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Neil Young - Time Magazine Interview - September 2005


http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1109363,00.html

 

The Resurrection of Neil Young

When the Godfather of Grunge discovered he had a potentially fatal aneurysm, he took a week, went to Nashville and added to his legacy by making another classic album

By JOSH TYRANGIEL

 Posted Sunday, Sep. 25, 2005

Every Neil Young album arrives with a question: which Neil this time? the folkie? The grunge progenitor? The acoustic country guy? Or the avant-gardist whose sonic violence can make instruments--and sometimes fans--cry out for mercy? For his 31st album, Prairie Wind, out Sept. 27, it's yet another Neil Young: a mortal one. In March, Young was told he had a brain aneurysm, and Prairie Wind poured out of him in the week between diagnosis and his undergoing surgery. Naturally, there are songs about death and loneliness, but the album, one of the most melodic of his career, also deals with religion, family and the good times he remembers growing up on the Canadian steppes.

Young doesn't do many interviews, in part because he hates to sit still. So he asked Time's Josh Tyrangiel to join him for a drive in his bio-diesel-powered Hummer--"I love it when people yell at me about the environment," says Young, "and then I tell 'em I'm burning 90% cleaner than them"--down the Pacific Coast Highway. For nearly four hours, Young, 59, talked about how facing death has affected his music; the recent death of his father; his sons, both of whom have cerebral palsy; and his early days in a funk band with Super Freak Rick James.

I KNOW YOU'RE NOT EAGER TO DISCUSS THIS, BUT WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED TO YOU THIS PAST MARCH?

I inducted Chrissie Hynde into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the next day I was shaving in the hotel, and I noticed this weird thing in my eye, like a piece of broken glass. Then I noticed that no matter what I did, it was still there. And then it started getting bigger. So I went to my doctor, had an MRI and the next morning I went to the neurologist, Dr. Sun--a Chinese guy, very funny guy. He says, "The good news is, you're here, you're looking good. The bad news is, you've got an aneurysm in your brain. You've had it for a hundred years, so it's nothing to worry about--but it's very serious, so we'll have to get rid of it right away." He's a funny guy. I was supposed to go to Nashville to do some recording, so I went down there ...

YOU FLEW WITH AN ANEURYSM?

Dr. Sun said I'd been flying for 100 years with the thing. So I went into the studio on Thursday and recorded three songs. I wrote one on the way there and two more right away after I recorded the first one. The whole album's chronological--I wrote and recorded in the order it appears on the record. Then I went back up to New York on Monday for a presurgery thing, flew back to Nashville, wrote and recorded [songs] four, five, six, seven, eight and most of nine and 10. And then I got admitted, and they put me under.

AT ANY POINT WERE YOU THINKING, "THIS MIGHT BE MY LAST SONG," AND IF SO, DID YOU WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT ONE WAS, YOU KNOW, REALLY GOOD?

I was thinking about things like that, and it's kind of too bad that people know about this, because it's like, "The only way he could make a good album is if he had an aneurysm," or something. I feel a little funny about it, because I know I would have made an album anyway, and I don't feel like I'm slowing down, but these things happen. Yeah, there's a lot of reflection. [Grudgingly] It affected all the songs.

YOU WERE OBVIOUSLY WORKING FAST, BUT SONGS LIKE FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH HAVE BOTH URGENCY AND CLARITY. DID YOU HAVE TIME TO ACTUALLY CRAFT LYRICS?

Most things just came pouring out, but that song's unique because a lot of it came from a voice-mail message. A friend of mine called, knowing I was going through this, and left me a voice mail that was, "Thinking about you--just want to tell you that you mean a lot to me," that kind of stuff. So I wrote it all down and made up this kind of bass-ackwards melody. With songwriting, the key thing is not to have any preconceptions, to be wide open and never worry about whether it's cool or not. Use whatever you can, and worry about cool after you finish the record.

