“Human Highway”: Bernard Shakey’s 1982 post-apocalyptic radioactive musical comedy

By on June 16, 2015

In his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, Neil Young writes that his 1982 post-apocalyptic radioactive musical comedy Human Highway — a newly restored “director’s cut” screens on Thursday, June 18th, at the Vista Theatre, here in Los Angeles, as part of the Cinefamily’s “Shakey Fest: The Films of Neil Young” — was “sort of day-in-the-life concept, all taking place in one day, just a regular day, the day the earth suddenly ended in a world war. It was a comedy.”

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We thought we’d take a look back at this absurd little movie that still confounds just about everyone who’s seen it, including Young himself. By Young’s own admission, it’s not a great commercial movie, but he also claims it never reached its potential, either. Young has finally finished restoring the film to what everyone thinks will be its final version, and this a new digital remaster looks pretty damn amazing (or so we’re told).

Young has been working on Human Highway for decades, off and on, and this “Director’s Cut” was delayed by the many things that usually delay Young from finishing the various projects he begins (tours, albums, collaborations, medical emergencies, marital emergencies, etc.). The biggest setback, however, came five years ago, when ones of the key producers of the film, Larry “L.A.” Johnson, died of a heart attack, in 2010.

As the head of Neil’s Shakey Pictures, Johnson was responsible for overseeing the restoration and completion of Neil’s various aborted film projects and he had been working closely with Young on the visual elements for his Archives projects. His death dealt a seriously heavy blow to a lot of the projects that were underway, and are still underway, at Shakey Pictures.

Young and Johnson had worked together for decades on Neil’s various film projects after first crossing paths at at the iconic Woodstock concert (Johnson was later nominated for an Academy Award in the sound category). Young was performing with Crosby, Stills & Nash that weekend in August ’69; Young famously refused to be filmed by the onstage crew, and also refused to cooperate later with the filmmakers, which is why you don’t see him in the Woodstock movie. Young then recruited both Johnson and cameraman David Myers to film him and his band Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East, in 1970, for a film that was never completed.

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Then, in 1971, they began work on Young’s film Journey Through The Past, along with producer Frederic Underhill. The film — which also screens at Shakey Fest, at the Cinefamily’s main venue, the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Ave. — not only incorporates some of the CSNY footage from 1970, and archival footage of Buffalo Springfield, but also had some dramatic home movie-style segments too that seemed heavily influenced by Jean-Luc Godard (Young’s favorite filmmaker at the time).

When the film finally premiered at the US Film Festival in Dallas, in April 1973, audiences didn’t quite know what to make of it. Some of it had been shot on 16mm, and there were even rehearsal sessions for Harvest. Still, it’s worth seeing if you’ve never laid eyes on it.

By the mid-70s, Young had experienced what it was like to be a bona fied filmmaker, and he wanted to do more, adopting the name Bernard Shakey as his filmmaking alter-ego. After first taking a long break, Young eventually reconnected with Johnson in 1978, to begin work on a new concert film, Rust Never Sleeps, and soon they began working on the project that started off as something akin to Journey Through The Past, Part II, a project which ultimately became Human Highway.

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It all goes back further, however, and probably begins with actor and co-director Dean Stockwell, who knew Neil and his then-wife Susan because they also lived in Topanga Canyon, which is situated in an isolated stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains between Los Angeles and Malibu. They were all part of a relatively close-knit community of artists, musicians, filmmakers and the like. Stockwell had moved to Topanga in 1965, and Neil had followed not long thereafter, using his $17,000 advance from signing a solo contract with Reprise Records to buy a redwood house high atop a hill, located at 611 Skyline Trail.

At the time, Young would enjoy eating breakfast at the Canyon Kitchen, a bacon-and-eggs hangout in the tiny Topanga shopping center, and soon began a relationship with Susan (her maiden name was Acevedo), the beautiful Sicilian hostess/owner of the Topanga hashery, and they were married less than six months later.

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Susan seemed to know everyone in Topanga and was soon introducing her husband to people like artists Wallace Berman, the publisher of the prototypical ‘zine Semina (he also was an influential assemblage artist, creating collages with an early photocopying machine called a Verifax), Roland Diehl (who painted the cover of Young’s 1968 self-titled solo debut), and George Herms, another Topanga artist who liked working with rust-covered junk.

