DATE September 30, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Neil Young discusses his music and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
When singer-songwriter Neil Young was a young man, singing to and about his
dad in the song "Old Man," his lyrics included a line referring to his own age
and outlook--`24 and there's so much more.' Well, Neil Young is about to turn
60, and his new album features songs devoted mainly to looking backwards. His
father died in June at age 87. Young himself suffered a brain aneurysm in
March. But in the days between his diagnosis and surgery, he went into the
recording studio and recorded a series of brand-new songs. After recovering,
he returned to the studio and completed the process, and the new CD, called
"Prairie Wind," which was released last week.
The songs appear in the order in which Young recorded them, in the style of
his more intimate acoustic albums like "Harvest," "Comes a Time" and
"Harvest Moon." They touch on such resonant subjects as family, memory, home,
faith, the beauty of wilderness and the joy of music. "This Old Guitar" is
about the instrument he's playing, once owned by Hank Williams. "Prairie
Wind," the title song, is about Neil's father and begins by confronting
frankly the dementia that dominated his dad's last years.
(Soundbite of "Prairie Wind")
Mr. NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Tryin' to remember what my daddy said, before too
much time took away his head. He said, `We're going back and I'll show you
what I'm talking about. Going back to Cypress River, back to the old
Backup Singers: (Singing) Prairie wind blowin' through my head, prairie wind
blowin' through my head. Tryin' to remember what Daddy said. Prairie wind
blowin' through my head.
Mr. YOUNG: I'm tryin' to tell the people but they never heard a word I say.
See, there's nothing out there but wheat fields, anyway. Just a farmer's wife
hanging laundry in her back yard, out on the prairie where the winds blow long
BIANCULLI: That's the title song from Neil Young's new CD, "Prairie Wind."
Young performed the entire album in concert last month at Nashville's Ryman
Auditorium, the former tabernacle that served for more 30 years as the home of
the Grand Ole Opry. The concert was filmed by Jonathan Demme, who plans to
make a movie based around Young and this brand-new album.
We're going to hear from two of Terry's interviews with Neil Young. She spoke
with him first in 1992, when "Harvest Moon" was released.
TERRY GROSS, host:
You were in high school bands. Did you sing in those bands?
Mr. YOUNG: After the beginning, I did. I started as an instrumentalist. We
used to do songs, instrumentals that I used to write, you know, melodies and
playing on the guitar, sort of like a group called The Shadows from England,
and then after the English invasion, you know, in the--and also about the same
time as Jimmy Reed became popular, the old bluesman, Jimmy Reed, with
going to New York in...
GROSS: Bright lights, big city?
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah ...(unintelligible) and all these things, you know.
He--about the same time as the British invasion, all these groups singing
harmony and playing guitars and everything, both of those things happened to
me at once, so I really couldn't figure out who it was that made me want to
sing, but one of them, you know, or both of them at the same time. And I
started singing, and that was like a milestone.
GROSS: What do you mean?
Mr. YOUNG: People couldn't believe it, apparently. I don't remember it, but
I was so into it I guess I didn't notice that everybody was going, `What
the--what is that?' you know, as I was starting to sing. Of course, now I'm
like, you know, Caruso or something. Got it down.
GROSS: Were you self-conscious about your voice when you started to sing?
Mr. YOUNG: No, not really. I never really--I was just glad to be singing.
Meant we could a lot more songs if I sang them.
GROSS: No one else in the band could sing.
Mr. YOUNG: No. Not...
GROSS: Is it...
Mr. YOUNG: Nobody in the band could sing, not `nobody else in the band.'
Nobody in the band, so we did harmony and we did everything, you know. But it
GROSS: Now you say that you were unself-conscious about your singing, but
there are stories about how, you know, like in your first solo album you
intentionally mixed yourself in the background.
Mr. YOUNG: No, I mixed myself right up there where I should be, and then
they tried out this new scientific process that they'd invented called the
CSG-Haeco clog process, which is this unbelievable thing where you can make
a stereo record play back on a mono machine just like it was a mono record.
They did some thing to the sound back then. This was when stereo was just
coming out, and there were--you know, a lot of people had mono sets and the
stereo didn't sound right on a mono set, so they came out with this thing.
You run it through this machine that this guy made, this little box or
something, and it would make it so you could play it both stereo or mono.
