Memory County Jail
August 11, 1997
Neil Young: A Believer in the Magic of Glitches
By JON PARELES
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Neil Young stands behind a
holding the remote control for an electric train
that's looping through a landscape of canyon and river, tunnels
and bridges. He's not in his basement; he's in a
tent at the Horde (for Horizons of Rock Developing
Everywhere) Festival tour, which he is headlining this
summer. Headliners get an indulgence or two, and this is
Young's: a Lionel setup no 1950s child ever had.
It's not just that the boxcars are painted with the
tie-dyed Horde logo and miniature covers of albums by Young and other
musicians on the tour, which is to play the Jones Beach
Theater in Wantagh, N.Y., on Monday. In 1991 Young brought
some ideas to Lionel on how to soup up model railroading;
four years later, he became a part owner of the company. The
remote control was one of his inventions, part of a system
that allows multiple trains to be controlled separately on the
same track. Another was a digital chip holding train
sounds recorded in 32-track fidelity. It is a typical Neil Young
project: an old-fashioned machine with high-tech support.
The train set touring with Horde is also a prototype of a
system to be called Lionelvision Railride. Tiny video cameras in
the engines and cabooses are hooked up to video monitors,
and as the trains roll through their simulated landscapes the
televised images zoom through the countryside at
video-game speed. It's easy to imagine spectacular collisions and
derailments. "I have a reputation for that," Young says
with a crooked grin.
Actually, his reputation is for restlessness, waywardness
and tenacity. Unlike many rockers of his generation, Young
has not become a nostalgia act. "I never want to get to
the point where I'm just going through the motions," he says.
From his late-'60s songs for Buffalo Springfield and his
brief alliance with Crosby, Stills and Nash, through a solo
career that has included hits (like "Heart of Gold" in
1972), raw uncommercial masterpieces (like the harrowing album
"Tonight's the Night" in 1975) and misfires, Young has
always followed his own impulses. One season he toured with
Booker T. and the MG's as his backup band; another season,
he was alone with an acoustic guitar. In yet another, he
collaborated with Pearl Jam. But since 1995 he has been
working steadily with Crazy Horse, the rough-hewn rock band
that he has led, on and off, since 1969.
Young is not only admired but emulated by musicians half
his age. "To see someone who's passionate about what they
do after 30 years is inspiring," said the 27-year-old Beck, who precedes Young each night on the Horde tour.
"Sometimes you ask yourself where it's all going and what
it leads to. And if his thing is a possible destination, it makes
it all worthwhile."
Young's ballads are foundations for the alternative
country music of the 1990s. And the raucous, brawny yet
introspective rock he plays with Crazy Horse -- not to
mention his ripped jeans, flannel shirts and T-shirts -- presaged
1990s grunge. Jim Jarmusch, who has made a film, "Year of
the Horse," about Young and Crazy Horse, watched last
year as a French journalist asked Young how he liked being
called "the godfather of grunge." Young growled, "I prefer
to be called Don Grungio."
"He's a perfectionist who embraces imperfection," Jarmusch
said. "We talked about how Hopi or Navajo artists will not
make anything symmetrical, because they believe that if it
doesn't have a flaw in the symmetry, it has no magic to it. Neil
is a real perfectionist about how things sound and how the
band rehearses, but he also knows how to allow imperfections
and accidents to enrich what he's doing."
"Perfection for perfection's sake is terrible," Young
says. "But seeking perfection in the name of spiritual expression is
an impossibility that you should constantly be striving
for: to try to get to this place you can never get to."
For serious conversation, Young leads his visitor to his
tour bus, which is customized inside with gleaming woodwork,
the grain almost psychedelic in its swirls. Amoebic shapes
bubble across the ceiling; a Gothic tracery covers one wall.
Young is nursing a sore throat, drinking herbal tea with
honey and lemon. Three days earlier, he played through a
torrential rainstorm at Horde's Chicago stop; now he's
feeling the effects.
On the tour he is appearing before an audience whose
average age is 23, according to surveys from last year's tour. "I'm
playing for people who have never seen me before, instead
of going out and playing for my old audience," he says.
"That means that I have to prove myself to them and I have
to prove myself to myself. Since I am 51, I do feel my
physical limitations and my mental limitations, and I also
feel my strengths and my experiences. It's almost like
Muhammad Ali, when he took his time off and came back and
found out that people could hit him. But he also found out
he could take a punch."
For most of the Horde tour Young has been making
unannounced solo appearances on the small workshop stage, soon
after the doors open. But today he's saving his vocal
cords for his 90-minute evening set with Crazy Horse. He's
speaking in a low voice, sounding more like Jack Nicholson
than the plaintive high tenor of his songs. "I'm flying
wounded right now," he says. "The challenge is to deliver
the show, to deliver a piece of music that says something
within the confines of my limitations."
