Neil Young looks like he needs some shut-eye to provide relief from the red-eye flights that have tossed him between California and Chicago, New York, Washington and elsewhere in his new and surprisingly comfortable role as spokesman for Farm Aid, the star-studded benefit concert to be held in Illinois a week from Sunday.
Looking lanky and not much different than he did in his days with Buffalo Springfield and later Crosby, Stills and Nash -- longish hair, ever-present hat, leather fringe vest, T-shirt, jeans and sobering eyes -- Young saunters into his hotel room and finds replenishment in a plate of stir-fried shrimp, vegetables and a green salad.
"As far as myself goes, I really don't have much to say," he warns. "But in this particular situation, I have a lot to say. It's a totally new ballpark for me, but I threw myself into it because I believe we have a chance to make a difference."
Young, who also performed at Live Aid in Philadelphia -- solo and in a brief reunion with CS&N -- has been active in Farm Aid from the beginning. In fact, he was just a few feet away from Bob Dylan when Dylan casually broke the spell of rocking against hunger to wonder -- on a global broadcast -- whether five or so million of the dollars raised at Live Aid could be directed to America's farmers.
"I could hardly hear him," Young recalls. "Later at a get-together at the hotel Bob said, 'Did you hear my little speech?' I said no, so he went through it again. As soon as he said that, it became clear that there was a way. You see, even before Live Aid was over, everybody was trying to figure out what's next, how can we do something.
"It worked out that we have a problem in this country that is really something that if you have pro-American feelings and want to make things right, you could get behind.
"I can't imagine anyone not getting behind it," Young adds. "How can you sit down at the dinner table with your family and say 'Pass the corn' without relating to what's going on here?"
A few days after Live Aid, Young was working on a video from his new album with Willie Nelson. "He was asking, 'Do you think Bob was serious, does he really want to do something? Maybe we could have it come together, have country music support the farmers.' It just seemed like bread and butter, a real marriage."
Oddly enough, when Young called Dylan to participate in Farm Aid, Dylan expressed surprise. "I told Bob he really started it off. He said 'Well, I wasn't talking about doing a concert for farmers, I was just saying it was too bad we can't give $5 million to them.' I said, 'Yes, Bob, but you started it.' He was curious about the details and he felt he needed to know all he could before he committed himself. But now he's totally into helping."
The Nelson-Young connection isn't all that strange, since Young's latest musical persona, after recent forays into computer-pop and rockabilly, is country. "I have a different style from Willie," he concedes, explaining that his role in Farm Aid has included landing some of the rock stars (half of the 38 acts scheduled for the Sept. 22 concert), gathering facts, "talking to farmers, checking out organizations we may be funding."
"We felt the time was right and things have fallen together -- there's legislation coming forward in the Senate and Congress which is absolutely in line with what we're doing and what the farmers want. We're just a tool."
In fact, to hear Young talk, the Farm Aid concert has turned less into a fundraiser than a testimonial for the Farm Policy Reform Act of 1985 introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
"The money is a very low priority with Farm Aid," he says. "At the beginning everyone was comparing it with Live Aid and the millions of dollars that were raised there. But that's not what we want to do, especially after meeting the farmers in Champaign 10 days ago. "We asked them what they wanted the money to be used for and they all said that they weren't looking for a handout. They didn't want us to bail them out of their loan problems, they didn't see that as anything more than a Band-Aid on the problem, covering it up, making it go away for a couple of months. We don't really have an expectation of $50 million -- that's ridiculous, no one in our organization feels that way."
Whatever is raised, Young says, will be used to help at a grass-roots level -- for instance, for mental health aid for farmers in trouble (the suicide rate of American farmers is up 20 percent, Young says) and legal aid for farmers fighting foreclosures.
What the farmers do want, according to Young, is passage of the Harkin bill.
"These are proud people, they work hard for a living," he says. "There's no reason why they should continue the way they have; they can't, they're all losing. They got high-interest loans in the Carter era, and then the government kept interest rates up in the Reagan era even as the price of grain and products has been cut in half. There's no way the farmers can make any headway. The hand is outstretched, 'Take this money, we'll get you on your feet,' and then they took away any avenue of paying it back, and now they're taking the land, which ultimately ends up in conglomerate farms. This is what we're fighting and the way to fight it is with reform."
The Harkin bill would make it possible to raise the profit margin and parity for the farmer by 30 to 35 percent with only a 3.5 percent increase in the price consumers pay at the market, its supporters say.
"We started on a purely emotional level, and dealing with the problem, we learned," he says of the musicians participating in Farm Aid. "We're representing the farmers of America, nobody else has been able to get enough attention. That's our function. We've had to do a crash program so we can form an opinion and a platform for Farm Aid."
On Wednesday, Young appeared on "Good Morning, America" with Harkin and spent much of the day on Capitol Hill, checking out the support base for the bill, trying to influence swing votes.
"I suppose it's ironic that I would be involved with politics, but I see it as a natural progression. I'm older now . When we went in there, we thought we could help the farmers out, help them buy back their land and straighten it out . . . We found out what the real problem was and that reform is the only way out. Well, that brings me to politics, to Washington."
"If we can get the bill through, farm prices will go up, profits will go up for the farmer, the loans he already has will be restructured so that he can pay them back without getting more loans . . . It's very simple: If you want to save the family structure of America at its core, vote for this bill."
Farm Aid, Live Aid, USA for Africa, Band-Aid -- these are all proof of "a huge resurgence in the pop culture in the last year," Young feels. "For the last 10 years, there was a desert in that area, but now it seems the consciousness of the '60s and the early '70s has come back. Maybe it's a generation overlap or something.
"When the National Guard flies me into Wyoming for a benefit, we've come a long way. They gave us a C-130 to fly our equipment in, unloaded us and set us up . . . It's a more adult version of what we were starting to do in the '60s. Everybody thought that era went down the drain, but it didn't, and the people who were flower children are older now -- the flower men and women."
What some might find strange in all this is that Neil Young is Canadian.
"I consider myself to be an American, although I'm not legally," he says. "I've made my living in the American capitalist system, and I owe almost everything I am today to the American system. I'm very patriotic. I support a lot of things that my colleagues don't support, including Reagan on many issues like the arms buildup. But not on this one, not a chance."
Young opens up a little about his career, saying that the suit Geffen Records filed over the commercial viability of the albums he turned in is over the dam. Of David Geffen, who has been involvin Young's career since the '60s, Young says, "We're still very good friends."
After Farm Aid, Young will finish up a tour behind his new country album. As for reunions, he laughs at mention of the Mynah Birds (or Minor Byrds), an early-'60s group that featured Young and future funkateer Rick James, but grows serious at mention of a better-known partership.
"Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young can get back together very easily. All it will take is for David Crosby to clean up his act, stop doing free base, leave the cocaine connections behind, straighten up. He's not too far gone to do that. If he does that, I'll join them and do something with them and it'll be very nice and it'll show that something positive can come from it, an example to people that no matter how bad off you are, if you really believe that you want to do something good, you can leave it behind and pull yourself together.
"I don't want my kids or anyone else's kids watching us on TV saying to Mommy or Daddy 'I heard about this guy -- he's been in jail a couple of times and he doesn't have any respect for the law. He keeps doing this thing to himself and it's hurting him and look at the way he looks. Yet he's still a big success and he's on television and people are saying these guys are great.'
"I just won't let that happen. There's no way I'm going to let that happen."