Neil Young is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Omemee, Ontario. The youngest of two children, Neil’s father Scott Young was a prominent Canadian journalist and sportswriter. His parents divorced when Neil was twelve; he and his mother “Rassy” Young moved back to Rassy’s hometown of Winnepeg, Manitoba, where Neil’s interest in playing music began in earnest. In addition to Neil Young’s contribution to popular music, the Winnepeg music scene of the sixties also produced two well-known bands, The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
Although his early musical journey is more complicated, a brief summary is as follows. By 1964, Young toured central Canada with The Squires, among other bands. In 1966, he moved to Detroit to work with The Mynah Birds, a brief, ill-fated attempt to join Motown Records. Young left Detroit for Los Angeles, where he quickly integrated himself into the local music scene. He gained his first national exposure with Buffalo Springfield, after reuniting with Stephen Stills, a friend he met during his days in Canada. When Buffalo Springfield folded due to infighting, Stills asked Young if he would like to join his new band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Young maintained a lifelong on-again, off-again relationship with the popular band, which brought financial success, plus the ability to fund his own solo music projects. Throughout his long career, Young is a prolific songwriter known for two specific styles — a soft country folk sound, and his raucous, hard-rocking guitar band Crazy Horse. Young lived illegally in the United States until he was able to procure a green card in 1970.
Neil Young (b. 1945), guitar, keyboards, harmonica, vocals, songwriter
Current Members of Crazy Horse:
Former Members of Crazy Horse:
Danny Whitten (1943-1972), guitar, vocals, songwriter
Jack Nitzsche (1937-2000), arranger, producer, composer
Nils Lofgren (b. 1951), guitar, songwriter
Other Well-Known Contributors:
Broken Arrows, Trains & Automobiles
As Neil Young experienced financial success, he used the money to invest in a variety of personal projects. In 1970, Young purchased the 140 acre Broken Arrow Ranch in the coast range mountains near La Honda, California, in the cool, windy grasslands south of San Francisco, where the giant coast redwoods grow. My friend Keith has lived nearby, close to the Summit Road, for many years. Keith says the redwoods were all cut down after the 1906 earthquake to rebuild San Francisco, but Sequoia sempervirens regenerate naturally, and after a century, these magnificent trees stand 200 or more feet tall. Keith once saw Neil at the local La Honda restaurant where he and his friends used to play volleyball on Friday nights.
The weather south of San Francisco is harsh, cold and windy and foggy much of the time. The coast range shields the Bay Area from the ocean’s might, which explains the warm, benign Mediterranean climate. In a metropolitan area with well over five million people, few live along the coastal headlands between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, where Young still resides.
I read Neil’s recent autobiography “Waging Heavy Peace” and learned he has a model railroad. He became a part owner in the Lionel Corporation, as part of a personal project to create a realistic locomotive whose sounds and sights resemble real steam engine action. My Dad was a model railroader for many years, and built his own throttles and switching systems, too. My question is why Neil would choose the “O” gauge Lionel trains, with the center third rail used for electrical contact. It must be a sentimental choice from childhood. I always thought Lionel trains looked unrealistic with that third rail.
Neil Young is fascinated by big American cars, ever since his mom helped him buy a 1948 Buick Hearse to travel with the Squires. Over the years he acquired a number of buses and vintage American automobiles, and still maintains a stable of his favorites. One of his current projects is the LincVolt, a private project to create an efficient electric car, using a nineteen foot long, 1959 Lincoln Continental as the template. Neil’s long term goal is to eliminate refueling stations and the need for international oil politics.
