We had to share this special interview with all of you. We normally only run interviews by our staff but this was too well done to pass up. Here is an excerpt of what we transcribed. Thanks SXSW, Jaan Uhelszki, Neil Young and Jonathan Demme. Enjoy
JAAN UHELSZKI: You’ve had the same job for the past forty years. Has your relationship changed any from the very first day you started? Or do you feel about the same way about making music and as passionate as when you first started?
NEIL YOUNG: I still feel it. I don’t know if I’m dancing like I was when I started–It’s kind of hard to remember. I’m still trying to do whatever it is that the music makes me do. I wait for the infrared that I can turn around and send out. I really am more than anything a reflection of what I see.
I really don’t know how to talk about music and I have this relationship and I write these songs and I can’t seem to stop writing songs. But now there is big breaks. Things happen and it’s like a dam bursting. Whereas before it used to be all the time, I used to write. And I would keep working at it and everyday I would be writing a different song.
JH: Do you think you’ve just gotten calmer about it?
NY: I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure not. I just happen to be maybe just older. I’m just like everybody else here, it’s happened to everybody.
I had all those feelings and I wrote all those songs you know, “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” and I related to older people in my life and compared myself to them. I just said that I was getting old, but I guess that’s pretty obvious. And the songs, I was only 20 years old when I wrote that, so I really don’t know where anything comes from. I really just write totally out of the air. I just hope things will hit me in a way that I will remember and the images come together in a certain way that makes it so that something jars me and I put them together. Whether it be some kind of spirit of consciousness thing, some maybe really focused song has a real shape to it. But I try not to think about it because the more you think about it the worse you get. You can’t analyze it. Getting at the essence of creativity is kind of like coming up on a caged animal. You try not to scare it. Or not even an animal in a cage with bars, but an animal that is in a hole.
The animal comes out of the hole and then you are looking at it and it’s looking at you and you go, if I get too close this thing is going to go off and it’s going to run away and I’m not going to be able to communicate. And so, that’s what creativity is like-if you try too hard you’re not going to get there at all. You are never going to get there. You just have to be open for it. That’s how I feel. Some people like to do it a different way, but that’s what I like to do.
JH: A lot of your songs are so visual as seen by “The Painter”-black is black, blue is blue. You’ve written about colors a lot. Do you first see your songs as a visual-as a painting almost?
NY: No, I don’t really first see a song. I just start writing. I’m proudest of my work when it comes really fast and there is no thought about what it is and I don’t try and adapt it and I don’t try to edit it. That’s the purest form of creativity for me. It’s when I write a song and it just happens so fast and so easy and those are the ones that you have to stay away from. You can’t be hunting them, you can’t be chasing them or imagining them. You just have to be there with your eyes open and let your senses go through what’s happening without being judgmental about your own coolness or whether this is going to work. Who cares whether it works? My thing is, maybe it’s not going to work but too bad. It didn’t work in your face.
I just think, you know, this business is so big. It started off like a little thing and I know there are a lot of young musicians and filmmakers in here and that’s great. It’s so nice to be here with everybody. I feel it’s really nice to be in the same room as all of these people who are so dedicated to what they want to do with their lives. You know I’ve been worried about this for months. All I’m trying to do is say that if you try too hard you are going to lose. There is no way that you can correct yourself. There is nothing to correct. You just have to go. When it’s is done, it’s done. Either scrap it, record it or dump it in an editing bin somewhere. Whatever it is. That’s how I like to work.
JH: Going back to the old songs, I’m really curious about the ones on, “Candle of Death”. When you listen to those songs, do you feel like someone else wrote them? Can you connect with that person who wrote them and go, “Damn I was on that day”?
NY: No. No, I don’t.
I’ve read Bob Dylan saying things that I really related to where you know, people asked him, are you going to write another song like, “‘Blowing in the Wind” or are you going to do a “Times They Are A Changing?” Is there a new “Times They Are A Changing” that you can do today that is going to make a difference?” And he just says, “No. I don’t know who that was. He’s not here now.” We just start changing all the time. You can’t be who you were. You can’t be who you are going to be. You just have to be now and just do that. That’s what I really try and do.
