Neil Young and his girlfriend Daryl Hannah tell Will Hodgkinson about their ‘‘homespun’’ iPhone film.
It is hard to keep up with Neil Young. When it was arranged in January for us to meet at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, it was to talk about a live recording of Tonight’s the Night, the ragged rock’n’roll classic he made in 1973 as a response to the death by overdose of two close friends.
But then, in the few weeks between set-up and interview, Young announced that he had made a psychedelic Western movie called Paradox with his girlfriend, Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah, and it would premiere at SXSW. He had made a soundtrack for it too. And he had launched his entire vast back catalogue online as the Neil Young Archives. Then he posted an article about our interview on his newspaper, the NYA Times Contrarian, hours after it happened. “The guy was prepared,” he wrote of our encounter. Well you would be, wouldn’t you? “Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. I believe in everything I do and I do it for myself,” says Young, staring at me from a sofa in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. I’ve just asked how he manages to do so much stuff, all the time, and let’s not even go into the two memoirs; the car he built that runs on grass; the alternative to an iPod he designed called Pono; or the model railway he built for his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy. “I’m not working to get a chart number or anything. Some things groove more than others and I chalk that up to all kinds of things. Could be the moon. Could be the weather. I just keep bumbling along and do what I do.”
Many of us bumble along. Most of us don’t make an average of two albums a year while performing countless concerts. Neil Young is 72. Doesn’t he ever get tired? “I’m slowing down,” he concedes. “I have three melodies going around in my head right now. They’re good melodies, I like them, but the only words I have been able to come up with are profanities. Perhaps my 58th album or whatever it is will be called Profane. It will feature a bunch of beautiful songs on which all I do is swear. I have already written some profane choruses. They have a lot of soul.”
There is a lot to discuss before a possible new album called Profane hits the stores in – judging from Young’s work rate – a few weeks from now. Paradox is very much a product of the Neil Young world. Shot on Super 8 film and Hannah’s iPhone, it is about a crew of outlaws, played by Young and his backing band, Promise of the Real, who scavenge for old technology in a post-apocalyptic landscape in between sitting round a campfire, playing songs and turning up on a vast stage in California to rock out at 2016’s Desert Trip festival. There is a message of environmental activism, with a group of women, led by Hannah, growing organic seeds in defiance of GM crop companies, but essentially this is a loose-limbed home movie featuring Young and his band larking about.
“Daryl and I wanted to make a little movie, just for fun,” Young says. “She did all the work. She wrote the script, she did the costumes, she went to thrift stores and bought everything herself. She has an amazing amount of energy and love for film-making.”
“It’s El Topo without the budget,” Hannah says, referring to a cult existential Western from 1970. “The initial spark is that the guys were hanging around for a few days to adjust to the altitude before a gig in Colorado, so I thought we may as well make a film. It was as spontaneous and homespun as it gets. You want to watch it with a bunch of your pals, get some beers and smoke a big fattie.”
Hannah is with three members of Promise of the Real, including Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, in a room next to Young’s in the Four Seasons. Making stoner movies with her rocker boyfriend and his gang is quite different, presumably, from her Hollywood day job.
“Oh my God, this is 100 per cent different,” says Hannah, who at 57 has changed little since her days in Splash, Steel Magnolias and Kill Bill. “You couldn’t do an elevator pitch for this. It doesn’t have a plot and compared to the studio movies I normally make it is more like kids in the yard putting on a theatre show.”
Young can be difficult, or at least unpredictable. The mogul David Geffen once got so frustrated that he sued him for making albums that didn’t sound like Neil Young. You wonder how Hannah managed to tell him what to do. “He wasn’t difficult at all. And I had been hanging out with these guys so I was just writing cartoon versions of who they were.”
Young was never more unpredictable than during the making and touring of Tonight’s the Night. The vast success of 1972’s Harvest turned him into the poster boy for granola-munching mellowness, but at the end of that year Danny Whitten, the guitarist of Young’s backing band Crazy Horse, died of a heroin overdose. Bruce Berry, a roadie who worked regularly for Young, fell to the same fate a year later. Young’s forthcoming album, Roxy – Tonight’s the Night Live, captures a series of gigs he and his band played in 1973 at the Los Angeles nightclub of the title, during which he subjected audiences to loose, rough songs about death and decay, none of which they had heard before.
“Those were strange times. It wasn’t hard to do [ Tonight’s the Night], but on the other hand I was completely s...faced. I drank tequila from the beginning of the sessions all the way to the end of the tour. It was mindless. I wanted to express how I felt, so I wrote the songs and very quickly went in and sang them. We didn’t decorate anything, we didn’t fix anything wrong with them, we knew it was loose and we didn’t care. I just said, ‘F... it.’”
So much of what Young does is loose and unstructured, from Tonight’s the Night to Paradox, that it comes as a surprise to trawl through his digital archives and find out how much past material he has held on to. Not only are there countless recordings that stretch back to the early 60s and include everything from his former bands – the Squires, Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – but myriad film footage, newspaper clippings and lyric sheets, all arranged in a digital approximation of a weathered filing cabinet. “I’m a collector,” he says. “I keep things and I like chronology and that’s how I remember my songs. But it’s not like I save things in an organised fashion. Sometimes the scribbles that I start songs with will stay on my piano for a year and a half. They just sit there until someone working on the archives comes by and says, ‘These go with this and that.’ Then I’ll scan them in.”
He is the first top-level rocker to build an online archive of this sort. “I’m proof you can do it. What’s to stop Paul McCartney, or Bob Dylan, or any of my peers? It is the antithesis of what people think the internet is, which is constant change and doing 80 things at once.”
Young doesn’t like to live in the past. “I’m more interested in what is going on right now,” he says. “It’s easier to deal with.” At present he is sticking with Lukas Nelson’s Promise of the Real as his band, but he doesn’t rule out using Crazy Horse again. They’re used to Young’s spontaneity. They have been waiting for his call since 1969. “It’s complicated,” says Young on how he decides whom to work with. “I love Crazy Horse and I love Promise of the Real and I love being solo, and I try and do what is right, based on what I’m feeling and what the music tells me.”
Nelson says: “You start feeling where Neil is going to go, but he will take you in another direction if you get too comfortable.” Although he is talking about jamming on stage, he could be talking about working with Young in general. “One thing we have learnt from Neil is: if it is wrong, maybe it is OK. Maybe the wrong note is the right note.”
As to Young’s approach to life, music and everything, Young says it is simple: “You really have to believe in what you’re doing to make it worthwhile. Otherwise you do a disservice to everyone who goes to see you. If you don’t have a message, if you don’t have a reason to sing a song…” He hits me with that deathly stare one more time. “Then you should shut up.” Paradox is on Netflix. Roxy – Tonight’s the Night Live is out now on Warner Bros Records.
“Daryl did all the work. She wrote the script... She went to thrift stores and bought everything herself. She has an amazing amount of energy and love for film-making.”