- 12 Nov 20
To celebrate Neil Young's 75th birthday, we're revisiting Gerry McGovern's reflections on the Canadian singer-songwriter's legendary career – originally published in Hot Press in 1993, ahead of Young's Slane Castle headliner .
If I had to choose the best concert I was ever at, then it would be Neil Young in Nurnberg Stadium around 81/82. They had this giant walkway, or should I say runway, jutting out into the crowd, and to see him and Nils Lofgren race down it, crescendoing away on their cordless guitars, was as much and more excitement than I had ever, or would ever experience in such a few precious and oft-remembered moments.
I happened to be standing-rooted-beside the corner of the runway when Young arrived and bent over like a hurricane. To watch his head shake like a vibrator and his straggly hair drip sweat like a fountain, as his teeth gnashed and facial muscles twitched in the intensity of his possession, was to know that rock 'n' roll can never die.
Neil Young's music embodies the principle that the great artists are the great outsiders. Whatever he has done, whatever he has said, whatever he has made, has been fashioned on the anvil of his own mind. But of the child who suffered from diabetes, epilepsy and polio, and who turned to music for redemption and purpose, emerged the man who would build a legacy within which so many of us have found light, hope and joy.
Neil Young was born in Toronto on November 12th 1945. His father, Scott Young, was to become a well-known Canadian novelist, journalist and broadcaster. His mother, Rassy Young, whose father was from the US and who was a member of the 'Daughters Of The American Revolution', was a spirited, witty and individual woman. She believed totally in her son and her energy and enthusiasm were vital in kindling in him the belief that he could make it as a musician.
When Neil was fourteen, his parents broke up. This was to become perhaps the single most important event in his life. Due to the nature of Scott Young's work, the family had moved house quite a bit and therefore Neil had felt a sense of rootlessness. The break up, which was highly acrimonious - his parents were never reconciled - was to mould him as an outsider and loner. He moved to Winnipeg to live with his mother, and because in 1960 divorce was still rare, suffered a certain amount of bullying at school, as he described in his 1973 song 'Don't Be Denied': "When we got to Winnipeg/I checked in to school/I wore white bucks on my feet/When I learned the golden rule/The punches came fast and hard/Lying on my back in the schoolyard."
However, he was a bit of a divil and soon won admiration as a school rebel. This admiration grew when he took up guitar. Winnipeg was exploding with the rock 'n' roll dream and Neil was in its core. Not that things were that cushy at first. He was thrown out of one band because they said he couldn't play, and then later was heckled continuously and told he couldn't sing. Which was a moot point. He has a classic 'love it/hate it' voice. High pitched, weedy and certainly unique, it has been described by its detractors as a voice only cats could listen you. Meow.
With the determination which comes only from somebody who is truly devoted to a dream, he shrugged off all criticism and ploughed ahead. "There really wasn't anything more important in my life than playing music, and you had to really want to do it and you had to make music first in your life," he would years later reminisce. He did make music his life, dropping out of school, much to the chagrin of his father, who for years refused to support what he considered a reckless adventure.
The next three or four years were to test his will to the very limit, with poverty and disappointment constant companions. Band after band broke up until he finally got together a reasonable outfit called The Squires. It was hard for a Canadian artist in Canada around that time. Canadians had an inferiority complex towards their richer cousins down South and it was standard practice that a group has to make it in the US before they would be accepted at home.
Realising this, Young and a few friends headed for California in 1966 in a black Pontiac hearse (similar to one he had owned a year or so earlier), in the hope of linking up with Stephen Stills, whom he had met earlier in Toronto. LA is a big place and finding Stills, with no address, was not going to be easy. But history minds her children; they met at a traffic light.
Buffalo Springfield was born (Richie Furay, Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer were the other original members.) Although the band was critically lauded, it never would make it big commercially. Their sound was original; a bringing together of the folk and rock 'n' roll traditions, with a bit of psychedelia and experimentation thrown in for good measure. However, the band had hardly formed when the tensions began. Young was nothing if not self-willed and stubborn; Stills was the same. The group released three LPs before splitting in 1968. The best regarded is Buffalo Springfield Again.
