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.
Read a full transcript of his speech below:
[To NARAS president Neil Portnow] Thanks, Neil...I like saying that to myself sometimes.
This is a cool night that we're all here together. I know almost everybody here. If I don't know you, I thought I did when I saw you. [Laughter.]
It really is great. A lot of us, producers and engineers -- I'm kind of a producer, partially an engineer. Not really good at either one, as anybody who's heard my records can attest. But we're performance-oriented, and technical things don't matter that much. But that's only one way of making records. There's 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. I like to record the moment. I like to get the first time that I sung the song. I like to get the first time the band plays the song. So there's a lot of compromises we make to get that feeling. But in the long run, that's where the pictures are when I hear my words and when I see the pictures when I'm listening, so that's what we try to record. So recording is so important. So we think about the equipment. We think about: What are we using? What do we have? What are we recording on? What are we singing through? Where is it going? How long is the wire? Okay? Why is that piece of shit in the wire between me and where I'm going? [Laughter.] Get that out -- thank you. Don't run the wire together; get one wire. We don't need a connector, okay? Because every time you go through one of those pieces of crap, something happens. We don't want that. We paid big bucks for this place, we're gonna use every bit of it, and we're not gonna use what we don't want. Thank you.
So...I did record here. I think I recorded a few tracks here a long time ago. There's a song "Like a Hurricane" [audience cheers] that I didn't record here. [Laughter] But I couldn't sing at that time when I recorded that, because I had just had some sort of operation that they told me, "Don't sing; stop, for a month." So I wasn't. But I couldn't stop the music, so at my studio at home, me and Crazy Horse got together and we played this track that was like 15 minutes long, because I had just written it the night before. And I showed it to them on acoustic and then I said, "Okay, let's play with all these other instruments, and it's gonna be great." So we got the instruments out and we played it once. And we screwed it up really badly at first, and if you listen to the record, I mean, you can tell it was screwed up. We cut it off. It just starts out of nowhere: [explosion sound]. But then it was over. Now we're in the record, and it's the vibe of the record that mattered, not how cool and together the beginning was, but where it went as soon as it started. So we shortened it a little bit. Then I was here at this place in 1974 or something, and I said, "You know, a couple of weeks ago, when I couldn't sing…" By the way, I know I can't sing. [Laughter.] But I was meaning I couldn't make a sound! "A couple of weeks ago…" And of course this was back in the day before the day when I'm saying this; it was way back there.
So I'm saying, "We have this tape here. I brought it with me as a multi-track. We've never played it. I'm going to sing it, because I never got a chance to sing it." So we put it on, and we played back about 10 seconds, and I said, "Okay, stop. Everything was working, right? We heard everything. There's no reason to listen to it, 'cause I was there, I know what it is, and it's on the tape. So we don't have to listen to it. Let's not wipe the shit off the tape listening to it. Let's record while the stuff is still on…Let's listen to what's there, and record it to a two-track while it's still there." Because if you listen over and over and over again, it goes away -- bye, right? -- because the tape doesn't like to rub over this head, and then part of it goes away. It's terrible. So that bothers me every time the tape plays, so I never hardly ever listen. [Laughter.]
So okay, they put the tape on, and I went out and I talked. "Am I there? Yes. Good. Record. Number one, just record, all the time -- that's why we're here. Don't not record, at all, ever." Record! It's a studio, record! Come on! Practice at home, you know? The red button is not that scary, it's really not. So we press the button and they start the tape and I start singing the song. It's long, so it's four or five verses over and over again. So I just sing one verse and then the other verse. There's only two verses; I just keep singing one and then another, and then later on we can cut it down. Then the other guys aren't here and I hear the harmony part, so "I want to sing the harmonies now," so we went and we did the harmonies. So we did three tracks, three times through -- one time on each track. And we had all the stuff, and it was the first time that I ever heard it. The first time that I ever listened to "Like a Hurricane," and it was here in this building, and I was singing it, and then I sang the harmony, and then I sang the other harmony, and then we mixed it. So it was like the fifth or sixth time that we played it that we mixed it. And there's a message in there somewhere. [Laughter.] That's my memory of this place, is what it is. It's that we do records like that.
