Shakey: Neil Young's Biography
by Jimmy McDonough
Quote from Dean Stockwell: "I can't think of anyone I respect more than Neil Young. I think he's one of the greatest – if not the greatest – living artists."
Regarding Elliot Roberts, Neil's manager, the author states: "There have been other infamous artist/manager teams in rock and roll – Dylan and Albert Grossman. Ray Charles and Joe Adams, Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau – and, of course, Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker. Elliot Roberts definitely resides in that hall of infamy – and is the only human capable of guiding Neil Young's career."
Quote from Dean Stockwell: "I love Elliot. I've always felt a good thing with Elliot. Why? Does he hate me?"
Topanga Canyon is a mere twenty-five minute drive from Hollywood and, in the late sixties, was a universe apart from the glitz of Sunset Strip. "I hated it," said writer Eve Babitz. "It was like I was on speed and everybody there was on downers. People wore capes in Topanga."
Situated in an isolated stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains between Los Angeles and Malibu, Topanga has long been a hideaway for outcasts. "Topanga has always had a very liberal faction and a very conservative faction," said longtime resident Max Penner. "The neat thing about it is they live together in harmony."
Floods and fires brought rednecks and hippies together, and the concentration of longhairs would earn Topanga the moniker "Haight Ashbury South". "It just exploded," said actor Dean Stockwell, who claimed Topanga's geographical limitations protected it from getting too overrun. "It's inaccessible except for one road, so it became a microcosm of the best of the sixties."
For many it's impossible to talk about Topanga's glory days without invoking the name of Wallace Berman. An influential assemblage artist, Berman created collages with an early photocopying machine called a Verifax. With his hatchetlike nose and long steel-gray ponytail, Berman was part beatnik, part pool shark and all art. "Wallace Berman was as pure an artist as there ever was," said longtime Topanga resident Dean Stockwell. "He was the funniest motherfucker that ever lived, the greatest cocksman that ever lived . . . a big magus, the big affector . . . . Wallace Berman was the Monster Mash."
Berman was known to be eerily prescient, even predicting his own death at the age of fifty in 1976. Stockwell recalls seeing the future at the Berman household in1958: "One day I noticed a decal on his backdoor window – an American flag, and at the top of the thing were the words 'Support the American Revolution.' All of a sudden it was like someone said my mother was a hooker . . . . It bothered me. It struck me so heavily I couldn't even confront Wallace with it. So some years go by and I see the fuckin' revolution happen, man. I see everything in the world change around me."
A Stockwell photo of Berman would appear in the lineup on Sgt. Pepper, and both he and George Herms were fixtures on the Topanga scene. Herms, an eccentric who made mournful sculptures out of shopping carts and old car parts, was another natural for Young. As actor Russ Tamblyn put it, Herms was "a junk artist. It's unfortunate that what George found beauty in was rust – that doesn't make it with a lotta people."
Both Herms and Berman encouraged Young as an artist. Herms first encountered Young's music during an acid trip at Dean Stockwell's house, when the actor played him "Expecting to Fly."
Both Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn were former child actors who had turned their backs on Hollywood, save for the occasional exploitation movie to buy groceries. Both were involved in the Topanga art scene, and Tamblyn, who lived right up the hill from Neil, was making a go of it as an artist himself.
Stockwell, a music aficionado, was an early champion of Young's work. "There was a great awareness of the talent of Neil Young being amongst us. I just think he's on another level – I thought that when I first laid eyes on him. Neil's a tormented person of towering strength and huge creative power. If he didn't have creative talent, I don't know if he would be with us. I also sensed that Neil was a real good guy and very straight with people - and that people were straight with him . . . . I saw nothing but admirable qualities in him from the get-go.
"Neil's always fun to be with . . . whether you're on a bummer or your car broke down or you're in a limo. I just love him deeply, and maybe I value him even more." As to why he's been able to remain friends with Young all these years, Stockwell said, "I don't ask him questions about himself. I never have. Maybe that's one reason Neil likes me, if he does . . . ."
