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A documentary shows never-before-seen footage 50 years after Neil Young's 'Harvest'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GOLD")

NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) I want to live. I want to give. I've been a miner for a heart of gold.

BIANCULLI: Fifty years ago, Neil Young released his album "Harvest," which includes such classic songs as "Heart Of Gold," "Old Man," "Alabama" and "The Needle And The Damage Done." A new documentary presents, for the first time, footage shot when he was making that album. The movie is called "Harvest Time," and it's now in theaters. In this clip from it, Neil Young is at a radio station.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. Tonight, Neil Young dropped in to say hi. Well, you're filming a movie or something. What is - do you know - can you explain this?

YOUNG: We're just making a film about - I don't know - just the things that we want to film. There's really not a big plan about it, right? You're in it now, you know? It just keeps changing like that. You know, it's like that (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And someday, somebody'll be able to go to the theater and see it maybe.

YOUNG: Yeah, I hope so. Maybe.

BIANCULLI: Neil Young has a new album produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, titled "World Record." There's also a new 50th anniversary edition of his "Harvest" album. Neil Young joined his first band in Canada when he was 17. He moved down to Los Angeles and hooked up with Stephen Stills in the band Buffalo Springfield. Young later went off on his own and played a short stint with Crosby, Stills and Nash. He's played acoustic music, hard driving rock with the band Crazy Horse, rhythm and blues and grunge rock. We're going to listen to portions of two interviews Terry Gross did with Neil Young. The first was in 1992 when his album "Harvest Moon" was released.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You were in high school bands. Did you sing in those bands?

YOUNG: After the beginning, I did. I started as an instrumentalist. We used to do songs - instrumentals that I used to write, you know, melodies, and play them on the guitar, sort of like a group called The Shadows from England. And then, after the English Invasion, you know, in the - and also about the same time as Jimmy Reed became popular, the old bluesman Jimmy Reed, with "Going To New York" and...

GROSS: "Bright Lights, Big City."

YOUNG: Yeah, "Peepin' And Hidin'" and all these things, you know? He - about the same time as the British Invasion, all these groups singing harmony and playing guitars and everything - both of those things happened to me at once. So I really couldn't figure out who it was that made me want to sing - but one of them, you know, or both of them at the same time. And I started singing, and that was, like, a milestone (laughter).

GROSS: What do you mean?

YOUNG: People couldn't believe it, apparently. I don't remember it, but I was so into it I guess I didn't notice that everybody was going, what the - what is that, you know (laughter), as I was starting to sing. Of course, now I'm like, you know, Caruso or something.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOUNG: Got it down.

GROSS: Were you self-conscious about your voice when you started to sing?

YOUNG: No, not really. I never really - I was just glad to be singing. I mean, we could do a lot more songs if I sang them.

GROSS: No one else in the band could sing?

YOUNG: No. Not...

GROSS: No. Is it...

YOUNG: Nobody in the band could sing, not nobody else in the band.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Nobody in the band. So we did harmony, and we did everything, you know? But it didn't matter.

GROSS: Now, you say that you weren't self-conscious about your singing. But there are stories about how, you know, like, in your first solo album, you intentionally mixed yourself in the background.

YOUNG: No, I mixed myself right up there where I should be. And then, they tried out this new scientific process that they'd invented called the CSG Haeco cog (ph) process, which is this unbelievable thing where you can make a stereo record play back on a monomachine just like it was a monorecord. They did something to the sound back then. This is when stereo was just coming out, and there were - you know, a lot of people had monosets, and the stereo didn't sound right on the mono set. So they came out with this thing. You run it through this machine that this guy made, this little box or something. And it would make it so you could play it both stereo or mono.

But in reality, I was a test case for this with my first album. They did this without letting me know. And they put it out like that, and I got the pressings back. And I went, what happened, you know? Then, I read this thing that'd been added on the album cover where this - with this engineering note that this had employed this technique. And really, it was the worst thing I ever heard. I mean, they just buried the whole center of the record and put it way down. And so I think they only used it on my record. They decided it didn't work after that. So...

GROSS: So it wasn't self-consciousness that was behind that.

YOUNG: No. I could - look at the next record. I - my vocals is right up there.

