Every Neil Young album arrives with a question: which Neil this time? the folkie? The grunge progenitor? The acoustic country guy? Or the avant-gardist whose sonic violence can make instruments--and sometimes fans--cry out for mercy? For his 31st album, Prairie Wind, out Sept. 27, it's yet another Neil Young: a mortal one. In March, Young was told he had a brain aneurysm, and Prairie Wind poured out of him in the week between diagnosis and his undergoing surgery. Naturally, there are songs about death and loneliness, but the album, one of the most melodic of his career, also deals with religion, family and the good times he remembers growing up on the Canadian steppes.
Young doesn't do many interviews, in part because he hates to sit still. So he asked Time's Josh Tyrangiel to join him for a drive in his bio-diesel-powered Hummer--"I love it when people yell at me about the environment," says Young, "and then I tell 'em I'm burning 90% cleaner than them"--down the Pacific Coast Highway. For nearly four hours, Young, 59, talked about how facing death has affected his music; the recent death of his father; his sons, both of whom have cerebral palsy; and his early days in a funk band with Super Freak Rick James.
I KNOW YOU'RE NOT EAGER TO DISCUSS THIS, BUT WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED TO YOU THIS PAST MARCH?
I inducted Chrissie Hynde into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the next day I was shaving in the hotel, and I noticed this weird thing in my eye, like a piece of broken glass. Then I noticed that no matter what I did, it was still there. And then it started getting bigger. So I went to my doctor, had an MRI and the next morning I went to the neurologist, Dr. Sun--a Chinese guy, very funny guy. He says, "The good news is, you're here, you're looking good. The bad news is, you've got an aneurysm in your brain. You've had it for a hundred years, so it's nothing to worry about--but it's very serious, so we'll have to get rid of it right away." He's a funny guy. I was supposed to go to Nashville to do some recording, so I went down there ...
YOU FLEW WITH AN ANEURYSM?
Dr. Sun said I'd been flying for 100 years with the thing. So I went into the studio on Thursday and recorded three songs. I wrote one on the way there and two more right away after I recorded the first one. The whole album's chronological--I wrote and recorded in the order it appears on the record. Then I went back up to New York on Monday for a presurgery thing, flew back to Nashville, wrote and recorded [songs] four, five, six, seven, eight and most of nine and 10. And then I got admitted, and they put me under.
AT ANY POINT WERE YOU THINKING, "THIS MIGHT BE MY LAST SONG," AND IF SO, DID YOU WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT ONE WAS, YOU KNOW, REALLY GOOD?
I was thinking about things like that, and it's kind of too bad that people know about this, because it's like, "The only way he could make a good album is if he had an aneurysm," or something. I feel a little funny about it, because I know I would have made an album anyway, and I don't feel like I'm slowing down, but these things happen. Yeah, there's a lot of reflection. [Grudgingly] It affected all the songs.
YOU WERE OBVIOUSLY WORKING FAST, BUT SONGS LIKE FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH HAVE BOTH URGENCY AND CLARITY. DID YOU HAVE TIME TO ACTUALLY CRAFT LYRICS?