LYRICS BLUNT OR ENIGMATIC
Limitations are essential to Young's music. He conjures
mysteries from basic structures and plain language. His songs
use only a handful of chords, with melodies that hark back
to folk tunes; his lyrics can be blunt or enigmatic, full of
free-floating imagery. "Songs work as long as I'm talking
about something I believe in," he says, "even if it's an image
that's so obscure that you can't really understand it. If
I believe in it, and I sing it with conviction and the pictures work
for me, then it's going to work for someone else too.
Other people may understand the song to be something totally
different than I do. But that's what it's all about."
Many of Young's songs have the elusive logic of dreams
captured moments before they vanish. "There's a lot of images
that just travel around with me all the time," Young says.
"It's kind of like I'm here and I'm not here sometimes.
Everything is multilayered. I deal with it, and then, when
I play music, and especially when I'm playing guitar, then at
some point on a good night, I'm completely in the other
world and I don't have to keep track of this one."
Although he has occasionally tried elaborate productions,
the bulk of Young's music has a bedrock simplicity. When he
works with Crazy Horse, his songs become elemental stomps,
placing his voice in a maelstrom of guitars but never
deterring it. In quieter settings he has the laconic
resolution of old-time mountain balladeers. He sings about lost Edens,
lost friends, lost loves and endless wandering through new
"I love the highway," he says. "To me, that's almost like
my religion, movement. I'm secure in movement. I'm a
transportation freak. Everything I own has wheels, or
wings, or a hull. Part of my spirit just wants to go everywhere it
could go, just keep on going till you get there."
Young releases an album a year, sometimes two. He tours
regularly, and when he's not on the national circuit, he might
show up to play three sets a night at Old Princeton
Landing, a club in Princeton-by-the-Sea, near his home in northern
BETWEEN ATTACHMENT AND MOVING ON
"Until now, I've never played with Crazy Horse
consistently for a period of more than a year," Young says. "Now this
is the third year, so we've got to explore more. Either
that or I'm going to have to go somewhere else and do something
else, like I classically have done. But now that I'm
getting older, I value the relationships of my friends in the band, to
the point where it's wonderful to just know the Horse is
the Horse. I have other things that I can do, and when I feel like
doing them I'll do them. But the changes are getting
Young and Crazy Horse have just released a live album,
"Year of the Horse" (Reprise). In October it is to be followed by
Jarmusch's film, with the same title but different music,
using scenes from Crazy Horse concerts, rehearsals, arguments
and escapades from 1976, 1986 and 1996. The film is
another hybrid of low and high technology. Much of it was filmed
with Super-8 cameras, the kind used for home movies,
creating grainy images when blown up to theater-screen size. But
Jarmusch said he used up-to-the-minute Kodak ASA 500 film,
allowing him to shoot in dim light.
"Super-8 is romantic, open to interpretation," Young says.
"It's the kind of thing that people carry around with them, so
it's not a big deal. Plus, who wants to spend all this
money to go to 35-millimeter to make a damn film about a rock 'n'
roll band that you're in yourself? The subject matter
doesn't warrant a huge production. It warrants the funkiest
production, and the soul will come through, and that's all
that it's about anyway."
GOING CAREFULLY, BUT WITH RISKS
He treats his music with the same combination of precision
and primitivism. For concerts he plays his guitar through a
small tube amplifier, which is then miked as clearly as
possible to roar through the PA system. Yet the old amplifier has
high-tech controls; Young has preset his favorite guitar
tones and a hookup controls small motors to turn the knobs.
With his albums, he has been struggling for better sound
ever since the compact disk was introduced. He has refused to
release a boxed-set collection of his music on CDs. "When
you do an analog recording and you take it to digital, you lose
everything," he says. "You turn a universe of sounds into
an average. The music becomes more abrupt and more
agitating, and all of the subtleties are gone. I don't
want to release my old analog albums on a CD. My statement is, I'd
rather burn the tapes."
Young is openly enraged about what the recording business
is now promoting as the next technological step, DVD
(digital versatile disk). "It sounds a thousand times
worse than the CD," he says. "They're destroying an art form
Later, onstage with Crazy Horse, Young shows no sign of
that sore throat. His voice is high and clear; the audience
happily sings along with him on "Ohio," a song written in
1970, before many of them were born. Crazy Horse gives the
songs a weary, lurching invincibility, working through
jams as Young toils over his guitar, often scooping it upward like
a shovel. One song, the bitterly resigned "Hippie Dream,"
turns from an elegy to molten guitar noise, throbbing on one
sustained, undulating note and then solidifying into vast
tolling chords, lugubrious and grand. Backstage, the band is
exultant, even as members joke about learning the songs
someday. Young is grinning again. "We are what we are," he