She also introduced Neil to Stockwell and another actor, Russ Tamblyn, who were friends, and who, like her, were members of the Topanga Players, a little theatre group that had been organized in the early 1960s. They would occasionally stage productions at the Topanga Community House. Stockwell and Tamblyn, however, were both pretty burnt out on Hollywood, and were looking for projects outside the typical Hollywood fare. Tamblyn lived just up the hill from Young, and Herms was also a neighbor.

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Sometime in the early 70s, Stockwell had returned from filming The Last Movie in Peru with his friend, actor/director Dennis Hopper, and the experience had inspired him to collaborate with yet another friend Herb Berman — no relation to Wallace, Herb Berman was a TV actor who also co-wrote eight of the tracks on Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk — on a screenplay of their own, which they called After The Gold Rush. Neil Young would later tell MOJO Magazine that “[The script] was all about the day of the great earthquake in Topanga Canyon when a great wave of water covered the place. It was a pretty off-the-wall concept.”

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In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 biography of Neil Young, Stockwell says: “I was gonna write a movie that was personal, a Jungian self-discovery of the gnosis. It involved the Kabala, it involved a lot of arcane stuff.”

Tamblyn was to play an over-the-hill rocker living in a castle; others vaguely recall some scene of George Herms carrying a huge “tree of life” through the canyon.

Stockwell had also asked Young — who was suffering from songwriter’s block at the time and struggling to come up with songs for his next Reprise album — to provide music for the film’s soundtrack, and some of the songs the came out of their conversations became new songs for Neil’s next album, called, what else?, After The Gold Rush.

All that “flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun” stuff in the title track comes directly inspired by Stockwell’s script, apparently.

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Stockwell and Young soon began discussing a totally different movie that Neil had been thinking of, called The Tree From Outer Space, and Young, L.A. Johnson and Russ Tamblyn actually went on an expedition to check out trees. Stockwell told McDonough that it may have been him that turned Young on to the beauty and majesty of sequoia trees, “which is not a negligible thing.” But, he says, The Tree From Outer Space never happened, it was merely an idea that never took off.

(More NY trivia: Wallace Berman would also design the sleeve for Young’s 1977 LP American Stars ‘n Bars, and Tamblyn — who was making a go of it as an artist himself — would later choreograph and appear in music videos as well as mastermind the series of Greendale concerts in 2003 that later gave birth to a feature-length movie and a graphic novel).

Stockwell and Tamblyn had already known each other for many years, having first met when working on Joseph Losey’s The Boy with Green Hair in 1948 (aged 12 and 14, respectively), and their input into the screenplay or the rough concept for Human Highway was enough to earn themselves co-writing credits (mostly for creating their own characters and improvising dialogue), with Stockwell eventually sharing a co-director credit with Bernard Shakey himself.

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So, what’s it about? Well, as we’ve said, the screenplay was partially improvised, so you sorta have to imagine it all sort of happening spontaneously on the movie set, a story unfolding organically from a few drug-addled brain folds, collectively. It was not something that was driven by a typical 120-page Hollywood-endorsed screenplay: Young in fact had once told photographer/record producer Joel Bernstein, “Charlie Chaplin used to do his films without a script,” so it’s clear that the plan was to start with a roughly-outlined concept and then just wait and see where it took them.

Where it took them was the fictional dystopian Linear Valley, the proud home of the Cal-Neva Nuclear Power Plant, where nuclear accidents are apparently a regular occurrence, a radioactive wasteland in Middle America somewhere that could just as well have been on Pluto. The main setting is Otto’s, a grubby roadside gas station/diner combo. Dean Stockwell is the new owner of the diner, Young Otto, aka Otto Quartz, the son of the late Old Otto.

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Dennis Hopper plays a psychotic diner frycook named Cracker, who likes to perform knife tricks (Hopper was clearly out of his mind at the time, reportedly under the influence of amyl nitrate, marijuana and tequila, fucking around on the set with real sharp knives, not props). Neil Young plays a dorky greasemonkey gas pumper named Lionel Switch, who dreams of being a big rock ‘n’ roll star, and he also plays a second role, the freebasing, limo-encased rock star named Frankie Fontaine, who some insinuate was inspired by David Crosby. Russ Tamblyn plays Lionel’s friend, Fred Kelly.

