Neil Young News
Subject: Neil Interview Boston Globe '90
Here's an article for all those people who like to dredge up that "Reagan thing" every couple of months. In Neil's own words! (and a good Ragged glory review)
By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff
"How many guitar solos can you play? I've had it!" declared Neil Young.
That was in late 1984. Young was a rock 'n' roll star, but one who wanted out of the business. He was on the verge of becoming a country-music refugee -- co-headlining bills with the Judds, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, planning to make a dyed-in-the-wool country record in Nashville.
"I think I'm going to be making country records for as long as I can see into the future," Young said. "It's much more down-home and real, almost folkie, compared to the cutthroat avenues of rock 'n' roll, which I am fed up with. I don't want anything to do with it. . . . I feel like I could be likened to an old hound circling on a rug for the last five years, and I think I've finally found my spot."
It is now late 1990. On Tuesday, Neil Young & Crazy Horse's "Ragged Glory" -- a full-tilt, raging rocker, not unlike "Zuma" or "Rust Never Sleeps" -- hits the shops.
Uh . . . what happened?
"I got bit in the ass by a huge tick," says Young with a laugh, playing off the circling-hound analogy. "That's what got it going!
"Things just keep cycling around," he adds, settling down on the phone from Malibu. "I really don't know what brought me back to it. I woke up one morning and all I could hear was the loudest . . . drum I ever heard in my life in my head -- so I knew that wasn't country!"
Of course, Young, 44, began his move away from country well before this year. Within a couple years of our conversation, he'd shifted back to rock with "Landing on Water" and "Life"; he'd played horn-driven R&B with the Bluenotes' "This Note's For You"; he'd temporarily joined up again with Crosby, Stills & Nash for "American Dream," contributing the best bits. His most successful effort was last year's "Freedom," a politicized record that juggled rock, folk and country, and bestowed upon us the anthemic "Rockin' in the Free World."
With "Ragged Glory," Young picks up where "Freedom" left off, but here he opens up the throttle more. It's rough and raw on the surface -- Crazy Horse has proudly billed itself as the world's third-best garage band -- but Young's sense of songcraft, of melody, has rarely been better. The album is self-critical, poignant, imbued with the kind of emotional tussles, musical muscle and lead guitar excursions that mark Young's best work. Its title is a case of truth in advertising: no ballads, lots of feedback.
"We did the whole thing in three months, from before the songs were written until the album was mastered and turned in," says Young. "It happened kind of fast. It was like something comes along and you have to jump on and do it. You can't stop until it's done because obviously we knew we were onto it. And we've learned over the years that when the wave comes along, you'd better grab it. So that's what we did, and we just stayed on it until it was up on the beach. It wore me out, but in a real good way. I feel real lucky to have caught that one."
It's a comfortable album, too. A few listens and it takes its place in the upper level of the Young pantheon. "Ragged Glory" is classic Neil Young, timeless Neil Young, the Neil Young of few chords -- but resonant melodies -- and trenchant thoughts. The Neil Young of on-the-edge electric guitar. The best of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the band he's employed as an off-and-on backup unit for two decades, his sporadic mainstay since Buffalo Springfield in the mid to late '60s.
"With Crazy Horse, it's all one big, growing, smoldering sound, and I'm part of it," says Young. "It's like gliding, or some sort of natural surfing, or something. . . . It's like a long ride."
Is Neil Young Crazy Horse's meal ticket?
"Well, we all make up Crazy Horse, and you-all are the meal ticket," says Young, laughing.
Yes, Neil Young is back -- contrary as ever, sense of humor and liberal politics intact.
Humor? This is a man who, once in Miami, played his own "Alabama" -- a condemnation of Southern racism -- and then segued into Lynyrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama", which is in part a condemnation of, well, Neil Young (sang Ronnie Van Zant: "I hope Neil Young will remember/ Southern man don't need him around anyhow!"). "I just sang 'I hope you all will remember,' " recalls Young. "I thought it was a cool thing."
Young's sense of humor carries over to "Ragged Glory" via a cover of the old R&B classic "Farmer John." "Farmer John!" croaks Young leeringly, in the song, "I'm in love with your daughter/The one with the champagne eyes." ''It's kind of a sleazy thing for us," says Young. "There is a sleaze quotient to it that I think is important to balance the rest of the record."
And, then there's the rocker "F*! No.in' Up" (yes, that's the way it's titled on the record jacket), whose refrain asks again and again "Why do I keep . . .." Talk about a universal sentiment and self-deprecating candor. So how and in what ways does Young keep -- shall we say -- repeating his mistakes?
"I don't know, that's what I keep asking myself," he says. "There's too many of them to mention here. And I don't want to make one seem to be bigger than the other. You know how the press is: If I mention one, that's the only thing that bothers me unless I mention all the other ones -- and there's not enough time for that."
