Interview with Bud Scoppa,
June 28th 1975


Neil Young isn’t out to win any popularity contest. Just as he reached the top of the heap three years ago with the huge selling “Harvest” Young divested himself of the look and the sound of superstardom and began to rework his music and image from scratch.

It wasn’t out of fear that he turned away from the crowd and its expectations, Young’s projects since “Harvest”, a film, three albums and several concert tours – have (whatever their aesthetic worth) been intensely, uncompromisingly personal. He hasn’t stopped putting himself on the line, on the contrary, his post “Harvest” work seems to be part of a continuing quest for some difficult truths.

Now Young has an album he cares so much about that he’s willing to return, at least temporarily, to the world of media conventions to get the word out about it. Face set with the look of determined congeniality, glass of orange juice in hand, Young ( who generally cares so little about “promotion” that he didn’t bother to include any songs from the then new “On the Beach” in CSN&Y’s 74 tour repertoire ) braced himself to face the press, a few at a time in manager Elliot Roberts Sunset Strip office a fortnight before the release of “Tonight’s The Night”.

His hair grown long and ratty since his CSN&Y appearances, still wearing the two-toned gangster style shoes that made a match with the dark second hand suite he’d worn to the previous night’s album preview party. Young didn’t so much look consciously anti-style as vacantly non-style. But he was game about this pop music business nevertheless. During his single day of interviews, he’d seen not only Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe, but also radio questioners who’d come in from places like Seattle and Alberquerque for the occasion. Having just the day before completed a critique of “Tonight’s the Night” ( an album I’d found so harrowingly personal that it had kept me awake on the nights I had worked on the piece) I was eager to find out whether Young had been as unsettled during the making of it as I had been by listening to it.

In the room with me were Young, Elliot Roberts, the guy from Seattle (later replaced by the guy from Alberquerque. Crowe and Art. Young’s proletarian dog).”The record business,” Young sighed, in response to the invisible forces that caused him to be sitting in this smoky room on a perfectly nice day. “I don’t even think I’m in it any more, I really don’t, I’ve never done anything like this before – interviews and the party and everything.But I never had a record you could party to and interview to before.” “You feel particularly good about this record?” I asked. When he affirmed that he did, I said that “Tonight’s the Night” seemed like the inevitable culmination of the path Young blazed with “Time Fades Away” his jumpy nearly out of control live album, and the intensely introspective “On The Beach”. But why begin making these raw, personal albums just at the moment of peak popularity, in effect resisting superstardom. “It’s odd”, he seems genuinely perplexed for the moment. “I don’t know why, it was a subconscious move, I think “Tonight’s the Night” is the most grand example of that resistance.

It was actually recorded in August of ’73 at S.I.R. (L.A.’s Studio Instrument Rentals) where we had the party last night. Everything on “Tonight’s the Night” was recorded and mixed before “On The Beach” was started, but it was never finished or put into its complete order till later. Everybody said that “Harvest” was a trip. To me I’d happened to be in the right place at the right time to do a really mellow record that was really open,’cause that’s where my life was at the time. But that was only for a couple of months. If I’d stayed there,I don’t know where I’d be right now, if I’d just stayed real mellow. I’m just not that way any more,I think “Harvest” was probably the finest record that I’ve made, but that’s really a restricting adjective for me.
It’s really fine but that’s it.”

What about his live performances? “In concert what I play all depends on what I feel. I can’t do songs like “Southern Man”.I’d rather play the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that answered it. That’d be great.The thing is I go on a different trip and I get different band together,or I group with some old friends,then they don’t know how to play the stuff I did with some other group and I have to show them. That takes a lot of time and I’d rather be working on new stuff. So a lot of it is just laziness. I don’t even know some of the old songs with the bands, you know?. I’m not going to even try to do “Tonight’s the Night”. If I go out this fall I probably will take this band I’m working with now. We could get into doing these songs any time, but I’d have something new in my head by then that I would be even more into. We’ll do some of them.”I’m working right now on recording, that’s what I’m mainly interested in, because I have a lot of new songs that I haven’t finished recording”

