Searchin’ for a heart of gold

An hour or so into Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, the curtains close on last August’s live premiere of songs from Young’s latest album, Prairie Wind. They reopen on an encore set made up of a handful of hits and some less predictable album cuts, spanning most of his career, and running roughly in chronological order. The set starts with a rather dark rendition of “I am a Child,” which Young wrote for Buffalo Springfield’s final album, Last Time Around (1968). It’s a complex song, with a deceptive, whistle-along melody that lilts for a while in sympathy with pleasant memories, apparently of his father — “You hold my hand, rough up my hair. / It’s lots of fun to have you there” — only to be balanced by the tough questions a child asks: “What is the color when black is burned? / What is the color?”

It’s not one of Young’s best known songs, but it’s one of his best, period. The bigger crowd pleaser that followed brought applause from the theater audience: “Heart of Gold” — his only number one song, from his only number one album, 1972’s Harvest. After an hour spent watching Young confront mortality (he looks a little like Meat Loaf these days), I found myself struck by the way a familiar lyric takes on new meanings over time: “Keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold,” he sings, and gives the audience a knowing glance before delivering the punch line: “And I’m getting old.” He wasn’t yet thirty when he wrote that line. When he sings “Needle and the Damage Done” a little later, you realize how lucky we are that he’s still with us.

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I saw Demme’s film twice this weekend, once with Stephanie and our daughters on Friday at Union Square — stadium seating, digital sound — and then again on Saturday with Nathan and Dave in Brooklyn Heights, at an old-fashioned two-screen theater with smaller speakers, made up for by fantastic purple plush seats, the word “Pavilion” embroidered into the back of each one in gold cursive script. I’m not sure which setting made the movie more enjoyable, but I lean toward the latter, Dolby be damned. You could hear the whir of the projector rolling through the closing credits.

This is a movie you should see twice. The trailers I found online — and decided not to link to — can’t begin to do justice to how gentle and moving it is. Demme forgoes all clich├ęd bio-pic bells and whistles and reduces interview footage to a few introductory words from each of the principal band members as they ride to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (long-time home of the Grand Ole Opry). The set-up is simple enough: last summer Neil got his friends together and started writing songs, for the first time in two years. In the midst of recording, he tells them he’s getting ready to undergo surgery for a brain aneurysm. Suddenly the sorts of songs he’s writing — simple love songs to family and friends and his old guitar, meditations on his father’s recent death, songs about his Canadian prairie ranch — take on intensely personal dimensions, as does every glance and smile between band members in the concert film that follows. But Demme handles the entire situation with such delicacy that you never get a chance to charge emotional manipulation, even when — if this man’s music has ever been part of your life — you find yourself choking up.

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Part of the credit has to go to Demme’s cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, who washes the screen with wheat-field yellows and prairie twilight blues, and whose shots, by the end of the opening song, “The Painter,” have moved from wide angles to intimate facial portraits, framing every weather-worn line on Young’s 60-year-old face. Most of the movie maintains this intimacy, creating a sort of familiarity that fits thematically with Young’s encomia to friendship throughout.

But a good deal of the emotion the film provokes is due to the songs themselves — and I mean the new songs, too. I’ve had Prairie Wind on my iPod since it was released last fall. I’m not sure how it got there, really, but every now and then I’ve been surprised at the songs’ quality, when one of them comes across on shuffle. It’s better than I expected after his last few, but the album seemed to have its share of low moments — including the oddest 9/11 reference I’ve heard in a pop song yet:

I’m hearing Willie singing on the radio again
That song from 9/11 keeps ringing in my head
I’ll always remember something Chris Rock said

Don’t send no more candles
No matter what you do
Then Willie stopped singing
And the prairie wind blew.

Whatever in God’s name that means, I have no idea. Is it free association? An apology for his other 9/11 song, “Let’s Roll”? Is it a terribly smart lyric — perhaps about trauma and media and memory — or just as dumb as it seems on the surface, a blemish to an otherwise worthy song? (Dave and I had a long conversation over a couple beers on Saturday about how Neil Young is an awful lyricist, though we agreed that his lyrical clumsiness often lends his songs a sort of emotional precision, not to mention appropriately drunken rhythms.)

