It Ain't Easy Bein' Green
Neil Young's Great American Novel
By Michael Henningsen
Shows with love and affection/Like mama used to say/A little Mayberry livin'/Can go a long way
There are two kinds of musician interviews. The first are the kind publicists get paid to sell to music journalists with free CDs, concert tickets and other promotional items in an effort to create some kind of buzz just prior to the particular artist's appearance in Hometown, U.S.A. The second are the kind music journalists hope, dream, struggle and pray for, sometimes for years, before they ever materialize. And sometimes they never do. Other times, they just seem to drift into the laps of unsuspecting writer-types. An interview with rock legend Neil Young falls firmly in the second column. It also fell into my lap after seven years of failed attempts, courtesy in large part to a fictitious family called the Greens, living in fictional Greendale, Calif. In short, Neil Young decided to make a film. And somebody's got to help promote it to Albuquerque audiences. That somebody, praise all that is holy, would be me.
There's no need to worry/There's no reason to fuss/Just go on about your work now/And leave the driving to us
Young's latest musical excursion teams him once again with long-time backing band Crazy Horse, but there are a few noticeable differences with regard to this project. Greendale isn't just the title of Young's new record, it denotes a DVD, a live stage performance featuring Young and Crazy Horse with a group of lip-synching actors, and a feature-length film shot and directed by Young himself. Greendale is the whole package—a colossal cross-pollination of media spawned from the simple desire to write a few more of the instantly classic songs that seem to come to Neil Young as effortlessly as deep sleep to a tired farm hand. Some guys have all the luck.
No one can touch you now/But I can touch you now/You're invisible/You got too many secrets/Bob Dylan said that/Somethin' like that
Some guys have all the talent, too, and Neil Young pretty much tops the list when it comes to born-Canadians that have helped redefine the proverbial American Dream through three squabbling, squawking generations of American rock fans who, so far, have been mostly unable to define it for themselves. There's a simplicity with which Young is able to convey his thoughts, observations and ideas that not only makes them easily digestible, it makes them downright impossible to shake free of. He's a purveyor of folklore, a master storyteller and a driving force behind what we call rock music these days, all wrapped up in an enigmatic figure that more often than not looks like he's combed his hair with a pork chop and just witnessed, with otherworldly sadness, the apple breaking through the bottom of his sack lunch. It's clear we'll never completely figure out this Neil Young character, but we can bet money he's already got us figured, broken bones, broken homes and all.
Those people don't have any respect/So they won't get any of mine
Back to Greendale. Young's previous studio album, Are You Passionate?, got the cold shoulder commercially. But, as his fans—like those close to him—seem to understand through some bizarre form of osmosis or mental convection, Neil Young really doesn't give a shit. His previous work seems to have little, if any, effect on what comes next, whether it be 1992's Harvest Moon, the 20-years-in-the-maiking epilogue to 1972's Harvest, the raucous, live-in-barn rockfest that is Ragged Glory or 1995's Mirror Ball, recorded with members of Pearl Jam while Eddie Vedder was more or less—and willingly—relegated to warming the bench. (Incidentally, Pearl Jam made a second record with Young, Mirkin Ball, on which Vedder was allowed to take a larger role.) Neil Young is famously unpredictable, yet always reliable. There are albums in his catalog that require more intent listening than others, but if you're willing to put in the time, the rewards come back to you tenfold. Usually.
Be the river as it rolls along/Be the rain/Be the rain
Now, really back to Greendale. Young insists that Greendale was written one song at a time, with no preconceived notion of making a “concept album,” film or anything more than a stripped-down Crazy Horse album some folks might enjoy. But, as is often the case when the “Genius at Work” signs get dropped to the pavement, signifying mental lane closures and artistic detours, shit happens. Young says the songs on Greendale were written and recorded one at a time, in the order they appear on the album. The story told itself.
A little love and affection/In everything you do/Makes the world a better place/With or without you
At what point, exactly, it became clear to Young that Greendale was more than just a record remains something of a mystery, according to him anyway. But Greendale isn't your average record, motion picture or stage production, either. For one thing, there's not a word of dialog to be had during its 83-minute run. For another, there aren't any actors in the film anyone other than Neil Young fans are likely to recognize. For a third thing, the entire film was shot on Super-8 and looks, on the surface, to be some strange family's home movies spliced together in such a way as to tell a story that quite miraculously relates to us all—sums up our culture, our struggles and our yearning for just one small glimmer of hope in a world we're slowly realizing we may not want to belong to. And that's just for starters. Young says the stage version is larger in scope and, of course, benefits from what is perhaps the greatest bar band of all time tearing through the songs live.
Neil Young was kind enough to answer 20 minutes-worth of questions about Greendale—from its inception to its incarnation as film and as a stage production—in an interview with the Alibi last week.
