by Jym Fahey
Three of rock's most influential, critically acclaimed, and successful careers belong to Neil Young. As a member of Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and in his various solo projects, Young has been in the forefront of rock music, and foremost in the hearts of his legion of fans, for twenty-five years. An intensely private man, Young generally lets his music do his talking. He has earned his reputation as one of rock's most enigmatic personas.
Born in Toronto, Canada on November 12, 1945, Neil grew up in the prairie city of Winnipeg, but it was his introduction to Elvis Presley and other rocking imports from America in the mid-'50s that brought him into the clutches of a rock 'n' roll monster that has never let go.
As a teen, an Arthur Godfrey-model ukulele served as his fist axe. He soon picked up the acoustic guitar, and was swept into the folk music mania that ran through Canada and the US in the middle of this century. Though virtually unremembered today, his folk-rock outfit, Neil Young and the Squires, was an early '60s favorite on the Winnipeg teen coffee-house scene.
In 1966, Young abandoned Winnipeg for Detroit, working with a group called the Mynah Birds (with Rick James on vocals), but soon left for the warmer and more musically happening scene in Los Angeles. Once there, he renewed acquaintances with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, whom he had met in Canada. Stills recalls their reunion, "We drove up behind this hearse with Ontario plates, and it couldn't have been anyone else. It was a different hearse than the one that he had been driving when I met him up in Canada, but nobody else would have a hearse. I mean, it couldn't have been anybody else. Sure enough, it was him. I started saying, 'Get next to this guy! Just trust me!' So we pulled up and we beeped and waved.
"Neil Young is still my favorite musician in the world," he adds, "and probably the greatest contribution to American culture that I've made was finding that sucker in Canada, and then again on Sunset Boulevard."
Neil agreed to join forces with Stills and Furay in the spring of '66, along with drummer Dewey Martin and ex-Mynah Bird bassist Bruce Palmer. The triple-guitar lineup was called Buffalo Springfield (sometimes shortened to the Springfield or even the Herd). The band's fortune grew as quickly as its reputation.
A seven-city tour with the Byrds and an extended engagement at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go brought them to the attention of record companies. After fielding almost two dozen offers, they finally signed with ATCO. Within months of their formation (on July 25, 1966), Buffalo Springfield was featured in concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The audience reaction was so strong that the band was signed to several guest appearances on the old television show, Hollywood Palace.
Neil Young wrote the band's first successful single, a regional hit in L.A. called "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," and also penned such Springfield classics as "Mr. Soul," "I Am A Child" and "Broken Arrow." However, in 1967, it was Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth" that made it to number seven in Billboard, and broke the band nationally. Their folk/rock/country mixture has influenced music ever since, a fact that is particularly amazing in light of the fact that only two years after their formation, the landmark group dissolved. The strong personalities and the power of their creative natures clashed too harshly for the five members to continue. Neil Young used this ending as the first of many new beginnings. Neil became a solo artist.
Shortly after leaving the Herd, Neil recorded and released his eponymous debut album. The songs on the album were similar in style to his Springfield material, but samples of Neil's future musical wanderings were present. The span between "String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill," "The Loner" and "The Old Laughing Lady" covers a lot of musical water.
Neil then showed the disdain for commercial interests that has since characterized his career when he released his second album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, only five months after his first. Neil collaborated for the first time with Crazy Horse (Billy Talbot on bass, guitarist, Danny Whitten and drummer, Ralph Molina) on this album. The grungy guitar explorations and scarring jams for which that marriage has become known, like those on "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand," are rich lodes which Neil has continued to mine throughout his career. The album cracked the top forty and went platinum (1,000,000 copies sold).
Meanwhile, Neil's Herdmate Stephen Stills had joined forces with ex-Byrd, David Crosby and ex-Hollies member, Graham Nash on a gold (500,000 copies) Top Ten album. CS&N decided to follow their success by changing the formula. They called upon Neil Young. The mix worked well enough for the foursome to mount a tour. Their second gig was an intimate gathering of 500,000 souls in upstate New York, now known as Woodstock. The music worked well enough for CS&N to add the rawness of Neil Young to the next album, Deja Vu.
