The View from the Devil’s Sidewalk | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

The View from the Devil’s Sidewalk 

Thursday, Feb 26 2004
Photo by Debra Di Paolo

Neil Young’s Greendale is the veteran rock man’s third ramble into the realm of film as director “Bernard Shakey,” following 1979’s fictionalized tour documentary Rust Never Sleeps and 1995’s surreal comedy Human Highway, written and co-directed by Dean Stockwell and featuring the guys from Devo. The low-budget Greendale, shot and scored entirely by Young himself, tells the tale of the tight-knit but unraveling Green family, who live in a small town somewhere in rural America. (It was shot in and around Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco.) The Greendale project has been presented in several forms: as a live theatrical event; an audio disc recorded with his band, Crazy Horse, and released with a DVD of Young performing the piece solo in Dublin; a book; a DVD that includes a Green family tree and much background information on the story’s central characters; and now a film, opening in theaters this week. Each facet of the “mosaic,” as Young calls it, contains elements not found in the others, so if you really want to know what’s going on in Greendale, you’ll need to experience it in more ways than one. But even then you might not get the whole picture. That’s because Young himself doesn’t know what Greendale represents — he’s making the thing up as he goes along, and he’s as curious as you are about how it’s going to end.

Young grew up in a Toronto. His father was a writer. One day Young asked his father what he was going to write, and his father said that he wouldn’t know until he’d finished writing it. Young’s similar, intuitive approach to developing the Greendale story isn’t all that different from the way he’s always developed his ideas, which is by feeling his way into things; he uses his emotional reactions as his guide. “That’s the way I like to do it,” he says. “It doesn’t always work that way, but most of the time.”


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L.A. WEEKLY: Greendale is, in part, about corruption, a corruption that’s both micro and macro, back and forth, between small-town life, family life, and the world at large — big business and government, environmental disasters, religious wars. You seem to say that corruption begins at home, but that the fish rots from the head down.

NEIL YOUNG: I think a lot of people feel that way. It’s pretty obvious that something’s happening. The fact is that things happen that seem to be covered up, but you can see right through it. People don’t trust the information they’re getting because it looks like it came out of Madison Avenue, or something selling the war, selling this and that. Everything looks like a commercial — they get up there and talk about how they’re saving trees by taking some of the trees out so that the other ones can be safe from fire, and when Joe Blow on the street reads it, he thinks, “Oh great, they’re saving the forests” or whatever. And then you go, “But I know what’s going on, I think I know what’s going on, I think it’s a payoff to the lumber industry.” You’re being told that they’re going to revitalize the economy by selling out the wilderness. You know, whatever you’re going to do has a business-corporate kind of an angle to it, and it’s being sold as something else to Joe Blow on the street. On the other hand, there’s all these other people who are going, “Yeah, what a great idea, we’re going to save the forest and we’re gonna make money at the same time, we’re gonna fix the economy, this is great.”


Was there a specific incident that triggered the impulse to make this film? Did the war in Iraq enter into it, or something of that nature?

No, we’re talking mostly about human things, about things that are more personal. My father-in-law passed away a couple of years ago, and my son was married on the same day, and you know, I really loved my father-in-law and, obviously, love my son, so there was something happening there that just got some kind of thing going. And then shortly after that, in August of 2002, I started recording Greendale. But I didn’t know it was Greendale at the time. We had decided we were going to get together and write some songs and record them, just like we always do. So I wrote one song and recorded it, and then I finished another one and we recorded that, and after the third one it was obvious that there was a story and there were characters, which was different — I’d had songs with stories and characters in them before, but I’d never had a series of songs where they continue like chapters. And I could see that developing.

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