GROSS: How did you feel about being in a tight harmony group like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? Did...

YOUNG: How did they feel about it, that's the question.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOUNG: It was no longer a tight harmony group.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you like being in a harmony like that? I mean, I love your voice. I consider it a very personal voice - do you know what I mean? - a voice that should be singing on its own more so than just, like, mixed in a harmony.

YOUNG: Well, you know, so I like singing harmony, too. I sing good harmony with Crazy Horse. And there's a sense in there that - you know, 'cause there's a couple of different ways to sing harmony, and - you know, and you can - or blends of all of them. But one of them is just real tight harmony, and the other one is where you're - everybody's singing just - more or less just singing loose but in a harmonic structure with a lot of feeling. That's a different kind of harmony. And that's the kind of harmony that I do with Crazy Horse quite a bit. Sometimes, we're real successful at that.

BIANCULLI: Neil Young speaking with Terry Gross in 1992. She spoke to him again in 2004 when another album, "Prairie Wind," was released. As you can hear, Terry had a cold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: What were the very first records you remember buying?

YOUNG: Well, the first records that I - one of the earliest ones, I think, was all Jerry Lee Lewis records and Little Richard and those records. And then, about the late '50s - in early '50s, I bought, you know, records by the Monotones and Buddy Holly and - what's that - Ronnie Self and the Chantelles, all these great records, you know, R&B-type records. And then, Jimmy Reed - I bought all Jimmy Reed's albums when I was in grade eight or nine or something, high school. And I had all his early records. And, you know, I just bought - I really like R&B.

GROSS: And when did you get your first guitar?

YOUNG: Well, my dad brought me a ukulele. I guess I was around 8.

GROSS: Why did he get you a ukulele as opposed to a guitar?

YOUNG: It's just small...

GROSS: Oh, sure.

YOUNG: ...Small enough for me.

GROSS: Sure.

YOUNG: It was just a little plastic Arthur Godfrey one. Then, he played it for me. And he's saying all these sad songs, you know, "Bury Me Out On The Prairie" and all of these ridiculous cowboy songs that he knew from God knows where. And then, he'd - and he'd smile, and he'd play it along. And then, I - and then - and after that, my uncle came by. And he - of course, he had - was really good on the ukulele. And he played the thing and played all these chords. And then, it turned out he could play anything. He played piano, guitar, ukulele, horns. And then, he even played his three daughters. He had them singing...

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOUNG: He had them, in three-part harmony, singing background for him while he was singing. And he taught them all these things. It was amazing. And so my cousins all sang in, you know, harmony, you know?

GROSS: So when did you switch from ukulele to guitar?

YOUNG: Well, I got - like, after our ukulele, I got a thing called a banjo ukulele, which is - plays like a ukulele, but it looked like a banjo. I think it cost about 15 bucks. I got it for Christmas one year. Then, I got a baritone ukulele, which is like a ukulele, but it's bigger, kind of like a really small guitar. And then I advanced up to the guitar because the first four strings on a guitar are the same notes as a ukulele, basically, so I advanced.

GROSS: Did you get lessons on any of this?

YOUNG: I got - I had two guitar lessons in 1962.

GROSS: Well, they took you a long way, I guess.

YOUNG: Well, it took me a long time to get to the place where I had to take them. And I hated those lessons. I never could understand what they were trying to show me.

GROSS: What'd you hate about it?

YOUNG: I didn't learn - I don't think I learned anything there.

GROSS: What'd you hate about the lessons?

YOUNG: I don't know. I didn't remember. I tried to block it all out of my head. I don't even remember what they were trying to show me.

GROSS: Is it...

YOUNG: It's one of those things I didn't enjoy that, luckily, my mind works such that now I don't remember any of it. I only remember walking in the door.

GROSS: Are there any things that you taught yourself...

YOUNG: All gone.

GROSS: ...That are officially wrong?

YOUNG: Yeah (laughter). Yeah, sure - all kinds of things. I - officially wrong for guitar playing, you mean?

GROSS: Mmm hmm. Yeah.