But in reality, I was a test case for this with my first album. They did this
without letting me know, and they put it out like that, and I got the
pressings back, and I went, `What happened?' you know? Then I read this thing
had been added on the album cover where--with this engineering note that this
had employed this technique, and really, it was the worst thing I ever heard.
I mean, they just buried the whole center of the record and put it way down,
and this--so I think they only used it on my record. They decided it didn't
work after that.
GROSS: So it wasn't self-consciousness that was behind it.
Mr. YOUNG: No. I could go to the next record. I think my vocal is right up
GROSS: How did you feel about being in a tight harmony group like Crosby,
Stills, Nash & Young? Did...
Mr. YOUNG: How did they feel about it, that's the question. It was no
longer a tight harmony group.
GROSS: Do you like being in a harmony like that? I mean, I love your voice.
I consider it a very personal voice. Do you know what I mean, a voice that
should be singing on its own more so than just like mixed in a harmony?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, I like singing harmony, too. I sang good harmony
with Crazy Horse, and there's a sense in there that--you know, because there's
a couple of different ways to sing harmony, you know. You can--or blends of
all of them, but one of them is just real tight harmony and the other one is
where everybody's singing just--more or less just singing loose but in a
harmonic structure, with a lot of feeling. That's a different kind of
harmony, and that's the kind of harmony that I do with Crazy Horse quite a
bit. Sometimes we're real successful at that.
GROSS: So you came from Canada to Los Angeles, became part of Buffalo
Springfield, and I guess it was in '66, you have a really big hit, "For What
It's Worth," and then, you know, people just, like, loved Buffalo Springfield.
So this is, like, the height or the beginnings of the height of the whole kind
of counterculture, which was really thriving, particularly on the West Coast.
And so suddenly, like, you're really in the thick of it, I mean, gone
from--What?--a small town in Canada, right?
Mr. YOUNG: Yes, kind of a--half a million people, something like that.
GROSS: Uh-huh, and now, like, you're really in the thick of it, did you
change a lot? Were you, like, a kind of different person than you were?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, I think it affected me. I think it got to be a
lot of pressure for a while, but you know, we got through that after freaking
out and quitting the band a couple of times and, you know, throwing my guitar
against a chair and doing all kinds of stuff. You know, we went through a
normal kind of teen-age-to-adult changeover period there.
GROSS: When you throw your guitar against a chair, do you--in the days when
you did that, was it--were you sure you had money to replace it...
Mr. YOUNG: No. That was the point.
GROSS: ...before you threw it?
Mr. YOUNG: No. No, I think--I didn't do that every day, but it's just
part--I guess the pressure of being in the band and trying to make things
happen, you know--we did a lot of things like that. I mean--What?--we were
20, 21 years old. We were kind of crazy for a while, and then, you know, just
like anybody else under a lot of pressure. Bunch of kids, and you know, it
was a pretty fast-moving time.
GROSS: What's something that you look back on and still find really exciting
about that period?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, the music was great, and it's too bad it was never recorded
correctly or it would--you know, the Buffalo Springfield would have been far
more of a memory than they are now.
GROSS: What's missing?
Mr. YOUNG: The music is missing. There was--you know, this was about the
time when people started making records by overdubbing and new technology was
coming in. We had like eight-tracks and you know, big--we had ways of doing
things that weren't--that made it possible to layer records. And so instead
of going in the studio and singing live--like we were so great live--the
people producing us, they didn't record us the way they should have. If
they'd have just set us up and let us record live, this band would be--band
probably would have been together and stayed together a lot longer because we
would have had much more success and had a lot more happiness from listening
to our records and, you know, felt like we were getting something done.
But at the beginning it was kind of hard to break through. You know, we still
didn't know how to make records and we didn't have anybody that knew how to
make records helping us make records. And instead we had people who wanted to
be record producers for, you know, one reason or another who were there, but
they really weren't doing anything. Nobody strong came along and said,
`Listen, you guys go in there and sing, and then when I tell you to come out,
you stop playing and singing, then come on in here and it'll sound great.'
Nobody ever did that. So I feel that was the failing of the Buffalo
Springfield, was all the records. There was--only Ahmet Ertegun really had a
grip on what should be--what the Springfield records should sound like.
GROSS: What sounds best to you now from those records?
Mr. YOUNG: I don't have a favorite.
