Touring NEIL YOUNG'S GREENDALE With Writer Josh Dysart
In the latter part of 2002, Neil Young and his backing band Crazy Horse embarked on a long tour that bewildered and confused many longtime fans. With little preamble, Young unveiled ten new songs, each interconnected, unfolding the story of the Green family in the fictional Greendale, Calif. Many of those fans, once upset or befuddled by the songs, came around to the music when Young and Crazy Horse’s 2003 album Greendale appeared in stores, allowing them more time to absorb the rambling, careening portrait of small town America crafted by Young.
The story and world of Greendale became so important to Young that later in 2003, a film, directed by Young, featuring performers lip-syncing to the album’s songs, debuted in theatres, and later appeared on DVD. Knowing that his fictional town had more to give even after completing the movie, Young – through his record label Reprise – contacted DC Comics imprint Vertigo about creating a graphic novel from the song cycle.
Neil Young’s Greendale, scripted by Joshua Dysart and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, is the result.
In Neil Young’s Greendale, Dysart and Chiang tackle all the major themes of Young’s album, from environmentalism and politics, to small town secrets and youth blossoming toward adulthood. Yet Young’s songs each present a separate aspect of the Greendale community and a divergent element of the Green family; Dysart and Chiang’s graphic novel required a rethinking of the story and a more direct narrative focus to carry the story forward, not only to give Young’s fans a new angle on the story and a reason to experience it anew, but also for fans with no knowledge of the story stepping into the Greendale city limits for the first time.
Newsarama spoke with writer Joshua Dysart about his experience on the book.
To start, Dysart had nothing but praise for his collaborators on the book, including Young himself.
“He’s an extremely open collaborator,” Dysart confirmed. During the back and forth of developing the songs’ story for a graphic novel, Dysart often acquiesced to Young’s notion of the saga. However, Dysart says, Young also gave ground many times in fine-lining the album’s sprawling epic to create a cohesive graphic novel experience.
Dysart also lavished praise on his comic book collaborators, explaining that the book benefits from being a joining of legends and cutting-edge creators in the comics field. The creative team includes “Dave Stewart, Cliff Chiang, Todd Klein and Karen Berger,” Dysart exclaimed, “and me, who loves comics.” And, of course, the team included one more person: Neil Young.
Newsarama: First question, Joshua, were or are you a fan of Neil Young, and did you have any awareness of his Greendale album/film prior to this project?
Joshua Dysart: Yes, yes, yes to all those questions. I was raised in a household where music trumped television, and I am a child of the 70s. My mother had a bunch of Neil Young music, and in fact, one of the very first albums I ever owned myself was Harvest. So it was kind of a big deal when (Vertigo executive editor) Karen Berger approached me with the idea of working with Neil Young.
I had heard the Greendale album at that point. I didn’t own it, but I was familiar with it. I’ve checked in with Neil Young’s music my whole life, so it was a pretty interesting offer.
Dysart: It’s interesting, because I was definitely a writer in service to both Neil and Karen. And that is the tricky thing about these kinds of projects, and I’ve done a few of them now. You’re definitely in service to someone else, of course it was a great honor to be in service to Neil. But Neil had a different idea about what he wanted from this book than what he basically puts forward in the album. So that was really interesting to me, to kind of extract what’s there in the album but still meet the new mandate that Neil wanted for the comic book.
I guess in answer to the question, it’s not that working on the book changed my view of the narrative, but we definitely went a long way in rethinking the album and applying it to this other idea that Neil had but that the songs themselves really never get at. I would say that the book is different from the album, and I still have my own personal view of the album.
Nrama: You actually have experience working on graphic novels with musicians – having written Avril Lavigne’s Make 5 Wishes in 2007. How did Lavigne’s book compare to working with Neil Young on Greendale?
Dysart: You know, it was completely different. Avril Lavigne had absolutely nothing to do with the book I wrote for her. I never met her; we never received notes from her. The only input that I’m aware of was that Camilla D'Errico, the artist, and I pitched her ten ideas. And she chose one. That was the extent of it.
I’d also like to add that one of those ideas I pitched to her was called “Avril in Wonderland,” and now she has a video out that’s called “Avril in Wonderland.” I just want that to go on the record. (laughs)
But that was it. That was the only input we got from her. She was putting her name on something that she really didn’t care about, that she didn’t help promote, that she wasn’t emotionally invested in. It made me see her as part of a larger marketing machine with no real regard or respect for her music, her fans or what she put her name on.
However, the good part of Make 5 Wishes was that I had complete creative control. And I could do anything I wanted, and I’m actually really proud of Make 5 Wishes, other than its relationship to Avril Lavigne.
Conversely, Neil is a real human being who produces real music about real people, and cares immensely about what his name is on, and about what he is a part of and what he projects. He is not the center of some great marketing machine. And that was very, very rewarding to see, because I had been a fan of his my whole life. To have him meet with me again and again and again, and do phone calls, and give elaborate notes throughout the process; to really, really care – it didn’t do anything but solidify my love for his art and for him as a person and as a human being.
