In Memoir, Neil Young Wages 'Heavy Peace'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We've been lucky to have Neil Young as our guest several times on FRESH AIR, and we're glad to have him back today. The occasion is the publication of his new memoir, "Waging Heavy Peace." It's about his music, raising children with special needs, the medical conditions that have affected his own life and his work as an inventor with model trains, sound systems and electric cars.
On Saturday, Neil Young and the band Crazy Horse headlined the Global Citizen Festival in New York's Central Park as part of their first tour in eight years. Neil Young and Crazy Horse have a new album that will be released at the end of the month, featuring songs that relate to Young's memoir. Let's start with a preview. This song is called "For the Love of Man."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MAN")
NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) For the love of man, who could understand what goes on, what is right and what is wrong, why the angels cry, and the heavens sigh when the child is born to live but not like you or I? Let the angels ring the bells in the holy halls. May they hear the voice that calls to them.
(Singing) For the love of man...
GROSS: Neil Young, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the new album and on your new memoir. So in reading your book, you know, it made me think about all the extremes in your life. Like the song that we just heard is about your children. You have two sons who have special needs, and one of them with cerebral palsy, your son Ben Young, is also quadriplegic, which I'm not sure I realized until reading your book. He's 34 now.
So the book made me think about how you've been at the extremes of, like, a rock star with all the perks that can come with that, and as a father having two sons with special needs, and as I hope we get to talk about a little later, your body's been through extremes: polio, back surgery, epileptic seizures, a brain aneurism, nearly bleeding to death.
Your wife Peggy has had brain surgery. Do you think about extremes in your life, and do you think about how they may have affected how you've chosen to live your life?
YOUNG: You know, I think, first of all I'm thankful for the great doctors that I know. And aside from that, I think just growing up with my family and realizing that my family had some different qualities from other individuals has given me a little bit of depth.
GROSS: So, in your memoir, you say that you think one of the reasons why you haven't written songs lately is that you stopped drinking and smoking. And you say you're in a period where you're not at all interested in music. You write I'm currently tired of my musical self. I haven't written a song since I stopped smoking weed in January of 2011. Was that all before this new Crazy Horse album with new songs connected to the book?
YOUNG: Oh yes. I mean, that was over a year ago when I wrote that.
GROSS: So you're back into music again?
YOUNG: Well, I've always been into music, but I'm not into trying to make music if I don't feel like it. I'm into music very much, and I always have been, but it's nothing new that I go through cycles where I'm sick of myself, where I just don't think that I have anything to offer. And that's just a sign that it's not a good time for me to do anything.
GROSS: You say in the book that you gave up smoking marijuana because - well why don't you explain.
YOUNG: Well, in the book I say that I gave it up because of doctor's orders, that a doctor really recommended that that would be a good idea. I respect the doctor.
GROSS: And he recommended it because you were concerned about the possibility of the early onset of dementia because something showed up on brain imaging.
YOUNG: I have a genetic connection. So the two things working together give me pause. So, you know, I'm not making any promises, but I'm definitely who I am. I don't smoke weed, and I don't drink right now. I stopped doing that. I feel good, though.
GROSS: One of the things you write about in your memoir is your early music, and your first band, The Squires, was formed in Winnipeg in the early '60s. And I want to ask you about one of the songs that you recorded, and it's called "I Wonder," and this is on your archives project, too. And you describe this as the best song that you sang, but you say we decided because I had a, quote, "different voice" that The Squires would be an instrumental recording group.
So how did it make you feel that The Squires became an instrumental group because your singing was weird by their standards?
YOUNG: Well, it was by the standards of the engineer in the booth. His name was Harry Taylor(ph). He was an engineer at CKRC in Winnipeg. There was a studio there, and the first record I made was made there. And then one - like the story goes in the book, you know, I was singing, and they decided that maybe I didn't have a good enough voice.
So of course being, you know, young as we were, we actually listened, which there was really no reason for us to listen to him. I mean, he was just recording us. So we, being very young and naive, we stopped. We didn't sing anymore. So we just played.
GROSS: So why don't we hear, like, a very early vocal track, and this is "I Wonder." And do you want to say anything about this song, about, like, writing it or recording it?