GROSS: OK. I thought I'd play "Mr. Soul" Do you--what are your memories
Mr. YOUNG: Well, memories of that are the best take of it and the best mix
of it and the best version of it is somewhere in the Atlantic vault.
Mr. YOUNG: And the one that we're listening to here is one that--where we
got away from it and we kept overdubbing and overdubbed guitar parts and added
things over top of the original stuff, and lost some of the original stuff and
we took it too far. We didn't have anybody to tell us to go home or tell
us--that had experience--telling us what to do. So we lost a lot of the great
stuff that we had on tape in the first place or that we never--we never got a
lot of it on tape at all.
GROSS: OK. Well, in the meantime, we'll satisfy ourselves with the...
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...artfully released version of "Mr. Soul."
(Soundbite of "Mr. Soul")
BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Oh, hello, Mr. Soul, I dropped by to pick up
a reason for the thought that I caught that my head is the event of the
season. Why, in crowds just a trace of my face could seem so pleasin'. I'll
cop out to the change but a stranger is putting the tease on. I was down on a
frown when the messenger brought me a letter. I was raised by the praise of a
fan who said I upset her. Any girl in the world would have easily known me
better. She said, `You're strange, but don't change,' and I let her.
BIANCULLI: That's Neil Young's song, "Mr. Soul," recorded in 1967 with
Buffalo Springfield. His newest album, "Prairie Wind," has just been
released. Terry spoke with him in 1992.
When we come back, we'll hear a more recent conversation with Neil Young.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of unidentified song)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Round and round and round we spin, too evil
world to end our sin. It won't be long...
BIANCULLI: When Neil Young's movie-and-CD project "Greendale" was released
last year, Terry, fighting a bad cold, spoke with him again. It was a project
that didn't really fit in with the 21st-century music scene, but Neil told
Terry that not fitting in is something he'd been comfortable with his whole
Mr. YOUNG: Even when I was in school, I felt--I was always happy to wear
clothes that had gone out of style. To me--whenever they were really out,
that's when they were really in for me.
GROSS: Oh, what'd you wear?
Mr. YOUNG: Like I was wearing white bucks, like, 10 years after Pat Boone,
GROSS: Where'd you get them?
Mr. YOUNG: And I had the little thing that you--you know, where you paint
them white with this little spongy thing and everything like...
GROSS: Oh, I remember that, yeah.
Mr. YOUNG: I'd do that, you know, and I'd take off to school, you know,
wearing my white bucks and red socks. You know, maybe I was the devil or
something. I don't know. But, you know, to me it was like--I was a rock 'n'
roll guy. I didn't care about, you know, what was happening. I really didn't
like the preppy kids at school that much and, you know, I didn't want to blend
in with them. And, you know, I look around. I see people today. There--I'm
there. I'm still in the classroom. They're still there, you know, my
brothers in arms, whoever they are.
GROSS: Although you have been unpredictable and always moving forward in your
music, there have been a couple of real constants in your life over many
years. One was Crazy Horse, a fairly constant part of your musical life, and
the other is your family. I mean, you even tour with your wife and usually
with your two sons.
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, my daughter, too.
GROSS: Did you ever expect that so much of your life would revolve around
family and around being a father?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, I never really thought about it.
GROSS: As a rock 'n' roll guy, you know? As...
Mr. YOUNG: Well, I've broken a lot of the rock 'n' roll rules by being
married for 25 years, and, you know, I guess it's all because I have such a
wonderful wife. I mean, I--you know, we don't have a textbook kind of, you
know, Cleaver family type of marriage, but we have a--you know, we got a rock
'n' roll marriage and it's great, and she's adapted. And the telling thing
about our marriage, I think, and the proof of its goodness is the fact that
I've been able to remain creative and that I've been able to change
throughout. Some people, when they get married, they so-called `settle down'
and they fit into something. Some people, when they get into relationships,
adapt their personalities to fit the relationship and then they lose
themselves. And you know, living with Peggy has never put the strain on
me to do any of those things, and it's always been a good thing and she's
always, you know, been behind the things that I've done. Even if she admitted
that she didn't understand what I was doing or didn't know if it was the right
thing or whatever, she was still behind the creative part of what I was
endeavoring to do.
GROSS: Now your two sons both have cerebral palsy. Your older son has a
milder case, your younger son a severe case that's left him basically a
quadriplegic. And he can't talk, either. Does he understand speech?