"Neil was very aloof," said Dennis Hopper with admiration. "He had a princelike quality about him."
In the wake of Easy Rider's success, Hopper had a deal at Universal "where, if I put up twenty-five thousand dollars, they'd match it." Dean Stockwell had been in Peru with Hopper making The Last Movie and took up his invitation to write a script.
"I was gonna write a movie that was personal, a Jungian self-discovery of the gnosis," said Stockwell. "It involved the Kabala, it involved a lot of arcane stuff." Though the After The Gold Rush script is currently missing, Shannon Forbes recalls that it involved a huge tidal wave coming to destroy Topanga. "It was sort of an end-of-the-world movie," she said. "At the very end, the hero is standing in the Corral parking lot watching this huge wave come in and this house is surfing along, and as the house comes at him, he turns the knob – and that's the end of the movie." Russ Tamblyn was to play an over-the-hill rocker living in a castle; others vaguely recall some scene of George Herms carrying a huge "tree of life" through the canyon.
Young got ahold of the script and told Stockwell he was interested in producing the soundtrack. "Neil told me he had a writer's-block thing, and Warner Bros. was after him to do something," said Stockwell. But it all came to naught once the studio executives paid a visit to Topanga. "These suits came out from Universal," recalls Tamblyn. "Dean was trying to show 'em around – 'This is Janis Joplin, she's gonna be in the movie.' And the Universal guys were like 'Oh, swell – who are these jerks? Neil who?"
None of this stopped Young – even though there wasn't a movie, he went ahead with the soundtrack (Despite what the back cover said, Young, over twenty-five years later, could recall only two of After The Gold Rush's cuts actually being inspired by the movie: the title cut and "Cripple Creek Ferry").
Gold Rush was a smash success. "Gold Rush really did make the turn for us," said Elliot Roberts. "It was a soft record and much more writerly. It propelled Neil into that writer class with Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Joni."
But Neil Young was a whole lot odder than his peers, as evidenced by the album cut that resonated most deeply for many, "After the Gold Rush." Accompanied by a mournful French horn, Young tickles the ivories and sings a tale of time travel that culminates in an exodus to another planet. Spaceships, archers, Mother Nature's silver seed . . . it's the sort of cornball shit Dylan wouldn't be caught dead with, but it was completely original and, for better or worse, completely Neil. In 1992, Young would describe the song as being "about three times in history: There's a Robin Hood scene, there's a fire scene in the present and there's the future . . . the air is yellow and red, ships are leaving, certain people can go and certain people can't . . . I think it's going to happen."
The inherent mystery of the song appealed to Dean Stockwell, who was flattered that Young gave eternal life to his abandoned project. "Sit down and listen to the lyrics of that tune itself – tell me what it means. I mean, you can't do it. And no one could tell what that screenplay meant either. But Neil got it."
Released in May 1977, American Stars 'N Bars was a side of the country material from April, plus an assortment from sessions of the last three years. The album cover, a Dean Stockwell creation, was one of Shakey's [Neil's] funniest: a shitfaced Young, face to the floorboards, next to a spittoon, and a passed-out, whiskey-wielding floozy played by Connie Moskos. "They put me in some horrible dance-hall outfit. I called my mom. She said, 'Just tell me one thing – you have panties on.'"
Young would align himself with one new band during this period – Devo. Cofounders Gerald V. Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh concocted a crackpot philosophy revolving around a raft of weird characters such as Pootman, General Boy, the Chinaman and the beloved Booji Boy – Mothersbaugh, outfitted in an absurd baby face and diapers, muttering psycho-poetic babytalk and blurting out such unforgettable numbers as "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat". "Booji Boy would always sing these long, drawn-out songs," he said. "It was kinda like throwing saltpeter on the audience."
