Neil Young Plays “Hey, Hey, My, My” with Devo: Watch a Classic Scene from the Improvised Movie Human Highway (1980)

For Neil Young fans, the words “Human High­way” can mean one of three dif­fer­ent things, two of which are so unlike the third, it’s as if they came from dif­fer­ent artists. First, there’s “Human High­way,” the song, one of Young’s gen­tle acoustic rags, with Nico­lette Lar­son­’s soft vocal har­monies and lots of ban­jo and fid­dle. It land­ed on 1978’s Comes a Time but debuted five years ear­li­er, near­ly becom­ing the title track for a CSNY album that nev­er mate­ri­al­ized, a leg­endary fol­low-up to Déjà Vu.

None of this has any­thing to do with Human High­way, the 1980 film direct­ed by Neil Young (as “Bernard Shakey”) and Dean Stock­well, which tells the “sto­ry,” if it can be called, of a crooked din­er own­er in a small town next to a nuclear pow­er plant staffed by the mem­bers of Devo as “nuclear garbageper­sons.” The cast is cult film roy­al­ty: “Den­nis Hop­per is a psy­chot­ic cook named Crack­ers,” notes crit­ic Steven Puchal­s­ki, “Sal­ly Kirk­land is a belea­guered wait­ress; [Stock­well] is the new own­er, Young Otto (son of the late Old Otto); plus Neil Young and Russ Tam­blyn are fright­en­ing­ly con­vinc­ing as two noo­dle-head­ed gas pump oper­a­tors, Lionel and Fred.”

The film is set on the last day before a nuclear apoc­a­lypse, a slap­stick take on the time’s nuclear anx­i­ety and Young’s stance against nuclear pow­er. His nerdy Lionel idol­izes rock star Frankie Fontaine (also Young), then becomes him in a dream sequence full of “wood­en Indi­ans” — his back­ing band. He then jams out with Devo for ten min­utes (top) one of the high­lights of the film, a per­for­mance of “Hey, Hey, My, My” with Mark Moth­ers­baugh tak­ing lead vocals as Devo char­ac­ter “Boo­ji Boy” (pro­nounced “boo­gie boy”).

“By nor­mal stan­dards,” Puchal­s­ki writes, “the movie sucks, but it’s a Mutant Must-See for Rock-‘N’-Schlock Com­pletists.” It could also be one of the most influ­en­tial indie films of the eight­ies, argues Den of Geek’s Jim Knipfel, leav­ing its mark on every­thing from Alex Cox’s Repo Man to David Lynch’s Blue Vel­vet (in which Hop­per and Stock­well play some­what sim­i­lar char­ac­ters) and Twin Peaks (in which Russ Tam­blyn appears), to Tim Bur­ton’s Pee Wee Her­man’s Big Adven­ture.

Or maybe Young “was sim­ply cursed to be ten min­utes ahead of his time,” giv­en that hard­ly any­one saw Human High­way in 1982. Shot over four years, and most­ly financed by Young him­self, Human High­way saw a lim­it­ed release in L.A. then dis­ap­peared until a 1996 VHS edit of the film brought it some renown and crit­i­cal reap­praisal. (Its cov­er quot­ed an agent at William Mor­ris say­ing, “It’s so bad, it’s going to be huge.”) The film has since become a cult clas­sic, war­rant­i­ng spe­cial screen­ings like a reunion in 2016 at L.A.‘s Regal The­ater fea­tur­ing Young, Tam­blyn, Devo’s Ger­ald Casale, actress Char­lotte Stew­art, and Cameron Crowe. (See a trail­er for the DVD direc­tor’s cut release just above.)

At one point dur­ing the Q&A, Young turned to Crowe and asked, “Do you think we could get this movie made today?”. The film was made under unique con­di­tions: “no script, impro­vised dia­logue and a dai­ly rou­tine that began with some­one ask­ing him ‘What’s the plan today, Neil?’ to which he always replied ‘The plan today is no plan!’ ” It could get made, if Neil want­ed to finance it (and a younger cast could han­dle the amount of drugs that clear­ly went into mak­ing the film). Giv­en the num­ber of dig­i­tal dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nels and Young’s fame, it could also very like­ly find a wide audi­ence.

But in 1982, releas­ing a self-financed film, even if you were Neil Young, proved much more chal­leng­ing. And in the late sev­en­ties and ear­ly eight­ies, one of the few ways for inno­v­a­tive New Wave bands like Devo to get wider notice was to catch the ear of stars like Young, who dis­cov­ered them on stage in 1977 and knew he had to get them on film — before “Whip It” and their first defin­ing hits came out — and show the rest of us what we were miss­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Neil Young Releas­es a Nev­er-Before-Heard Ver­sion of His 1979 Clas­sic, “Pow­derfin­ger”: Stream It Online

The Mas­ter­mind of Devo, Mark Moth­ers­baugh, Presents His Per­son­al Syn­the­siz­er Col­lec­tion

Who Is Neil Young?: A Video Essay Explores the Two Sides of the Ver­sa­tile Musician–Folk Icon and Father of Grunge

When Neil Young & Rick “Super Freak” James Formed the 60’s Motown Band, The Mynah Birds

The Phi­los­o­phy & Music of Devo, the Avant-Garde Art Project Ded­i­cat­ed to Reveal­ing the Truth About De-Evo­lu­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • MJ Freeman says:

    I love it. Where did you dig it up?
    Devo must want it released.
    This real­ly rocks hard­er than Neil’s ver­sion ( which I nev­er liked)!!

  • Wilhelm Lorenz says:

    I Real­ly like it alot!!☮️🌹👋🙏🌹🦋🦋🔆🔆😇🤔🎥🎥✋💸🍿🍿😊👋🦋🔆🦋😇🦋🤔🦋💸🗣️🔆🙊🦋🔆☮️THE GODFATHER OF GRUNGY GRUNGE 😇🤔🤗✋👋✋🙏👋✋👋🔆🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋🦋

  • D. Bruce says:

    Rock on Neil and Devo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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