Neil Young and Jonathan Demme have a talk about movies, music, and staying hip

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Demme, Young and Lopate. (Joyce Culver/92Y)
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There was a telling moment last night when Neil Young and filmmaker Jonathan Demme spoke to preview their latest concert film, Journeys at the 92nd Street Y.

A clip was projected that showed Young playing "Ohio" intercut with footage of the Kent State shootings and photos of the four slain college students that inspired the song. Moderator Leonard Lopate (who'd had Demme and Young as guests on his show earlier in the day) watched the small monitor feed onstage, and Demme turned around in his seat to see the large projection. Young contemplated his hands, looked down—anywhere but at the footage.

After the clip played, Lopate asked Young why he hadn't watched.

“I can’t handle it,” Young said. He's not one to watch himself sing, he explained.

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“It’s too emotional for me,” he added.

He seemed ill-at-ease at first, but if Young wasn't thrilled about watching a taped performance, he had no problem connecting to the crowd at the live event. In the ensuing discussion about audience connection and the parallels between film and music, the conversation was very much his ship to sail, with Demme weighing in less about his work than about Young's. Young was happy to talk about the tools and process of musicmaking, but more reticent about the music itself.

Lopate mentioned that Young hasn’t always been a fan of being recorded at all. At Woodstock, he famously refused to be filmed.

“They were in the way,” he said. “Everyone was in the way at that point. It was between us and the audience, we were one and this camera was screwing everything up.” Now, Young told Lopate, he makes sure that if he's being filmed the camera is so far away that he’s not seeing it or thinking about it.

“If you’re thinking, you’re stinking,” he said.

“Did you just make that up,” Demme asked.

“No,” Young said.

Though Demme and Young have made two music documentaries before—Heart of Gold and Neil Young Trunk Show—Journeys is the first to take a more personal approach. It melds live performances from May of last year in Toronto with footage of Young driving northward to and walking around Ontario, the home of his youth. There was no way of ignoring the camera this time, yet the footage suggests Young is especially at ease with Demme behind the lens.

Demme spoke about the mountains of footage one typically comes away with when shooting a documentary, and said that with so much material at hand, it's imperative to keep trying and getting things wrong before the right combination presents itself. He recalled working with Paul Newman, who he said never stopped coming up with new ideas, new approaches, up to a point where he would ask: “Are we improving this into a failure?” That, Demme suggested, was the moment to wrap things up.

While the film provides something of a backward glance over Young's life and career (albeit from the vantage of the present), he stressed the importance of remaining in the present when it comes to his music. 

“Everything has to be relevant or it doesn’t work," he said. "Whether its old or new ... not doing things that don’t matter, I think, is really important.” That’s why he kept "Ohio" off his live roster for years. He didn't want to present some nostalgia trip. Yet eventually he felt a turn in society, feelings similar to those captured in the song, and that's when he brought it back out again.

Lopate noted that it wasn't just old material, citing Young's anti-Bush administration album “Living with War,” from 2006.

“The moment came and Britney didn’t do it,” Young explained with a smile. But he lingered on the thought as more than just a quip, challenging the audience to really consider Britney Spears singing protest songs.

“Try to imagine what it [would have] been like if she had done it. Think about it, because she had everybody’s attention. I was just somebody, you know, just me. But she really had everybody’s ears and everybody’s attention. I was just hoping somebody in that office or position would feel this.”

So how topical could he get? Would he write a song, Lopate asked, about Scott Walker and the Wisconsin recall?

“People have to do what they have to do,” Young said, musing. He chuckled and simply said “Wisconsin.”

The talk moved to how music was used in the film, and Demme mentioned using the raw sound mix, straight from the boards from the Toronto performances for Journeys to capture the vivid feel of Neil’s playing, louder and un-prettied-up. It could, he said, potentially become a live album. Given an opening, Young was quick to mention his distaste for digital sound: “...unless it’s an MP3. Then it sounds like shit.”

Though Young was hesitant to go into too much depth about his songwriting, he did say what helped him get the creative juices flowing: isolation, sickness, and a lot of fever medication. He wrote “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By the River” all in bed while nursing a fever. Young said he actually likes being sick, because you don’t have to do anything and nobody bothers you.

“Also, you have to have an MRI or something? That’s great! You don’t have to do a thing. Nobody’s gonna call you.”

At the same time, Young is keen on his ability to connect with audiences. He said that his favorite venues in that regard are Toronto’s Massey Hall and Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Those stages, he explained, are positioned aggressively out toward the crowd, giving him a chance to play his guitar always just on the edge of feedback. He noted how the 92Y stage wasn't quite so intimate: “See where we are? We’re back in here. You’re up there and we’re back in here. There’s nothing we can do about that. It’s a separation.”

The audience seemed to feel a connection, and treated the evening almost like a concert. There was applause during some of the concert clips, and a few fans were wearing Neil Young T-shirts. All that seemed to be missing was some fragrant smoke wafting around, yet even that was addressed. When Young said that quitting drinking and smoking had left him struggling to come up with new material, someone in the balcony yelled that he ought to start back up.

“Are you offering to bring some weed up here?” Lopate asked, amused.

Of course, Young is anything but unproductive, liquor and smokes or no, and the conversation eventually moved to his latest effort, "Americana," an album reunion with Crazy Horse that dips into American folk and songbook standards like “This Land is Your Land” and “Oh Susannah,” as well as less likely covers like “God Save the Queen” (a nod to Young’s Canadian roots). Young addressed some who had claimed that one song on the album, a cover of the Silhouettes' “Get a Job,” was an out-of-date bit of boomer nostalgia.

“A lot of people ask me, 'Why that song? What does that have to do with America?'” he said. The relevance, he said, was obvious in a time of massive unemployment and economic insecurity “What does that have to do with America?  Where are you?”

To put the lie even more to his intimation of writer's block, Young said he's also been working on a book, soon to be published, that's part memoir and part diary. Demme's also been hard at work, and said he has several movies in the pipeline, including an adaption of Stephen King's book, 11/2/63.

Lopate asked about Toast, an unreleased album Young recorded with Crazy Horse back in 2000. Young said he had no specific reason to hang on to it, but that he wanted to wait for "time to pass" before releasing it.

"Everything has its moment and it's not now," he said.

On his way out, Young flashed a peace sign at the audience, smiling.

“Encore!” someone yelled.