In 1971, Neil Young played two triumphant homecoming concerts at Toronto’s Massey Hall. He was twenty-six years old, a formidable talent parlaying acclaimed stints with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into an even more noteworthy solo career. Yet this young artist packed his Massey Hall set list with songs like “Old Man” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” obsessively touching on aging in lyrics like “Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/when you’re old enough to repay/but young enough to sell?” It’s as if he knew he’d be standing there on stage, forty years later, in the Jonathan Demme concert documentary Neil Young Journeys, released this month, and he wanted the ghost of the young man he once was to welcome his future self.
Young didn’t get around to listening to the original Massey recordings for twenty-seven years, and no wonder: he was a very busy man in the early seventies. That first concert was a stop not only on Young’s solo tour (a US/Canada/UK commitment spanning four months in 1970-71, including stops at Carnegie Hall and an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show) but on a merry-go-round of activity that included a 1970 tour with Crazy Horse, the release of the “Ohio” 45 single (boosting sales of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Deja Vu), as well as the release of his own solo album After The Gold Rush. (Much of the delay about the Massey recording also stemmed from Young’s decision to release new songs he performed that night as tracks on Harvest rather than on a live concert album.) By the time of the Massey concert, he was suffering from severe back problems (from a slipped disc incurred while fixing up his newly purchased ranch a ) that necessitated he sit, rather than stand, through his acoustic set.
However, Young doesn’t seem pained or fatigued in Neil Young: Live At Massey Hall (2007), a “concert” film assembled by Young from dark and grainy footage shot in 1971 at another performance with the Massey Hall master tracks dubbed underneath, but there’s a moment when he drops a guitar pick and laments, “Bending over is not so much fun.” Maybe the freshness of the material kept his spirits up, as much of the now-canonical songs on the set list (“Heart of Gold,” “A Man Needs A Maid,” “Old Man”) had not yet been released on the album Harvest, and their elemental renditions here are bright, pure, and steady. The film’s a time capsule of a newly minted solo artist stretching his wings at the height of his youth and resilience. Only his remark about his back injury, first sign of the body’s slow treachery, gives any indication of clouds gathering overhead.
Young’s decades have been full of professional and creative successes, but good health has been a struggle, both for himself (the aforementioned back problems, epilepsy, an aneurysm) and his children (his two sons Zeke and Ben have cerebral palsy and his daughter Amber is also epileptic). As a film, Neil Young Journeys is not in peak condition, either. Demme’s previous Young concert film Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (2006) is sleek and well-lit, and while the follow-up Neil Young Trunk Show (2009) is grittier, it’s still considerably more polished-looking than Journeys, a documentary that looks as though it was shot in two weekends – one spent at the concert, and one spent with Young driving through his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, pointing out childhood landmarks. The grainy, shaky footage from both shoots crosses over from low-fi into amateurish. More perplexingly, during the concert, Demme places a camera just below the microphone, not at Young’s mouth but at his stubbly, wattly neck, and lingers on those shots for unclear reasons, as if he wants the audience to have the experience of being pressed into Young’s adam’s apple.
But where the visuals are lacking, the music is strong. Young’s guitar, as bright and pure as a castrato in the original Massey recording, has now gained a yowly patina of feedback and reverb, like a voice made smoky by hard living, and its muscular feedback fills every crack in the theater. The two concerts share only “Ohio” on the set list, but the difference between the acoustic and distorted versions lays bare Young’s changes. In the 1971 concert, it’s a protest song, a young man taking a slight personally. In 2012 it’s a father railing against a world where children can die, a point Demme underscores by intercutting family photos of the deceased students.
This decrepitude is the undercurrent of Journeys. All things fall apart: the rip in the hat Young wears onstage, the childhood places that aren’t there, the death of the earth and the way life snatches health out of our hands. (Maybe that’s why Demme wants to shove Young’s grizzled jowls in our faces, to remind us everything’s sagging and going gray.) Songs like “Peaceful Valley” and “Love & War” mourn a world out of kilter, and “Walk With Me” is less an invitation than a plea. But closing “Hitchhiker” with a new coda where he reflexively repeats he’s thankful “for the wife . . . for the wife,” Young shows all is not lost, that what remains is an old man still dizzy with gratitude for when life has been sweet. It’s important to note that, as a young man hobbled by back problems, Young had to stay seated onstage at Massey Hall. Here, forty years older, he’s standing.
Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.