Neil Young (born November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario) is recognizable for his high-pitched, nasal voice and for his deeply personal lyrics. Musically, most of Young’s work falls into two distinct styles; the first is an acoustic, country-tinged folk rock, heard on such songs as “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man” and “Long May You Run”. The other style is a grinding, lumbering form of hard rock, heard on songs like “Cinnamon Girl”, “Southern Ma”" and “Rockin’ in the Free World” and often recorded with the backing band, Crazy Horse. He has also experimented with soul, swing, jazz and electronica in his widely varied career.
Young came to prominence with folk rock band, Buffalo Springfield in the mid-1960s. He reached his commercial peak during the singer-songwriter boom of the early 1970s with the albums After the Gold Rush and Harvest and his role in the super group, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He has since fiercely refused commercial stardom, which has led him to create both durable, uncompromising music and outlandish experiments that have left critics, audiences and – in one notable case – his record label baffled.
Despite a lack of consistency, though some will say just because of it, Young is a widely influential and acclaimed performer. He has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the cable music channel VH1’s 2000 list of the top 100 artists of rock and roll, he ranked number 30. He was also ranked number 30 on VH1’s list of top 100 hard rock artists.
Under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, Young has directed three films, the concert film Rust Never Sleeps (1972) and the fictional Human Highway (1982) and Greendale (2003). He’s also an outspoken advocate for environmental issues and small farmers and co-founded the benefit concert, Farm Aid.
Young was born in Toronto; his father was sportswriter and novelist Scott Young and his mother, Rassy Young. Having first played in high school instrumental rock bands in Winnipeg (one of whom, The Squires, had a local hit with “The Sulta”") he began to work the folk clubs of Toronto, where he befriended guitarist Stephen Stills. Young was also acquainted with another soon-to-be-famous Winnipeg guitarist, Randy Bachman (The Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive).
In 1966, after an aborted record deal with the Rick James-fronted Mynah Birds, he and bass player Bruce Palmer relocated to Los Angeles, where he again met Stills. With the American Richie Furay they formed Buffalo Springfield, taking their name from a manufacturer of heavy equipment such as steamrollers. Playing a mixture of folk, country, psychedelia and rock, and given a hard edge by the twin lead guitars of Stills and Young, the Springfield were a critical success, and the first record Buffalo Springfield (1967) sold well, supported by a hit single in Stills’ political “For What It’s Worth”. During sessions for the follow-up, relations between the band deteriorated, with Stills and Young, the de facto leaders of the group, pulling in opposite directions. The tensions led to the abandonment of the record, provisionally titled Stampede, although some of the songs reappeared on Buffalo Springfield Again (1967). By then, Palmer had been arrested for possession of drugs and deported back to Canada, and Young had all but left the group; his compositions, “Mr. Soul”, “Expecting to Fly” and the adventurous “Broken Arrow” are solo recordings in all but name. Despite that, the album was well received.
Young’s three songs on Buffalo Springfield Again can be seen as a model for his solo records. “Expecting to Fly” was a piece of confessional folk-rock, of a kind with many other records that emerged from the singer-songwriter movement. On the other hand, “Mr. Soul” was pure rock and roll driven by a fat guitar riff that owed more than a little to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. “Broken Arrow” was a lushly produced ballad, with a string arrangement of the kind Young’s producer, Jack Nitzsche, would dub “symphonic pop”. Along with country music, Young’s solo career would tend to flit among these disparate forms.
Young rejoined in time to help record a final, disappointing, album - Last Time Around - released in 1968. By that time the group had officially split, and Young had signed a solo deal with Reprise records (home of his compatriot, Joni Mitchell, with whom he shared a manager named Elliot Roberts).
Young and Nitzsche immediately began work on Young’s first solo record, Neil Young (January 1969), which contained a mix of songs similar to his Buffalo Springfield contributions and received mixed reviews. The album is a promising debut; the track, “The Loner” is still a staple of his live shows. Wanting a harder rock sound for his next record, Young recruited a few members of the band, The Rockets, who had released a self-titled album in 1968. Danny Whitten, guitar; Billy Talbot, bass guitar and Ralph Molina, drums took the name Crazy Horse. Their album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (May 1969) - credited to “Neil Young with Crazy Horse” - was recorded in just two weeks, and is dominated by two lengthy jams, “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River”, both of which showcased the understanding between the musicians and Young’s idiosyncratic guitar soloing.