Sometimes it’s confusing but there is one thing that is constant through the whole process it is not to let yourself get distracted. Once you have an idea with music, and I think this is really important no matter what you’re doing, no matter who you are with, no matter what your responsibilities are, your responsibility to the music should can a whole bunch of them and just go and write the song. You have to forget what you are doing with the people you are with, with what your plans were for that day. Nothing else matters than just getting it down. If you have an idea, isolate yourself until it comes out. If you think it’s close enough. But if you try too hard it is going to be gone, so…..
JH: After Greendale you said you didn’t write a song for 18 months. You had no desire. How did you know when it came? Were there physical signs, like you couldn’t sleep? Is there something you know that says, today is the day the song is coming? How do they announce themselves?
NY: Well, you know, you can trick them into coming by making a nice place for them. So that’s what I try to do–is make a nice place. If I have a song, like “The Painter” took me a couple of months to write, I was sitting around in a room playing the guitar, it was just a nice guitar thing and I was like, that’s really nice, I like the way that sounds. And then slowly over time the melody came and then one day I wrote all the words and I had a song. And whoa, I had a song. It’s not like some songs. This song took a long time but I took my time with it. But then I was talking to my good buddy, Ben Keith, and he said, “Come to Nashville and record this. Everyone is here, all your good friends are here everything is going to be fine”. And I said, well I only got one song. He said “That’s enough to start with.” So when I went in there I knew that I had my friends with me and we had a really good studio and things were sounding good. So I went home after recording “The Painter”. I wrote another song, which happened to be some changes that I kind of had in the back of my head from somewhere and suddenly they came to the front of my head. And then I just started writing that night and in the morning I would wake up and I’d write some more. And then I went to the studio and recorded the next song. When you get on a roll you can’t disturb it. You have to keep going. Whatever the rhythm is just stay in the rhythm until you dry up. Don’t let anything, no schedule, no commitments, anything, distract you.
Commitments are one of the worst things for music making. All kinds of commitments.
JH: I know you have a bunch of health issues. Does thinking about that help to push the songs out faster?
NY: No, I think it has to do with some of the content.
But really what made the songs happen was that I was ready. And it just was coming out and I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave and go somewhere else. And even when I did get to the end of the song, “This Old Guitar”, it was the eighth song that I wrote, I wrote seven in a row in seven days or something, somehow, I’m not exactly sure how it happened.
JH: When did you decide that this would be a good project to film?
JONATHAN DEMME: I sent Neil a print of a movie to see if he would write a song for it–that’s in the nothing ventured, nothing gained category–he had a song he wanted to write that fit into our movie and that was it. And then we had just been in touch. I think more than anything I was really completely bowled over when I saw the very first tour of Greendale. And I felt that Neil had once again reinvented the wheel a little bit. It wasn’t a straight concert, Lord knows, but it wasn’t a rock opera, but it was a narrative and there was this weird thing of characters and you couldn’t see Neil singing or playing and you couldn’t see the other musicians playing very well, they weren’t lit up. But you could see members of the crew who had been cast as characters that were lip-synching all the songs. That was the very first leg of the tour when it first came around. And I thought, this is fantastic. I would never forget, Neil would finish one of the terrific new Greendale songs and people would shout and then Neil would give a little narration as a segue into the next song and he would say, “Things can change in Greendale”. We didn’t know what was going on and people would say, “You can say that dead man”. Neil forged on and actually tamed a roomful there at Madison Square Garden – not an easy crowd to introduce a new concept in musical theater to. It was a great thing. And I just kept thinking about that.
We talked on the telephone and I was curious about how he conceived it and what have you. And then six months or so later, it came through again and this was a much more polished, gussied up version and we saw it at Radio City Music Hall–it had been expanded. The next day I saw the film that Neil had made from it, Greendale. It was an amazing Greendale weekend. That for me, became one of my favorite American movies. It looks like it was done on an absolute shoestring, I’m not sure what the budget was. But the imagination was unlimited. It once again chartered incredible new ground on every front and I just thought it was such a triumph and such a challenge to filmmakers-can you do something this original that works? And I remember that Neil had called me up at one point, I guess it was after the first time Greendale had come to Madison Square Garden and said, “I’m probably going to do a movie of this do you want to get involved in it somehow?” And I was just getting ready to do Manchurian Candidate and so I remember thinking, that’s what I wish I was doing. Anyway, that stuck in my head and that’s why I started harassing him a year ago. Calling him up and saying, anything you need filmed? Don’t you have any new ideas?
