Neil Young was toying with the idea of putting his own idiosyncratic spin on one of punk-poet Patti Smith’s signature songs.
He’d been talking politics, mainly the widespread expressions of alienation by voters leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Only people can take back the power,” Young, 71, said, sitting in the living room of his manager’s house in Topanga Canyon on a recent morning, noshing on a plate of huevos rancheros.
He was wearing a black porkpie hat, his straggly graying hair extending down toward the collar of a shirt covered by a charcoal sweater with light-gray patches on the elbows. Black jeans and black motorcycle boots completed the look.
“It’s like the Patti Smith song ‘People Have the Power,’ but now it’s like ‘People Sold the Power,” he said, referencing the amount of personal information consumers are willing to share in exchange for convenience.
“‘People Sold the Power’ — that’s a good one. Hey, Elliot!” he yells to get the attention of longtime manager Elliot Roberts, who had stepped out of the room. “I think that’d be good. The boys would enjoy doing that one. It’s already written. You just have to use the regular song and change one word and it’s a completely different thing.”
He laughs at his own joke, then shifts gears again. “Oh, never mind … . People sold the power, but they can have it back. They just have to want it, then they can have it back. It’s pretty simple. It’ll be a battle, but they can get it back.”
It was just a few days after he and his latest band of musical cohorts, the Promise of the Real, had won over audiences at the Desert Trip rock superstar blowout in Indio. The group’s incendiary, topical performances set cellphones shining among the 75,000 concert-goers in front of the massive stage at the Empire Polo Field.
On stage and in person, he’s been outspoken over what’s been happening in North and South Dakota between Native Americans and proponents of the Dakota Access pipeline.
After months of protests by thousands of self-proclaimed “water protectors,” the Army Corps of Engineers on Sunday denied permission for the pipeline to cross under a section of the Missouri River, handing at least a temporary victory to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters.
Those who have opposed the pipeline have done so out of concern that it could rupture and contaminate the river, which they say provides drinking water to the tribe and 17 million other Americans.
Such themes figure prominently into the new album he banged out quickly over the summer, “Peace Trail.”
He was so passionate about the new songs that he included several during his two Desert Trip performances. The new album’s combination of poetic grace and sonic fury makes it one of the most invigorating of his long career, demonstrating anew that Young has no intention of going quietly into the night.
“This record has a good feeling,” he said. “When something may be worn out, thank God or the Great Spirit or whoever for something new that is coming. That’s the greatest news you could ever have. Maybe it’s a baby, maybe it’s a movement, maybe it’s a way of thinking, maybe it’s evolution. Who knows? But it’s a big deal, and it’s not a bad feeling.”
One of the new songs that generated a hearty response at Desert Trip was “Show Me,” in which Young sings, “When the women of the world are free to stand up for themselves/And the promises made stop gatherin’ dust on the shelves.”
That couplet sparked a hearty chorus of cheers among women in the audience.
“When I first sang that, I think it was in Telluride, and I heard that sound,” he said. “I’ve never heard that before: all the women in the audience spontaneously erupting into applause, or encouragement, or whatever it was — recognition?”
After more than a half-century as one of rock’s most revered songwriters, lead guitarists, band leaders and singers, Young trusts his creative muse.
“I gave up a lot of disciplines on this record,” he said. “There are several technical things about the poetry of writing this that are pretty sloppy. But it didn’t matter. So I feel good about that. I didn’t feel the need to go back and correct things.
“I don’t have spell-check,” he said with a sideways smile. “I don’t make (spelling) mistakes that are totally stupid mistakes like spell-check does. But I make my own kind of mistakes — typing errors. “
He seems forever buffeted by his love-hate relationship with technology. One of the first rock artists to adopt wireless guitar and microphone equipment in the late 1970s, he’s also invested millions over the last decade converting and road-testing a gas-guzzling 1959 Lincoln Continental into an eco-friendly luxury car with near-zero carbon emissions.
He was an early adopter of high-resolution Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) format and since has championed high-res digital downloads for his Pono music playback system.
But he’s recently traded his state-of-the-art smartphone for an old flip phone that allows only phone calls and text messages — privacy concerns again. He also expressed frustration at being unable to find a simple word processor, one that doesn’t connect to the Internet, as his preferred method for writing songs and other tasks.
He recently penned an open letter that he and his girlfriend, actress-activist Daryl Hannah, wrote and published last week urging President Barack Obama to defuse tensions surrounding the pipeline project, where law enforcement officials have used high-tech sonic weapons and other methods to disrupt Native Americans’ protests.
He alludes to that situation specifically and to the mistreatment generally of Native Americans in the new song “Indian Givers.” “There’s a battle ragin’ on the sacred land/Our brothers and sisters had to take a stand/Against us now for what we’ve all been doin’/On the sacred land there’s a battle brewin’.”
“What’s happening at Standing Rock is actual history being made right now,” Young told The Times. “The BBC called it the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century.”
The swirling emotions also inspired Young to turn to the other platform he’s used for most of his adult life: music.
“Texas Rangers” takes on the duplicity of shadowy forces impacting people’s lives, “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders” satirically rips into fear-mongering about immigrants, “John Oaks” is a folk-style ballad about a farmer protesting treatment of his hired hands, and “Glass Accident” reads like the most direct comment yet on the breakup of his 36-year marriage to Pegi Young in 2014. (“A piece of paper on the floor/Covered broken pieces of a love dream lingering there/That could do some damage for evermore.”)
He cooked up “Peace Trail” in about a week, writing and recording at the pace of about two songs per day at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios.
“I still have to Google ‘self-righteous’ because I’ve got to figure out what it means, to see if it’s a good thing,” he said. “Somebody said that about the record, and maybe it’s true, because that’s the way I feel. Could that be a bad thing? I can’t figure it out. But I’m OK with it either way.”