By 1976, Devo had grown into a five-piece band, and eventually a tape got into the hands of Blondie's Chris Stein, who gave it to David Bowie, who gave it to Iggy Pop, who gave it to dancer Toni Basil (or some variation of that order). Basil was attached at the time to Dean Stockwell, who then turned Young on to the band. "I had a little fuckin' cassette player and I'm thinkin', 'Jesus, I'm nervy, tryin' to ask Neil to listen to somebody else's music.' But I just knew. I said, 'Man, you gotta listen to this,' and I played him 'Mongoloid' and 'Satisfaction'." Stockwell also took Young to a Devo show at the Starwood. Festooned in rubber suits, novelty-store masks and "mixing fuck rhythms with science fiction sounds," Devo were as geeky as any Winnipeg band, had a killer guitarist and a good beat. No wonder Young flipped.
After the Starwood show Young and Stockwell invited the band to be in a movie they were shooting.
Devo landed on Warner Bros. and gained a manager, Elliot Roberts, whom the band managed to drive crazy with such absurd schemes as setting the poems of would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. to music. Devo would burn out quickly – the surprise hit single "Whip It" led to devourment by the music-biz machine – but early on they were a key ingredient in Young's next couple of projects, the Rust Never Sleeps album and his second motion picture, an epic production entitled Human Highway.
"Shooting rock and roll films, you have to have your good time when it happens," said rock-film veteran and Human Highway cinematographer David Myers. "Don't count on having a good time when you see the movie. Get off on the trip."
Neil Young has spent a lifetime creating mind-bending trips, but Human Highway would prove to be a doozy even by his standards. The film would start out as a sixteen-millimeter rock and roll road movie and wind up an end-of-the-world nuclear comedy, eating up four years and $3 million of Young's own money in the process. The movie was "maybe the only not-smart financial thing Neil ever did," said one of the stars of the film, Dennis Hopper. "It went on and on and on – it was like once a year we knew what we were doin' – we were gonna go make Human Highway. It was just a great fuckin' party."
Young had been discussing another movie project, called The Tree From Outer Space, with Dean Stockwell. Stockwell laughed uproariously recalling the idea, which he said was "coming out of After The Gold Rush – flying the 'silver seed,' right? It was gonna be a fuckin' tree and change to a rocket, it was gonna be really bananas – of course, it was too bananas." Young, Larry Johnson and Russ Tamblyn actually went on an expedition to check out trees. "I believe I introduced Neil to the sequoias, which is not a negligible thing," said Stockwell, still laughing. "But as a practical matter, The Tree from Outer Space wasn't gonna be a movie."
[Question from the author to Neil: "You loved cheesy monster movies growing up – a big influence on Human Highway?"
[Neil answers]: "Yeah. Cheap Japanese horror-movie kind of things? I like that vibe. I like something that's so unreal that you could believe it – where the set is obviously phony. Jerry Lewis movies, Japanese horror movies, The Wizard Of Oz – it's all in there.
"What was I trying to do with Human Highway? I was tryin' to make a movie. A story about a guy – Lionel, his situation, just one day in this guy's life – just some people who are basically innocent bystanders on the day the earth came to an end. Just people who happened to be there. That was what that was supposed to be about, heh heh heh. Got carried away.
"We knew Devo didn't comprehend it and it was a completely different thing for them. That's why it was perfect having them there, heh heh. We knew they weren't like US, that's for sure."
"This movie was made up on the spot by punks, potheads and former alcoholics," said Young proudly of Human Highway in 1983. "The plan was, there was no plan, no script," said Dean Stockwell. An impromptu egg fight involving Young, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and Larry Johnson somehow "gave birth to Human Highway," said Tamblyn. "We decided we would all write our own parts. Neil, Dean and I were the nucleus . . . . We had a scriptwriter who would write the script after we'd do a scene." Joel Bernstein recalls, "Neil at one point said to me, 'Charlie Chaplin used to do his films without a script.'"
Young assembled an impressive cast consisting of Stockwell, Tamblyn, Sally Kirkland and Dennis Hopper, but this was years before the actors were rediscovered by David Lynch or Kirkland got an Oscar nomination for Anna. "It seemed like an unhappy time," Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh said about some of the cast. "they were all drinkin' heavily, doin' lots of drugs. Neil was the most grounded of all . . . . they had attached their egos onto him."