YOUR SURGERY WENT SMOOTHLY, BUT THE RECOVERY DIDN'T. WHAT HAPPENED?

Everything was cool, so I figured I might actually get to Winnipeg to do the Juno Awards, which is a big deal in Canada, where I'm from, and I had planned to do it and never bothered to cancel. So, two days after the surgery, you can start walking--I went out for a walk, and I made it half a block, and the thing burst on the street, and there was blood in my shoe and--I don't know if you need to share this. Let's just say there was a complication. It was my femoral artery [which the surgeons had used to access his brain]. I was unconscious, and the emergency guys had to revive me. There was no way I could make the Juno Awards, so we had to make an announcement about what happened. But I came very close to no one ever knowing. I would have had an aneurysm, got rid of it, and no one would know the difference. [Laughs] It would have been so cool.

A FEW WEEKS AFTER YOU FINISHED PRAIRIE WIND, YOUR FATHER, WHO WAS A FAMOUS SPORTS JOURNALIST IN CANADA, DIED AT 87. WHAT WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE?

I had a great relationship with my dad, and I felt like everything was O.K. when he died, that I was at peace with him and everything was cool. Then I went to the service and completely broke down out of nowhere. He had dementia for the last years of his life, so I couldn't talk to him on the telephone--he couldn't remember what we were talking about. But he was a loving father and a loving grandfather and a great writer.

ONE OF HIS BOOKS WAS 1984'S NEIL AND ME, ABOUT BEING NEIL YOUNG'S DAD. DID YOU READ IT?

Oh, yeah! It was a good book. [Laughs] I learned a few things about what I was like when I was a kid and stuff. Learned more from that book than anything else I ever read about myself.

YOU HAVE TWO SONS, BOTH OF WHOM HAVE CEREBRAL PALSY. ZEKE'S CASE IS MILD, BUT BEN'S IS SEVERE. AS SOMEONE WHO COMMUNICATES FOR A LIVING, DOES IT FRUSTRATE YOU THAT YOU CAN'T TALK TO BEN THE WAY MOST FATHERS AND SONS TALK?

Ben's 25 and a quadriplegic. He's a nonverbal guy, and he's paralyzed basically, but we've developed ways we can play together and do things together for enjoyment. To other people it looks a lot different than it really is. Most people see a severely handicapped or physically disabled person, and they feel uncomfortable. "Oh, my God, I'm glad it isn't me," or they talk too loud or treat him like a baby. But Ben has always been a great communicator with me. There are times when he can't tell me exactly what's going on, when he comes home and he looks a little [upset] and I wish he could say, you know, "Daddy, I wanted to go somewhere today, and the guys with me wouldn't go there." There's all kinds of things like that. But Ben is such a wonderful kid.

DID YOU FEEL AT ALL CURSED THAT TWO OF YOUR CHILDREN WERE BORN WITH CEREBRAL PALSY?Yeah. It took time to get used to the fact that it wasn't just one, but two. Eventually Pegi [his wife of 27 years] and I just came to the understanding that we had been chosen, and this is one of the things we're doing with our life, turning this situation into something positive for all kinds of kids. One of the things we've done with the Bridge School [the Hillsborough, Calif., school the Youngs founded in 1986] is to make a place where nonverbal, physically challenged kids can communicate through technology and alternative methods of communication.

TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF THE DEVICES YOU HAVE INVENTED TO ENHANCE YOUR COMMUNICATION WITH BEN.

When he was a kid, we got into electric trains, and at first I hooked him up so he could turn the trains on and off. Then I developed a command-and-control system so the train could hear Ben send directions. Now he can really control the whole thing--and, of course, he wants to make it go as fast as possible and cause wrecks. When he was young, he used to laugh his butt off every time he derailed the train because I had to put it back on. We've also developed interfaces so he can use his computer and do things that are part of daily life.

DO YOU HOLD PATENTS ON THIS STUFF?