Of course, I had less creative freedom, but that was okay, because it was his project. And I’m really there to facilitate him, and as I said, that’s an honor. So it’s a much different experience, entirely, but it was also a much more rewarding one.
Nrama: With his recording and touring, how heavily involved was Neil Young in the writing of the graphic novel?
Dysart: He was very hands on. I was originally pitched this book in 2006, and now you’re getting it four years later. That delay is in part to do with the fact that he's still an incredibly active performing musician. And he is a hard cat to pin down. So we would often wait a long time before we could move forward to the next stage.
Nrama: This story is obviously important to Neil Young. He’s known for moving on to the next project with very little thought given to the last, yet Greendale has morphed into a film, a graphic novel and even a stage production. Did that importance add any pressure on your end?
Dysart: Yes. Just working with Neil, being such a fundamental part of his creative process, all of that was pretty heavy for me. But in the end, he was always there steering the ship. And once he gives you his approval it takes a lot of that pressure off.
Nrama: Okay, let’s get into the book itself: The Green family tree and maps of Greendale existed on Neil’s website, filling in some of the back story, but you were able to elaborate much more fully on the relationships of Sun’s grandparents and extended family. Ho w much of that information came from Neil, and how much freedom did you have to expand the histories?
Dysart: I had a lot of freedom. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but there’s also an art book that has a lot of back source material.
Nrama: I haven’t read it, but yes, I’ve seen it.
Dysart: That’s actually what Karen Berger and myself really relied on heavily to flesh this stuff out. My reasoning for this was that you’ve got the album, you’ve probably seen the movie, you might’ve seen the concert – the rock opera.
Nrama: I did.
Dysart: Let’s not just trudge over this same material. Let’s find a new angle and do something new. There was some stuff in that back material that’s really interesting. There’s a lot of mysticism, a lot of magic in the Green female line that hadn’t really made itself known on the album. And Karen and I both figured, this is Vertigo and Vertigo has a strong tradition of using magic as a narrative device. Why not go in that direction?
The challenge was if we could do that and still be true to what, to me, Neil Young has always written songs about, which is real people. If we can find a way to tell a magic story about real people, we'd really have something. That’s the pitch we gave Neil, and Neil was really into that and had a lot of ideas about it. So we moved forward from there.
Dysart: It's a big family tree. We definitely had to fudge some stuff, because there’s a lot going on there and we only had 168 pages. But the book has to be about the family, because, well, that’s what it’s about. And it had to be about the land, and about American politics, because that’s also what it’s about. That’s a lot for 168 pages. So we definitely tried to simplify connections and cut characters out. Hopefully we didn’t do an injustice to the notion of the Green family in general, but yeah, we definitely augmented it. It was just necessary considering our time and space.
Nrama: When you were finding the thematic core of the graphic novel, were you surprised at the depth of the existing back story, or did you have to invent much for yourself?
Dysart: To be honest, the broad strokes were already there. It was Karen who first said, “Hey, you’ve got to look at all this back material. There’s all this interesting stuff about magic and nature and surrealism.” And Neil had handled it all in this very folksy way that I really, really loved. I hope that in illuminating the ideas further for the purposes of narrative we haven’t lost that folk nature of it. But anyway, I’ve always been interested in the history of magic in America, I mean horseshoes over doors, rabbits’ feet, that kind of thing. And that was almost the way Neil spoke about magic in his art book. I hope I didn’t lose that.
There were times when I had to drill for a little bit more so that it could all work narratively, but all the core ideas are in the original source material.
Nrama: You chose to focus almost exclusively on Sun Green’s story, cutting out, for example, Officer Carmichael’s spotlight song on the album, and you moved a few pieces around chronologically. Was it difficult to take ten songs, each with their own focus (related to one another, but still distinct unto themselves), and mold them into one narrative with a completely cogent through line?
Dysart: It was. If I’m to be completely honest, writing this book was an extremely difficult endeavor. Because essentially what you have is ten short stories, right? And they speak to each other, but they don’t speak to each other in the way a traditional concept album would. They’re a lot more loose, and in that way – and this is very much what I enjoy about Neil Young’s work – it’s a more like life. Each song has their own life, and if we had had a lot of room, it would have been wonderful to break those up into chapters and just write the story from each song, but there just wasn’t the space for it.
I cannot tell you how much I paced and pulled my hair out trying to bring all these ideas together, while hoping that they made a cohesive, singular narrative. I will say, though, that a lot of the stuff that got ejected from the source material is actually happening behind the scenes of the story we give you. You’ll see moments, like, they go to Officer Carmichael’s funeral and his wife is there, and she looks at them. It’s a silent moment; it doesn’t go any farther than that, but anybody who’s familiar with the album knows what his wife is going through. They know who that person is and what her life is like in that moment.