In spite of such false steps, the rest of Prairie Wind is filled with tracks that are viable on their own terms but are made so much richer on screen by Demme’s minimalist backstory, Kuras’s lyrical camera work, and editing decisions that subtly tie Young’s words to the band’s movements on stage. Within the context of Young’s brain surgery and his father’s death, the songs become profound meditations on life and death — profound because of their utter simplicity. In “Falling Off the Face of the Earth,” he seems to call you up to say thanks and then good-bye, just in case something goes wrong during his operation. He wrote “Here for You,” he tells the Nashville audience, for his 21-year-old daughter as she headed off to her last year of college. “Old Guitar,” which echoes the guitar intro from “Harvest Moon,” is a valentine to the instrument one of his bandmates found for him in the early ’70s — a scuffed guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams. As these songs unfold, the album and the film alike transform into postcards sent to the future — though maybe that’s what all songs are. The fact that his wife, Pegi Young, sings backup (along with Emmylou Harris) only seals that sense.

There’s no doubt that the frequent invocation of friendship and family had its pull on me, sitting in those two theaters. I’m not sure how I managed to get Molly and Anna to agree to the movie, but we made it, and they not only sat through it but had smart things to say. Molly — the 9-year-old drummer — noted how many instruments Young played (guitar, harmonica, piano, banjo). Anna — the 11-year-old lead singer of her school’s rock ensemble — perked up when she recognized certain songs, especially in the second half, and noted the conjunction of lyrics and camera shots. Both girls were ready to leave by the end; before we were home they had come up with a song for me, which they sang as I unlocked the door: “Old man, look at your life … it is just so BO-RING!” I can’t help but think they’ll thank us someday for taking them. As for me and Stephanie: at one point in the second set, during the duet between Neil and Pegi in “Comes a Time,” she leaned over to say she was in heaven. We couldn’t have predicted that we’d get three songs from Harvest Moon (1992), which was released only a few months after our wedding and provided the soundtrack to a good portion of our first years of marriage, including afternoons in the park with guitars and friends to sing these very songs. Stephanie used Harvest Moon to win me away from my ’80s new wave myopia and toward her country origins. If you’ve heard her harmonize to that album you know why I remain hooked.

Demme brings the film to a close with a Memphised-up, horns-filled version of Harvest Moon‘s “One of These Days,” which summed up the movie’s preoccupations and demonstrated again the ways in which Young’s new songs deepened the texture of the old ones:

One of these days,
I’m gonna sit down
and write a long letter
to all the good friends I’ve known.
And I’m gonna try
and thank them all
for the good times together,
though so apart we’ve grown.

And I’m gonna thank
That old country fiddler
and all those rough boys
who played that rock ‘n’ roll.
I never tried to burn any bridges,
though I know I let some good things go.

From down in L.A.
all the way to Nashville,
from New York City
to my Canadian prairie home.
My friends are scattered
like leaves from an old maple.
Some are weak, some are strong.

One of these days,
I’m gonna sit down
and write a long letter
to all the good friends I’ve known.
One of these days,
one of these days,
one of these days.
And it won’t be long, it won’t be long.

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Click here to listen to Neil Young and Jonathan Demme on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terri Gross, and here to link through a fan site to an “unscripted” interview with Young and Demme at Sundance, where the film premiered. Click here for a round-up of film reviews.

13 responses to “Searchin’ for a heart of gold”

  1. Dave says:

    I maintain that Neil Young is a terrible lyricist, a bad singer, and an indifferent guitar player. But he’s direct yet sometimes confounding. A true artist. It’s a beautiful movie.

  2. well, all of the above. but i’ve thought long and hard about whether, if forced to pick a desert island catalog, i would take his, dylan’s, or bryan ferry’s. *maybe* sir paul mccartney’s, though that’s a pretty spotty record. and i know you probably disagree with me, but i think i’d take neil.

    also, all the best mixtapes have a neil young song in there somewhere. i have hard proof in a big bag of mixtapes in one of my closets.

    this i believe.

