At the height of the Vietnam War, folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were at the forefront of the musical protest movement. When the US National Guard killed four demonstrating students at Kent State University in 1970, an enraged Neil Young wrote Ohio, directly attributing the deaths to Richard Nixon.
Almost four decades later, the 62-year-old Canadian is at it again, only now the targets are George W Bush and the Iraq War. His first fusillade was Living With War, a robust album comprised entirely of anti-war songs. Next, Young regrouped CSNY for 2006's Freedom Of Speech tour, building a 35-song set around the new material.
Young told his band-mates, best known for playing gentle, harmony-rich acoustic tunes, that they would only be playing 'songs about war and politics and the human condition', with 'no bullshit in-between'. In doing so, Young laughs: 'We didn't give anybody any relief. They just had to go: “Jesus, what the hell is this?”'
Directed by Young under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, new tour documentary CSNY: Déjà Vu chronicles Americans' reactions to songs such as Lookin' For A Leader, No More Lies and Shock And Awe. We hear a broad range of views, including disgruntled soldiers back from Iraq, an army deserter, Vietnam vets, a bereaved mother and, in keeping with the tour's title, commentators who dismiss CSNY as hypocritical, over-the-hill hippies.
It adds up to a powerful piece of work. Concert-goers affronted by the group's message – the song Let's Impeach The President almost provoked a riot in Atlanta – were not paying attention, says Young, who likens the tour's name to 'a warning label on a jar of fruit or something, saying: “If you're going to see this, then you're going to get that.” If they didn't read the warning then they ended up with a rude surprise, depending on how they were feeling politically'.
The goal was to start a debate, and Young insists they succeeded. 'We could see families in the audience where the father and the mother would start arguing, and then the kids would be arguing with the parents, and then the father would say: “This is bullshit, I'm taking you out of here.” The kids would be looking at us and waving, and the parents would be dragging them out.'
The film reflects the divisions in America over the Iraq War, and the absence of a unified opposition movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, CSNY played to the converted. Then, however, young people felt personally threatened by the army draft and took to the streets to protest against the Vietnam War. Today's administration, says Young, learned from Vietnam that young people will rebel if they don't believe in the mission, so now the army recycles recruits.
'There's a huge change based on political survivability,' he sneers. '[Bush] wanted to stay in power even more than he wanted to do the right thing.' Whereas Young once believed music could change the world, he now doubts whether that's possible. It doesn't frustrate him, though. 'You just got to look at it for what it is. And anyway,' he adds, 'I'm more interested in changing the world through findinga new fuel source.'
Of course, not everyone wants to hear what Young has to say. Some Americans feel that as a Canadian, he has no right to criticise the US government or its actions. 'Even some people close to me have said: “You haven't got a leg to stand on. You're not an American.” I'm going: “Well, this is the leader of the free world. You do this, it affects us.” Things like that bother and upset me.'
Young is optimistic about the future, though, and hopeful that the US will soon have a 'good leader'. He gets angry, he admits, but tries not to lead an angry life. Indeed, he dropped all references to the war during his UK gigs in March, instead delighting crowds with career-spanning sets.
'I'm exercising a different freedom of speech,' he adds drily. 'Your right not to say anything.' Now happy to talk about the war again in support of CSNY: Déjà Vu, Young says: 'The underlying message is this: what are we doing as the human race? If somebody starts thinking war is not good, and if you can put that in your kids' minds, then maybe we can try to make the human race evolve away from war.
'Why are we stuck with war? Are we forever going to be throwing fireballs at each other like we have for the past 2,000 years? It's like we sleep, we eat and we war. That's it. Why do we need that?'
Originally published in Metro, July 14
© Stephen Applebaum, 2008