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Neil Young: Our 1988 Interview

Neil Young (Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in the June 1988 issue of SPIN.

Down by which river did you shoot your baby?

The same river that shows up in “Broken Arrow” and “Powderfinger.”

Why did you shoot her?

Bad news. She dragged me over the rainbow and sent me away. It was a crime of love.

Does a man need a maid?

A man needs shoes. And it’s very important to have a key ring, with the possibility of having a lot of keys, and to be able to take them off and throw them away. Room service is important. A good breeze every once in awhile is nice to have. And eventually, some time in your life, a man really needs good brass. I didn’t think I’d ever want it. Now I’m just so happy to have it.

When you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be all alone?

There was some kind of a feeling that used to come over me and I’d remember it, because it was a recurring feeling. It happened when the seasons changed. It was almost like a plant. The seasons’ll change and the leaves’ll be blowing and I’d get this feeling over my whole body; then months would go by and I’d feel it again, and I don’t know what the fuck it is.

Now I’m older and it doesn’t seem to happen anymore. I feel it every once in awhile—I might step outside of the house and take a walk down to the lake and just look around and I feel it, but it’s not like it was. It’s like the shine’s not on it.

Neil Young: Our 1988 Interview

Is that because you might have less of a shine?

Yeah. I’ve been hit with a lot of shit. I’m not the same guy I was when I was 20. But even though I have less of a shine, I still recognize the light when I have the light. I heard a Tracy Chapman record the other day—she’s a new singer/songwriter—and I said to myself, this girl is fucking great, she’s got the light. That’s when I realized I didn’t have the light.

Does Brian Wilson still have the light?

He’s like a light bulb without any glass on it. It’s a very delicate situation, like a filament, still glowing. It’s not supposed to work without the glass. The gas is supposed to be caught in there.

Is it alright to say this about him?

I think he’d take it as a compliment.

What if someone described you as a light but without the glass?

That’s okay. I wouldn’t mind that. I think it means you can be like that.

Can only love break your heart, or is there something else?

No, that’s about it.

Can you be sure right from the start?

The fuck if I know. If you’re gonna do something, like get married, you gotta try to be sure, because you’re making a commitment, and you might have children, and when you have children, you really want to be a parent, you want to carry the ball all the way to the other end of the court, so if you’re going to do that, then you better have your shit together. And we’ve all—well, a number of us—have thought they had it together and didn’t, and had to start over again.

Has your heart been broken a lot?

A fair amount. Probably no more than anybody else’s. But it’s fuel. Like my sax man, Steve, he said he’s got a new girlfriend, and she’s a young girl and she’s really beautiful, and I said don’t go fucking crazy over this chick, because what happens if she leaves, and he says, “I’m hoping she fucking leaves, man, because I’m going to blow my fucking sax so fucking great.”

So it’s fuel. It reduces you to that one fucking thing that’s you, and whenever you’re reduced to that, then the essence of your strength comes out.

How do you lose the blues?

First of all, you have to want to lose the blues. Some people don’t want to lose them. All I got to say is, good luck. You can lose them at a poker game, no matter what kind of poker game it is, but the blues come back real easy.

Did you find someone turning and you came around?

Yeah, every once in awhile something could happen, especially when I was younger, that would get me really depressed, then I would run into somebody and forget about it, just because I got into an another thing. People are wonderful that way; the presence of another human being can be so strong that it’ll change your whole outlook.

Unless you figure out what was bringing you down, won’t it come back around?

Yeah. That gets into people who change for the sake of a relationship and end up resenting the fact that they had to change. Those relationships are based on very shaky grounds. You really have to try to not have to make too many adjustments and hope that you’re cool enough for the other person to hang in there with you.

When I meet someone for the first time, I tell them my faults immediately; that way my good points seem like bonuses.

I understand that.

Neil Young: Our 1988 Interview

Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself when you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell?

That’s a hell of a question, isn’t it? I don’t understand it. It sounds like gibberish to me. I stopped singing that song because when I get to that line I go, what the fuck am I talking about?

You know, I don’t edit my songs. I knew something was happening at the time that I wrote it to make that right, but I can’t remember what it is and it doesn’t apply to what I’m doing now. “I Am a Child” is like that. “What is the color when black is burnt?” It’s a charcoal kind of color, I guess, but what the fuck does that mean? I ask myself over and over, what the fuck am I talking about?

“Now that you made yourself love me, do you think I can change it in a day?” That’s a heavy one. That song has the most haunting lyrics. “Am I lying to you when I say I believe in you?”