David Crosby remembers why they decided to include Neil. "Listen to the songs," he says. "If somebody came to you and sang you those songs, what would you do? That's what happened. I was sitting outside at Elliot Robert's house, waiting for Elliot to get home. Neil was there and we sat on the trunk of his car, and he sang me 'Helpless' and he sang me 'Country Girl.' What would you do?" Adding the Y to CSN proved to be successful. Deja Vu contained the two Young songs David Crosby had heard that day and another, "Everybody I Love You," written by Neil and Stephen. The hard edge added by Neil helped to keep the album on the charts for almost two years, blasting to number one shortly after its release.
In June of 1970, with Neil in the lead, the band made a very characteristic, uncommercial move. In response to the killing of four students at Kent State University during a demonstration, they recorded and released Neil's "Ohio" in a matter of a few days and in the process, killed their single "Teach Your Children." David Crosby says that the band's reaction to seeing the now-famous picture of the horrified and anguished look of one of the students as she holds a dead comrade was immediate. "We have always spoken our minds, not really what we felt everybody wanted us to say. It's just that sometimes we hit a resonant note and it was what everybody else was thinking. Everybody was thinking the same thing. 'This is wrong, totally wrong. You don't shoot students down because they're protesting. Not in this country.' We got ["Ohio"] out quick enough to where it was on everybody's mind. And Graham did the noble thing and pulled 'Teach Your Children' so that it could go. It's just the kind of guy he is. And, you know, that was a great moment."
"Teach Your Children" stalled at number 16 and was soon passed on the charts by "Ohio" (backed with "Find The Cost Of Freedom"). Similarly, the pacifist mellowness of "Teach" became unseated by the war cry of "Ohio." That cry in the hearts of American youth helped sway the tide of public outrage and eventually ended the war in Vietnam. And the band played on.
The glue holding CSN&Y together had always been very elastic. Stephen Stills claims that that flexibility enabled the quartet to continue working together in its various forms over the years. He says, "In fact, part of what's made us work is the ability to [work on outside projects], and we kind of designed it that way in the first place. The fact that it is an open ended thing is what allows the freedom for it. We just don't like being trapped."
Neil stretched that elastic a little in 1970. Five months after the release of Deja Vu, while it still rode high on the charts, Neil released his own Top Ten album, After The Gold Rush. On the album, he used members of Crazy Horse, as well as Greg Reeves (bass), Jack Nitzsche and Nils Lofgren (piano), with an assist from Stephen Stills on vocals. After The Gold Rush spun off Neil's first Top Forty single, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." It also contained the angry anti-racist anthem "Southern Man" (answered by Lynyrd Skynyrd in "Alabama") and a host of other rock classics, including the title track, "Don't Let It Bring You Down" and "Tell Me Why."
Even so, the CSN&Y elastic snapped back into place again for a tour which resulted in Four Way Street, a somewhat ragged but nonetheless powerful live album. "Ohio" stood out on the album. So did "Southern Man" and "Cowgirl In The Sand," which highlights the album's electric portions. Like Deja Vu, Four Way Street captured the top spot in Billboard. It was also the last album the four recorded together for twenty years.
Rather than sit back and enjoy the windfall fruits from various musical seeds he had planted over the previous few years, Young instead recorded Harvest, and garnered a number one gold album and single ("Heart Of Gold"). The album was made with the Stray Gators (Ben Keith on steel guitar, Kenny Buttrey on drums, Jack Nitzche on piano and slide guitar, and John Harris, piano), the second of Neil's "solo" bands. Guest vocalists included James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and CSN. The music and lyrics of Harvest, funneled through Neil's unique delivery, left a personal effect on his listeners which few artists can achieve. "Alabama" clearly shows his ability, and anyone who has seen the ravages of drugs up-close cannot help but be moved by "The Needle And The Damage Done."
Young next turned his attention to producing, writing, directing and performing in a movie project called Journey Through The Past. The film had a limited release, but Neil's soundtrack for the movie made a small splash on the charts. The album's title makes no false claims. Journey Through The Past contains mostly remakes from Neil's pre-1972 incarnations.
Next came Time Fades Away, again with the Stray Gators. Though this album sold gold, some critics at the time panned Time and questioned if Neil had burned out his muse.
A year later, On The Beach (recorded with members of The Band), convinced most that Neil was still a force to contend with. In 1975 came Tonight's The Night. Originally recorded in 1973, the album highlights the Stray Gators, Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren. Tonight's The Night served as a tribute to Danny Whitten and CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry. Neil is rawer and more honest on the album than at any other time in his career. He calls the album, "One of my strongest and longest lasting albums. It covers my obsession with the ups and downs of the drug culture." The album comments on and spills over with the grief Neil felt about the overdose deaths of Danny and Bruce, both of whom, in Neil's words, "lived and died for rock and roll."
