The Weird Story of Neil Young’s Human Highway

Tim Burton, Alex Cox, David Lynch, and a whole bunch of indie directors owe quite a bit to Neil Young’s weird little musical comedy.

Back in 1992 I was working as a security guard at the Guggenheim Museum when Neil Young came through to see an exhibit of Soviet neorealist art. Lots of celebrities came through the museum all the time — Woody Allen, William Hurt, Catherine Deneuve — and you could determine their street-level cache in a blink by noting how the guards treated them. Axl Rose was mocked mercilessly from the moment he stepped into the museum with his four bodyguards, everyone wanted to shake Burt Young’s hand, and Jamie Lee Curtis was reduced to  tears by a security staff made up mostly of struggling young hip wiseacre artists.

But then Neil Young came through wearing a ratty hat, a tan leather jacket, and an orange Harley-Davidson T-shirt. And I’m telling you, he broke every posted rule the museum had to offer. Every last one. He touched paintings and sculptures, planted his hands on glass display cases, even took a couple pictures. He did things that would’ve gotten any normal visitor soundly beaten, but we all just stood back and let him be because, y’know, he was Neil Fucking Young. Even those guards who weren’t fans knew enough to just let him be, out of simple respect.

Apart from an album ore two I couldn’t say I was a major Neil Young fan myself, but I was still tempted to approach him. I didn’t, but I was tempted, just to tell him something I bet he hadn’t heard too often in all his days in the business: “Mr. Young? Um, forgive the intrusion, but I just wanted to tell you I think Human Highway is the Greatest Movie Ever Made.” I would’ve meant it, too.

Young will, of course, always be remembered as a legendary singer songwriter with a whiny voice and a social conscience, but over the years he’s also made a few forays into filmmaking, mostly directing concert films and documentaries. Around 1978, though, he got it in his head he wanted to try something a little different. Well, extremely different. So he teamed up with cult actors Dean Stockwell (The Boy With Green Hair, Compulsion) and Russ Tamblyn (Gun Crazy, countless biker films), together with sound designer James Beshears and they started working on a sort-of script.

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The rough outline concerned the goings on at a small gas station/diner on what would turn out to be the Last Day on Earth. It’s probably faior to say there were some drugs involved, especially after Dennis Hopper came on board. On top of that, Young, who’d always had clear respect for subversive underground music, conscripted a still reasonably unknown band called Devo to be in the movie, along with folk singer David Blue, Eraserhead’s Charlotte Stewart, future cult icon Fox Harris, and Sally Kirkland, who over the years would be in everything from The Sting to JFK.

Shooting piecemeal over the next four years (and financed with his own money), Young (under the name “Bernard Shakey”) and co-director Stockwell crafted a goofy, hyper-stylized and mostly improvised satire about small town life, fame, the nuclear industry and the impending apocalypse. With musical interludes. It’s an exaggerated live-action cartoon with a soundtrack provided by Young, Devo, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (composing his first film score) and a host of classic and appropriate pop songs like Skeeter Davis’s “End of the World,”

Young, who reveals himself to be a surprisingly solid and charismatic comic actor, stars as Lionel Switch, the incompetent, nerdy and good-hearted mechanic at a roadside garage and diner near a nuclear power plant. Lionel can’t drive and knows nothing about cars, but  he has confidence, and dreams of becoming a rock star like his hero Frankie Fontaine. Tamblyn plays Fred, Lionel’s even more incompetent best friend, who’s hired to help him out in the garage. Stockwell is Otto, the unscrupulous new owner, determined to turn around his late father’s failing business, even if it means firing everyone and torching the place for the insurance money. A clearly stoned Hopper is Cracker, the short order cook constantly pestered by radioactive flies. The members of Devo, in matching red jumpsuits and hard hats, are the garbage men at the nuclear plant, who regularly dump radioactive waste into the local water supply. And wandering through it all is Mothersbaugh’s bespectacled and baby-faced Booji Boy, acting as the films Dadaist Greek Chorus. 

There’s not much point in getting into the plot, much of which (like the dialogue) was ad-hoc and often improvised on the set. Let’s just say around the halfway point, as luck would have it, Frankie Fontaine’s limo pulls into the garage in need of repairs and an oil change. As Fontaine (also played by Young) sits in the back in an indifferent stoned haze, Lionel, after some fawning and a few slapstick shenanigans, crawls under the car, hits his head, and we slip into a long fantasy sequence. In a riff on The Wizard of Oz, Lionel is suddenly a rock star on the road, in a mix of actual Young tour footage and Surreal weirdness populated with characters and props from his waking life. The fantasy allows young to touch on his interest in Native American culture, and closes with a raucous ten-minute jam in which—and this is a first—he performs “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” with Devo, as Booji Boy handles the vocals. Then Lionel regains consciousness, there’s a happy resolution, and the world comes to an end as the cast sings “Worried Man Blues” while dancing around with shovels.