Mr. YOUNG: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure, yeah. He understands what's going on,
because, you know, even when you start spelling things that he wants to do, he
gets very excited about things. So if I was to mention something that he
really wants to do, he anticipates a lot, you know, so if like--if we were to
talk about it--so you just drop one word and he's going--I mean, jumping out
of his chair. So yes, he does understand what's being said around him, and he
also understands--you know, he's learning how to spell because we stopped
saying certain things that would get him so jacked up and started spelling
them, and he figured that out. So you know, he's all there in that way, and
he's a real good communicator. He just--you just have to get used to how he's
communicating and learn how to communicate with him, and he's got a lot of
soul, that guy.
GROSS: In listening to you tell part of the story of "Greendale," it seemed
to me that you really enjoy storytelling. Were you able to tell stories to
Ben when he was growing up?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, I just talk to Ben about everything, so Ben
probably knows more about me than anybody. And, you know, because I--Ben, I
figure that the best thing I could do is just tell him, you know,
mostly--almost everything that was on my mind, unless I thought it was
something that might scare him or something, you know. So I just--Ben and I
spend a lot of time together and I'm always talking.
GROSS: I wonder if you think your music has been affected--like, does Ben
respond a lot to music?
Mr. YOUNG: Oh, yeah. Yeah, he's subtle in his response to it. But my music
has definitely been affected by being the father of Ben and Zeke and all
the kids. They're all--you know, it's about how hard things are for people
with disabilities. When you live with someone with a disability and you
realize what they have to go through to do certain things that we take for
granted, and then you see somebody in perfectly good health or somebody
saying, `Oh, that's too hard. I can't do that,' there's something that snaps
in me when that happens. There's nothing that I can't try to do if I want to
do it. I know how hard it is for my son to do what he wants to do.
GROSS: Do you think that helped you grow up, and I mean this in the sense
that there's a lot of rock stars who in some ways seem to have never grown up?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, I don't know how much I've grown up. Part of me might have
grown up a long way, and another part of me may just be way back there in
kindergarten or something. But, you know, life--you know, my life has been
very extreme, so I've learned to accept extreme things and to, you know, take
strength from them.
BIANCULLI: Neil Young, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more in the
second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of unidentified song)
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG: (Singing) Sailing hardships through broken
harbors out on the waves in the night. Still a searcher must ride the dark
horse racing along in his stride. Tell me why, tell me why. Is it hard to
make arrangements with yourself when you're old enough to repay but young
enough to sell? Tell me lies, later come and see me. I'll be around for a
BIANCULLI: Coming up, getting his first guitar. We continue our conversation
with Neil Young. His new album is "Prairie Wind." Also, David Edelstein
reviews "Capote," the new film about Truman Capote and the writing of his
great true book, "In Cold Blood."
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry
Let's get back to our conversation with Neil Young. His new album, "Prairie
Wind," has just been released. It was recorded last spring right after
Young learned that he had a brain aneurysm that would require surgery. In the
few days between the diagnosis and the operation, Young flew to Nashville and
recorded eight of the 10 songs on the album. "Prairie Wind" also includes a
DVD which documents the recording session. Here's another song from that
(Soundbite of "Here For You")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) When your summer days come tumbling down and you find
yourself alone, then you can come back and be with me. Just close your eyes
and I'll be there. Listen to the sound of this old heart beating for you.
Yes, I miss you, but I never want to hold you down. You might say I'm here
BIANCULLI: "Here For You" from Neil Young's new CD "Prairie Wind." Let's get
back to his interview with Terry. It was recorded last year when Terry was
fighting a cold.
GROSS: Now I read someplace--and I don't know whether this is true or
not--that you had polio when you were a child.
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah.
GROSS: You did?
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, I did. I was six.
GROSS: How did it affect you? I mean, what--physically...
Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, I had to learn how to walk again at six. And
that's basically all it was, you know? Part of my body's not quite as
sensitive as the rest of it, my left side, but it's no big deal. I just
learned how to deal with it.
GROSS: Were you listening to music yet when you were that young? 'Cause I
know sometimes when kids are sick, they just like--they read a lot, listen to
music, and it really changes them.
Mr. YOUNG: I can't remember when I wasn't listening to music, OK?