The young upstarts from Ohio weren't prepared for the surreal scene around Young. "Devo was like the crew of the starship Enterprise – we just watched the behavior of people in Los Angeles and couldn't believe it," said Gerald V. Casale. "It was really like observing another reality as an alien being, like the nerd that finally gets let into the prom."
Well into the substance abuse that nearly finished him, Dennis Hopper was a little unhinged during much of the filming. "Hopper I remember as being totally frightening, like the guy in Apocalypse Now – a little Frank Booth, too" said Casale. "He wouldn't let you alone. He'd chase you around the set givin' you his rap, whether you wanted to hear it or not – 'Devo, you think yer shit doesn't stink, don't ya.' And Dean Stockwell would be behind him, laughing at everything he said – 'heh, heh, heh' – this evil laughter, like Ed McMahon. You never knew what the hell was going on. A lotta mind-fuck games." (Hopper sighed when I brought up Devo. "They'd say, 'Oh, remember him – he's that old actor.'").
In the spring and early summer of 1978, filming of Human Highway would take the crew to San Francisco, where Young was performing, then to Taos, New Mexico, a few weeks later, where the cast and crew communed with the local Indian tribe.
"We lived right with the Indians," said bus driver Paul Williamson. "This guy Carpio, it was my job to take him home. We were fucked up, partyin' for days . . . . Neil said, 'Take the Indian home.' I get in the middle of this reservation, I drove around in circles for like an hour and couldn't find my way out. Fuckin' Indians were lookin' at me like, 'This white boy don't belong.' I was like 'Fuck, when are the arrows comin'?"
Things grew extra tense one day when Young decided to film an obtuse scene that involved the burning of some special cameras of Hopper's, which had somehow been to outer space along with a few of Young's wooden Indians – one of which, according to legend he had previously given to Robbie Robertson ("You might say I'm an Indian giver," quipped Young upon reclaiming it). It was a bizarre event. "Neil burnt his Indians and I burnt these Mitchell cameras," said Hopper. "Everyone danced around the fire." Elliot Roberts recalls that the actual Indians were completely nonplussed. "It was 'These fuckin' white people are really nuts.'"
"It was weird, weird," said David Myers. "Strange vibes. I felt a certain degree of uneasiness before the tequila took hold." Myers felt that Young was more than entertained by the unwieldy spectacle he'd surrounded himself with. "Neil always looked like he was gonna break into a smile any minute at some secret joke about the whole thing."
When Neil Young stepped onto the stage of the Boarding House in San Francisco on May 24, beginning a five-night, ten-show solo run, it was clear the stoned Pendleton caveman of the Crazy Horse era was gone. Shorn of his locks, looking spiffy in a white jacket and bolo tie and sporting the usual batch of new songs, Young had only a trio of wooden Indians for company onstage at the three-hundred-seat club. The shows were filmed in their entirety for possible use in Human Highway.
After the late show on May 27, Young headed for the Mabuhay Gardens, a nearby punk club where he was filmed onstage with Devo, dressed in their Kmart cowboy boots and hats. Young stumbled onto the stage and wound up being tossed into the audience, just another old hippie to be devoured. "The punkers chanted 'Real Dung! Real Dung!' over and over," said Larry Johnson. Booji Boy mangled "After the Gold Rush" for an encore. Out of this meeting of the minds came much amusing press, with Devo dubbing Young the "Grandpa of Granola Rock" and "Ancient History Up Close."
The Devo/Young experience reached its apex the next night after Young's final show at the Boarding House. Young and Devo crowded into Different Fur, a tiny studio that David Briggs made clear was more trouble than any of the other dusty corners he'd recorded Young in ("They didn't even have take-up reels," he grumbled). Festivities really got under way when Human Highway actress Geraldine Baron gave Young a milk bath for the benefit of the cameras. "It was my idea. I went and got fifty-one milk cartons and put 'em on. I had straws sticking out of these little containers – Scotch-taped in. I was holding Neil in the tub, and he started to suck on one of the straws. I didn't know Neil was gonna take off all his clothes."
