Neil Young has come up with a canny way to disarm those who have periodically criticized the veteran Canadian singer and songwriter’s most pointedly political songs or public statements about life in the USA on the grounds that “he’s not even an American.”
As of next month, that argument will no longer hold water.
“I’ve passed all the tests; I’ve got my appointment, and if everything goes as planned, I’ll be taking the oath of citizenship” shortly after turning 74 on Nov. 12. The salient point being, “I’ll be able to vote,” said Young, who has lived roughly two-thirds of his life in the U.S. since arriving in Los Angeles in the mid-’60s and first making his mark on the rock ’n’ roll landscape with Buffalo Springfield.
“I’m still a Canadian; there’s nothing that can take that away from me,” he said. Young was at a studio in Santa Monica where he and his wife, activist-actress Daryl Hannah, assembled their new film, “Mountaintop,” documenting the recording of Young’s latest album, “Colorado,” which arrives Oct. 25.
“But I live down here; I pay taxes down here; my beautiful family is all down here — they’re all Americans, so I want to register my opinion” about this country. He means doing so at the ballot box; he’s often registered his opinion musically, in songs such as “Ohio,” about the killing by National Guardsmen of four students at Kent State University during campus Vietnam War protests in 1970, or “Rockin’ in the Free World,” a 1980s commentary on the inequities of Reaganomics.
More recently, that compartment of his songbook has expanded with “Shut It Down” from “Colorado,” the project for which the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has reunited his long-running band Crazy Horse for the first time in seven years. In that song, Young takes a jab at the many ways he thinks the country has veered off course, his remedy being “shut the whole thing down” and start again.
Why become a citizen now, after living in the States for more than half a century?
“We’ve got a climate emergency, and governments are not acting,” he said, between bites of the omelet and sautéed spinach that constituted his lunch, part of a healthier diet and lifestyle he’s embraced in recent years.
Climate change surfaces as a theme in another song from “Colorado,” “She Showed Me Love,” in which he owns up to his station in life at this point in life, singing, “You might say I’m an old white guy … You might say that,” adding that “I’ve seen old white guys trying to kill Mother Nature.”
The song spontaneously stretched out into a signature Crazy Horse jam that extends for more than 13 minutes on the album during the recording session high in the mountains of Colorado earlier this year, for which he reunited with longtime Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. This time out, Crazy Horse also includes guitarist Nils Lofgren, who first played in Crazy Horse back in 1970 and has periodically collaborated with Young over the years when he hasn’t been occupied with his duties as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Lofgren has stepped in for guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who has retired to his home in Hawaii, according to Young.
When Young talks about Crazy Horse, he sounds less like he’s simply discussing a group of musicians and more like he’s alluding to another form of life, one that somehow exists beyond the limitations of human musicians.
“The Horse is not on a schedule,” he said when asked what moves him to reactivate the group time and time again. “It’s really the feeling: certain songs, locations, places, times. It’s the way our instrumentals are: How do we know where we’re going? How did we end up jamming and having it be really melodic when I’ve never played this before? So that’s where we want to be. It’s almost like jazz — but it’s not that.”
Crazy Horse has earned its reputation as one of rock’s noisiest, brashest, most magnificently ragged ensembles. So one potentially surprising aspect of “Colorado” is its quieter moments, songs built on some of the most poetic and graceful lyrics Young has written in at least a decade: the opening track “Think of Me,” in which he envisions life from the perspective of a bird; a melancholy benediction for compromised ideals titled “Green Is Blue”; a reverie for loved ones who are gone, “Olden Days”; and “I Do,” a paean to nature’s wonders with a hint of foreboding: “Show me that garden/In the sun that you saw/Let me see the flowers/And the bees before they fall.”
In his 2012 autobiography “Waging Heavy Peace,” Young revealed that he had given up smoking pot, something he had enjoyed for decades, after doctors recommended he quit following a life-threatening brain aneurysm for which he underwent surgery in 2005. As he wrote the book, he said he was unsure how that change would affect his songwriting, which subsequently leaned more heavily on more overt message songs than the metaphor and allegory-rich songs that represented some of his most prized earlier work.
Subsequently, however, he resumed inhaling, and today counts himself among customers of his friend and Farm Aid annual benefit partner Willie Nelson, who has created a line of marijuana products, Willie’s Reserve.
“I’m back to smoking,” Young said. “I stopped for a while and then I started again, but I’m much healthier. I lost like 35 pounds from what I weighed at that time. My life is full of exercise and happiness and creativity. So I’m very happy.”
Young acknowledged the major life changes he has weathered in recent years: the 2014 divorce from his wife of 36 years, Pegi Young, and her death earlier this year; his move out of the ranch in Northern California he bought in 1970; a 2010 fire that ravaged his LincVolt electric car project and the warehouse it was stored in, and another last year that partially destroyed the home he owned in Malibu Canyon; his marriage last year to Hannah, their purchase of a second home in Colorado, and the death in June of his longtime manager and friend, Elliot Roberts.
“It’s a new world,” he said. “Thank goodness I got married to Daryl.”
As artists and social activists who are often occupied with multiple projects, do Young and Hannah ever find time to curl up and binge watch “Game of Thrones” like garden-variety married couples?
He laughed at the question. “We do things together all the time,” he said. “We appreciate life. We’re happy.”
He indicated they do enjoy watching films together — on the list of music-related films still on their to-see list are “Amazing Grace,” the concert film of Aretha Franklin’s gospel performances in Los Angeles filmed in 1972, and “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” profiling the singer who, among her many collaborations, sang on several of Young’s recordings in the mid-’70s.
One he hasn’t seen is “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” filmmaker Cameron Crowe’s look at the life of Young’s on-again, off-again band mate from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the walrus-mustachioed rocker who drove a stake through his long friendship with Young by disparaging Hannah at the outset of their relationship. (Crosby later apologized.) Young simply smiled when asked about the film and sided with another of Crosby’s many former band mates who recently said, “I have no sympathy for David, but I have compassion for him.”
Mostly, they’ve been too busy to watch other people’s films because they’ve been immersed in completing “Mountaintop,” which premiered Tuesday with a string of one-night-only screenings across the country. (The rest of the world will have a shot at seeing it in a theater Nov. 18, when it is set to screen globally. After that, Young said, the film probably will live on his online audio and film website, the Neil Young Archives.)
“A lot of people are going to see it tonight,” he said a few hours before the formal premiere at the ArcLight in Hollywood, which he ultimately bypassed. “I’ve got to find out if I have to do an apology.”
He’s referring to the warts-and-all 92-minute document of the final days of the 11-day recording session out of which “Colorado” emerged. It captures Young occasionally swearing at co-producer John Hanlon and other studio personnel out of frustration or miscommunication. Hanlon comes close to throwing in the towel on the project over technical mishaps.
“I don’t know what to say about working on it,” Young said. “It was a real eye-opener. It reveals more about what happens, more than people are used to seeing.”
“Daryl wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to, at first,” he said. “I said no, because it will get in the way of the music. So we just let it go, and then at the end, I said, ‘OK, it’s alright.’ ”
As with most things in Young’s world, and always when it comes to Crazy Horse, instinct leads the way.
“We just knew it was there, and you don’t have to do anything more than just be ready once you recognize that you have it,” he said. “That’s what we did. That’s how we did ‘Colorado.’ And we still haven’t played any more live. We’re just waiting for the right time to do that.”