Ever wondered what’s going through Neil Young’s mind when he’s up on stage, hunched over his painted-over Gibson Les Paul guitar — known affectionately as Old Black — ripping out interminable torrents of squalling noise as he solos on epics like Ragged Glory and Cortez the Killer?
“Nothing,” is his short answer. “I try not to think about it. If it feels right I’ll keep playing, if it doesn’t feel right then I stop,” he says from a tour bus heading across the Manitoba prairies to Winnipeg, where he formed his first band, the Squires, in the early 60s. “It depends on how we feel. Luckily the band can respond to the feelings and instantly translate it into music.”
The band, of course, is the long-serving, thunderous, messy outfit called Crazy Horse, comprising Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. On-again and off-again for the 40 years since the maverick guitarist departed Buffalo Springfield, they’ve backed him on his more harrowing, burnt-out, electric excursions — including the seriously noisy albums Rust Never Sleeps and Weld.
“They’re a fantastic band and I love playing with them,” the plain-spoken 67-year-old Canadian-born singer-songwriter says.
“They’ve been a source of something ... maybe you could say consistency, amid all the different turns in my career.”
After a touring lay-off of 26 years, Young and his loyal musical cohorts have reunited and are touring the US and Canada to promote the recently released 2CD set, Psychedelic Pill. The tour, described by one critic as living proof of why Neil is regarded as the Godfather of Grunge, hits the Perth Arena next March.
After not recording with the band for almost a decade, Psychedelic Pill (his 35th studio outing) is the second album he has released with Crazy Horse this year. It comprises some of the longest, most turbulent material he’s ever recorded, songs full of loud industrial-strength guitars and feedback.
It follows June’s Americana, a distortion-drenched album of traditional American folk songs.
“We were having such a good time recording Americana we didn’t want to stop,” Young says. “We kept jamming. We had all the equipment set up and we kept on going. The first thing we recorded was Driftin’ Back (a 27-minute-long trance-inducing number) that’s about meditating and trying to clear your mind.”
Before recording the new albums Young took a year off to write his revealing new book, Waging Heavy Peace, that’s destined to become a classic of its genre.
“What happened is that I broke my toe and couldn’t walk. There was nothing to do so I had to slow down. The doctors said I had to give up smoking weed and I’ve been sober for a year. I’m a lot more focused now.”
His personal recollections in the book are in random order, almost free-association. They cover topics as varied as buying his 400ha ranch Broken Arrow, 40km south of San Francisco, his passion for model trains, the endless chore of rebuilding vintage cars, writing Like a Hurricane in the back seat of a car, high on cocaine, his brief meeting with Charles Manson, his laudable efforts to build an electric car and his latest crusade to save the “sound” of music.
He comes across as a person who’s always followed his own creative path. Over the years he’s severed creative musical partnerships on a whim, refused to license his music for ads and dumped finished albums for no apparent reason — and with no regret.
“I’ve heard it said about me that I have a rep for being difficult to work with,” he writes in the book. “My decisions are made with the music in mind.”
The most vivid passages are the descriptions of his health problems — contracting polio at the age of five, recovering after an epileptic seizure, undergoing spinal surgery and the discovery in 2005 of a life-threatening cerebral aneurysm. He returns time and again to his ever-present fear of losing his mind to dementia like his journalist father, Scott Young.
As an outspoken critic of digital music, Young has long claimed that listening to CDs and MP3s is like taking a shower with ice cubes. “You are getting less than five per cent of the original recording,” he says.
The title of Waging Heavy Peace in part refers to the war he intends to wage against the inferior Apple compressed audio MP3 format with his own high-resolution Pono system.
He has spent several years developing the system and recently displayed a yellow-coloured portable player on The Late Show with David Letterman. He’s now negotiating with the major record companies to make their catalogues available on the new music delivery system.
Young says that his goal is to preserve the fuller analogue sound and to present music the way artists first heard it in the studio from the master tapes. He claims that this new technology will bring true sound back to the masses. “Of all the projects I have undertaken, this one most closely affects my music.”
As a well-known environmentalist and philanthropist, over the years Young has been involved in several charitable causes including the co-founding of Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and The Bridge School that was started in 1986 by his wife, Pegi Young. The school, which is very close to his heart, teaches communication skills to profoundly handicapped children — like his son Ben, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy.
His longest-running obsession is the development of the world’s first hybrid electric car, the LincVolt, that he’s been working on with technologists and investors. Powered by a generator that runs on bio-fuel, the car is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 per cent.
Using the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, he’s also making a full-length movie on the LincVolt car. The idea behind the film very much reflects his guiding principles.
“It’s built around the car but it’s a human- interest story about relationships and about longevity in relationships. It’s about having a goal in life, not giving up and staying true to your principles.”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse play Perth Arena on March 2. Tickets through Ticketek. Psychedelic Pill is out now.