You've said that Greendale didn't start out as a concept piece, rather you simply started writing new songs and they all just coalesced on their own. At what point during the making of the record did you realize you were perhaps onto something bigger?
I didn't really think about [Greendale] being a film until after the record was totally finished. Then we started working on the video part of it that we had planned on doing—combining studio stuff with other things that we would shoot. That was the original idea, but that was before the story was developed. So the story changed everything, and we started shooting a little Super-8 and putting that footage with dialog in with the music and the musicians playing, but it didn't work very well. But the Super-8 footage itself really had a quality to it. So we went with that, and that's how we came up with the film.
So the idea for the story of Greendale came from going back and listening to how the songs fit together?
Well, the songs actually were written in the order they appear in on the record. They were written one by one and recorded immediately. So I'd write one and finish it before I'd even start another song. It was like chapters in a book basically.
It sounds like on some level that the songs themselves told you the story of Greendale.
That's right. That's a good way of putting it.
In general, when you're writing songs, do they take on some kind of visual form in your mind?
Yeah, they do. Almost all of 'em. They do. I have some pictures [laughs].
Why was (Crazy Horse guitarist/keyboardist) Frank “Pancho” Sampedro not involved in the recording of Greendale?
When I made this record I decided that I wanted to really be simple. I wanted to get back to the very core, to the beginning of Crazy Horse—I just wanted one guitar. You know, I'd never done a trio—well, in high school I had a trio and it was fun playing being the only guitar player, and I found that I could control dynamics and tell stories. Writing songs that way was really raw and simple and pure. Everything was just real basic. So that format, playing with just the two other guys that I know really well, in a simplistic way—more simple than the four-member Crazy Horse even—is what opened up the room for the lyrics and the story to happen. I think that's what it was [trails off thoughtfully]. (Sampedro plays guitar and keyboards on the Greendale tour.)
There appear to be several themes at work in Greendale: There's an overt anti-war message, conservationism, an indictment of the mainstream media, and how all of that relates to current culture in America and the evolution of the proverbial American Dream. What specific statements are you hoping to make through the film?
I think the film is about renewal, and it's about the cycle of life and the turning of the generations—the way youth can take anything and start making a positive action on it. I have a lot of hope for the youth of today and tomorrow to make the right decisions. I think we're at a point where the political situation and the governments that we have now on the planet are making a ripe, fertile ground for revolution—not a violent revolution—but a revolution of caring and of taking care of what we have.
The character Sun Green, I think, has a lot of energy, and she represents turning things around and changing things. The first three-quarters of the film is all about old people and their problems, then Sun comes along and ...
You filmed the entire movie yourself, to your own soundtrack. What did you take away from that experience that was different than what you get out of simply touring to support a new record?
Well, I love being behind the camera. It's a joy to operate the camera and to direct my actors and the action and the scenery. It was a very rewarding way to complete the project and to tell the story. First laying down the story in audio format and then putting a picture on top of it is probably the blueprint for a form that I may continue to use.
For those who haven't seen the film, how would you say Greendale differs from a long-form music video?
The main thing I would say is that you're not gonna see me in it (Young himself actually does appear in the film, albeit minimally), and you're not gonna see me lip synching, and it's not about selling my image or how cool I am. It's not about selling clothes or fashion or any of that, so it's not really a video. It's more about telling a story about people—a family—and in that way it's a real film. The only thing that would make you think it might not be a real film is that it's a lot like a silent film inasmuch as you don't ever hear any of the actors actually talk. They talk through my voice.
Had you long aspired to break into filmmaking or is it something that resulted from having sort of accidentally written what turned out to be the script for Greendale?
I've always loved film as a medium for communication, and I've tried it before with some projects I've done—some with more success than others—but I've evolved my outlook and my talent with the camera and other aspects, and now I feel that I can use them. And if I can use the content of my music as the basis for a film, then I'll be able to make more films.
Is Greendale, the film, an indication that you've done most of what you wanted to do as a recording artist and have decided to expand permanently into different mediums?
I think you could say that, but you could also say that music is a major part of everything that I do and it will continue to be. But this is a new form, and I don't think I'm going to go back to the old form. The old form is really a part of the new one, sort of under the same umbrella.
Besides family members and those in the cast close to you, how did you go about casting the film?
That's pretty well it—just people who are close to me and people who work with me. Sarah White is from my daughter's high school. I saw her in several high school productions and liked her, so I cast her as Sun Green, and she worked out really well.
What are the major differences between the screen and stage versions?
The stage version is much broader, with broader movements by the actors, where the film is sort of subtle. The acting is much more exaggerated on the stage, and, of course, the scenes are portrayed differently. There's still no dialog on the stage version, just the actors miming their parts to the music being played live.
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