Dearborn, Michigan – barrelling west on the 401 with Neil Young’s Greendale blasting through the speakers, it’s easy to be swept up by the album’s urgent pro-environment message. I’m racing past beautiful countryside freshly dusted with snow while dodging the debris that spills out of the huge transport trucks crowding the highway. The dirty 18-wheelers are on their way to Michigan to dump Toronto’s garbage, and I’m headed for suburban Detroit to talk with Canada’s rock god.
When Young strangely lurched to the political right in the 80s, singing songs soft on Ronald Reagan, Joni Mitchell assured me during an interview that “Neil will be back – he just has to explore.”
Well, he’s back big time and raging against George Bush’s “illegal” war, mega-corporations and the music industry.
When he joins me in a hotel bar just blocks from Ford world headquarters, he cracks the first of many smiles, noticing I’ve already ordered a beer.
“Since you’re a Canadian, I better have a beer with you – I must have a beer with you,” says Young, wearing an iconic red flannel shirt. I have a true Wayne’s World moment as we clink glasses, exchange cheers and tuck into our drinks.
Young is two weeks away from wrapping a tour in support of the excellent Greendale disc that launched as the bombs were falling on Baghdad last March and most Americans were still relishing what was supposed to be an easy war.
The album spins a surprising narrative set in a small California town, lashing out at intrusive, monopolized media, war and enemies of the earth.
It’s one of his best in years, and it’s also spawned a strange but poetic film of the same name that opens in Toronto this week.
The film, like the arena rock show, features mostly amateur actors performing the actions of the story as Young blasts out the songs.
“At first nobody had any idea what I was doing,” says Young. “The war was in full bloom, and people were really emotional both ways, pro and con. It was fantastic.”
A fake Clear Channel billboard on the stage reads “Support Our War,” and initially people cheered it, then got the gag and screamed their protest.
“Both sides were there. They’re all my fans, so I tried not to draw conclusions for people. Personally, I think the war is illegal and it’s a travesty, it’s justice trashed. And like somebody in Haiti said on a protest sign, ‘America gets an F-minus in democracy.’
“The war with Iraq and the occupation were obviously done for oil and revenge. Those are the American motives, controlling the flow of oil, which is now miraculously stronger than it was before the invasion. Yet they destroyed the museums, lost all the art and had no plans for protecting the culture.”
Young thinks big media like CNN and Clear Channel are selling the Bush agenda.
“Why is it that Martha Stewart is getting more headlines for a $200,000 infraction than (Vice-President Dick Cheney’s former company, U.S. military supplier) Halliburton for a $61-million infraction against the American people? Stewart’s crime wasn’t against the American people, it was just a company she was trading. It wasn’t like she was trading in somebody’s future or taking away someone’s Social Security. But the media’s obviously controlled.”
While Young thinks America is “slipping into darkness,” he’s encouraged by the record voter turnouts in the Democratic primaries.
“It doesn’t matter who the hell they vote for as long as they vote Democratic. So there will be change as long as there’s a fair election.”
As always, Young has great faith in youth. Eighteen-year-old social activist Sun Green is the star, and hope, in the sometimes tough Greendale story, just as young people are the stars in Young’s world. A media critic and political skeptic, Green’s rising activism gives the movie its wheels.
“I just hope people can take pride in having an opinion, in being active on what they believe in. There is no reason to lie down just because some conservative government is saying environmentalism is passé and you’re a bunch of tree huggers. They try to make it unfashionable to have a conscience about things you believe in if they’re counter to the government.
“They’re trying to paint it as a 60s thing, but they’re in for a big surprise. It may not be this year, but if Bush wins there will be a lot of activism because there’s no other recourse. Right now people think we might be able to get the presidency back, but if they can’t get it back and this guy has nothing to lose in a second term, then all hell’s going to break loose.
“It’s fertile ground for the type of revolution we had in the 60s, right now. Absolutely.”
What’s so different about today?
“There was no reason for revolution during the Clinton years. He wasn’t a fundamentalist imposing his religion and values on everybody. Now we have a president who barely scraped into office no matter how you look at it – he either stole it or scraped in – and he’s treating the American public like he has a huge mandate. He’s making gigantic sweeping changes in the country’s way of life, values and morality.
“He hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Well, he’s got one leg, he doesn’t have two. Fifty per cent of the people voted against him. He’s standing on one leg making all of these big changes. All you have to do is hit him in the ankle and he’s gone that’s really where Bush is at.”
Young sits back on the couch, taking a long sip of his beer, his mutton-chop sideburns framing a now troubled face.
“It makes me long for the simple days of Canada. You have a government that has its problems, too, but they seem to be a little more innocent and idealistic up there. It’s pretty trashed down here right now.”
Young’s a look-you-in-the-eye kind of guy. His fire burns hot, but there’s always a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Despite a mythically successful career, he’s still a driven outsider not prepared to coast. Young’s 40-year run has seen him veer madly across musical genres, from soft-singing folkie to raging rocker and country crooner, always ready to challenge himself and his audience, often with spectacular results. He’s also probably the only musician ever to be sued by his record label because it felt an album he delivered was unreleasable. The label was wrong.
“I can’t do anything in the record industry, or especially radio, because it’s so controlled by corporations. There’s nowhere to go. I’m out of fashion, I don’t contribute to what they’re playing, I’ve gone a different way. The songs are all over five minutes, and to get on radio you have to make so many concessions it’s not worth it. You have to water down the songs, they have to be short, and you can’t talk about certain things.