GROSS: What were you listening to when you were young?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, the first thing I remember was--you know that song "The
Three Bells," that French song about--you know, "The Three Bells" it's
called. The Browns did a version of it about 40 years ago.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
Mr. YOUNG: Well, the original version was a French version and, God, it was
so beautiful and we had it on a 78. I used to listen to it over and over
and over again, that and we had a version of "Greensleeves" that I used to
listen to all the time and just...
GROSS: Can you sing a couple of the bars of "The Bells" so listeners will
know the song you're talking about?
Mr. YOUNG: You know the one. (Singing) `In a little congregation,' you know,
`prayed for guidance from above and'--remember that song?
GROSS: I do. I do. It was, like, a hit...
Mr. YOUNG: Little Jimmy Brown, a story of Jimmy Brown or whatever it was.
GROSS: Yeah. It was, like, a hit in the early '60s or something.
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah. And that was the English version. The French
version, the first one, was just sensationally great and really beautiful.
The English one was good, too, but the one I heard was the French one. So I
don't know. I can't even remember how I understood what it was, but it didn't
seem to matter.
GROSS: Did you parents buy you a lot of kids' records?
Mr. YOUNG: Did my parents buy me a lot of kids' records?
Mr. YOUNG: No, I bought my own records. I went out--you know, I used to
have a little--a couple of businesses when I was a kid, chicken business. I
raised chickens and sold eggs and everything, and I also would, you know, go
find golf balls at the golf course and sell those to the golfers. Quite often
the same ball a guy had, I sold to him.
GROSS: What a racket.
Mr. YOUNG: That's where I got my sales expertise. And so after that, you
know, I had a little bit of money and I'd go down and buy the latest 45 RPMs
or whatever and, you know, I think I bought a lot of records when I was a kid.
And I used to listen to WLS out of Chicago. Even though I was way up in
Winnipeg, I could still pick it up. And I used to listen to, you know, Dick
Biondi and, you know, a little Alan Freed and I could get that, the old rock
GROSS: So this is great. So you raised chickens and sold eggs and resold
golf balls so that you could buy 45s.
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, more or less that's it. Yeah.
GROSS: What were the very first records you remember buying?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, the first records that I--one of the earliest ones I think
was old Jerry Lee Lewis records and Little Richard and those records, and then
about the late '50s and early '50s I bought, you know, records by The
Monotones and Buddy Holly and--What's that?--Ronnie Self and The
Chantels, all these great records, you know, R&B type records. And then Jimmy
Reed--I bought all of Jimmy Reed's albums when I was in grade eight or nine
or something in high school and I had all his early records. And, you know, I
just bought--I really liked R&B.
GROSS: And when did you get your first guitar?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, my dad bought me a ukelele. I guess I was around eight.
GROSS: Why did he get you a ukelele as opposed to a guitar?
Mr. YOUNG: It's small.
GROSS: Oh, sure.
Mr. YOUNG: Small enough for me.
Mr. YOUNG: It was just a little plastic Arthur Godfrey one. Then he
played it for me and he sang all these sad songs, you know, "Bury Me Out On
The Prairie," and all of these ridiculous cowboy songs that he knew from
God knows where. And then he'd smile and he'd play it along, and then after
that, my uncle came by and, of course, he was really good on the ukelele and
he played the thing and played all these chords and then it turned out he
could play anything. He played piano, guitar, ukelele, horns, and then he
even played his three daughters. He had them singing. He had them in
three-part harmony, singing background for him while he was singing, and he
taught them all these things. It was amazing, and so my cousins all sang, you
GROSS: So when did you switch from ukelele to guitar?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, right after the ukelele, I got a thing called a banjo
ukelele, which plays like a ukelele but looked like a banjo. I think it cost
about 15 bucks. I got it for Christmas one year. Then I got a baritone
ukelele. It's like a ukelele, but it's bigger, kind of like a really small
guitar, and then I advanced up to the guitar 'cause the first four strings on
a guitar are the same notes as a ukelele, basically, so I advanced.
GROSS: Did you get lessons on any of this?
Mr. YOUNG: I had two guitar lessons in 1962.
GROSS: Well, I take--it took you a long way, I guess.
Mr. YOUNG: Well, it took me a long time to get to the place where I had to
take them, and I hated those lessons. I never could understand what they were
trying to show me, so...
GROSS: What did you hate about them?