The conversation swung back to the new album. “Tonight’s the Night” didn’t come out right after it was recorded because it wasn’t finished. It just wasn’t in the right space, it wasn’t in the right order, the concept wasn’t right. I had to get the colour right, so it was not so down that it would make people restless. I had to keep jolting every once in a while to get people to wake up so they could be lulled again. It’s a very fluid album. The higher you are, the better it is. And it really lives up to that, a lot of records don’t…,you should listen to it late at night.”I tried that” I ventured “and I couldn’t go to sleep afterwards. It scared the hell out of me.” Young was – yes- pleased. “That’s great. That’s the best thing you could tell me.”

The title song, one of the album’s most jagged and discomforting, tells the story of Bruce Berry,a friend of Young’s who, the lyrics state – “died out on the mainline.” Who was he we wondered in unison. “Bruce Berry was a roadie , he used to take care of Steve’s and my guitars and amps.” “That line about his dying comes out and hits you” someone noted. “Yeah …those mixes were a little unorthodox. Like it’s real music. Sometimes I’d be on mike and sometimes I’d be two feet off it. Sometimes I’d be lookin’ around the room and singin’ back off mike….we’d have to bring it way back up in the mix to get it. And you can hear the echo in the room. We were all on stage at S.I.R. just playing, with the P.A. system and everything, just like a live thing. And all the background vocals are live, and the whole thing is, ah………” “I got tired of….. I think what was in my mind when I made that record was I just didn’t feel like a lonely figure with a guitar or whatever it is that people see me as sometimes. I didn’t feel that laid back – I just didn’t feel that way. So I thought I’d just forget about all that…wipe it out. Be as aggresive and as abrasive as I could to leave an effect, a long term affect, that things change radically sometimes, its good to point that out.

Roberts points out that a number of the songs on Young’s recent albums have come directly from actual experience. “They’re threads of life. Although Neil’s portraying a character the character he’s portraying saw all these things go down.” What about the chilling “Tired Eyes” with its straight forward description of a dope dealing vendetta that ends in bloodshed. Has he seen that sort of thing? “Yeah…puts the vibe right there…that’s what I was saying, at S.I.R. we were playing, and these two cats (Berry and Danny Whitten, the leader of Crazy Horse, who’d worked very closely with Young) who had been a close part ofour unit, our force, our energy, were both gone to junk, both of them O.D.’d” “And now we’re playing in a place where we’re getting together to make up for what is gone and try to make ourselves stronger and continue. Because we thought we had it with Danny Whitten…. At least I did. I thought that a combination of people that could be as effective as groups like the Rolling Stones had been…just for rhythm, which I’m really into. I haven’t had that rhythm for a while and that’s why I haven’t been playing my guitar: because without that behind me I won’t play. I mean you can’t get free enough. So I’ve had to play the rhythm myself ever since Danny died. Now I have someone who can play rhythm guitar, a good friend of mine.” Who’s that, Nils Lofgren?. “No Nils is a lead player, basically. And when I use Nils….like on “Tonight’s the Night” I used him for piano, and I played piano on a couple of songs and he played guitar. In the songs where he plays guitar he’s actually playing the way Bruce Berry played guitar. The thing is I’m talking about him and you can hear him. So Nils just fits in – he plays that hot rock and roll style guitar”. “It’s just that there was a lot of spirit flyin’ around when we were doin’it. It was like a tribute to those people, you know? Only the ones we chose no-one had really heard of that much, but they meant a lot to us. That’s why it gets spooky. ‘Cause we were spooked. If you felt that I’m glad because it was there.” Young leans back on the sofa he’s sitting on and laughs softly.”The first horror record, a horror record.”

