Neil Young – circa 1971
“Bruce Berry was a working man / He used to load that Econoline van…Well late at night when the people were gone / He used to pick up my guitar…” – ’Tonight’s The Night’ (Neil Young)
Neil Young is ‘virtually destroying himself on stage.’ It is 1973 and the Canadian-born singer-songwriter is part way through his ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour. The song – and tour – is inspired by two recent deaths: Danny Whitten, the guitarist for Young’s backing band Crazy Horse, died on 18 November 1972; and Bruce Berry, a roadie for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, also passed away. Both men were victims of heroin overdoses. “I’ve never been a heroin addict, I’ve never experimented with heroin, but I’ve been close to heroin. I’ve seen what it’s done to people’s lives,” Neil Young discloses. Whitten and Berry “lived and died for rock ‘n’ roll.” On stage, Young seems virtually possessed by the spirits of the dead men, trying to perform some sort of exorcism with his flailing guitar solos. The performer’s anguish is painful to watch. “This happened to me, I’ll write about it,” Young explains. “Audio verite is what the concept was for ‘Tonight’s The Night’ compared to cinema verite,” he adds, referring to a very naturalistic, almost documentary, style of film-making. The song ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is performed on stage twice or three times in each show, ‘each version a more chilling experience than the last.’ Tonight’s The Night’ is not released on record until 1975. How does Neil Young justify putting himself – and his audience – through such harrowing experiences? “I only care about the music,” he says in what may be the axiom of his career.
Neil Percival Young is born on 12 November 1945 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is the son of Scott Alexander Young and his wife Edna Blow Ragland ‘Rassy’ Young. Scott Young is a journalist and sportswriter. Rassy Young is an American of French ancestry. The couple married in 1940, when both of them were 22. Neil is their second child. They already have another son, Robert ‘Bob’ (born 1942).
Shortly after Neil Young’s birth, the Young family moves to Omemee, Ontario, “a sleepy little place.” Scott Young Public School in Omemee will later be named after Neil’s father. As a child, Neil Young is diagnosed with type-one diabetes. He is also an epileptic. In 1951 Neil suffers a bout of polio. After Neil’s recovery, in 1952 the family visits Florida, making this Neil Young’s first visit to the U.S.A. They return to Canada, setting up house in Toronto, then they move to Pickering (just outside Toronto), before returning to Toronto again. Neil Young starts to listen to pop music on the radio.
In 1958, when Neil Young is 12, his father and mother separate. Scott Young leaves, taking his elder son, Bob, with him. Neil Young remains with his mother and they move to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Neil receives a ukulele from his father as a Christmas gift in 1958 and this is the start of his journey to becoming a professional musician. Living in Fort Rouge, Winnipeg, Neil Young attends Early Grey Junior High School. Winnipeg is in the middle of Canada but also, in a way, in the middle of nowhere. The winters last for six to seven months. Sports like ice skating and hockey are popular, but Neil Young is more interested in practicing his guitar-playing. “I wasn’t athletic,” he recalls. “I just wanted to go and play in my band on the weekend and write songs.” That band is called The Jades. Neil Young moves on to Kelvin High School in Winnipeg and, in 1963, forms a new band called The Squires. The group consists of Neil Young (guitar), Ken Smith (guitar), Kenny Coglan (bass) and Allan Bates (drums). “We were mostly an instrumental band at first (I.e. without vocals),” says Neil. Inspired by instrumental acts like The Shadows, The Ventures and The Fireballs, they cut a record of Neil Young’s instrumental composition, ‘The Sultan’. Neil also professes an admiration for early rock guitarist Link Wray: “I always liked the primitive rock ‘n’ roll.” The Squires struggle along, “but we’d just keep morphing and changing,” Neil says. “People would join, we’d go and do a gig out of town and they’d quit [because they didn’t want to leave Winnipeg].”
In 1964 Neil Young has his first girlfriend, Pam Smith, but the youngsters’ relationship seems short-lived.
Neil Young drops out of high school and his musical tastes shift towards folk music. “I used to go to a folk club in Winnipeg…and I used to check out the acts coming through town. And that’s where I met [fellow Canadian singer-songwriter] Joni Mitchell, [bluesmen] Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and [visiting American singer-songwriter] Don McLean,” says Young. In 1965 he meets another pair of Americans in Thunder Bay – Richie Furay and Stephen Stills (from New Orleans, Louisiana). Neil Young is also playing his own music in these clubs. Bass player Bruce Palmer is another fellow Young meets in this era.
In 1966 Neil Young forms a band in Toronto called The Mynah Birds. Bruce Palmer plays bass in this group. Another member of The Mynah Birds is a young African-American known as Rick Matthews. He was born James Johnson and is fated to become famous in the late 1970s as punk-funk star Rick James. Part of the reason for his multiple identities is that ‘Rick Matthews’ is A.W.O.L. (Absent Without Official Leave) from the U.S. Naval Reserves. The Mynah Birds record a single, ‘It’s My Time’ (co-written by Neil Young and Rick James), for Motown Records’ V.I.P. label. However Matthews/Johnson/James is arrested, extradited and jailed which effectively puts an end to The Mynah Birds career.
“I had a hearse then. I always used a hearse to carry around our equipment because it was like a giant station-wagon,” claims Neil Young. He and Bruce Palmer pile into this unusual conveyance and drive down to Los Angeles, California. “I chose to go down where I could be new,” Young says of this venture into the U.S.A. What he doesn’t mention is that he and Palmer are working illegally in the U.S. without the required permits.
