The Sporadic Beaver

Godfather of Grunge Meets Godmother of Punk at BEA

June 7, 2012

Tags: Neil Young, Waging Heavy Peace, Patti Smith, Just Kids, BEA

Patti Smith and Neil Young.
Neil Young, wearing a poncho and looking as if he'd just stepped off his ranch and accidentally wandered into the cavernous Special Events Hall at the Javits Center, was talking about sitting on somebody's back porch out in the redwoods and smoking weed when he saw a copy of Time magazine with the Kent State cover, the screaming woman kneeling over the body of a student shot dead by the National Guard.

“It still gives me chills to think about it,” Young said, explaining to his interviewer, Patti Smith, author of the National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, what had inspired him to write “Ohio,” an anthem that gave everybody chills when they first heard it on the radio in the spring of 1970, two weeks after the shooting.

It had taken Smith a while to get the laconic Young to loosen up, and there'd been trouble with the sound system. But the Godmother of Punk, who was once a freelance music journalist, was asking the Godfather of Grunge all the right questions. And Young, who’d come to Bookexpo America to promote Waging Heavy Peace—the memoir nobody thought he’d ever write—was taking pains to answer them.

Waging Heavy Peace, due out in October from Blue Rider Press, sounds free associative and as ragged as an improvised jam with Crazy Horse, the band that Young has reunited with on his just-released album, Americana, a collection of old folk songs, like “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” which he calls “Jesus’s Chariot.”

“My memory doesn’t work chronologically,” Young said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work at all.”

Smith, who’d recently released her own album, Banga, said that reading Young’s book, which she found very different from her own book, is like sitting in a room with Neil Young and listening to him talk. Young, who admitted he wasn’t a big reader, thought that Waging Heavy Peace had a similar feel to Just Kids. “I’m a highway and landscapes,” he said. “You’re a city and painted bricks and lots of people. I’m traveling and you are, too. But I’m on the road and you’re traveling down streets.”

The wide ranging and often intimate conversation, which touched on Young’s father, Scott Young, a writer who called his son Windy, apparently because he was always coming up with ideas, kept circling back to the theme of technology and its effect on recorded music. Young is unhappy with the inferior quality of MP3s, especially when people listen to them on a Mac. All the detail is lost, he said, comparing such recordings to reducing Picasso to wallpaper. People, said Young, listen to his MP3s and post stuff like, “This guy used to be good.” But, he stated bluntly, “I don’t give a shit what people think.” The only way to listen to recorded music, he added, is on vinyl and Blue-ray.

Smith agreed with Young up to a point, though she felt that there’s little choice but to embrace new technology. “Still,” she said, referring to free-form radio and vinyl, “it’s okay to mourn what’s been lost.”

Young said that he doesn’t work at writing songs, that he just waits for them to come. Smith then apologetically asked him a question that she said people had asked her a million times: “What’s your process? How do you write songs?”

Since I wasn’t taking notes, and I’m going by my own imperfect memory, this is a rough approximation of Young’s poetic reply: “It’s like catching a rabbit. You don’t look down the rabbit hole and wait for the rabbit to come out. You stand around the rabbit hole and become part of the scenery. You turn your back on the rabbit. You ignore him.”

“And then,” said Smith, “you make rabbit stew.”

Postscript

Young’s persistent references to smoking weed, as well as the lyrics to “After the Gold Rush,” which was one of the songs they played before Young and Smith came on stage, made me feel like getting high. So, when the conversation ended, I got the hell out of the Javits Center and went to visit a “character” from Beaver Street who lives nearby. Generous as always, she rolled a fat one. I only wish Young and Smith could have joined us for a bit more conversation. I was, however, in excellent spirits when I returned to the BEA for one last walkthrough.