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Like a Hurricane

Gusting through Greendale, Neil Young remains a force of nature.

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Neil Young (right) takes his Super 8 on the road.
  • Neil Young (right) takes his Super 8 on the road.

He's been to Hollywood. He's been to Redwood. To Ohio, too. And now Neil Young is sitting on a puffy sofa in his manager's office, toughing out a cold and chatting enthusiastically about, among other things, his exciting new multimedia project, Greendale.

At first, with his low, cordial voice purely antithetical to his familiar croon, his arbitrary attire possibly donated, his timeless mutton-chops ever at the ready, Young is so earnest, it's almost scary.

"I'm happy," he declares, betraying not a trace of the eternal rebel. "I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing, having a good time on the road with people I like to work with. It's exciting having a film come out. It was a blast making it -- one of the best times of my life, doing that film."

Encapsulating many of Young's perspectives, Greendale is an album with his band Crazy Horse, a tour and stage show thereof, and now a new movie, shot on Super 8 by Young's alter ego, Bernard Shakey. It employs a variety of characters to speak the artist's mind, literally: The denizens of Young's fictional small town lip-synch his vocals throughout. Handily addressing the government ("They're all bought and paid for anyway"), the creepiness of the so-called Patriot Act ("You can do your part by watching others"), and the media ("It ain't an honor to be on TV, and it ain't a duty either"), a lot of sociopolitical bluster blows through his allegorical town. (Meanwhile, he's putting his money where his motor is, running the current tour's rigs on vegetable-based fuel, significantly cleaner than petroleum.) Born of what Young calls his "grooves," the American microcosm of Greendale emerged through a process that sounds darned close to spiritual channeling.

"After all the songs were written, [the title] came as an echo-chorus add-on in 'Devil's Sidewalk' -- the words 'green dale' weren't originally there," Young explains. "They were added after the fact, because I didn't know what 'Devil's Sidewalk' was about. I kept listening to it, going, well, it's a place. Somehow one morning, I just woke up and said, well, this whole place is just Greendale, this is what it is.

"It was a totally unconscious attempt to make a record," he adds cheerfully. "It started off as 10 songs, and one at a time they were developed. I wouldn't write the next one until the last one was done. So everybody kind of got it one chapter at a time, including myself. When we got finished, that's when the visuals started happening. There wasn't a plan to do this. It just evolved."

The man is positively proud of making art by happenstance (which may explain his cameo in the role of Wayne Newton). No script doctors, no character rewrites, just ideas to paper, transcribed to computer, et voilà. Blithe though Young may be when discussing the film, there's also a hard line in Greendale, best represented by the character Sun Green, a teen cheerleader who becomes a staunch environmental activist. In addition to shouting Young's declamations through a bullhorn and even transcending a feminine rite-of-passage way ahead of average (she loses her kitty -- to the FBI!), the character, crafted much like Keisha Castle-Hughes's in Whale Rider, is indicative of changing times. Sun is portrayed by a high school classmate of Young's daughter, a cinematic debutante named Sarah White.

"She's very environmentally conscious, and she's an exceedingly talented girl," Young says of White. "She is Sun Green. If I couldn't get her, I probably wouldn't have done it. It was that right. Sun has some powers, she's supernatural in some ways, she's gifted, psychic, has some edge to her. She's a different girl. She's got something going on."

Is Sun, perchance, representing?

"I hope so!" Young exclaims, his eyes twinkling. "I'd like to see one of these really popular pop stars come along that really has a conscience for the environment and for what's right and wrong -- like a superstar that turns into an activist in a big way and doesn't turn away from the mainstream but uses it, knows how to use the media to get the thing across, like Sun."

There are probably a lot of ways to get Young hyped up, but a good one is to ask him how pop music has changed since he began his arc.

"It used to belong to the kids. Now it belongs to the corporations who are feeding the kids. There are some voices out there that are individuals that are outside the system, that are being heard through the college stations and all that. But it doesn't get to the top like it used to. Because it's controlled from the top down."

Of his own work, Young admits, "I'm only really concerned with what I'm doing now, because that's what I'm doing. What I've done is just something I've gotta ignore. Because I don't need it."

He doesn't need his own classic songs?

"You know, it's nice. I love to play the songs for people when I feel like playin' 'em, but I don't have to play 'em. Especially the old ones." He will not name a favorite, though he does consider timeless story-songs like "Powderfinger" and "Cortez the Killer" easier to resurrect. With that, mention of Young's cameo in the forthcoming rockumentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip leads the conversation back to film.

"The art of the crude segue is appreciated here," he laughs. On to Young's partnership with "sensitive, exploratory guy" Dean Stockwell (his co-director on Human Highway) and enduring producer Larry "L.A." Johnson. He particularly raves up cinematographer David Myers (Woodstock, THX-1138, Wattstax, Young's previous films) as a creative mentor and genius of shooting coverage.

"Also, I learned from him the art of not stopping. Don't stop filming!" he exclaims, as if straight from his raucous tour-documentary, Muddy Track. "Especially when things go wrong, that's when you've gotta really keep going. Things happen, you know."

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