Neil Young Talks to Conan O’Brien About His Best, Worst TV Appearances – Rolling Stone
When Howard Stern asked Conan O’Brien to name his favorite musical artist a couple of months back, he answered without hesitation. “I absolutely love Neil Young,” he said. “He’s managed to stay completely authentic and raw in a way that almost seems impossible to me. What he was doing with Buffalo Springfield in he’s still going for that. He hasn’t calcified. He hasn’t crusted over. He’s still going for that. So that guy blows me away.”
O’Brien featured Young on his various late-night talk shows at several points over the past few decades, and he just sat down with him for an hour-long conversation that will air today on SiriusXM’s Team Coco Radio. Their chat touches on several of Young’s most memorable TV performances, starting with Buffalo Springfield’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance on a 1967 episode of the CBS detective series Mannix. “Our managers thought this was a great opportunity to move into television,” Young said. “I don’t think we even looked at it. We just kept going.”
The appearance looms much larger in the mind of Stephen Stills. The Buffalo Springfield singer brought it up unprompted in a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone. “The best sound we ever got was when we did this stupid TV show where we played just a little bit of a song,” he said. “We were like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the sound we’ve been looking for.’ It was the only place we could get that sound right.”
Four years later, Young had a much more memorable TV performance when he appeared on The Johnny Cash Show to play “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Journey Through the Past.” “You gotta realize, I’m 23 years old, and I’m going on a television show,” Young told O’Brien. “I was petrified. I was thinking about the song I was going to sing and whether I was going to screw up or not. That’s all I thought about. I don’t really remember much else about it.”
He does vividly remember his legendary performance on Saturday Night Live in September 1989, where he played a blistering rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World” with drummer Steve Jordan, bassist Charlie Drayton, and Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. According to several Young aficionados, it’s his single best performance on a television show. Conan O’Brien was a young SNL writer at the time, and he recalled watching it live.
“Lorne Michaels has a saying that ‘television is the worst way to experience music,’” O’Brien said. ”I think he’s usually right, except something happened that night. It was transcendent and punched through the television. I’m on the floor at [Studio] 8-H. I’m a kid. I’m in my twenties. I’m watching you do that. The place, you just melted it. I think there was structural damage to 30 Rock. It’s never been quite repaired.”
Young has released two Crazy Horse albums and a steady stream of archival releases since the start of the pandemic, but he hasn’t played a single concert since 2019. In several recent interviews, he’s said he doesn’t want to play shows unless venues change how they source their food at the concession stands.
“When I look at the compromise that I would have to make to do that, the things that I don’t believe in, that I’d have to endorse, it doesn’t turn me on,” Young told Q’s Tom Power in November 2022. “I can deal with the power for the venue, I can make it clean. I can make the P.A. clean, the lights clean, the electricity in the building clean. I can clean up all my vehicles. I’ve got the right fuel. I can do all of that. But the food — all those places are fed by factory farms.”
He sounded more optimistic about future concerts in a December 2, 2022, response to a fan on the Neil Young Archives. “We are looking for venues for next summer,” he wrote. “Love Earth.”
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