While Neil Young’s distinctive hearse is in a Los Angeles traffic jam, it is spotted by his acquaintances Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. They catch up with Young (and his front-seat passenger Bruce Palmer) and the quartet decides to form a band. Dewey Martin, formerly with bluegrass act The Dillards, completes the line-up. In March 1966 Buffalo Springfield is born with a line-up of Stephen Stills (vocals, guitar), Neil Young (vocals, guitar), Richie Furay (vocals, guitar), Bruce Palmer (bass) and Dewey Martin (drums). Buffalo Springfield is a folk rock band. Their name is taken from a steamroller.
Securing a recording contract with Atco, the debut album ‘Buffalo Springfield’ (1966) (US no. 80) is released in December. The disc is produced by Charles Greene and Brian Stone. The focus of the group is split between the three singer-songwriters, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay. It is Stephen Stills who creates the disc’s most famous song (and Buffalo Springfield’s biggest hit), ‘For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)’ (US no. 7). Neil Young contributes five of the album’s twelve tracks, the most significant of which may be ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ (US no. 110).
During the sessions for Buffalo Springfield’s second album, the immigration authorities catch up with Bruce Palmer and he is deported to Canada. Neil Young is either just lucky not to have been caught out or more diligent in getting his paperwork lodged. If Young is not legally allowed to work in the U.S. during the Buffalo Springfield period, he puts things right soon after since he remains a U.S. resident from the mid-1960s onwards. Yet he never takes out U.S. citizenship.
After Bruce Palmer’s departure in May 1967, Buffalo Springfield makes use of the services of Jim Fielder (bass) and Doug Hastings (guitar) before settling on Jim Messina (bass, vocals) as Palmer’s replacement.
Neil Young abruptly disappears before Buffalo Springfield’s appearance on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ in 1967. David Crosby stands in for Young on the night and again when Buffalo Springfield plays at the Monterey Pop Festival held on 16-18 June 1967.
The errant Neil Young is back aboard for ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ (1967) (US no. 44), released in October. The production credit for this disc is shared amongst Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jack Nitzsche. Young provides three songs to this set – ‘Mr Soul’, ‘Expecting To Fly’ (US no. 98) and ‘Broken Arrow’. ‘Mr Soul’ is surprisingly funky. “Mr Soul I wrote in my little cabin in Laurel Canyon [in California] and I wrote it on a newspaper in marker [pen], I think,” Young recalls. Yet Buffalo Springfield is ‘beginning to tear itself apart.’ There are ‘embittered personal squabbles between Stills and Young.’ The Canadian complains of the “groupies, drugs, s***.” ‘Broken Arrow’ closes the album and its author describes it as “the end of something – and the beginning.”
Buffalo Springfield plays their final concert in Long Beach, California, on 5 May 1968 and then disbands. Neil Young will work with Stephen Stills again. This starts a pattern that continues through Young’s career: He will part with various musical comrades only to reunite with them further down the road, before parting again, reuniting again, and so on. “My first job is to follow the musical course. It’s always to the detriment of everything. Relationships, projects…they get derailed,” says Young.
A third Buffalo Springfield album, ‘Last Time Around’ (1968) (US no. 42), is released in July after the band has ceased to exist. Erstwhile bassist Jim Messina acts as producer. The album contains three Neil Young songs – though one of them (‘It’s So Hard To Wait’) is co-written with Richie Furay. The most notable of the bunch is ‘I Am A Child’, a startlingly clear-eyed examination of youth and innocence. “I look back on the Buffalo Springfield period very fondly. We were very young. It was my first band that made a real dent…It wasn’t my band but I was in it,” says Young.
In 1968 Neil Young marries Susan Acevedo.
Neil Young obtains a contact with Reprise Records and starts work on his first solo album.
Neil Young’s music is stylistically divergent. “I don’t like to be labelled, to be anything,” he grumbles. Along the way, he touches on many musical genres but most of them are brief flirtations that he soon abandons. The bulk of Neil Young’s career is divided between ‘gentle folk and country rock and crushingly loud electric guitar rock.’ It is almost schizophrenic. His Dr Jekyll side is a weathered, acoustic troubadour at odds with his brutal Mr Hyde alter ego who unleashes squalls of guitar chaos at high volume. Typically, a Neil Young album is either quiet or loud – but there are examples where the disc is as divided as its creator. This duality exists in Young’s music from his earliest days. He went from liking Link Wray’s distorted primeval rock to playing in folky coffee bars on a quiet set of nylon strings. Quiet Neil and Loud Neil are inextricably linked; they are two sides of the same coin.
Irrespective of whether he is playing soft folk or hard rock, Neil Young’s singing voice remains a high, fragile, quavering thing. This sound is quite at odds with his physical appearance as a rangy six foot fellow with a hulking gait. Young’s speaking voice is also unsettlingly deep in comparison to his singing. Yet such a contradictory dichotomy can be seen as representative of Neil Young’s whole divided career.
Nearly all of Neil Young’s recorded works are written by him. As a songwriter, a general air of wistfulness surrounds his work. In his hard rock mode, this translates into a sort of doomed anger. Young’s ability as a guitarist is sometimes overlooked because he is (rightly) viewed primarily as a songwriter. However he is capable of some remarkable dexterity and sonic noise sculpture. Neil Young also co-produces nearly all his albums. Yet it is his songwriting that remains his strongest suit. “I really don’t know where that comes from,” he admits. “Sometimes I just see the pictures in my eyes…It just comes gushing out. It’s like having a mental orgasm.” Neil Young never knows when inspiration will strike, so he tries to be prepared: “I had a guitar case near the bed – probably too near the bed in the opinion of most of the women I had relationships with.” And who would Neil Young consider the greatest musician of all time? “[Folk rock icon] Bob Dylan. I’ll never be Bob Dylan. He’s the master.”