That’s a long-winded way of saying how The Heart of Gold film was born. We started talking about how great it would be to do a dream concert. A Neil Young dream concert. A musician songwriter imagines a perfect concert of his stuff-where would it be? Who would he be playing with? How would it go? So that’s what we tried to do. We had a lot of fun with that idea and we felt that this dream dimension could be something that would be really cinematic and could help us try and do a music film that would have another dimension to it that might make it feel that much more like cinema because we don’t want to just make a record of an excellent performance. We wanted to try and do something special.
JH: It’s almost like you approached the film like you were making a huge feature film. Did you think about it that way? That you wanted to treat it like a musical narrative? Because that comes across.
JD: Yes. In two respects: one would be that Neil would be a character. He would be a storyteller and there would be a script as it were. He would take us on an emotional journey. He hit emotions and human experience from a lot of different perspectives and we wanted to make a film that had a very strong emotional impact and not a straight narrative but a very strong emotional narrative to it.
JH: Was there a point when you were doing the narrative that you were like, “Oh my god I’m telling too much.” Because I have to say, in watching your career over these years, that you’ve never been so open. You’ve never shared so much.
NY: When we started rehearsing and everything we knew that as more days went by that we were rehearsing the songs it became pretty obvious that talking to the crowd was going to be a real important part of this story. If not, it’s just a concert that we would be playing. The whole idea of being with a small group of people in a club playing for 15 maybe 8 or 12 people is where I started and so those were the days when you introduce every song because no one knew you or the song. So you had to introduce the song. So the intimacy of the long lenses which Jonathan used, which I realized was going to be really close because he was back and I occasionally would check up and say, ok, well he’s really in. And so, I would be in a good place and talk to people and had to project to people like I was in the theater. Like they were ten feet away from me. So that became our MO for introducing the songs but again we had to be careful to not practice. You can’t practice talking. So I would just not talk. So that way when we actually filmed it, I was talking about these things for the first time. Which is why it seems so personal. Because I had no idea what I was going to say. The idea is not to think about it. So you have to trust yourself and trust your ability to reflect. Sometimes you get into places that you didn’t think you were going to go. That’s all right. So we did that and I talked.
One song I did an introduction that was like Catcher in the Rye or something, it was pretty long. I was rambling on and on for hours.
And we didn’t use it; I didn’t even want to see. I couldn’t watch it.
JD: He wouldn’t even let us put it on the DVD. Amazing DVD bonus feature!
NY: Recreating. Trying to go back. Doing it again. No good. Don’t do it. It’s death. You’re going backwards.
People want to know why you don’t make your most famous record over and over again. Because it’s death, that’s why. The longer you can go on and do things people don’t like and then give them something they like just because that’s just the way it happened, the better off you are. It makes the ones that are palatable to people, more palatable because they feel like they are special because they might have hated the last three. But it happens like that.
And then doing concerts. When I was doing Greendale, and this is an interesting story, because we only rehearsed Greendale for four days before we took it on the road. We knew the songs but creating the stage and all of that stuff really happened in four days. We were coming back from Europe and I was with my production manager drawing the stage talking about the lift going up and down and the jail in the house and what people were going to be doing. We had already shot the movie so it was kind of obvious that these characters were going to lip sync. But the staging it in a big place was really an undertaking. So when we finally got to the first show which was in West Palm Beach Florida they didn’t know about Greendale, the record wasn’t out. They had no idea about Greendale. And walking out there singing 10 songs, with all these people doing all this stuff was so scary and so rewarding at the same time. So good for the soul. To be able to go out there and do things that no one had ever heard before and presenting it in a way that was really wacky. People thought it was really unprofessional and high school amateurish and it was like, well, that’s kind of what I was going for. We had cardboard sets and we kept rebuilding them everyday until finally we built one out of plywood and it lasted for awhile. If you watched the show you’d see things falling apart and being rebuilt and everything. It’s so hard to concentrate on all the words it’s just nonstop words for an hour and a half, trying to remember everything and also, with the people lip synching you have to remember everything. The whole thing was so focused and so different and so new from anything I’d ever done before and I’m doing it in West Palm Beach and when we got to “Be The Rain” people stood up and started cheering. It was so rewarding. I’ve seen crowds on their feet for ten or fifteen minutes just screaming after I did something years and years ago. But I’ve never seen a whole crowd different age people and everything just stand up and shaking their fists and it was so fantastic and I felt so good inside. Then when I came out after that I played “Out of the Blue” and a bunch of old songs. I felt like I was validated. Like I could do these old songs because I’m not just repeating myself. I’m giving them a little gift here and they have given me a gift so that’s ok. It’s not like I’m doing Neil Young’s greatest hits. In fact I just turned down a promoter because I was going to go on the road and they wanted to say that it was Neil Young’s Greatest Hits. Well that was it for them–they are done.
