Whatever else can be said about the significance of Neil Young’s strange and sensitive music for Dead Man, or about its place in the history of film soundtracks, recedes, I think, before the brilliance of Jim Jarmusch’s initial intuition to hire him, and not someone else, to play solo electric guitar over a quiet, slow-moving film about physical pain, flight, indigenous-American forbearance, and eternity that takes place almost entirely outdoors. Jarmusch got the right person to do the right thing.
Young is an environmentalist, meaning he supports causes that protect natural resources. He stands publicly against GMOs, climate-change deniers, deforestation, and so forth. But his music, too, and for just as long, has been environmental. Not only in its lyrical messages and subject matter—of course it’s environmental that way (in 2016, he made a record called Earth!). I am suggesting that he is an environmentalist in sound.
What could that mean?
Young chose to record the music for Dead Man not in a conventional studio but in a San Francisco warehouse with a remote-recording truck parked outside. He played while watching an early cut of the film in several sessions, each time letting it run from beginning to end without stopping. Just as he does in his live solo performances, he deliberated among several different instruments he could pick up at will, though what you hear most in the film is the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar that Young calls Old Black. Crucially, when choosing how to situate himself in relation to the film, he did not replicate the orientation of a moviegoer—facing forward, toward the image, on a single plane. Instead, he created an environment.
Encircled by about twenty screens of different sizes, Young soundtracked the film in direct, immersed, 360-degree response. He had seen Dead Man already, and Jarmusch had given him a list of moments where he wanted music. But because Young insisted on reacting to the film in real time, the quality of attention that he brought to the task was flexible enough to complement the rhythm the film already had, and strong enough, perhaps, to shape and define our own attention to it.
What I am saying is this: because Young tracked this film in a single, semi-improvisatory act, you are seeing it through his eyes, and more importantly, hearing it through his ears.
The Dead Man music is a pretty small thing in Neil Young’s corpus. It was made to dress up someone else’s work of art, and though Young is a singer-songwriter, it has neither singing nor songs: it boils down to a couple of surf/folk/Morricone-western melodic themes and atmospheric accompaniment to the film’s action. (Young is mystical but not fancy, and sometimes he is literal-minded. During the sequence on a train, early in the film, he makes a locomotive rustling on his strings; when a character sings a little song, Young backs him with chords in the appropriate key.) But this score is as indicative of his basic musicality as anything he has ever done. And Old Black, played without a pick, is the essence of it.
“The sound of it all, the tone of it, seems to be bigger than him and bigger than me. It’s almost physical; more precisely, it’s environmental.”
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