‘Neil Young’ (1968), the Canadian singer-songwriter’s debut solo album, appears in November. It is co-produced by Neil Young and David Briggs, who will become Young’s long-serving associate. The best known track is ‘The Loner’, a resolute tribute to taking an individual path. When it is released as a single, ‘Sugar Mountain’ – a lovely folk song by Young – is used as the B side. ‘The Last Trip To Tulsa’ also comes from this early effort.
Neil Young begins working with a backing group in 1968. He first jammed with them while he was still a member of Buffalo Springfield. “When I first played with them they were called The Rockets and there were six of them and they were real primitive, but there were too many of them,” is Young’s assessment. The singer enlists the services of only three of the members: Danny Whitten (guitar), Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums). This aggregate is dubbed Crazy Horse after the Native American war leader (1840-1877) of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Although, as is his wont, Neil Young will work with different musicians at different stages of his career, Crazy Horse are fated to be his most regular partners. “They don’t really have anything other than soul,” says Neil Young, “and something happens when I play with them. There’s a chemistry that frees me to go to places that I don’t go to with anybody else…It’s just a matter of choosing the ride.”
‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (1969) (US no. 34), released in May, is credited to Neil Young with Crazy Horse. “David Briggs and I made the first record and then we made the second record straight away and it was really different to the first record and I liked that,” says Young. “Everything that was missing in the first record was in the second record, so one leads to the other.” ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ is clearly a rock album characterised by seemingly improvised arrangements and gouging, distorted guitars. It is home to three of Neil Young’s most revered works. Although it has rough guitars, ‘Down By The River’ also has a lazy lilt imported from country music. Its lyric marks it as a murder ballad: “Down by the river / I shot my baby / Down by the river / Dead, shot her dead.” Although ‘Down By The River’ is lengthy (9:16), it is outdone by ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ (10:05). The corrosive guitars are leavened here by a harmonious vocal: “Hello cowgirl in the sand / Is this place at your command? / Can I stay here for a while? / Can I see your sweet, sweet smile?” By comparison to these two songs, ‘Cinnamon Girl’ (US no. 55) is a pithy (2:59) piece. Its descending guitar riff and percussive hand-claps adorn a melody that sounds almost Native American: “I wanna live with a cinnamon girl / I could be happy the rest of my life / With a cinnamon girl.” When it is released as a single, ‘Cinnamon Girl’ – like ‘The Loner’ before it – is backed with ‘Sugar Mountain’. The album also contains ‘Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)’, a nod to Crazy Horse’s previous incarnation.
Stephen Stills, Neil Young’s comrade from Buffalo Springfield, has a new project. He has joined forces with David Crosby (who briefly filled in for Young in Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash as the folk rock harmony trio Crosby, Stills & Nash. Their partnership started in December 1968 and their debut album was released in May 1969. However, they wish to broaden their sound and invite Neil Young to join them. The act becomes Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in June 1969. They had not yet played any live dates so their concert debut at New York City’s Fillmore East on 25 July 1969 is not just their first gig with Young but their first collective show.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young play at Woodstock, the three-day hippie music festival held over 15-17 August 1969 at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.
‘Déjà Vu’ (1970) (US no. 1, UK no. 5) by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is released in March on Atlantic Records. The title is the French term for a feeling that you have been someplace before even though that is not the case. Buffalo Springfield was a power-sharing arrangement between three singer-songwriters (Stills, Young and Richie Furay), but this band is a four-way split. Accordingly, there is even less space for Neil Young here. Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ is an aching country music song with a weeping pedal steel guitar. The lyrics seem autobiographical: “There is a town in north Ontario / With dream comfort memory to spare / And in my mind I still need a place to go / All my changes were there.” Young also supplies the sprawling medley that goes under the name ‘Country Girl’; and co-writes the closing track, ‘Everybody I Love You’ – a rocker – with Stills. The album is produced by the quartet.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young dissolves in August 1970. Neil Young says of his relationship with Stephen Stills, “We fought like brothers.” In other words, there were a lot of squabbles but always with an underlying love. “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were four different individuals playing together and it wasn’t like a band,” Young claims. “The reaction to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was ridiculous. It was like, so over the top, and we all got distracted by that.”
Neil Young returns to his solo career with ‘After The Goldrush’ (1970) (US no. 8, UK no. 7, AUS no. 13) in August. Officially, this is a solo album, but the members of Crazy Horse are present, as is a new face. Nils Lofgren is a young guitarist with a fast-growing reputation but, with typical perversity, Young has Lofgren play piano. It is Neil Young himself who plays the skeletal piano on the baffling title track, ‘After The Goldrush’. “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s,” bids the singer, envisioning “Silver spaceships in the yellow haze of the sun” that are “Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun.” Most of the album’s notable tracks are semi-ballads such as ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ (US no. 33), ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’. ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ (US no. 93) is also present on this set as is the fire-breathing ‘Southern Man’, an excoriation of racism that provokes the 1974 song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, a response from Florida band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Neil Young’s two year marriage to Susan Acevedo comes to an end in 1970.
Neil Young sees the movie ‘Diary of a Mad Housewife’ (1970) and is impressed with the actress in the film, Carrie Snodgress. Young gives her a call and, in 1971, they begin a long-term relationship. Neil Young and Carrie Snodgress never marry, but they have a son together, Zeke (born 8 September 1972), who suffers from mild cerebral palsy.
Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s ‘Four Way Street’ (1971) (US no. 1, UK no. 5), in April, is a double album of live recordings made before the quartet split. Although the bulk of the album rakes over the act’s most popular songs (as is common for live sets), it also includes a Neil Young song from the recording studio. ‘Ohio’ (US no. 14) is based on the events that took place at Kent State University in Ohio on 4 May 1970. Students protesting against President Nixon’s military campaign in Cambodia were shot at by the Ohio National Guard and four students were killed. Hence the song’s chicken-scratch electric guitar rhythms are peppered with lyrics like, “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…Four dead in Ohio.”
Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ (1972) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) in February is assembled from three recording sessions. ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ is recorded live at Royce Hall at the University of California in Los Angeles. It is produced by Neil Young and Henry Lewy. The song is given a spartan, acoustic treatment with Young observing, “Every junkie’s like a setting sun.” Pianist Jack Nitzsche produces two heavily orchestrated pieces, ‘Words (Between The Lines Of Age)’ and ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ (the latter refers to Young’s partner Carrie Snodgress: “I fell in love with the actress / She was playing a part that I could understand”). The bulk of ‘Harvest’ is produced by Neil Young and Elliot Mazer. On these tracks Young employs a new backing band, The Stray Gators, consisting of: Jack Nitzsche (piano), Ben Keith (steel guitar), Tim Drummond (bass) and Kenny Buttrey (drums). The prevailing mood is a gentle mix of folk, country and acoustic singer-songwriter confessionals. In truth, Neil Young is in considerable pain at the time. A ‘chronic back ailment’ requires him to perform with a supportive brace. After meeting them on an appearance on ‘The Johnny Cash Show’, Neil Young enlists both singer-songwriter James Taylor and country rocker Linda Ronstadt to provide backing vocals on the two best known songs from ‘Harvest’. ‘Old Man’ (US no. 31) is a quiet reflection on aging with James Taylor also contributing banjo-guitar work. However it is ‘Heart Of Gold’ (US no. 1, UK no. 10) that remains Neil Young’s all-time best song. “I want to live / I want to give / I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold,” Young claims over a nagging acoustic guitar. Young’s harmonica and Ben Keith’s melancholy pedal steel guitar flesh out a country/rock/folk arrangement. The pining loneliness is typical of the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s. Neil Young finds himself in tune with the general tone of the times. This captures his acoustic side to perfection. Young’s electric side gets a brief run in ‘Alabama’, which continues the critique of racism begun in ‘Southern Man’. David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash all show up to provide backing vocals to various songs on ‘Harvest’.
‘Harvest’ proves to be a very commercially successful album for Neil Young. However, his response is – typically – divided. “I think ‘Harvest’ is probably the finest record I’ve made,” he tells one reporter. “I can’t remember if I enjoyed it,” he later claims. Young grunts, “How many sensitive songs can you write?” He recalls thinking, “This is good…Everybody likes it. I could probably make another one. But I didn’t want to make another one.” As Neil Young puts it on another occasion, “’Heart Of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.”
On 12 November 1972 Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten dies of a heroin overdose. The incident weighs heavy on Neil Young and works its way into some of his later recordings.
‘Journey Through The Past’ (1972) (US no. 45, AUS no. 39) in December is a double album compiled as the soundtrack to Neil Young’s film of the same name – but the movie is not released until eighteen months later.
1973 begins what Neil Young describes as “a long dark period.” Stories abound of ‘erratic behaviour’ and ‘shambolic gigs.’ On 4 October 1973 he retreats to the safety of an unofficial Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion – for one night at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom. ‘Time Fades Away’ (1973) (US no. 22, UK no. 20, AUS no. 29), released in October, is a live album – but of previously unreleased material. The contents include ‘Time Fades Away’, ‘Don’t Be Denied’ and ‘The Bridge’. “People thought I’d failed,” claims Neil Young, referring to the muted reception given this disc, “but I’d succeeded – in moving on. I wasn’t dragged down by the success [of ‘Harvest’].” Young is backed on ‘Time Fades Away’ by The Stray Gators, though Johnny Barbata (drums) deputises for Kenny Buttrey on some songs. Young reunites with Crazy Horse for the rest of the year, embarking on the self-flagellating ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour. The singer struggles through these gigs, haunted by the drug overdose deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young roadie Bruce Berry. Surviving Crazy Horse members Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) are joined for these shows by Nils Lofgren (guitar), another associate of Young, who worked with Crazy Horse previously on their own album, ‘Crazy Horse’ (1971). “We would just drink tequila until about one in the morning and then we’d start recording,” Young says of ‘Tonight’s The Night’. The material from ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is set aside without being released at this time, perhaps because it is too confrontational and the wounds remain too raw.
Neil Young’s movie ‘Journey Through the Past’ (1974) is finally released in May, but it is described as ‘a jittery, barely watchable documentary.’ Neil Young goes on to ‘On The Beach’ (1974) (US no. 16, UK no. 42, AUS no. 34) in July which he calls a “sign of the times.” A return to country rock is made with ‘Homegrown’ – but, in what is becoming a familiar pattern, this material is shelved. Unlike ‘Tonight’s The Night’, ‘Homegrown’ is never released, but some of its songs (e.g. ‘Love Is A Rose’, ‘Little Wing’ and ‘The Old Homestead’) surface on later Neil Young albums. The generally mournful tone is attributed to Young’s relationship with Carrie Snodgress unravelling. The couple split up in 1975.
