so I was at the keynote interview yesterday with young and jonathan demme, which was ok, but I have to make a confession: I have major issues with the big boomer dinosaurs of song. I guess it’s mainly because I think they never accepted the teaching responsibility that naturally belongs to leading artists. teaching is a necessity for artists who work in less financially remunerative forms, and I say that’s a good thing. it’s good for the artists and the students/future artists, and it’s good for the art. it creates a scene, community, etc (however insular and backstabbing it might be).

it always bugs me to think that people like neil young never really came down off their rock star mountaintop to teach and share what they do. that’s some selfishness right there. that’s entitlement. but it goes even further, because not only didn’t they teach, but in some vague way they still to this day imply that what they do can’t be taught. they characterize themselves as the chosen vessels of the muse, as if they never worked or tried to figure out how to do it. I guarantee you that when neil young was in his teens and twenties, that all he did was try to figure out how it’s done. but in the keynote, young trotted out his worn-out old notion that says you have to treat creativity like a wild animal, approach it cautiously, make little noises to get it to come out of its hole, and then carefully try to engage with it for a while before it runs away.
ok, first of all, there is something profound about this notion, don’t misunderstand me. it’s quite true, and it’s inspiring. but coming from someone like neil young, there’s an antique, sixties, almost cheesy whiff of anti-intellectualism about it that I find both kind of funny and also really really irrelevant. maybe it’s some kind of dusty, kerouac-lite romanticism? I don’t know, but I’ve experienced this at bob dylan shows too in the last 5 or 10 years, and I’m a HUGE dylan fan. it reminds me of easy rider, like these guys have a little dude inside themselves cruising around on a chopper, wearing an american flag helmet and thinking “right on man, I’m free out here where no one can touch me, talk to me or tell me what to do.” listening to young yesterday, I was thinking: “it’s a different world now, neil. you can park the bike and get involved. it’s ok.”
ok, maybe we all have that little chopper dude inside us, if we’re really trying to be honest here. fine. and you can’t think your way into making good art, everyone knows that. but come on, any aesthetic approach that systematically amputates a human ability, especially one as central to our nature as reflecting, considering, imagining, thinking, is just wack. call me crazy, but I’m into the whole person making music. use what you’ve got however you feel you need to, and make sure what you produce is good. that’s the game. oh, and it’s something everyone can do. that’s important.
ok, let the angry replies begin. I know it’s probably going to take some back and forth to clarify…. but before the real flames start up, please remember that I know that mr young is a definitive, titanic genius. I have no problem whatsoever with the work he’s done over many many years. I lurve his songs and records. I just can’t relate to some of the things he says. and I don’t think it’s crazy to think that superstardom might have distorted his perspective about some things.
just a thought,


