He’s been to Hollywood. He’s been to Redwood. To Ohio, too. And now Neil Young is sitting on a puffy sofa in his manager’s office, toughing out a cold and chatting enthusiastically about, among other things, his exciting new multimedia project, Greendale.
At first, with his low, cordial voice purely antithetical to his familiar croon, his arbitrary attire possibly donated, his timeless muttonchops ever at the ready, Young is so earnest it’s almost scary.
“I’m happy,” declares the legendary folk-rock-‘n’-roller, betraying not a trace of the eternal rebel. “I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing, having a good time on the road with people I like to work with. It’s exciting having a film come out. It was a blast making it — one of the best times of my life doing that film.”
Encapsulating many of Young’s perspectives, Greendale is an album with his band Crazy Horse, a tour and stage show thereof, and now a new movie, shot on Super 8 by Young’s alter ego Bernard Shakey. It employs a variety of characters to speak the artist’s mind, literally: the denizens of Young’s fictional town lip-synch his vocals throughout. Handily addressing the current government (“They’re all bought and paid for anyway”), the creepiness of the so-called PATRIOT Act (“You can do your part by watching others”), and the media (“It ain’t an honor to be on TV, and it ain’t a duty either”), a lot of sociopolitical bluster blows through Young’s imaginary, allegorical town. (Meanwhile, he is putting his money where his motor is, running the current tour’s rigs on vegetable-based fuel, which is significantly cleaner than petroleum) Born of what Young calls his “grooves,” the American microcosm of Greendale emerged via a process that sounds darned close to spiritual channeling.
“After all the songs were written, [the title] came as an echo-chorus add-on in ‘Devil’s Sidewalk’ — the words ‘green dale’ weren’t originally there,” he says. “They were added after the fact, because I didn’t know what ‘Devil’s Sidewalk’ was about. I kept listening to it, going, ‘Well, it’s a place.’ Somehow one morning I just woke up and said, ‘Well, this whole place is just Greendale, this is what it is.'”
Come on. How much planning was there, really? “It was a totally unconscious attempt to make a record,” Young cheerfully counters. “It started off as ten songs, and one at a time they were developed. I wouldn’t write the next one until the last one was done. So everybody kind of got it one chapter at a time, including myself. When we got finished, that’s when the visuals started happening. There wasn’t a plan to do this. It just evolved.” This man is positively proud of making art by happenstance (which may explain his cameo in the role of Wayne Newton). No script doctors, no character rewrites, just ideas to paper, transferred to computer, et voilé. Since his wistful artist character tinkers with a trendy iBook onscreen during the enchanting song “Bandit,” just how DIY was this project? Was this Young’s computer?
“No, we didn’t have anything nearly that good,” he grins. “We were using a Mac Classic — you know, one of those old ones, one of those little square ones?” He nods appreciatively, a fiend for clunky gear. “That was cool.”
Blithe though Young may be, there’s also a hard line in Greendale, best represented by the character Sun Green, a teen cheerleader who becomes a staunch environmental activist. In addition to declaiming Young’s lyrics through a bullhorn and even transcending a feminine rite-of-passage way ahead of average (she loses her kitty — to the FBI!), the character, crafted much like Keisha Castle-Hughes’ in Whale Rider, is indicative of changing times. Sun is brought to life by Young’s daughter’s high school classmate, cinematic debutante Sarah White.
“She’s very environmentally conscious, and she’s an exceedingly talented girl,” Young beams regarding White. “She is Sun Green. If I couldn’t get her, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It was that right. And that’s how I felt about just about everybody in there.”
Young has deep thoughts about Sun Green, indeed.
“Sun has some powers, she’s supernatural in some ways, she’s gifted, psychic, has some edge to her,” he says. “Like when she dances by herself when they’re gone, there’s a glow through the whole house. She goes, like, really fast, but no one sees it. She’s magical and she can call the animals. She can go out and just look at the animals and they all come over to her. She can predict how many eggs the chickens are going to lay before they go in to get the eggs. So she’s a different girl. She’s got something going on.”
Is Sun, perchance, representing?
“I hope so!” Young exhorts twice. He genuinely gets a twinkle in his eye. “I’d like to see one of these really popular pop stars come along that really has a conscience for the environment and for what’s right and wrong — like a superstar that turns into an activist in a big way, and doesn’t turn away from the mainstream but uses it, knows how to use the media to get the thing across, like Sun.”
Asked if there’s anybody out there to fit the bill, Young responds, “Nobody I saw at the Super Bowl,” then laughs good-naturedly. “But there’s a chance. I think there’s a good chance, really.”
There are probably a lot of ways to get Young hyped up, but a good one is to ask him if pop music has changed since he began his arc.
“Yeah, absolutely!” he proclaims. “It used to belong to the kids. Now it belongs to the corporations who are feeding the kids. There are some voices out there that are individuals that are outside the system, that are being heard through the college stations and all that. But it doesn’t get to the top like it used to.” There’s a chill as he nails the malaise. “Because it’s controlled from the top down.”
Of his own work, Young candidly admits, “I’m only really concerned with what I’m doing now, because that’s what I’m doing. What I’ve done is just something I’ve gotta ignore. Because I don’t need it!”
Okay, that sounds flat-out petulant. He doesn’t need his own classic songs?
“You know, it’s nice. I love to play the songs for people when I feel like playin’ ’em, but I don’t have to play ’em. Especially the old ones.” He won’t name a favorite, though he does consider timeless story songs like “Powderfinger” and “Cortez the Killer” easier to resurrect. We share a moment’s reflection for the passing of his peer balladeer Warren Zevon, whom he calls “a great guy.” Mention of Young’s cameo in the forthcoming ultimate rockumentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip leads us back to film.
“The art of the crude segue is appreciated here,” he laughs. Thus we discuss Young’s partnership with “sensitive, exploratory guy” Dean Stockwell (his codirector on Human Highway) and enduring producer Larry “LA” Johnson. He particularly raves up cinematographer David Myers (Woodstock, THX-1138, Wattstax, Young’s previous films) as a creative mentor and genius of shooting coverage.
“Also, I learned from him the art of not stopping. Don’t stop filming!” he exclaims, as if straight from his raucous tour documentary Muddy Track. “Especially when things go wrong, that’s when you’ve gotta really keep going. Things happen, you know.”
Taking matters to the top, Young is asked about his credited director on Greendale, a fellow he knows intimately, named Bernard Shakey.
“He’s a heartless wretch,” Young growls. “Working for him — I don’t know if you’ve spoken to Larry Johnson — but he’s hard to work for, let’s put it that way. Look at me, I’m here doing publicity today. I should probably be in bed sleeping. Bernard cracks the whip, you’ve gotta go: ‘It’s for the movie. It’s for the project. Many people are involved in the project. You have to step outside of yourself. Do it for the team. With no money. ‘”
Young pauses but a moment to reflect on the dark side of his own green psyche, and smiles brightly. “That’s Bernard.”