Neil Young, the 90s

Neil Young

by Jeffrey Zaslow

The rock legend is passionate about easing the frustrations of two sons with cerebral palsy.

Neil Young has played with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Pearl Jam. But when he talks of "playing," he's often referring to model trains and the time he spends with his children.

Young, 51, has a 13-year-old daughter and two sons, 19 and 25, both of whom have cerebral palsy. It's a cruelly disabling disorder, but Young found a creative way to help ease his sons' frustration: He developed a remote-control device that lets them operate model trains. Younger son Ben uses a head switch. "By moving his head, he can blow the horn or hit the brakes." In those moments, Ben isn't disabled by cerebral palsy. "He's just having fun."

When Young talks about his sons' enthusiasm for trains, there's a passion in his voice that he usually reserves for his music. Like model trains, he says, many other things can be made more accessible for people with disabilities. "There are eyelid switches, breath switches, neck switches." The technology is there, he says. We're limited only by our resolve and imagination.

Young has had his own physical challenges. In his youth, he had polio and epileptic seizures. He now views physical frustrations in musical terms. For instance, in a documentary about his band, Crazy Horse, due this fall, Young at one point rages at his bandmates after teaching them a song.

"There's a lot of frustration in trying to get music out when you're the only one who hears it, especially if you have something in your head that's not normal. You're trying to explain it to someone playing instruments you can't play."

In a way, Young now realizes, kids like his sons play different instruments. He's committed to helping them. In 1995, he became a part-owner of Lionel Trains Inc., and now markets his remote devices where kids with cerebral palsy buy their wheelchairs. "We get letters from parents who are blown away that their kids are playing with trains, just like any kid." He smiles. "All toys should be accessible to everybody. All kids love toys."

Young's Advice

  • Play music loud, says Young, "so the air in the room moves the organs in your body. That's part of the feeling of rock and roll. It's your ears, your body, your senses - everything."
  • Embrace your valleys: Young has recorded more than 500 songs. "Some shine, some don't. But the ones that don't shine are just as cool. As you go through life, you've got to see the valleys as well as the peaks. You appreciate your good stuff because of the other stuff."
  • Don't speak if you aren't inspired: At a recent concert, Young said just eight words: "Crazy Horse" and "How ya doin'?" (he said that twice). "If I had some clever patter, I'd use it."
  • Be careful with knives: Opening a package of meat recently, Young sliced open a finger. "I don't look at a knife the way I used to. I'm more aware of what it is. I think twice." He had to cancel a European tour. "This is a key finger. It's in every chord."
  • Make the change: Young has left several hugely successful groups. "People don't normally change when things are going well. But I want to see what's next and keep moving. That keeps things fresh for me."

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