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Neil Young Revisits Human Highway

Neil Young (l) and Charlotte Stewart at the <i>Human Highway </i>screening
Neil Young (l) and Charlotte Stewart at the Human Highway screening (Photo by John Anderson)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter, rocker-of-the-free-world Neil Young dropped by South by Southwest Thursday to screen a newly edited version of his 1982 cult flick Human Highway.

Co-written and directed by Young under his pseudonym Bernard Shakey, the film zeros in on the community of Linear Valley, where workers at a rinky-dink roadside diner confront love, ambition, and workplace politics unknowing that the nearby power plant will soon usher a radioactive holocaust. The broadly underappreciated comedy, which debuted in a limited theatre run and didn't reappear until a 1995 VHS release, stars members of Devo, co-writer/director Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, and Young as the story's lovably dorky protagonist Lionel Switch, a soft-headed auto mechanic with dreams of rock stardom.

Behind the curtain at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, the flannel-clad songwriter chucked with disarming joy when complimented on his stellar comedic chops.

"Well Jerry Lewis is my hero," Young glowed. "I love The Nutty Professor and stuff like that. His movies are pretty crazy, but always had something going on behind it – comedy and tragedy and everything. There's a depth to his characters, but it's not in your face. It's more like you remember things about them afterwards."

When it's suggested that lovable Lionel, exploited by his new boss and endangered by nukes, embodies Young's perception of America's working class, his onscreen interpreter doesn't disagree.

"Lionel's just an everyday guy, you know," shrugs Young. "The movie tries to make light of the human condition and what's going on. Everybody goes though whatever it is in their own life and we tried to compress all these attitudes into one time, one last day on Earth.

"It's an ambience and atmosphere," continued Young. "That's what this film is more than anything. It's this feeling that these people are so absent to what's going on around them. As a viewer, you know one thing's happening, but the characters in the movie don't have any idea what's going on and that's constantly reinforced. I think that's what life is about – that we're walking around and we have no idea what's going on."

Human Highway has long held a place in the heart of music aficionados for a single scene where Young and Devo collaborate on "Hey Hey, My My," in which the songwriter drops noise guitar warheads and Mark Mothersbaugh sings lead while portraying Devo's infantile mascot Booji Boy. Devo, who Young deemed "geniuses who had something totally unique" on Thursday, don appropriately red hardhats in Human Highway to play the nuclear plant's hazardous waste disposal team. They also provide the recurring theme song, a New Wave adaptation of the traditional folk song "Worried Man Blues."

"We knew Devo had an insane version of that song and they had just recorded it," Young explained. "That was a song they wanted to do because they knew it would go well with being a nuclear disposal team."

He shakes his head, reflecting on the hook: "'I might be worried now, but I won't be worried long.' It's a really great and stupid song."

No amount of editing could ever make the largely improvised, wholly absurd, totally endearing Human Highway a film digestible by mainstream audiences, but Young's recent updates are nonetheless game-changing. He added outer-space interludes, and faux radio voiceovers that alter the pace and character of the film. He lengthened Lionel's concussion-induced dream sequence to make it more of a movie within a movie, and altered the cuts of each scene to give it better comedic timing.

"Comedy is like a weird thing," Young told a large audience gathered at the Paramount during a public interview led by Chronicle editor and SXSW co-founder Louis Black. "It's a very subtle thing. If you're trying to tell a story – and I don't pretend to be good at it, I really don't, I'm just experimenting – the timing of comedy and the way it's set up is so important. I knew a lot more about that in the director's cut that we did just recently."

"I always wanted to make it what it could be and now it basically is what it is, but that's satisfying because now it gets laughs," added Young. "Before, when people looked at it, they were like 'What?' 'Why?' There were a lot of questions."

Young acknowledged that the Human Highway director's cut will eventually arrive on DVD, but for now he'll get his kicks sharing it at film festivals.

"I'd like people to look at it in a theatre," he said. "I think it's fun to look at things with other people. I'm not a fan of solitary art. I like to hear people react. You can feel the people just like you feel the art. Why do we have to be so alone? It just doesn't seem right."

Graham Reynolds' Marfa Transport

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"Marfa is this strange, magical place in deep, deep West Texas where they shot Giant with James Dean decades ago and that was its claim to fame for a long time," describes Graham Reynolds, Austin's most distinguished and eclectic indie composer. "Since then, the sculptor Donald Judd started a wave of high-end visual artists moving there, and now you get this crazy blend of artists, cowboys and ranchers, and Mexican-American culture mixing together in this small, sleepy town in the middle of the desert."

Marfa's a muse for the pianist, who routinely makes the relentless seven-hour drive westward while crafting a series of commissioned musical portraits called The Marfa Triptych. The second iteration of that dynamic triad can't be performed in Austin because it involves placing a piano in the desert and scoring a sunset. The third, a Pancho Villa chamber opera, remains under construction. But the first piece, an elaborate country music suite written for a western big band with strings and horns, makes its full-length local debut tonight with a SXSW showcase at the Hideout, midnight.

The most exciting prospect in the 12-piece roster that Reynolds has assembled to perform the suite is Redd Volkaert, a Telecaster master who's long played sideman to Merle Haggard.

"Part of the purpose of the piece was to create a framework to highlight Redd's playing," explains Reynolds. "Country is such traditional music, so he's deeply rooted in the players he admires, but he takes the vocabulary of those predecessors and finds his unique voice."

The promise of a supernaturally talented six-stringer like Volkaert, who just won the Austin Music Awards' Best Guitarist and was elected by popular vote to the AMAs local Hall of Fame, and a brilliant writer like Reynolds, whose compositions have provided stunning soundtracks for Richard Linklater's films, engaging in a rarely performed piece would be enough for us to pack up the car and burn rubber to Marfa. Luckily, we don't have to do that – they're bringing Marfa to SXSW.

Half Notes

Missouri's Hillbenders reverse have engineered the Who's Tommy into a bluegrass opry. In what's surely not a coincidence, the project was conceived and recorded by SXSW co-founder Louis Jay Meyers. Hear the Who-grass in person today at Threadgill's World Headquarters, 6pm, free.

Vinyl releases are becoming increasingly mandatory for bands, but the complicated and problematic process of getting records pressed can be headache after headache. Learn how to navigate the murky waters of the record-pressing business with vinyl-minded mastering engineer Andy VanDette at the Friends Don't Let Friends Press Bad Vinyl presentation today, 2pm, in Convention Center Ballroom E.

When in Tejas, visitors and locals alike must respect the greatness of Intocable. The Grammy-winning Latin music giants might appear to be a bunch of chubby middle-aged guys in matching cowboy suits, but their smooth Tejano/norteño sound resonates throughout Tex-Mex culture. They play a free concert at Auditorium Shores tonight with Colombian festival favorites Bomba Estéreo and electronic project Compass.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw. Sign up for our South-by-specific newsletter at austinchronicle.com/newsletters/ for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest Tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SXSW Music 2015, Neil Young, Graham Reynolds, Redd Volkaert, Human Highways, Intocable

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