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Neil Young: back in the saddle

Noise and fury in Psychedelic Pill, Young's latest collaboration with Crazy Horse.

Psychedelic Pill
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Reprise Records

The biggest show I played with my first band, Great Days of Sail, was as the support act for the Californian singer Joanna Newsom at the ICA in London. Music isn’t a competitive sport but if it was, we lost – Newsom, then just 22 and travelling with her dad, was riding high on the acclaim for her brilliant first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and was pretty much untouchable. Later, in the bar, I ran into Mark Bowen, cofounder of Wichita Recordings, who informed me quite abruptly that my stage presence had reminded him of Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. I was crestfallen. Couldn’t he see that our songs, shambolic solos and warbling harmonies were all part of a stoned and reverential attempt to be Neil Young and Crazy Horse, circa 1974?

Bruce Springsteen once said: “The way that Elvis freed your body, Bob [Dylan] freed your mind.” Young has freed us from nothing so specific; rather, since 1966, when he co-founded the seminal Americana band Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills, he has embodied an aimless, vagabond freedom that resists easy categorisation. He has been a pioneer of psychedelic rock (“Broken Arrow”); a hard rocker (“Like a Hurricane”); a harmonica-blowing folkie (“Tell Me Why”, “Little Wing”); a member of the hippie supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; a country singer awestruck by Willie Nelson (the album Old Ways); even a dabbler in Krautrock (Trans) and grunge (Mirror Ball).

Yet underpinning Young’s mercurial nature has been a self-belief that has taken him to heights few others have reached. As he writes in his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace (Viking, £25), published last month: “The muse has no conscience.” For Young, music is a “storm on the senses, weather for the soul, deeper than deep, wider than wide”. In other words, it’s not something to be trifled with. If exploring these depths, these expanses, requires writing from the point of view of a salmon looking to mate (as Young does in the cringe-making but weirdly moving 1976 song “Will to Love”), so be it. Anyone fearless enough to use the line “My fins were aching” in a drawn-out metaphor about the search for the ideal woman surely deserves respect.

It’s this willingness to make mistakes as part of the creative process that I find so admirable about Young. When everything comes together, as in the song “Harvest Moon” (1992) or the entirety of the 1974 long-player On the Beach, the results are so transcendent that any detours along the way seem justified. Indeed, in some cases, the detours are the point: Tonight’s the Night (1973), recorded after the drug-related deaths of Young’s guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, draws much of its affective power from the fluffed notes, tequila-ravaged vocals and half-written lyrics that charge the record with a profound sense of peril.

Young’s latest album, Psychedelic Pill, reunites him with long-time collaborators Crazy Horse, a band known (unfairly, in my opinion) for being rubbish. Young is aware of their technical limitations but stresses their primal ability to “groove”; a few years ago, he told his biographer Jimmy McDonough, “It’s not that they fuck up that makes them great. That’s a by-product of the abandon that they play with.”

If abandon is your poison, Psychedelic Pill contains a lethal dose. Unlike some of Young’s uncharacteristically hesitant recent work, it’s a collection that roars with the sheer joy of playing loud. The opening track, “Driftin’ Back”, meanders for more than 27 minutes, piling extended guitar solo upon extended guitar solo; Young attacks his strings as if he has just invented the concept of improvisation. Likewise, “Walk Like a Giant” and “She’s Always Dancing” stretch out simple tunes with lengthy instrumental breaks that, though often shabby, are never wearying or entirely pointless.

The lyrics, on the other hand, can lapse into prosaic nonsense – it’s depressing to emerge from a room-shaking sonic battle between lead guitar and rhythm section only to be presented with a curmudgeonly rant about the poor sound quality of MP3s (as in “Driftin’ Back”). But this is all part of the Neil Young trip. In “For the Love of Man”, a wonderful, faintly Roy Orbison-esque ballad that shuffles in towards the end of the album, he sings: “In the billowing sky/Let me wander there/Let me wonder why.” By wandering and wondering, by always taking the crooked path, Young leads the listener to the most unexpected delights.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.