Neil Young: ‘I Don’t Feel Like I’ve Got a Lot of Years, But I Don't Feel Old’

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

This October, six revered rock legends — Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young — will join forces for the historical Desert Trip festival, held on the Coachella grounds in Indio, Calif. It will no doubt be a historic, once-in-a-lifetime event — especially in light of the fact that the music world has recently lost many greats we’ll never have the privilege to see in concert again (David Bowie, Prince, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, et al). However, despite the excitement surrounding Desert Trip — tickets for both weekends sold out in three hours — the festival has also been the butt of many ageist jokes. Snarky detractors have dubbed it “Oldchella” or have cracked wise that the only drugs that graying concertgoers will attempt to smuggle past security are Lipitor and Boniva.

But Young, who at age 70 is actually the bill’s youngest performer (Dylan, at 75, is the eldest), isn’t bothered.

“From where I stand, I feel pretty strong. I don’t feel like I’ve got a lot of years, but I don’t feel old,” he tells Yahoo Music. “And I don’t feel fatigued about what I’m doing and about who I’m playing with.”

Young is referring to Promise of the Real, the band led by Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, and featuring Lukas’s brother Micah. POTR, whom Young describes as having “no fear – zero fear,” backed Young last year on his 36th studio album, The Monsanto Years, and they’ll join him onstage at Desert Trip for what is sure to be one of the festival’s most high-energy sets. “We’re gonna go there and rock out!” is Young’s only agenda for their Saturday show alongside McCartney. “We have no plans for what we’re gonna play, and we won’t know what we’re gonna play until we walk out there. And we don’t know how long the songs are gonna be, and we don’t know whether were gonna play acoustic at all or whether we’re just gonna play electric. We don’t know what we’re going to do at all — and we don’t care. Because we never know.”

Perhaps fans will get a taste of what Young’s freeform Desert Trip concert will be like via Earth, his new live album with POTR, out this Friday, June 24. A thematic continuation of The Monsanto Years (his 2015 concept album protesting agrochemical/agricultural biotech giant corporation Monsanto), Earth is a sprawling, trippy, and “meditative” work that clocks in at over an hour and half, with each of the 13 tracks segueing seamlessly into each other. It’s an atypical concert album, but a true “live” album, with ambient overdubs of real animal sounds — many recorded near Young’s Northern California home — weaving in and out of the music. (“I just started to sprinkle them into the audience because it was a live show, and I thought they deserved to be there too. And they fit really well!”) 

Young describes Earth as an “ear movie” and says, “It’s kind of a lost art, the concept album. There’s really no need for that in today’s civilization — except for me. I feel that I needed to do it.” As for whether today’s music buyers have the patience for a 98-minute experimental live album (featuring one epic track, “Love & Only Love,” that’s nearly a half-hour long), he shrugs: “It doesn’t really matter. The thing is, we make the record, we do what we do, we create the art, we finish the thing, we feel good about what we’ve done — and we move on. That’s what matters. … I’m not really a commercial success, in as much as, you know, I don’t sell millions of records. I have done all of these things, but now it’s more important for me to just do what I want to do. It’s more important that art live, and that the expression happens, than anything else.”

Related: The Quality of Streaming: Was Neil Young Right?

Earth is, of course, not available on iTunes. In fact, any journalists wanting to interview Young about the album were required to listen to it first on a Pono, the high-resolution audio player and accompanying digital music service that Young founded in 2014 with the goal of presenting music as the artists intended. “The whole thing of iTunes saying what you can do and what you can’t do is so counter-art. It is so against everything that I believe in that I can’t sell my music that way. … There’s nothing there. There’s no music there. It’s all about selling things. It’s about commercials or whatever. It doesn’t have to do with music the way I like music to be,” Young grumbles. “I can’t sell my music there, I can’t rent it there, and I can’t present it there. If somebody wants to rip my music and put it on any device, they’re welcome to do that. I just don’t want to charge for it.” 

Young isn’t just taking a stand against iTunes; Monsanto remains a prime target. While he has always tackled sociopolitical subject matter in some of his most famous songs (“Ohio,” “Southern Man,” “This Note’s for You,” “Rockin’ in the Free World”), protest has now become his sole lyrical focus. “I can only sing ‘ooh baby’ so many times, and then I have to sing about something else,” he explains.

“You’re certainly not going to hear about [GMOs] on the news stations. … You don’t hear about the Monsanto problems on mainstream media, just like you don’t hear about Bernie Sanders in mainstream media,” Young says. (Being Canadian, Young can’t vote in this presidential election, but says he’s “Bernie Sanders all the way” and steadfastly stated at the time of this interview that Sanders is “standing up for regular people” and really “could win.”)

“You know, certain things are corporate-controlled. We’ve come to accept a democracy that’s really a ‘corporocracy’ or something. It’s not really democracy,” Young continues. “Because it’s controlled, paid for, and manipulated by corporations. … Corporations aren’t people. They don’t have consciences and they don’t have children. … I can’t ignore that, and I have nothing to gain from ignoring it.”

When many other classic rock artists Young’s age are resting on their laurels, Young admirably continues to push boundaries and take risks — sonically and politically. So what keeps him so energized? “I don’t have any laurels! My laurels are all missing. They’ve relaxed,” he laughs. “I don’t know, I just keep going … ’cause it’s fun.”

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