Trans-America Express

Revisiting Neil Young’s Human Highway

© 1982 Shakey Productions

© 1982 Shakey Productions

“How many ropes must a poor monkey climb
before he can sleep in his tree?
And how many words must a smart man espouse
before he’s convinced he is free?
Yes and how many car salesmen kneel every day,
hoping to sight the motherload?
The answer my friend, is breaking in the wind;
the answer is nothing you can see.
And how many children will dive to their death
in that pool where no one is seen?
And how many sweating hands will squeeze pulsing pickles, bright and orange,
spewing liquid, vile and green?
Yes, and how many cancerous riggers will put holes in their wives,
stuffing ice cream and asparagus in between?
The answer my friend, is breaking in the wind;
the answer is sticking up your rear.”
—opening monologue from Booji Boy in Human Highway

I was born in the eighties—the tail-end of the eighties, to be precise. The year 1987 is synonymous with a number of great things in my mind: U2’s The Joshua Tree, Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, Savage by Eurythmics, Music For the Masses by Depeche Mode; Wings of Desire, Full Metal Jacket, The Last Emperor (both the book and the film), Au Revoir Les Enfants… There were also some not-so-great things that year, such as Superman IV, Jaws: The Revenge, Leonard: Part 6, Rent-a-Cop, Steel Dawn, David Bowie’s regrettably titled Never Let Me Down, Bruce Willis’s attempt at a recording career, that atrocious cover of “Funkytown”—this second list could go on extensively. It was a time of transition, to say the least: home video was slowly but surely becoming affordable, LP’s were being phased out by cassettes and Compact Discs, and the neo-conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher was paving the way for a period of disillusionment that would reach its apex in the 90’s with grunge music and ultraviolent movies. It is also worth noting that the medium of the written word, once a safe haven for intellectuals and philosophers, was being taken over by the dime-a-dozen best-sellers of Stephen King and Michael Crichton (not bad writers in their genre per se, but much like Lucas and Spielberg, future protégés would only succeed to lower the bar even further).

It was a curious time indeed, and I cannot say I was disappointed to have been in diapers when it all went down—likewise, I cannot say I was thrilled with the time during which my own adolescence transpired. Looking back on the 80s, a decade I remain unreasonably enthralled with (as do many others who were born then but didn’t “live it”), what stands out above all the neon spandex and chunky plastic are the efforts of truly visionary artists, such as David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and Pedro Almodóvar; artists who might easily have been luminary authors if born in another era. Much like Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, and Martin Scorsese in the 1970s, these young auteurs were the thinking person’s filmmakers—the ones who didn’t merely harken back to a nostalgic period in popular fiction, but actually attempted to confront their day and age, to carve out new territory in the here and now. Their musical counterparts I find equally admirable, among them: Peter Gabriel, Bernard Sumner, David Byrne, Siouxsie Sioux, and John Lydon. Anyone who claims it was the “decade they stopped making good music” clearly wasn’t paying close enough attention.

I am hard-pressed to think of any artist who assimilated more presciently or more adroitly with 80’s pop culture than Mark Mothersbaugh. The band DEVO, first formed in 1972, managed the amazing feat of parodying their surrounding scene while shaping it in their own image. It’s really an accomplishment most dissidents can only dream of: presenting your case so convincingly that even those who don’t quite “get it” jump right on the bandwagon, and before you know it, everyone is singing along to your politically-charged songs about consumer culture (“Freedom of Choice”), world warfare (“Beautiful World”), erections (“Be Stiff”), and the theory of devolution (well, all of them, really, but especially “Jocko Homo”). How did they pull it off? I still scratch my head sometimes when thinking about it. It’s not as though they were singing “This Land is Your Land,” or passing a joint around the campfire à la Willie Nelson; DEVO were radically, unapologetically bizarre—and they weren’t subtle about it, either. Case in point, The Complete Truth About De-evolution DVD.

