A great interview of a rock god by a rock goddess occurred on June 7, 2012 when Neil Young was interviewed yesterday by Patti Smith at BookExpo America (BEA) in the Special Events Hall at the Jacob Javitz Center in NYC.
Backed by two large screen monitors and fronted by a filled hall, Patti Smith conducted a truly knowledgeable, oh-wow interview of her friend Neil Young. It was left unclear as to whether this interview was about his soon-to-be released book, as it was not available and rarely mentioned, but it was an engaging and insightful interview of one friend by another, both of whom are widely known by the public separately, but not always together.
After unintentionally playing dueling microphones (when hers worked his didn’t and vice versa), Smith began to question him on his work process and his songs. “Sometimes my mind doesn’t just work chronologically, sometimes it just doesn’t work”. Young replied to one of her questions. Smith related a question her daughter Jesse had texted her from Detroit. Jesse related that she feels very connected to her late father Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith when playing piano and wanted to know if as to whether Young , as a writer, also felt connected to his late father also a writer when he was writing. Young responded that it was a beautiful question and that yes, he did. His dad called him Windy, and when his father was writing no one was allowed to go to his room, so of course young Neil did and his dad would let him in and question him as to what was on his mind. One of the things he learned from his dad was that “If you just get down and start writing, all sorts of things happen” and that you have to make time to do this or it may not come. Smith and Young agreed that much of both their writings were the result of direct improvisation, that they did not edit in their heads, but afterwards.
Smith related how much, when she first heard it on the radio, Young’s song Ohio, meant to her and how she will forever associate it with the photography of the young girl at the dead student’s side, screaming at the National Guard who had shot the boy.Young said that the song came about after David Crosby took him up a long road to a run down cabin surrounded by redwood trees. He
, Crosby and some others were “smoking weed and hanging out looking at the trees” thinking about what had happened at Kent State in Ohio. “So I picked up a guitar and the song took about a minute.” He had Crosby eventually left went back to Los Angeles and got the band together, and recorded it They pressed acetates so they could get 7 or 8 plays from them and sent out a few hundred. Airplay was almost instantaneous and Young was conflicted by the thought of money coming in from the song and the notion that he “did not want to become the thing they were against”. He was always grateful that he was never asked, “Who are you to do Ohio? You’re from CANADA!”
Smith and he shared remembrances of back when radio had such a pervasive influence and there was no programming, the D.J.s played what they want. Without that, Ohio, and many other influential songs may not have received so much airplay.
Young expressed displeasure with the evolution of recording technology and expressed his liking for the time when the stage used to be for corroborating and now it has been hijacked. Back then, he and his band mates would improvise and jam on stage, take back the recording, remove the audience sounds and press it. “Back then, I hadn’t had so many hits so that people wou
ld stay relatively silent for a new song and there weren’t any yells for songs I did 30 or 40 years ago. If I did that now, everyone would be, oh, he can’t even remember his own lyrics anymore.” Young said to much laughter.
He went on to relate a story of when a fan, who “knew, or thought he knew a lot of my work” approached him and said that one of his songs had been under produced and just didn’t have the sound of his older works. Young asked how the person had listedened to it. On an MP3 off a MAC. Young liked it to listening to a blu ray or deep vinyl as compared with an MP# on an Equinox. “We used to struggle to make things sound great and now music is like reproducing a Picasso to wall paper. You look at the painting and say, wow, you look at the wall paper and say, so what? Like man, that guy used to be good.”
Smith then switched the conversation to the joint love she and Young shared for trains. Young was always fascinated with them and eventually became an owner of the Lionel Train company. He would collect rare trains and Lionel would reprodu
ce them for train lovers. Smith related how as a girl her family had a coal stove, and her mother would send her and her siblings down to the tracks with baskets to collect the coal that the passing train would kick up. Her mother told her always to wave thanks to the man in the caboose. Young replied, “There’s no more man in the caboose, it’s a blinking red light.”
Touching upon what it was like to have the late Rick James as a roommate, Young laughed and replied, “I was very young and so was he and we had a good time. Let’s say he introduced me to a lot of pharmaceuticals”.
A humorous moment occurred when Smith inquired as to what Young was currently reading and he replied, “You, I’m reading you, just having a blast”. He had great praise for her Just Kids, stating that “the book is terrific, soulful. It makes me feel like I was there with you and Robert (Mapplethorpe) in that room, it’s a great book, just a great book.” He compared their similarities and stated that they only differed as that he was of the highways and the lands and she was “of the city and bricks, painted bricks with thin
gs hanging on them. I travel down prairies and you travel down streets and alleys. We are partners but in different geographical places.”
As contrasted with his writing process, which is to sit down and wait for words to come, Young described his song writing process as “. . .based on nothing really, based on feelings. . . . if something doesn’t come organically, you don’t want it. You need to feel it. When I try to write that is when I write some of my worst shit because of that process I’ve tried to be a good editor but sometimes I’m a good one and sometimes a bad one. People know that about me, and have said, well, it’s not as bad as THAT one.”
Smith asked if he has a relationship with his guitar to which he replied, “Yeah, you want to ask for a song, ask your guitar. Music lives in them. They’re like old cars, peoples’ souls live in them” and went on to relate his love of old junk cars for th
e souls of those who had once occupied them and his love of junkyards for that reason.
Smith then asked if dreams ever form Young’s songs. “Yes, they infiltrate them. When you smoke a lot of grass, beer, tequila, you dream right there, if you stop, you dream more while you’re sleeping.” They agreed that dreams do work th
eir way into both of their music with Smith saying, “yeah, dreams keep on going, you can’t make a mistake in a dream.”
Young ended with a quote from the spiritual I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger,
“I know dark clouds will gather round me; I know my way is rough and steep. But golden fields lie out before me”