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There's no protester like an old protester

  • Story Highlights
  • Neil Young is a veteran musician who has written political songs in the past
  • His new film, "CSNY Déjà Vu" documents a recent tour with CSNY
  • Tour was overtly critical of Iraq war and current U.S. political administration
  • Met with anger at some stops, but aim was to "open up a debate"
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By Peter Sorel-Cameron
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- At times it may seem long gone, but the spirit of protest in popular music is not dead.

Neil Young performing earlier this year.

Neil Young has been writing politicaly charged music since he came to prominence in the 1960s.

Veteran rocker Neil Young aired a new movie at the Sundance Film Festival to demonstrate that at least the old guard know how to get a reaction, even if the youngsters may be more quiet on the big issues. As he explained in an interview with CNN "I think that there's all kinds of singers and songwriters in the world that are saying things, it's just that the music industry is not open to that kind of thing."

There have always been strong links between pop stars and the pressing issues of the day, whether it is Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie standing up for the working man, or Bob Geldof and Bono bringing world poverty to the foreground.

Recently, though, the music has got considerably less political, while the musicians take the battle off the stage and into meetings with Al Gore and other major players in the political sphere.

But don't worry, the protest singer is still here, as into this arena of celebrity activism steps Young -- an old hand at protest, and an old hand at making relevant, popular music, without wanting to cash in on his celebrity status.

"The kids today are a little bit numb. They don't have to go to war, so they are not like the kids in the '60s who had to go," he explained, and, as an integral part of the counterculture movement in California, he should know what he is talking about.

Neil Young is a rock legend. Ever since his first band, Buffalo Springfield made their first waves in the late '60s, his status has continued to hold throughout his long and varied solo career.

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Young is a strong critic of the United States's presence in Iraq. His most recent album "Living with War" is a reaction to the occupation and an attack on those responsible, and features the highly contentious track, "Impeach the President."

"Déjà Vu" takes this one step further. The film documents his recent U.S. tour with much loved super-group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY), on which they performed a selection of his and the band's most politically incendiary material, focusing heavily on "Living with War."

"I put the record out and I told the guys, this is what I'm doing, if you want to do this we're going to have to do all this, and we're going to have to do only this. We're going to have to go to our past, pick songs that support this only -- leave out all the songs of the good feelings and the good times," he said of the tour with CSNY.

The band are no strangers to writing and performing powerful protest music.

In 1970, CSNY released one of the most iconic protest songs of the counterculture movement, "Ohio," about the Kent State University shootings. The song attacked the then president, Richard Nixon, and the government's handling of the campus demonstration. In response, the track was banned from AM radio stations throughout the United States.

Despite this reputation though, as "Déjà Vu" shows, the "Freedom of Speech" tour was not met with delight at every stop, as the message they were promoting ruffled a few feathers: "We played the songs and we knew it was going to be disturbing to some people and encouraging to other people," he told CNN.

The audience reaction is most notably hostile in Atlanta, Georgia: people break into boos, swear at the cameras and storm out as the band play "Let's Impeach the President."

But were CSNY surprised by their reaction? "We thought between all the press I'd gotten with the 'Living with War' tour or 'Living with War' record that I did, and the title 'Freedom of Speech,' that that would be enough of a warning for people that they would know what they were in for," Young explained. "We told them what was coming and if you were interested in our music you would know."

It's a fair point. Although the band have always fitted between mainstream country rock and counterculture acts, Young, at least, has openly criticized the current administration: his tirades should come as no surprise in a live show.

However, he admits the point of the tour, and the subsequent film, wasn't really to convert people to his way of thinking, but rather to make people come face to face with the issue of being at war.

"We were looking to open up a debate," he told CNN. "(The album) is about the feelings of people living with war, whether you are a soldier or whatever you are, that's what the subject is."

"People try to avoid it," he goes on. "They get deadened to it by watching CNN, by watching all the networks who repeat the same stories over and over again. You can't watch it for long, you keep getting the same images, so people get a little bit numb."

So Young wants to give people a new, more immediate realization that the United States is at war. And whether they are for or against the policies of the current administration -- whether they want to impeach President Bush or not -- Young wants to provoke people into talking about the issue and getting involved.

As he puts it with customary bluntness: "(War) is not a pleasant subject; it's not a trendy subject; it's not a stylish subject; there is nothing about it that's really cool -- it's just dead real." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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