YOUNG: I wrote it in my bedroom on Grosvenor Avenue, 1123 Grosvenor in Winnipeg, and it was probably recorded at CJLX in Fort William by a disc jockey named Ray D(ph).
GROSS: OK, so here we go. So here's Neal Young and The Squires, "I Wonder."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER")
GROSS: So I didn't know about this before reading the book, you got a contract with Motown in 1966 when you were singing with a band that featured Rick James, who was then known as Ricky James Matthews, a band called The Mynah Birds. And so you signed with Motown, went to Detroit, went to choreography school, got clothes fitted for the band.
I cannot imagine you in choreography school. I just see you standing on the stage, you know, with your guitar in, like, a T-shirt or a flannel shirt and jeans. I just don't see you in that kind of, like Motown costume or doing Motown dance moves.
YOUNG: Well, they never really made any clothes for us, but they fit us, and they were looking at us, and they showed us some, you know, some choreography. But it really didn't work, you know, with what we did, and they realized it. But they had us - you know, we went through the Motown music school, basically, learning how to be Motown artists.
But, you know, we were one of the first white groups that they ever had, so they - you know, if not the very first. You know, we had Ricky with us, but everyone else, we were all a bunch of white guys from Canada. So, you know, we didn't have the moves.
GROSS: My guest is Neil Young. His new memoir is called "Waging Heavy Peace." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Neil Young, and he has a new memoir, and it's called "Waging Heavy Peace," and there's also a new Crazy Horse album out, as well. So you moved to California, you met up there with Stephen Stills, who you had met previously in Canada when you were on tour, and you performed with him in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
And you were writing during that period, well at least during the Buffalo Springfield period, that it was still hard for you to sing. You would often overdub your voice because you just weren't comfortable singing, you know, in real time.
YOUNG: Well, everybody overdubbed at that time. You know, that's what was happening; except before that time, everybody used to sing live. So we were just entering the multi-track recording phase when people started singing and overdubbing their voices. So the fact that I was overdubbing wasn't really that different from everybody else. Everybody else in the band was overdubbing, too.
The thing that was different was, you know, I still had my voice, and it was a different voice. So no matter where I went, people, you know, they hadn't gotten used to me. So they were wondering what to do with me. And I kept singing and doing what I did. And I was pretty nervous, you know, about singing anyway.
And I had a lot of pitch problems and everything at that point that I still have, but it did - it bothered me more then. So, you know, it was just a nervous time, but they eventually gave me a bunch of amphetamines by the - I was singing for hours and hours after that.
GROSS: Well, in particular a song that you mentioned where they gave you amphetamines was "Burned," which is one of your songs, and it's a song about - or inspired by a epileptic seizure. It just struck me as kind of odd, you know, that this is a song about an epileptic seizure, and they're giving you amphetamines so that you can sing it more comfortably.
YOUNG: Yeah, well, maybe they didn't know what the song was about, or at least, you know, I don't know. I can't figure out what was going on back then, but I do know that the track is pretty out of tune. So, I mean, you know, not just my singing, but I think probably the guitar playing and everything. So - but that's just, you know, where we were at at the time.
GROSS: So since "Burned" is about an epileptic seizure, do you remember the first one that you had and if you had any idea what was going on?
YOUNG: Well, I'm not sure it was the first one I ever had, but the first time that I know I had one, I was just - you know, I was in a place called - it was called The Teen Fair. It was in Hollywood, and it was just one of these things where there were a lot of kids, and it was a lot of music, and it was all kinds of things. It was sponsored by radio stations and a big deal. We were all there.
I was having fun, and, you know, maybe I'd forgotten to eat or something, I don't know. And then I felt kind of sick to my stomach, and then I started to feel all weird and echoey, and then I fell down, and I don't really remember until afterwards. And I woke up, and then I was just - kind of had to get to know my name again and realize where I was and reorient myself to where I was and what I was doing, who I was, everything that had happened to me up to that point.
And, you know, that took a few minutes, and then, you know, I kind of rebooted.
GROSS: I think a lot of people after having a seizure like that stop driving and stop doing things that they fear would be very dangerous if they had a seizure while doing it.
YOUNG: Well, I guess they probably do, but I had a warning there. I recognized right away that I could - you know, the next time I felt like that that I'd know what was happening. I had a good 45 seconds.
GROSS: How many next times have there been?
