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Brush with death leaves Neil Young grateful

DeemeYoung

(Neil Young, left, with Jonathan Demme)

BY STEVEN ROSEN / DENVER POST / 2-22-2006

 Jonathan Demme orders orange juice for himself, Neil Young and a reporter at downtown’s Zoom Restaurant in Park City, Utah – a refreshing way to begin a morning interview on behalf of the concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.”

The film, which Demme (“Stop Making Sense”) directed, features Young showcasing gently intimate, quietly thoughtful acoustic arrangements of folk- and country-rock songs from last year’s “Prairie Wind” CD plus older material. The concert was staged for the camera over two days last August at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, with audiences present. It opens in Denver today.

At the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival two nights before this interview, the sold-out audience at the 1,270-seat auditorium gave a standing ovation to Young – dressed in black Western wear and cowboy hat with longish gray hair – right at the start. People clapped after songs in the film, as if watching a live show.

This reception was a kind of unspoken thank-you from the audience to the 60- year-old Young for surviving surgery last year for a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. The melodic “Prairie Wind” songs, with quietly reflective lyrics about his life until now, were for the most part written and recorded between his initial diagnosis and surgery.

The movie, in turn, was a means by which Young was offering his own form of “thank- you” for being alive. It was filmed not long after his recovery from the surgery.

“Everything I do in one way or another from now on is going to be a thank-you – just walking down the street,” Young declares, sitting at the restaurant table next to Demme. His voice, unaffectedly straightforward and plainspoken, perfectly matches the direct way he looks at a person while answering questions.

Demme, thin and wiry and exceptionally outgoing, explains that this project came about after he contacted Young about working together. At the time Demme, whose films include “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Melvin and Howard” and “Beloved,” was taking a break after 2004’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” Young earlier had written a song for Demme’s 1993 “Philadelphia” and Demme had directed several promotional videos for Young’s rocking “Sleeps With Angels” album.

The “Prairie Wind” songs sound affecting in the film. And the elegiac power of the older songs from the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as from 1992’s “Harvest Moon,” is surprising. There’s something at work here besides nostalgia in his versions of such compositions as “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “I Am a Child,” “Comes a Time” and “Needle and the Damage Done.”

In this film, they become about watching how Young has changed – or remains unchanged – while being struck by how preternaturally mature these songs were when he wrote them. As a young man, he already seemed so concerned about “getting old,” to quote a memorable phrase from 1972’s “Heart of Gold.”

That prompts him to remember the circumstances under which he wrote one of his earliest songs, the mournful “The Old Laughing Lady.”

“It’s the oldest song in ‘Heart of Gold,”‘ he says. “I wrote it before I even got to Buffalo Springfield (the late-1960s rock band he belonged to). I was in a White Tower in Detroit, across from a club and wrote it on a napkin in the middle of the night. I had no place to go, no house, no hotel, no money.”

The job of the troubadour, Young says, is winning an audience over with new material and then making it hear the old songs in a new way. That’s not easy at his level of fame.

“I have to overcome the celebration aspects of it – you know, people see me and get so excited and want to hear every song that’s their favorite song,” Young says. “Once you succeed at that, people are opened up and really listening to you. So then we get to the point we’re doing old songs and they’re still in that mode.

“They’re going, ‘I’ve got to pay attention here.’ It presents a whole new look at the old songs. This is what singer-songwriters are supposed to do.”

Demme – who turned 62 on Wednesday – interjects that a Boomer audience that grew up with Young may indeed hear some of those songs differently now with the passage of decades and their own encroaching mortality.

“I know, when I first heard ‘Heart of Gold’ or ‘Old Man,’ I loved them and I was really grooving to them,” Demme says, snapping his fingers.

“When I see them now in the film, the emotional kick lurking under those lyrics comes across to me in a way it never needed to do before. At that phase in my life I wasn’t contemplating anything. I was digging the music.’

Young acknowledges that important change. “In some ways, some of the lyrics resonate a little differently than they did,” he says.

He also credits his fellow musicians at the Ryman event for giving the older songs added power. The roster includes Ben Keith on pedal-steel guitar, slide guitar and dobro; Spooner Oldham on Hammond B3 organ and piano; and singers Pegi Young (his wife), Diana Dewitt and Emmylou Harris.

“I had the ideal group to play them with now,” Young says. “Even when I went on tour right after ‘Harvest’ came out, I didn’t have the singers.” (On the original recorded versions of “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” Young had Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor providing harmonies.)

“Live, that was impossible for me to do. It never worked with Crazy Horse – that was like driving a truck into a china shop,” he says. “And if I was out with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, I still didn’t have Linda. I didn’t have a high voice.”

So what’s next? Young answers with the unexpected frankness of a man who is still a bit shaken by his experiences, but glad to be alive.

“I’m just looking for a sign,” he says.

 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

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