July 14, 2008
By Kaleem Aftab
In 2006, Neil Young reunited with Crosby, Stills and Nash to protest against the Iraq war. Now he's made a film about the tour. Kaleem Aftab hears why
Neil Young looks every inch the ageing music legend, with his unkempt hair, and an attitude that makes no bones about being the centre of attention. He's in the middle of a tour of summer festivals and, at 62, he's still a headline act.
Much has been written about Young the musician - his disputes with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, his songs with Buffalo Springfield, and work with Crazy Horse. Less is known about his film directing, where he dons the moniker Bernard Shakey - a reference to his epilepsy.
His new film is CSNY: Dej Vu, a documentary on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Freedom of Speech tour that travelled around the States in the run-up to the mid-term elections of 2006. The band perform the 10 songs from Young's solo album Living with War, and some CSNY numbers, including their protest classic "Ohio". The gist of the documentary is that the folly of the war in Iraq more than echoes the mistakes of Vietnam. Archive footage of CSNY's anti- Vietnam concerts is juxtaposed with footage from the 2006 tour.
Young has directed five feature films under the guise of Shakey. His first, Journey through the Past (1974), had echoes of Godard's Rolling Stones documentary Sympathy for the Devil. There was another concert film, Rust Never Sleeps, and in 1982, the bizarre fictional effort with Dean Stockwell in which Young starred, Neil Young: Human Highway. The Shakey credit reappeared in 2003 with the musical Greendale, which tied in with the album of the same name.
Despite CSNY: Dej Vu being a concert film, Young says he's uninterested in self-portraits: "At this point in my life, directing things that are just about myself would be a waste of my time. When I'm doing a film I want to do a subject where there is something else going on besides just me on a stage."
Young's first brush with the world of cinema was when he refused to be filmed up close at Woodstock, the gig that made CSNY household names in 1969. I ask if Young regrets being so obstructive. His response is unequivocal: "No, I was right at the time. That was a turning point when music was turning into an industry instead of a direct communication between the musician and the audience. So my view was that cameras had no place on stage. They could shoot from far away and that wouldn't bother me at all and that is the way I do most of my filming today, using a long lens."
In his desperation to avoid being tainted by commercialism, he claims never to have made a music video. I point out that he does have music videos on the Living with War website, and Young replies, "They're a different kind of video, we're imitating television. On the site there are 10 or 20 videos and some of them are the 'making of' the songs and others are war footage. But they're not meant to sell records, they're not like advertisements, like most music videos are."
The Living With War album is his most successful in years. The Canadian star is not surprised that it made a splash, nor does he delude himself as to why there was a re-ignition of interest in his music. "It was the issue, the Iraq war, it wasn't because of me that made people interested," he says. "I've been around for so long that it's no big deal if I come out with another album. Thank God I've got enough people still interested in what I'm doing so that I can still make records. But I've never had so many personal reactions from the press and from the people than from this album. It's because of people's deep-seated feeling about America."
This is highlighted in the film when, at a concert in Atlanta, a large number of the attendees walk out when CSNY sing "Let's Impeach the President". Young denies being a provocateur or trying to be a politician, but I'm struck by the fact that he often talks in slick soundbites that would make him fit right in at Capitol Hill.
The history of CSNY is notorious for the acrimony between the band members, with Young often portrayed as an arrogant, divisive figure, always wanting to be the centre of attention. Young claims that the press have blown the disputes out of proportion. I point out that even in his new film, his fellow band-mates ironically refer to him as their "benevolent leader".
"They're just talking about the Living with War project, because I had written all the songs - that put me in a position where that was what I had to do. I had 10 songs that I'd written and we were going to perform. That is a lot of songs for them to learn."
Having just made a film that is at pains to compare the present day with the past, he says: "I try not to look back, because I'm looking forward. I'm worried about where I'll be next week, there are a lot of things to do and need to be done. So I don't look back."
So what is on his mind? "What is the big difference between Darfur and Iraq? It's all about energy and if I get excited about anything now, it is new music or energy. Those are the two subjects that I'm most concerned with."
Young says the word "energy" more than any other. He's currently obsessed with the idea of building an environmentally friendly bio- diesel car that will "eliminate fuel stations". He is making a documentary about this Linc Volt project that will show the car being delivered from California to Kansas and then driven to Detroit.
I ask if he only continues to perform on stage to create awareness of the energy problem. "I don't have to perform to keep in the public eye. What I do now on the musical stage really makes no difference at all. I'm only doing it now because I love to do it. I don't have to do it for any other reason, other than to finance some of the engineering endeavours that I'm doing."
'CSNY: Dej Vu' is out on 18 July
(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.