In the background to all this, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young undertake a reunion tour of the U.S.A. from May 1974 to February 1975 and their reunion ends with a show at Wembley Stadium in London, England.
‘Tonight’s The Night’ (1975) (US no. 25, UK no. 48, AUS no. 42) is finally released in June. The harrowing title track, ‘Tonight’s The Night’, remains one of Neil Young’s most emotionally testing moments. The album also contains ‘Tired Eyes’ and ‘Speakin’ Out’, songs where ‘Young sounds like he’s on the edge of a breakdown.’ Tim Mulligan co-produces ‘Tonight’s The Night’ with Neil Young and David Briggs. He continues to act as a co-producer through to 1982.
Neil Young teams up with Stephen Stills for a 1975 tour by The Stills-Young Band. This is cut short on 13 October 1975 when Neil Young has to have surgery on his vocal chords.
Neil Young’s ‘Zuma’ (1975) (US no. 25, UK no. 44, AUS no. 44) in November is the introduction of a revised version of Crazy Horse. The new line-up is Frank Sampedro (guitar, keyboards), Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums). Although Crazy Horse played on ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (and less officially on ‘After The Gold Rush’), ‘Zuma’ is the first album since ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ on which they are co-credited with Neil Young. ‘Zuma’ is best known for ‘Cortez The Killer’, a venomous historical report of the Spanish conquistador’s encounter with the Central American leader Montezuma. Young regularly sides with the indigenous peoples. Another song recorded by Neil Young in 1975, ‘Like A Hurricane’, is set aside for later. His “long dark period” seems to be coming to a close.
‘Long May You Run’ (1976) (US no. 26, UK no. 12), an album credited to The Stills-Young Band, is released in September. The title track from this set, Neil Young’s ‘Long May You Run’, draws some attention.
‘American Stars ‘N’ Bars’ (1977) (US no. 21, UK no. 17, AUS no. 21) is released in June. It ‘attempts to reconcile opposites, folk roots and feedback fury.’ Falling into the latter category is ‘Like A Hurricane’ (UK no. 48), a track recorded in 1975 with Crazy Horse. This is a blast of electric guitar over a throaty organ gust. Despite the torrent, there is a grace to Neil Young’s lyric: “I saw your brown eyes turning once to fire / You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m getting’ blown away / To somewhere safer where the feeling stays / I want to love you but I’m getting blown away.” Neil Young tries to sew up his bag of contradictions with the triple album retrospective ‘Decade’ (1977) (US no. 43, UK no. 46, AUS no. 21) in October. It brings together such ‘lost’ material as ‘Sugar Mountain’ and ‘Love is A Rose’ as well as at least some of the singer’s better known works.
On 2 August 1978 Neil Young marries his second wife, Pegi Morton. The couple have two children: a son named Ben (born 1978) and a daughter named Amber Jean (born 1984). Ben has severe cerebral palsy. He is quadriplegic and unable to speak.
‘Comes A Time’ (1978) (US no. 7, UK no. 42, AUS no. 6) in October is Neil Young’s most country music-oriented release since ‘Harvest’ (excluding the aborted ‘Homegrown’). The album is co-produced by Ben Keith (the pedal steel guitar player from The Stray Gators), Neil Young, David Briggs and Tim Mulligan. The title track, ‘Comes A Time’, is a country hoedown complete with Rufus Thibodeaux sawing on a fiddle: “Comes a time when you’re driftin’ / Comes a time when you settle down / Comes a light, feelin’s liftin’ / Lift that baby right up off the ground.” Nicolette Larson provides backing vocals on most of the album and her own version of one of the tracks from ‘Comes A Time’, ‘Lotta Love’, is given a disco-pop polish to become a hit for her in 1978. ‘Comes A Time’ includes a cover version of Ian Tyson’s folk song ‘Four Strong Winds’ (US no. 61, UK no. 57) from 1963. It was originally a hit for Ian & Sylvia, i.e. Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker, whom Tyson went on to marry in 1964. Other notable tracks on this disc include ‘Human Highway’ and the brooding ‘Look Out For My Love’.
In the mid-1970s the established rock aristocracy is challenged by the proletarian punk revolutionaries. Because he shrugged off his own place amongst rock’s old guard after ‘Harvest’ and by virtue of his continuing involvement with Crazy Horse (“My rock ‘n’ roll band,” as Neil Young describes them), Neil Young feels less threatened than many of his peers. “I’m behind them,” he says of the punks. “It was a great time in music,” he later reflects. As punk gives way to its quirkier successor, new wave, Neil Young jams with Devo, an American new wave act. The jam sparks the next Neil Young album.
‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1979) (US no. 8, UK no. 13, AUS no. 8) appears in July. The album is divided between acoustic delicacy and hard rock brutalism. The album title comes from an advertising slogan printed on t-shirts for Rustoleum, an anti-rust product made in Akron, Ohio. Devo’s Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh came up with the tagline in their pre-rock days. Young takes it as an admonition to beware complacency. The acoustic ‘My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ is reincarnated as the electric ‘Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)’ (US no. 79). Neil Young says of the latter, “Radio stations called back and said it was distorted” – which, of course, is the point. “Rock and roll can never die,” Young’s quavering voice insists, but also suggests that, “It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away.” Young explains that, “It’s a song about artistic survival.” When he sings, “The King is gone but he’s not forgotten,” the immediate interpretation is that Young is referring to Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, who died in 1977. But then the lyric asks, “Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?”, the lead vocalist of The Sex Pistols – the definitive punk band – who stepped down and ‘died’ in 1978. “I never met John Lydon [Johnny Rotten’s real name],” admits Young, “but I like what he did to people.” Johnny Rotten upset the status quo. Elvis Presley also upset the status quo. And, perhaps, to Neil Young’s way of thinking, that is the purpose of rock ‘n’ roll – to upset the status quo – and that is why it will “never die.” ‘My My Hey Hey’ and its bookend partner are co-written by Neil Young and Jeff Blackburn. ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ is another album co-credited to Neil Young And Crazy Horse (the first since ‘Zuma’) and they accompany him, thrashing through such tracks as ‘Welfare Mothers’ and ‘Sedan Delivery’ and the album’s other standout, ‘Powderfinger’, a historical account of doomed frontier life.