So the reader is sort of forced to stick with Sun, but the rest of the album, it's still happening all around Greendale. There are little hints; they cross paths with aspects of these other songs. It depends on how observant you are as to whether you see that, or how good I am at actually executing that idea.
Nrama: I definitely noticed that moment with Carmichael’s wife in the book, but I know the album.
Dysart: It’s a throwaway moment to people who aren’t familiar with the album. But her song is a heartbreaking song. There’s this mystery to it: her friend finds something in an old shoebox, and what is that? Is it speaking to an affair, is it about her? You don’t really know. There’s this real sadness and anger, and we just couldn’t get that into the book. But it’s a great song and she’s a great character, and she deserves her anger and her sadness to be illuminated somehow.
Nrama: You incorporate lyrics from the songs into the dialogue at times, but not too often.
Dysart: That was a tough one. I wanted to do that, but I never wanted it to come off gimmicky. I don’t know if I pulled that off or not.
Nrama: I thought you pulled it off; there’s one a handful of them, maybe six lines or something. You reassigned the line about taking “pure bullshit and turning it into gold” to another character, but I like where you put it.
Dysart: My hope is that at that point, that whole ending with Earl – at that point, he’s just become the Greek chorus.
Nrama: (laughs) To get back to my point, how much did the characters having voices and dialogue in the songs help you find their voices, or settle them into the narrative?
Dysart: It absolutely did. It was interesting, because the characters that aren’t presented in songs – like Mahalia and the great uncle – I had to extrapolate what their personalities would be like based on the voices I had at my disposal. So I figure that if Grandpa Arius is a straight-talkin’, no-nonsense guy, and his brother is a bit of a bastard, and if we follow this idea that the sins of each generation are slightly diminished, then as we follow the line back with each generation, it made since to me that the characters would become kind of more bitchy. Or even more straight forward.
So we end with Mahalia, who is really … um, acerbic and used to having things done her way and is so into her view of the world that she lives in a place where it will remain totally unchallenged.
So not only was I able to create their characters based on the song lyrics, but when it came to characters who weren't represented on the album, I was able to extrapolate their personality based on what was there.
Dysart: Yeah, absolutely. Now I should warn you, before you ask for examples, I wrote this in 2007 and there is some memory loss. I know for a fact that I gouged huge pieces out of this book that I had written, and compressed other stuff. There was a lot there. If you read my early, early conceptual documents – it was like the Titanic, it could never sail. (laughs)
Nrama: Finally, Josh, Greendale came out in 2003 and was heavily influenced by the build up to the war in Iraq and the policies of George W. Bush. Do you think that it, and by extension the graphic novel Neil Young’s Greendale, retains its relevance today?
Dysart: Man, this is the big question. This is the thing that I wrestle with. Is this book relevant?
I was writing it in 2007, and I even asked myself this question then. So I tried to make it specific to the era, but also about the greater political arc of this country and the political arc of people in general. I have seen on some early reviews on Amazon and stuff people bitching that it’s an attack on the Bush administration. That actually wasn’t my intention. It was my intention to attack – for lack of a better term – the conservative mindset. And I don’t know if I pulled that off, but I'll tell you, one of my favorite films is Dr. Strangelove, by Stanley Kubrick.
When that movie first came out, it was attacked as being too little, too late. The moment he’s speaking about in that film, the Cold War panic moment, was passing, Russia and States had agreed to scale back their arms and some saw it as an irrelevant piece of satire. I thought about that the whole time I wrote this book; is this an irrelevant book? Is this a book out of time?
I don’t know. I can’t answer your question. It’s something I wrestled with; I constantly was altering the language in the book throughout the writing in the hope of making it timeless. I just don’t know.
I’ll tell you something interesting though: when I went back to finally do a lettering pass, and I saw how I wrote Sun’s speech – and I wrote that speech in 2007 – it used a lot of the key phrases that Obama now uses. Hope and change. I thought that was really interesting. It was fascinating that we sort of tapped into what the left was hungry for, because it definitely worked for Obama, that language. We were using it in 2007, and that gives me some hope that we found a timeless arc to the politics in the book, but I don’t really know.
On another note, in demonizing the oil companies we definitely found a timeless villian … as evidenced by the nightmare that's happening in the Gulf right now.
Nrama: I guess time will tell. Dr. Strangelove, a great film I agree, is certainly regarded much more highly today. Lastly, Josh, anything else you’re working on that fans can be on the lookout for?
Dysart: We’re just plugging away on Unknown Soldier. Unknown Soldier is ending at issue 25, and the last issue of what will make up the third trade came out recently. After that, we have one more trade, and then, we’re out on Unknown Soldier. I don’t know what my next project will be; I’m looking around for that now.
I’m very curious to see what the future holds.
Neil Young’s Greendale is available from Vertigo on June 9th in Comic Book Specialty Stores and June 15th wherever books are sold. More information about Neil Young and Greendale is available online.