Yes, it’s all really something, a deceptively subtle and subversive experimental film disguised as a dumb lowbrow comedy. Odd thing is, the title comes, of course, from Young’s song “Human Highway,” but not only does the film have nothing at all to do with the song—the song never appears on the soundtrack.

Although the style and tone of Human Highway can at times be reminiscent of John Waters or Paul Morrissey, it’s much gentler and more whimsical than either, even with the savage social commentary and that apocalyptic ending. What really set the film apart were the visuals, which took full advantage of some recent advances in video trickery. The overall look of the film is intensely and intentionally artificial: the colors are just a little too bright, the radioactive flies and the members of Devo glow throughout, Lionel and Fred ride what are obviously stationary bikes in front of an obvious green screen displaying a bizarre and otherworldly landscape, and the sets are clearly, well, sets, and sets designed by Young himself, who was aiming for a deliberate comic book aesthetic.

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Okay, back to that jam with Devo for a second, which remains the most memorable thing about the film among obsessive Neil Young fans. The story’s been circulated that during the performance, along with changing a few other lyrics, it was Mark Mothersbaugh who ad-libbed the line “rust never sleeps.” According to the story, Young liked it so much he not only kept using it, he used it as the title for his seminal album. What’s more, it was only after showing the footage to the members of his band Crazy Horse they decided to do a much louder, rougher version of the song to close out the concert that became the album.

It’s a good story, but unfortunately not one that can exactly be called, um, “true,” considering the album in question was released in 1979 while the film was still very early in production, and before the jam sequence was shot.

But a number of interesting and sort-of interconnected things really did happen during Human Highway’s four-year shooting schedule. In 1980, Dennis Hopper directed Out of the Blue, a gritty little indie character study about a disaffected teenage girl that was inspired directly by “Hey Hey My My.” Also that same year, Devo released their breakthrough hit “Whip It,” becoming the overnight darlings of the MTV crowd. Still, despite Young, all those cult stars, and Devo’s sudden mainstream fame, the film only had an extremely brief and extremely limited theatrical run, where it was smacked around by critics as a sloppy and stupid low-fi mess, and seen by approximately 17 people. Why it never hit the midnight movie circuit is unclear, but those things are always a crap shoot anyway. Noting what happened in the years that followed, though, you gotta figure it was seen by the right seventeen people.

Alex Cox’s 1984 cult hit Repo Man (which brought Fox Harris to the attention of a small but rabid audience) owed quite a bit of its style, energy and sight gags to the Young film. The debt was even more obvious in Cox’s improvised 1986 gangster Western musical comedy Straight to Hell (with Harris again, as well as Dennis Hopper in a dual role).

It would seem David Lynch had been among the lucky 17 as well. Even if the film’s style wasn’t reflected in Lynch’s own later work (except maybe On the Air), he was apparently quite smitten with the cast. Charlotte Stewart had played Mary X in Eraserhead, but suddenly Stockwell appeared in his 1984 adaptation of Dune, and again in 1986’s Blue Velvet, which of course also propelled Dennis Hopper back to the top. And Russ Tamblyn took the recurring role of Laura Palmer’s shrink in Twin Peaks. Mere coincidence?

Young’s deliberately artificial and cartoony set designs may have been an inspiration for Tim Burton when he was putting together Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. Hell, you look at most of the cult comedies like, say, Return of the Living Dead or Tapeheads that came out in the second half of the ’80s and the connection seems clear.

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Okay, even if all those people didn’t see Young’s film during its microscopic theatrical run, and even if it wasn’t a direct influence on Cox, Lynch, and Burton, it was at least shockingly prescient. Maybe as so often happens to innovators like W. Lee Wilder or The Residents, as a filmmaker maybe Young was simply cursed to be ten minutes ahead of his time.

Whatever the case, as all those other directors started receiving loads of attention and accolades for their brilliant inventiveness, by the mid-80s Human Highway had been completely forgotten, receiving only a brief and unheralded blip of a VHS release before vanishing again (I freely admit I’ve gone through three bootlegs myself over the years). But maybe now, with the long-overdue release of a new and extended director’s cut, the film will finally start to get the recognition it deserves.

Young himself, again using the name Bernard Shakey, would wait twenty years after Human Highway before directing his next feature, 2003’s Greendale. Again the film had a small town setting and an environmentalist message. It wasn’t nearly as goofy and zany as his first, but still revealed him to be an assured director with a unique and unconventional style that just seemed to confuse most mainstream audiences. In fact come to think of it now, I like him much better as a filmmaker than I do a musician. And Human Highway remains, yes, the Greatest Movie Ever Made.