In anticipation of tonight’s double feature screening of Neil Young’s Human Highway and Rust Never Sleeps, Cameron spoke to the Huffington Post about those films and much more. Enjoy!
A Conversation with Cameron Crowe Mostly About Neil Young
Mike Ragogna: Cameron, on the surface, Human Highway can be a goofball comedy or a stoner flick. But I believe it’s really a pretty dark commentary on nuclear power, war, and the mistreatment of Indigenous Nations. It’s an amazing movie when you consider what it achieved.
Cameron Crowe: Very true. I loved being able to write about Neil Young for Rolling Stone, he was one of the artists I was able to follow through the years. He was often open to interviews, and always there to give me a peek behind the curtain on his many projects. I was invited to come and watch him direct Human Highway. He directed like he performed as a singer-songwriter: spontaneous but with a structure. It was so interesting to watch him translating that style into talking to and directing actors, some of them with storied careers in acting behind them. People like Russ Tamblyn and Dennis Hopper. They were all drawn into his directing spell, which was something of a cross between “Cortez The Killer” and Howard Hawks. He was working with cinema, but still creating an atmosphere for intense creativity, not unlike what he does when he plays with Crazy Horse or any of his bands. He is a master of feel, and so it was on the set of Human Highway. He was at the peak of his post-Harvest powers. Dennis Hopper was, I think, not at his zenith. Dennis was kind of on the ropes at the time–professionally and personally. I remember Neil Young had a checkbook around his neck, on a lanyard. I asked somebody, “Why does Neil have a checkbook around his neck?” and they said, “Because Dennis Hopper keeps asking him for money, and he said, ‘What, do you think I got a checkbook hanging around my neck?'” [laughs] Ultimately, he gave in and got one to prove a point to Dennis Hopper.
CC: So he had his humor going and he had his language going with the actors and it was really compelling to see. It’s hard to be a quiet guy and still control a big set filled with actors, but he did it, and he did it somewhat in the character from the movie, Lionel Switch. And, yes, the movie operates on several levels. What’s also interesting is how arresting Neil Young is with his acting, and in his documentaries and especially his closeups in Human Highway, which are alternately goofy and riveting. Just like standing next to him, when he locks you with his stare… you absolutely cannot look away. Same with his acting.
MR: There were these moments where I asked myself, “Did he just say what I think he said?” I had to rewind it a little bit and check in quite a few spots. For instance, Neil says, “Impeccable timing” when the crow pecks him on the arm. I love wise-ass, strange, fly-by jokes like that. Even the “Who?” sequence where humans ask the question, then suddenly there’s the shot of the rooftop owl that was mysteriously introduced earlier for seemingly no reason. It’s really funny stuff if you just kind of let it hit you. The humor, theme, and subplots were all pretty complicated and all had meaning.
CC: It’s that dry, Canadian wit. Even when people thought he was so serious, around the time of “Heart of Gold,” or “Needle and the Damage Done,” anybody close to him knew he was a cut-up, with humor as dry as the Sahara Desert. Anyway, Human Highway is a very personal film in that he put a lot of himself, his interests, his humor, and his social consciousness into it… along with the music, of course.
MR: And it’s interesting that is was released around the time his album Trans was gestating.
CC: I think it’s a couple years before Trans. Maybe he tinkered with [the film] for a while before it was shown, but this was well before he was on his way to Trans. It’s kind of like Devo was shining a lantern into that techo-punk direction for him. Neil Young was getting acquainted with electronic music, and punk, and all those knew influences, and you can feel them surging in both Human Highway and, of course, Rust Never Sleeps. It’s a great double-bill.
MR: It’s like all the characters ultra-exaggerates their supposed archetypes to make their points. In the dream sequence, the wooden indian was burned to represent liberation and make a statement about the treatment of Native Americans and Indigenous Nations. So much more. Cameron, what do you think of Human Highway after all these years?
CC: Well, he was strikingly ahead of time, but with some classic golden-age-of-Hollywood elements. He once described it a kind of futuristic West Side Story. And of course the themes you just mentioned still resonate. I just love what you’re saying, years later, it’s one of those rare films from the era that meets you at whatever crossroads you happen be standing at. And like all great movies with pieces of performance in it, you’re dying for a little more, a little more acoustic Neil at The Boarding House in San Francisco, a little more of Devo. He doesn’t give you too much. He doesn’t give you a four hour assembly of footage, and say “work out what it means.” I think Human Highway is only about 80 minutes long. The great cinematographer John Toll shot it, and Neil’s long-time associate Larry Johnson produced it. It’s a very well made film. The same is true of Rust [Never Sleeps]. Rust is such a wonderful concert film. It doesn’t overstay its welcome.
