Singer and Songwriter Neil Young

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He calls his latest project a "musical novel." It's a new CD, Greendale, a 10-song cycle with his band Crazy Horse, set in a fictional California seaside town. He also shot a feature film version on Super8, which made the film festival circuit and will be in wider distribution in April.

TERRY GROSS, Host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Neil Young. His high voice, brilliant guitar-playing and eccentric personality have made him one of the living legends of rock. He had his first hits in the '60s as a member of the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, as well as on his own. His style has constantly evolved, ranging from sweet country ballads to grunge and noise. Now he has a unique project called "Greendale," which is both a CD and a theatrically released movie. "Greendale" is a cycle of songs that Young describes as a musical novel. It dramatizes the lives of three generations of a family living in the fictional California town of Greendale. Their stories touch on many issues of the day, from family problems to the environment and media sensationalism.

In the film version of "Greendale," we see actors dramatizing the story, but the only soundtrack is the songs themselves. The novelist Madison Smartt Bell writes: "Young embeds the story line in musical arrangements sufficiently stripped down to recall the idea of a Homeric bard accompanying himself on his harp."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "FALLING FROM ABOVE"))

NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Grandpa said to cousin Jed sitting on the porch. I won't retire, but I might retread. Seems like that guy singing this song been doing it for a long time. Is there anything he knows that he ain't said? Sing a song for freedom, sing a song for love, sing a song for depressed angels falling from above.

GROSS: That's Neil Young from his new CD, "Greendale."

Neil Young, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This story is - the story of "Greendale" is told through songs. And in the movie, the whole soundtrack is the songs. But we see the characters, and we see them lip-syncing to the songs - except they'redoing it as if they're lip-syncing to speech; as if they're speaking, not singing. Did you want to try to use music and image in a way that you hadn't seen done before?

YOUNG: Well, you know, it was exciting because I realized as soon as I had the idea of filming this story, that the dialogue was done. And the actors were going to be talking the dialogue in the envelope that I was singing the words and the dialogue in. And so I felt that this would mean that the actors never would really be heard themselves. You would always - everybody had my voice. I knew that was a unique idea. And, you know, so as - I was a little bit, you know, maybe a little apprehensive about whether that was going to work or not. But there was no other way to do it. So I figured we'd just try it. And then when I started seeing the rushes back and we started syncing things up, I was happy with the way it looked. And I said well, some people aren't going to believe this but, you know, those people probably won't even be watching the film anyway because of the way it looks, you know? I mean, the Super 8 aspect of it, and the shakiness of the camera work; and the whole thing is kind of designed to limit the audience, in some ways, to an audience that might like my music. But at least now, they get a chance to know that something's out whereas if I'd have just counted on the radio, there would be no way that, you know, anyone would even know that "Greendale" came out.

GROSS: Can you describe how you've imagined the town of Greendale and what - if any - town you've based it on?

YOUNG: Well, it's - Greendale is a, you know, basically, West Coast town, and it's based on many little towns. It's based on rural life, basically, rural life in America. I think there's a sensibility towards things and an understanding of things in rural America that is unique. And people's values are still - there's still a strong connection with the old ways.

GROSS: There are three generations that are portrayed in your movie: grandparents; their children, who are also parents; and then those parents' teenage daughter. Did I make that clear?

YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Is that too confusing? OK. So the father, the middle-generation guy, in your story sells his soul to the devil in return for becoming a successful painter - as opposed to a painter who paints a lot but doesn't sell anything. That's a kind of old theme in music, the myth of the blues musician who sells his soul to the devil and plays great music as a result.

YOUNG: Well, wait a minute, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah?

YOUNG: I think that the - I think that this devil is sneakier than that. He didn't - there was no payoff. See? There was no sale. This devil's playful. He went in there without the artist knowing about it. And he went into - stole into the artist's studio, and this artist couldn't see clearly without his glasses on, just like his father. And so when he put on his glasses, that's when he painted. He could see the easel well, and that's when he did his work. But the devil came in his studio and found his glasses and then by breathing on his glasses and cleaning them with his jacket - or with his handkerchief or whatever, he cleaned the glasses in a way that they had never been cleaned before. So when the artist came back to the studio and looked through the glasses, the artist was seeing something that he'd never seen before, and started painting pictures that he'd never seen before. Most of, you know, the first one was a likeness of the devil, the way he appeared in the studio. So the artist didn't know what was going on. The artist just painted this picture, and then suddenly the picture was a huge success, and the only picture that he'd ever sold up until that time. So he didn't really sell his soul to the devil knowingly.

