Neil Young Reminisces 'Like a Hurricane' Recording, Touts Pono Platform: 'Let the People Decide'
The President's Merit Award recipient waxed poetic on studio-quality digital music Tuesday night at the Village Studios in West L.A., with Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij in attendance.
Two great pieces of takeaway Neil Young advice, as offered to his fellow producers at the Village Studios in West L.A.: "Number one, just record, all the time...Don't not record, at all, ever." And: "Cherish those f---in' goose bumps. We really need those."
Whatever else happens this Grammy week, it'll be hard for any speech to beat the hilarious and heartfelt one Young delivered Tuesday night, as he was saluted by the producers' and engineers' wing of the Grammys with President's Merit Award from the Recording Academy. In front of a ballroom full of people whose job it is to make everything perfect, Young basically told them -- warmly and humbly, but in so many words -- that they were getting it all wrong.
"I'm kind of a producer, and partially an engineer," Young told the several hundred assembled. "Not really good at either one, as anybody who's heard my records can attest. But [I'm] performance-oriented, and technical things don't matter that much. But that's only one way of making records. There are a lot of you out here that just craft some beautiful records and take great care with every note. And I know I'm not one of them, because I like to capture the moment."
Young kept the room rollicking with laughter from the moment he took the mic from NARAS president Neil Portnow and quipped, "Thanks, Neil… I like saying that to myself sometimes." It might have been nervous laughter at times, as the venerated rocker explained how his approach presumably differs from most of the hundreds of pros who were looking on.
"I know who you people are," he said. "And I know some of you are very funny. And some of you are just dry and never laugh. Engineers." He then folded his arms and silently adopted a stoic face, in his impression of a studio technician. "But I love all you people, because you know what you're doing, and the more crazy you are about all the things I don't care about… Sometimes you make great records and it's fantastic. They're not like my records, but I really appreciate them. Sometimes I can't feel them, but I can really appreciate them."
Hearing the anxious titters, he took pains to insist he didn't mean to be insulting toward perfection. "Sometimes I can feel them, and I go, 'Holy shit, how did they do that?' " He compared his "cinema verite" style studio techniques to producers whose "layered" records resemble feature films where "they did the dialogue again and they foley-ed the sounds…and everything's perfect…but it's still good. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just a different way of doing it than I could ever do, because I have so little ability to do that, that it would really suck if I did that over and over again, getting it right. That's why I'm flat. That's why it doesn't matter that there are bad notes. That doesn't mean it's not production. That just means it's the kind of production we do."
As an example, Young told the lengthy story of the making of "Like a Hurricane," for which he'd recorded the vocal part at this very studio in 1974. He'd had to record the instrumental track and vocal parts separately because he'd just been through an operation, and his doctors told him he couldn't sing. "By the way, I know I can't sing," he quipped. "But I was meaning I couldn't make a sound." So at his home studio, he'd played the song once through on acoustic guitar for Crazy Horse, and then their very first attempt at playing the song through as a band is the one heard on record, albeit with the beginning abruptly clipped off because it got off to a disastrous start.
Upon entering the Village in '74 to add vocals to "Hurricane," Young said, he only had the engineer put on 10 seconds of the track -- which hadn't been played since it was recorded -- before he went into the booth to sing. "I said, 'We don't have to listen to it. Let's not wipe the shit off the tape listening to it.' Because if you listen over and over again…the tape doesn't like to rub over this head, and then part of it goes away. It's terrible. That bothers me every time the tape plays, so I never hardly ever listen." The audience cracked up at Young's obsession with minute deterioration of analog tape, as he described how he went on to record a lead vocal and two harmony parts for "Like a Hurricane" in single takes. "So it was like the fifth or sixth time that we ever played the tape that we mixed it. And there's a message in there somewhere. That's my memory of this place: It's that we do records like that."
It's hardly that Young isn't a stickler for sound quality, though. Quite the contrary: He's set to finally launch his long-promised music download/player, Pono, which will supposedly allow home listeners to hear studio-quality digital music for the first time. "We're launching at South by Southwest" in March, he told The Hollywood Reporter before the ceremony. Although the technology is still something of a mystery, "I think people can hear," he said. "That's all I care about. Just so they get a chance to hear the real thing. Let the people decide."
He waxed even more philosophical during a "commercial" for the impending Pono service that concluded his speech inside the studio. "We create great stuff in the studio, and then we just kiss its ass goodbye. Nobody's ever going to hear it. And that's unfortunate, and it didn't used to be that way...That's an injury that we sustained, and it deeply hurt us. So the time has come for us to recover, and to bring music back to the people in a way that they can recognize it in their souls…and so that they can get goose bumps. We cherish those f---in' goose bumps. We really need those."
Young told THR that he didn't show up for the honor just to promote the new service. "If Pono wasn't here, I'd still be here!" he said. Portnow also told THR that, despite Young's reputation for not doing anything he doesn't want to do, it didn't take any special persuasion to get him to show up. "He's a humble person and he's not big on being honored at celebrations, but we have been down this road, fortunately, with him before because he was our MusiCares person of the year [in 2010]."
Young's NARAS-friendliness had an added benefit: As his closing line of the night, Young said, "Because we want to succeed and we want you behind us, we're dedicating 1 percent of our (Pono) equity to MusiCares," which is the Grammys' charity for aiding musicians struggling with addiction.
The MusiCares connection continued -- symbolically, at least -- as Dave Matthews took the stage for a three-song solo set that included Young's addiction-themed "Needle and the Damage Done." "I lost a very good friend of mine," Matthews said, "and this song means more to me than it did when I heard it, and it kills me. And I'll make it through this motherf---er." Matthews also sang "Hey Hey My My" and -- apparently in honor of Young's penchant for simple recordings -- the "old-timey" song "Rye Whiskey," a staple of his sets.
On the red carpet outside the Village, various musicians and producers spoke to Young's influence. "Neil Young's like the Beatles to me," said Kris Kristofferson, a contemporary of both acts.
A younger rocker, Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij (who is also the band's longtime producer), told THR that Young is "one of the few artists that we can put on as a group and listen to a whole album and everybody's into it. I love that album Harvest Moon. It doesn't sound like it was recorded at any particular time. That's something we strive for when we make a record, as producers and mixers and mastering engineers, is to make something that doesn't sound like the '90s or '80s or '60s. Well, sometimes we want it to sound like the '60s. That's the exception!"
Another contemporary of Young's, Stephen Stills, trailed the red carpet behind his sometimes bandmate. When a reporter called out to him and asked if there might be another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion, Stills paused and scrunched his face in deep thought about how to answer for a good 20 seconds of silence before finally responding: "No street goes four ways." That's an oblique reference to CSNY's famous Four Way Street album…and an indication that we should look forward to a lot more Young solo projects.
Read a full transcript of his speech on the next page.