In the wee hours of the morning at Different Fur, Young and Devo collaborated musically for the only time on an ultra-twisted version of a new song called "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)". "The first guy we ever jammed with was Neil Young," said Mothersbaugh, a fact that is instantly apparent on listening to the cacophonous hash this bunch created – leading Briggs to dub the ensemble "Neil Young and his All-Insect Orchestra." Sitting in a hijacked baby crib and dashing off lyrics in a shrill, tuneless yap, Booji Boy is the star of the performance. After abusing the song for over twelve very punishing minutes, Booji Boy sticks a knife into a toaster and Young gets squashed under the crib, still bashing away on guitar.
"Movies today are too real; you can see every speck of dust," Young told Jonathan Taylor in 1983. "In the old days . . . it was all fantastic." Having worked on Human Highway for the last few years, Young now decided to change the movie completely and create his own fantastic world to put on screen.
Filmmaker Jeannie Field recalls that Young's dissatisfaction with the film dated back to a mixing session for the Rust Never Sleeps concert movie. "Neil said, 'I wish I hadn't chosen to play a musician in Human Highway. I don't know what else to do with the character. I don't want this to be a music film. I want it to go somewhere else.'" Russ Tamblyn recalls that Young was against portraying any version of himself on-screen: "After it was done, we had all this footage, it was great, fast-moving, on the road and all real – he hated it. he just didn't want to be Neil."
Originally the movie was a Wizard Of Oz-inspired fantasy in which Young's Lionel Switch character dreams of rock-star adventures, but Field said that in the editing process, Young became "more interested in the front and back story. The dream kept shrinking."
Young focused on the last day on earth in Linear Valley, a small town besieged by the modern world, namely the nearby Cal-Neva nuclear power plant. At great expense, Young constructed a massive set on a Hollywood soundstage, creating the town complete with a diner and a train running through it. Young played both Lionel Switch and a freebasing, limo-encased rock star named Frankie Fontaine, who some insinuate was inspired by David Crosby.
Devo, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and the rest of the cast were brought back, as well as some nonprofessionals: Pegi Young was a mysterious motorcycle-riding character named "Biker girl;" Elliot Roberts was Frankie Fontaine's pompous English manager.
"We were all free to make up our own characters," said actress Charlotte Stewart. "I was trying to play all of Neil's songs – I had hearts of gold all over me."
But making a loose, documentary-style movie on the road with a sixteen-millimeter crew was a different thing from shooting a narrative film on a soundstage in thirty-five millimeter. "We were committed to this stage," said Stockwell. "Neil likes to operate through improvisation, yet he had set up a thing which was not conducive to improvisation. He had all these actors there, a set, everything to light – and nothin' to improvise. There was no script, no story, so little stories were made up as we went along, and" – Stockwell laughed – "it wasn't very good."
Dennis Hopper, playing a deranged knife-juggling diner cook named Cracker, remained in character most of the time. "Dennis was jabbering, chattering and driving everyone crazy because he was doing this little knife trick – he didn't just have a prop knife, he had a real knife," said Jeannie Field. Opposite Hopper was Sally Kirkland, playing a weeping, Pepto-Bismol swigging waitress who's been fired from the diner but refuses to leave. Hopper's incessant knifeplay drove Kirkland over the edge, and on February 27, 1980, an accident occurred.
According to Hopper, Kirkland "couldn't concentrate on her crying scenes, so she wanted me to be quiet - but in point of fact, she wasn't in the fuckin' scene. It was on me, and I was doing my thing. She grabbed the blade of the knife. I yelled, 'Cut! Cut! Cut!' and Neil yelled from outside, 'Only the director yells cut.' I said, 'No, man, she's cut."
