hile many rock stars have had some kind of love affair with the cinema – from sinecurial dalliances to junkie obsessions to desperate, whorish embarrassments – few have had as lasting a passion as Neil Young. Beyond the requisite concert-film appearances (Rust Never Sleeps, The Last Waltz, Neil Young: Heart of Gold) and occasional talking-head documentary cameos, Young has produced a dozen feature films through his company Shakey Pictures, Ltd. and directed about a half of those, even shooting and editing a couple. In the late 1960s Young began experimenting with Super 8 film, a medium he would explore most fully in his 2003 “audio novel” Greendale. (Strangely, Young has only provided a full score for one film, but it’s a good one. His molten soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man – for guitar feedback and idling ‘48 Chrysler engine, all more or less improvised – ranks as one of the best film soundtracks in recent memory.) And Young’s repertoire of songs is peppered with references to the movies and movie stars, from Marlon Brando’s anachronistic presence in “Pocahontas” to a song like On the Beach’s “Motion Pictures”, which obliquely suggests Young’s fascination with the medium as an analogue of memory. Harvest’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” inspired by seeing (and empathizing with) a character played by future partner Carrie Snodgress in the film Diary of a Mad Housewife, hints at an even deeper engagement.
Maybe the most telling instance of film criticism in Young’s musical oeuvre is the line that opens “Speakin’ Out,” delivered in a drunken, slightly mocking blues meter: “I went to the movies the other night,/The plot was groovy; it was outta sight.” The recording of the song would later surface on 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, but Young employed it first over the ending credits of his debut film, Journey Through the Past. Described by Young as a “documentary fantasy,” and exploiting altogether not enough of either of those polarities, the film is a forgivably “shakey” first film effort from Young. Its plot, if it’s “in sight” at all, is groovy to the point of seasickness, following Young’s career from the Buffalo Springfield to the then-present with a handful of quasi-allegorical excursions and larkish sidesteps along the way. But it’s nonetheless an essential document for Neil obsessives – if maybe no one else – offering a foggy window into Young’s narcissistic hippie dream (and nightmare) alongside some glimpses of the seedy pleather interior of early-70s rock stardom.
The film opens intriguingly with a visit by Young and his entourage to a radio station. With Woodstock veteran David L. Myers shooting 16mm, the group of guffawing, obviously stoned people wanders down a series of dark hallways and into the DJ’s booth, stopping in an office along the way so that Neil – unmistakable in the underexposed footage, towering over the others with a black shroud of hair and high, narrow shoulders – can sign an autograph for a peculiar, wizened, and wisecracking twelve-year-old named Gil. Once in the booth, Young smiles wryly as the DJ sets up the wrong tune, one he didn’t write: “For What It’s Worth”, the famed Stephen Stills peacenik anthem from the Buffalo Springfield days. Suddenly, like an involuntary memory, rare footage invades the screen showing the band “performing” the song (that is, lip-synching, albeit awesomely) on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, before segueing into an energetic, but equally phony “Mr. Soul” with Neil on lead vocals, Western-fringed shirt, and bowl-cut.
This sequence – unfortunately the most elegantly assembled in the film – establishes a lurching rhythm that much of Journey Through the Past will follow, a non-sequitur excursion through the Neil Young Archive, with “present-day” rap sessions between Neil, Carrie, Graham Nash, and the guys about the old days, marijuana, and the music biz interrupted by live concert footage from the previous five years of Young’s career. The basic trajectory is one of increasing autonomy as an artist: from second fiddle status in Springfield to star appendix of CSNY to big-deal solo artist. This arc faithfully renders Young’s output at this moment – by 1972, had recently completed a big solo tour and scored a commercial success with Harvest, backed by his band the Stray Gators, whom we see rehearsing songs like “Are You Ready for the Country?”, “Alabama”, and “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” in Neil’s Northern California barn. (One shot even replicates the band-in-barn setup that’s pictured on the reverse cover of the Harvest record.) Appropriately enough, the musical-performance element of the film culminates with Neil’s solo performance of a hitherto unreleased song, “Soldier,” on piano.
But this is no mere documentary: it’s Young’s cinematic fantasy, in which non-sequiturs and involuntary visions predominate, and music is not the only way to journey through the past, present, or whatever. Keen on plumbing the allegorical depths of the late 60s and early 70s – and obviously tickled by the sort of logical leeway endorsed by Kubrick’s 2001, Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and The Last Movie) – Young takes the opportunity for his fair share of oblique flights of fancy, casting a gaggle of his closest buddies and hangers-on. Local NoCal eccentric Gary Davis – identified as “Scary Gary” in Jimmy McDonough’s hefty Young biography, Shakey – talks in muffled tones to his red truck, which rides along Topanga Beach without a driver. The truck jovially talks back to Davis in the voice of another Young associate, James McCracken, whose miniature adobe temples are seen later in the film with bejeweled salamanders crawling all over them. Elsewhere, a berobed hippie called “The Graduate” (in the credits, at least) hitchhikes the American landscape from the desert to Vegas, occasionally menaced by religious weirdoes, and Neil, wearing a shiny construction helmet (premonitions of Human Highway), drops in to show the audience a boat-launch and to lead us around a junkyard, beercan in hand, identifying the models of various classic cars.
