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Thursday, March 09, 2017

1989 Neil Young Interview: Village Voice by Jimmy McDonough

Neil Young & Poncho
Rusted Out Garage Tour - 1986
(Click photo to enlarge)

Recently here on Thrasher's Wheat, we have been re-visiting and reassessing some of Neil Young's 1980's releases on Geffen Records, such as, TRANS: A Little Bit of Essential Neil Young, "Landing on Water" by Neil Young: Incredibly Underrated and Reassessing Neil Young's Life on Geffen Records. We also featured this rare 1990 Neil Young Interview by Nick Kent | VOX .

And lots of fascinating observations by our dear TW readers in post comments -- as always.

To complement these commentaries on Neil Young's 1980's releases on Geffen Records, here is a 1989 Neil Young Interview by Jimmy McDonough that appeared in the Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter 1989.

Neil Young Interview
Fuckin' Up With Neil Young: Too Far Gone
by Jimmy McDonough
Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter 1989

So I'm sitting in a dark blue limo, surrounded by huge redwoods and thick fog, somewhere near Santa Cruz, California, waiting for Neil Young. The limo driver, a clean-cut kid, scurries across the empty two-lane highway, and he hops in the car, obviously relieved Young didn't drive up as he was taking a piss. It's four o'clock, already starting to get dark. Young is nowhere in sight.

By now I was used to waiting. At half past nine Warner Brothers had called my San Francisco hotel room, assuring me Young would be calling. Ten o'clock came. Then 11, 12, and one. At two his management called, saying a limo would take me to a rendezvous not far from Young's home in San Mateo County.

I had plenty to think about in the limo. To me, Neil Young is just Jerry Lee Lewis with longer hair. Fuck "Sugar Mountain" - Young's music is only good when he's crazy. His best records are his most obsessed - Tonight's The Night, Zuma, or On The Beach. While Young still seems crazy in the '80s, the records he made were straitjacketed by Young's insistence on playing characters: first he was a techno-rocker, then a rockabilly hipster, then a country conservative. He did everything but make music about Neil Young. And all the great material that he was playing live never made it to vinyl.

The past year found Young performing intense live shows packed with new songs and set to release a searing rock record, Times Square. But at the last minute, Young opted for Freedom, an album calculated to make everyone rave "come-back." The Times Square sessions - his best work in a decade - got dumped on an import EP that's already out of print. What the fuck has been going on with this guy for the past decade?

We arrived at the restaurant, a dark country inn where Young was supposed to meet us. Except for our limo, the gravel parking lot was vacant. The restaurant was closed. There we sat, in the middle of nowhere, the redwoods silent except for the barking of a distant dog.

Suddenly a white '57 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, polished and gleaming, emerged from the fog, pulling up next to the limo. Out popped Neil Young. Dressed in a leather touring jacket, baggy pants and sandals with socks, Young looked more wrecked than usual. His hair was an uncombed tangle, his eyes bulging and bloodshot. The night before Young had celebrated his 44th birthday by whooping it up at a Sinatra concert. "I'm so fucked up from dancing." he says with a grin. "My legs are killing me."
Full 1989 Neil Young Interview by Jimmy McDonough that appeared in the Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter 1989

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At 3/09/2017 09:42:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

I had a lotta issues with Jimmy Mc's biography namely his "cut and paste" fan boy infatuation with the "ditch" and his crazy caricatures of Neil. Neil is not crazy. And he remains so much more than the "ditch" and all the other things people have said about him. Jim Gordon, the famous drummer from Derek & the Dominoes, etc., now he was crazy even though so many played down his crazy.

I was watching an interview given by Rita Coolidge & Graham Nash when her autobiography came out last year, and I heard her complimenting Neil. So does Joni & Linda. I would take their word about him, and his genius, over the absurd caricatures assigned to him by people who just don't "get" his genius.

I sort of skip through the "Gospel according to Jimmy" and just read what Neil said as noted in italics. That seemed more interesting to me. Sort of like how I read any imparted wisdom passed down from generation to generation.

I think Jimmy is an excellent writer & he thoroughly researched his "God" but he editorialized too much in the way the original gospel writers did when they were claiming and writing "the word of God." .

At 3/10/2017 07:44:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

The only thing that changes about Neil is our expectations of him or what people write about him. No matter what happens in like, I can always put on "Ambulance Blue" or "Last Trip to Tulsa" or "Spirit Road" or whatever my favorite is at the moment and it always leads me to what he's doing at the moment. As a musician, he will never disappoint me, because I set no expectations.

At 3/10/2017 09:29:00 AM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

Don't agree he disappoints me - and of course I realise that he can do no wrong here but there we have it - look back at the last 10 years, there's little that makes me return for further listens I buy them in the forlorn hope that he's found something to engage me. I thought the split with Pegi and leaving BA would have driven him to making one last great record. Nope he goes off Ms Hannah and makes this latest drivel - sorry folks but that should get the debating chamber going.