The motion picture ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1979) premieres at the Bruin Theater in Westwood, California, on 11 July 1979. This is a documentary of Neil Young’s most recent U.S. concert tour. It verges on fantasy with Young dwarfed by giant speakers and the roadies dressed as the hooded and robed Jawas from science-fiction film ‘Star Wars’ (1977).
Completing the multi-media extravaganza is ‘Live Rust’ (1979) (US no. 15, UK no. 55, AUS no. 21), released in November. This is a double album of live recordings of Neil Young And Crazy Horse. It also happens to be Neil Young’s best album. This gives the most complete account of the man and his talents with songs taken from throughout his career (with the notable omissions of ‘Harvest’ songs like ‘Heart Of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’). The whole thing is sequenced so that it flows from Young performing solo with the quietest, most intimate acoustic songs from the show to the full-blown Crazy Horse experience. The songs seem to get progressively longer too as the album unfurls. Beyond that, the songs are all well performed with Neil Young And Crazy Horse at the height of their powers. If a single song must be nominated as a highlight, then perhaps it would be this album’s take on ‘Cortez The Killer’ (Side three, track two) which introduces a reggae section which, due to reggae’s Jamaican origins, suggest a whole new chapter of white imperialism in the Caribbean.
‘Hawks And Doves’ (1980) (US no. 30, UK no. 34, AUS no. 10) is, like ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, split into acoustic and electric halves. ‘Little Wing’ (a Neil Young original, not a cover version of the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name) and ‘The Old Farmstead’ are salvaged from the lost ‘Homegrown’ album and sit alongside the spooky ‘Lost In Space’ and ‘Captain Kennedy’, songs whose stark acoustic guitar evokes emptiness. Some pundits contend that ‘Hawks And Doves’ shows the ‘influence of conservative right-wing politics’, but this seems to misread or ignore country rock-outs such as ‘Union Man’ or ‘Comin’ Apart At Every Nail’. The nearest culprit is the title track, ‘Hawks And Doves’, in which Young states, “I ain’t tongue-tied / Just don’t got nothin’ to say / I’m proud to be livin’ in the U.S.A.”
‘Re-ac-tor’ (1981) (US no. 27, UK no. 69, AUS no. 27) is credited to Neil Young And Crazy Horse. This album is one of Young’s most aggressive rock records. It is also his last for Reprise, concluding a long association with that record label.
There is another movie venture at this juncture, ‘Neil Young: Human Highway’ (1982), in September.
David Geffen founded the Asylum record label in the early 1970s and it became the home to country rock artists like The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. At the start of the 1980s, Asylum’s founder begins again with his own boutique label, Geffen Records. Due to his power and influence, he assembles a superstar roster including John Lennon and Elton John. When Neil Young is also signed to Geffen, it seems like another jewel in the crown. They had no idea of what the future held.
‘Trans’ (1982) (US no. 19, UK no. 29, AUS no. 23) in December is Neil Young’s first album for Geffen Records. It is an album of synth-pop inspired by the likes of A Flock Of Seagulls and The Human League. “All that stuff with the drum computers and the synthetic things is what I like,” Neil Young claims. His voice is turned into an electronic mask via a vocoder while synclaviers are used to allow the guitarist to effectively play keyboards instead. Despite the modern technology, ‘Trans’ is produced by the familiar trio of Neil Young, David Briggs and Tim Mulligan.
“At that time people were judging me based on the style of music I was doing. They were criticising me for not being genuine,” Neil Young recalls. “They [Geffen Records] said, ‘Neil, you’ve gotta make a rock ‘n’ roll record. You just have to’.” This prompts Young to consider just what is rock ‘n’ roll. “Originally, it was like rockabilly,” he decides. ‘Eveybody’s Rockin’’ (1983) (US no. 46, UK no. 50, AUS no. 30) is, accordingly, a rockabilly album. It is as though Neil Young has jumped in a time machine for a trip back to the mid-1950s. Half of the album consists of cover versions of old songs of that era (e.g. Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’, made famous by Elvis Presley), but intertwined with these are Neil Young originals (e.g. ‘Kinda Fonda Wanda’, co-written with bassist Tim Drummond) that are virtually indistinguishable from the authentic oldies, so accurate is the pastiche. The disc is credited to Neil & The Shocking Pinks, a one-off band for this occasion. “If you’re gonna tell me what to do,” smirks Neil Young, “you better tell me exactly what you ask for…”
The unamused executives at Geffen Records file a lawsuit against Neil Young for making ‘unrepresentative’ recordings. Neil Young responds by submitting his most country-oriented disc since ‘Comes A Time’, an album titled ‘Old Ways’ (1985) (US no. 75, UK no. 39, AUS no. 30). ‘Get Back To The Country’ urges one of the tracks. Neil Young institutes another one-off band to promote the album. His group is wittily called The International Harvesters, a gag that bridges a type of farm machinery and Young’s best known country-ish album of the past, ‘Harvest’. “I think I’m going to be making country records for as long as I can see into the future,” says Young to the accompaniment of rising blood pressure in the boardrooms at Geffen.