November of '75 brought Zuma, which featured the newest member of Crazy Horse, guitarist Frank Sampedro, and walked a similar musical and emotional path as Tonight. Sampedro complements Neil's playing extremely well, and Crazy Horse became the established vehicle for Neil's rough hewn, hard rockin' side.
The next Neil Young recording came in the form of a collaboration with Stephen Stills (The Stills-Young Band) titled, . Long May You Run. This album's beauty and simplicity is an often overlooked gem in the careers of both Stills and Young. The nine songs on the album serve as a reminder of how well the two sound together. Their combined harmonies seemed to have only been musical, however, and the title proved to be something of a misnomer. Neil left Stephen and the band halfway through the tour.
June of 1977 brought American Stars And Bars, an accessible album with guest vocals from Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Nicolette Larson. The album was overshadowed somewhat by the big Neil news of that year, the release of Decade. This impressive three-LP retrospective, overseen by Neil, took a look at his many-faceted career to that point. The tracks were chosen as a representation of his career, not just as Neil's greatest hits. The release included handwritten notes on all the tracks, and became the guiding light for the many reissue sets that have come out over the last fifteen years.
Comes A Time came next and resembles Harvest in its soft, acoustic, country approach. The seventh album spun off a minor hit for Neil, "Four Strong Winds." Nicolette Larson, who sang on the record, turned her cover of "Lotta Love" from the album into a Top Ten tune.
Once again, Neil embraced success as a challenge and roared out with the electrically charged Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust in July and November of 1979, respectively. Both LPs were recorded in concert. The first album, with the audience track removed, contains all new material. The acoustic "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)" and its electric counterpart, "Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)," a pair of punkish salutes to Johnny Rotten, bookended Rust Never Sleeps. Half of the album was recorded acoustically, while the second half showcased Crazy Horse and their electric mayhem. Live Rust took a similar approach. An acoustic Neil Young took up most of the first disc, while the second was all electric with Crazy Horse, and extended distortion-drenched guitar jams. Live Rust covers Neil's career almost like a live companion piece to Decade. The pair of Rust records clearly show Neil Young's prowess as a master performer and live recording artist. Rust Never Sleeps sold in platinum numbers and cracked the Top Ten, while Live Rust rose well into the Top Twenty.
Neil's next release, Hawks & Doves had the chameleon-like artist donning his country/folk colors once again. The songs tell stories in the best spirit of country music; stories about home, adventure, union men and America. His simple musical settings, complete with dobro, steel guitar, fiddle and a musical saw, give little indication of the power and thrash capabilities achieved with Crazy Horse. Reactor came next. No musician credits accompany the album, but it sounds like a Crazy Horse effort, rocking and rolling replete with Young's signature guitar sounds. The Latin statement on the back of the album in many ways seems to sum up the Youngian philosophy. Loosely translated, it means, "God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the fortitude to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Whether Neil has ever fully embraced this philosophy (especially the first line) can be argued, but he certainly has spent a career skirting around the edges of it (especially the second line). Change must have been on Neil's mind, and this album was the end of an era for him. After Reactor, Neil left Warner/Reprise to sign with another label.
His stay with Geffen Records lasted five records. This troubled period in Young's professional life stemmed from the fact that the five records turned out under the Geffen label were so different from any of his previous musical adventures. The first of the quintet was Trans. On it, Neil plays a strange hybrid of rock 'n' roll synthesizers, and creates an electric vision of a braver, newer world. Approached with an open mind, the album works on many levels, but parts of the album have no immediately apparent relationship to previous incarnations of Neil Young. Even his voice is often masqueraded in electronics, effectively disguising his usually distinctive sound. The Trans version of "Mr. Soul" connects Neil to his past, but only by the narrowest of threads. In the November 1985 issue, Neil told Rock Bill, "Trans has got its limitation. It was me doing what I could with computers. I just got them, and I got a license to do whatever I want. There's a lot of computer guys who really know what they're doing and they're great. My stuff is totally primitive compared to theirs, but it still doesn't matter because I'm only dealing with feelings."
Young's performances during this period were solo, using a variety of electronic devices. Backing vocals and instrumentation were supplied by synthesizers, tape tracks and videos, and he even performed duets with himself, thanks to the magic of video.