Kirkland suffered a long gash that severed a tendon. After a quick trip to the hospital, she was back on the set, but she would later sue both Hopper and Young, claiming Hopper was out of control and had stabbed her. "She said I consumed an ounce of amyl nitrate, a pound of marijuana and drank three quarts of tequila," said Hopper. "That was not true. I only did half that amount." Those I talked to felt it was an accident that Kirkland had brought upon herself. The suit went to trial in 1985 and had its moments of unintentional hilarity. One of the actresses was asked what the movie was about during a deposition. "I haven't the faintest idea," she said. Kirkland lost the suit.
Human Highway officially premiered in Los Angeles in June 1983 ("I wanted to go but I was in the insane asylum at the time," said Hopper). The critics were unkind, the public indifferent. Young's nuke film a bomb, quipped the Daily News. After a handful of showings, it went unseen until its home-video release in 1995 (Young had the good humor to grace the video's cover with a pan from his own booking agent, Marcia Vlasic: "It's so bad, it's going to be huge").
The film remains one of Young's more perplexing creations, with the bewildered participants lost in his Americana landscape, straining to ad-lib their way out of a non-sequitur fog. Seeing Neil hamming it up as a squinty-eyed gas-pump jockey going gaga over a waitress is a spectacle not soon forgotten, as is the big "Worried Man" production number, featuring the entire cast dancing around with helmets and radioactive-waste shovels. "Never have so many people who aren't funny done a comedy," said Elliot Roberts. In one version of the end (there were many) the planet blows up and everyone ascends a stair heaven. Standing in the post-apocalyptic rubble, Booji Boy sums it all up: "The answer, my friend, is breaking in the wind. The answer is sticking out your rear."
But as hard as Human Highway is to fathom, it's pure Neil Young: the geeky dreamer floating through a sea of unhinged humanity, bemused by both old and new ways but somehow remaining unaffected by it all. And still dreaming.
"People my age, they don't do the things I do," Young sings on I'm the Ocean, and he did a few more of them the summer of 1995. In San Francisco on June 24, Young bravely stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Eddie Vedder, warding off a potential riot. I had seen Young and the band play a one-off in a Seattle club on June 7, and while they played well, it never caught fire – again it just wasn't Neil Young's crowd. In August, when a Vedderless Pearl Jam joined Young for an eleven-date tour of Europe – where the band isn't nearly as popular – it was a different story.
"The music had a consistency level that was staggering," said Elliot Roberts. "One of the greatest tours we ever had in our whole lives. Neil got off every fuckin' night."
Dean Stockwell remembers the show in Dublin, which was filmed by Jim Sheridan but remains unreleased. "I'll never forget, before they went out to do the encore – there was a ladder leading up to the stage area. Neil started up the ladder, turned back, and the members of Pearl Jam came up to him. They all reached out, met their hands together in the center, like a high school basketball team – rocked them up and down and said, 'Yeah, let's go!'" Stockwell laughed. "I said, 'Wait a second, what the hell is this? This guy is fifty and he's got these kids goin' out there like a team.' It's not just musical respect for him, it's love."
[Quote from Neil Young]: "Susan [Neil's first wife] was my friend. She was cool. A real ball of fire. I think we loved each other. A great, great lady – very strong. My life is better for havin' known her. Met Russ Tamblyn and Dean Stockwell through Susan. Dean – very cool guy. Turned me on to Devo. Into Bowie way early.
"Susan introduced me to people who were artists – George Herms, Wallace Berman – those guys were friends of my wife. Susan really loved them, she knew all about them. Susan introduced me to the concept of art."
[So, who is Susan?]: An earthy, strawberry-blond Sicilian approximately a half-dozen years older than Young and raising an adolescent daughter from a previous relationship, Susan Acevedo ran the Canyon Kitchen, a bacon-and-eggs hangout in the tiny Topanga shopping center. Longhairs would gather to soothe last night's mescaline hangover with some of Acevedo's homemade bread. "Susan showed me the merits of brown rice and tofu," said Wilke's ex-wife Lynn. "She always knew who did the best tie-dye."
Young seems to have a special affection for waitresses; they figure in several of his songs. "Neil wasn't into sitting at a table with eight girls and seven guys," said Elliot Roberts. "But you put a waitress at his table alone, and she's gone."