JH: Do you ever find that when you are afraid of something you have to do it, because that will force reality to it?
NY: Absolutely. It’s the most reassuring thing. When you are terrified you really know that you are right. Really. That’s the way it is. If you’re scared because you are doing something different that’s what you should do. It’s good to be scared. It’s good to be on edge. You also get a lot of reinforcement. I got reinforcement from strange places that I was on the right track. When I read in USA Today that I was ripping off my audience by not performing the songs that they expected me to do I went to myself, I’m really on to something here. I really felt good about what I was doing when I read that. I’m saying these people are late. They are not coming to the party. They are living in the past. And if you think from where I started and the music that we made, talking about Ohio and songs that made a difference to a generation that we were part of. And that’s where we came from. And Greendale was an extension of that. It’s just that the business has gotten so big that people actually were trying to say that there was a contract and that I wasn’t living up to my contract to play particular songs because I was Neil Young. Because I wasn’t going to play “Heart of Gold” or “Cortez the Killer,” that I wasn’t going to do everything the way that I was expected that they were getting ripped off.
JH: Who says you have to sound like Neil Young?
NY: Well, I can’t help it.
It was a trip having all those people telling me that I was ripping people off. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but that felt good.
JH: I think what you’ve probably done throughout your career is that you have spoken for the ages. It’s almost what boomers are going through. Do you see yourself as a barometer for a generation?
NY: Well we are all barometers for each other. I’m not a special person-I’m just like everybody else. I write about what’s happening to me in my life and I try to be true about it. I’ll write something that’s not personal, that’s third person, where I’m observing something that’s happened. When I wrote a song like “Cortez” or something like that, where I’m writing about images, stories that I feel, that I see, that’s the only way I can get away from myself.
JH: I think what people always think about your career is that you are the pendulum between two points of the very personal confessional country -esque songs and then the very hardly constructed songs. So the harder ones aren’t as personal because you are distancing yourself, they are more narrative rather than a diary page.
NY: Yeah, some of them are like that and it makes it easier for me to rock out with Crazy Horse-something that I don’t get to do with other bands. It enables me to write different lyrics. I can’t understand or explain it.
But when I know I’m going to play with Crazy Horse I know
that I’m creating a space and the music is going to come. But it’s not going to be Heart of Gold. It’s not going to come. Those songs are not going to come to this party.
It starts with a feeling that something is changing. Like I’m so into Prairie Wind and I’ve been there for a year and we’ve been doing all this stuff. And now, sometimes now when I wake up I just hear this massive, distorted, crunching, you know, kind of hideous noise and it makes me feel like I’m going home. Like I’m going back to a place that is ready for me when I get there. But I couldn’t stay there. I wouldn’t be here if I stayed there. If I played like Crazy Horse tours every tour, I’d be dead.
You know I can remember playing with that band and almost blacking out, hyperventilating. My head gets real cold, I’m breathing through my nose, and it’s like a chill wind. It’s like really being in subzero temperatures.
The lights are 110 degrees and I’m feeling this cold rushing wind going through my body. It’s when you’re transcending it. Crazy horse allows me to do that.
And some other bands to some extent do also. But there is just something about that rhythm and the sensibilities of people.
Like geography, people that are with you, make you do different things, they bring things out of you. So if you are a song writer and you like something that you did and you can’t figure out how to get back there you just have to go back there. Physically to a place. It’s not in your head that you are going back and trying to write the song over again but you go back to that place where the animal is looking out of the hole out of the ground and you stand there for a little while, make a few sounds and see if you can get him to come out. And if you do anything wrong, he’s going to run away.
JH: Could you have done Crazy Horse? Could you have done a film on Crazy Horse?