Perhaps the least flattering of all are the non-musical appearances by Young and his entourage, which at best glimpse a quietly, deeply stoned domesticity (Neil and Carrie smoking a joint, picnicking on a Tupperware of leftovers, and sipping from an enormous jug in the middle of a lovely country drive) and at worst dwell on Young’s compadres as they bloviate lysergically. Nash and Young comport themselves amusingly enough in a dumb stoner conversation about the idea of commercialized weed (“Wouldn’t that be far out?”), before Young spins an entertaining yarn about “turning on” for the first time in Toronto. (“Cuz no one got high. If you were high, you were Gene Krupa.”) Crosby and Stills, unsurprisingly, come off less eloquently: the latter softly mutters something about the superficial reassurances of language while, as the saying goes, “tripping balls”; the former delivering the following deeply earnest, precisely cadenced, and highly YouTubeable monologue:
I mean, man, on one side you’ve got a set of values that’s doom, death, degradation, and despair, being dealt out of the cards of the bottom of the deck by a gray-faced man who hates you. And on the other side you’ve got a girl, running through a field of—flowers, man. Half-naked and laughin’ in the sunshine. Now you offer those two alternatives to a child, and a child is too smart to make that mistake, man. It’s not gonna go for that gray-faced dude with the cards.”
Said “gray-faced dude” appears too – doing card tricks for young Gil the autograph-collector – as does Richard Nixon, but it’s the film’s coda that’s the real headscratcher. Back at the beach, black horsemen with peaked hoods and crosses ride towards a priapic monolith (name that movie reference!), while The Graduate opens his Bible, extracts a crucifix-shaped syringe, and shoots up. (Here’s Young singing “Soldier”: “Jesus, I saw you walkin’ on the river. / I don’t believe you. / You can’t deliver right away.”) In the film’s final moments, the Graduate wanders off in the company of a General, a Preacher, and a red-robed, wheelchaired Cardinal to the tune of the Beach Boys “Let’s Go Away for a While.”
Scenes like these suggest a Neil Young in the throes of the same kind of drugged-out self-importance we’ve previously heard from cohorts like Crosby, but the difference in medium is striking. Never the most articulate interviewee, Young seems desperate to express some ideas symbolically – or at least impressionistically – rather than to blather about them to the nearest enabler or groupie. Young’s fledgling film project may not be that interesting, coherent, or even good, but it does represent a level of ambition and insight that just barely peeks out of the usual post-60s miasma. Cinematographer Myers and producer L.A. Johnson (who henceforth faithfully collaborated on Neil’s films until his sudden death earlier this year) add a measure of technical stability to the film – this is not in fact such a shaky picture after all – even if Young would have been better served with a more assured hand at the Moviola.
But as this was the era of the lionized, Dylanesque singer-songwriter-artist, Journey Through the Past had to be Young’s show. And in any case, there are moments of wit and prescience, as in one scene in which the rich harmonies of CSNY’s “Find the Cost of Freedom” are rudely interrupted by an entourage member’s rant about escalating ticket prices, capitalist greed, and hippie hypocrisy.1 It’s not exactly an auspicious auteurist debut, but it suggests that Young’s interest in this sort of cinematic vanity project wasn’t simply a way of stroking his ego, but also a means to liberate himself from the usual rut of touring and music-industry flim-flam. Young has spent a career looking for ways of getting away for a while, from his brief career as a gentleman farmer to his more recent efforts to house a bio-electric engine in a 1959 Lincoln Continental. But the movies have remained one of his most consistent and rewarding sidelines, affording unguarded insights into the life and creative processes of a restless artist.
Released on Nov. 7, 1972, ‘Journey Through the Past’ remains one of the odder pieces in the Neil Young puzzle. The album was the soundtrack to the film of the same name, which might best be described as Young’s loose, experimental take on a documentary. The LP was released in late 1972, which was Young’s brightest year as a solo artist. His ‘Harvest’ album was one of the year’s biggest sellers, and the hit singles ‘Old Man’ and ‘Heart of Gold’ helped make Young a household name in his own right.
In what might be seen, with historical hindsight, as a typical ‘Neil’ move, he decided to follow up those triumphs with this confusing soundtrack to the even more inexplicable movie. The two-LP set features some interesting moments from Young’s then relatively short history. Concert and television appearance recordings from Buffalo Springfield (Hollywood Palace 1967) and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (a blistering live version of ‘Ohio’) are among the highlights.