Ah, the press. Young's been in hot water with certain elements of the press for what's been perceived as his support of Ronald Reagan. Imagine, Neil Young -- the man who wrote that wonderful antiwar, anti-Nixon anthem "Ohio," a longterm environmentalist and activist . . . supporting the most right-wing of presidents.
The neo-Reaganite tag affixed to him during the mid-'80s, Young insists -- quite vehemently -- was taken out of context, blown out of proportion. ''The Reagan-supporting era," sighs Young. "I don't think there is one president that's come down the line that hasn't done something good somewhere." Young says a "sleazeball journalist" nailed Reagan and then forced Young to his defense.
"Some people put down all presidents no matter what," says Young, "like once you get to be president you're a . . . idiot. So if you say anything good about any of them, they think you're supporting everything they do."
As to where Young's political passions lie now, consider this obscenity- sprinkled rant, on the subject of the country's current censorship frenzy: ''All these people who are . . . talking about morality should just take a walk downtown. They don't want to go downtown because instantly they see homeless people and they don't want to because that's not important. It doesn't fit their public stand of being a moralist. These . . . people -- they're crazy."
Understand: Neil Young's America is not Ronald Reagan's.
Young's career has not often taken on any linear characteristics. Much the way, say, David Bowie has, Young has switched genres, following his nose wherever it takes him, be it folk, country, R&B, techno-pop or hard rock. He has, of course, alienated some old fans and attracted new ones. After ''Harvest," his 1972 mega-breakthrough, Young didn't just switch genres: He speed-shifted into a whole other universe. "Harvest" had elements of despair -- "The Needle and the Damage Done," say -- but Young soon followed with "Tonight's the Night," one of the darkest, scariest records ever issued by a mainstream artist. It had a lot to do with the struggle to survive.
"Good musical period," says Young, asked now about those days that used to be -- days when two close friends, Crazy Horse's Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, died drug-related deaths. "I'm glad I lived through it. Could have gone under a couple of times during that period. But not because I wasn't having fun. We were rolling pretty heavily. But we're still here; the act of survival is right here."
Of course, many of Young's "Harvest" fans leapt off the bandwagon when he offered up a rougher ride.
Young threw fans a different sort of breaking pitch in 1979 with "Rust Never Sleeps." Hard rock on one side, acoustic-based music on the other -- and a partial tribute to the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten on both.
The point was, Young was practically the only old-guard rocker to get it. He says now of Rotten and company, "I understood where they were coming from because what they were trying to do was . . . wake everybody up, because that's what rock 'n' roll is about. It has to have substance to it. There's an edge to real rock 'n' roll, where it's all that matters." Warming to the subject, he continues, "What was happening is that we started making these layered, . . . produced-sounding records, which are the foundation of schlock- rock that we have today. And we were starting to do that in the late '70s heavily. So when the punk thing came along and I heard my friends saying, 'Oh, I hate these . . . people with the . . . pins in their ears, these people are disgusting,' I said, 'Thank God, something got their attention. These people obviously are doing something right because they're waking up these other people who are sleeping who shouldn't be sleeping.' "
The punks and post-punks repaid Young last year, when about a dozen artists -- such as Sonic Youth, Nick Cave and the Pixies -- each covered one of Young's songs for an album called "The Bridge." "Great songs in there," says Young. "I listen to them in my bus and they knock me out. Rolling down the freeway . . . it's great to hear my songs done that way by those people because that's the way they feel. We don't sound like that, because we're 40 now."
Young may be into his fifth decade, but he's not sleeping. He's defying the usual rock curve, where artists are often at their peak early in their career and than run half-speed on old glories. "Ragged Glory" is both challenging and familiar, as Young's crafted new songs strike resonant chords.
"They've been around a long time," says Young, of the songs, melodies and themes. "In some ways, they're related to roots of other families of my music in my past and even other music in my past that I didn't make myself. I don't go through this album without hearing Hendrix, Cream and the Doors as well as my own roots."
Young ruminates on the ins and outs of long-term love, most tellingly in ''Over and Over," juxtaposing comfortable bliss with nagging conformity, adding a blistering, ambivalent guitar coda. He tackles the environmental crisis again with "Mother Earth," a soft and stinging song that combines hymnlike group vocal and disorienting, albeit graceful, electric guitar trance-groove. Young dips back into the ramifications of hippie dreams in ''Mansion on the Hill" and "Days That Used To Be." What he's made is an album that welcomes back old fans, those who strayed during the last decade, and calls again to those who smartly picked up on last year's taut, politicized "Freedom" and its signature "Rockin' in the Free World."
Just who, Neil Young is asked, is in his audience?
"Some of them wonder what I'm going to do to follow up on 'Harvest,' " says Young, chuckling. "Or even if I made another album since 'Harvest.' There's the Rosemary Woods, 18-year-gap.
"I don't know. I just do what I do. I like to make music, and I feel real lucky to have made this one here, which has really attained a height of some sort. There's definitely some kind of height to this I haven't felt in some time."
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