The singer has fire in his belly with a film about his antiwar tour
but his passion is a hybrid car he thinks will save the planet
June 29, 2008
The scruffy-looking fellow hunched over a table in a roadside
restaurant deep among the redwood forests south of San Francisco does
not look like a rock superstar. He has a craggy face, like a
weather-beaten farmer, unkempt hair swept back behind his ears, and
grey mutton chops; he is wearing combat trousers, trainers and a
baggy T-shirt over a modest paunch. Only the big wraparound shades
and the legend on his T-shirt a US patent-office application for
the Gibson Flying V guitar hint that this is one of the most
influential musicians of the past 40 years, a figure with a body of
work matched only by Bob Dylan.
Neil Young has never much cared for appearances; never needed to, and
definitely doesn't now, at the age of 62. He probably looked a lot
like this when he met his second wife, Pegi, here, in this same
restaurant, more than 30 years ago. She was a waitress, he was a rock
star, but she might be forgiven if she had taken him for a passing
lumberjack. When he pulls on a huge plaid work shirt at the end of
the interview, he looks as if he is about to go and fell some of the
giant sequoias outside. Instead, he drives the short distance home in
a cream-coloured vintage Mercedes running on biodiesel.
If Young had his way, we would all be driving on green fuel; indeed,
he is developing a revolutionary motor vehicle that he hopes, one day
soon, will "eliminate roadside refuelling". First, though, he must
talk about another project. CSNY: Déjà Vu is the latest film from the
director Bernard Shakey. Not to be confused with any of Young's other
aliases: Joe Yankee, Joe Canuck, Phil Perspective, Clyde Coil,
Dirigible Dan, Dr Shakes, Shakey Deal or plain old Shakey.
The film is a documentary about Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's
Freedom of Speech tour, staged during the US midterm elections in
2006. But it is a far cry from Michael Moore-style agitprop.
Young/Shakey has gone out of his way to present an impeccably
balanced picture of America's reaction to a tour whose repertoire
consisted entirely of antiwar songs, from Buffalo Springfield oldies
such as For What It's Worth and CSNY's era-defining Ohio to
selections from Young's 2006 album, Living with War. To this effect,
their trip is narrated by an award-winning television journalist,
Mike Cerre, who has covered both Vietnam and Iraq, where he was an
The film begins with President Bush solemnly intoning "This country
is at war", followed by a right-wing radio presenter reading out the
news that a "major terrorist plot" to blow up planes between Britain
and America has been uncovered on the day that CSNY come to town to
perform. . . "but Neil Young says it's no big deal". At other points,
voiceovers of enthusiastic reviews of the shows are counterbalanced
with scornful appraisals of the "ageing hippies' " attempts to rouse
America into antiwar protest.
In the most memorable scene, hundreds of audience members walk out of
a show in Atlanta in protest at the quartet encouraging them to sing
along to Young's song Let's Impeach the President. It is compelling
footage: as the lyrics are displayed on a giant screen, a chorus of
boos swells, competing with the more fervent fans' mass sing-along,
and angry punters start to leave. Seemingly oblivious to the almost
comical irony of leaving a Freedom of Speech concert in protest at
the singers expressing their own freedom to speak out, they air their
fury on camera as they leave. "Neil Young can stick it up his ass,"
fumes a female fan; "Sonofabitch I'd like to knock his teeth out,"
a red-faced man declares. Young seems unconcerned. "Well, they were
speakin' out too," he chuckles behind his shades. "They were just
saying 'F*** you, I don't wanna have anything to do with this guy
crossing my line.' "
For Young, who was one of the first musicians to respond to 9/11,
with his 2001single Let's Roll (titled after the supposed words of
the passengers aboard flight United 93 as they attempted to overpower
the hijackers), it was crucial that his film presented both sides of
the story, rather than merely trying to preach to the converted.
"It's important to have the other side," he says. "Plus, those people
were part of the story, so why leave them out? We decided to have an
embedded correspondent documenting the tour like he was documenting a war."
Young insists he had no intention of trying to convert his audience
to his views, which have turned almost full circle over the course of
his career: following his initial anti-Nixon stance in the 1960s and
1970s, he expressed (qualified) support for Reagan during the 1980s,
then became an outspoken opponent of Bush. Nevertheless, the timing
of its release is no accident. "We thought the prime time to put this
movie out would be before the general election," he admits.