YOUNG: Well, playing out of tune is pretty wrong.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOUNG: I do that regularly, and I will continue playing out of tune if I think it has some kind of a sound. And, you know, usually I'm - you know, my sound mixer, Tim Mulligan, has been working with me for about 30 years. He comes up to me and says, now, listen; your guitar sounds a lot bigger. He just told me this yesterday. He said, your sound is a lot bigger when you're in tune. So why don't you just take a minute and tune up in between songs if, you know, if you - so the other night I actually stopped, and I gave my guitar to Larry, my guitar tech, and he tuned it, right in the middle of the - you know, I'm not that good at tuning. I got these strobe tuners, and I use them, but it's distracting. Tuning is distracting.

Something about - and then when I have to take my guitar off and have somebody else tune it, I feel like I'm naked up there. I don't know what the hell to do with myself, standing there in front of all these people screaming and yelling because we just tore the house down doing something. And then I don't have my guitar. I'm waiting for it to be tuned, you know? It's a very kind of a vulnerable moment there when I don't have the guitar. So I'd - rather than tune or do anything, I just want to keep playing because I know how to play, you know. So that's - I get in trouble there. That's majorly wrong to play out of tune, and I do that a lot.

GROSS: That's crazy. You play out of tune because you can't give up your armor.

YOUNG: That's right. I try to keep it in tune. And, you know, I have a lot of ways of hiding being out of tune.

GROSS: Your guitar playing just keeps evolving. And I mean, there's so many different voices and styles that you can use to such kind of dramatic and emotional effect. I'm wondering, do you think that that comes in part from always listening to new things, or is that not related? Is what you're playing not related to what's coming in as input?

YOUNG: You know, guitar playing is - you know, I guess a metaphor for guitar playing would be deep earth mining or something. And you just keep banging away, blowing through and trying to get to the core and just keep on going and melting through layers and just keep pushing and, you know, try to keep an air hose going at you so you can get back and so you can get a breath. But you got to get as deep as you can and go down and keep digging. And that's what guitar playing is like for me. Every solo, I'm looking for a way to go deeper. I'm looking for which - how am I going to lose myself? How can I get to a point where nothing matters? How can I stop thinking? How can I lose track of what's going on and still be in sync? That - those are the goals of guitar playing.

GROSS: Now, do you want to stop thinking in a kind of meditative sense that it feels good and it's a kind of good state to be in to stop thinking? Or do you want to stop thinking because thinking interferes with playing?

YOUNG: Thinking is in the way. It's just in the way. It's all about feeling. And there is some kind of an ability to play that happens because your mind is doing something. It's saying, OK, now you can do this, now you can do that. But that's more like tools that I have when I'm boring into something.

BIANCULLI: Neil Young speaking with Terry Gross in 2004 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE SONG, "THE LOSING END (WHEN YOU'RE ON)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Neil Young. His classic album, "Harvest," is 50 years old now, and there's a new documentary about the recording of that album called "Harvest Time." When we left off, they were talking about his guitar playing and how he liked to lose himself in his playing.

GROSS: When you were younger, were you obsessive about technique? And did you get enough kind of technique through obsession that enabled you to, like, stop thinking and go for emotion?

YOUNG: The first time, you know, I remember - maybe I was 17 or something. And I was playing. And, you know, I worked on things. I learned songs. I wrote a lot of instrumentals myself, and I'd practice them and get to play them and everything, but they didn't have a lot of improvisation in them. And, you know, and they had melodies. And I liked the melodies. And then I started singing. And I liked the way it felt when I sang a certain melody and got a certain sound.

But really, God, guitar playing and thinking, it's so deep. I just - the guitar playing itself is - you know, when I was young, I think I was about 17. I was playing this little club and I had my band and we were doing a a song, a cover song. We played a song by The Premiers called "Farmer John." And there were some other musicians around. And one of them was a really, really good guitar player. And he really could just bend the strings on his Telecaster. And he really just made the thing sing. And I thought he was, like, fantastic. He had to be like 21 or something. I was like 17. And I did something on my guitar where we started playing this song, and then we got into the instrumental, and I just basically went nuts. And I think it was the first time that ever happened. And I just kept playing. And I just kept going and going and grinding and just pounding away at this rhythmic thing and exploring little nuances of it.