Young’s continuing mastery of melody and texture serves his story well, although not at all in an obvious way. His musical strengths, even presented as rough sketches, provide one reason for hanging on through this grim tale in the first place. As grisly as “Tired Eyes” seems, as abrasively as it’s sung, the melody is there. Done with refinement, this would be a pretty song. Young must go to extremes to keep from making pretty music. “There’s always a chance that nobody will dig it because it’s too abrasive. But it’s a very happy record if your loose, if your not loose, its not happy ’cause you realise how tight you are when you listen to it. You really feel how different you are from being loose. It makes you feel something, it draws a line somewhere. I’ve seen it draw a line everywhere I’ve played it. Some people fall on one side, others fall to the other side. Its a surprise. People who thought that they’d never dislike anything I ever did, fall on the new side of the line. Other people who couldn’t hear me, who said “that cat is too sad… he sings funny,” those people listen another way now. It blew my mind when I saw what was happening. We knew it was different when we were doing it, everything live everybody playing and singing at the same time. There was no overdubbing on those nine songs that were done at S.I.R.. That’s the way the old blues people used to do it. It was really real. And we did the mixes right away”. “I can remember the first time I heard it I said Thats the most out of tune thing I’ve ever heard. We’re going to have to cancel all four of those songs. Then the same night, after we were relaxed and mellow, and we put it on, some other people in the room started going nuts, saying that this was it, why hadn’t I released it, and that I would have to worry about what to put out after this. So it’s fascinating to me. It was all just an experiment”. “What we were doing was playing those guys on their way. We all got that high, not that high but we got as close as we could, I mean I’m not a junkie and I won’t even try it out to check out what its like. But we’d get really high… drink a lot of tequila, get right out on the edge, where we were so screwed up that we could easily just fall on our faces, and not be able to handle it as musicians. But we were wide open also at that time, just wide open. So we’d just wait until the middle of the night, until the vibe hit us and just do it.

We did four or five songs on the first side all in a row one night without any break. We did “Tonight’s the Night” “World on a String” “Mellow my Mind” “Speakin’ Out” and “Tired Eyes” without any break between ‘em. Then Elliot put it in a different sequence. Because he was doing this “Tonight’s the Night” Broadway show….there was a script written and everything. We’d listen to the record of these songs, and that’s how we got it finished. He picked out the other songs, “Lookout Joe” “Come on Baby lets go Downtown” and “Borrowed Tune” and we put them in with the original nine songs.”

The version of “Let’s go Downtown” on Young’s new record (a studio version is on “Crazy Horse” a fine record that showcases Whittens music) was recorded at a 1970 Young – Crazy Horse concert at Fllmore East . The night of the recording, the band, Young, Whitten, bass player Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina, and Jack Nitzche on electric piano played altogether brilliant, crashing rock and roll; for my money, the concert presented Young at his absolute peak of his powers, exerting a dynamism that his records approach only in their most inspired passages. An entire album-full of tracks from those concerts, if they approach “Lets go Downtown” in sound quality, would be an automatic classic. Young loves the sound of the track, especially in the contex, of the album “Its so high and so fast.” He says.

“Tonight’s the Night” contains all the dark, tense, melancholy we’ve come to expect from Young’s music but there’s one important difference: Whereas most of his serious songs have evoked their shadowy moods through indirection, recurring metaphors of flying and dancing, for example and the mysterious Indian of “Broken Arrow”, these songs work through explicit narrative details. Young has become a storyteller, an actor.

“I was able to step outside myself to do this record, to become a performer of the songs rather than the writer. That’s the main difference, every song was performed. I wrote the songs describing the situations and then I became an extension of those situations and I performed them. Its like being an actor and writing the script for myself as opposed to a personal expression. There’s obviously a lot of personal expression in there, but it comes in a different form, which makes it seem much more explicit and much more direct. All these people there all in there. That’s why there’s so much talking on the record. Its all the things I hear people saying.

