Interview: Neil Young, musician

Driving down the hill above his ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, Neil Young takes a deep whiff of the redwood forest momentarily serving as the canopy for his 1951 Willys Jeepster convertible. “I can still remember how it smelled when I first pulled in here – I was driving this car,” he says, recalling the trip in 1970 when he bought the place and named it Broken Arrow, after the Buffalo Springfield song.

The author of some of the spookiest, darkest songs in the American folk canon seemed jolly on this late-August day. Even if he is accompanied by a reporter, generally not his favourite species of human, the motion soothes him. “I’ve always been better moving than I am standing still,” he says.

Young, now 66, spotted this land from the window of a plane banking out of San Francisco four decades ago and now owns nearly 1,000 acres of it. “I ran out of money, so I had to sell some of it,” he says. “That’s OK, because it was too big. Everything happens for a reason.”

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It is hard to reconcile the affable guy motoring along on a sunny day with his past incarnations: the portentous folkie of Ohio, the rabid anti-commercialist who gave MTV the musical middle finger with This Note’s for You, the angry rocker who threatened to hit the cameramen at Woodstock with his guitar. He is happy partly because he is here. “For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it,” he says.

“You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.”

We spend a few hours creeping along – he drives slowly but joyfully, as if the automobile is a recent invention – on our way there or on our way from there, the ranch where Young lives with his wife Pegi and their son Ben. His longtime producer and friend David Briggs, who died in 1995, hated making records here, deriding the hermetic refuge as a “velvet cage”.

In addition to the studio, where more than 20 records have been made, there is an entire building given over to model trains, another where vintage cars are stored and another piled with his master recordings. But what it has most of all is not a lot of people. “I like people, I just don’t have to see them all the time,” he says, laughing. David Crosby, his bandmate in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, used to describe the complicated route into his ranch as “my filtering system”, Young says.

I make it past the filtering system because Young is promoting his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, which comes out this week. Young once promised he would never write a book about himself, according to Jimmy McDonough’s biography of him, Shakey. But time passed, then Young broke his toe a year ago and needed something to fill his time and refresh his fortune. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to continue to mainly be a musician forever, because physically I think it’s going to take its toll on me – it’s already starting to show up here and there,” he says. Writing a book, he adds, allowed him “to do what I want the way I want to do it”.

Waging Heavy Peace skips the score-settling and titillation of other rocker biographies. Yes, he partied with Charles Manson and tried to hook him up with a recording contract. He admits he saw a picture of the actor Carrie Snodgress in a magazine before he courted her, married her and divorced her. He pleads guilty to having been busted for drugs with Eric Clapton and Stephen Stills. But as the book progresses, the operatics of the rock life give way to signal family events, deconstructions of his musical partnerships and musings on the natural world. It is less a chronicle than a journal of self-appraisal.

The book, like today’s drive, is a ride through Young’s many obsessions, including model trains, cars like the one we are touring in and Pono, a proprietary digital musical system that can play full master recordings and will, he hopes, restore some of the denuded sonic quality to modern music.

Doing as he pleases has worked out pretty well for Young. Over the course of more than 40 records and hundreds of performances that date back to the mid-1960s, he has backed Rick James, jammed with Willie Nelson, dressed up with Devo, rocked with Pearl Jam and traded licks with Dylan. Some of it has been terrible, much of it remarkable. His long-time manager and friend Elliot Roberts describes Young as “always willing to roll the dice and lose”, and says, “He has no problem with failure as long as he is doing work he is happy with.”

His records don’t sell as much as they used to, but while many of his contemporaries are wanly aping their past, Young takes to the stage surrounded by mystery and expectation. And now he’s doing so again on tour with Crazy Horse, a thunderous, messy concoction of a band that has backed him over the years and been a source of constancy amid all the hard turns in his career. “We’ve got two new albums, so we’re not an oldies act, and we’re relevant because we’re playing these new songs, so that gives us something to stand on,” he says.

It’s safe to predict that people will come, critics will rave and a 66-year-old man afflicted with epilepsy and serious back problems (and who has had polio and suffered an aneurysm) will rock hard enough to become a time machine back to when music was ecstatic and ill-considered.

Dylan, in a note his manager passed to me, says it’s clear why Young has not tumbled into musical dotage. “An artist like Neil always has the upper hand,” he says. “It’s the pop world that has to make adjustments. All the conventions of the pop world are only temporary and carry no weight. It’s basically two different things that have nothing to do with each other.”

Two nights before, at the Outside Lands festival in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Young headlined with Crazy Horse, their sixth performance this year – after going the better part of a decade without playing together. Given the growing chill and a restless crowd, it would have made sense to begin with a song reminding the audience that a Big Deal Rock Star was at work.

Instead, the band kicked into Love and Only Love, a remarkable song from Young’s 1990 album with Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory, but hardly a singalong. It lasted 14 minutes, with Young shredding huge reams of noise and mixing it up with his fellow guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro.

Jonathan Demme, who has made three concert films with Young, including Neil Young Journeys, which came out in the US in the summer, finds Young’s playing and visage “irresistibly cinematic”. “I saw Neil after a show and told him how amazing it was, and he said, ‘Well, it better be amazing. Those people out there paid a lot of money to be here.’”