If that wasn’t enough, Neil Young has also produced several films. I admire him for investing in himself and his ideas. Here are two recent interview excerpts in which he discusses his various projects:
A Chance Meeting
While researching Neil’s career and music, I had a wonderful, improbable chance meeting. One evening, my wife and I went to our local golf club to socialize and have a drink. They had a guest that evening, Randy Petersen, a friend visiting from Arizona. As the conversation turned to asking Randy about himself, we discover that he is a musician, and serves as business manager for The Guess Who. His brother Garry was The Guess Who’s drummer for all their hit songs of the late sixties and early seventies. Randy, also a drummer, also traveled with Winnepeg bands throughout Canada, including The Squires, Neil Young’s first band. I proceeded to spend the next hour or so guiding the conversation to my music project, and asking all sorts of questions about Neil Young and the Guess Who. Fortunately, he seemed to enjoy the attention, and our friends didn’t seem to mind either.
Most of Randy’s thoughts about his time with Neil Young can be found in the referenced article. He suggested I read the biography “Shakey” by Jimmy McDonough. He also says Neil was a confident, even cocky young man. The McDonough biography paints a portrait of a controlling man, but that appears to be the rule rather than the exception with the artists I have profiled.
Marijuana and Creativity
“I’ve always wrote when I was high before. Getting high is something I used to do to forget one world’s realities and slip into the other world, the music world where all the melodies and words come together in a thoughtless and random way like a gift. I always have said that thinking is the worst thing for music, and now I would like to know how to get back to music without getting high. Some people are probably saying I should get high and write more songs ’cause that works. My doctor does not think that is good for my brain.”
“Of course there are many reasons to be straight and many reasons to be stoned, but that doesn’t solve anything. There are many reasons to live and die, too. Where is this headed? I’ll be damned if I know, Hoss; some highway the bottom of some hill? Tell me about it. I’ve been there. I can still see myself out of that road, ripping it up in some honky-tonk or tearing down some arena with the Horse, but when I occasionally see myself in the mirror, it just doesn’t add up. Where are we headed with this? Beats the hell out of lookin’ back, that’s for sure. I’m not sure of what’s real anymore, I can tell you that. The straighter I am, the more alert I am, the less I know myself and the harder it is to recognize myself. I need a little grounding in something and I am looking for it everywhere.”
— Neil Young (from “Waging Heavy Peace”)
Mr. Young’s recent decision to stop drinking and smoking makes for an opportune time to summarize my thoughts about marijuana. I’ve battled with the highs and lows of drug and alcohol use throughout my adult life. Cocaine use as a young adult was disastrous; fortunately I quit that over twenty years ago. Since then I’ve alternated between complete sobriety and periods of “partying” — drinking, mostly beer and smoking, both marijuana and cigarettes. It seems each successive period of partying finds me drinking and smoking, especially cigarettes, more heavily, while my sensitivity to marijuana grows more acute. I exhibit little ability to moderate; though it would be ideal to have a smoke and a few drinks with friends every month or two, I can’t do that. I am also incapable of separating the three; if I drink or smoke, I eventually use them all, before eventually tiring of the partying lifestyle and quit for a long stretch once again. I had been sober for five and a half years when I decided to give the partying lifestyle another try in June, 2011. After two years of mixed results, I’m on my way back to the sober life.
Neil Young wrote his recent autobiography sober, after a lifetime of consistent marijuana use, which he feels made him more creative as a songwriter:
I’ve enjoyed the positive benefits of getting high while writing the blog these last couple years. There are times, after a few beers and a couple of puffs, when the ideas come fast, and the blog has benefited. The partying life means significant bursts of creative thought, mixed with days where I’m so tired little gets done. On average, the sober life is happier, more productive and more enjoyable.
Marijuana acts as a mental stimulant for me; my mind often races with ideas and thoughts. I can be difficult company for typical users who like to have a beer and a smoke to chill out. If I overreach, and smoke too much herb, I can become very anxious and afraid. There was one evening a few months ago where I experienced a minor psychotic break from reality, where I was very agitated and frightened. Every time I closed my eyes to sleep, I experienced psychedelic, disturbing visions, my mind concocting its own horror story.
