Inside Neil Young's Nature-Themed Opus

Inside Neil Young's Nature-Themed Opus

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You can hear him from the hallway. Neil Young is kicked back on a couch in the center of his suite at New York’s Carlyle Hotel one recent morning, stabbing away at the strings of his acoustic guitar. His wet hair is combed back and he’s wearing a T-shirt that says “Earth,” with jeans and sandals. He places his beat-up 1940s Martin – previous owner: Hank Williams – next to him on the couch. “Sit down, make yourself at home,” he says. Just then, his Samsung phone rings; the ringtone is his own voice shouting “Hello?!” He picks up – a wrong number. “I’ll just turn it off, that’ll solve it.”

Young is in the middle of a quick New York trip, and, as is typical for him, his schedule is ever-shifting. He just decided to do a sketch on The Tonight Show, forcing his team to cancel several interviews today. In front of Young are lyrics to the comedy bit, a song called “Two Neil Youngs Sitting on a Tree Stump,” sent to him by Jimmy Fallon. Young doesn’t like singing his own name, so he’s been tweaking the words with help from his manager, Elliot Roberts. “You’re gonna get a credit on this one,” Young says to Roberts with a smile.

Roberts, 73, has worked with Young since the late Sixties, and the two still speak several times a day. “I’ve never seen him happier,” Roberts says. That’s a recent development, however. In the past few years, several of Young’s close pals died, including longtime film collaborator Larry Johnson and guitarist Ben Keith – losses that Young took hard. Then, in 2014, he parted ways with Pegi Young, his wife of 36 years, and moved out of Broken Arrow Ranch, the property in Redwood City, California, he had since 1970. “I got a divorce, and I gave my wife the ranch,” he says matter-of-factly. (His son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, still lives at the ranch: “All his support systems are there.”)

Inside Neil Young's Nature Themed Opus news

Young is dating actress Daryl Hannah, who said a big hello as she stepped into the hotel elevator just now. The couple live in L.A., putting Young in the city “for the first time since Zuma.” The move has allowed Young to reconnect with several old friends. “I was so remote for so long,” he says. “All my old friends are now just a few miles away.” One is Stephen Stills, who’s been making music with Young lately. Stills and other friends, including Graham Nash and the members of Crazy Horse, celebrated Young’s 70th birthday in November at L.A.’s Roxy. “Daryl put together a great party,” Young says. “I felt really loved.”

Hannah has helped Young focus on his health, with an organic diet, regular Pilates and a lot of walking. “I like to listen to the animals,” he says. “I like to track the beauty of what’s going on. I enjoy being with the plants and stuff.” Young aimed to capture that beauty on Earth, a new live album featuring his most environmentally conscious songs, from “After the Gold Rush” to tracks from last year’s The Monsanto Years, on which he attacked the agrochemical giant as a jumping-off point to sound the alarm on the planet’s decline. Young spent months enhancing Earth with animal and nature sounds – bees, roosters, crashing waves – that he recorded himself near his house. “There’s a lot going on in the world that isn’t all lovey-dovey and cool beach songs,” he says. “I’ve done all of that.” A week after Earth‘s release, Young put out a new version of Human Highway, a 1982 film comedy that he co-directed, about a nuclear disaster that ends the world.

“I arrived in L.A. and joined Buffalo Springfield in 1966,” Young continues. “Since then, we’ve lost 90 percent of the fish we eat from the ocean. There’s only 10 percent of them left, and there’s three times as many of us.” He shakes his head. “It’s math.”

Even for Young, the past decade has been full of left turns. He finally agreed to a Buffalo Springfield reunion tour in 2011, but canceled it after seven shows because he was disappointed with their playing, according to a representative for Young. He’s ramped up his output, releasing theme albums like Fork in the Road, a love letter to his custom electric Lincoln Continental, and A Letter Home, cut in a 1947 recording booth at Third Man Records in Nashville. “This is the age where you should have freedom to do whatever you want and put it out.” 

Inside Neil Young's Nature Themed Opus news

The only problem, according to Young, is getting that music heard. His music is not available on streaming services aside from Tidal, which supports high-quality audio. He spent several years developing his high-resolution Pono music player, which has struggled to catch on. “Technology has done a disservice to music,” he says. “I think there’s a place for rebel radio, with special receivers, where jocks play what they want: vinyl, new stuff, old stuff, and it’s all analog. Because there’s no variety. It’s all, like, GMO music.”

But Young has plowed ahead anyway. “Just because everything else is broken doesn’t mean I have to be broken,” he says. On Earth, he’s backed by Promise of the Real, a band featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas, 27, and Micah, 26. Young first played with them at Farm Aid in 2014, and they have been with him since. They usually join Young onstage after his acoustic set, and roadies in hazmat suits pretend to spray the stage with chemicals. “They have no fear,” says Young, who loves the three-guitar attack he forms with the Nelsons. “They’re much better players than I am. Lukas is like a gunslinger, and Micah is very ethereal and spaced. So they’re completely different, and I’m somewhere in between.” Where Crazy Horse attack Young’s songs with a garage-y simplicity, Promise of the Real add virtuosity and youthful energy. They grew up on Young’s songs (their band name is inspired by a lyric from “Walk On”), and they’ve learned more than 100 of them, playing three-hour sets including rarities like 1974’s “Vampire Blues.” “I’ve always wanted to do this, but no one has ever been able to follow it,” Young says.

Recording The Monsanto Years, Young and the band drank lots of Amazonian yerba maté tea and smoked homegrown pot in the studio. “He seems like he’s 25,” says Micah. “He gets deeper with age. And danker.”

After he wraps his current tour in October, Young will continue work on Archives II, the follow-up to 2009’s Archives, which collected unreleased material up to 1972. Young says the project will include Dume, an album of songs from the Zuma era, and Hitchhiker, an acoustic LP from the mid-Seventies. The major holdup has been developing technology for presenting the ambitious project: “We’re gonna have a website that’s, like, 60 years of music in chronological order, with links so you can look at my archives and play the music off the high-res source at the same time.” So what’s it like to reflect on all he’s accomplished over the years? “I don’t,” he says. “I need to take a break and go to the bathroom.”

In October, Young and Promise of the Real will play California’s Desert Trip, with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Roger Waters. “I was amazed that I was asked to be in it,” Young says. But don’t expect him to cater to the audience with a set full of hits. “I don’t give a shit,” he says. “I don’t care what people want to hear – that’s not why I’m playing. I’m not an entertainer in the classic sense. I play what I feel like playing, and I hope the people like it.”

From The Archives Issue 1265: July 14, 2016

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