YOUNG AND HIS ‘GARAGE ROCK’--KEEPING THE FLAME BURNING
Signs of the rejuvenated Neil Young’s “garage rock” instincts are seen at every turn on his current U.S. concert tour. Before the start of each show, a vintage Rolling Stones album is played over the sound system. The snarling music is an enduring vinyl definition of the garage-rock style--the kind of raw, spirited rock ‘n’ roll blasted out by enthusiastic young bands in their makeshift rehearsal rooms.
The mural that hangs over the front of the stage as the audience files in adds to the spirit: a painting of a battered garage door, complete with nicks and broken windows. The mural is lifted to reveal oversized items associated with a run-down garage: discarded tires, old license plates, cockroaches.
The concert itself--reuniting Young with his fierce Crazy Horse band--takes the form of a rehearsal, complete with such interruptions as an exterminator spraying for bugs, a neighbor complaining about the godawful noise and, finally, a squad car arriving to call the whole thing to a close.
This is a risky concept for the 41-year-old musician, because it requires Young to perform with the intensity and desire of a young, hungry musician--or look ludicrous trying to be a garage-rocker.
But Young and Crazy Horse live up to the best garage-rock tradition. Their polish and craft certainly distinguish the band from a group of new, aspiring performers, yet they play new and old material with a passion that is frequently inspiring. Young bounces across the stage with the vitality of a cheerleader, then centers himself with a punishingly primal guitar solo.
This tour, which includes stops Monday through Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, is a triumphant return to form for Young, one of the most gifted and enigmatic figures ever in rock; a man whose artistic independence rivals that of Bob Dylan, one of his most powerful influences.
After experimental sidesteps into country music, rockabilly and techno-rock, Young has returned to the grueling and haunting terrain that he explored in such albums as “Tonight’s the Night” in 1975 and “Rust Never Sleeps” in 1979.
The latter contained a controversial line that has been widely debated in rock: “It’s better to burn out than to rust.” Some punk and heavy-metal rockers have adopted it as a slogan--a justification for reckless or extreme behavior. Yet John Lennon rejected its literal message. Nothing is worth killing yourself for, said Lennon, especially rock ‘n’ roll.
On the afternoon of a concert here, Young sat in his customized tour bus, which was parked in the hotel lot. He spoke at length about his renewed rock spirit, his improved health and the “better-to-burn-out-than-rust” line.
“This tour is like a rebirth of something that’s real,” Young said. “I haven’t played straight rock ‘n’ roll since 1978, except for a little bit on ‘Reactor.’ I held back everything for so long. Now I have the energy. It’s like you’ve (stored it) and suddenly have this massive impulse to release it. I always knew it would come back. I just didn’t know when.”
Here’s a portion of the 90-minute interview with Young:
Do you still think it is better to burn out than to rust?
Yeah, the essence of rock ‘n’ roll is the flame burning. If you go out there and (ration) yourself, you are just maintaining, and you’re not a rock ‘n’ roller anymore. That’s why I don’t do (a tour like this) every year. You have to get (in shape) . . . prepare yourself the same way you would for a championship fight, so that you can give your all on stage. . . .
Look at Bruce Springsteen. He goes to the edge of the burnout in his shows and says, “Here I am. I’m in great shape. . . . I’m pushing myself as far as I can . . . and I’m going to do it every night.” I feel that way, too. I’m going to stay in your face (on stage) until I’m finished and then I’ll be gone and if I blow up, then that’s the way I want to go. It’s not because I don’t respect myself. It’s because this is where I want to be and where my pride tells me I have to be.
But you and Bruce are both very concerned with maintaining your health, very anti-drugs. Some people seem to think “burn out” means living out some tragic life style.
That’s not the way it is put forth in the song. I couldn’t do this show. . . . I couldn’t put that much energy into it if I didn’t take care of myself physically. The reason I’m moving about so much on this tour is that I’m in the best shape of my life.
What made you so conscious of health?
I had polio when I was 6 and I (experienced) post-polio syndrome a few years ago. I woke up one morning and my hands were numb and everything was messed up. I figured maybe I was just getting old. Then it got to the point where I couldn’t even pick up the guitar with my hand. So I started considering some type of surgery.
But a doctor thought it might be related to my polio thing and gave me all these exercises. I canceled my European tour and started going to therapy every day in the morning. I worked out six days a week: boxing, weight lifting, as well as the physical therapy. What I did essentially was rebuild myself in about an eight-month period.
What’s behind the garage band concept?
I just feel that Crazy Horse is like a garage band and I was talking to some deejay and I said, “Listen, I don’t want to brag but I think Crazy Horse is the third-best garage band in the world.” That’s really where I like to be. Let someone else be No. 1 and No. 2. We make too many mistakes to be No. 1 and nobody wants to be No. 2, so we’re No. 3.