I pay for the extra mental energy later. It’s as if my body takes out a loan, borrowing an excess of the pleasurable, creative chemicals (like dopamine and serotonin), and making up the deficit with a lethargic period afterwards. Furthermore, the loan balance accumulates, and when I’m ready to quit for a while, it takes days, even weeks, before I return to feeling good.
Now in my mid-fifties, I fear that the drinking and smoking, and the poor dietary habits that accompany them, will kill me. Lately I am paranoid about every sore throat, every twinge in my tongue, and every other inconsistency in my diurnal patterns, believing this time I’ve really done it. Give me a few weeks of clean living, good exercise and a healthy diet, and the fears will fade, meaning I can begin living happy and carefree again. Some fear will always be there. My father stopped smoking cigars at age 52, but died of lung cancer complications at age 75. My father’s father stopped smoking at age 50, and lived to age 95. Neither one ever drank alcohol, whereas I have been a binge drinker on and off for years. On average, my closest relatives lived into their late seventies. Another twenty years in this beautiful life would make me ecstatic. I have things I want to accomplish.
Speaking from personal experience, I believe marijuana is a better drug than alcohol, but I don’t think it should be legalized. They can both be lovely enhancements to one’s creativity. The fact cigarettes are legal is ridiculous. They’re fun to smoke, and enjoyable to ponder life’s mysteries while smoking, but they make me feel like crap.
Judging by his own descriptions, Neil Young smoked more marijuana than I ever did, but was not a regular cigarette smoker. He is 67 years old now, in good health for someone who has suffered a variety of handicaps and health scares throughout his life. I wish him moving forward for the first time in sobriety, chasing his dreams building the perfect electric car and playing music with his beloved Crazy Horse.
I first listened to Neil Young in high school, as a solo artist and as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I paid little attention to his music afterwards until 1989, when Rolling Stone magazine came out with a five star review of his new CD Freedom. I became a devoted fan for a few years, acquiring the next several compact disk releases. A short list of my favorite Neil Young CDs is:
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Decade (a compilation of early works)
Neil Young Unplugged
Ragged Glory is the dark horse selection. Neil Young with Crazy Horse, loud and rowdy and unrefined. Beautiful in its own way.
I remember hearing “Harvest Moon” the first time. Neil solo with his guitar and harmonica on Saturday Night Live. Played solo it sounded incomplete, but when I heard it with the whole band, I fell immediately for this beautiful and romantic song about old love.
But now it’s gettin’ late,
And the moon is climbin’ high.
I want to celebrate,
See it shinin’ in your eye.
Because I’m still in love with you,
I want to see you dance again.
Because I’m still in love with you,
On this harvest moon.
— Neil Young
My interest in Neil Young’s music was renewed about the time I began courting my wife Cheryl. We began dating in 1989 and were married in early 1992. Though my broad music tastes would never allow me to select one song, and though it was released a year after we married, “Harvest Moon” is as close to our song as will ever be. Perhaps a romantic song about rekindling the love of a long marriage is an odd choice. Cheryl is several years older than me, and there has always been something very settled about our friendship. We started talking, and the relaxed, comfortable conversation continues. There have been challenges and significant heartache, but the friendship is old and everlasting, even when the marriage has been in jeopardy. It is the right song for me and Cheryl, a favorite song I never tire of.
Neil Young with his band on the MTV Unplugged program, using a broom for percussion. I love the smiles on his fellow guitarists as they sit in a tight circle and play this gentle gem.
Neil Young Music Notes:
1. In general, Neil Young’s songs have simple chord structures in basic guitar keys. Within these constraints, Young created a diverse body of work. He uses the guitar as a percussive instrument, and a master of syncopation. As a lead electric guitarist, he is crude and not a great technician, but he knows how to use electronics to coax the necessary sounds to achieve the desired emotional impact.
2. “Cowgirl In The Sand (Live)”, “Down By The River (Live)” and “Old Man (Live)” can be found on Live At Massey Hall 1971 (Deluxe Version).
