Keynote Conversation: Neil Young/Jonathan Demme
Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 16On more than one occasion during his keynote conversation to an adoring overflow audience, Neil Young insisted that he's no different than anyone else. Perhaps he was attempting to deflate the iconic image evoked in opening remarks by SXSW co-founder Louis Black, who mentioned him in the same reverential breath as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Black's fellow co-founder Roland Swenson upped the ante by recalling the galvanizing impact on America of Young's song "Ohio," written in response to the Kent State massacre in May, 1970.
Hidden under a worn cowboy hat and sunk comfortably into an overstuffed chair, Young, looking every bit the weathered everyman, mentioned how frightened he's been for months about this day. He was joined by his compadre Jonathan Demme, who directed the new documentary Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which had its local premiere yesterday at the SXSW Film Festival. Rather than speaking from prepared texts, the pair responded to questions from Harp magazine's Jaan Uhelszki, who helped the duo settle quickly into a discussion about the creative process.
Young talked about the importance of being able to create a space that's conducive for his songwriting. He gave the example of going to Nashville to start recording his current album, Prairie Wind, with only one song in tow. The comfort of friends and a familiar studio then helped ignite the creative spark, and the balance of the album was written within the week. Even while working on his acoustic music, Young will still hear the omnipresent roar and dissonance of his electric band, though he quickly added that if his only musical outlet were Crazy Horse, he would have been dead long ago.
Young matter-of-factly described the eerie feeling of playing under sweltering stage lights, yet still feeling waves of icy cold running through his body as Crazy Horse live reaches levels of transcendency. Even Demme, who's lived passionately with Young's acoustic music daily for the past year, voiced an almost secret preference for the primacy of Crazy Horse. When all's said and done, it's the integrity of his life's work that makes Young worthy of mention alongside Dylan and Springsteen.