YOUNG: There have been enough. Yeah, there have been enough of them.
GROSS: You just - yeah.
YOUNG: But they're not there now. They don't happen anymore. I think I outgrew them.
GROSS: You described this, like, horrible procedure that had to be done. This was before MRIs, and the doctor wanted to see, you know, an image of what was going on in your brain. And you write in capital letters: I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS TEST.
YOUNG: Well, it's been banished. They don't do this test anymore.
GROSS: Thank goodness, yeah, yeah, so do you want to describe what they did?
YOUNG: No, but I will. But it's basically like a torture, and it's not a good thing to - very painful and very primal situation, and has to do with having a radioactive dye injected into your bloodstream and into your nervous system, basically into your back. So it goes into your - right into your nervous system. Then they track it up into your head.
But when they do that, they usually get some bubbles of air and stuff in there, too. So when those go through your brain, you're really - it's excruciating. And they really didn't figure anything out from it. And it was a barbaric practice. It's just one of those things that they don't do anymore because they figured it out it didn't work.
GROSS: So I just think it's so interesting that you didn't let any of this inhibit, like, your travels because you spent a lot of times on the road.
YOUNG: I could tell when it was going to happen. You know, I was just always watching out for it. I used to be anxious, you know. When I was - I don't think I ate enough food. Something was wrong. But anyway, during those formative years of my early 20s or whatever, very early 20s, I had trouble shopping and stuff.
I'd go in the little store in Laurel Canyon to buy some food for my house, you know, to get a - some stupid food that a 20-year-old would buy. And I couldn't even handle the detail in the hallways, you know, in the aisleways(ph), you know, all the packages and everything. They used to just freak me out. So eventually I'd try to shop, and then about halfway through the trip, I'd just leave and leave all my stuff that I'd gathered and just have to get out of the store. I don't know what that was.
But, you know, it's gone now.
GROSS: So, you know, I always think about the things you don't know about an artist whose work you love as you watch them perform. And so I learned from the book that in 1971, when you did your Live at Massey Hall concert, which is such a great concert, that you were actually wearing a back brace. And you're doing this absolutely incredible concert, and I want to play a track from that concert.
And I thought we'd play "Helpless." Do you want to talk a little bit about that concert and also about writing the song?
YOUNG: Well, the song - first of all, the concert was a great time because I always liked coming home. The last time I'd been in Toronto before that I was, like, basically living on the street. I had a flat that I was living in that cost, like, $12 a week or something, and I had a little hotplate and, you know, cooked beans and stuff in my room.
And I was - you know, I really tried to get some gigs as a folk singer and got - didn't do too well at that. So it was, you know, my formative time. And so I wasn't a big success when I was there the last time before this visit, so going back there and playing at Massey Hall and having a couple of sold-out shows in one day, it was a real rush, you know.
So there was a great feeling, and plus, you know, like being a Canadian and having reached a certain level of success in the States and having a hit record with - I don't know what it was - I guess "After the Gold Rush" or something at that time. It was a big deal. And, you know, I was, like, in my early 20s.
So when I showed up there, it was like all the Canadian kids that were there, they felt like, if this can happen to this guy, this could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. You know, so there was a lot of that. I mean, it was sort of a celebration, a Canadian spirit thing. It was a good thing.
GROSS: OK, so this is "Helpless," performed by my guest Neil Young in 1971 at a concert in Massey Hall, and the song was initially released, you know, a different version, of course, on the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album "Deja Vu" in 1970. So here's Neil Young in 1971.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELPLESS")
GROSS: Neil Young will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Waging Heavy Peace." His new album with Crazy Horse, "Psychedelic Pill," will be released at the end of the month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This s FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Neil Young. He has a new memoir called "Waging Heavy Peace." His new album with Crazy Horse, "Psychedelic Pill," will be released at the end of October.
So in your book you write that you're a musical sponge, and that when you started listening to Bob Dylan you were playing harmonica like him, you were just so influenced by his music and you had to like stop listening. And it took you a while before you could play harmonica and not think that you were copying Bob Dylan. So what are some of the ways in which being a musical sponge has been really helpful and other ways in which you've maybe seen it as a problem?
