Neil Young

Neil Young awakens his old rebel spirit in the multimedia extravaganza Greendale.

Photo: Chris Buck

By 58, most rockers are opening mail from the AARP, and even the most famous keep their legend alive by touring behind their greatest hits. Not Neil Young. The grizzly Canadian native is four decades into a solo career that swings from acoustic crooner to fiery garage rocker. Yet it's his apparent willingness to sabotage his reputation—by releasing albums devoted to rockabilly, the vocoder and feedback; and filming arty movies with Devo and Dennis Hopper—that makes Young so vital.

Young's most ambitious project to date may be his latest: Greendale, a multimedia rock opera about environmental activism in a troubled modern-day town. Following a period of traditionalism that culminated in a reunion with—horror of all babyboom horrors!—Crosby, Stills and Nash, Young's lively song cycle has spawned a website, a film and an elaborate stage production, all linked together like some hazy Lego sculpture. The movie, directed by the singer under the alias Bernard Shakey, draws its sound entirely from the album, with actors lip-synching dialogue sung by Young over the characteristically raw guitars of Crazy Horse. Meanwhile, the stage show features the band playing alongside a live cast. This week, as the movie opens in theaters, Young brings the Greendale extravaganza to Radio City Music Hall; the rock & roll lumberjack talked to TONY about his loopy new endeavor via phone from California.

It seems like every Hollywood actor wants to record an album and every singer wants to film a movie. What gives?
I don't know! Somebody like Billy Bob Thornton is a great actor and he's having fun playing music, so I say go for it. You never know what's gonna happen—Clay Aiken could become president of the United States! But if all I did was make music, I think I'd become tired of it. Greendale is a combination of everything I've been doing over the years in music and film. With the election coming, it's a good year for it to be out there. And I'm really enthused by the reaction we've gotten.

Why do you think you're getting a better reception for Greendale than for the odd albums you recorded in the 1980s?
That was a very different time. I've been around since the '60s, so the '80s was the first instance where I was considered totally uncool. I'd been around so long that I was a has-been. But styles and trends always turn over. You just ride those periods out and follow the muse.

Your return-to-roots album, Harvest Moon, was released the same year Clinton was elected—whereas the controversial Hawks and Doves came out in 1980. Why do your more adventurous projects coincide with conservative flare-ups in American politics?
It's just a reaction to things that are happening in the news. Life has a lot of cycles. In many ways, we're in a negative swing right now, although there are also a lot of positives out there. It depends on how you look at it. If you're a gung-ho conservative Republican, then this is a wonderful time to be alive.

Well, Hawks and Doves is generally referred to as a pro-Reagan record. Was that intended?
If you listen to that record forgetting that it's Neil Young, you get an attitude from it. You've got to disassociate it from me and look at it like it was a book. I'm not scared to put myself in a position where people might misinterpret what I believe, because I personally believe in a lot of things that may surprise people.

Like what?
When you see all these political leaders come and go through a lifetime, you see that every one of them, in one way or another, is a complete asshole and is also a completely brilliant, soulful person. If you focus on the soulful side, then everybody assumes you completely support everything the person does. But it doesn't work that way. People are deeper than that.

Greendale dwells a lot on the political awakening of its youngest character, Sun Green. Do you see this as a window of time for a younger generation's activism?
It's never been so fertile. There hasn't been an administration that was a catalyst for change and rebellion like this one—at least not since Nixon. In the '60s there was the peace movement, and I think in this decade we may see the birth of a larger green movement.

But these days, young people are bombarded with figures whose message mostly has to do with making money.
Well, we had the Monkees in the '60s, and the '60s still worked. If people are disillusioned and are going to accept everything the way it is, then they're losers.

There's a rumor that high-school theater is one of the main inspirations behind your Greendale stage show.
Oh, yeah! See, the high-school play is a form. In my eyes, high-school plays are like moving cartoons. They're mechanical. You know that all the sets are cardboard or plywood with something painted on 'em. There's a style there, and that's the style of Greendale. I don't want to waste my time trying to be perfect. The whole idea of the show is that it's just hanging together by a thread.

There are also elements of more standard musicals. When you visit New York do you take in a Broadway show? Did you see Cats?
Yeah, I've seen Cats. I've seen a lot of those Broadway musicals. Some of them are mostly pizzazz, but some of them are really saying something, like the way a Shakespeare play would speak to the times when it was being performed on the street. Obviously, it's a great art form. It could even be a possibility for me someday—we'll have to wait and see.