To anyone who’s followed Neil Young’s socially crusading, four-decade musical career, it was hardly a surprise to learn earlier this week that he’s just recorded a 10-song collection that takes President Bush to task and sharply criticizes the war in Iraq.
The real surprise for Young loyalists is that it took him so long. As the veteran rocker explains it, he was finally moved to record the album, “Living With War,” in a two-week burst of creativity after his patience with Generation Next ran out.
“I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer 18 to 22 years old, to write these songs and stand up,” Young said. “I waited a long time. Then, I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the ‘60s generation. We’re still here.”
The album’s explosive centerpiece is “Let’s Impeach the President.” Over an urgent, guitar-driven backdrop, Young sings:
“Let’s impeach the president for abusing all the power we gave him and shipping all our money out the door.
Let’s impeach the president for bending the facts to fit their new story of why we have to send our men to war.”
In Young’s view, the number is more than simply a political diatribe; it’s an affirmation of free speech.
“You’re always going to rub somebody the wrong way when you sing ‘let’s impeach the president,’ ” Young said. “But that’s what this country’s all about -- being able to express your views.” Warner Bros. Records executives heard the 10-song set for the first time this week. Though news of the aggressive anti-Bush tone had already led to a flurry of comments on blogs. (Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, also played the CD for The Times.)
But “Impeach,” with its mocking use of Bush sound bites, represents only one side of Young’s emotional reaction to the war in the CD.
The collection is by turns empathetic toward soldiers’ families and scornful of runaway consumer culture. With a nod to ‘60s protest music, Young shares his optimism and outrage -- at social ills including religious zealotry and patriotism run amok.
There is more anger, most notably the reference to Bush’s famous 2003 “one victory” remarks against the backdrop of a “Mission Accomplished” banner atop an aircraft carrier deck, which the singer ridicules in the song, “Shock and Awe.”
“Living With War” concludes with a deeply emotional version of “America the Beautiful,” with Young backed by a 100-member choir. Young, a Canadian-born longtime resident of the U.S. whose career started in the ‘60s, joins other high-profile artists who’ve recently recorded politically minded pop songs. Pearl Jam’s “World Wide Suicide” addresses “a world of pain” in which “war has taken over.” The song recently topped rock radio.
The Dixie Chicks’ new single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” takes up where group member Natalie Maines’ 2003 anti-Bush comment (about the group being ashamed that the president was from Texas) left off. And next month, Paul Simon, another ‘60s crusader, will release his album “Surprise,” which includes the song “Wartime Prayers,” a disheartened meditation about psychic war wounds.
Last month at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Texas, conference organizer Roland Swenson recalled Young’s “Ohio,” written after the Kent State shootings. Addressing Young, who was the conference’s keynote speaker, he said, “Mr. Young, we need another song.”
And so he set out to do just that.
Rather than merely a protest, Young wanted “Living With War” to amplify the public sentiments he’s encountered.
“It’s the people I’ve been talking to: people in restaurants, people in cars,” he said. “Whenever the talk gets around to what’s going on in the world, people are saying what’s on this record.”
On his website he said he tried to draw upon the ‘60s folk protest tradition of writers such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, only framing some of the songs in a harder “metal folk” style.
The album’s “Flags of Freedom” is the most direct homage to that tradition, echoing the anthem-ish undercurrents of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”
In Young’s song, he conjures the image of a girl listening to a Dylan song as she watches her brother march off to war.
“Have you seen the flags of freedom?
What color are they now?”
“Do you think that you believe in yours more than they believe in theirs?”
“I found Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan’s protest songs of the ‘60s to be tremendously inspired,” Young said. “These people were writing from their souls about something that was happening in the country at that time. Civil rights, the injustices in society -- they were huge. It’s good to have a voice.”
Young said he enlisted that many back-up singers because he liked the metaphorical weight of having “100 voices from 100 lands.” One vocalist, Alicia Morgan, wrote about the atmosphere in the Los Angeles recording studio on her blog.
“The session was like being at a 12-hour peace rally,” she writes. “Every time new lyrics would come up on the screen, there were cheers, tears and applause. It was a spiritual experience.”
When Young and Roberts played the CD for the Warner Bros. staff, the closing “America the Beautiful” moved some of the group to tears, according to one executive present.
“Living With War” marks another turn in the restless rocker’s long and varied career, arriving on the heels of recent dramatic events in his life. Young’s 87-year-old father died last June, just as the singer was recovering from a brain aneurysm discovered in March 2005, which required emergency neuroradiology.
Asked about the difficulty of maintaining his idealism, Young remained sanguine -- and committed as ever to the democracy of ideas.
“I’m eternally optimistic,” he said. “Change doesn’t have to happen tomorrow. Maybe the day after tomorrow. The endgame is, when people hear it, it’s up to them to think whatever they want. And I can say whatever I want. We seem to be losing track of that.”