YOUNG: Well, I'm just a sponge because if I hear something that I like I want figure it out. You know, if I can capture it, I'm influenced by things so I'm careful not to expose myself to things that influence me heavily right away because it'll destroy the direction of that I'm naturally on and derail me and make me go somewhere. So I try to assimilate what's going on around me without being distracted to the point where I'm like a moth going for a light bulb. I kind of like to keep on going straight and, you know, use what I've been up along the way.
GROSS: So when you started recording with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and you started, you know, your own albums as well, what were the influences that were most affecting you then?
YOUNG: Boy, it's hard to say. Just music. I just wanted to play music, you know. I wanted to play music with my friends or play it by myself, write songs, express myself, go on the road, learn how to play my guitar, learn how to make it sound better, learn how to make my amplifier work better, try to get into it to the point where I could have the sound go through the wire and not be distracted by anything in between and, you know, I still manipulate the sounds and by remote control and do all kinds of things without compensating the signal. And so, you know, I can go off and do a technical abyss on just about anything.
GROSS: Yeah, because you've also created all this musical stuff, including you're doing - you're continuing to do that now, trying to perfect better ways of recording sound, so that there's...
GROSS: ...there's no distortion. So I mean - I don't know - you're into so many different aspects of creation - mechanical, electronic and musical.
YOUNG: Terry, I love...
YOUNG: I love distortion. I...
GROSS: No, when you want it.
GROSS: You like creating the distortion.
YOUNG: I thrive on distortion.
GROSS: Yes. You don't want a lack of fidelity to either the distortion or the undistorted sound. How did you start wanting that kind of like dirty guitar sound - the distorted guitar sound?
YOUNG: Well, you know, there's a guy called Link Wray and he had a group called the Ray Men and they played a song called "Rumble" in about the early '60s. And that was like a very distorted sounding guitar that was just hairy, I mean it was great. And I heard that and I wanted to play like that so I learned how to do that. Then I became fascinated with why it sounded like that and there were a lot of reasons. People figured out that, you know, Link Wray had a speaker and had a rip in it and they used to vibrate, you know, and they used to rattle and that was part of its sound. And then a friend of mine showed me a record by a guy from Nashville that had a guitar player in his band that it was Marty Robbins with a song called "Don't Worry about Me" and then there was this electric guitar solo in the middle that was so distorted and so funky I went, what is that? I've never heard anything like that before because it was controlled. And it just turned out that this guy had figured something out with his amplifier and used different tubes and overdriven something and then I'm going, oh my God, that's amazing, he did that. And then my buddy at high school said yeah, we can do that, look at this. And then he changed the tubes in his amp and then it started sounding like that.
And those were beginnings of fuzz tone and effects and everything like that and we created each one but then we couldn't switch back from one to another because we'd used the whole amplifier to create one sound. So you couldn't get out of that sound so you were stuck with it. So you couldn't use it as a feature. You couldn't just turn it on and go with it. So, you know, we figured out how to do that over the next period of time and designed a bunch of things, little motors that turned knobs and did all kinds of things backwards from the way they do it now.
GROSS: Do you ever think of when you are doing a lot of like noise distortion kind of guitar, do you ever think of it as almost giving your guitar a seizure?
YOUNG: I don't think of it. I don't think while I'm doing that hopefully I'm completely gone somewhere and I'm just making a sound and I just like to hear the sound. So it's all about having a good time and making the sound, and then if - but you really have to have a reason to make the sound. So that's why I write songs and, you know, the songs have got the message and then but after a while you forget about the message and you just get the sound going and then the two things go together and then if you're lucky you write another song. And so everything happens for, you know, one thing at a time. You know, you - the more I play my guitar the more it sounds and eventually I get to the end of that passage and then the rest will be something to say that gives validity to what I'm playing so that, you know, you can't just play for the rest of time, you have to have a reason why you're playing. And so why, that's why the songs are all struggling for individuality.
GROSS: You have an archive of all of your recordings and you're releasing a lot of those in a series of archive albums. Why, you know, a lot of people don't even hear their own music again and don't necessarily keep a good record of it. Why have you wanted to maintain an archive and also to release things from it?