A collection of seventeen original music videos, interspersed with promos for Pioneer laserdisc players, this (now out-of-print) treasure trove is solid evidence of just how “out there” this band truly was. In its early days, when musicians simply sent in videos for free publicity, MTV aired some genuinely weird stuff: just hop on to YouTube and revisit A-ha’s “Take On Me,” Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” or just about every Talking Heads video ever produced. But if there were a contest held for “Weirdest Video Ever Aired on MTV,” the victor would have to be something with an energy dome in it (those red flowerpots donned by the DEVO boys on the cover of their Freedom of Choice album). Although “Whip It” was their biggest hit (both as a song and a video), the title track for that album, as well as “Girl U Want,” were equally off-the-wall: just check out these videos and admire the gloriously uncouth costuming choices, or the hypnotically surreal set pieces. In this particular case, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” is no hyperbole; most people would go so far as to say it’s a good thing they don’t make music videos like they used to. But I am not one of those people, and I must confess an inexcusable fondness for videos where every other background image is composed of cardboard cutouts and all the costumes look as though they were scavenged from the nearest thrift store.

I bring up this DVD collection because it provided my first exposure to the film in question, Human Highway: towards the beginning of the disc is a video for the song “It Takes a Worried Man,” a reimagining of the Carter Family classic “Worried Man Blues”—though DEVO’s take was much closer to the Kingston Trio’s version. Like most DEVO songs, it is three minutes of contagiously effective, off-kilter pop paradise; the inclusion of a single four-letter expletive (wisely) distracts the listener from the borderline-annoying tempo just long enough to recognize the detached humor of Mothersbaugh’s delivery. But beyond the song itself, I was quite taken with the video segment accompanying it. Moreover, as edited in the collection, it was apparent to me that the video was isolated from a longer film, and my interest was instantly piqued. It wasn’t until I acquired the 2CD Rhino anthology, Pioneers Who Got Scalped, that I finally figured out where the otherwise-unavailable track originated; as explained in Andy Zax’s liner notes, “In the aftermath of Duty Now For The Future, Devo embarked on a brief collaboration with Neil Young, appearing as a group of blissfully radioactive nuclear garbagemen in Young’s little-seen feature film, Human Highway.” Upon reading these words, I was determined to find out more.

Zax proceeds to explain in his notes that a DEVO/Young collaboration was not as unlikely as one might imagine, seeing as how they happened to be sharing a manager and a record label at this point in time. Beyond these conveniences, however, the collaboration makes perfect sense in light of their similar political inclinations; and after witnessing the rollicking joint rendition of “Hey Hey, My My” in Human Highway (a ten-minute odyssey that provoked Crazy Horse to play the song “harder” on their next tour), you might even wonder why they didn’t collaborate more often. Because Young and Mothersbaugh were both acerbic critics of their time: they took one look at the surrounding milieu and straightaway saw where the rampant consumerism and conformism was headed. In their separate modes, they each attempted to reorient the listening public—DEVO via a contemporary alternative to meaningless synth-pop, Young via an updated approach to “classical” folk songwriting. If anyone should question Young’s timeliness, one need only refer to the punk-tinged “Sedan Delivery” on Rust Never Sleeps, the new wave stabs on Re-ac-tor, or, most relevantly, the Trans album.

Often regarded as a practical joke, or simply ignored altogether, Trans has actually stood the test of time more soundly than a number of Young’s critically acclaimed efforts of the day (I had to flip through his catalogue to even remember generic, yet successful, releases such as Old Ways). What has spoiled the reputation of this gem more than anything is the lawsuit filed against Young by David Geffen, claiming the musician had released “deliberately uncommercial and unrepresentative work” during his stay at the label. To be fair, Young’s output during the Geffen years is all over the place, but viewed today in the context of his post-80’s career, one might say he pushed himself harder as an artist during this decade than he ever would again. From rockabilly (The Shocking Pinks’ Everybody’s Rockin’) to metal (Landing on Water) to R&B (The Bluenotes’ This Note’s For You), it is clear in retrospect that Young was really earning his pay. In a 1995 interview, he explained—in reference to The Shocking Pinks record—that “there was very little depth to the material obviously. They were all ‘surface’ songs. But see, there was a time when music was like that, when all pop stars were like that. And it was good music, really good music….Plus it was a way of further destroying what I’d already set up. Without doing that, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. If I build something up, I have to systematically tear it right down before people decide, ‘Oh that’s how we can define him.'” Many years later, David Geffen would personally apologize for his attempts to interfere with Young’s choice of material during their partnership.