Many of Neil's longtime fans were confused by Trans and the subsequent tour, to say nothing of the confusion at Geffen. Executives at the label must have been taken by surprise. They were even less pleased when Neil turned in the next album. Neil told Pulse's Steve Martin in the December 1991 issue, "I just do what I feel like doing. I made the first Old Ways album - it was kind of a country, the Old Ways that came out - this was another Old Ways album that I made with different songs. It was recorded right after Trans. I really loved it. I thought it was like Harvest, Comes A Time, Old Ways - the three were like a trilogy, they went together great. I was knocked out. I took it to Geffen and they didn't want it. They didn't like it. They told me I should play some rock 'n' roll. So I did Everybody's Rockin'."
Everybody's Rockin', credited to Neil and the Shocking Pinks, rocked all night, but not quite the way Geffen anticipated. Neil appears on the cover in a pink suit and tie, black shirt, sporting two-tone shoes. His hair is greased into a DA. The rockabilly music showcased on the album won some new fans for Neil. He must have had a good time with the album, especially on "Payola Blues," a slap at the record industry with a backhand at radio - two favorite targets of Neil's tirades. Neil's covers of songs like "Bright Lights Big City" and "Mystery Train" are done with some reverence, but not overly so.
In 1985, Neil finally released Old Ways. Much of the album was recorded in Franklin and Nashville, TN. It is a country record, a very good one. The musicians on it include Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Spooner Oldham, Bela Fleck and Rufus Thibodeaux. Old Ways tied in nicely with Neil's work on Willie Nelson's pet project, Farm Aid, one of several charities Neil is involved in (including his own annual Bridge Concert, a benefit for the Bridge School, an innovative program for children with communication barriers). In spite of that nice sidelight, Geffen was not pleased. When they signed Neil Young, they knew they were getting an enigma who made his own way in life, but they were not prepared for the degree to which Neil blazed his life's trail, unencumbered by other's opinions. The disagreement could not be amicably solved. Neil told Bill Flanagan in November 1985's Musician, "I handed in the record and they sued me. They said, 'We don't know what you're doing. We're scared! You did a Trans and then you did Everybody's Rockin' and now you want to do a country album. We want Neil Young.' That was confusing to me because I'd always thought I was Neil Young. But it turns out that when I do certain things, I'm not Neil Young. Well, to get sued for being non-commercial after twenty years of making records, I thought, was better than a Grammy."
The record company settled its differences with Neil Young and awaited his next album. When Landing On Water arrived, the execs, along with many of Neil's fans, were still confused. The effort combined hard rocking with cool synths. The combination resulted in a Neil Young album alright, but it couldn't have been what Geffen had in mind. "Touch The Night" rocks with some of the best of Neil's output. So does "I Got A Problem." Even so, Geffen had had enough. 1987's Life, with Crazy Horse, didn't save the relationship and Neil became a free agent.
In early 1988, Neil had some old friends up to his California ranch. These friends, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, combined their talents with Neil to record the CSN&Y record American Dream. Neil provided the title track, along with three other powerful songs ("Name Of Love," "This Old House" and "Feel Your Love"). The celebration served as a celebration of life, of music and of David Crosby's rejection of drug abuse. David Crosby recalls, "Neil felt, and said publicly, that he would like to work with me again if I were straight. And when I did get straight and proved that I could keep it that way on the street, he really wanted to work with me and us again. Me, personally, I love working with the guy. He is such an enormous, creative energy, you know. He's so devoted to his art, and he wants so badly to have it be great, and he's just tremendous to work with. I can't say enough good stuff about him."
After that long awaited reunion, Neil put on his R&B mask to release This Note's For You, recorded with yet another band, the Bluenotes. The brassy sounds of '50s and '60s rock 'n' soul, led with fervor by Neil, kick up a high-energy brand of blues, and the Bluenotes, a full ten-piece R&B band, set a backdrop for some of the most upbeat music of Neil's career.
Ironically, the video for "This Note's For You" was banned from MTV's rotation for fear of alienating sponsors. Neil pulled no punches in his assault on corporate sponsors in rock 'n' roll. He not only works without a sponsor and sued Lee jeans' European/UK division for using "Hey He, My My (Into The Black)" in commercials, he also pulled out of the Hollywood In Rio Festival after learning that a cigarette manufacturer was sponsoring the event. The irony came during the MTV awards where "This Note's For You" won Video Of The Year.
