In the spring of 2006, Neil Young was just a year removed from a near-fatal aneurysm when he became so enraged with the war in Iraq that he quickly wrote, recorded and released the protest album “Living With War.” Not two months after its release, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young launched their Freedom of Speech tour, during which unwitting fans expecting the band’s sweeter side were greeted instead with its serrated edge.
During a three-hour-plus concert, the band played nearly all of “Living With War” and many of the political anthems on which its legend was built, like “Ohio,” “Military Madness” and “Find the Cost of Freedom.” Despite CSN&Y’s anti-establishment roots, the move angered some fans, while inspiring others.
The forthcoming documentary “CSNY: Deja Vu” charts that friction, portraying fans who saluted the group’s efforts and those who felt betrayed by them, while also introducing viewers to Iraqi War vets who are now protesting the war as musicians, politicians and social workers. Directed by longtime film buff Young (who uses the alias/nickname Bernard Shakey) and due in theaters July 25, the doc blends concert and behind-the-scenes footage with short news features created by ABC correspondent Mike Cerre.
Billboard caught up with the 62-year-old Young recently at a small, rustic restaurant south of San Francisco, in an area surrounded by redwood trees. Just a few minute’s drive from the ranch he’s lived on for more than 30 years, the restaurant would be familiar to hardcore fans, as it was featured in the “Unknown Legend” video and on the “Greendale” DVD.
With his alternative-fuel equipped 1982 Mercedes parked in front, on this day Young was particularly excited, as Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced impeachment articles seeking the removal of President George Bush. Young spoke from behind a pair of dark sunglasses, the conversation often drifting toward his passion for finding alternatives to fossil fuels for automobiles, which, he notes, “is bigger than a song.”
It’s pretty shocking midway through the movie when an irate Atlanta fan tells you to stick it up your ass, and another remarks that he wants to “knock your teeth out” for singing anti-war, anti-Bush songs. How did you react the first time you saw this footage?
Well, we knew that it was happening. That wasn’t the first time it happened. Before we even got to Atlanta, we’d experienced that. There were other places. The bull-ometer was pretty high in a couple of places, and I think Orange County was pretty good, Irvine. It was pretty strong there. We had some fights; everything was crazy there. They just went nuts. But they weren’t real close to us. We could see them, and they were just going berserk. But Atlanta was very forceful. I mean, they are so passionate about what they felt, and how they feel about, you know, how we crossed over the line and intruded on something that they believed in so strongly. So you gotta respect people, even if they’re losing their minds at that very moment, and not talking really eloquently. They have their deep beliefs. So we had to use it, because we’re telling the story, and we’re trying to tell the whole story. There was a journalistic responsibility involved.
It definitely adds weight to the film.
Were there times while you were editing the film when you were worried that you weren’t portraying things in a balanced fashion? Did you second-guess yourself at times?
You know, I don’t even know if it balanced. I just tried to use everything I could that showed both sides. And we gathered everything we had, and we used more negative stuff in comparison to positive stuff, in relation to the total amount of negative stuff and the total amount of positive stuff that we had. Like, in our articles [Young strings pieces of positive and negative reviews of the concerts throughout the film], the pros and cons of the press, the pros outweighed the cons by like two-and-a-half to one. But in the movie, it’s pretty even. We tried to keep it even. I assume that’s the right way to do it. But tilting the film toward the bleeding-heart liberal is the content of the songs, and that aspect, I can’t help that — that’s me. That’s how I feel. So I couldn’t change that. That was the catalyst, the trigger for the reactions. So the reactions were fairly even, but the source of the trigger is a little bit slanted.
When you watch this film and when you think back on the negative reactions in the audience, is there a face or a middle finger that vividly sticks out to you?
I remember some faces. There’s one guy I remember for sure, and he’s not in the movie. But there are things that I remember from all tours. [This tour] was a harrowing experience at times, and it’s not an experience that I would like to repeat. I think it was a one-off.
I think if I did this kind of thing for the rest of my life, I’d become like CNN and I don’t really respect that very much. It’s like the same thing on a loop. I don’t see the need for that. I like to be a full-length program, not a repeating segment.
Were there times on tour where you would confide in your wife, and say, “I can’t believe what happened tonight?”
There was never any sense of giving up or anything. We went from July 4th to September 10th in the tour, and I kind of remember feeling that I was really glad that we weren’t playing on September 11th. I do remember that. I said, “Let’s not do that.” There were moments throughout it where you just shook your head and said, “God, what are we doing?” But the songs were there, the feeling was there, the audience was there, and we were doing it. We planned it. We executed it. I mean, we planned it — the whole thing aimed at one thing. It was all focused on war and politics and that type of thing.
Speaking of 9/11, you’ve said that Bush mishandled the empathy that many countries felt for America after the terrorist attacks. In your mind, how could have Bush capitalized on that empathy? What could he have done that would have taken things in a much more positive direction?