It contains probably my favourite Neil Young track; 'Mr Soul', a classic rock 'n' roll riff, underpinned by thumping drums and bass, with psychedelic flavour dripping from the amps, and imagistic lyrics dealing with stardom and its costs. Overall, the album sounds like how it was made; several talented musicians going their own directions on their own particular tracks. As a taste of what became known as 'Folk Rock', the album is as good as any.
Soon after the break up, Young signed to Reprise and in 1969 released Neil Young. A slight enough acoustic-flavoured album, it was critically panned and was to be his only non-charting release. It did have some fine tracks however; 'The Old Laughing Lady' (which would appear on the 1993 live Unplugged album) and 'Last Trip To Tulsa'. The track 'The Loner', addressed a theme he would return to again and again throughout his long and enduring career: "He's a perfect stranger like a cross of himself and a fox . . . On the day that she left he died but it did not show/Know when you see him nothing can free him/Step aside/Open wide/It's the loner."
Not to be deterred by the lack of interest in his debut, Young got rocking with the hastily assembled Crazy Horse, the group with which he would keep rocking, on and off, from then on. The same year he released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Now, this is a whole different amp of sounds. With two ten minuters, 'Down By The River' and 'Cowgirl In The Sand', he was to stamp a new and vibrant guitar sound on popular music. No mad fancy solos. No, just mood-notes, stretched to the point where it hurt so good. And that perfect interplay between himself and Danny Whitten; they made the guitars speak so they did. The album also contains the incendiary pop-rocker 'Cinnamon Girl'. It's fairly essential stuff all round.
That same year, as if he hadn't been doing enough, he played his first live gig with what was to become the famous Crosby, Stills, Nash ... Young outfit. In early 1970 they released the massively popular Déjà Vu (No.1 selling album in US that year.) It contained his beautiful ballad 'Helpless', along with a three-song suit 'Country Girl'. In June of that year, while watching a TV report on the killing of four students at the Kent State University Riots, he penned for CSN...Y, the classic 'Ohio': "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio." They immediately released it as a single and it reached No 14 in the US charts.
That same busy year he released what was to become one of his greatest and most popular albums, After The Goldrush. There isn't a weak song on this masterpiece. The title track, 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' and 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' are simply beautiful. Added to these there's the guitar-rich warning to racists, 'Southern Man'. A must buy.
1972 was Harvest year, a generally acoustic album, which was to go to No 1 in both the US and UK, with the single 'Heart Of Gold' also going to No 1 in the US. It's a great album, with such standouts as 'The Needle And The Damage Done' and 'A Man Needs A Maid' (which used the London Philharmonic Orchestra and is Bob Dylan's favourite Young song). It also contained the poignant 'Old Man', a song about his father: "Old man, look at my life/I'm a lot like you were/Old man, look at my life/Twenty four and so much more/Live alone in a paradise/That makes me think of two."
Harvest made Young rich and he used the money to buy a ranch in California. He would work this ranch himself and use it as his escape from the pressures of stardom. For the lonesome traveller and dreamer of songs like 'On The Way Home', 'Helpless', 'Birds', 'Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere', 'Sugar Mountain' and 'Fuckin' Up', it would give him a vital sense of roots and security. On 1990's Ragged Glory, he would pay homage to his ranch in 'Country Home': "I'm thankful for my country home/Gives me peace of mind/Somewhere I can walk alone/And leave myself behind."
1972 also saw the release of Journey Through The Past, which consisted of live recording he had done with Buffalo Springfield, CSN...Y, The Stray Gators and Crazy Horse. However, the year was to end on a sad note, with 29-year-old Danny Whitten dying of a drug overdose. (He would be replaced in Crazy Horse by Nils Lofgren, who had already played on the After The Goldrush album.)
The live, country-rocking Time Fades Away was released in 1973, and included guest spots with Graham Nash and David Crosby. Things were going mega by this period, with the 1974 CSN...Y tour grossing $8 million. That year, too, saw the release of On The Beach, a not bad/not great album, which contained the nine minute long 'Ambulance Blues'.