Let’s focus on Trans, though, since it is the release which coincides directly with Human Highway. Many are inclined to view this record in the same light as his above-quoted characterization of Everybody’s Rockin’: just another effort by an old-timer to avoid being boxed in by commercial expectations. But this would be placing too much emphasis on his attempt to evade predictability, and not enough on his genuine interest (at the time) in electronic music. Subsequent interviews revealed that much of Trans‘s origin had to do with his son Ben, who was born unable to speak as a result of cerebral palsy. As the Youngs explored various therapeutic options to overcome Ben’s communicative limitations, Neil developed a fascination with the new Sennheiser Vocoder, which generated a disorienting vocal effect that, to him, was a representation of his own stilted efforts to speak to his son. He was experimenting with the new technology during his final days at Reprise records, and actually started working on an entirely different project after signing with Geffen—the never-released Island in the Sun album. When Geffen heard demos for this new album, he was unimpressed, and Young was encouraged to shift directions. So he picked the synthesizers back up, and what was ultimately released under the title Trans wound up being a combination of six Vocoder tracks and three songs from Island in the Sun.

The album’s sequencing was rushed in order for Young to embark on his 1982 tour, and it shows in the final product; original pressings even feature a sticker explaining that one of the listed tracks, “You Got Love,” was pulled from the album at the last minute. This only compounds the tension these songs create upon listening, and thirty-plus years onward, it is still an exhilarating record. From the single-worthy “Little Thing Called Love,” on through the nine-minute rush of “Like an Inca,” Trans is full of fun and sometimes chilling surprises. While the synthesizer-laden reinterpretation of “Mr. Soul” could have been disco gold if released three years prior, its preceding track, the strangely sinister “Sample and Hold,” sounds today like a direct precursor to Violator and Pretty Hate Machine.

If Trans is an under-appreciated album, the corresponding film is a mostly unknown oddity. And not without reason: this is one hell of a weird movie. Not weird in a Magical Mystery Tour kinda way, either; weird in a Mary Hartman via Baby Snakes kinda way. But what is often counted against Human Highway as indecipherable, meaningless drivel (when asked what the film was about, one of the cast members responded, “I haven’t the faintest idea”) is exactly what makes it so damned delightful. I’ve seen the movie no less than twenty times, and it has never failed to engage my full interest; if I were to be entirely forthcoming, I would admit that I’ve been more nonplussed by some of Ingmar Bergman’s films than I have been by this universally panned flop. I’m not saying that to be contrary, either, but rather to emphasize the fact that what merits critical acclaim is not always (or even often, for that matter) what merits repeated viewing. Case in point, two of the most critically acclaimed films of 1982: Sophie’s Choice and Gandhi. Good films, both of them, but if on a Saturday night I was asked to pick between one of these two and Human Highway, I would not hesitate for a second in my decision.

When revisiting the film, I am immediately struck by how much fun it is: like the best music of its decade, there’s an abounding air of possibility and playfulness, a sense of overall creative freedom (the Booji Boy monologue quoted above is a good example). Although there remain alternative currents in both the film and music industries today, they seem to be narrower and more restrained. When listening to new records or watching new films on the “indie” circuit, I often get the impression that either the artist or the distributor has toned down the product in an attempt to cater to a more mainstream audience; rarely do I feel that rush of uninhibited weirdness that I get when I revisit films like River’s Edge and Repo Man, or listening to albums such as PiL’s Flowers of Romance and Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie & the Banshees—or even more commercial fare, like Duran Duran’s Rio or Bowie’s Tonight. I’m sure that someone who “lived through” the 80s would have a different take on the situation, but this is how it appears to me in hindsight.

As far as premise is concerned, Human Highway tells the story of the last day on earth, as lived by some common folk in a middle-of-nowhere American town. The characters represent a number of different archetypes: there’s the big bad boss of a small diner, a smart-aleck waitress and her simple-minded coworker, an eccentric cook, and a pair of man-child mechanics. Then there are the DEVO boys, appearing in glowing red suits as the above-mentioned “blissfully radioactive nuclear garbagemen.” There’s some tongue-in-cheek humor related to the wasteful disregard for the planet’s health, such as one of the mechanics mindlessly spilling gasoline all over the parking lot and the casualty with which nuclear surplus is discarded, but there’s never any heavy-handed attempt to comment on the state of the environment. The focus instead is quite tightly concentrated on the characters and the lighthearted shenanigans they live out on this final day, thus providing a playful contrast between the inanity of existence and the inevitability of a nuclear holocaust. In someone else’s hands, it could have been a complete disaster; as executed by Young & co., it’s only a partial disaster.

