By Ellie Wilkinson
Terry Gross’s recent Fresh Air interview with Neil Young is worth a listen, if only to revel in the awkward moments and weird revelations that come out of it.
Young’s new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, recently came out, and it pulls back the curtain to reveal several new aspects of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s life, particularly the painful medical conditions that Young has suffered, including polio and epilepsy.
In her interview, Gross makes it her mission to get a comment from Young about how he has dealt with his health issues (as well as whether it affected his decision to do drugs), but he remains pretty stoic and resistant for most of the 30-minute interview.
She goes right for the jugular with her first question: “Do you think about extremes in your life, and do you think about how they may have affected how you’ve chosen to live your life?” Young’s answer is vague, saying only that he was thankful for his doctors, and adding that his family has given him “a little bit of depth.” His quadriplegic son, Ben, has cerebral palsy.
She then addresses his drug use full on, asking him to explain why he said in his book he gave up. Young says that he was concerned about early-onset dementia, so he gave up smoking and drinking on doctor’s orders. “I’m not making any promises,” he adds quickly.
Halfway through the interview, Gross brings up Young’s description of a particularly painful medical procedure he endured, which he labeled in capital letters in his memoir, “I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS TEST.” In an awkward attempt to get the singer to open up, Gross asks, “Do you want to describe what they did?”
“No,” Young replies frankly. “But I will.” He then proceeds to explain the procedure.
“It has to do with having a radioactive dye injected into your bloodstream and into your nervous system — basically into your back, so it goes right into your nervous system,” he says. “The doctors use the dye to track blood flow into the brain, but they usually get some bubbles of air and stuff in there too, so when those go through the brain, it’s excruciating.”
No follow-up remark from Gross on that one. I mean, what do you say to that?
Right at the end of the interview, Gross comments on the title of Young and Crazy Horse’s new album. “It’s funny it’s called Psychedelic Pill because you say in the book that your doctor told you after your epileptic seizure, never take LSD,” she says. As Young begins explaining how the album is “his own kind of psychedelic pill,” Gross talks over him, asking him three times quickly whether he followed the doctor’s advice.
“Oh yeah, are you kidding? Definitely no,” Young replies at last, sounding surprised. “I don’t need any help hallucinating.”
Then, the best — and weirdest — part of the interview happens, right at the end:
Gross: What do you hallucinate?
Young: What don’t I hallucinate? [Clearly trying to get out of this question] I don’t want to. I don’t want to enhance that.
Gross: But seriously, what brings on hallucinations for you?
Young: Life. Everything. I mean, it’s just, you know, you can’t stop. You want to turn that off. You don’t want to accelerate that; it’s a gift.
Gross: When, like in the 60s and 70s, when a lot of people you knew were tripping, did you wonder what it was like even though you weren’t doing it?
Young: No, I didn’t wonder what it was like. I felt like I was already doing it and it was out of control. I’d be walking down the aisle of a supermarket and freaking out because all of the boxes and everything—it was too much for me, all of the colors and everything. I didn’t need any help. I needed a little bit of restraint. I needed to be saved.
Gross: Do you feel like you’ve been saved?
Young: No, not yet.
The interview concludes with both Gross and Young laughing, almost as if both appreciate how weird their conversation had suddenly gotten. It’s great, though; it’s a real moment where we get to see that even a famous singer-songwriter like Young can feel nervous and out-of-control at times. It’s when interviews get weird and awkward that, sometimes, we can feel more connected to the person who’s being interviewed.