The Bridge, a Neil Young tribute album, was released in 1989, and featured covers of Neil's songs by the likes of Nick Cave, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. A new generation of Neilists.
Neil's own 1989 effort came in titled Freedom. As he had on Rust Never Sleeps, Young set the same song at the beginning and end of the album; this time it's "Rocking In The Free World." Freedom opens with a live acoustic version and closes with an electrical studio take. Neil plays fine guitar throughout, whether rocking on "No More," country-strumming on "Too Far Gone" or nuclear blasting his way through the Drifter's classic, "On Broadway." The dark, stark stories of loss and desperation power the album in a diverse strong package that recalls some of Neil's most powerful past efforts. It is one of the best records of the '80s. With Freedom, Neil closed out the Reagan decade with a potent statement.
Neil Young's '90s began with a recorded reunion between Neil and Crazy Horse. Ragged Glory returned Neil to the welcome nest of distorted guitar fuzz that he seems so comfortable in, especially with Crazy Horse by his side. Songs like "Country Home," "Love To Burn," "F#!in' Up" and "Farmer John" show his feedback virtuosity. Lyrically, Neil is at his caustic best.
In 1991, Young took his show on the road. He brought along alternative radio distortion favorites, Social Distortion and Sonic Youth, as openers. The same day the tour started, George Bush began a tour of his own in the Persian Gulf with Saddam Hussein. Operation Desert Storm provided the catalyst for the energy and drama that Neil, Crazy Horse and the audiences shared during the Ragged Glory tour. Neil said of the tour, "I blew my head off during that tour. When we were playing that stuff, it was intense. It was real. I could see people dying in my mind. I could see bombs falling, buildings collapsing on families. We were watching CNN all the time, watching this happen and then going out to play, singing these songs about conflict. It was a hard thing. And I feel there was nothing else I could do." (Melody Maker, November, 1991). Both the anguished buzz of "Blowin' In The Wind" and the neo-Hendrixian version of the "Star Spangled Banner" scored roaring applause form the crowd. The live settings did nothing to diminish the impact of songs like "Cortez The Killer," or "Mansion On The Hill." "Cinnamon Girl" and "Welfare Mothers" both burned hotter than the originals; Neil and Crazy Horse, the hottest of all. Fortunately, the tour was captured on tape and released on Weld, a two disc set.
Weld plays for over two hours and documents the tour, showing off the best performances. Weld's power and energy show once again that no one makes 'em live better than Neil, and Neil is never any wilder than he is with Crazy Horse, whom he refers to as "The essence of my musical life. This is the core, the smoldering thing that I come back to over and over again. Crazy Horse just keeps coming back. If I had never done anything else, the Crazy Horse stuff would stand on its own."
With some versions of Weld, Neil released Arc on a separate compact disc. It's a thirty-five minute rendition of feedback, distortion and wailing. The "Sparks," as Neil calls them, on the album came from endings that were edited from the songs on Weld. The segments are combined in a way that turns them into a single piece, a continuous celebration of rawness, power and thrash. It is brilliant.
Of course, Neil's musical output comes from many more places than his Crazy Horse buzzsaw rock. He just sold out a six-show solo, acoustic run at New York's Beacon Theater. Sitting in the midst of a semi-circle formed by guitars, a banjo, piano and pump organ, Neil performed his magic. He began the program with "Long May You Run," and ran through an all-too-short set of old and new material. The oldies included "Heart Of Gold," "Old Man" and "After The Gold Rush." The new songs will be found on Harvest Moon, an acoustic album Neil has described as a follow-up to Harvest. The album is slated for release sometime this year, and Neil is expected to continue appearing as a solo acoustic act, as he did recently in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
The restless musical warrior has more up his sleeve, as well. He has long been promising a retrospective look at his entire career, similar to his chronicle, Decade. He has suggested that it will include recordings from the Mynah Birds and earlier, straight through to whatever projects currently being worked on when he feels finished with the compilation. This is truly an ambitious undertaking for an artist whose career has been so long and so varied. The result should be quite a prize.
Meanwhile, Neil will continue to look forward to new musical worlds to visit or old ones to revisit. "I'm surrounded by a musical family that supports me everywhere I go. I have Crazy Horse, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Stray Gators, the Harvesters, the Bluenotes. I have all these different ways I can go. As long as I keep taking advantage of that I can stay fresh." We have all come to expect a fresh Neil Young, as always, dancing to his own tune. Long may he run.
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