AUSTIN, Texas—Never meet your heroes, they say. It’s an adage seemingly tailor-made for world-weary rockers, not known to be the most even-tempered of beasts.
So when Neil Young strolls into the room—a suite at the Four Seasons with a lovely view of the lake, mind you—sits down, locks eyes with me, and flashes a rascally smile, I’m overcome with relief.
The 72-year-old is at SXSW in Austin, Texas, to promote the new experimental film Paradox. Written and directed by his partner of four years, the actress and activist Daryl Hannah, it stars Young as the mythical “Man in the Black Hat,” a cowboy-musician whose days are spent causing mischief and making music at a rundown stagecoach stop with his merry band of outlaws, including good ol’ Willie Nelson. Their lives are upended when an ethereal group of womenfolk arrive, destined to change their old ways.
In addition to starring in the labor of love, which premieres March 23 on Netflix, Young created an entire 21-song soundtrack album for the film. And you get the feeling from speaking with him that he wouldn’t have done it for anyone but Hannah.
“I love Daryl. She’s great—and a great artist. She wanted to make a film, had an idea, and I wanted to help her. It was her dreamchild, so I did everything I could to support it,” he says. “We went in the studio and did the soundtrack, had a great jam, and never did anything twice.”
When I ask him if they’re kindred spirits, he grins wide. “We knew we had a lot in common,” he offers, his eyes looking out onto the water. “We saw each other from a distance.”
The Daily Beast sat down with Young and had a very entertaining discussion about everything from the film and its feminist message to the Trump administration, which Young is, shall we say, far less pleased with.
Not to give away the ending, but Paradox strikes me as a giant metaphor for your and Daryl’s relationship.
People see that and I think that’s nice. She did a great job. She wrote it, directed it, and produced a great piece of work out of love. She went out to thrift stores and bought all the costumes herself, really put so much work into it. Most of it was shot in Colorado, but part of it was shot in California and up in Canada.
It’s also a deconstruction of your own mythology in a way, with “The Man in the Black Hat” and his journey to women.
I think it’s great, the way she put that all in there. And making it was really a lot of fun. It didn’t take us long, it didn’t cost us a lot of money. We spent maybe $125,000 on it.
There’s a great line from your song “Show Me” off Paradox: “When the women of the world are free to stand up for themselves, and the promises made stop gathering dust on the shelf, show me.” Seems to really tap into the post-election zeitgeist.
That’s crazy. Well you know, the one thing I feel good about is a couple of days ago I set my clock forward an hour and missed an hour of the Trump presidency. That felt fantastic.
It’s just exhausting.
I don’t see how it can go on. The man—Trump, the president of the United States—is a mess. He has no balls. He hasn’t got one ball. He literally has nothing. All the bravado, all the you’re fired, you’re fired, all that shit, he doesn’t have the balls to look anybody in the face and tell them anything.
Right. He recently fired the secretary of state on Twitter.
Yeah. That’s his way. He wants to not only fire you, but he wants to belittle you. First of all, he has to have three front-page stories running in the news on him every day, so he keeps them coming. He’s a classic media guy and the United States is in serious fucking trouble.
Only two more years or so, perhaps.
I don’t know. I think once we get rid of the Republicans who are backing him, and these are decent people—I like a lot of those guys. I like John McCain. I like Lindsey Graham. I don’t agree with everything that they say, don’t get me wrong, but I think there are a lot of decent Republicans. But this guy [Trump] is making them look like flakes. He’s making them look like the United States is not the most important thing to them. If they tie themselves to Trump, they’re all going to die; they’re all going down. I don’t mean literally die, but their careers are going down. They can’t survive. They need to bail now and save their faces so that they can at least come back when there’s a decent presidential candidate. They need to bow out and say, “I can’t have anything to do with this guy, I’ll be back when we have a real candidate,” and then come with a different candidate in 2020.
I’ve tried to assume a semi-optimistic approach in thinking, yes, Trump is bad but he’s also forcing the seedy underbelly of society to come out of the darkness and into the light, and that will give us the opportunity to confront these lingering problems.
