Neil Young changes everything we thought we knew in one unusual night
On Monday night, Neil Young agreed to appear in “An Evening With Neil Young,” a special presentation beamed to movie theaters across America. He talked with Cameron Crowe about his 1979 concert film, “Rust Never Sleeps,” and a bizarre 1982 film he directed that co-starred two future cast members of “Twin Peaks.”
To be clear: There was little if any public outcry for Young to revisit the latter film, “Human Highway,” about goofily charming people dopey enough to live in earthquake country in the shadow of a nuclear reactor. So why release it now?
Because “Human Highway” changes everything we think we know about Neil Young.
He is 70 now – Monday’s showing was partially hosted by AARP – and drawing closer to the age when he will have his last chance to correct the record about his life and work.
His obituaries will praise him as a folk-singer-turned-Godfather of Grunge. I think Young wants people to know he was more. For six decades, he has been as fierce an experimenter as David Bowie, without all the wardrobe changes.
Crowe noted that we live in an era “where everyone is pushed to be a very noble quality – a brand.” But Young has refused to be branded.
The brand he lends himself to, of course, is earnestness. Everything about him seems pure: His never-combed hair, his piercing voice, his savage guitar-playing, his almost-Neanderthalic brow. That unassuming, unstudied image has allowed him to take quiet but striking risks, the very risks that have kept him vital today.
I discovered Neil Young through “Heart of Gold” in 1982, when I was seven, at day school, where the counselors played it on acoustic guitar during song time and had us sing along. (If it seems odd that a bunch of 7-year-olds sang the line, “And I’m getting old,” consider that Young was only 27 when he released it.) At 17, I was watching Young onstage with Pearl Jam, covering “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
“Rust Never Sleeps” and “Human Highway” tell us how hard Young worked in the transition from young man to godfather.
“I always felt like if I did many things at once I wouldn’t get bored,” he told Crowe on Monday. “I felt like I saw a lot of people who had been working for a long time and just started to repeat themselves and get bored with what they were doing, so I wanted to distract myself.”
The two films shown Monday take take the iconic images of Young out of the 1960s and ’90s and reposition him in the era of “Mork & Mindy,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
The latter was based on the writings of the evening’s moderator, Crowe, who helped mainstream grunge with the 1992 romantic comedy, “Singles,” featuring music from the likes of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Mother Love Bone – all groups that led fans back to Young.
“Rust Never Sleeps” may mark the birth of grunge – especially the dirge-like ferocity of the final song, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” which traces rock’s decay, de-evolution into punk, and refusal to die. “The King is gone but he’s not forgotten,” Young sings about Elvis Presley in a mock do-wop. “This is the story of Johnny Rotten.”
But there is nothing grunge-y about “Human Highway.” If Young didn’t star in it – as a Jerry Lewis-like car mechanic named Lionel – you might think it was some hybrid of John Waters, Tim Burton, and David Lynch. Like their films – at least the ones Burton and Lynch made after “Human Highway” – it celebrates a classic cars-and-diners version of Americana warped by shallowness and greed.
It feels like Young has woken up from the ’70s into a meaner decade, tried to adjust, and overcompensated. The film is goofy, the acting gratuitously bad, the characterizations sometimes grotesque. But it has a moral.
At the end of the film, the world ends in nuclear fire, and the characters have been so caught up in their cars and songs and diners that they never noticed they were about to die.
Young’s co-stars include Russ Tamblyn and Charlotte Stewart, who Lynch later hired for “Twin Peaks.” It also features Dennis Hopper and post-punk band Devo, the 80s post punks behind “Whip It.” Did you forget about Neil Young’s work with Devo? Don’t worry: So did everyone else in the world.
Near the end of “Human Highway,” Young and Devo hideously reconstruct “My My Hey Hey” — a variation on “Hey Hey, My My” — even more aggressively than Devo broke down the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” They’re joined by Devo singer Mark Mothersbaugh’s masked, cartoon-voiced alter-ego Booji Boy on lead vocals.
Young already had, in 1982, an astonishing willingness to tear apart what was by that point, arguably, his signature song.
That’s one of the moments he chose to have beamed into theaters across America. Not a collection of his greatest hits, but a moment in which he systematically massacred one of his greatest hits. (Watch the video, above.)
Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” has the same lack of sentiment. The concert film begins with Jawa-like figures setting up giant microphones, amps, and other props, drawing attention to rock-star excess. It’s a wink at the audience that they’re in on the joke. At one point, after a run of lovely acoustic songs, Young lies down for a nap and they swoop him away, but not before telling the audience he’s going to get an electric guitar when he gets paid.
During the brief intermission, in which Young purportedly sleeps, we hear a famous speech from Woodstock: a well-meaning speaker advises concert-goers that the brown acid going around isn’t great. It feels like a sendup of the hippie era of a decade before, a moment-of-we’re-all-so-much-wiser now.
Young returns to the stage, wearing a Jimi Hendrix pin, and tears into an electric, feral-feeling set. He has transformed during that fake nap from an almost childlike acoustician into a neo-Hendrixian vessel of rage.
He is already, in 1979, fierce experimenter who defies branding, as surely as did the Gen Xers he inspired. But even they eventually fell victim to easy characterization: flannels, sullen irony, heroin.
Young never let himself be pinned down. Sure, he let you think you knew him, let you think he was achingly simple. But then he kept changing, surviving, persevering.
He is getting older. But he isn’t getting old. He was funny and relaxed Monday, taking off his hat to do impersonations of Donald Trump, with whom he has feuded. He clarified for a fan that he has recorded five albums since turning 65, not a mere three.
He was asked what wisdom he would impart to the 1960s version of himself, if he could.
“I wouldn’t say anything,” he said. “I would just say ‘Wow. You are in for something that’s really going to blow your mind. First of all, get a good car.'”