At 3/10/2017 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Paul Dionne said...

@Mother Nature On The Run - I totally disagree with your assessment of McDonough's take on Neil. On the contrary, I think McDonough totally gets Neil, because Neil is a difficult and willful character. McDonough never portrays Neil as crazy, but Neil drove McDonough crazy, and I think McDonough's portrait of Neil is one of the very few that reveals all, warts, difficulties, contrariness, and all. Shaky remains a great book. I also recommend that you read other McDonough biographies - he's a great writer, and doesn't write anything without revealing the true essence of the person, his Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, is one of my faves. paul dionne

At 3/10/2017 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

@Paul, He pulled just about everything out of the closet and the drawers, but he only touched the surface with Neil. The last chapter is comedic irony. Neil calls Jimmy after reading an interview about Dylan's "Time Out of Mind." Neil is stoked talking about the light at the end of the tunnel and how everything is so clear and how does Jimmy respond?

He cuts Neil off. So who is the person sitting in the dark with the shades drawn afraid to look at the light? It's not Neil.

It was Jimmy.

At 3/10/2017 11:51:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

I'm borrowing this analogy but Jimmy is like the guy who inherited a castle and started complaining about the leaky faucet.

At 3/11/2017 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

@Mother Nature on the Run: You are spot on with refrence to Jim Gordon. While on tour with Frank Zappa in 1972 on the Petite Wazoo tour drummer Jim Gordon was arrested for cocaine possession back stage just before show time, and Frank was forced to ask drummer Maury Baker from opening act Tim Buckley's band to fill in. A decade later Gordon murdered his own mother with a hammer. He's still in prison. Now that's crazy!!!

At 3/12/2017 09:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Dionne gets it, in his comment above.

In order to get to know a "celebrity" or public figure, you have to scratch a little to get beneath the surface, beneath the public persona.
That's the whole point of a successful biography, and that's what McDonough successfully does. And that really is what caused fireworks between Neil and himself. He got the chemical reaction, the explosion that we all enjoy witnessing.

With an "authorized" biography, the person being studied can find a way to exert control of what is being portrayed; perhaps a sanitised or flattering version. Notably, Neil does NOT attempt to exert this control (until he second guesses himself, by which time it is far too late).

Which is why the book remains the definitive biography of Neil Young. By far. The right kind of author, a thrilling subject matter and a unrestricted attitude. The problem isn't that McDonough paints a portrait of Neil; it's that he paints too realistic a portrait. He cut too close to the truth.

So I can understand why Neil wanted it blocked from publication and I can empathise with him. But ironically, the impersonal and callous "hiding behind lawyers" way with which he tried to block it paints a darker picture of the man than anything actually written in the book. We get an insight into where the nicknames "snake' and "shakey" came from. And the notorious "eat a peach" incident suddenly seems very believable.

Worth noting that although Neil has mellowed with age, he once was a very intense and uptight rock 'n' roller, a creative mad scientist surrounded by a circus of other lunatics, misfits and drug-addicts. And so craziness very much was the order of the day. It genunely was both scary and exciting. I'm sure McDonough exagerates from time to time (kind of like adjusting the contrast on your TV to increase vividness; heated arguments become "screaming matches"), but the overall impression is one of accuracy, of events being successfully captured in words. And of course, he interviews a LOT of people for very different perspectives to his own.

Most of all, Shakey is inspiring. Whilst reading it you will feel compelled to dig out that Bottom Line 1974 bootleg, or listen to the Briggs Mixes of Weld and find out if they really do sound better. Or watch a grainy VHS copy of Muddy Track to see how crazy the 1987 tour really was. It's like opening a treasure chest. The book sets a mood of excitement and discovery. Which is surely the whole point.


At 3/12/2017 11:22:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Mother Nature on the Run - yeah, "Gospel according to Jimmy" and know what you mean about only reading what Neil says in italics -- that's "Gospel according to Neil" or maybe "SHAKEY according to Neil"?

we haven't read Rita Coolidge autobiography. How did you like it?

@ Paul - good to see you drop by.

McDonough is definitely a vivid writer who found some choice phrases for Neil's music and sound.

We haven't read Tammy Wynette book. Can imagine Jimmy had a field day with some of that material.

@ Dan - yikes on Jim Gordon. No idea. Anything that starts off with "while on tour with Frank Zappa" has got to be crazy.

@ Scotsman - No disagreement on an "authorized" biography and we're very lucky to have it in the format it was published. As noted above, the lengthy unedited transcripts of Neil rambling (conveniently printed in italics) are quite revealing. Too revealing as the lawsuit indicated.

Oh yeah on Bottom Line 1974 bootleg. Need to put into our rotation...

