Images are important to Neil Young. When he wrote “Ohio,” inspiration came from the cover of Life Magazine depicting the horrid Kent State tragedy. He and David Crosby laid down the track moments later, and you know the rest. For many of the songs on Living With War, which were the catalyst for the 2006 CSNY “Freedom of Speech” tour, you can thank USA Today. Young, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, expressed that while visiting his daughter at college in Ohio, he was mixing his morning coffee at his hotel, and a front page story about “medical breakthroughs in Iraq” caught his eye. Only Young saw something else – the reality of suffering soldiers who were on the verge of death. Immediately, he found his guitar and wrote about it.
“Families” was the first song to come for Young, along with tears, and a desperate call to his wife, Pegi, pleading with her to come up to his room so he could share his latest experience, and simply hold her. “Families” is a special song for Young, who wrote it from a soldier’s point of view – wanting to get inside his or her head and write about the separating bonds that a war causes. The song itself only lasts two and a half minutes, but its message has touched many who have been affected by the struggle in Iraq, or any form of war that has taken one away from a loved one.
I know this because I just finished viewing Neil Young’s newest riveting film, CSNY: Déjà Vu, which has to be the best one he’s ever directed. In it, Young features a young marine, Josh Hisle, who also happens to be a musician, husband, and father. We’re taken into Young’s hotel room where they jam to Hisle’s “Traitor’s Death,” and the two instantly hit it off. For Hisle, his first tour or duty in Iraq was a success. In the film, he and his troops are greeted by Iraqis who line the streets, hooting and hollering in parade-like fashion when Baghdad was taken. Hisle believed he was there for a purpose, and he gladly put his life on the line; he believed in his mission and he was proud.
But when Hisle was sent back to Ramadi in 2004, his outlook on the war changed. He saw insanity – roadside bombs, Iraqis who wanted him to leave, death, you name it. He saw innocent people who looked like brothers and sisters. He didn’t keep count of the number he killed; all he cared about was returning home to his wife and newborn. He did not want to give his life for a purpose that he no longer recognized. There were no parades, only chaos.
Glide recently had a chance to speak with Hisle about the war in Iraq, Neil Young and the CSNY film, and his music.
So who contacted you about being in the CSNY film?
Well, I was in Iraq — this was during the first invasion. Mike Cerre, who is a journalist, was embedded with me, with our company. More or less, we were messing around, playing guitar in Kuwait before we invaded, and when Neil hired him (Cerre) to do the film, he showed Neil some of his footage and Neil said, “Hey, I like that kid. Let’s have him for the film.” Basically, that’s it – Cerre called me and asked if I was game to do it.
Did they let you bring your guitar to Iraq?
No. The first tour, one of the tankers – who could sneak other things – he brought a guitar, and I borrowed it every couple of days. And the second tour, another was snuck in for me – an old crappy guitar I took over.
Did you perform a lot over there?
No, there was a talent show one night, and we were running out of shit to do. And for the second tour, after missions, we would just came back and jam out with a couple of buddies.
Did you have original songs before Iraq?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been in a punk band most of my life, all original stuff. Really, the way everything is written is with an acoustic, because that’s all I had, and you get that folky kind of feel, but it’s all punk driven. I’d say NOFX is probably my Woodstock band, you know what I mean?
You mentioned Mike Cerre, who was in the CSNY film and with you in Iraq. Can you tell me more about him?
He made his name in journalism – he did so many stories. This guy has been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan so many times I don’t know how many times. And he had a big name with our company; he did a whole special on Nightline, and he won an Academy Award with it, and that’s I guess when Neil approached him. Because Neil’s ideas were so war-derived, and Mike had all this footage, I think that’s how the connection was made.
I’m sure you’ve listened to Neil’s album Living With War, and I know you got to see a show on the CSNY tour. Did you believe in what they were doing? Is there a place for that – for someone to sing about war, someone who doesn’t have to go to Iraq and risk his or her life?
Well, yeah! I think he’s fighting a big fight there, I don’t think he’s criticizing us in any way. I know he loves the boys on the ground. I think his mission…I know he says, “Songs can’t change the world and stuff,”…but you fuckin’ know that’s what he wants. And that’s his mission, and I know that it’s wholehearted. It’s not a money-driven thing; he wants to see us pulled out of there. I think he wrote that record to stir, to debate, and to start talking about some of this shit, to make people aware. That’s the way I feel about it. And I thought about working with him after Mike asked me, I didn’t just say, “Yes.” I gave it some thought – I was fresh out of the Marine core when he called me! But I had these songs that completely matched with his, same ideals, and I’ve always loved his music, so I thought, “If we can change some hearts and minds, let’s do it.”
When you first got to meet Neil Young, what did you talk about?
Well, he listened to my song “Traitor’s Death,” like right there, which was kind of weird, because I just sat there and he had the headphones on.
He listened to your songs in front of you with headphones on?
Yeah (laughs). Kind of stared at me for three and a half minutes.
Yeah! So he took it off and he said, “That was cool, let’s play it live, let’s jam it.” So we played the song together, and we just jammed along. And we just kind of talked – he wanted to know more or less, “Do you think I’m full of shit? You were over there, am I full of shit?” And I told him, “No, I don’t think so.” It was great, very laid back, we just shot the shit.
That’s an important conversation to have. There’s a lot of opinions out there, and coming from a person like you, who has seen it all…
Yeah. You know, music is important for everyone. For me, I need it to get some of this out of my system.
Now, is there a chance for you to go back to Iraq?
Yeah, I have two years left on a reserve contract.
How would have this country reacted to the Iraq war if there was a draft?
If there were a draft, we wouldn’t have the glory of the young soldier hero who left his family voluntarily, which, in my opinion, is the perfect way for our government to mask their actual agenda. Had a draft been imposed in this war, I think you would see a much larger number of Americans working to expose this administration’s blunders. But as it stands — in a draft-free war — it is considered un-American by a large majority of our country to point out the faults of our government.
Do you agree with Barack Obama’s idea of a 16-month plan to withdraw troops?
I’m excited to see a candidate with great ideas for change. But I’m not so sure he can pull it off. God bless him for wanting to make that a priority though…and I pray that he does, that is, if the Republican Party doesn’t rig this one.
Is music what you want to do with your life?
Well, it’s tough. I still have to work everyday. I gotta go do the nine to five. I just book shows every week – I concentrate on booking that one big show a month, or one big show every couple of months, rather than gigging all over the place. And I’ve been doing a lot of work with the (CSNY) film and Sundance, which was crazy. The film needs to be seen, it would be all for naught if people didn’t see it now.
I saw a clip of you at Sundance performing “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and somewhere in the middle of that, Neil Young and Graham Nash came out and sang with you. How did that feel?
It’s funny, because they weren’t going to do it. Neil told me, “I’d love to come out and see you and announce, but it’s in our best interest if we don’t go up there and perform with you.” And I told him, “That’s fine.” And then as I’m getting up there, Mike Cerre says, “Play ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’” at the end. And I hadn’t played it in a couple of months, you know. And he goes, “Just do it!” So I played it…and I had no clue, no clue!! You can tell by watching the video. It blew my mind.
What’s it like just talking with rock legends like that?
Well, they make it really easy. They’re nice guys. The nervousness goes away right when you meet them, because they’re so chill. And Neil’s such an intense guy, obviously, but he’s very approachable. And he’s cool to just have dinner with; he’s just a cool dude.
Glide Senior Writer Jason Gonulsen lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]