Mr. YOUNG: ...I don't think I learned anything.
GROSS: What did you hate about the rest of them?
Mr. YOUNG: I don't know. I didn't remember. I tried to block it all out of
my head. I don't even remember what they were trying to show me. It's one of
those things I didn't enjoy that luckily my mind works such that now I don't
remember any of it. I don't even remember walking in the door. It's all
GROSS: Are there any things that you taught yourself that are officially
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah. Sure, all kinds of things, like--officially wrong
for guitar playing, you mean?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Mr. YOUNG: Ah. Well, playing out of tune is pretty wrong. I do that
regularly. And I will continue playing out of tune if I think it has some
kind of a sound. And, you know, usually I'm--you know, my sound mixer, Tim
Mulligan, has been working with me for about 30 years. He comes up to me
and says, `Now, listen, your guitar sounds a lot bigger'--he just told me this
yesterday. He said, `Your sound is a lot bigger when you're in tune. So why
don't you just take a minute and tune up in between songs, you know, if
you'--so the other night, I actually stopped and I gave my guitar to Larry, my
guitar tech, and he tuned it right in the middle of--you know, I'm not that
good at tuning. I got these Strobotuners and I use them, but it's
distracting. Tuning is distracting.
There's something about--and then when I have to take my guitar off and have
somebody else tune it, I feel like I'm naked up there. I don't know what the
hell to do with myself standing there in front of all these people screaming
and yelling 'cause we just tore the house down doing something and then I
don't have my guitar. I'm waiting for it to be tuned, you know? It's a very
kind of vulnerable moment when I don't have the guitar. So rather than tune
or do anything, I just want to keep playing because I know how to play, you
know? So that's--I get in trouble there. That's majorly wrong to play out of
tune and I do that a lot.
GROSS: That's great that you play out of tune because you can't give up your
Mr. YOUNG: That's right. I try to keep it in tune, you know? I have a lot
of ways of hiding being out of tune.
GROSS: Your guitar playing just keeps evolving and, I mean, there are so many
different voices and styles that you can use to such kind of dramatic or
emotional effect. I'm wondering: Do you think that that comes in part from
always listening to new things or is what you're playing not related to what's
coming in as input?
Mr. YOUNG: You know, guitar playing is--you know, I guess a metaphor for
guitar playing would deep-earth mining or something. You just keep banging
away, blowing through and trying to get to the core and just keep on going and
melting through layers and just keep pushing. And I, you know, try to keep an
air hose going so you can get back and so you can get a breath, but you've got
to get as deep as you can and go down and keep digging. And that's what
guitar playing is like for me. Every solo I'm looking for a way to go deeper.
I'm looking for which--how am I going to lose myself? How can I get to a
point where nothing matters? How can I stop thinking? How can I lose track
of what's going on and still be in sync? Those are the goals of guitar
GROSS: Now do you want to stop thinking in a kind of meditative sense, that
it feels good and it's a kind of good state to be in to stop thinking, or do
you want to stop thinking because thinking interferes with playing?
Mr. YOUNG: Thinking is in the way. You know, it's just in the way. It's all
about feeling and there is some kind of an ability to play that happens
because your mind is doing something. It's saying, `OK. Now you can do this.
Now you can do that.' But that's more like tools that I have when I'm boring
BIANCULLI: Neil Young speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Neil Young. His
newest album "Prairie Wind" has just been released.
GROSS: When you were younger, were you obsessive about technique and did you
get enough kind of technique through obsession that enabled you to, like, stop
thinking it and go for emotion?
Mr. YOUNG: The first time, you know, I remember--maybe I was 17 or something
and I was playing, and, you know, I worked on things. I learned songs. I
wrote a lot of instrumentals myself and I practiced them and get to play them
and everything, but they didn't have a lot of improvisation in them. And, you
know, they had melodies and I liked the melodies, and then I started singing
and I liked the way it felt when I sang a certain melody and got a certain
sound. But really, God, guitar playing and thinking is so deep, I just--the
guitar playing itself is--you know, when I was young--I think I was about
17--I was playing in this little club and I had my band and we were doing a
cover song. We played a song by The Premiers called "Farmer John," and there
were some other musicians around. And one of them was a really, really good
guitar player and he really could just bend the strings on his Telecaster and
he really just made the thing sing. I thought he was fantastic. He had to
be, like, 21 or something and I was, like, 17. And I did something on my
guitar where we started playing this song and then we got into the
instrumental and I just basically went nuts.
