POP MUSIC : The Oldest Guy on MTV : How a 45-year-old rock 'n' roller stays tuned in to today's video generation

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

The impression as Neil Young strolled onto the set of his video shoot in Hollywood wearing tattered jeans, an old baseball cap and a ragged leather jacket was that here was a man who was dressing down for the occasion.

Young, who refers to himself good-naturedly as "the oldest guy on MTV," was collecting royalty checks for gold albums before many of today's youthful rock mavericks were in grade school. But he's competing with them for record sales and he wants to look like he fits in. Right?

In fact, Young was dressing up for the shoot.

Minutes before, as he surveyed the site, Young's clothes were even funkier: the same tattered jeans, but an even older baseball cap worn unceremoniously backwards and a wrinkled shirt that looked as if it had been on a closet floor for months.

"Got to look good for TV," Young responded later with a broad smile when a visitor on the set pointed out the change of clothes. "Those young bands dress pretty well these days."

Even with the accompanying wink, the line sounded like yet another jab at the video emphasis on today's pop world. The impression that Young, 45, is aligned with other veteran rock artists--and quite a few young ones--who hate promotional videos was reinforced a few moments later.

There wasn't a trace of a breeze in the air as Young and the three members of Crazy Horse, the trio with which he has done some of his finest work over the years, moved in place behind the microphones on a small wooden stage in the courtyard of the Cat & Fiddle restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.

However, the script called for a balmy, tropical atmosphere, so a wind machine was switched on as soon as Young began playing. The gusts were so strong that they not only blew away Young's baseball cap, but also almost knocked the musicians over.

As Young struggled to maintain his balance, he started laughing even though the song, a tale of obsessive love called "Over and Over," was not meant to be funny.

To anyone who argues that videos ruin the integrity of a song by forcing a single interpretation on a viewer, the laughter was a commentary by Young on the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

But Young was laughing because he was having fun.

"All that wind felt great," he said during a break in the shooting. "It kind of pushed us around and made us battle back, and added a spirit to the whole thing.

"That's the secret of making a good video. You've got to tap some real emotions . . . the same way you have find real emotions when you are writing and recording a song."

The strains of "Over and Over" could be heard through the windows of the restaurant shortly after 7 p.m. on a recent weeknight as Young ate dinner before the video shoot.

The crew engineer was playing a tape of the song in the adjacent courtyard to test the sound system that had been brought in for what would be a marathon, 15-hour affair.

Most of the night was set aside for shooting "Over and Over"--a track from Young's new "Ragged Glory" album--with a second song from the album, whose feisty title can't be printed in a family newspaper, to be shot the following morning.

Young is a rarity among veteran rock stars: He considers videos a challenge and an opportunity, and he looks forward to working out the concepts for them.

But then again, Young has always been a rarity among rock stars--a restless, independent spirit who fearlessly follows even his most radical musical instincts.

"People complain a lot about videos, but the problem isn't with videos--it's with the people who make them," Young said, nibbling at a plate of shepherd's pie.

"Besides, they're what's happening today. I hate it when people go around complaining that the music business isn't like it was . . . because if it was, it'd be boring. I think what we did in the '60s and '70s was great, but it's gone and I'm glad. Let's move on."

These are good times for Young, the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young alumnus who is rivaled only by Bob Dylan as the most consistently challenging of the still-active members of rock's great class of the '60s.

With a series of erratic, impersonal albums during the '80s--in styles as varied as techno-pop and rockabilly--Young left even some of his longtime fans wondering if he would ever regain the artistic touch he exhibited in a marvelously introspective series of albums in the '70s, including the accessible and evocative "After the Gold Rush" and the dark and disillusioned "Tonight's the Night."

But he bounced back brilliantly in 1989 with a socially conscious collection, "Freedom," that re-established him as one of rock's most gifted performers.

For all its emotion and craft, however, there was one thing missing from "Freedom": Young's classic guitar excursions. Those resurfaced in Young's latest album, the equally acclaimed "Ragged Glory," which reunited the singer-songwriter with Crazy Horse.

"The reason there's so much of the guitar on the new album is that I missed it physically," Young said. "I had a yearning to do it. But you can't do it with just anyone. I can only do that with Crazy Horse. I can't play like Steve Vai and those guys. They are all over the place. They play this metal stuff in a very classical manner. . . .

"My things are excursions. . . . These lumbering, sand worm type of things that move over a long scope. That's my thing."

"Ragged Glory" is also different in tone. Rather than look outward as many of the songs in "Freedom" had done, Young looks inward in many of its key songs. One of the most gripping, "Days That Used to Be," is a virtual self-inventory, an examination of values and goals that includes these lines:

Are you satisfied with your new car

And your seven year warranty

Does it get you everywhere you want to go

Or just another 100,000 miles

From the days that used to be ?

Young--who lives on a 2,000-acre ranch near Santa Cruz with his wife Pegi and their two sons, nodded knowingly at the mention of the word self-inventory.