MR: Rust Never Sleeps also seems to be a commentary on what it is to be an “artist” as well as just a good concert film. And considering it was staged with giant amplifiers and road cases, and a huge microphone, my impression is it also involved the shrinking of the ego.
MR: Even the Ewoks–or whatever Neil called them for licensing’s sake–were big in scale.
CC: Yeah, it was a totally brilliant idea. He called them “Road-eyes.” He asked me to be a Road-eye at Madison Square Garden. That was fun. There wasn’t much I could do to mess it up, basically I was just a roadie with a weird post-apocalyptic hood. Did you interview him?
MR: Not about these projects but albums and his Pono music delivery system.
CC: One of us has got to ask him what the genesis was of this Rust concept, where it came from. “Everything got bigger and I got smaller,” that whole idea.
MR: Oh, right, and this was happening around the end of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Perhaps it also was the statement “Aren’t we a little too big for our britches?”
CC: Oh man, yes. Or “Why am I playing these huge arenas? Am I communicating?”
MR: Right. I like how in the concert film, he starts out as a simple troubadour with his acoustic guitar, sitting and strolling while innocently singing. However, everything else around him is overblown and inflated.
CC: It’s true. What’s great is that he never goes on any one of these conceptual jags–from Tonight’s The Night to Monsanto without a map of some kind. It’s never about capitalizing on a commercial trend, it’s usually about creating a character. Even on his rockabilly shows, he was “Neil and Shocking Pinks.” I think a year or so ago, he played the Kodak Theatre solo and it was the strangest thing because it was Neil Young playing hits. After all these years of never giving you the typical commercial expectation, when you least expect it…it was a “hits” show. “Wow! ‘Heart of Gold,’ ‘Old Man,’ ‘Southern Man,’ ‘After the Goldrush,’ ‘Harvest Moon.’ One after another. What’s going on here?” I remember leaving and thinking, “How weird and cool and strange. A Neil Young hits show. We’ll never see that again…
MR: You know, one of my favorite lines in Human Highway is, when Lionel states, “You don’t have to be Einstein to know anything is possible.” I think he’s used that philosophy through his whole career. Even with Pono. That was yet another big risk for him, but he doesn’t seem to care about risk. That must be how he lives his life. Anything is possible.
CC: It’s really the Don Quixote thing. He’s always tilting at windmills and it’s amazing to watch over the years because you’re always rooting for him. And he asks you to root for the unknown and what’s around the corner. I think his struggle, in some of the years gone by, has been, “How do I deal with this monolithic success that was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,” that one thing that’s so lodged in people’s nostalgic memory. There’s this Mt. Rushmore Rock Formation in his past… and he’s written a lot of about it, mostly in metaphor.
MR: But I think the nostalgia aspect wore off decades ago. Look at Matthew Sweet, Pearl Jam, and all the acts who have come after him who would’t have succeeded if their inspiration hadn’t originally been Neil Young.
CC: You’re exactly right. It’s true. It wore off a long time ago. Maybe not for those guys. For CSN, I think they’re still ready for Neil to come back if it could ever happen. But it’s an old issue. Mostly, he returns to Stephen Stills. There are strong roots between those two.
MR: Speaking of CSNY, I wish the original version of their abandoned album would’ve come out. I think it was also titled Human Highway. They should release that someday, maybe reassemble it from the songs from Stills/Young and Crosby/Nash projects. Then again, maybe it’s as internally impossible as Simon & Garfunkel’s Think Too Much finally being released.
CC: Right! Did that ever sneak out in any form or did he just erase it?
MR: Well… I guess the official statement was something like, “All of Art Garfunkel’s vocals were erased.” I’m not buying they were. That album–that eventually was reworked as Paul Simon’s Hearts And Bones–was one of the first, full digital recordings, meaning their were endless virtual tracks. I doubt that erasing ever happened.
CC: This is in theme with what we were talking about earlier. I had a copy of a bunch of Human Highway tracks with CSNY and it was given to me by Graham Nash and I treasured this tape. So I was doing an interview for the L.A. Times and it was James Taylor. He was great; he was just pouring his heart out, a guy came to the table and asked James Taylor to heal him, as if James Taylor were some kind of Jesus, and I was running out of tape. You know where this story goes.