From today's TW post: Neil Young Interview Transcript: Companion Bonus Track on Prairie Wind - OCTOBER 2005

JODY DENBERG: Now speaking of (laugh) speaking of Shakey, there was a pretty exhaustive Neil Young biographer a couple years back with your, with the name Shakey. Did you ever read it?

NEIL YOUNG: Yeah, I read it once.

JODY DENBERG: Were you all right with it?

NEIL YOUNG: I chose, uh, I chose that, uh, that writer because I, I, I liked, uh, his style. And I liked his, his brutal honesty. And I didn't want a watered down thing. But I think that he drifted from his course. I always say, whenever I sign that book I say, you know, remember, don't believe everything you read.

JODY DENBERG: (laugh) Unless it's the Greendale book. Then?

NEIL YOUNG: Uh, then you can believe it all, because it's, it's so vague.

At 3/12/2017 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

“those cries rose from among the twisted roots
through which the spirits of the damned were slinking
to hide from us. Therefore my Master said:
'If you break off a twig, what you will learn
will drive what you are thinking from your head.'

Puzzled, I raised my hand a bit and slowly
broke off a branchlet from an enormous thorn:
and the great trunk of it cried: 'Why do you break me?'

And after blood had darkened all the bowl
of the wound, it cried again: 'Why do you tear me?
Is there no pity left in any soul?

Men we were, and now we are changed to sticks;
well might your hand have been more merciful
were we no more than souls of lice and ticks.'

As a green branch with one end all aflame
will hiss and sputter sap out of the other
as the air escapes- so from that trunk there came

words and blood together, gout by gout.
Startled, I dropped the branch that I was holding
and stood transfixed by fear,...”

― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

At 3/12/2017 01:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil has given several explanations over the years as to why he objected to the book. It strikes me that the real reason is simply that he is something of a "control freak". With this in mind, it is perhaps odd that he ever gave someone free rein to interview him and write about him.

When he says "don't believe everything you read", I don't think he's disputing the basic facts of the story; he was born in 1945 and he did make an album called On The Beach and he was interviewed by Jimmy McDonough. I think what he really means is "this isn't all my viewpoint, it's someone else's telling of the story". Which is fair enough.

Yet, what also strikes me also about Shakey is how similar it is in attitude to Waging Heavy Peace. Both tell many of the same stories, both revolve largely around David Briggs (who gets substantial "screen time" in both books) and both have the no-nonsense "be great or be gone" ethos. They are very compatible books, running in parallel to one another.

I think the bottom line is that someone so used to being in complete control will find it hard to tolerate someone else telling their story on their behalf. But that doesn't mean the story isn't a worthy one.


At 3/12/2017 02:06:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

Scotsman, what I learned from that book Is that Neil is not a control freak. He's just very guarded about what he's feeling inside and how he expresses it through music. Clearly trusted Jimmy. He turned Neil's life into a Tammy Wynette soap opera.

There is so much truth in your last paragraph. Hit replay and put yourself in Neil's shoes without all the layering of bullshit you read in that book. The fan stuff.

Someone said sometimes we have to wade through a lot of mud to get through the truth.

At 3/12/2017 02:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MNOTR: I'm not convinced the book is as dramatised as you make out (whereas your reference to Dante's journey through Hell might well be over-dramatic!). If you want to see real drama, put on Muddy Track (a Neil creation, not a Jimmy McDonough one). And when the book does talk about soap-style conflicts, it's usually through the words of others, not McDonough himself. What kind of worthwhile biography would it be if it just brushed the inconvenient parts under the carpet?

I get the impression that if any trust was broken, in this instance, it was broken by Neil. There's even an interview in Shakey where Neil specifically and enthusiastically gives McDonough permission to write the book he wants to write. As Neil says above, he liked the "brutal honesty" and "didn't want a watered down thing". So in many ways McDonough gave him what he wanted. Until he didn't want it anymore. Which takes us back to the "control freak" bit.

Let's be clear here: Shakey is a generous book to Neil. It portrays him in a generally good light. Most of the time, it just tells you what happened, through the words of those who were there. And personally I find the occasionally-critical attitude to be refreshing. It proves that it's not being controlled. I'd greatly prefer that to some sort of sanitized, unduly flattering, hero/God-worshiping "Gospel", as you put it.


At 3/12/2017 10:28:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

Dear Scotsman, do you cry when you hear "Scotland the Brave?" Also, thanks for your acknowledgement. I think Jimmy laid it out like a movie script, but instead he is the sojourner, descending into the inferno, not Neil. He is the one weighing in on good and bad. Neil says everything he needs to say through his songs, interviews, and movies. Maybe that's all I need. Actually I find your response to the book is more interesting than the book itself. A copy is under my chair right now. My kids find it and say, "Momma, what you hiding from Daddy? Is that you're boyfriend?" I say, "Never you mind, child. Just let it be."


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