Presumably, Geffen Records’ executives are somewhat placated by ‘Landing On Water’ (1986) (US no. 46, UK no. 52, AUS no. 43) and ‘Life’ (1987) (US no. 75, UK no. 71), two more conventional rock albums. Crazy Horse accompanies their long-time comrade on ‘Life’. Geffen and Neil Young part ways after ‘Life’.
‘This Note’s For You’ (1988) (US no. 61, UK no. 56, AUS no. 45) in April marks Neil Young’s return to Reprise Records. The disc is co-produced by Niko Bolas who frequently co-produces with Neil Young for the next twenty years. ‘This Note’s For You’ is another stylistic swerve as Young incorporates a greater blues influence into his sound. Accordingly, he adopts another one-time backing group, The Bluenotes. They are a large band as acknowledged by ‘Ten Men Workin’’. The title track, ‘This Note’s For You’, sees Young taking a shot at rock musicians who have sold out to commercial interests and allowed their music to be used for advertising jingles. “I work for the muse…I’m not here to sell things,” Young tells a reporter.
Since 1977 Neil Young’s old comrades Crosby, Stills & Nash have been working together fairly regularly as a trio. However, Neil Young has resisted requests for him to join them…until now. ‘American Dream’ (1988) (US no. 16) in November is the first new Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album since the early 1970s. Neil Young composes a number of songs on this disc including the title track, ‘American Dream’ (UK no. 55).
‘El Dorado’ is a five-track EP released by Neil Young in May 1989. The title is taken form a fabled city of gold supposedly located in Central America. The EP is credited to Neil Young And The Restless, another backing band that is never heard from again. ‘Freedom’ (1989) (US no. 35, UK no. 17) in October returns to the half-acoustic, half-electric formula that served Young well in the past. ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ is a buffeting blast that mocks the political masters of the time: “Thousand points of light for the homeless man [and]…a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.”
The ‘loud, feedback-drenched’ ‘Ragged Glory’ (1990) (US no. 31, UK no. 15) reunites Neil Young with Crazy Horse. They stick around for the live set, ‘Weld’ (1991) (US no. 154, UK no. 20) and the accompanying ‘Arc’ (1991). The latter tests the patience of all but the most devoted Neil Young fans since it is thirty-five minutes of feedback noise mixed in with vocal fragments.
‘Harvest Moon’ (1992) (US no. 16, UK no. 9, AUS no. 40) returns Neil Young to country music. The title is an obvious nod to ‘Harvest’, released twenty years earlier. The title track, ‘Harvest Moon’, is a gently romantic country waltz. The Stray Gators provide back-up with Spooner Oldham (piano) replacing Jack Nitzsche.
Neil Young’s hard rock proclivities endear him to the grunge rock bands of the early 1990s. When Kurt Cobain, leader of Nirvana – the most famous grunge band – commits suicide on 5 April 1994 he quotes Young’s “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” line in his parting note. “The fact that he left the lyrics to my song right there with him when he killed himself left a profound feeling on me,” says Young. Although most of the disc was recorded before Cobain’s passing, ‘Sleeps With Angels’ (1994) (US no. 9, UK no. 2, AUS no. 23), released in August, is inspired by his death. The album is ‘hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters.’ Crazy Horse play on ‘Sleeps With Angels’.
‘Mirror Ball’ (1995) (US no. 5, UK no. 4, AUS no. 4) is recorded with grunge band Pearl Jam providing backing for Neil Young. David Briggs, who co-produced most of Young’s albums from 1968 to 1985, passes away in 1995. ‘Dead Man – Soundtrack’ (1996) is Neil Young’s atmospheric music for director Jim Jarmusch’s weirdo western starring Johnny Depp released in April. Neil Young returns to Crazy Horse for ‘Broken Arrow’ (1996) (US no. 31, UK no. 17, AUS no. 43), released in July, and Jim Jarmusch’s documentary film ‘Year of the Horse’ (1997) and the live album ‘Year Of The Horse’ (1997) (US no. 57, UK no. 36). Then it is time for another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, ‘Looking Forward’ (1999) (US no. 26, UK no. 54).
Neil Young resumes his solo career with ‘Silver & Gold’ (2000) (US no. 22, UK no. 10, AUS no. 30). This is followed by ‘Road Rock Vol. 1’ (2001) (US no. 169, UK no. 103), a souvenir of Neil Young’s 2000 concert tour. ‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002) (US no. 10, UK no. 24, AUS no. 41) teams Neil Young with 1960s soul band Booker T. And The MG’s. ‘Greendale’ (2003) (US no. 22, UK no. 24, AUS no. 48) in August is a concept album about small town life. It is recorded with Crazy Horse. There is an accompanying film, ‘Greendale’ (2003), released in September.
In 2005 Neil Young is diagnosed with a potentially deadly brain aneurysm. However the condition is successfully treated and Young recovers. Nevertheless, an air of mortality suffuses the acoustic ‘Prairie Wind’ (2005) (US no. 11, UK no. 22), released in September and co-produced by Ben Keith. ‘Heart of Gold’ (2006), a documentary film of a Neil Young concert, is released in May. It is directed by Jonathan Demme. May also brings ‘Living With War’ (2006) (US no. 15, UK no. 14, AUS no. 41), a new Neil Young album. This controversial work is critical of U.S. President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. This is evident in songs like ‘Shock And Awe’. ‘Living With War: “In The Beginning”’ (2006) follows in November and is a stripped-down version of the same album. The heartland rock of ‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007) (US no. 11, UK no. 14, AUS no. 33) is Neil Young’s next project. Another movie follows: ‘Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Déjà Vu’ (2008). Neil Young co-directs the film. It follows the band’s ‘Freedom of Speech’ tour across the U.S. with the war in Iraq serving as a constant background. ‘Fork In The Road’ (2009) (US no. 19, UK no. 22, AUS no. 37) is a Neil Young album built around the theme of cars.
