If the Javits felt more like a rock concert venue than a convention center Wednesday morning, it was for good reason: rock musicians Neil Young and Patti Smith were in the building. The first people in line to enter the events hall as Young’s music blared from loudspeakers were Bradley Balfour, the editor-in-chief of filmfestivaltraveler.com, and Beverly Gray, author of The Boreal Herbal (Aroma Borealis Publishing), who had stood for three hours at the head of a line that snaked its way throughout the lower level of Javits before being allowed into the venue 20 minutes before the event was to begin. But like every rock concert, things got started a little later than advertised: Smith and Young came on stage at 12:20 and bonded for the next hour in front of a packed hall of more than 1,100 booksellers and other fans, as they discussed their music; their books; dreams; the impact of technology upon their art; life itself; and even their love of trains.
It was no surprise that Smith and Young would immediately launch into a discussion about his music, beginning with Young’s latest album, Americana, which was released yesterday.
“We’ll move on,” Smith at one point assured her audience, after questioning Young about his original intent in writing the song, “Jesus Chariot.” “But I just can’t resist talking about the record.”
As the conversation segued into a discussion of his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, scheduled for release by Blue Rider Press in October, Young described it as more of a diary than a memoir. “I would write what I was thinking,” he told Smith, who agreed with him, adding, “There’s no barrier between the reader and you. I really felt you were talking to me. You were, right?”
Smith also praised Waging Heavy Peace for its nonlinear narrative structure, telling Young, “It’s not chronological, but memory is not chronological.”
The conversation veered back to music, with a discussion of one of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s most seminal songs, “Ohio,” written and composed by Young in 1970. Asked by Smith about the backstory to the song, Young disclosed that “Ohio” was written far from the Midwest, while he was staying with fellow singer David Crosby at a cabin in northern California. The song was sparked in response to a Life magazine cover, the iconic photo of the young woman kneeling over the prone body of a young man shot at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard.
“When were you aware of the impact that the song made?” Smith asked, referring to the Viet Nam protesters of that era who took up “Ohio” as their anthem. The question prompted Young to reveal his discomfort that he had profited financially from the upheaval, declaring, “You didn’t want to become that which you were separating yourself from.” Smith, who recalled working at a New York City bookstore at the time the song was released, praised him for “translating that picture,” and for “making us more aware of what was going on in our world.”
Although she wasn’t always successful, Smith did try at various points to turn the conversation back to books, in between her questions about Young’s music and his songwriting process. Her question to Young on his reading preferences revealed that he is reading Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir about her relationship to Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. “I’m the highway and landscapes. You are cities and bricks,” Young said, praising her book as effusively as she had previously praised his. “We’re on similar paths, but in different geographic places. Our [books] represent that.”