Neil Young: gifted and back

He's furious about the war in Iraq, but can see the good in George Bush. He's passionate about the environment, but drives the biggest gas-guzzler on earth. Edward Helmore meets Neil Young, the most contrary man in rock
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The Independent Online

Anti-terrorist barricades have been set up outside the hotel. President Bush is in town for the opening of UN General Assembly, so midtown is at a standstill. It's fashion week downtown, Hurricane Ophelia hangs over the city, and last night Young and his manager, Elliott Roberts, missed The Rolling Stones' concert at Madison Square Garden because they were stuck in a traffic jam caused by a burning man jumping off the bridge into the Hudson River.

"This sure is a jumpin' place," Young remarks in his wry, deadpan Canadian manner.

Young, who could pass in aspect and manner for a reasonably prosperous Midwestern farmer, is promoting his new record, Prairie Wind. Written quickly (some songs in less than 20 minutes) and recorded live with a band at Roy Orbison's old studio in Nashville, it is a collection of deeply personal heartfelt songs prompted by the death of his father, the sports broadcaster Scott Young, and his own brush with mortality in March, when he suffered a brain aneurysm on his way to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and had to undergo emergency surgery.

Whether you prefer your Neil Young rocking out with Crazy Horse in the style of Ragged Glory, in the drug-soaked utopian nihilism of On The Beach, as the country rocker of After the Gold Rush or, as here, as the singer-songwriter balladeer, Prairie Wind stands in good company with two of his acoustic-centred stand-outs, Harvest and Harvest Moon. The songs, he says, "are about my family, my family history, life in general, what's going at the moment".

At a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina this weekend in Chicago, he plans to dust off "Southern Man"; in a tie with "Ohio" as his most overtly political, angry song.

"I haven't played 'Southern Man' in years but I'm going to play it because I think it makes sense today," he says. In the ballroom of Fortress Blair, Young's anger is plain.

"We shouldn't be fighting this war in Iraq," he says. "I don't understand why we're there. We're probably not going to win anything and we're making enemies faster than we can kill 'em." And, he says, nobody's asking the questions that make you think.

"I'd like to be a reporter for The New York Times or wherever and stand up and say: 'Mr President, you tell us we're in the process of liberating Iraq, and we've had this big disaster in New Orleans. Bangladesh gave us $20,000 and that's a big thing for them. So how about our brothers we've liberated in Iraq? Where's the money from them? You tell us we're liberating them so why don't they care? Why don't they support us?'"

Young leans forward. "It's obvious to me that they don't support us 'cause they don't like us. But no one asks the questions..." Instead of government for the people, Young believes we are in a war being fought between two fundamentalist religious groups. "The ones we have in this country and the one in the mountains of Pakistan, or wherever they are."

But priority is not the war in Iraq ("war has been going on since the beginning of time so that's not unusual") rather what's going on with the environment. "For me it's the main story now," he says. "But the people running countries these days are only paying attention to commerce and politics. They don't see what's going on right in front of them."

In Young's grandfather's and great-grandfather's time there were still buffalo on the plains of Manitoba; on his father's farm the sun would be blocked out by migrating Canada geese overhead. "It was awesome. But now we don't have that."

The birds, he says, "are a messenger to mankind. When you see a horror movie and the birds leave it means something very bad is coming. In nature when the birds are depleted and they leave a whole area that means something very big. It's the kind of sign that's lost on politicians. In the old days, in the days of the Indians, the Indians would be freaking out, everybody would be freaking out..."

A sense of space is important to the singer. It's what he knows, after all - in his part of Manitoba it's so flat that you can see a grain elevator 100ft tall from 60 miles away.

Young hopes the British are taking more care. Told of the divisiveness between town and country in the UK, he says: "Well, there are too many people in the city and they've got too much power. In the city you can't see the sky. You can't see the signs you can when you're out in the country that things are changing. I hope [on the issue of the Kyoto Protocol and climate change control] Blair isn't doing what Blair usually does, which is just follow Bush around."

But as always with ecological concern, the test is in one's action. At home on his ranch in the Pacific Northwest, Young drives a military-issue H-1 Hn petrol that burns bio-diesel made from vegetable oil. Depending on what crop the batch of fuel is made from - he keeps a 500-gallon tank at home - the exhaust smells like soy or bread. Besides being environmentally friendly, it's an excellent way to get up the noses of the motoring self-righteous.

"It's so politically incorrect it's perfect," he says. "You can really make an impression. People see it coming, they hate it. They think you're the enemy. Then it goes by and they see 'Bio-Diesel' 'Farmed-Fuel!' 'Go Earth!' written down the side and they see it's probably cleaner than the car they're driving."

Just as his nickname, Shakey, implies, Young is unpredictable. He may never have been the hippie peacenik the hippies wanted him to be, nor the "Rockin' in the Free World" all-American others may have desired. Nor, despite his status as the "godfather of grunge", was he ever the doomed fatalist suggested by "it's better to burn out than fade away", a line from "Hey Hey My My!". He has often been misinterpreted, in part because he's not prepared to dismiss people he doesn't agree with.

"The most ridiculous example I can think of is George Bush, who I totally disagree with. But he's a very steady leader with a lot of dedication, surety and feeling - but he's going exactly in the wrong direction. I wish people who felt like me had a leader with as much conviction."

He also resents being pigeonholed musically. Sometimes he's with Crazy Horse, sometimes with Booker T and the MGs, then he's with an organ or Hank Williams' guitar.

"I do something until I'm worn out on it. I'll wake up some morning and I just don't have it any more for what I'm doing. I just don't have the spark for it, so I think OK, that's it. So I do something else. If all I did was the same thing I'd be pretty bored."

His old friend Bob Dylan recently gave him a copy of Goodbye Babylon, a box collection of gospel and early country roots music that he is going to be listening to. Young and Dylan grew up within a few hundred miles of each other at about the same time. They probably listened to the same AM radio stations, saw the same revue shows travelling across the Midwest. He has read Dylan's recent autobiography, Chronicles, closely.

"It's an interesting point of view," he says. "Some of it is incredibly funny. It's very tongue-in-cheek. You can't tell if he's pulling your leg, making it all up like it's one of his songs. That's the beauty of it. It's always been the same with Bob. From the beginning to now, the quality of his songs is great. He's a natural writer and craftsman, and a reflection and extension of the history of American music."

Young has no plans to write his own memoirs. Instead, the first of several volumes documenting everything he has ever recorded, which took 15 years to compile, will be released in the spring.

Still, it is imperative to move forward. "You can't pretend to be the person you were 30 years ago," he says. "And who would want that that? You can't recreate what you've already done. The people who try to become stale caricatures of themselves."

Instead, he tries to be true to the music. "As long as you do that it keeps coming back. Like a wild animal you fed once, it'll come back and see you again. But if you stop feeding it, and you stop paying attention, or make a lot of noise and scare the hell out it, it certainly won't."

It's his family and this kind of musical husbandry, of being specifically sensitive to his gift, that keeps Neil Young going. So, is it "burn out" or "fade away"?

He says: "You can take it very literally, meaning, 'OK, it's better to explode in a bunch of flame than to fade away into the distance doing something meaningless.' On the other hand, burning out can take a long time..."

'Prairie Wind' (Reprise) is released on 3 October