Matthews, Browne, Wainwright Honor Neil Young

Neil Young urged that Americans may be willing to give up some accepted civil liberties in the effort to fight terrorism, yet stressed that the loss must be short-lived. Speaking last night (Dec. 11)

Neil Young urged that Americans may be willing to give up some accepted civil liberties in the effort to fight terrorism, yet stressed that the loss must be short-lived. Speaking last night (Dec. 11) at the People for the American Way Foundation's (PFAWF) 20th anniversary celebration and Spirit of Liberty Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., the politically outspoken singer conceded the compromise is difficult to embrace.

"We can't forget now in our immediate situation what brought us here together and what we're living for and what makes us who we are," Young said. "Even though we have to protect freedoms, it seems we're going to have to relinquish some of our freedoms for a short period of time ... I think that's the main thing now that the [PFAWF] can do for America, to never let America forget that these are our rights and we can get them back."

Young was presented with the organization's Spirit of Liberty lifetime achievement award, one of six honors given away last night. The ceremony was held to praise individuals who have taken public stands to support free speech and a democratic society through their art or work. "South Park" originators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, director Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Dogma"), director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), and San Francisco councilwoman Nancy Pelosi were also recognized at the fundraising dinner, each receiving the group's "defender of democracy award." The evening was hosted by comedian Elayne Boosler.

Yet it was clearly Young who was the draw, with Dave Matthews, Jackson Browne, Rufus Wainwright, and Chris Stills on hand to perform a tribute to the folk-inspired veteran rock artist. "I jumped at the chance to take part in this celebration, and I was actually planning on coming before they asked me to sing," Browne said.

Normal Lear, creator of "All in the Family" and the PFAWF's founder, singled out Young's work with the Bridge School, a learning center for children with severe speech impairments co-founded by the artist and his wife in San Francisco, as an example of Young's activist efforts. More recently, Young, also a co-founder of Farm Aid, has stood in support of the Sept. 11 fund, and wrote "Let's Roll" as a tribute to a passenger aboard the hijacked flight that crashed in rural Pennsylvania. He used his time last night to reflect on the more political aspects of Sept. 11.

"We've only [given up our rights] up for a while to fight something that preys on freedom and our vulnerabilities and our openness," Young said, "so it's a tough time for all us who believe in a certain way of life to come to grips with the fact that we have to make a kind of -- and this is where it's hard for me -- a compromise. But it's temporary. We can't forget that it's temporary."

Dave MatthewsYoung did not perform at the affair, yet those who did were quick to praise him. Before launching into his "New Song (Superman)," Matthews commented, "Neil Young has been a hero of mine all my life, at least as long as I've been listening to music. In recent years I've been able to join him onstage, and he is the s*** sandwich." Matthews also covered Young's "Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue)," by far the most embroiled performance of the evening.

Browne took a more stoic approach, aptly covering Young's short, self-doubting "Tell Me Why," but not before questioning his own ability to play it. "Knowing all these Neil Young songs is different than trying to sing them," Browne said. "Technically, you think they're simple, but I spent the last two days trying to learn how to get through this one song. It was so different than anything I could have written."

Perhaps the evening's strongest performance (which drew a standing ovation from former Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf der Maur) was Wainwright and Stills' rendition of "Harvest," with the two trading off vocals and adding depth with some cleverly timed falsettos. Earlier, Wainwright had jokingly asked the crowd if he was as strong a guitarist as Young in the midst of singing his own "Better Pray for Yourself," an anti-religion number that Wainwright referred to as his own "protest song."

Even some of the non-musicians being honored took a moment to bestow kind words upon Young, whose bandmate David Crosby was spotted in the audience. Director Peirce acknowledged the film's soundtrack was inspired by Young's work on Jim Jarmusch's 1995 western "Dead Man." Added the filmmaker, "When I was living out of hotels for about a year, promoting 'Boys Don't Cry' all over the world, everywhere, I listened to 'Harvest' nearly every single day and it was something that made me feel at home and made me feel great."

The evening ended with Matthews screaming the hook from "Hey Hey My My" ("Hey hey, my my, rock'n'roll will never die"), and it was a defiant moment. It was a reminder that art may not provide any answers, but it's never more vital than it is during times of struggle. But it was the words of "Mallrats" director Kevin Smith that kept things in perspective.

"Somewhere in Afghanistan there is a U.S. soldier getting shrapnel pulled out of his ass going, 'Yeah, that 'Clerks' guy is a 'defender of democracy,'" Smith said. "So I'm going to rename this award to 'defender of my own ass.'"


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