Neil Young is freaked out, man.
“You’re scaring the hell out of me with these questions,” he says in the Los Angeles studios of National Public Radio. Young sat down for an interview after an hour of answering considerably less scary questions on a radio talk show.
The scary question: “Do you like what you see in the mirror each morning?”
The motivation behind the question was simply to ask the singer to evaluate his career, and whether he was satisfied with the musical path he chose.
Nothing deeper than that.
But maybe because he’s 60, maybe because he survived a potentially fatal brain aneurysm last year, maybe because of his father’s death, maybe because he recently released an incredibly personal and introspective album called “Prairie Wind,” and just maybe because of an emotionally revealing Jonathan Demme-directed performance film called “Heart of Gold,” which opened Friday, the question threw him for a loop and opened up a stream of reflective thought.
“I’m not particularly happy with what I see in the mirror,” he says with no attempt at selfcensorship. “When I wake up, I feel like I’m 24 years old, and I’ve got a lot of things to do. I’ve got to get a cool car and go for a ride. All those kinds of things. Then I look in the mirror and I say, ‘Oh, now I remember. I’m married, I have a family, we have this school that my wife started, there are battles still to be fought and I don’t know if I’m making a big enough difference.’ That’s what I see in the mirror.”
As for his body of work — the original question — Young dismisses it with a wave of his hand and a flippant remark: “Some of it I’m more proud of than others.”
Would you expect any less complexity from this man? After all, this is the Neil Young whose music over the past four decades has pretty much defined a generation and a genre. He is the rock singer who mixes musical styles (his latest CD is pure country), and he is not afraid to speak his mind — on politics or any other subject.
“A long time ago, maybe in my early 20s, I decided that I was going to try to sing about things that really mattered to me. Sure, sometimes I’m totally self-engrossed in my own trip, but at other times, I am concerned about what’s going on in the world. There are just so many injustices, so many inaccuracies and so many unbalances. I feel a need to illuminate them.”
SENSE OF MORTALITY
Although he performed with a string of bands in his native Canada, it wasn’t until he moved to California and hooked up with Stephen Stills in the group Buffalo Springfield that Young started to hint at what was to come.
When the band broke up in 1969, Young began his solo career, releasing two albums (“Neil Young” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”) before joining Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash in creating a new band. Apparently stuck for a name, they called themselves Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Although he continued to work occasionally with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Young’s solo career shifted into a higher gear. With the 1972 release of “Harvest,” Young ascended to rock-god status. Although sales of subsequent albums have ebbed and flowed, Young’s integrity and respect for him in the music world have remained intact. Whether he was singing rock ’n’ roll, country or folk, people paid attention. In 1995, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Young says his career is cyclical, and that he had already headed back in a country direction when he was engulfed in a medical crisis. He started writing at a furious pace. An operation was needed to correct the problem, but Young says he wasn’t sure he would survive the procedure, so he rushed his new country songs into a studio.
“Sure, there was a sense of mortality in the songwriting process, but even without the health scare, I think the same things were inside me,” Young says. “It’s possible that (the medical condition) might have coaxed them out a little faster.
“All I know is that I was living in the moment. I was going day to day.”
LET’S MAKE A MOVIE
Meanwhile, filmmaker Demme (Oscar winner for “The Silence of the Lambs,” but also known for his landmark Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense”) was looking for something to do.
He hadn’t heard about Young’s plan to record a new album, but Demme gave the singer a call.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I just picked up the phone and said, ‘I think I’ll call Neil Young.’ It was perfect timing because he was just going into the studio.”
Young, who is no stranger to the film process (“Journey Through the Past,” “Rust Never Sleeps” and his most recent project, “Greendale”), says he jumped at the chance to work with Demme.
“It’s another hash house on the road to success,” the singer says with a big laugh. “I had a bunch of songs I believed in, and Jonathan is a great filmmaker. It was a natural progression to make the film. The more cinematic my life becomes, the more I need to involve film in the process.
“Besides, every once in a while, it’s a good thing to document what you’ve done.”
In August 2005, Demme’s film crew took over the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., to film Young and his band for two nights.
“We didn’t photograph a stop on his concert tour,” the filmmaker says. “We staged a concert in order to photograph it. There’s a key distinction; this was a staged event. I turned the Ryman into a movie set and invited the audience. This was a movie, and not just a concert.”
Young performs 10 songs from his new album and a handful of classic hits, including “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and the title song. Demme says he believes his film captures a “master at the peak of his form. And I don’t think there is any better way to meet an artist than at his peak.”