GROSS: What made you think about the devil and his possible place in the art world?

YOUNG: Well, you know, I think the idea of making a deal with the devil, which is what you got from seeing it, is that that is a constant idea, that is something that artists sometimes feel they have to do to get their art out, OK? I think that's something that - there's a point there, but in this case, this artist, Earl Green, didn't - he didn't realize what had happened. But he gained from it, which makes you wonder, you know, who - how - why did the devil do that? I mean, you know, what kind of a devil is this? What - he actually did Earl a favor. Earl doesn't know if he made a deal with the devil or not. He doesn't feel any sense of debt.

GROSS: Since these songs are all on the service of telling a story, and the story is illustrated by a movie and by liner notes on the DVD, do you feel like it changed the music, that, you know, the music - that the lyrics were about subjects you wouldn't ordinarily be writing songs about, with details you wouldn't ordinarily be including in songs?

YOUNG: Well, the way this happened is it was driven by the music and the story was not created before the music was written. The story was born from the music. And the songs were written one at a time and then recorded one at a time, and then the next song would be written and then recorded and finished, completely finished tracks. And then I'd go on to the next one. So as I wrote the songs, the story unfolded, and I became just as much of a spectator as the other guys in the band and the people in the recording booth as we were recording this, and everyone learned the story at the same time.

GROSS: Well, I want to play one of the songs from "Greendale," and this is called "Bandit." And do you want to describe what's happening in this song?

YOUNG: Well, this song is a song about Earl Green again, the fellow we were talking about, and he's a Vietnam vet. He returned to the States in the late '60s, and he was shell-shocked and stayed in his house for a long time, couldn't handle looking at the bright colors and seeing the cars moving so fast on the freeway and things that he thought he was going to - looking forward to seeing, he couldn't handle them when he got back. And so he became very reclusive, and he also had a lot of hallucinations and was hearing voices. And the memories of his wartime experience were very heavy in his mind.

And he found that by painting - he'd never painted before, but he found that by painting, that he could - that his mind cleared, and he was at peace with himself. And so this led to these paintings that he painted, and then the paintings were alive with sound. When his daughter looked at the paintings, she heard voices and she heard things that were like, you know, gunfire and, you know, bare feet running through the mud and people talking in a funny language, and then screaming and then gunfire and then American voices and people yelling and helicopters. And then sounds of people relaxing, lovers relaxing on the beach and talking to one another and the sound of the wind blowing and the sea gulls and the waves breaking.

And this all happened when Sun Green, Earl Green's daughter, would come by the studio to look at these paintings, and she would come by every day and check out his paintings. And she thought her dad was, like, a genius and like a Picasso or something, that how - what fantastic works of art these were, these things that talked to you while you were looking at them. And - but Earl Green could never sell his paintings because to an art dealer or a gallery owner, they just looked like psychedelic art from the '60s and they really didn't have much else going for them.

So he was unable to sell any paintings and unable to support the family on his own. And he was very down about not being able to hold his own, and he had to use his grandfather's money to support the family and everything. And so the song is set where he is in a motel room, he's been driving around in his Winnebago full of paintings, trying to sell his paintings. And he's stopped for a while in a motel room and he's just sitting there watching TV and using his little laptop computer and trying to come to grips with his situation, and he's pretty depressed. And the song is his thoughts going through his head.

GROSS: This is "Bandit" from Neil Young's new CD, "Greendale."

(SOUNDBITE OF "BANDIT")

YOUNG: (Singing) Someday you'll find what you're looking for. You didn't bet on the Dodgers to beat the Giants. And David came up. Now you gotta pay up. You didn't count on that. Jeez, half the money's gone. The month is still young. Where are you gonna go now? Things are closing in. Gotta trust someone...trust someone. Someone you trust. Gotta be careful. Can't go to your brother. The money's all gone. Can't go to your friends. Someday you'll find everything you're looking for. Someday you'll find everything you're looking for. Someday you'll find everything you're looking for. Someday you'll find everything you're looking for. Yeah.

GROSS: You did the score for the Jim Jarmusch movie "Dead Man." Did you - did that teach you anything about the interaction between music and what's on the screen?