Elsewhere, there are scraps from his solo years, including a 16-minute ‘Words,’ a fragment of ‘Are You Ready for the Country?’ and a partial ‘Alabama’ that crumbles into a rehearsal take of the same, before melting into ‘God Bless America,’ which is topped off with an excerpt of a Richard Nixon speech. The final side of the set features various classical pieces from the film and winds up with the Beach Boys‘ ‘Let’s Go Away for a While,’ a beautiful instrumental form the ‘Pet Sounds’ album.
The album barely made a dent in the charts, and to this day, ‘Journey Through the Past’ remains one of the only Young titles never to be re-issued on CD. It’s follow-up,’Time Fades Away,’ being another glaring omission from his catalog. The film, however, was released on DVD as part of his ‘Archives’ box set.
This would not, obviously, be the sole questionable step Young would make through his career, nor would it be the last odd film he would make, (‘Human Highway’ anyone?!), but it represents a strange twist in the ever fascinating road Young has traveled all these years. Questionable moves are made along the way, but for every ‘Greendale’ and ‘Journey Through the Past,’ there’s a ‘Ragged Glory’ and ‘Tonight’s the Night.’ Doing the obvious is so often just plain boring, Young knew that then, and knows it to this day, long may he run.
Neil Young has been involved in a lot of memorable rock music over the last seven years. He was one of the most interesting songwriters in Buffalo Springfield, and his own solo work with Crazy Horse still sounds fresh today. At his best, Young transformed his thin voice into a distinctive vehicle for a haunting, frail style, while his lead guitar bristled with a concise energy. His most satisfying work, especially the superb Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, captured an intimate presence that was both unassuming and engaging.
The title of Young’s newest record, Journey Through the Past, suggests a selection of tracks from the various phases of Young’s career. Unfortunately, the album instead pawns itself off as a film soundtrack, although whether the existence of any film could justify the existence of this record is questionable. To be sure, there are selections by the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young here. But, oddly, nothing with Crazy Horse is included, and Neil’s evocative “Sugar Mountain,” which has never been on an album, is also absent. If old concert tapes of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” are being dredged up, why not include the full-length “Bluebird”?
It’s sad but true that the best stuff on Journey is by the Buffalo Springfield. The album opens with a hilarious introduction of the group on television that segues into a truncated version of, “For What It’s Worth,” followed by “Mr. Soul,” apparently from the same television show; Neil’s driving vocal and guitar work on “Mr. Soul” possess a vitality almost completely absent from Journey’s other cuts. From “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” on, the record quickly degenerates into a depressing combination of sloppy music and verbal filler for a two-record set that lasts barely over an hour. The first side ends with CSN&Y doing “Find the Cost of Freedom” and “Ohio” in concert. Both songs are available on Four Way Street in similarly unmemorable live versions; if Young wanted these songs re-released, he would have done better to use the superior single takes.
“Southern Man,” which was originally one of After the Gold Rush’s highpoints, is also resurrected for the third time, in a ragged concert version which again seems to feature CSN&Y singing off tune (the album’s fancy packaging somehow manages to omit a listing of who performs what on which tracks). It is tediously crammed together on side two with a new take of “Alabama,” an unblushing rehash of “Southern Man” first issued on Harvest; Journey’s new version is only distinguished by the pointless addition of some studio small talk. Neil’s Harvest band, the Stray Gators, is a stone bore on the two other tracks culled from the Harvest sessions. If the out-take of “Are You Ready for the Country” is merely annoying, Journey’s version of “Words” is downright offensive. Occupying all of side three, it winds on for 15 tortuous minutes, with nary an interesting thematic development in sight; Young’s hapless attempts at a guitar solo are so inept as to be embarrassing. All three of the Harvest songs actually sounded better in their original incarnations.
The one new song on Journey, “Soldier,” is performed by Neil alone on the piano. It’s a lousy recording, and the song is hardly up to Young’s normal standards; perhaps it serves some function in the film. Apart from “Soldier,” the fourth side is given over to sheer dreck: a bit of Handel’s Messiah, the theme from King of Kings (?), and, just as strange, Brian Wilson’s moody instrumental “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” pulled off the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. There’s really little excuse for issuing these tracks on a Neil Young album—but then, there’s not much more excuse for issuing inferior new versions of old Neil Young material.
In fact, some six minutes of Buffalo Springfield songs and the approximately three minutes of “Soldier” are all that might conceivably edify the purchaser of Journey Through the Past. It is outrageous that this album was ever released. It is frankly exploitive of a faithful audience that deserves better from one of its favored performers. There have been many moments in his career when Young has produced some fine rock. Journey Through the Past contains virtually none of those moments. It is the nadir of Neil Young’s recording activity.