YOUNG: What I'm more interested really even though releasing my own stuff and keeping my own stuff, I mean I figure I'm an artist. I created my stuff, I don't want to just away. I'm not like a record company I, you know, some of the record companies that created some of the greatest art and that I remember, you know, they didn't take care of it, you know, so nobody knows where it is. People didn't realize how great it was so you can't find it. You know, some of these things happened and we've discovered these kind of things as we are looking for contemporary or even, you know, in many cases much more accomplished artists than myself have got great recordings and great hit legacies of recordings and we're looking for those in connection with my Pono music system so that we can capture those and preserve them for future generations to be able to hear them at the highest level of technology that we have available today. And, you know, along those lines, you know, tomorrow I'm helping or actually sitting in on the transferring of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" and those are just two of the records that we're doing at the very initial stages of creating the system that preserves the classics for the ages, this is what we want to do.
GROSS: Is Dylan in on that?
YOUNG: Yeah. He's, you know, he and I have talked about it and he's, of course, made his masters available and I'm talking to his record company, to Sony Records and we're working all of the details out for everything. And we're going to be - people will be able to purchase these songs and listen to things the way they were created, not with any compromise in - any kind of compromise in quality. So better than they've ever heard them in their life.
YOUNG: So that's something worth doing, I think and it just gives me a good feeling. It's not just from my tapes, not from my world of music, although I'm trying to do it for mine, I want to do it for everybody. That's a song worth singing today. You know, there's a lot of music out there that needs to be saved, needs to be archived, needs be taken care of.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite period of your own work?
YOUNG: Not really. I love Crazy Horse.
YOUNG: I love my work with Ben Keith. I love my work with David Briggs. I love that I've been able to do so many things. I love the singing that I've done with Linda Ronstadt. I love what I did with Nicolette Larsen. And I love what I did with Emmylou Harris. I love what I did in Nashville. I love what I did, you know, in my New York sessions. I love what I've done everywhere I've gone. I've been so fortunate. I loved being with the Buffalo Springfield and things we created, the music Stills and I made. All these things are just a huge gift. What a wonderful time I've had. So, you know, all I can think of is this is valuable and there's other musicians that have done the same thing as I have in their own way. And I think it's important that this art get captured, that it gets preserved and then it gets shared so everybody can hear it.
GROSS: So are you back into writing music again?
GROSS: A fertile musical period for you?
YOUNG: I think so. My new album but I just finished with Crazy Horse is coming out in about three and a half weeks and it's called "Psychedelic Pill" - oddly enough for a very straight ahead sober guy like I am.
GROSS: it's funny it's called "Psychedelic Pill" because you say in the book that...
GROSS: ...your doctor told you after your first epileptic seizure never take LSD.
GROSS: Did you follow his...
YOUNG: Well, it's my own kind of psychedelic pill. It's safe.
GROSS: Did you follow his advice and never take it?
YOUNG: Don't feel bad kids. Take this and call me in the morning.
GROSS: Did you follow his advice and never take it?
YOUNG: Oh, yeah. Are you kidding? Definitely.
GROSS: Because you say you get hallucinations...
YOUNG: No. I...
GROSS: You say you get hallucinations anyway, so, you know...
YOUNG: I don't need any help hallucinating.
GROSS: What do you hallucinate?
YOUNG: What don't I hallucinate? I'm, you know, like I'm just, you know, I don't want to. I don't want to enhance that.
GROSS: But seriously, like what brings on hallucinations for you?
YOUNG: Life. Everything. I mean just, you know, you can't stop. That's like you got to turn that off. You don't want to accelerate that. That's a gift.
GROSS: When like in the '60s and '70s when a lot of people you knew were tripping, did you wonder what it was like even though you weren't doing it?
YOUNG: No, I didn't wonder what it was like. I felt like I was already doing it and I was out of control. I like, you know, I'd be walking down the aisle of a supermarket and freaking out because all of the boxes everything were like too much for me, all the colors and everything. I didn't need any help. I needed a little bit of restraint. I needed to be saved. No I needed to be safe.
GROSS: Do you feel like you've been saved?
YOUNG: No. Not yet.
GROSS: OK. All right.
GROSS: Neil Young, thank you so much for talking with us.
YOUNG: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Neil Young's new memoir is called "Waging Heavy Peace." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. His new album with Crazy Horse, "Psychedelic Pill," will be released at the end of October.
Coming up, Ed Ward tells the story of the short-lived Ska Punk band The English Beat. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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