  3. Dave says:

    Oh wow, for me it’s Dylan, no question. And all great mixtapes have a Dylan song. It’s true, you can look it up. And think of how many great covers of Dylan songs there are.

    But Neil Young is great. The trick is figuring out why.

  4. Well, I had to think about it when I was typing it, but it’s true. Album for album, I like Neil’s catalog better. I like Dylan in waves — the strongest one being Nashville Skyline to Desire. Before Nashville I like Dylan best as a singles artist rather than as a maker of LPs. But I like Neil pretty consistently from the late-60s to the early-90s, certainly not something I can say about Dylan. Shit, I even like Trans. I like it a lot.

    There are some pretty killer Neil Young covers out there: I wouldn’t use coverability as a crutch for Dylan …

    Can someone get Shelley Turley to weigh in on this? Certainly her word should carry some authority here.

  5. okay — i lied. Highway 61 is one of the best albums ever, I admit. It authorizes almost everything to follow.

  6. Dave says:

    Agreed. Highway 61 blew the whole thing wide open.

    And Blonde on Blonde would be an absolutely perfect rock album without the opening track. And the “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg is the most astonishing live rock recording I’ve ever heard.

    And I’m not using coverability as a crutch. Sure there are great Neil Young covers. There are great covers of most things. But covering Dylan is axiomatic. It’s a religious rite that nearly every musician performs, even if some only do it in private. Because Dylan, more than anyone else, has song after song that is just absolutely essential, like a Shakespeare play or a Rembrandt.

    But I really didn’t mean to get into an argument over Dylan vs. Neil Young. Neil Young is totally great, and my life would be the poorer without him. And that movie was amazing. Yay Neil Young!

  7. Lisa Parrish says:

    Neil Young has a whiny voice. Plus, I don’t like his hair.

  8. Lisa: Are you suggesting Dylan doesn’t have a whiny voice and has hair that is pleasant to look upon?

    Dave: Thought you might like this discussion, on the Neil Young site I stumbled onto while writing my piece.

  9. Lisa Parrish says:

    Hmmm… good point. Hairwise, I think Dylan wins by a follicle. But voice-wise, yes, it’s a draw. Though somehow I enjoy listening to Dylan, while I tend to squirm through Neil Young songs. It’s like that woman who, back in the late ’80s, got migraines listening to Mary Hartman on Entertainment Tonight. Nothing wrong with Mary’s voice, but somehow it grated on that particular woman’s brain cells. Same for me with Neil Young.

  10. It’s not just me and Dave apparently. Sleater-Kinney’s fans are going at it on the same topic.

  11. Gary Smith says:

    MY FIRST CONNECTION- It’s not often when I can remember exactly where and when I first “heard” a song or musician. Just before the fourth of July, 2001, I was visiting the Waterman family in Boston. I had grabbed a few CD’s at random as we went to Waldon Pond for a day-trip. Not long after we arrived, I layed down on my towell, as Anna and Molly started playing in the water, and began playing the Harvest album. Wow! I was mesmerized, and even remember tears as I listened to The Needle and The Damage Done for the first time. Although I had heard a few songs on radio from Neil, this was my first connection to his music. I especially recall listening to Cortez the Killer – It wasn’t really the lyrics, but the guitar singing out that impacted me. Neil Young created a near-perfect meld of country and folk, and except for the two arrangements with the orchestra, his studio recording of Harvest sounded like other artists’ live recordings (which I usually like more). I introduced a friend to Harves recently, and he was intrigued with the lyrics of A Man Needs a Maid. So, I looked online, and ran across this explanation regarding Carrie Snodgress http://www.thrasherswheat.org/friends/snodgress.htm I think I’m ready for another trip to the pond.
    -GLS-

    PS: The beard looks great.

  12. I bet that watching “Comes a Time” and then realizing that Nicolette Larson has been gone for several years must have lent some poignancy to the film. What beautiful harmonies she gave the songs on that record..

  13. To tell you the truth, I was so caught up in Neil and Pegi’s moment that I didn’t think about NL’s death. Considering it came from brain troubles — and at a much younger age than Neil is now — you’re right that it lends poignancy. Thanks, WHT, for the reminder.