Yeah, I got patents on the model-railroad controls. I'm a part owner in Lionel [the electric-train company], and we just developed a whole new system, and I worked on that too. It's meditation for me. It's such a relief to escape musicmaking and the pressure of music, to release it all in algorithms and theory of operations.

IS IT TRUE THAT THE SUM OF YOUR MUSIC EDUCATION IS TWO GUITAR LESSONS?

One. Maybe two. I either quit after the first one and didn't go back for the second one, or I went to the second one and that was enough. I don't think the guitar lesson hurt me--I just realized I didn't need it. I figured out what to do with a guitar pretty quick on my own.

ONE OF YOUR FIRST BANDS WAS CALLED THE MYNAH BIRDS, AND THE SINGER WAS NONE OTHER THAN THE LATE RICK JAMES. WHAT ON EARTH DID THAT SOUND LIKE?

The Mynah Birds were one of the best rock bands I ever played with. We were like a Stones knock-off, but we had original material too. I played an electric 12-string. We were funky. There was no way around it. But we were young and making a lot of mistakes. We signed with Motown--we went over there, and Rick got busted for dodging the draft. So the group kind of fell apart. And Rick was a real soulful guy, but there were drugs and all sorts of crazy stuff. I met him again years later, and we hung out a bit. He was pretty heavily into some dark stuff, but there was still a connection. We talked about making a record together, and he said how cool it would be, how we'd blow people's minds.

WHEN DID YOU KICK DRUGS?

I never really was a big drug addict. I always could stop. But I'm completely done with it now. I don't even smoke anything. That's more because I had the aneurysm and I have high blood pressure, plus I don't really need it. I'm as high as you need to be.

YOU WROTE ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS LYRICS IN ROCK: "IT'S BETTER TO BURN OUT THAN TO FADE AWAY." A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE USED THAT LINE TO JUSTIFY ALL KINDS OF SELF-DESTRUCTIVE ACTS, INCLUDING KURT COBAIN, WHO QUOTED IT IN HIS SUICIDE NOTE. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT LINE THESE DAYS?

The fact that he left the lyrics to my song right there with him when he killed himself left a profound feeling on me, but I don't think he was saying I have to kill myself because I don't want to fade away. I don't think he was interpreting the song in a negative way. It's a song about artistic survival, and I think he had a problem with the fact that he thought he was selling out, and he didn't know how to stop it. He was forced to do tours when he didn't want to, forced into all kinds of stuff. I was trying to get a hold of him--because I had heard some of the things he was doing to himself--just to tell him it's O.K. not to tour, it's O.K. not to do these things, just take control of your life and make your music. Or, hey, don't make music. But as soon as you feel like you're out there pretending, you're f_____. I think he knew that instinctively, but he was young and he didn't have a lot of self-control. And who knows what other personal things in his life were having a negative impression on him at the time?

IS PART OF THE REASON YOU HAVE VEERED BETWEEN SO MANY GENRES OVER THE YEARS THAT YOU FEAR YOU'LL FIND YOURSELF UP THERE FAKING IT ONE DAY?

I'm as predictable as a Holiday Inn when you really look at me. I keep doing the same thing all over again. I just make records, and the records are usually some sort of turnabout from the last record. It took me a long time to write this record. I didn't write anything for two years after Greendale [the widely reviled 2003 movie he wrote and directed], 'cause Greendale was a completely draining experience and a huge project that I think was one of the best things I have been able to do in my life, and a lot of people were lost by it, but that doesn't mean anything. A lot of people in the middle of the road don't pick up on what I'm doing when I'm not in the middle of the road, and it's an accident and a pleasant one when I do end up [there] and traffic is with me.

SO YOUR NEXT ALBUM WILL BE ...?

I don't know. All I know is, I don't want to die. I have a lot left to do. I don't feel like people are giving up on me, and I won't give up on them. So I'm just going to keep on doing whatever it is I do. But I won't stay still for long. Don't want to grow bark.