YOUNG: Well, there are some similarities between "Greendale" and "Dead Man" because the approach that I took to the - they're kind of off-the-wall similarities, but they are nonetheless - the approach that I took to doing the score to "Dead Man" was, I went back to - the concept was that "Dead Man" was basically a silent movie and that, you know, in the old days, in the '20s and stuff, when they had theaters, there'd be an organist or a piano player who would play along with the film, and that - and you'd get subtitles and the live music and that was it. So when I did the score for "Dead Man," I had the film projected on TV screens, and I had, like, about 20 TVs all around me, big ones, little ones, tiny little portables, and wide screens and everything hanging from the ceiling in a big semicircle all the way around me. No, in full circle. And then I had my instruments inside the circle.

So the instruments were always close enough for me to go from one to another, and they were all set up and the levels were all set, and everything was recording. So the film started, and I started playing the instruments. So I watched the show - I watched the film go through, and I played all the way through live. I'd put my guitar down and walk over and play the piano in the bar when there's a bar scene. I played the tack piano. Then when that scene was over, I'd walk over from the piano and go play the organ for another scene and then - a little pump organ I have, and then I'd pick up the electric guitar again and get all my distorted sounds out of that to go with the Indian drums and the things that were happening in the film. And basically, it was all a real-time experience. And so in that...

GROSS: Did you have it planned out before? I mean, did you compose things in advance, or was this all improvised?

YOUNG: I had a theme.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

YOUNG: Well, I actually had two themes that I used. And one of them had to do with violence because there was a string of violence. So you kind of get the feeling that when you heard - you know, there was one theme that went with that and there was another type of subtheme that went with some of the other feelings in the film. So that's all I had.

GROSS: Wow.

YOUNG: And I just, you know - and the theme was very simple. It only had three notes in it, so I just, you know, replayed it, repeated it in different ways and explored it live during the playback of the film. And I...

GROSS: Well, it worked. I think it really worked. So did you surround yourself with TVs, you know, with video monitors when you were doing "Greendale"?

YOUNG: Well, "Greendale" was completely different because the - it was a record. I made the - I recorded the songs one by one and I mixed them one by one and I wrote them one by one. So at the end of the first song, I didn't know what the second song was. At the end of the ninth song, I didn't know what the 10th song was. And but the story was unfolding, and then I'd write the next song and then we'd record it. Then we had a completely finished album. And then we listened to the album and put the pictures on top of it. And the similarity is that both of the films are kind of treated as a silent film with the sound being added to it, only it's backwards on "Greendale."

GROSS: Right.

YOUNG: It's like a silent film, but it's laid on top of the story.

GROSS: Now you grew up before rock videos, before there was this assumption that there was always a visual that went along with the music. Do you think that people who grew up in the age of rock videos expect that there's going to be some kind of moving image to watch along with the music?

YOUNG: I don't know what they think. I can't - I really don't.

GROSS: Well, fair enough.

YOUNG: I have no idea.

GROSS: Right. But do you think if it wasn't for rock videos that you wouldn't have thought of doing a movie like this?

YOUNG: No. I don't think it makes any difference. The only thing that really ties this in with rock videos for me is the fact that thank God I don't have to lip-sync myself in this thing.

GROSS: Have rock videos always been more of a chore than anything else to you?

YOUNG: Well, you know, I tried my best to make rock videos, and I tried to adapt to what was going on. And I had an album called "Trans," and I had created scripts for every song on the album that I wanted to do, especially the computerized voice songs on the album. Now I had a whole story that I wanted to tell. And I had the concepts and everything. And when I tried to sell the concept to the record company, they basically said no, you can't do that; and, that's not what we're doing for videos. And I said well, wait a minute. This is not about what you're doing for videos, it's about what I want to do with my music. And that was the beginning of the end with that record company. And basically, that's when I started feeling like, you know, video is not going to be my friend if I can't do what I want to do with it and I can't explore it in my own way. Why do I have to make videos that have me in them? Why do we have to have a bunch of dancing girls? Why do we have to have, you know, a certain measure of violence or guns or something? Why do we have to have all of these formulatic expressions imposed on my music? Why?

GROSS: Right.

YOUNG: So there was no answer.

GROSS: Neil Young. His new CD and movie are called "Greendale." Next week in part two of our interview, we'll talk about how he developed his vocal and guitar styles.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

YOUNG: (Singing) Silk scarf in a napkin, hidden in a drawer; 200 bucks in an envelope labeled "Lenore." Maybe she shouldn't see this; she should never know, said the widow's best friend, Nan. I'll just take it and go. I'll give her the money later, say it was in his shoe. That way she'll never find out. That'll do.

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