And I think we - I don't know how many minutes it went on and on. And then when I came off stage, the guy walked up to me. He says, where the hell did you learn how to do that? He said, what are you doing? And I said, what do you mean, what am I doing? And I said, it's the same thing I've been doing. And he said, oh, no, no. He said, no, I don't know what you're doing, you know. And he knew, like, 200,000 more chords than I did and all the scales and everything. And he just said, I just don't know what you're doing. He said, what did you do? And at that point, you know, I realized, well, there's a place I can go. And I didn't - I just kind of fell into it by accident. And I think I spent the rest of my life trying to get there.

GROSS: Now, can you compare that to singing? Is there a place vocally for you like that?

YOUNG: Yeah, but I'm not a very good singer. And, you know, like, I don't have real good pitch control and especially have trouble singing freely. Like, I can sing a melody. And I can sing words. And I can put them together with chords and get a feeling going. But the way Otis Redding sang, you know, that soulful, free-flowing expression, I have trouble with that. I have trouble opening up enough to really open up my soul and let things go. I really, you know, and when I try to do it every once in a while, I get there and it kind of feels like that first guitar solo felt to me. But, you know, when I try to go back, it's like, oh, you're just trying to do the same thing over again that you did before. It's not like I'm entering a new domain. It's like I'm copying something. So I still haven't figured out how to get to that space.

GROSS: But I love your singing.

YOUNG: Well, thank you. I'm trying (laughter).

GROSS: You know, I'm listening to your speaking voice and thinking about your singing voice and that, you know, you have a pretty big range singing. And you sing lower and you sing higher up. But your higher-up voice is, you know, considerably higher, I think, than most of your speaking voice.

YOUNG: Well, I've been on the road here for the better part of a year, so - and I just finished a show last night, you know, about 150 miles away from here. And I did a show the night before that, about 300 miles away from that. And I've driven to those places and driven back to the city. And and, you know, so my voice is a lot lower right now than it naturally would be if I wasn't on the road.

GROSS: Some of the images that you've used today are so good, like your image about guitar playing and about, you know, going deeper down, just a really nice image. And I was wondering. I know your father was a writer, a sportswriter. And do you think you were influenced at all, language wise, being the son of a writer?

YOUNG: Well, I think there's always that influence.

GROSS: Of course, there's your lyrics, too. I'm just thinking about hearing you talk. But, I mean, you've written, you know, written lyrics throughout your whole career.

YOUNG: Well, you know, my dad wrote a lot of stories. And he.

GROSS: Fiction?

YOUNG: Yeah, fiction and nonfiction. But he did write a lot of fiction. He used to try to write a little bit every day. And I'm not like that. I only try to write when I feel like writing. But if I feel like writing, I don't care what else is going on, I won't do it. I will write. And I think that's why I've written so many songs. If a idea comes to me out of nowhere, I look at it like a gift. It's not a distraction. Everything else in the room is a distraction. I don't care what it is. So in that way, I'm committed. I'm committed to the muse.

I roll with the muse wherever it goes. If it comes to me, I'm going with it. That's what got me where I am today. And that's what made it so that I could create all these things and so that I could put all these people to work that I have. And I have an effect on a lot of people. And just all the things I've been able to do are all because of being faithful to that one thing and realizing that all of this is all coming from somewhere else. And you just have to be there and ready with open arms to take it in and then send it back out in a form that people can understand or that people can enjoy.

GROSS: Neil Young, thank you so much for talking with us.

YOUNG: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Neil Young speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. The new documentary "Harvest Time," about the making of his classic album, "Harvest," is now playing in theaters. And an expanded 50th anniversary version of that album has been released. After a break, we'll hear from George Clooney, a recipient of this year's Kennedy Center Honors. And film critic Justin Chang reviews two new movies based on children's stories. Here's a track from Neil Young's new album, "World Record." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS OLD PLANET (CHANGING DAYS)")

YOUNG: (Singing) Well, they say the autumn leaves don't fall in the springtime. It's just too soon. And the time has come, but it's just too soon. You're not alone on this old planet. It's still all yours to do as you may. You're not alone on this old planet. Time was long ago when we were just children. The sun would rise and the sun would fall on the changing days. The big blue sky and the sparkling water - the river flowed right through our town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.