"That was really me talking to myself in the song," he said, before leaving to change clothes for the video shoot. "I wrote it after MTV wouldn't play the video for 'This Note's for You' (in 1988).

"I can see now why they wouldn't play it. . . . The video was making fun of a lot of things that MTV does. . . . Sponsorship, using music to sell products. But I thought the video was going to be so funny that everyone would love it. When MTV didn't play it, I thought, 'How could I be so wrong?' I was confused. Here I was this guy from the '60s in the '90s and wondering how I fit in. I was a lost duck."

Young's original thought for the "This Note" video was for his band to be playing the song in a room with money falling from the ceiling until there was so much money in the room that you couldn't see the band anymore.

But Julien Temple, the widely admired British video and film director, came up with an idea that Young liked better--the one involving look-alikes of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston that, ironically, was voted video of the year in the MTV Video Awards competition even though the channel hadn't aired it.

Temple was directing tonight's shoot too, and after dinner, as Young headed through the Spanish-style courtyard to a trailer to prepare for the video shoot, the director checked last-minute camera angles.

"Some artists have more ideas coming into a video than others," said the articulate Temple, whose film credits include the classic Sex Pistols movie, "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," and "Absolute Beginners," a splashy musical about the early days of England's rock era.

"With Neil, we tend to work together on the concept. . . . Very collaborative. Neil will say, 'Here is the track. Listen to it and see what your ideas are and then we'll talk.' In that way he is very much like David Bowie.

"I find a lot of veteran rock artists, including Mick Jagger, enjoy playing with their image in videos. They have enough confidence that you can have fun with the images. They are willing to take risks."

Young has frequently played characters in his videos, including a street person and a nerdy TV reporter at the scene of a traffic accident.

For the "Over and Over" video, however, he just wanted to sing the song and have the action going on around him. "This is a love song and I'd rather someone else act it out," Young had said over dinner. "I don't want to be standing there with my guitar singing to some chick. That's just too lame. The song is too personal to do that."

So Temple came up with a concept that combines elements of two classic films. As Young sings the tale of an obsessive relationship, two young lovers squabble in the background--a la Stanley and Stella from "A Streetcar Named Desire"--while various neighbors, including a man doing karate exercises, look on in "Rear Window" fashion. In the true spirit of rock 'n' roll, the neighbors yell at the band to be quiet.

Temple enjoys the immediacy of videos--the way they are done quickly, sometimes getting on TV within a week of shooting. But he is critical of most videos.

"They are usually too concerned with fashion and creating a kind of moving series of still photographs or album-cover art," he said, lighting another in a series of almost constant cigarettes. "They worry about haircuts and fashion rather than deconstructing the song in the video and trying to put it back together in a more ambiguous way.

"I love it when you can make a video that has different meanings when you are in different moods. That's the trick with a video. . . . To create a kind of riddle, something that releases information like a cold capsule over a period of time. You see it again after a few weeks and you get more things or at least different things from it."

By 9 p.m., Young and Crazy Horse were on stage and the wind machine was on full blast. As they started playing, the Stanley character in the video rode up on a motorcycle in the background, as Stella gazed down from a balcony. As with most videos and films, the scene was shot over and over.

By 10 the following morning, there was no sign of the video equipment in the courtyard. Temple and the crew had moved to a second-floor room of an adjacent building that was being remodeled.

Rather than the stylish, theatrical aura of "Over and Over" the idea this time was to portray Young and Crazy Horse in a raw, garage-band environment--much like the atmosphere Young established on stage during his acclaimed 1986 tour with Crazy Horse.

At that time the stage was filled with such garage-rock symbols as discarded tires and old license plates. This time, the props included an abandoned toilet seat.

The idea in the video was to focus on the intensity of the music, and after the long night, everyone was hoping that things would move along quickly.

Young, too, appeared pleased with the way "Over and Over" felt and was looking forward to breezing through the second video.

As soon as the music began playing, however, it was clear that something was wrong. Young looked around at guitarist Frank Sampedro and grimaced.

Young stepped back from the microphone and looked past the cameras for Temple. "The music's not loud enough," he said, spotting the director. "Weren't there more speakers here last night?"

An assistant said some of the speakers had been returned to the sound company because it hadn't been expected that they would all be needed for the inside shoot.

"But we've got to feel the music if it's going to look real," Young said. "We need more sound. We've got to feel it physically."

So Temple told some aides to go get some more speakers immediately.

During the break, Young again reflected on videos. "It's important that you get a feel of the artist in the video," he said. "That's the secret to me. It doesn't matter whether the singer is just singing or acting a part. . . . The video should have a spirit that is true to the artist and the music. You get a mismatch and you are in trouble.

"Guns N' Roses make good videos because you really feel the band. . . . You feel they are real people. The problem with too many videos is that there is no feeling in them.

"I don't understand these people who just turn themselves over to a video director and say, 'Do something with my song.'

"You shouldn't turn your video over to someone else any more than you should turn your song over to someone else. You've got to protect your song, even if it means eventually killing the video. I've made some bad videos, but you've never seen them because I ended up eating them (financially)."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World