In July of 1975 Neil Young released Tonight's The Night, an album that many would regard as his finest achievement. (It had actually been mixed and ready to go since 1973.) It was dedicated to Danny Whitten and long-time roadie Bruce Berry: "These two cats had been a close part of our unit - our force and our unity," said Young. "And they were both gone to junk - both of them OD'd. I don't think Tonight's The Night is a friendly album. It's real, that's all. I'm really proud of it. You've got to listen to it at night, which was when it was done."
December of 1975 saw the release of my favourite, Zuma. 'Cortez The Killer' is a song I could listen to forever. Its about Spanish Imperialism in South America and the guitars and lyrics paint a spacious, old picture. "He came dancing across the water/With his galleons and guns/Looking for the new world/And that palace in the sun." It also contains 'Dangerbird' and 'Don't Cry No Tears' (which was a remake of his 1964 song, 'I Wonder').
In 1976 he was again working with Stills and they released Long May You Run. The title track is quite beautiful: "We've been through some things together/With trunks of memories still to come/We found things to do in stormy weather/Long may you run." It's about his first and favourite black hearse, Mort. (A spacious hearse being great for transporting guitars, amps, bodies and the like.)
American Stars 'N' Bars was released in 1977. It's a middling album but does have a live version of that monumental classic, 'Like A Hurricane'. The three-disk compilation, Decade, was also released that year. It covers his work from Buffalo Springfield on. There are few better compilations.
The acoustic-sounding Comes A Time arrived in 1978. It contained a great cover of the Ian Tyson classic, 'Four Strong Winds', a song Young had been singing since his early days. Otherwise the album is unremarkable.
1979 saw the release of Rust Never Sleeps. One side was electric and the other acoustic. It's another of my favourites, if only for 'My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)', which had a dedication in it to good old Johnny Rotten. The fact that Young had been excited enough by Punk to write the lines "The king is gone but not forgotten/Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?/It's better to burn out than it is to rust" was indicative of his genius for soaking up everything from Country to Folk to Blues to Punk, an ability which had helped him to artistically outlive most of his contemporaries. As he said in 1982: "I'm like a dinosaur with a large tail-I'm so big I have to keep eating all the time. I look around, there's not too many dinosaurs left, just a lot of small animals moving very fast. And it's their energy that I need to stay alive." Let's face it, most live albums are crap. 1979's Live Rust was not; not by a long way.
It had been quite a decade for Neil Young and therefore it was fitting that New York's The Village Voice should vote him 'Artist Of The Decade'. However, most of the '80s were to be another decade altogether. In 1980, dispensing with Crazy Horse, he recruited top session musicians, including The Band's drummer Levon Helm, for Hawks And Doves, a type of loose country affair. 1981 saw Re-ac-tor, which was a type of loose R...B affair. Both were middling albums.
Geffen must have been licking their lips when they got their 'Artist Of The Decade'. (He had been with Reprise up until then.) But they must have nearly choked when in 1983 he presented them with Trans. This synthesizer driven, distortion vocalised, kraftwerking job also made many of his long-time fans examine the cover more than a few times, to make sure that it was actually 'Neil Young'. One for the completists.
In 1979 Young had said: "I'm lucky. Somehow, by doing what I want to do, I manage to give people what they don't want to hear and they still come back for more. I haven't been able to figure that out yet..." Such irony! Or perhaps iron, if you wanted to listen to Everybody's Rockin', a rockabilly job, credited to 'Neil Young And The Shocking Pinks'. Ah, it wasn't that bad. Bad enough to have Geffen licking the blood off their lips which they must have bit into when that landed on the desk. Believing that the real Neil Young had been whisked off and replaced by an alien, they brought the suspect to court, looking for $3 million in punitive and exemplary damages plus compensation. Their suit alleged that this Young had dumped them with albums "which were not commercial in nature and musically uncharacteristic of Young's previous records"; which is legal parlance for "He has screwed us big-time! Wahhh!"
