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POP MUSIC : The Oldest Guy on MTV : How a 45-year-old rock 'n' roller stays tuned in to today's video generation

November 25, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

The impression as Neil Young strolled onto the set of his video shoot in Hollywood wearing tattered jeans, an old baseball cap and a ragged leather jacket was that here was a man who was dressing down for the occasion.

Young, who refers to himself good-naturedly as "the oldest guy on MTV," was collecting royalty checks for gold albums before many of today's youthful rock mavericks were in grade school. But he's competing with them for record sales and he wants to look like he fits in. Right?

In fact, Young was dressing up for the shoot.

Minutes before, as he surveyed the site, Young's clothes were even funkier: the same tattered jeans, but an even older baseball cap worn unceremoniously backwards and a wrinkled shirt that looked as if it had been on a closet floor for months.

"Got to look good for TV," Young responded later with a broad smile when a visitor on the set pointed out the change of clothes. "Those young bands dress pretty well these days."

Even with the accompanying wink, the line sounded like yet another jab at the video emphasis on today's pop world. The impression that Young, 45, is aligned with other veteran rock artists--and quite a few young ones--who hate promotional videos was reinforced a few moments later.

There wasn't a trace of a breeze in the air as Young and the three members of Crazy Horse, the trio with which he has done some of his finest work over the years, moved in place behind the microphones on a small wooden stage in the courtyard of the Cat & Fiddle restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.

However, the script called for a balmy, tropical atmosphere, so a wind machine was switched on as soon as Young began playing. The gusts were so strong that they not only blew away Young's baseball cap, but also almost knocked the musicians over.

As Young struggled to maintain his balance, he started laughing even though the song, a tale of obsessive love called "Over and Over," was not meant to be funny.

To anyone who argues that videos ruin the integrity of a song by forcing a single interpretation on a viewer, the laughter was a commentary by Young on the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

But Young was laughing because he was having fun.

"All that wind felt great," he said during a break in the shooting. "It kind of pushed us around and made us battle back, and added a spirit to the whole thing.

"That's the secret of making a good video. You've got to tap some real emotions . . . the same way you have find real emotions when you are writing and recording a song."

The strains of "Over and Over" could be heard through the windows of the restaurant shortly after 7 p.m. on a recent weeknight as Young ate dinner before the video shoot.

The crew engineer was playing a tape of the song in the adjacent courtyard to test the sound system that had been brought in for what would be a marathon, 15-hour affair.

Most of the night was set aside for shooting "Over and Over"--a track from Young's new "Ragged Glory" album--with a second song from the album, whose feisty title can't be printed in a family newspaper, to be shot the following morning.

Young is a rarity among veteran rock stars: He considers videos a challenge and an opportunity, and he looks forward to working out the concepts for them.

But then again, Young has always been a rarity among rock stars--a restless, independent spirit who fearlessly follows even his most radical musical instincts.

"People complain a lot about videos, but the problem isn't with videos--it's with the people who make them," Young said, nibbling at a plate of shepherd's pie.

"Besides, they're what's happening today. I hate it when people go around complaining that the music business isn't like it was . . . because if it was, it'd be boring. I think what we did in the '60s and '70s was great, but it's gone and I'm glad. Let's move on."

These are good times for Young, the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young alumnus who is rivaled only by Bob Dylan as the most consistently challenging of the still-active members of rock's great class of the '60s.

With a series of erratic, impersonal albums during the '80s--in styles as varied as techno-pop and rockabilly--Young left even some of his longtime fans wondering if he would ever regain the artistic touch he exhibited in a marvelously introspective series of albums in the '70s, including the accessible and evocative "After the Gold Rush" and the dark and disillusioned "Tonight's the Night."

But he bounced back brilliantly in 1989 with a socially conscious collection, "Freedom," that re-established him as one of rock's most gifted performers.

For all its emotion and craft, however, there was one thing missing from "Freedom": Young's classic guitar excursions. Those resurfaced in Young's latest album, the equally acclaimed "Ragged Glory," which reunited the singer-songwriter with Crazy Horse.

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