MR: Oh, no!
CC: I didn’t want to interrupt the flow, so I reached in… “Oh great, there’s another fresh tape in there!” I put this tape in and I keep recording the James Taylor interview and, of course, when it’s done, I look down and see that I’ve recorded over the original version of Human Highway…
CC: …before they’d “erased” Graham and David. So it was like a one-cassette grudge match of 70’s singer-songwriters… and James Taylor slayed the rarest CSNY recording.
MR: That’s pretty funny.
CC: Deeply, painfully funny.
MR: You could probably still get another copy, oh by the way.
CC: I would hope Graham’s still got a copy somewhere.
MR: Actually, I think Graham was trying to get Human Highway out recently, and I’m not sure what happened. Anyway, what do you identify with most in Neil’s music and why do you think he’s become so influential?
CC: Well, it kind of goes back to why Bowie’s death has affected people so much, because it’s authenticity and you know it when you hear it and see it. It’s the work of somebody who is fighting back the trends of salesmanship and branding. David Bowie is probably like Neil–in fact, he played The Bridge once, didn’t he?
MR: Yeah, I think in 1996.
CC: That’s cool. Like Neil, they break the so-called mold, and one of the great moments in a young artist’s life, I think, is when another artist or a lover of music says, “Do you know about Neil Young?” or “Have you ever listened to David Bowie?” Or Joni Mitchell. Or Rufus Wainwright. And you’re able to turn another generation on to this artist who stands a good chance of changing a young artist’s life. These are artists whose lesson to other artists is to follow your instincts. “Sometimes you’ve just got to head for the ditch and not stay in the middle of the road,” as the man said himself in his Decade liner notes. It continues to be a point of inspiration for generation after generation of young artists, singer-songwriters, painters. There’s a reason this work has lived on and grown in estimation, and Neil is just that guy, a beacon who is there at a time when everybody else is pretty much just little flashing lights. I think you can feel him in these movies. If you’ve followed the music and you haven’t had a chance to see these movies, it’s just so much fun to feel the Neil Young sensibility in another format. It takes you to that same place but you pass through a completely different neighborhood to get there.
MR: Like you’ve gone a little further down the human highway. So you’re going to do a Q&A with Neil that will be broadcast to four hundred theaters following Human Highway‘s viewing on February 29th, right?
MR: What is that going to be like? Will you be taking questions from the three hundred and ninety-nine other theaters as well?
CC: I think there are going to be some questions, but it’s going to be twenty minutes so it’s sounding to me, Mike, like I’ve got one or two questions tops and I’d better not blow it. One of them was going to be, “Are you ever going to re-release Time Fades Away?” Of course, he did on Pono, so now I don’t have to ask him that.
MR: I did not know that! So while I’ve got you, I want to ask my standard question. Cameron Crowe, what advice do you have for new artists? You have such an intense knowledge of music. I’m intimidated.
CC: [laughs] Thanks! Find your heroes and follow the path of inspiration that leads you to your own voice. Then get your own voice out there! Play, make movies, write songs. Get your voice out there. My advice is not to listen to anybody who says that music doesn’t matter anymore, because music matters as much as it ever did, whatever the delivery system is. If you don’t find music, it finds you. Celebrating that is part of being a fan of Neil’s. Also, as we’re making our show for Showtime, [Roadies], it’s been so much fun because all of the actors are big music fans. There are only a handful of artists that you can truly geek out over, and go for hours, and Neil is one of them. Luke Wilson and I can get into an hour-long conversation about The Bottom Line show that was bootlegged where he plays the stuff from On The Beach…and it’s like no time has passed. This is what’s it’s like be a fan of someone with a big career. You can argue and obsess over the phases. Neil’s career is filled with phases and colors and levels and shades and it’s all there for you to discover and discuss and thrill over as a fan. Finding your heroes is always such an important thing, whether you’re a director or a writer or painter or actor. Just find your heroes and then speak that language in your own way and you’re there.
MR: Your love of music is so thorough. It’s got to be an addiction.
CC: It is. By the way, I tried to get Neil Young to be in Almost Famous.
CC: We actually had a scene. He had been fitted for his wardrobe and everything and then a couple of days before he just decided against it for whatever reason. But he was going to play Billy Crudup’s father, who had remarried and come backstage to the show and there was an awkward moment where he introduces Billy Crudup to his new, young wife who totally has a crush on his son. It was this great, painful scene between father, son and new wife and it was going to be Neil Young as Dad.
MR: Oh man. Why do you think he bailed?
CC: I don’t know, maybe I’ll ask him. [laughs]
MR: Cameron, you’ve championed this particular breed of artist. It’s hard to describe them–folk-rock doesn’t work, singer-songwriter doesn’t work. Maybe intelligent pop?
CC: Yeah, yeah, that works.
MR: You’ve championed this for years and years. So much of your career is spent on not just understanding these artists but also keeping them alive because they’re important. That’s pretty admirable. Why did you dedicate yourself to that?
CC: Because they inspire. They’re inspiring. You know how writers keep books on our desks for inspiration just so that they’re there? Slouching Towards Bethlehem is nearby, so through osmosis, maybe you can pick up this freedom and inspiration. That’s how this music is to me. I don’t want to overdo it, but if I have a chance to use “Powderfinger” in a scene, I’ll do it. I’ll only do it once, but I’ll do it. These are souvenirs of experiences gone by that I think are worth celebrating, and as you asked, “What do you say to a young artist?” Well, maybe you just play them some of the music in a movie that’s been so inspiring and hope that somebody says, “Wow, that sounded really great, I’ve got to check out this guy Jeff Buckley.” Or “Wow, what was that song?” “That was an acoustic ‘Cortez The Killer,'” and then suddenly you’re on the fan path, which is a beautiful path. You can be on that your whole life. And tracking Neil in his various stages is a lifetime journey for a fan.
MR: It’s great that you’re able to actually articulate it. Nice.
CC: Thanks. It’s just stuff I like to have around because it’s inspiring. [laughs]
MR: Speaking of inspiring, Almost Famous was very special to me because I totally identified with the kid in the movie. Now who’s that again? [laughs] So did you ever meet Jim Croce? I ask because his producers Cashman & West worked with me as a kid.
CC: I did. Jim Croce got me backstage at a place in San Diego called Funky Quarters that was an over twenty-one place. I had interviewed him outside the club and he said, “I’m going to sneak you in.” He snuck me in and they immediately tried to kick me out. He stuck me in his dressing room, so I listened to his set through the dressing room walls. When he came back, we continued our interview and then he snuck me back out of the club. The next day, I ditched school to go hang out with him and Maury [Muehleisen], his guitarist. I have this really beautiful interview with Jim Croce that I feel like I should give to Ingrid [Croce] someday so she has it. But it’s amazing. The guy was so nice. It is kind of an Almost Famous-y thing. So many artists were so generous to me, they just said, “Tag along.” And I did.
MR: What a great story. And what a shame he died so young, huh? Cameron, we’re almost done here, but can you tell us about your new TV show?
CC: It’s called Roadies and it’s about the crew of a band somewhere between the size of The National and Pearl Jam. Or The Weeknd. The band plays those kinds of places, arenas and large halls, except we never hear their music and we barely meet them; it’s just about the crew. Every episode’s a different city, so it’s a way to play music and tell stories about people who are passionate about music. It’s contemporary, but it’s all based on people and events that happened, and that we know to be true. Nothing beats real life. Showtime has been very supportive–they essentially said, “Make your movies as chapters in an ongoing story.” The cast is my favorite ever. It’s Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino and Rafe Spall and Machine Gun Kelly, Keisha Castle-Hughes–it’s a super-fun ensemble–and Peter Cambor, Ron White and Finesse Mitchell, and Imogen Poots, who’s really amazing. And we have guest artists, like Halsey and Joe Walsh and Haim and plenty of surprises. But it’s also a chance to do something that doesn’t end in two hours. It’s like doing short stories.
MR: Awesome. And are you working on any new movies?
CC: Yeah. I’m going to do a movie at some point when I finish this. But I like doing the episodic storytelling thing right now.
MR: Sweet. So, normally, right about now, I’d ask something obnoxious like, “Any words of wisdom?” But I think you’ve shared more than enough wisdom for one interview. I’m exhausted.
CC: [laughs] Glad to wear you out! Well, let’s wave the flag for our man, Mister Neil Young.
Courtesy of the Huffington Post – Mike Ragogna – 2/26/2016 (Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne)