“Well I woke up in the morning / With an arrow through my nose /
There was an Indian in the corner / Tryin’ on my clothes…”
– Neil Young, “Last Trip to Tulsa,” 1969
By Larry Jaffee
Neil Young slumbered onto the Book America Expo stage wearing a heavy poncho. No matter that it was a warm, sunny day in New York on June 6. His interviewer: Patti Smith, a rock goddess/memoirist (best seller Just Kids) in her own right.
The occasion was ostensibly to promote his forthcoming memoir, Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider Press), although both musicians got in plenty plugs for their new albums Americana and Banga, respectively, both released conveniently the day before, June 5.
How’s that for synchronicity? Well, Young and Smith are both sort of keeping the faith in a music industry that has long lost its way, still on the same major labels where they made their recorded debuts. Smith, clearly a fan, covered Young’s CSNY Déjà Vu track “Helpless” on her 2007 covers album Twelve and also his “After the Goldrush” on Banga. It’s not surprising they’ll be touring together hockey arenas in the Northeast Nov. 23-Dec. 4.
They agreed the creative process of producing a book or record was no different, although neither explained whether they were talking about making art or promotion. In any case, that was clearly why more than 1,000 book convention attendees packed the room for the hour-long session.
Smith talked about how Bobby Neuwirth, who was trying to get her to write songs, took her to a CSNY concert at the Fillmore East circa 1970. While she was watching from the stage wing, Smith couldn’t keep her eyes off Young, who she could recognized as a kindred spirit, as you can see from the vintage of photo of the two together that surfaced last week on pattismith.net.
Although Young is about a year older than Smith (he’ll be 67 this November), she was – and still is, despite her own no-slouch status in the annals of rock history – envious of Neil’s decade head-start in the business. Neil spoke of how his first professional band The Squires, circa 1964-65, paid their dues in Canada. It was during this period that he first heard “High Flyin’ Bird,” which was played by a band that headlined a gig in which The Squires opened.
The conversation veered back and forth between a discussion about his music career and nascent writing expedition. The first 20 minutes focused on Young explaining some of Americana’s reworked folk standards. He explained that he was itching to play with Crazy Horse but didn’t have new original material, which is why he thought about the folk songs, which he thoroughly researched and found new new meanings into old spirituals such as “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain,” which he turned into “Jesus Chariot.” Others, like “Get A Job,” he thought naturally belonged in the milieu.
“‘Get A Job’ is a song about life. It’s one of the most obvious folk songs. It’s deeper than doo-wop,” Young explained, adding that near where he grew up in Canada he’d see chain-gangs who would sing in unison.
The audience learned that Neil prefers live performance to studio recording, how he once took his beloved Lionel model trains on the road with him, and how avoids listening to Bob Dylan’s new albums because he’s afraid it will lead to imitation because he’s such a fan. “I’m a sponge.” He also admitted that he tries, but conceding perhaps he is not always successful, in editing his prolific studio output.
Young became perturbed about the state of audio quality and how MP3 gives listeners only 5% of what they should be hearing. “Don’t get me started,” he said, urging that his music should be heard on Blu-ray or vinyl for the optimum listening experience.
Smith asked whether it was destiny that he’d follow in his father’s footsteps as a writer. Young said he was clearly intrigued by his dad’s profession, recalling his third-floor attic office and Underwood typewriter. Even though the kids were instructed not to disturb their father while he was working, that never deterred young Neil to venture upstairs and find out what he was writing.
Young has already started writing a second book but didn’t reveal anything about its content. He admitted that he’s “not a big reader,” but is enjoying Patti’s Just Kids. As far as his forthcoming book, due October 2, he looks at it as an exercise in non-linear storytelling.
The most illuminating story was about how he came to write “Ohio.” He explained that he was staying at a cabin in Northern California with David Crosby and two members of the CSNY road crew when somebody dropped on the coffee table the Life magazine reporting the Kent State University protest against the Vietnam War resulting in National Guardsman killing four college students and wounding 17 others.
Young took one look at the now-infamous photo of the young anguished-filled woman kneeling down over the body of a dead student with her arms outstretched, and was immediately prompted to write the song. Crosby urged them to immediately fly down to Los Angeles and record the song. The label pressed some acetates, which were only good for about seven plays, and distributed them to the most influential radio stations, whose deejays were free to play what they wanted and not dictated to by programmers. “It was the social media of the time,” Young lamented – and Smith concurred.
Young said he felt uneasy about profiting from the tragedy, but he was glad the song could educate and galvanize about what was going on in the country. They stayed clear of current-day politics.