  1. scott
    March 21, 2006 at 9:22am
    Interesting that MZ should mention Murakami. I just finished Kafka and was totally flattened. After reading it, I felt like murakami was a friend and seriously considered writing him a letter. I would love to sit and have lunch with him, and maybe I'm insanely deceived, but I feel like in some way that's a possible reality, or at least hearing him speak somewhere and having the chance to go up and chat with him afterward. Whereas with Neil Young or Dylan, I feel like it's a complete pipe dream that I'd ever even gain remote access to their presence. I am coming from over ten years experience in avant garde music world where even the highest level musician, Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, is basically accessible (with rare exception). And the most interesting of those musicians are working with young players, bringing them up, taking risks on them, etc... Anthony Braxton (a MacArthur Award winner, and ostensibly one of the most important American composers/saxophonists) is doing a week run at a club in NY right now, and he put out word of an open invitation to lunch all week for anyone that wanted to come and talk about his work and his process. Now braxton is intensely confusing sometimes and hard to follow, but he tries very very hard to lay open parts of his process, at least in his own terms (which don't always translate to clear terms for others). But why is this all so different in the pop world? I think it has everything to do with wealth and celebrity. It's a huge conversation, but basically, fame is almost across the board a toxin for artists. Not everyone, not always, but pop music and the entertainment machine are pretty much the opposite of art and the art process. Why is it that composers, painters, and writers generally get better, deeper, more focused as they age and pop artists who garner mainstream success and fame falter after the first 5-7 years of their career. The only exception maybe being sonic youth. And I would argue that it's because A) they are improvisors and B) they are a band and it's not strictly about the ego of one Superstar. AND they still had a long streak prior to bringing in Jim O'Rourke where they weren't that interesting. Which proves my pervious point all the more. Fresh blood. Even if you look at the careers of "serious" composers, the ones who gained major fame - Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, John Adams - what happens is they get stroked for a certain shtick early on, and it stiltifies them. They get lost in their work and they don't produce anything on the level of what sparked their careers. It's a classic syndrome, almost hackneyed by now.
  2. Mark Betchey
    March 21, 2006 at 11:00am
    What a great dialogue - good hustle Tom. MZ I think you are still a little too hung up on the genuine simplicity or lack thereof that you suggest in Neil's process. Neil has consistently focused on simplicity not only in his writing and the process but in record making. I fail to see Neil as being overly enamored with the mystery of his song writing as if it is a gift. He even stated recently that he has the oringinal scribblings that are clearly unedited and now can be found on Prairie Wind in finished form. Go read the lyrics to Sugar Mountain and tell me that is not a stream of consciousness unedited flow that took as long as it took to write the words on paper to write. What makes Neil a brilliant artist is that he does have a knack or a propensity (I won't say gift) to write the way he does. I have been touched by it since I heard Heart of Gold as a nine year old - so to the degree that he may or may not be relevent today or the work may not be as good...all I know is that I was driving through the Wisconsin countryside at 6AM listening to Parairie Wind for the first time and "Its a Dream" moved me to my core and I knew as I listened that there was nothing magic about going from "In the morning when I wake up" to "the old bridge pilings" just pure simplistic Neil taking a little walk through some stored mental imagery. Lets just call it good and as Neil once said "If it sounds good - ship it".
  3. Michael Zapruder
    March 21, 2006 at 11:10am
    good points. I agree with most of them, but to quote from my original post, on the topic of the ineffability of the creative process: "there is something profound about this notion, don't misunderstand me. it's quite true, and it's inspiring;" and on neil in general: "I know that mr young is a definitive, titanic genius. I have no problem whatsoever with the work he's done over many many years. I lurve his songs and records." so I only disagree with your characterization of my perspective. in truth, I'm really not as hung up on the simplicity thing as you think I am...:). I promise.
  4. Tom
    March 21, 2006 at 1:19pm
    "big boomer dinosaurs" Point taken, in general, although it most cases it is moot since many of them are burned out, irrelevant or dead by now. Their pronouncements and attitudes were 100x worse 30+ years ago. I've always considered David Crosby the king of that ilk, especially as he saw himself as some sort of arrogant king of the hippies so long ago. Ugh. Many produced poetry, songs and rhetoric that sounded as awful then as they would now. "Triad" by Crosby is a perfect example of this horrid pretense, and, frankly, as a group, I would put CSN in this category. I'll leave Y out, but I will pin some guilt by association on him.
  5. indydave
    March 22, 2006 at 6:05pm
    I agree that NY's work with Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews are his way of giving back to the youngsters. With his duties with his youngest son, he seems to have devoted a LOT of time and energy to that area, helping children, developing software/hardware controllers, etc. Even if he could go into great detail about his methods, etc., what good would it do? There's only about 1 in 100,000 people that will become artists worth someone else's time anyway. Seems to me the best advice would be to practice. As Tenacious D say, "Quit you day job! Focus on your craft--one time"
  6. indydave
    March 22, 2006 at 6:15pm
    To add a couple more thoughts: the original post said it best: When Neil was young you can bet he studied others and practiced like mad (I believe one of his famous quotes about why his first marriage in the 1960s didn't work was he picked up the guitar more than his wife). There's your answer! And to the post about sonic youth being the only artist to grow with age--that's ridiculous. First, they've put out some absolute crap in this decade. Second, there are plenty of rock bands/songwriters who have got better with age. To name a few, Wilco, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, even Tom Petty. And Dylan's Time Out of Mind would probably make it onto my desert list above anything else he's put out.
  7. Greg Borenstein
    March 29, 2006 at 12:35am
    On the Sonic Youth issue, beyond their continued quality, I think they're actually a great example of a (relatively) popular band teaching and helping younger artists. Specifically, after they'd been signed to Geffen for a couple of years, they convinced the label to bring on board a whole generation of younger bands they'd worked with, toured with, recorded with, or mentored in one form or another: Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Hole, etc. When you add in the Riot Grrl scene, which they also championed, that's pretty much grunge right there. I think this example speaks to the effect of working with younger artists on the scale of a band's long term influence. As a (relatively) young musician, Sonic Youth's shadow seems enormous to me -- not many of the bands I care about seem possible without them -- while Neil Young, and many of the other eccentric 60s icons, however titanic their talent, seem pretty irrelevant. And Sonic Youth has kept doing it since the early nineties. Most recently with the noise scene in New York: Erase Erata, Wolf Eyes, etc. Even as their own records veer widely in quality, there they are, shaping the future of music by helping upcoming bands, ensuring themselves a legacy as the most important force in creative rock music in the last thirty years.
  8. nico
    May 19, 2006 at 11:21am
    As someone who has listened to NY since Buffalo Springfield days, I've always appreciated him for what he is...a songwriter, poet and musician who has written on a breathtakingly prolific scale, the vast majority of which is silly and embarassing, but with an occasional gem of sublime excellence. Almost all art is mediocre, which is why artists are encouraged to be be prolific--accidents may happen! Excellence is extremely rare and Neil Young has had exactly his share. Ben Hogan once said that if he hit just one shot in an entire round of golf exactly the way he wanted to hit it, he considered himself extremely lucky. For Hogan, that was about 1 in 68 shots on average. 1 in 68 is about par for the course with Neil Young and still, we're lucky for it. Ben Hogan had about the same education as Neil Young and was as prolific in golf as Young is in music....but, Hogan spent his entire life teaching as well as performing his art, because he was a great teacher as well as an artist. Like Neil Young, Hogan too was self-absorbed. As the time he made a hole-in-one in a tournament, he made no expression or sound until they walked up on the green and Hogan merely said to his playing partner, "looks like you're away." Yet, Hogan wasn't merely self-absorbed. He spent a lifetime giving back to younger players and the game itself through teaching both in words and action--because he could. Based on interviews I've read over the past 40 years, I'm pretty sure that as a teacher, Neil Young would be incoherent and incomprehensible. It is a gift from God, that he does not teach.
  9. Mike Flacklestein
    August 24, 2006 at 3:31pm
    I live at 75048 Commonwealth in Seattle. Been up here before?

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