Letter From Sundance

Neil Young's Musical Lifeline

The singer at Sundance for the premiere of Jonathan Demme's concert film
The singer at Sundance for the premiere of Jonathan Demme's concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold." (By Carolyn Kaster -- Associated Press)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006

PARK CITY, Utah -- Early last spring, after undergoing a routine brain scan to search for clues to his mysterious migraines, Neil Young was told he had a potentially fatal aneurysm waiting like an assassin inside his skull.

His doctors scheduled surgery, and Young had almost two weeks to await his fate. Who knows what any of us would do with that kind of time? Young went into a kind of artistic trance, writing and recording a bighearted album called "Prairie Wind," a suite of songs about his wife and children, his friends, God and love, his father and memories of growing up on the prairies of Canada. He was waving goodbye, just in case.

"I had the feeling I might not be able to make another record," he says. "I wasn't looking for anything and I didn't have a plan. I just let whatever was in me come out. Just covering the bases, you know, if for any reason I wasn't able to communicate after this procedure."

The 60-year-old singer-songwriter has come to the Sundance Film Festival for the world premiere of director Jonathan Demme's concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," which was shot on location in the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville five months after Young came out of the operating room. Calling it "a dream concert," Demme filmed Young and his band performing the new material from "Prairie Wind" followed by 10 old songs, including such classics as "Comes a Time," "Harvest Moon" and "Old Man." The film is scheduled to open in Washington on Feb. 17.

After the premiere, Young and Demme hunkered down in a hotel room at the foot of the snowy slopes of Park City and talked about life, death and the muse. One might expect Young to be a hard planet to reach. In his concerts, especially in his electric work, he can come off like an avenging gunslinger, dangerous at close range. Not an artist who much likes answering questions.

So it comes perhaps as a surprise that Young appears almost gentle, a patient and solicitous man, taking pains to describe how something wonderful -- something mysterious even to him -- happened when he picked up his guitar as the world around him got suddenly mortal and finite.

When doctors discovered "the health issue," as Young calls it, he had already booked a studio and gathered his fellow musicians. "I had to wait for the doctor to perform the thing and so I had almost two weeks to kill and who wants to sit around for two weeks thinking about an aneurysm. So I thought I might as well go ahead and do what I was going to do, make a record in Nashville."

As a distraction? "Yeah, and maybe as fuel," he says.

When he arrived in Nashville, Young and his wife took a room at the Hermitage, one of his favorite hotels. He hadn't written any of the songs and says he did not have an idea or even a theme for the album.

"I'd start by writing a little melody before I went to bed, just a rhythm, a feel, a chord. Something that felt like a song to me. Then I'd get up in the morning and write all the words, first thing, when I'm just a clean slate, before I'd had any conversations. Then go to the studio and record. We'd be there all night. Then go home, pick up the guitar, play some more chords and start all over again," he says.

Accompanying him on the record were his longtime musical collaborators, including his wife, Pegi, country singer Emmylou Harris and Ben Keith, who brings to Young's work that trademark sound of pedal steel guitar.

There is a plainspoken, sparse poetry to the lyrics in the new songs. "I wasn't really working at it. Just giving myself a chance," he says. "I didn't judge it. Didn't try to edit it. Most of these songs, I still have the original documents. Most of them, there's no lines through anything. Just the way it came out."

In the songs, he thanks his wife for their time together and he sings to his college-age daughter that he misses her and he tries to "remember what daddy said, before too much time took away his head." His father, Scott Young, was the dean of Canadian sportswriters and died in June at the age of 87. In his later years he suffered from dementia.

"I'm just the tool," Young says. He describes the experience as getting into a groove -- "the music will put you into a trance, like a mantra, and if you open yourself up it all comes out and you don't have time to judge it. People sometimes ask me where I come up with the ideas for my songs. I don't have any ideas. They're thoughts. There's a difference. An idea is something you work on, like an essay. That's not what this is. Not all the time, at least on this record."

Demme, who also directed "Philadelphia," "The Silence of the Lambs" and another concert film about the Talking Heads called "Stop Making Sense," says he decided he wanted to create a feeling of complete intimacy, and though the two performances at Ryman Auditorium were in front of live audiences, the camera never cuts to them. Demme also decided that Young and the other players should appear in timeless Western wear. With their cowboy hats and muttonchops and long gray hair, and with the sets all acoustic, they could be playing at a saloon in Deadwood in 1877.

Young was surprised and moved at how the film turned out, especially how the new songs give the old songs later in the concert fresh meanings.

"The songs in the first half were brand-new songs sung by an old man from that perspective," he says. And the old songs, some written 40 years ago, "are mature songs written by a young man and now sung by an older man." In this way, the older material is vibrant and alive again.

"There's something going on in there that I can't really explain. You can't really understand why these old songs become so emotional. Why am I feeling like I'm hearing them for the first time?"

Young says he felt this onstage during the filming. "I was playing to the great spirits on that theater, for all those who came before." He was thinking of Johnny Cash and the Carter Family and Hank Williams, whose old guitar he was playing in the movie. "This old guitar ain't mine to keep," Young sings. "It's only mine for a while."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company