'The time when music could change the world has passed'
As Neil Young prepares to open his UK tour with a rare gig in Scotland, he tells Stephen Dalton why this time war, hatred and politics will be making way for his introspective classics...
NEIL Percival Young does not look backwards. In a prolific and eclectic career spanning five decades so far, the restless singer-songwriter has dabbled in protest folk, country rock, proto-punk, ear-shredding grunge, blue-eyed soul and all points in between. He is a titan of American music, which is no mean feat for a Canadian. But rather than rest on past glories, Young remains much more interested in tomorrow than yesterday.
We meet in Berlin, where Young is soon to play on his latest European tour. Wry and poker-faced in sunglasses, floppy hat and baggy farm-hand fatigues, the 62-year-old rocker seems oddly out of place in a glitzy high-rise hotel straddling the former path of the Berlin Wall. But his conversation is sharp and funny, and his mind clearly focused.
Indeed, Young is now engaged on perhaps his most ambitious and idealistic mission ever. He wants to kick out George Bush and elect Barack Obama, for starters. He also hopes to save America from itself, rescue the planet from imminent environmental catastrophe, and bring an end to oil wars. While still making great albums, of course.
Young certainly appears fighting fit, although he admits "different parts of the body don't work the way they used to". He suffers from epilepsy, and in 2005 underwent brain surgery to remove a potentially fatal aneurysm. He plays down this brush with death, but admits it has given him a renewed sense of purpose.
"Having the aneurysm didn't really take much from me physically," he shrugs. "It was just mentally, mostly. It affected my outlook on life. I just think I became more thankful. I didn't worry too much about things because I was just so glad too be here. A lot of my disciplines in life slipped away for a while, but they all came back."
The British leg of Young's latest tour, which opens in Edinburgh next week, is ostensibly a promotional platform for his most recent release, Chrome Dreams II, an unorthodox semi-sequel to an unreleased album from 1977. In practice, he will be cherry-picking songs from all stages of his 40-year career, playing both solo and band sets.
"It's me, Ralph Molina from Crazy Horse, Ben Keith from Harvest and all of those records, and Rick Losos," says Young. "There's only four of us. It starts solo acoustic, I play for about an hour by myself, sitting down and playing different instruments. Then I have a small band that comes out. My wife Pegi is in the band. And by the time we get to the end we're doing improvisational electric music."
These shows promise to be much less contentious than Young's last tour, to accompany his 2006 album, Living With War, on which he demanded the impeachment of George W Bush for 'lying his way' into Iraq. He toured the album with his old hippie comrades Crosby, Stills and Nash, attracting hostile reactions and even bomb threats in America's conservative heartland.
Young admits this was a "hair-raising, nerve-wracking, terrible experience". His new tour, he promises, will be "all personal songs, there's nothing about the war or hatred or politics". But he still defends his continued, outspoken antipathy to Bush on freedom of speech grounds.
"I'm a Canadian, I don't have a vote, but I'm a citizen of the planet," he shrugs. "The leader of the United States is supposedly the leader of the free world. If you're going to be leader of the free world you've got to be ready for some criticism. You know, the United States has a lot of funny things – like the World Series, where the hell did they get that? What happened to Japan and Cuba? They play better ball, what's that about? It's the same thing. A very narrow minded view."
Pressed to clarify exactly what he dislikes about Dubya, Young simply frowns. "I can't answer that question, it would take a really long time," he deadpans. "Let's talk about what's right about George Bush, because that's a much shorter answer. I think he's a very good physical specimen. A good example to men his age of how to stay in physical condition."
On another Living With War track, Young prophetically tipped Barack Obama as a potential replacement for Bush. He remains a huge fan of the Illinois senator and hopes he will be the next US president, partly because of his opposition to the Iraq war but also because his victory would prove America's melting-pot mythology. As usual with Young, realism meets idealism, pragmatism meets principle.
"I like him, he makes sense, it's so refreshing," Young gushes. "I love what Barack Obama stands for. I happen to believe in what he believes. I'm not a person who feels we should be in Iraq for 100 years, I don't think it's essential that we have a presence there. I think the only reason we have to stay now is because we screwed up in the first place. I hope that everything goes great, I hope that he is elected, I hope that his dreams for America come true. He's very idealistic."
Born in Toronto, but resident on a 1,500-acre ranch outside San Francisco for almost 40 years, Young enjoys a complex love-hate relationship with his adopted homeland. Ultimately, he remains optimistic and romantic about American values. He played his Heart Of Gold shows in 2005 beneath a gigantic stars-and-stripes backdrop, and even included an irony-free rendition of 'America The Beautiful' on his Living With War album. A sentimental gesture which was, he says, "supposed to bring back old feelings".
Young has also written a song celebrating the courage of 9/11 hijack hero Todd Beamer, 'Let's Roll', and even made positive interview comments about Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. However, he insists both these statements have been misinterpreted.
"'Let's Roll' is a song about a hero on an airplane, it's not a song about a country responding to anything," Young insists. "It's not saying let's go to war in Iraq. It's not about weapons of mass destruction."
Clarifying his Reagan comments, Young admits he admired the late president for his charm and sense of community. But despite press speculation to the contrary, he never supported him politically.
"He was an interesting leader," Young argues. "He was able to talk to people and they understood. Able to get to the essence of small things by way of a representation of a bigger thing. He was good at it."
Although he backs Obama, Young resists obvious party-political labels. His hippie-libertarian, patriotic idealism certainly seems an uneasy fit for any clearly defined Democrat-voter stereotype. "Yeah, definitely," he nods. "That would mean I thought Bill Clinton was a hero. I think he's a bad example. It's much more complicated, you can't just put a name on it. I'm not out of the game but I'm not a Democrat. You can't put me here and put me there, I'm just who I am. I'm Neil. But I have my feelings."
Arguably the most prolific and eclectic songwriter of his generation, Young is always working, and remains "consumed by things" outside of music. In 2006 he collected an honorary degree from San Francisco State University which acknowledged his work with the Bridge School, the academy for disabled children he co-founded with his wife Pegi in 1986. By hugely unlikely coincidence, two of Young's children from different marriages were born with cerebral palsy.
Young also continues to make film and multi-media projects under his directing alias Bernard Shakey. The first instalment of his mammoth, long-gestating, career-spanning Archives box set arrives on DVD soon. The hard-hitting concert film he directed during the 2006 Living With War tour, CSNY: Dj Vu, also opens here later this year.
Meanwhile, he is working on another documentary about electric engines and alternative fuel sources. Young has long been a keen collector of vintage American cars, especially the chrome-plated gas-guzzlers of the 1950s, but he also views climate-change science as a new frontier in the hippie revolution. His current priority outside music is researching the Utopian goal of universally available, low-emission fuels.
"I think the time when music could change the world has passed," Young says ruefully. "That's not just an opinion, I think it's a reality. It's time for science and physics and spirituality to make a difference and to try and save the planet. If there is anything I can do through exposing different scientific theories about how to improve the world, that would be the best I can do.
"If I was to write a song about that, that would just be an accident that happened out of habit. But something that would clean up the environment, something that would end this struggle for survival with fuel – that would be a massive change. It would be like the wheel or the internet. That's the challenge for our generation."
• Neil Young plays The Playhouse, Edinburgh, March 3 www.neilyoung.com
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