We rehearsed for 2 1/2 months for this tour . . . longer than I have ever rehearsed for anything with any band. I usually rehearse for three days, but I wanted the band to be in shape so they could keep up with me. We’ve been recording every show of the tour for the album. This is how we recorded “Rust Never Sleeps.” I’ve got six new songs in the show. I’ll record these mothers until I get them right and then I’ll take the crowd (noise) off and do some overdubs and it will sound like a million bucks.
Critics often think of you as a lyric specialist, but you seemed as eloquent during the instrumental passages in last night’s show. Is the guitar just as important to you as your lyrics?
Oh yeah. I love to play the guitar. With Crazy Horse, my guitar playing is what has blossomed. Last night’s show was fairly concise, but the shows sometimes really stretch out. I think I’ll have more energy by the time I get to the West Coast. We’re going to do a cable broadcast on one of the shows.
(Friday’s concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco will be broadcast nationally on cable TV on a pay-per-view basis by Rose Productions and Choice Channel Productions. Crosby, Stills & Nash are scheduled to join Young in the concert.)
When you look back at all the stylistic changes you’ve made, do you see them as something that was essential to maintaining your interest and artistry.
I think so. If I stopped experimenting, I think I would be somewhere other than where I am now. I don’t sell really a lot of records anymore. I don’t know if that is a permanent thing or if it is just (temporary). It may be that my records have alienated a lot of people, which is ultimately the goal of my records anyway, so I don’t care. I’ve already sold so many records. I’ll never be more famous than I am now.
After the “Gold Rush” and “Harvest” albums, you seemed to make a deliberate break with the folk-accented style that worked so well commercially for you.
I was 23 years old and I had a No. 1 record. I had respect. The temptation at that stage is to do the same thing over and over, and that means it’s over in five years before you are bored and the audience is bored.
What gave you insight at 23 to know that?
I have no idea. I do know I watched Dylan’s career and what really interested me was the fact that he didn’t do a lot of the things everyone else seemed to be doing. . . . He didn’t make records people expected. He didn’t do interviews.
What was the reaction to “Tonight’s the Night”? Was there a sense of shock at the record company? The album was so stark, uncommercial.
There was a sense of shock, but there was also an awareness on the part of (Warner Bros. Records chairman) Mo Ostin. He warned me the album could hurt my career, sales-wise, and that I ought to make sure I wanted to go in that direction. But he wasn’t saying don’t do it or that he wasn’t going to pay for it or that he was going to sue me--none of the trips that my current company does. (Young now records for Geffen Records).
What about the CSNY reunion at your benefit last month for the Bridge educational project? Was it emotional when David Crosby came out?
Oh yeah. I’ve had David out three times during this tour. . . . At Madison Square Garden, at Meadowlands. . . . Just him and Graham, and it was great. I love David. I’m glad to see him surviving and putting himself back together. I think he’s gonna make it. I told them a couple of years ago that we could have a CSNY reunion as soon as David gets himself together. (Crosby was paroled in August from a Texas prison, where he was servinga five-year sentence on drug and weapon charges.) I’ll definitely be there.
Both your sons, Ben and Zeke, have cerebral palsy. Has working with them been a strength to you?
An incredible strength. . . . Not a drain at all. My sons are great. Zeke is just mildly affected, and he is going to do fine in his life. How Ben does is up to him, and his faculties . . . whatever they are will develop. Pegi (Young’s wife) is putting together this school program that Ben will be part of. It’s for kids that can’t speak or can’t run . . . a way for them to communicate through computers.
What’s your feeling about President Reagan? You’ve said some complimentary things about him and it’s unusual for anyone in rock to do that.
I’m not a Reaganite, but I do agree with some of the things he has done. The latest thing in Iceland is proof that if the Russians want to make a deal they’re gonna have to come up with something (substantial). It’s the first time they’ve had anything to say and I think it’s directly because of Reagan.
If you’re gonna talk about arms reductions, you can’t talk from a stance of weakness. Now I think things are basically even, but the only thing I think we have the upper hand in is this dream of Reagan’s . . . this “Star Wars” (proposal). Who knows what that is? . . . He could have said, “I have an artificial snow machine that’s gonna bury the Soviet Union and in seven years it’s gonna be finished.” That’s essentially what “Star Wars” is. He has put forth an idea that is so off the wall . . . everybody is scared of this thing that may not even be real.
If you said that on stage, I’m sure you’d get booed.
Yeah, but I would never say that to the audience. That’s not the point. They should be whatever they want to be. I’m just one person. I’m not going to tell them what to do. They have their own ideals. I’m older then most of them. I have already been idealistic for the past 15 years. Now, it’s realism tempered. I’m getting older.
Could you imagine ever being 40 and still rocking and rolling?
At some point, something is going to happen, but I’m not the first one that’s going to have to deal with it. There are some others ahead of me and I’m going to watch them. You have got to think, “At 50 am I going to give up what I lived my life for and let other people live my life for me?”
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