The idea for me is to get magic, be magic, try to get magic. Who knows where the hell it's coming from? I don't. So, please record! It's expensive just to sit here and not press the button. [Laughter, applause.]
So I know who you people are. I know you're animals. And I know some of you are very funny. And some of you are just dry and never laugh. Engineers. [Imitates engineer with a stoic face] 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. [Titters, as if he said something naughty.] But no, sometimes I can feel them, and I go, "Holy shit, how did they do that? How did they make that record?" I know they layered it. And I know it's not like a documentary where something happens and you took a picture, a cinema verite, you got it. It's like this is a movie -- somebody created all the scenes, and they talked, and there was dialogue, and then they did the dialogue again and they foley-ed the sounds and they did all this stuff, and everything's perfect…but it's still good. So 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's bad notes. That doesn't mean it's not production. That just means it's the kind of production we do.
And some people are here that I've worked with over the ages that are just really incredible people. Al Schmitt is here tonight, and I love him. And Niko Bolas is here. John Hanlon is here. So I really appreciate that these guys are…I know you guys really appreciate, especially Al, because he's the father of what's going on here, and he's still here. It's fantastic. He's got staying power. He was recording a way that I want to record now, and I'm going to make a record with Al.
We were just talking about making a record together where there's only one mic, but we're doing it with a huge orchestra. And when we finish doing that performance, and every guy is standing the right length from the mic…The background vocals are back here. [Moves back] Of course I'm up here. [Close in, audience laughs.] So we're gonna do it that way. We're not gonna mix it, we're gonna do it and mix it while we do it. And everybody can get in the right place, and if it's not right, then we'll move the bass up, move the bass closer. If it's not loud enough, move the amp closer, then. It sounds good but it's just too quiet, so move it up. The strings, move it in. and the drums? Move it over there, go back farther. [Laughter] You know how much fun that is to do? That is so much fun. It's like playing. It's like playing music. It's like playing music. It's not making music, it's playing. So, I love doing these things. And I'm anxious to do something I've never done before, because you know, there were great records made that way. And there's something that happens when there's one mic, when everybody sings into one mic, when everybody plays into the same mic. I've just never been able to do that, except in some rare instances, like when I record in a recording booth from a 1940s state fair. I got that sound by closing myself into a telephone booth, and I noticed it sounds just like an old record. And I like the sound of old records. I always loved that.
So all I'm trying to say is, I'm just one of you, okay? I'm one of you. When you're honoring me, you're honoring yourself. It's not me, it's you. This is what we do. [Applause.]
You know, digital. [Laughter] Digital's not bad. But Xerox is not good. And so, I always like to say Picasso was really happy to see original Picassos everywhere, but when he went into some places and saw Xeroxes of Picassos, it didn't make him as happy, because he thought that people thought he was making those things. The thing that we do is 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. So that's something that happened to us. 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, through the window of their soul, their ears. So they can feel and vibrate, and so that they can get goose bumps. We cherish those f---in' goose bumps. We really need those. [Applause.]
So being impressed by something, how cool it is and how sharp it is and how snappy it is, is one thing. And that translates in almost any medium. But when you're singing something very soulful from your heart, and the echoes are perfect and everything is great and your music is made in an acoustic chamber and everything sounds great…And then you listen to it and you love it, but then you hear it somewhere else and it's gone, that's terrible. We don't like that. Not many of us like that and we're not happy about it. So we're trying to change that and we're trying to make it better. We're trying to make music sound technically better. That's what I want to do. So we have a player that plays whatever the musician made digitally, and that's going to come out. We're announcing that at South by Southwest, and we're introducing it, and it's called Pono. And that's my commercial -- thank you very much. [Applause.]
[Award is given.] This is a great honor, and thank you so much. And I just want to say that, support us with Pono. Pono is righteous -- Pono is Hawaiian for "righteous." We want your music to sound the way it sounds, and we want people to hear it. And because we want to succeed and we want you behind us, we're dedicating 1 percent of our equity to MusiCares. [Applause.]