Tonight, he is feeling playful, telling the crowd, “I wrote this one this morning,” before starting into Cinnamon Girl, one of a trilogy of songs that also includes Cowgirl in the Sand and Down by the River, which he wrote in a single-day fever back in 1968. Later, he introduces a new song by saying, “We can’t help ourselves, we’re trained like chimps. They trained us to write songs, and we don’t know how to stop.”

While Young plays, I stand stage right with his son Ben, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who is unable to speak. When he was born, Young and Pegi, a singer and musician, put everything else aside to help him develop his motor skills. Now 34, he goes on every tour with his father. “He’s our spiritual leader in that way,” Young says. “We take him everywhere, and he’s like a measuring stick for what’s going on.”

(Zeke, Young’s son by Snodgress, has a very mild case of cerebral palsy and works at Home Depot, the US home improvement store. Young’s daughter, Amber, is a talented young artist who works in San Francisco.)

I sit with Young in his bus after the show as he eats a salad and drinks lemonade – he has been sober for a year, the first time in decades that he has worked without drinking or smoking pot. Sampedro, along with the drummer Ralph Molina and the bassist Billy Talbot, pass through, all of them clearly pleased with the night. Roberts, Young’s manager, talks mostly about how cold it is, but Young says, “All I felt was a cool refreshing breeze every once in a while.”

True enough, the wind has picked up at the end of the set, when Young plays Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black), a version of which poses one of rock’s eternal riddles: is it better to burn out or fade away? In the book, Young acknowledges that Kurt Cobain quoted the line in his suicide note and John Lennon disagreed with its premise. Young settles on a hedge: “At 65, it seems that I may not be at the peak of my rock ‘n’ roll powers. But that is not for sure.”

When Young finds something he likes or cares about, he has a single mode – all in. He gets most worked up when he talks about Pono, the music system he has developed. Warner Brothers agreed to make its catalogue available on Pono, and Young and Roberts are negotiating with other record companies and investors.

We hop in a 1978 El Dorado on Young’s ranch to listen to Pono. Right now, it needs a trunk full of gear, but Young and Roberts are working with a British manufacturer to develop a portable version. He gives a demonstration that replicates MP3s, CDs, Blu-ray and then the full Pono sound. “You are getting less than five per cent of the original recording,” he says at first. He puts on Aretha Franklin’s Respect and then switches to Pono. The horns jump and the car is filled with lush, liquid sound. He madly toggles between different outputs to make sure I am getting it.

In the wake of Americana, a collection of folk songs recorded with Crazy Horse that was released last spring, he is already making another album and writing another book, this one about all the cars he has owned. Roberts handles Young’s business and artistic interests with a great deal of savvy, so Young is good at making money – which helps, because he is also good at making it go away. “I spend it all,” he says. “I like to employ people and make stuff. It will be my undoing.”

He has dropped a fortune making films, directing five under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey and sharing credit on several others. His memoir is of a piece with his movie-making impulse, but it’s less pricey. “Writing is very convenient, has a low expense and is a great way to pass the time,” he says in Waging Heavy Peace.

He decided to do it sober after talking with his doctor about a brain that had endured many youthful pharmaceutical adventures, in addition to epilepsy and suffering an aneurysm. For someone who smoked pot the way others smoke cigarettes, the change has not been without its challenges, as he explains in his book. “The straighter I am, the more alert I am, the less I know myself and the harder it is to recognise myself.”

Sitting at Alice’s Restaurant, on Skyline Boulevard, near the end of the day, he elaborates. “I did it for 40 years. Now I want to see what it’s like to not do it. It’s just a different perspective.”

I ask if he is a good person to work with or for. “The fact is that I can be really irritable when I’m unhappy about stuff,” he says. “I can be a nit-picker about details that seem to be over the top. But then again, I’m into what I’m into, so a lot of people forgive me because of that.”

In the book, over and over, he is there and then he is gone – from Buffalo Springfield, from Crosby, Stills and Nash, from his love affairs – and not given to explanations. When he loses interest, he loses interest.

We drive back to his ranch, but we stay in the car because his daughter, who is visiting, does not feel well. Of all the obsessions that live on the 1,000 acres of his ranch, family is the one that enables all the rest, he says.

Young could have crawled inside himself and remained there, huffing his own gas and reprising a storied, mouldering past as so many of his peers have. But family life – a complicated, challenging one – suits and calms him. He and his wife, along with Roberts and a group of other interested parents, have created the Bridge School, a private institution for profoundly handicapped children in Hillsborough, California, because the existing ones nearby were insufficient for Ben’s needs. In a benediction near the end of Waging Heavy Peace, Young says much of his current battle is to be a person good enough to be worthy of his family’s love.

In our crisscrossing the ranch, at one point we stop in an outdoor graveyard of old cars, a white-trash tableau of desiccated, rusting sheet metal. He strokes the giant fin of a 1959 Lincoln and says it may yet roar to life. “Every car is full of stories. Who rode in ‘em, where they went, where they ended up, how they got here.” n

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream is published on Thursday by Viking, £25