The film will be given worldwide cinema release, but Young has no
illusions about its box-office appeal. "I don't expect it to last
long," he admits. "I mean, let's be realistic: it's a film about war
and a bunch of old hippies, so that's the way the public will view
it. We spent a lot of time on it, and it means a lot to us, but in
the overall scope of things . . . it has a moment, and this moment is
coming up, and after that it'll be a DVD, then it'll be gone. It'll
be a piece of history."
The "moment" he is talking about is the American presidential
election in November. Young may claim that he is not using the film
to campaign, but he planned the Freedom of Speech tour to take place
during the midterms and is deliberately releasing the resulting film
as the campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain gets under way.
Not that he has a vote: despite living in America for 40 years, he
remains a Canadian citizen. "I'm Canadians for Obama," he declares
with a chuckle. "There's nothing I can do to change being Canadian. I
could get a piece of paper saying I'm American, and get a vote, but
it wouldn't change who I am. As far as voting goes, I think I'm
voting with my mouth and with my art and with what I'm doing."
He admits there have been times when he has considered leaving
America, but insists he will stay his Broken Arrow ranch has been
home for the past four decades. "I have an American family," he says.
"My family loves it here. I love it too; it's a great place. Just
because things are happening that are not right, it's not a reason to
leave. I'd rather try to do everything I can to make it right." He
continues, with a certain degree of deadpan irony: "I came down here
because this is the land of opportunity and I feel good. When they
elect a president here, they call him the leader of the free world.
So what the hell? Canada is one of the freest countries in the world,
so I feel great I got a leader down here, too."
Does he really think America is a land of freedom in the post 9/11
landscape? "No, it hasn't been free. Under Bush, it definitely took a
huge dump, this recent seven years, but hopefully we'll get the civil
rights back." He believes today's generation of young Americans does
not have the same spirit of rebellion that he witnessed in the 1960s
because, unlike their parents, they are not threatened with military
"I think that if there was a draft, they would." He worries that if
John McCain becomes president, it might happen: "I don't think he'd
say he'd do that, but I think once he got in, he would. And then we'd
see something big happening."
Since being admitted to hospital in 2005, with a brain aneurism,
Young has entered one of the most prolific phases of an already
workaholic career. As well as touring, he has made three albums,
finished one film, begun another, and completed his (very)
long-awaited audiovisual career retrospective, Archives. (Two vintage
live albums are already out.) The first big instalment of material,
on Blu-ray discs, plus a hefty book, is finally due for release this
autumn. Then there is his charity work for the Bridge School and Farm Aid.
"I feel like I have a lot to do," he declares. "I really would like
to work on the energy problem, on solutions to the oil need. I'd like
to eliminate roadside refuelling." To this world-changing end, he has
been developing a prototype called the Linc Volt: a gas-guzzling 1959
Lincoln Continental ("2½ tons, 19½ feet long") converted into an
electrically powered, multifuel hybrid with its own generators.
It is a typical contradiction from a contrary character, who also
drives a gigantic Hummer converted to biofuel, and is financing his
project by selling off his huge collection of vintage cars. "My
mission now, what I'm really focused on, is to work out a way to
eliminate roadside refuelling and come up with a way to build a car
that creates its own fuel and powers the owner's house. The idea of
the technology is a distributed power source. It's a rolling
generator with battery back-up: you plug it in and it puts power
out." I'm lost, but www. lincvolt.com explains the technology, he says.
Inevitably, Young or, rather, Bernard Shakey is making a
documentary about it, and will be driving the vehicle all over
America "to prove that a huge car can go anywhere on electric power
without a problem". Asked if he would consider this as much of a
legacy as his music, Young immediately responds: "More than my music."
Meanwhile, he says that he will steer clear of political statements
during his European festival dates this summer. "I don't wanna be
like CNN, just playing the same thing over and over. I firmly believe
in everything I said, but don't know that I always wanna be harping
on about the same thing. Otherwise, I might become redundant. I don't
CSNY: Déjà Vu goes on general release on July 18; Neil Young plays
Hop Farm, Kent, on July 6