“I’ve been listening to this album for about two years and I’m not tired of it, it’s a good friend of mine. In some respects I feel like it has more life than anything I’ve ever done. It’s not the kind of life that jumps up and down and makes everybody smile. It’s another kind of life, there’s a feeling in it that’s really strong”. “I don’t think “Tonight’s the Night” is a friendly album. It’s real, that’s all . Either you’ll want to hear or you won’t. A lot of records don’t even make you think that much. Then after that it will take you somewhere if you want to listen to it. I’m really proud of it. It’s there for me. You’ve got to listen to it at night, when it was done. Put on the Doobie Brothers in the morning. They can handle it at 11a.m. But not this album. It’s custom made for night time. “Lookout Joe” and “Borrowed Tune” were written during my “Time Fades Away” tour. I never hit “Lookout Joe” the way I wanted to. It was recorded at my ranch during rehearsals for the “Time Fades Away” tour just after Danny Whitten O.D.’d He’d been working on the song with us and after he died we stopped for a while. When we started playing again, that was the first thing we cut and I wrote. “Don’t be Denied” that day. So “Lookout Joe” is one of the oldest songs on the album. “If you take out “Lookout Joe”, “Downtown” and “Borrowed Tune”, all the others left just build in intensity so much that you cant take them all. Each one I liked so much I wanted them all on there. I made all kinds of lists to get them in the right order so that all the songs would set the other ones up mentally, for people.

“You mean you see “Lookout Joe” as a relief from intensity?” I asked. “I find it one of the most intense songs on the album. It is easier to listen to than “Mellow my Mind” though”. Young nodded “If you get a hundred yards away from ” Mellow my Mind” he said in seeming seriousness, “it sounds incredible, better than anything sounds at a hundred yards. It’s supposed to be part of the environment. Play it loud,” he quipped. “but stay in the other room.” ” I wanted to get the album so it could be played while people were….see, its not to sit and listen to every song, eventually, people are gonna’ do that and that’ll be cool. But the thing the album is made for is to be able to put it on once you know the songs, or even if you don’t know the songs and have the moods of it, that it takes you through subliminally, enable you to stop talking with your friends for a few minuets, start talking again and not feel uptight, enable you to flow. So that as it plays over and over it constantly changes and you don’t get uptight, you know? I mean a lot of the sequencing was made for that reason, as well as trying to get it so that if you sit there and scrutinise it, it tells a story that really makes sense.”

By this time, Young was thoroughly caught up in what he was talking about. His shyness was gone, and the dark reticence I’d heard so much about was nowhere to be found, except for a defensive sounding answer to a question about why he’d stormed off stage in the middle of a Carnegie Hall solo concert. “It was intermission” he’d said brusquely. “I just took it a little early.” Otherwise he was congenial enough to answer even the most stock questions with a concern that approached expansiveness. Wondering about his seeming ability to resist getting caught up in his own heroic legend. I commented “It seems as if you’ve gone against your superstardom musically. You’ve done a parallel move during the same period in terms of the way you come off visually and image wise. Where’s the teen idol.?” Young laughed. “We gotta tear down all that, its gone now” he said his voice a sneer. “Now we can do whatever, its open again, there’s no illusions that someone can say what I’m going to do before I get there. That’s how I’ve got to feel. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t want to feel like people expect me to be a certain way. If that’s the way it is, then I quit. I can’t do it. I have to be able to feel like I can do whatever I want and it’s not going to disappoint me to do it.”

Was that the problem with CSN&Y?” “I thought there wasn’t any problem at all. Last time we went out, and every time we’ve gone out, it’s been great.” ” But haven’t you had problems putting an album together?” “We just didn’t make an album. And it’s not even that it didn’t happen, we just didn’t do it. If we don’t do something people put together all these trips about, you know. Stills and Young are fighting so they cant do this. That’s all a bunch of bullshit. The only people who could put it together is the four of us, and were all in great shape. Were just not doing it right now.”

