as a curtain-raiser, we give you the low-down on his new best-of…