And I think it was the first time it ever happened, and I just kept playing
and I just kept going and going and grinding and just pounding away at this
rhythmic thing and then exploring the little nuances of it. And I think we--I
don't know how many minutes it went on and on, and when I came off stage, the
guy walked up to me and said, `Where the hell did you learn how to do that?'
He said, `What are you doing?' And I said, `What do you mean, what am I
doing? It's the same thing I've been doing.' And he said, `Oh, no, no, no.
If--no, I don't know what you're doing,' you know, and he knew, like, 200,000
more chords than I did and all the scales and everything and he just said, `I
just don't know what you're doing.' He said, `What did you do?'
And at that point, you know, I realized, `Well, there's a place I can go,' and
I just kind of fell into it by accident and I think I've spent the rest of my
life trying to get there.
GROSS: Now can you compare that to singing? Is there a place vocally for you
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, but I'm not a very good singer. And, you know, like, I
don't have real good pitch control and especially have trouble singing freely.
Like, I can sing a melody and I can sing words, and I can put them together
with chords and get a feeling going, but the way Otis Redding sang, you know,
that soulful, free-flowing expression, I have trouble with that. I have
trouble opening up enough to really open up my soul and let things go. I
really, you know--and when I try to do it, every once in a while I get there
and it kind of feels like that first guitar solo felt to me. But, you know,
when I try to go back, it's, like, `Oh, you're just trying to do the same
thing over again that you did before.' It's not like I'm entering a new
domain. It's like I'm copying something. So I still haven't figured out how
to get to that space.
GROSS: But I love your singing.
Mr. YOUNG: Well, thank you, and I'm trying.
GROSS: You know, I'm listening to your speaking voice and I'm thinking about
your singing voice in that, you know, you have a pretty big range singing and
you sing lower and you sing higher up, but your higher-up voice is, you know,
considerably higher, I think, than most of your speaking voice.
Mr. YOUNG: Well, I've been on the road here for a better part of a year,
so--and I just finished a show last night and--you know, about 150 miles away
from here. And I did a show the night before that about 300 miles away from
that. And I've driven to those places and driven back from the city and, you
know, so my voice is a lot lower right now than it naturally would be if I
wasn't on the road.
GROSS: Some of the images that you've used today are so good, like your image
about guitar playing and about, you know, going deeper down--I mean, just a
really nice image. And I was wondering--I know that your father was a
sportswriter. Do you think you were influenced at all languagewise being the
son of a writer?
Mr. YOUNG: Well, I think there's always that influence.
GROSS: Now, of course, there's your lyrics, too. I'm just thinking about...
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...hearing you talk. But, I mean, you've written, you know, lyrics
throughout your whole career.
Mr. YOUNG: Well, you know, my dad wrote a lot of stories, and he...
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, fiction and non-fiction, but he did write a lot of fiction,
and he used to try to write a little bit every day, and I'm not like that. I
only try to write when I feel like writing, but if I feel like writing, I
don't care what else is going on. I won't do it. I will write, and I think
that's why I've written so many songs. If an idea comes to me out of nowhere,
I look at it like a gift. It's not a distraction. Everything else in the
room is a distraction. I don't care what it is. So in that way, I'm
committed to the muse. I roll with the muse. Wherever it goes, if it comes
to me, I'm going with it. That's what got me where I am today and that's what
made it so that I could create all these things and so that I could put all
these people to work that I have, and I have an affect on a lot of people.
And just all the things I've been able to do are all because of being faithful
to that one thing and realizing that all of this is all coming from somewhere
else, and you just have to be there and ready with open arms to take it in,
and then send it back out in a form that people can understand or people can
GROSS: Neil Young, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. YOUNG: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Neil Young speaking with Terry Gross last year. His new acoustic
CD, "Prairie Wind," has just been released. "Prairie Wind" also includes a
DVD documenting the recording session. Here's another song from that CD.
(Soundbite of "Far From Home")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) When I was a growing boy and rocking on my daddy's
knee, Daddy took an old guitar and sang, "Bury Me On The Lone Prairie."(ph)
Uncle Bob sat at the piano. My girl cousins sang harmony. Those were the
good old family times that left a big mark on me.