“I’ve made records for a long time, and I loved music and I still love music, but making records is not as important to me as it used to be.
“I used to use it to effect transcendence, some sort of uplifting feeling emotionally with the audience. The digital media that music is distributed through doesn’t allow for that any more – psychologically and emotionally, that doesn’t happen.”
Young has been a party-pooper against CDs since they were invented and is just as opposed to digital cameras. He used Super-8 to make the Greendale film.
“CDs don’t do it. The information isn’t there, and there isn’t enough variety in the information that’s carrying the music. It doesn’t have the depth of the media we were using before digital. While the master was the best and everything else a copy, in digital the master is clonable but doesn’t have nearly the depth of the master I used to make before the 80s.
“The pure joy of making records and listening to what you created was lost in 1982. These two things wore me down: not being able to get on the radio, and having the records not sound as good as they did before, when I started making records.”
Back then “I had the joy of mixing and listening to it and taking it home and listening to it again. Smoke a J and sit there and listen to it maybe 10, 15 times in a row, just feeling it. People don’t do that any more because digital doesn’t allow that to happen. You can go for content instead of going for transcendence and a kind of washing of the soul you’ve got to go for intellectual content, and digital allows that through.
“Those are two strikes against what I do, so I’m going to another ballpark, somewhere else. I’ll keep putting out albums, and eventually I’ll strike out. I’ll have all three strikes and there won’t even be a reason to put it out other than to support a film.”
At the mention of film, Young lights up again.
“Film is totally driving me. I’m making a change. There’s no way to get my music out there – the only way to get it noticed is to do a film. If I can make a film well enough to get attention so people know there’s a record, then that’s what I should do.”
But Greendale is not remotely a traditional film. The actors only occasionally mouth the lyrics Young is singing, and they never speak formal dialogue. In Greendale, the action and visuals are to the film what a soundtrack is to a traditional movie.
At Austin’s SXSW, legendary indie director and sometime Young collaborator Jim Jarmusch raved to me about Greendale. Young sent Jarmusch an early version of the film for input.
“I would like to think that this is the first of an evolving form, ” says Young. “It’s a new form for me, and it may be a new form period. It sits in between – it doesn’t try to be a film, but it’s not a video. It’s not trying not to be a film.”
Young made Greendale with a $500 camera for under $500,000, and “there was nobody in the film I didn’t know.
“I didn’t want to go outside my own circle. I didn’t want to talk to people’s agents. I didn’t want PR press people around the actors working in the film trying to further their careers, doing interviews with People magazine. I don’t want to have anything to do with that. I think I’ve shown you don’t have to be part of the film industry to make a film.
“I don’t want to use anybody else’s money,” says Young, leaning into his point. “I don’t want anybody to be telling me what I should be doing. I don’t want anybody to feel like they own me, like I have to do something because they gave me $10 million to make a movie and now I’ve got to pacify three executives.”
Not surprisingly, Young dismisses digital cameras as too perfect, too much like TV, and says his next film might be in 16 or 35mm, maybe black-and-white.
“I like the lo-fi guerrilla approach because it suits my music. It suits the sound it looks like I sound. It’s breaking up on the edges. You can tell what it is, and you can feel it. It leaves you enough room to explore your imagination, because everything’s not so clear, you’re not told everything. You’ll always leave the film with the feeling that you haven’t seen it, that you missed something.
“Records used to bear up to repeated listening, and I want to make films that bear up to repeated viewings. You go to a small theatre with 5.1 sound and watch the picture and listen to us play and you’re going to hear Greendale better than any other way to hear it. You’ll be immersed in it and surrounded by it.”
Young’s last film was 22 years ago, and people weren’t exactly begging for another, so why buck his music success?
“But that’s not success. That’s residual success based on the past. I am who I am because of what I’ve done. In this case, you’re here for this story to a great degree because I am who I am because of what I am doing. It has to do with Greendale, it has to do with the fact that I’ve done something different. That’s a good feeling.
“I don’t know what the hell I am or where I fit. Luckily, I don’t have to know,” he says with a smile.
On Greendale, he sings of depressed angels falling from the sky, and I ask if the angels are depressed now.
“They’re flat as a pancake,” he says, cranking one more grin before leaving. “Say hi to the Immigration guys for me.”
GREENDALE written and directed by Neil Young, produced by Young and L.A. Johnson, with Eric Johnson, Ben Keith, Elizabeth Keith, Erik Markegard and James Mazzeo. A Shakey Pictures production. Opens Friday (March 26). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 80. Rating: NNNN (for Neil Young fans), NNN for everyone else.
This is not a traditional movie, but it’s also not a rock video or a performance film. It’s a low-tech lyric, a poetic visual telling of Neil Young’s narrative album of the same name about a northern California town where a cop is killed, a grandpa battles the media and a young woman experiences a political awakening.
It’s shot on lo-fi Super 8, creating a wash of overexposure and pastels, like a watercolour on a truck-stop placemat. It’s a silent movie with a rock score, a high school play where you know most of the kids. Greendale will definitely freak many people out, especially if they’re looking for a normal movie. But if you can surrender yourself to Young’s story and let the music overpower you, it works. Just pray the theatres play it really, really loud.