Jonathan Demme’s new Neil Young concert film, Prairie Wind, is out on DVD, so I rented it. I like much of Young’s music, especially the melancholy, sweet songs, but I wasn’t prepared to be blown away by the totality of the artist and his art.
The film documents two nights on which Young and a large ensemble of musicians and singers performed music from his new album of the same name. The performance could be called a rock oratorio, with a seamless integration of soloists and chorus and individual elements so strongly narrative and thematically linked that they tell a single, complicated story. I found it life-embracing, nostalgic, defiant, elegiac, sad and uplifting: Young’s childhood on the Canadian prairie, the people he has loved and who have loved him, the larger forces that bring change, welcome and unwelcome. He plays Hank Williams’ guitar, paying homage to the women who have shaped so much of his experience and to his father who passed away not long before, first passing into the private world of dementia.
Before the concert footage begins, Demme introduces the members of Young’s band, some of whom have played with him for three decades. In the back seat of a taxi, one musician reveals that Young has a brain aneurysm, that in the week following the concert, he will go into the hospital for surgery. That’s it—a single mention—but it casts the entire enterprise in a different light. I had to put the film on pause for a minute and take it in, that a week before brain surgery, the thing that Young most wanted to do (as in the week before that, the year before that, the decades before that) was make his art.
Young described in an NPR interview how he discovered the aneurysm during the album’s recording, writing and recording some songs before, some during and some after the operation. The songs appear on the album in the order he wrote them; it was released about a year ago.
Young’s has always been an exceptionally independent voice, in both the literal and figurative senses, following his own muse and thumbing his nose at corporate culture. He demonstrates that commercial success can coexist with integrity and artistic risk-taking; that money doesn’t always corrupt art. Mostly, his words are simple and direct. He describes himself as receiving songs that come to him, rather than laboring to bring them into being.
From Young, I feel the thrill and excitement of an artist in the grip of an imperative, creating as if his life depended on it. The song on Prairie Wind that pulls most at my heart is “Falling Off The Face of The Earth,” the persistence of love in the face of danger. I love it that after this album, he issued Living With War, an urgent bulletin from a heart of gold appalled by the news, as he writes on “Shock and Awe”: “thousands of children scarred for life/millions of tears for a soldier’s wife/both sides are losing now.”
In the Jewish tradition, one of the things that is sometimes prescribed for someone with a serious illness is a new Hebrew name added to that person’s existing names. For a man, the new name is most commonly “Chaim,” which means “life.” A friend of mine was given the name “Alter,” Yiddish for “old.” The underlying idea is that the blessing of the new name’s meaning will echo in higher realms, helping to heal, to bring itself to fruition.
Young isn’t Jewish and so far as I know, is still called just plain Neil Young. But this is the feeling I had throughout the film: that in a time of threat to his life, this artist is naming himself with every song, with the names of what has been and with those of his hopes. May he be blessed with long life in the fullness of his creative power.