Back to Reprise and back to past styles for 1985's Country-licking Old Ways. But not back to form, sadly. (He had always liked Country and was very supportive of the Farm Aid projects, which were happening around then.) 1986 saw the not-that-great-rocking Landing On Water. True to the good old eccentric that he is, he made a video for the entire album, which he financed himself. Life came out in 1977 and showed signs-if only some-that there was indeed life left in the old hound. 1988-what's another year? And along comes This Note's For You, with the nine-piece Bluenotes band hanging on its tail. However, the title track, which wasn't half bad, had a great video, with a Michael Jackson-lookalike having his hair set on fire, in parody of the Pepsi ad then running. The video, although initially banned on US TV, went on to win 'Best Video Of The Year' award from MTV. So, things were at last showing signs of picking up, and when in the same year he re-joined CS...N, for the first time in fourteen years, for the recording of American Dream, a top twenty charting was achieved too.
1989 was to be the beginning of a real renaissance for him, with the release of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Freedom album. (1989 would also see the release of The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young, with such artists as Nick Cave and The Flaming Lips paying homage.) Freedom was chosen as album of the year by the Rolling Stone critics. It's a great album, though a little over-produced. It contained the instant classic, 'Rockin' In The Free World', which would become an anthem, particularly in the then just liberated Eastern Europe. 'Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part 1)' and 'Someday' were other stand out tracks.
Much more to my liking, however, was 1990's Ragged Glory. Back with Crazy Horse - the best band he's ever had - it rocks like old times. It rocks like Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere and Zuma and Rust Never Sleeps. Beautiful guitar, beautiful melodies, beautiful harmonies, it's a great album. There is a real sense of a journey back on it, particularly with the inclusion of the Harris/Terry 'Farmer John', which was the first song he had really rocked out on during those youthful Winnipeg days.
Young in name, young by nature, in 1991 he toured with Social Distortion and Sonic Youth, while that same year releasing the two-hour long live burner Weld. A great album with all the old favourites, and if the Slane concert is anything like the energy it creates, then it's going to be a very memorable day indeed.
Does this man ever stop? 1992 saw the release of Harvest Moon. Using most of the same musicians as on 1972's Harvest, it creates a similar mood, although the songs aren't nearly as strong. All the same, 'War Of Man' and 'Unknown Legend' - which seems to be about his wonderful mother, who believed totally in him when nobody else did - are marvellous songs.
If proof should be necessary that Neil Young has still the music in him, then Unplugged is it. It is simply amazing, a stunning achievement and no better album to start with to find out why the word 'Legend' fits so easily on his shoulders. There's history on this album because there's history in the man. A man of vision, a man of paradox. A man who supported Reagan for a while, yet in 1973 stopped one of his shows to announce that an accord had been reached for peace in Vietnam. A man who said about Sinéad O'Connor, after she had been booed off the Dylan tribute gig, that she should "take it like a man". And then there was the young lad about whom hardly anyone in Winnipeg had a bad word to say; who was described as a sensitive, humorous, divil-may-care soul.
Neil Young is a great, great poet. "When the dream came I held my breath with my eyes closed/I went insane like a smoke-ring day when the wind blows/Now I won't be back 'till later on/If I do come back at all/But you know me and I miss you now." ('On The Way Home'.) He is a riff master and a precise picker. There are times, sure, when he lets his fingers go into a frenzy. But more often than not his notes are carefully chosen; searched out and tended until perfectly ripe. And when he finds that right one he's always prepared to hold his finger on it and let its electricity loose. To let it ring out and then - as importantly - to give it its own time to fade away. Because he understands nature. He knows that there is as much joy in the sunset as there is in the red ball of fire in the centre of the sky.
Neil Young is an honourable icon for any time. He embodies the spirit that is music. Neil Young is the song and the song is Neil Young. And whatever music is it's in all of us. The heartbeat beats like a drum and the drum beats like a heart. And there's a guitar in all of us too, playing rhythm, and one playing lead. And there are melodies flowing through us; thousands of them. And we'll never understand this with words or theories or any other tools. All we can do-all we need to do-is listen. And feel.
Long may he run.