In 2010 Buffalo Springfield reassembles for a U.S. tour. The line-up is minus Bruce Palmer (bass) and Dewey Martin (drums) because they passed away in, respectively, 2004 and 2009. No new Buffalo Springfield music is recorded. Neil Young returns to his solo career with ‘Le Noise’ (2010) (US no. 14, UK no. 18, AUS no. 41), a rock album whose title is a bit of a pun on the fact that it is produced by Daniel Lanois. The wheel has turned sufficiently for Neil Young to once again, join forces with Crazy Horse. They are featured on both ‘Americana’ (2012) (US no. 4, UK no. 16, AUS no. 34) in June (a batch of folk songs and early rock tunes) and ‘Psychedelic Pill’ (2012) (US no. 8, UK no. 14, AUS no. 28) in October (a double album of original material). Neil Young also pens his memoir, ‘Making Heavy Peace’ (2012). ‘A Letter Home’ (2014), released in April, is an oddball gathering of cover versions of songs by other rock artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen – but it is recorded in a voice-o-graph booth and issued on the Third Man label instead of Reprise.
On 29 July 2014 Neil Young files for divorce from Pegi Morton, his wife for the last thirty-six years.
Beginning in 2014, Neil Young is in a romantic relationship with U.S. actress Daryl Hannah.
‘The Monsanto Years’ (2015) (US no. 21, UK no. 24, AUS no. 23) is ‘a concept album criticising agribusiness company Monsanto.’ Neil Young records the album with the sons of country music star Willie Nelson, Lukas and Micah. The backing musicians are from Lukas’ band Promise Of The Real.
‘Peace Trail’ (2016) (US no. 76, UK no. 57, AUS no. 52) is co-produced by Neil Young and John Hanlon. This is a primarily acoustic album.
‘The Visitor’ (2017) (US no. 167, UK no. 63, AUS no. 85) is again co-produced by Neil Young and John Hanlon. This is a rock album on which Young is backed by Promise Of The Real. ‘Already Great’ (a non-charting single) is a response to Donald Trump’s U.S. Presidential campaign slogan ‘Make America great again.’ “I’m Canadian, by the way / And I love the U.S.A.” sings Neil Young in ‘Already Great’. A lumbering, corrosive, hollow honky-tonk feel dominates the verses, but this yields to a more peaceful chorus. A ‘sense of cranky rage and ageless idealism [is] all over’ this album. Musically, the ‘guitars cut like rusty ploughs’ on these ‘grunge anthem[s]’ but there is still space for a ‘sombre folk shuffle’ too.
During the ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour in 1973, it seemed like Neil Young was destroying himself. However, he survived. The whole episode was symbolic of Neil Young’s dedication to his art above all else. Sometimes that caused hurt and resentment amongst those around him, but it may not be something about which he had a choice. The force of creativity can be very strong. Neil Young’s most creative period was probably from 1969 to 1979. Neil Young was ‘one of the most respected and prolific rock/folk guitarist of the late twentieth century.’ He ‘insisted upon the freedom to swing from one extreme to another [and] to create with disdain for careerist aspirations.’
- lyricsfreak.com as at 13 September 2014
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 45, 60, 67, 143, 251
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 131, 144, 160, 204, 206, 219, 247, 300
- ‘Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied’ (U.K. television documentary, BBC Four Network) (3 December 2012?)
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Neil Young’ by Don McLeese (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 324, 325, 326, 327, 328, 330
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 7 July 2014
- wikipedia.org as at 16 September 2014, 1 January 2016, 4 January 2017, 3 January 2018
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 17 September 2014
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 34, 53, 111, 237
- ‘The New York Times’ (New York, U.S.A., newspaper) – ‘Neil Young Comes Clean’ by David Carr (19 September 2012)
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 46, 57, 58, 65, 66
- whosdatedwho.com as at 7 July 2014
- brainyquote.com as at 16 September 2014
- allmusic.com, ‘Neil Young’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 16 September 2014
- ‘Neil Young – Greatest Hits’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Reprise Records, 2004) p. 2, 3, 5
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 138
- ‘Harvest’ –Anonymous sleeve notes (Reprise Records, 1972) p. 2, back cover
- ‘New Musical Express’ (U.K. rock newspaper) via (17) above
- ‘Decade’ (1977) – Sleeve notes by Neil Young via (5) above, p. 327
- songfacts.com as at 16 September 2014
- rollingstone.com – ‘Review: Neil Young Channels More Cranky Rage, Ageless Idealism with Promise of the Real’ – review of ‘The Visitor’ by Jon Dolan (4 December 2017)
- azlyrics.com as at 4 January 2018
Song lyrics copyright Broken Arrow Music Corp. (ASCAP) (1969-1971), Broken Fiddle Music (ASCAP) (1971-1975, 1989), Silver Fiddle Music (ASCAP) (1978), Broken Arrow Music Corp. / Broken Fiddle Music (ASCAP) (1979-1980), unknown (2017)
Last revised 7 January 2018