“Think Jerry Lewis,” is Young’s instruction in Waging Heavy Peace when it comes to describing Lionel; Neil has also cited The Wizard of Oz and Japanese Kaiju (giant monster) movies as a cinematic influence on his filmmaking in general, and on Human Highway in particular.

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Hopper also shows up later in a second role, as an executive driving a leopard-skin convertible. Sally Kirkland is a blonde waitress named Kathryn, and there are two other two waitresses at the diner, played by Charlotte Stewart (“Charlotte”), and Geraldine Bacon (“Irene”). Neil’s future wife, Pegi Young, is a mysterious motorcycle-riding character named “Biker girl.” Elliot Roberts is Frankie Fontaine’s pompous English manager. 1960s folk-singer David Blue — who died before the movie was screened — plays the milkman, named “Earl Duke.”

The members of the band Devo — friends of Stockwell’s, who soon became collaborators with Young — were cast as “Nuclear Garbagepersons,” who are tasked with transporting nuclear waste across the Valley, their suits radiating in an early 80s Tron-like glow. In one scene, Mark Mothersbaugh’s Booji Boy is seen drinking gasoline right out of the pump while describing the size of his mother’s ass, and towards the end of the film recites a crude variation of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind.” Yep, improvised.

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Devo also perform three tunes: “Out Of The Blue,” “Worried Man” (the Kingston Trio classic), and an eight-minute version of “Hey Hey My My (Out Of The Blue)” with Mark Mothersbaugh’s creation Booji Boy in full get-up on synthesizer and vocals — it ends up being part of a lengthy dream sequence, as though that makes any sense.

As the story continues to unfold, it seems that Young Otto wants to torch the diner for the insurance payout, and this is all happening while the Cal-Neva plant is undergoing a nuclear meltdown. The action, as we’ve mentioned, takes place on the last day on Earth, when everything is destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, er… world war. Something like that.

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Young began filming the movie in 1978, lensing some of the footage in both San Francisco, and then a few weeks later at Taos, New Mexico — where Hopper lived, and where the cast and crew communed with the local Indian tribe, and everyone ended up taking a lot of drugs — but most of the movie was shot in 1981 on the Hollywood soundstages of Raleigh Studios, on a set built to Young’s specifications (some sources say this was in Culver City, California). Over the course of four years, Young reportedly spent over $3 million of his own money on the production, much of it on the expensive construction a massive set, a town complete with a diner, gas station and even a train running through it. Neil (cf. “Lionel Switch”) loves trains, as well all know.

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When Human Highway was originally screened to test audiences in San Diego in 1982, it was not well received, but Young continued to work on edits so that the official version that opened wider in 1983 was considerably different.

These days, in Waging Heavy Peace, Young describes the movie as “the dorkiest damn movie ever made and it walks a very fine line right on the edge of being too dorky. Some may say it falls over that line.”

Human Highway, however dorky, did resonate with filmmakers like Terry Gilliam (influencing his futuristic satire of bureaucracy, Brazil), and especially with David Lynch, who loved the movie so much that he began casting a lot of the same actors who had appeared in it in his own movies (Hopper and Stockwell later both appeared in Blue Velvet, and Russ Tamblyn would later become Dr. Jacoby on “Twin Peaks”).

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In December 1985, Young and Dennis Hopper were sued by actress Sally Kirkland, who claimed that while Hopper was performing knife tricks on the set he actually cut her and severed a tendon. She sued Hopper to the sum of $2 million and seeking restitution from Young for his failure to control the actor. “She said I consumed an ounce of amyl nitrate, a pound of marijuana and drank three quarts of tequila,” Hopper is quoted as saying about the charges. “That was not true. I only did half that amount.”

During the trial (which Kirkland would eventually lose), one of the witnesses was asked what Human Highway was about. They replied: “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

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When Human Highway was released on VHS and laserdisc in 1995, the movie had undergone considerable changes once again, and now, with this new digital remaster “Director’s Cut” making the rounds, Young seems ready to put it out one last time, showing the film at selected screenings, and let it stand for all eternity.

In Waging Heavy Peace he talks about working on the film with editor Toshi Onuki, saying “I will be excited to close the book on Human Highway. There is certainly a lot to do to pick up the pieces strewn around from this long life so far, but I have an excellent crew and am confident that we are up to it. Of course, time must be set aside to have fun.”

Thanks for the fun, Mr. Shakey!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.