JD: you know as far as that goes, Neil Young is such a fascinating person, whether he’s making music or not making music, regardless of who he is making music with that I could make a good film out of one day in this guy’s life and any of the filmmakers here could. And even after we did Heart of Gold, which has been my life for the past year, I’ve lived Heart of Gold, I feel that Heart of Gold in my life says as much about what is important to me as it does what is in Neil Young’s life and he’s the one that wrote all the songs and plays the guitar. It’s a tremendous reflection of a lot of personal things for me including but not limited to how much I love his music. But you know, I got to tell you, I still love Neil Young as Neil
Young as Neil Young Crazy Horse because that’s the concerts I’ve seen over the years. The country stuff– I love Harvest-but when’s the next Crazy Horse show? We actually filmed four or five songs from the “Sleeps with Angels” album out in Los Angeles and we had a lot of fun doing that. But I loved the film Year of the Horse, and I loved many of the other hard music films that Neil has made like Berlin, is a great, great, great concert film and very strong. I think there needs to be a lot more films of Neil playing with who ever he is playing with at the time.
JH: Do you get jealous that Falling off The Face of the Earth was inspired by Jim Jarmusch?
JD: That’s my one…you just pushed my button. Not only that but the
first time I got a call from Neil saying, “well I got a call from a friend in
New York to inspire the writing for Falling off The Face of the Earth and
he’s a filmmaker”. And I was sitting there going, oh my God, and he’s like, “he left some really nice messages.” and I’m like, “I left some really nice messages” and Neil goes, “that damn Jarmusch”. There’s a jealousy factor there for sure. Deep, deep jealousy.
NY: But that shows you that songs can come out of nowhere. Some how he knows that I’ve got this medical thing-words gotten around. And he says, you know I just want to thank you for things and I miss you and I’m looking forward to the future. But most of the key things he said, I went, this is the content. This is someone else giving me a message about myself. Somehow, I don’t know how the rest of it came out, Falling off the Face of the Earth was not something that was on the voicemail, but you know.
I remember Peggy and I used to listen to it and always hold hands when we
were listening to it just because it was true. It doesn’t matter where it came from. It’s more about where it is going and how it hits people when they hear it. And for some people, this movie we made is awful, they hate it. Those are the fringe on the other side. The fringe of the crazy horse, Tonight’s the Night, the darkest moments, these people live and thrive on that and if I don’t do that, I’m selling out
completely. We’ve seen a few of those but they are very few and far between and I don’t know if they have kids.
JD: The other thing about Crazy Horse music in their defense, and I know what you’re talking about and it’s one of the things I’m proudest about with this movie. Essentially, it’s an acoustic concert. There’s one lead guitar part in the whole film and in the whole album and that’s the lead power chords. And that’s the thing that excited me and also scared me about making this performance film because performance films depend by and large on electricity to galvanize them and what have you. Sometimes I’ll tell people, it’s all acoustic and I can see every once in a while just see their faces come down a little bit and they are not even going to
go. But the way you construct your songs I just feel there is something so liberating in the way you play guitar within the songs that you write that I think that exhilaration that we get out of that is a very special kind of thing.
So I understand people wishing they could have that.
NY: I love those people. Especially the ones way out there on the edge. The fact that they hate me so much when I do something really nice, it endears me to them. And they got a place. They got a big place and they like to stretch out. I like that.
Something happens in life. Things happen. I’m sure there is darkness just around the corner. I’m not looking for it but if it shows up, I’ll play it.
That’s the way it happens.
JH: Last question, did you two agree on everything on the film or did you fight over everything?
NY: We had some great times talking about stuff and disagreeing about certain things and coming to an understandings of where we were coming from and explaining to each other how we felt about things. Both of us were very emotional and very demonstrative when we really believe in our feelings. But we have total respect for each other so that was so good to be able to do that with my friend.
JD: I don’t want to disagree with Neil but in that same sense where it
is the manifest destiny of US foreign policy that we will make things worse and worse and worse in the Middle East until finally, hopefully, through the collective will of our country we will leave there, by the same token, on the inverse, I feel that it was the manifest destiny of this movie to wind up exactly the way it wound up. And I sort of feel like we had an incredibly seamless process that we engaged and we talked about stuff, we filmed it, we cut it and mixed it and there it is. Real interesting in that regard. I felt very challenged in keeping up with someone for whom I have such tremendous admiration.****