3. “Sugar Mountain (Live)” and “I Am A Child (Live)” can be found on Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968.
4. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Live)” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young can be found on Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972).
5. “Cowgirl In The Sand (Live)” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Live)” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young can be found on 4-Way Street.
6. “Like A Hurricane (Live)”, “The Needle And The Damage Done (Live)”, “Harvest Moon (Live)”, “Unknown Legend (Live)”, “Look Out For My Love (Live)” and “From Hank To Hendrix (Live)” can be found on Neil Young Unplugged.
7. “Powderfinger (Live)” can be found on Live Rust.
Neil Young Songs:
Harvest Moon, Neil Young ★★★★★
Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World (Live) (Rocking), Neil Young ★★★★
Cinnamon Girl, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★★★★
The Needle And The Damage Done, Neil Young ★★★★
Harvest Moon (Live), Neil Young ★★★★
Old Man, Neil Young ★★★★
Sugar Mountain (Live), Neil Young ★★★
From Hank To Hendrix, Neil Young ★★★
From Hank To Hendrix (Live), Neil Young ★★★
Wrecking Ball, Neil Young ★★★
Unknown Legend (Live), Neil Young ★★★
Hangin’ On A Limb, Neil Young ★★★
Down By The River, Neil Young ★★★
Cowgirl In The Sand (Live), Neil Young ★★★
The Needle And The Damage Done (Live), Neil Young ★★★
Old Man (Live), Neil Young ★★★
Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Neil Young ★★
Lotta Love, Neil Young ★★
Southern Man, Neil Young ★★
Love Is A Rose, Neil Young ★★
Long May You Run, Neil Young ★★
Rockin’ In The Free World (Live) (Acoustic), Neil Young ★★
Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero, Pt. 1), Neil Young ★★
No More, Neil Young ★★
Heart Of Gold, Neil Young ★★
Unknown Legend, Neil Young ★★
One Of These Days, Neil Young ★★
Down By the River (Live), Neil Young ★★
It’s A Dream, Neil Young ★★
Silver & Gold, Neil Young ★★
Cowgirl In The Sand, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★★
Powderfinger (Live), Neil Young ★★
Over And Over, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★★
Change Your Mind, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★★
Don’t Let It Bring You Down, Neil Young ★
Look Out For My Love, Neil Young ★
Already One, Neil Young ★
The Loner, Neil Young ★
Tonight’s The Night (Part 1), Neil Young ★
Walk On, Neil Young ★
Eldorado, Neil Young ★
Ways Of Love, Neil Young ★
On Broadway, Neil Young ★
Alabama, Neil Young ★
You And Me, Neil Young ★
War Of Man, Neil Young ★
Like A Hurricane (Live), Neil Young ★
Look Out For My Love (Live), Neil Young ★
Falling Off the Face Of The Earth, Neil Young ★
My My, Hey Hey (Out Of the Blue), Neil Young ★
Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), Neil Young ★
I Am A Child (Live), Neil Young ★
Can’t Believe Your Lyin’, Neil Young ★
Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown, Neil Young ★
Out On The Weekend, Neil Young ★
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★
When You Dance, I Can Really Love, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★
White Line, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★
Fuckin’ Up, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★
Farmer John, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★
Mansion On The Hill, Neil Young with Crazy Horse ★
Buffalo Springfield Songs:
For What It’s Worth, Buffalo Springfield ★★★★
Mr. Soul, Buffalo Springfield ★★
Burned (Mono), Buffalo Springfield ★
I Am A Child, Buffalo Springfield ★
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Songs:
Carry On, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★★
Ohio, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★★
Cowgirl In The Sand (Live), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★★
4 + 20, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★
Teach Your Children, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★
Find The Cost Of Freedom, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★
Woodstock, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★
Our House, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★
Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Live), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★
Helpless, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★★
Deja Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★
Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Live), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ★
Here is a full concert performance from 2002 for those interested. Neil Young with Poncho Sampedro and members of Booker T. & The MGs: