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Neil Young hopes documentary will spur debate

Despite Neil Young's reputation for anti-war activism, some fans were angered when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young brought politics into their concerts. The film "CSNY: Deja Vu" focuses on fan reaction on both sides of the issue.
/ Source: Reuters

In the spring of 2006, rock singer-songwriter 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.

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 introducing viewers to Iraqi War vets who are now protesting the war as musicians, politicians and social workers. Directed by Young and due in theaters July 25, the film blends concert and behind-the-scenes footage with short news features created by CNN correspondent Mike Cerre.

Q: One of the film's most powerful scenes shows Atlanta fans angrily filing out of the venue, not before telling you to go to hell, and that's putting it kindly. When you look back on the tour, are there faces and middle fingers in particular that stick out?

Neil Young: "I remember some faces. There's one guy I remember for sure, and he's not in the movie. This 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."

Q: Besides Atlanta, the reaction in Orange County, California, was particularly bad, and even spurred fights. Did the negative reactions cause you to second-guess yourself at all?

Young: "There was never any sense of giving up or anything. We went from July 4 to Sept. 10 on the tour, and I remember feeling glad that we weren't playing on Sept. 11. 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."

Q: Crosby, Stills & Nash play to a different crowd than you do as a solo artist. You must have also been aware of the fact that there was less preaching to the choir going on than there would have been on your own tour.

Young: "I guess so, 'cause they've been pretty mellow for a long time. 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 rooted in the same message as this. It's just a different time. Of course, between then and now, they've been singing about things they've believed in, and a lot of love songs, a lot of songs that people enjoy, so it could become kind of like date night, going to see them.

"But I put out 'Living With War.' It had 'Let's Impeach the President' on it, and it was on all the networks, and so (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. So there's still an element of surprise, and you saw that in Atlanta, but a lot of people knew what was going on.

"But those guys (Crosby, Stills & Nash) were into it 100 percent. Stephen (Stills) does not like people to not like him, and I respect him for that. He's a very sensitive guy. 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 (David) Crosby and (Graham) Nash were right there from the beginning, because they don't care so much how the reaction's gonna be."

Q: As the film's director, did you draft an outline and say to yourself, "I want to get X, Y and Z in this film. I want these people in the film?"

Young: "No. I met Mike Cerre, who was a (CNN) correspondent who had been to Iraq and Afghanistan five times. I said, 'Embed in this tour and do what you do -- travel in one of the buses, come with us everywhere and do whatever you want to do, and cut together 10 episodes, like you were cutting together episodes for CNN or MSNBC, and give 'em to me, and that's it. I'm gonna do whatever I want with them. You do what you do, give 'em to me, and I'll do what I do.' That was my direction."

Q: What do you hope to gain from the release of the film?

Young: "Discussion. Debate. Open forums. And it does do that to people. You'll see what happens when this film comes out on the Internet -- you'll see people talking. It'll be interesting. It'll open up a thing, and that's what it does. That's what the music did. That's what happened in the audiences. I saw families fighting within the families, the kids wanting to stay, and the parents going, 'No, we've got to get out of here. This is no good.' The parents dragging the kid out, and the kid looking back. And we're not talking a 10-year-old here. We're talking college kids being driven out by just straitlaced fathers, the classic father image, of strength. Not much compassion, but a lot of strength."

Q: Since the '06 tour, you've been working on your "Archives" project. Are you leaving politics alone for the moment?

Young: "I'm not really focused on music right now, as far as new music. I have a couple songs in the back of my head, and if they come to the front of my head, I'll write 'em. But as far as my life goes, I'm totally focused on eliminating roadside refueling, with a big car, not some little rinky-dinky thing that you can't get in. An American car that doesn't need oil, that doesn't need gasoline, that doesn't pollute and doesn't need gas stations. That's what I would like to make. We can eliminate roadside refueling and we can change the world. That's bigger than a song."