The best thing that’s going to happen from Trump is the dismantling of Trump’s mess, which will result in a new rebuild of America that pays attention to today’s world. Now if we can do that right it’s an opportunity, and if we can’t it’s a disaster. What we have now, it’s hard to describe for me. I want to separate myself from all the petty little things he does—the way he fires people, the gutless way he does things, the waffling back and forth on serious issues. Lying to the kids! Lying to the kids about gun control and saying he wants to raise the minimum age and then not doing it. He wanted the headline, “I’m going to raise the age,” and then he wanted the headline, “I’m not going to raise the age.” He couldn’t have had either one of them if he hadn’t have said the first one, so that’s two or three days of headlines on one subject.
Then he has the other subjects. I’m sure that he’s not even too upset about the porn star, because she keeps him in the news too. It’s not about what it is, it’s that he’s there. He needs to be in the public eye. He wanted to be a film and TV producer, and that’s what he’s doing with the White House. So to him, firing people in the White House and turning it over, that’s what they did on The Apprentice. He’s doing the same thing that he did on TV, only it’s the United States of America. I don’t think people are going to stand for it for too long, and I think in November all his power’s gonna be gone.
You mentioned guns and I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Dana Loesch, the NRA spokesperson, has some big issue with you.
What, does she like me that much?
No. She doesn’t like you at all.
[Laughs] She doesn’t like me?
She has this bizarre obsession with you. There are over a dozen tweets going back a decade on her Twitter mocking your music, your voice, all this stuff.
Ah, good! Well, she’s one of the gang over there. Although Trump likes my music. He comes to all my shows. That’s why I went to him to try to pitch Pono to him. I said, “How about you do something that’s good for the arts, so you have something that stands out?” I thought it would be a good bet. This was three years ago, I guess. My company was floundering and I needed some input of cash, but he didn’t see the value in it and really just wanted a picture taken with me—which he used falsely in other ways afterwards.
He was like, “Oh, he’s my friend! But he’s a hypocrite—he wouldn’t let me use ‘Rockin’ in the Free World,’ or said I shouldn’t use it.” I can’t stop anybody from using it! It’s free. It is what it is. It’s an existing thing, and he can use whatever he wants. There’s fair use, so you can’t stop people from doing those things. You can just say, “Don’t do it,” and most people have enough pride to stop at that point, but that doesn’t affect Trump. But what’s her name, huh? Wow, that’s great. I’m glad I got under her skin.
The phrase she used on four or five different occasions—and I don’t think this makes a whole lot of sense—was that your voice sounds like a “dying cow fart.”
Why doesn’t she just shoot me? [Laughs] You know, I hate to say that because I have kids and I really don’t want anybody to shoot me. I’ve still got to bring up my kids, so don’t take that seriously! But that’s what happens: when you’re out there in the world, people can say whatever they want. It’s freedom. I appreciate that, and I think she should exercise it as much as she can.
That’s fair. You know, with the Confederate monuments coming down, I’ve thought a bit about “Southern Man.” You were ahead of the cultural curve there, calling out the South for its failure to come to terms with its ugly past. And a lot of Southern bands didn’t take kindly to the song at the time.
Well you know, I think they have a right to say whatever they want to say, and I think that’s all good. I wasn’t ever worried about that kind of thing. But I still don’t think that black people are treated correctly here in this country. We still have a long way to go. And it’s easy to do. Look at England. They’re fine. Canada treats black folks like human beings. Black people have places to go, but the United States of America is not one of the best ones. I don’t know if it’s racism or the need to attack somebody—this need of “I have to have an enemy.” So, the change is slow. “Southern Man” is just a real song about something that happened, and continues to happen.
I believe in the song. The song isn’t really an attacking song, you know? It just says “better keep your head,” don’t let it get too crazy, don’t go back to the Ku Klux Klan, let’s not get too nuts. Have your feelings, who cares? People have the right to think that all the people that aren’t like them are holding everybody back. I think that’s pretty lame, but it’s their right. It’s like Trump voters. I respect a Trump voter as much as I respect somebody that voted for Hillary Clinton—or would have voted for Bernie Sanders if they hadn’t been so corrupted, the Democrats. I respect people’s right to exercise their rights and America is based on freedom of choice, so these people decided that Donald Trump was their candidate, and I respect them for saying that. I don’t agree with them, however.
It’s the 40th anniversary of perhaps the greatest concert film ever made in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like on that stage, with all these music legends performing together.
That was a great film. It was our generation, and Robbie [Robertson] and The Band wanted to share. I don’t know why they wanted to stop at that early time, but for some reason they did. Maybe it was Robbie, I don’t know. But anyway, they wanted to stop and thank everybody who’d been with them, which was interesting. I thought it was a great thing.
There is the infamous story about that coke booger hanging out of your nose.
Oh! That huge rock of cocaine! I’m lucky to still be here. That was what their takeaway was after seeing me in that, that they hoped that I’d live. I was, you know… I was abusing myself in that time. They had to rotoscope that sucker out of there!
That’s what I read—that Scorsese didn’t want to but the studio made him cut it out.
That’s what you get when you’re messin’ with the corporations, Marty! [Laughs]
Let’s go back to Paradox. The message of the film, to me, seemed to be that this world is lacking a woman’s touch. There’s you and your cadre of guys, aimless and getting up to no good, and then the women arrive and their lives are granted meaning.
You can see why these guys are out there in the trees by themselves. They really do want these women to stay and they’re sad to see them go, but they’ve made their bed. That represents the way the world is now, and the change that’s happening in the world when it comes to women.
That was some voters’ rationale for 2016, that it was time for a woman to take the wheel.
Well, hopefully! We’ll see what happens. Maybe next time.
You’re a bit of a soothsayer, in a way, because you did call Obama’s presidency on Living with War.
Yeah. On “Lookin’ for a Leader.” Lucked out! I met him, and it seemed to me like he was the one. And we had him for eight years. He was a good president.
You said something interesting around the release of that album—that you were waiting for a younger voice to come out with a protest album but it never came.
That’s right. That was during the Bush years.
Why don’t you think there are any good Trump protest songs or albums? I certainly haven’t heard any.
There’s nowhere for them to be played! The whole media thing is under tight control—it’s all formats, and you have to fit into a format. When “Ohio” came out there were no formats; it was heard everywhere. It was a new song and people played it.
You recently penned a blistering op-ed that took aim at Google, Facebook and Amazon for continuing “to rip off the artist community, building their wealth on music’s back and paying nothing to the artists.”
Google has to get an algorithm that shows that it somehow respects the arts. But their algorithms are all about making money and getting more hits. They think that’s what it’s all about. More eyes on it means more advertising money, so they don’t really care about the art. They care about having things to present to many different kinds of people, using algorithms that they’ve tracked these people with, to put ads in these people’s faces. Basically, they’re taking away all the diversification and the universe of possibilities and reducing it down to what a person’s thought for the last week, so there’s no new information on the platforms—they’re all suited to what you did yesterday. They don’t have algorithms that enable them to protect art. I was saying, “I’m not content to be content.” I refuse that. I want art to live. They think that because they have a platform, they’re not responsible for what people do on the platform. And that’s bullshit. That is totally wrong. Take down the platform.
Let’s talk about the environment.
That’s my biggest problem with Trump. None of this other shit matters as much. He is an animal. He’s got to go. But you know, the system will take care of him. What a lowlife. No respect for that guy. Every day when I look at the news, I’m hoping somehow he’s gone. That’s the story I’m looking for. I don’t care how it happens. I wouldn’t wish any ill on anybody, but I’d just like to see him out of that office.
It’s pretty remarkable how prolific you are. You’ve steadily churned out albums at a pace unmatched by most artists. What’s kept that fire burning?
Well, that’s what I do. I’m an artist. That’s how I like to be spending my time. If I’m not doing this, I like to be writing. I enjoy writing more than ever before. I have a novel that I’ve just finished and it’s with my agent in New York. We’re doing the final edit. It’s such a complex story, it’s hard to tell it. It’s a science fiction-drama-adventure kind of thing. It touches on energy and corruption.
Is it set in a dystopian future where energy resources are scarce?
Kind of. It’s not that bad, though. Some parts are bad, some parts are beautiful. The minority is blue-eyed and blond, and they’re treated like shit. They’re the ones who live in the cliffs and beside the ocean in shacks.
And you’re not worried that that could be misinterpreted?
[Laughs] No. I’m not.