That’s the difference between the song and the poem. The song makes you think of the hook, and the hook is “I believe in you,” but the rest of it is in a whole other place. That song I can hardly talk about. That one is too deep. I think I only sang it live two or three times, and only in the studio two or three times, so I may have only sung that song six times total.

When you dance, do your senses tingle and take a chance?

Yeah, I feel I can do anything, but I have to have a few drinks first. I usually have a lot of friends around when I’m dancing. I usually don’t go somewhere and dance by myself, or just with one person, when I don’t know anybody else in the whole place.

Can you love, can you really love?

What do you mean?

Well, some love is unconditional, and some is conditional on whether the other person loves you back.

It could be that, or a physical thing. Can you really make love? Are you really adept at making love? Can you relax enough to make love and make the other person feel good? Can you let go or can’t you? It could be that.

Do you have to love yourself before you can love someone else?

I think it helps.

When so many love you, is it still the same?

Well, when I became very popular in the music scene and I had what was possibly my first rush with popularity, around the time of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I think at that time I was pretty innocent about that stuff, so if somebody seemed to really dig me, I was always wondering if they really liked me or did they like my songs? Did they like me because I’m famous? How could they like me this much when they just met me?

And if there are a lot of girls, it makes you very weary. It doesn’t happen very much, but that one time in my life it did, over a period of about a month of two. I wrote that song [“Cowgirl in the Sand”] and “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down by the River” all in one afternoon. I had 104 temperature and I was sick in bed.

You’ve been to Hollywood, you’ve been to Redwood. What was Redwood like?

That’s a good place to get away from Hollywood.

Did you ever find a heart of gold?

I think I did. I think it’s in my little girl and in my wife.

What’s your heart made of?

I think something shines in there sometimes, but I don’t know what it is. It could be fool’s gold, but I don’t think so. It’s not brass. It’s light. It’s not Bud Lite.

Neil Young: Our 1988 Interview

Are you ready for the country?

Oh, yeah. Whatever country it is, they all got space. Tat’s the thing about the country; you’re of one mind, although a vacation for me is coming to New York. When I go out to Hawaii with my family, I go to Honolulu, because I live away from everything and I want to live in things.

How far from the city do you live?

I live on a 2,000-acre ranch about an hour from San Francisco. It’s more important that I be about 45 minutes from an airport than from a city. I want to be able to go to a city, any city, not the closest city, where I can get right into the middle of it and be able to get out of it too. That’s an important part of why I’ve been able to continue doing what I do for so long; I sort of know when to pull out.

I fucking hate recording studios. I record in different locations and use trucks. It’s like an audio vérité. We take the sound of the place and record it. We’re not trying to make a studio recording. Consequently a lot of my earlier albums from the Seventies sound like shit, compared to top drawer radio records. I took a lot of hits for that. But I’m more into taking a picture of something that happened, recording a piece of music, rather than creating the illusion of a piece of music.

Maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn’t a star at all?

It’s like that feeling, what are you going to believe in?

Is there a woman inside you that makes you want to play the game?

Oh, yeah, they’re all over the place. I think there’s women inside all of us and men inside all of the women.

What does the woman inside you look like?

She’s probably pretty good looking. She might be a twin. That’s why there’s bisexualism and homosexualism; there’s no way to separate these people. It comes together right in the middle and crosses over to the other side, with all the variations in between. And the closer you get to the middle, the more of a contest is going on in there for who’s dominating.

If you were a trapper, would you give a 1,000 pelts to sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt?

I think I would have. I would have given all the pelts I had. Then I’d go out and trap more.

Is Pocahontas, Marlon Brando, and you, your idea of a threesome?

Well, for sitting around the fire.

Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?

It could be the story of Johnny Rotten. I never met Johnny Rotten, but I like what he did to people. He pissed off a lot of people who I think needed waking up. Rock ‘n’ roll people, who in the Seventies were asleep and thinking they were just so fucking cool and they knew what had to happen. They were telling me why don’t you make a real record.

People became aware that there was more to it than perfection and overdubs, and fucking equipment and limousines back and forth to Studio B, and the other group down the hall and getting high in the bathroom with the other group that’s going in and singing on their record. That’s not intense enough for me. I think art is a private thing. I’m not sharing my creative moment with whoever’s in the hallway.

Is it better to burn out or rust?

Rust implies you’re not using anything, that you’re sitting there and letting the elements eat you. Burning up means you’re cruising through the elements so fucking fast that you’re actually burning, and your circuits, instead of corroding, are fucking disintegrating. You’re going so fast you’re actually fucking the elements, becoming one with the elements, turning to gas. That’s why it’s better to burn out.