Bury me out on the prairie where the buffalo used to roam, where the Canada
geese once filled the sky, and then I won't be far from home. Bury me out on
the prairie where the buffalo used to roam. You won't have to shed a tear for
me, 'cause then I won't be far from home.
BIANCULLI: That's "Far From Home" from the new Neil Young CD "Prairie Wind."
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Capote," the new film biography of the
writer Truman Capote. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film "Capote," based on Truman Capote's life
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
In 1959, four members of a Kansas family were murdered in their home and the
capture, conviction and execution of their killers became the basis of Truman
Capote's 1965 best-seller "In Cold Blood." Capote died in 1984 at the age of
59 never having completed another major work. Film critic David Edelstein
says the new film suggests why.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
"Capote" tells the story behind the story of the writing of "In Cold Blood"
through the prism of Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and The Murderer."
That brilliant book-length essay on the journalist's inevitable betrayal of
his or her subject begins with the provocative and I think madly overheated
assertion that, quote, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of
himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally
As directed by Bennett Miller and written by Dan Futterman, who cites Malcolm
in interviews, the grim story of Truman Capote and his seminal non-fiction
masterpiece becomes a tale of duplicity and self-loathing, of the loss of a
writer's soul and the beginning of the end of his artistry. The title
character, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is the droll dandy that many of
us remember from Capote's TV appearances in the '60s and '70s. He's the
oddball homosexual Southerner with a voice that suggests at once suckling and
conniving, the voice of a baby mad scientist. A master manipulator, he speaks
so slowly that people have to stop and hang on every self-consciously dazzling
word. He has a cult in the boho salons of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but how
will his act play in Kansas?
That's where Capote heads in 1959 along with his doting friend, the novelist
Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, when he reads of the inexplicable
slaughter of an entire family, the Clutters, in their remote farmhouse.
Capote cuts a bizarre figure in the American heartland but he uses his
celebrity and the power of his magazine, The New Yorker, to open both official
doors and jail cells. It's in the latter that he develops a tender intimacy
with one of the Clutters' killers, Perry Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr.
(Soundbite from "Capote")
Mr. CLIFTON COLLINS Jr.: (As Perry Smith) We're going to be able to use your
book for our case. You're right, we never got to raise an insanity plea. You
wrote how terrible the lawyers was.
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I haven't written a word yet.
Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) Well, what have you been doing?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Research, talking to you.
Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) All right.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) I had hoped...
Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) What are you calling it?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) The book? I have no idea. Perry, if I'm going to
write about you, if I'm going to determine how to write about you, we need to
talk about why you're here and the murders that night at the Clutter house.
EDELSTEIN: Of course, Capote has started writing and has got his title. He
just doesn't plan to finish "In Cold Blood" until Smith and his cohort,
Richard Hickcock, have been hung. That must be the book's big finale. And
while Capote cares for Smith, maybe even adores him, he becomes desperate to
see him executed so he can finish.
Over the years it takes for the killers to exhaust their appeals, Capote's
inner conflict between his empathy and opportunism eats him alive. The movie
is slow and gets slower as it crawls to the big scene of Capote extracting
from Smith the story of the murders, presented here as a triumphant piece of
vampirism. It's powerful and eerie, but I think something's missing. Capote
and his work transcended that vampirism and "In Cold Blood" fostered more
understanding of why people kill than any book I know. I don't know how
Futterman and Bennett could have conveyed the depth and humanity of Capote's
writing on screen, but a film that ignores this alchemy of creation, that
presents the book only in the context of Capote's celebrity and Janet
Malcolm-esque exploitation, isn't telling the full story.
The distorted mirror image that Capote told friends he saw in Smith is more
talked about than dramatized, but the actors fill in much. As Smith, Collins
finds the perfect mixture of neediness and cunning. And Hoffman--talk about
alchemy. He's much bigger than Capote, but framed to look short. The first
few minutes, you're aware of the nightclub impersonation aspect, but Hoffman
reportedly listened to many tapes of Capote, and sometimes when gifted and
porous actors faithfully duplicate the stammers and pauses of their subjects,
the spirit enters into them.
Hoffman lays bare this whiny, wheedling, self-absorbed little man who
nonetheless could see more deeply than almost anyone alive, if only the movie
did more than hint at the genius behind what he saw.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for Slate.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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