“But everybody’s expecting it” it was pointed out “and if it doesn’t happen, then they all figure there must be some problem.” “That’s because they can’t possibly envision why four guys would not do it and not make all that bread.” You mean you don’t want to be a supergroup? “We already are a supergroup, so whether we want to be one or not, it’s all after the fact. In the end, it’s just another name, you know, in a list. And that’s cool…”. A minuet later his feathers unruffling. Young commented on the swollen shape of big money rock & roll: “The ticket prices are big and the whole thing is big. I mean, it’s bigger than a football game now, it’s all different. I started playing for 25 people at a time and I was getting off. Now it’s just so mammoth that you’ve gotta get by that all over again to get off. Money doesn’t …,the biggest thing that effects it is the amount of people. That’s where it is, how big the music is. Money’s just a side-effect of that. It’s really different, though, that part of it’s really blown my mind. It’s such a high to get personal with 60,000 people.”

“You might even be willing to do that for nothing.” The man from Seattle said. “He just did,” Roberts pointed out. “But my next tour” Young continued, “is going to be small halls….so people can see what it is. And if less of ‘em see it, that doesn’t make no difference. When we did “Tonight’s the Night” in Holland we really scared a lot of people. There was never a chance for the audience to do anything because I never stopped talking. I would play and before they had a chance to applaud, I would become the M.C. I would just talk away to these people, tying songs together with these raps that I would make up as I went along. It was a whole other period. I got to act. I had a part in the show instead of it being me, the pressure was off me a little bit. It didn’t look like anything the people had ever seen. We did like a show…I wore this sleazy white jacket and big shades and then I’d go back and change into my funky Pendleton jeans and my acoustic guitar.

I don’t know what this new tour will be like, I’ll be doing a lot of stuff that I’m recording now. A lot of long instrumental guitar things….progresso supremo? It’s about the Incas and the Aztecs. It takes on another personality, It’s like being in another civilisation. It’s a lost sort of form, sort of a soul-form that switches from history scene to history scene trying to find itself, man in a maze. I’ve got it all written and all the songs are learned. Tomorrow we start cutting them. We’re ready to go. We’re gonna just do it in the morning. Early in the morning when the sun’s out. Sunny days….just…play. It’ll probably take about a week or two, then I’ll be done with that. But I been practicing for about six weeks. I feel great about it. It’s Molina, Talbot and Pancho San Pedro : two guitars, bass and drums. It’s fun for me because I’m playing all the guitar, and I haven’t played guitar in a long time ….so I’ve been practicing, I’m havin’ a great time, I can fly all over the place now.” Someone asked if Lofgren had inspired Young to “fly all over the place”.”Oh yeah, he’s great. Oh, Nils is an incredible musician. He’s a great colour player, he’s so sensitive to lyrics.” “How come he hasn’t caught on commercially ?” “He’s too good.” Young replied with finality. Everyone laughed, but he looked rather pensive suddenly “I don’t know…Nils is great….he’s got a lot of time….so does everybody else …His music will be around a long time.”

“Does your earlier stuff…. Since you’ve changed so much in the last two or three years, seem forced or dishonest to you now?” I asked barging in. “No, no not at all. The earlier stuff really good to me now. I’m really happy I made these albums. “Time Fades Away” sounds nervous, but even that says where I was at, because it’s a direct non hit, a direct miss. It was like a live album of songs that no-one had ever heard before done in a totally different style from the one that came before it. But it stood for where I was at during that period. I was nervous and not quite at home in those big places.”

But Young doesn’t seem to be nervous any more. Having exorcised his nightmares with “Tonight’s the Night”, he’s now ready to go out with his new Crazy Horse and play for the people on a smaller, more intimate scale. And he can make music in the Californian sunshine again. From the sound of a rehearsal cassette I heard a few days after the interview. Young’s music has come full circle: the fat sound and loping gait of this new music bears a striking resemblance to the music on the great “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere”.

Young’s first three albums – “Neil Young” “Nowhere” and “After the Gold Rush” have the irresistible power of beauty : his three most recent – “Time” “Beach” “Tonight” (I’m discounting the shallow and transitional “Harvest”) have the grating power of deep anxiety. As a body of work, these albums display consistent eloquence, passion and unflinching internal courage. The man takes big chances he risks as much as any artist I can think of. Young’s bravery works in support of his vision, fundamentally dark, bitter and troubled but always candidly, remarkably human. To use his own expression, Neil Young is really real.

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