What is it exactly that I see in Human Highway? Well, for one thing, it’s a great piece of Americana on celluloid. Filmed almost entirely on an enormous Culver City sound stage, the film looks surprisingly timeless; rather than dating it, the garish color palette (meant to correspond with its nuclear apocalypse) is still mesmerizing. Then there’s the cast, full of iconic American actors like Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Sally Kirkland, Russ Tamblyn, and Charlotte Stewart—best known as Mary X in Eraserhead. All of them were encouraged by Young to craft their own characters—the screenwriting is credited to five individuals, but from the accounts I’ve read it could just as easily be credited to the entire cast—and their dedication to the roles they inhabit is quite apparent.* With such a democratic assembly, it would have been easy for the project to become more like a filmed stage play than a proper movie, but its execution is totally cinematic; rather than being a lopsided acting showpiece, the end result is a pretty solid collaborative effort.

Not only is this DEVO and Young (operating under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) at their best and most idiosyncratic, this is an immediate precursor to some of the decade’s most memorable film-making experiments, including Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the Coens’ Raising Arizona. It is a prime example of what certain artists were able to accomplish outside of the corporate restrictions of a studio contract, just as Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’ are prime examples of what an artist can get in trouble for under said restrictions. If nothing else, Young deserves accolades for investing $3,000,000 of his own money in a sincere project that wound up tanking and, to this day, remains unfinished in his eyes; there have in fact been at least three different cuts of Human Highway over the years, and in his recent book Waging Heavy Peace, Young indicates he is in the process of compiling a final “director’s cut” for release on blu-ray and/or Netflix (to date, it has only been released on VHS and laserdisc formats, and copies fetch a handsome sum on eBay). I hope he keeps his word: Human Highway deserves to go down in history books as a bona fide harbinger of 80’s counterculture.

Being a fan, it would be all too easy for me to overstate the qualities of this film anomaly, and I should make it clear to the reader that this is in no way a perfect movie—or even a particularly great one. But like some of the best cult classics, its rough edges only serve to make it increasingly enjoyable. The number one complaint I’ve read in other reviews has to do with the “dorkiness” of Neil Young’s Jerry Lewis-tinged persona; to be fair, his goofy-ass sneer and heavily affected mannerisms are bound to turn some, if not many, viewers off to the movie entirely. But allow me a chance to justify Young’s choice of characterization: in my eyes, neither Young’s nor Tamblyn’s (as his dorky cohort) performance is meant to be a mean-spirited caricature of simple-mindedness. The best comparison I can offer would be to the work of Christopher Guest, whose sometimes overly quirky portrayals are always validated by their unapologetic acceptance and inclusiveness, instead of being negated by any form of malice. I see Young’s approach along the lines of, “here are these helplessly dorky individuals: they might be exaggerated a bit, but they do exist in real life, and they deserve to be protagonists in someone’s movie… why not mine?” Beyond that, let’s be frank: Young is no suave hipster—so why not play up the nerd factor?

The other complaint I frequently read pertains to Young’s supposed “self-indulgence.” Once again, in all fairness, some of the Native American stuff comes off a bit hokey and strained at times. On the whole, though, it doesn’t interfere with the viewer’s ability to enjoy the film, so I see no reason for it to be cited as an insufferable detriment; after all, can’t we just be honest and admit that even legendary directors like Bergman were prone to severe bouts of pretentiousness?

I first saw Human Highway projected outdoors on the roof of a friend’s apartment: it was a warm summer night, we were drinking cold beer and smoking grass, every now and again the sound would be punctuated by chirping crickets—kind of like a drive-in, but on a smaller scale and without so many distractions. I still believe this is the ideal way to view this sort of movie—with good company, good spirits, and good atmosphere. That said, I’ll take Human Highway just about any way I can get it, even if it’s just with the dog on my living room couch. It might not provide any profound insights about mankind and the universe, but unlike most “feel-good comedies” made today, I don’t feel any less intelligent for it, and usually I notice at least one or two things that had slipped past me in prior screenings. This film proves that, although it does take a worried man to sing a worried song, said song needn’t be a total downer.

* Kirkland especially earned her pay, considering a now-notorious incident involving a heavily intoxicated Dennis Hopper (high on tequila, marijuana, and amyl nitrate), some sharp kitchen knives, and a severed tendon. Kirkland filed suit against Young and Hopper in 1985.

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