Well, I think misleading the country into a war with Iraq by misrepresenting the facts, as the Senate committee has verified that he did, that was the wrong way to go about it. I think that he took a tremendous amount of good faith and good will from around the world and used it very poorly. It’s not, “What could he have done,” so much as it is, “Why did he do what he did?” I mean, it’s just unfortunate that his feelings and convictions took him there, and we’re the ones who suffer for it — to a lesser degree us, and to a greater degree the Iraqis. And we’re all suffering for it. And it’s just very unfortunate. I just feel badly about it because [pauses] it’s not because I hate Bush. I just think he’s a strong leader that was going in the wrong direction. It’s a bad combination.
A liberal friend of mine in New York saw the Twin Towers fall while stuck in traffic on the Verrazano Bridge. She was so shook up, and remained so scared that in 2004 she voted for Bush, simply out of fright.
Well, he used that. He played on people’s fear, instead of people’s faith and their real faith, real belief, their real human feelings. They used fear to get where they wanted to go, which is too bad. It’s just unfortunate. You know, I empathize with her for voting for Bush and being so terrified that she had to do that. I feel sorry for her. But I think a lot of people probably did that, and it’s too bad.
And he needs to be impeached for what he did. I mean, the Senate has verified it. It needs to happen for history. It’s like a dirty business. It needs to be taken care of. Nobody wants to be bothered, but it should happen, because do we want to let this go down in history? It’s a cancer. It’s a blight. It has to be eradicated. You have to look at this and go, “The president mislead the people into going to war, lost 5,000 troops, there’s hundreds of thousands of people killed in Iraq, billions and billions of dollars were taken out of the economy for the war, and now we’ve discovered for sure — the Senate committee has said, ‘Yeah, he did. He lied.'” So what do you have to do to get impeached? What do you need to do? And who are we if we don’t do it … if we don’t actually say, “Hey — the law! You can’t do that!”
We place our trust in this guy, and this is what happens. I don’t see how it plays out. We’ve been vindicated by the Senate, who spent a long time investigating it. Yet it’s on the second page of the paper. Brian Williams talks about it and goes right on to the next story, and it’s like it’s 25 seconds. Give me a break! Why fall asleep? America’s fallen asleep. America’s sleeping through a moment in history that’s going to affect us forever. It’s gonna be, we’re the country who had our Senate investigate and found out we went to war under false pretenses and we didn’t do anything. We said, “That’s okay. We’ll just let that go because we’re distracted by oil prices and a new presidential election.” So we don’t have time to take care of our dirty business. But, man, you got to take care of your house. You can’t let that go. What if we have another guy like that, who turns out to be an idiot in 15 years, and he goes, “Well, George Bush did it.” What’s the precedent?
Dennis Kucinich introduced impeachment articles today, and people think, “Ah, he’s a kook,” you know. It’s like, when are people going to wake up? We shouldn’t have big vehicles that use so much gas, but we keep making ’em. It’s not, “Big is bad,” it’s “Gas is bad.” Why don’t we change that? There are a lot of things to do that we’re not doing that kind of bothers me.
There’s a scene in the movie where Graham Nash talks about going to hear “Living With War” for the first time and deciding whether he wanted to suit up for this tour. I wonder if there were times when you felt like you were bringing David, Stephen and Graham into something that was ultimately harmful to their bottom line as Crosby, Stills and Nash? Obviously, you play to two different audiences, and touring with them is a lot less of a preaching-to-the-choir scenario.
I guess so, ’cause they’ve been pretty mellow for a long time, and they haven’t done anything. But if you look at the roots, if you look at the original music — “For What It’s Worth,” “Ohio,” “Military Madness,” “Long Time Gone,” “Deja Vu” and all these songs that were written back then — “Immigration Man,” “Teach Your Children” — all that stuff is all rooted in the same message. This is just a different time. So they had a history of doing that, and I thought that was a good thing, because it reached way back for the roots.
Of course, between then and now, they’ve been singing about things they’ve believed in, and also just singing a lot of love songs, and a lot of songs that people enjoy, so it could become kind of like date night going to see them. But I put out my record, I was in the band, my last record was called “Living With War,” [and] it had “Let’s Impeach the President” [on it]. It was on all the networks. [The audience members] had to know something about it. We called the tour the Freedom of Speech Tour. And we went out and did these songs. They had to know something was happening. But there was still an element of surprise, and you saw that in Atlanta, but a lot of people knew what was going on, too. You could see it — they’re talking about it before the show [in the movie]. It was just very complex.
But those guys were into it 100 percent. I mean, Stephen does not like people to not like him, and I respect him for that. And he’s a very sensitive guy, so I could understand that, but even with that he wanted to do it. He said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and he sang “For What It’s Worth” every day and every night. He played his heart out. But he kept saying, “Well, it’s like a political cartoon, you have to see it as that,” and he was always trying to soften the blow a little, and that’s the way he is, and that’s cool. But I think he was with us, and he believed in what we were doing, or he wouldn’t have been there. And Crosby and Nash were right there from the beginning, because they don’t care so much how the reaction’s gonna be. They’re not as concerned with that as they are just with singing about stuff that matters to them. And they agreed with the songs, and they wanted to sing ’em.
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