Shortly after the release of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Young was recruited to join the super group Crosby, Stills and Nash, which became Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with Neil on board. Over the next year with CSNY, he performed at Woodstock and recorded the classic album Deja Vu (1970) and the live Four Way Street (1971). Young’s song, “Ohio”, a single released shortly after the Deja Vu album, was written following the Kent State University killings that happened on May 4, 1970. The song was used frequently during anti-war rallies in the 1970s, and Young was still performing it 20 years later, by which time he often dedicated it to the Chinese students who had been killed at Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Crazy Horse, and Whitten in particular, were also in evidence on Young’s next solo album, After the Gold Rush (1970), (which also featured the young Nils Lofgren as well as Stills and CSNY bassist Greg Reeves). The album was a commercial breakthrough, aided by his new-found fame in CSNY. The album contains some of his best work, covering subjects from the environmental concerns of the title track, redneck racism on “Southern Man” (which, along with the later song, “Alabama”, prompted the reply “Sweet Home Alabama” from Lynyrd Skynyrd) to the acoustic love songs of “Tell Me Why” and “I Believe in You”. Single “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was a minor hit.
With CSNY splitting up and Crazy Horse signing their own record deal, Young recruited a new group of country-music session musicians, whom he christened the Stray Gators, and recorded a country rock record in Harvest (1972). Catching the mood that would soon lift the Eagles to superstardom, Harvest was a massive hit, producing the US number one single, “Heart of Gold”. Other songs returned to some usual Young themes: “Alabama” was an inferior rehash of “Southern Man”; “Words” featured a lengthy guitar workout with the band; and “The Needle and the Damage Done” chronicled Danny Whitten’s descent into drug addiction. The album’s success caught Young off guard and his first instinct was to back away from stardom. He would later write that “Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
During the rehearsals for the tour that would produce the Time Fades Away live album, it became evident that Danny Whitten could not function as a musician due to his drug abuse. On November 18, 1972, shortly after he was fired from the tour preparations, Whitten was found dead of a drug overdose.
In the second half of 1973, Young formed the Santa Monica Flyers, with Crazy Horse's rhythm section augmented by Lofgren on guitar. Deeply affected by the drug-induced deaths of Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, they recorded Tonight's the Night in 1973, a dark, maudlin record of unhinged blues and out-of-tune ballads that Reprise did not see fit to release until two years later. The album received mixed reviews at the time, but is now generally well regarded by critics and seen by some as a precursor to punk rock. In Young’s own opinion it was the closest he ever came to art.
By the time Tonight's the Night was released, Young had also recorded On the Beach (1974), another blues-influenced record but more focused, based loosely around the theme of the downside of fame and the Californian lifestyle. Like Tonight's the Night, it sold poorly, but both would become critical favorites and may represent Young’s most original work. A review by Derek Svennungsen of the 2004 CD re-release calls it “mesmerizing, harrowing, lucid, and bleary”. The mood of these albums was reflected in the tour for Tonight's the Night, a drunken and frequently shambolic affair that divides fans to this day.
Young reformed Crazy Horse as his backup band, this time with Frank Sampedro on guitar for 1975's Zuma. A return to the hard rock of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, its songs mainly concerned failed relationships, with an exception being “Cortez the Killer”, a retelling of the Spanish conquest of South America from the viewpoint of the Aztecs that caused the record to be banned in Franco’s Spain. The next year he reunited with Stephen Stills for the album Long May You Run, credited to the Stills-Young band, but the accompanying concerts were cancelled mid-tour when Young walked out, later sending Stills a telegram that read: "Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil."
In 1976, Young performed with the Band, Joni Mitchell, and other rock musicians in the high profile all-star concert, The Last Waltz. The release of Martin Scorsese’s movie of the concert was delayed while Scorsese unwillingly re-edited it to de-emphasize the drugs clearly visible during Young’s performance of “Helpless”.
American Stars 'n' Bars (1977) was another country-tinged affair, originally planned as a sequel to Harvest and entitled Homegrown. The record featured sweet harmonies from Emmylou Harris and Young-protege Nicolette Larson. His next offering was a return to his country/folk roots. Comes a Time (1978) once again featured Nicolette Larson and also featured Crazy Horse making their first appearance since Zuma. Comes a Time gave few clues as to Young’s next step. Looking to avoid retreading the same musical paths, he set out on the lengthy “Rust Never Sleeps” tour, dividing each concert between a solo acoustic set and an electric set with Crazy Horse. A direct response to punk rock, the tour proved Young to be one of the few performers who understood the new trends and could adapt, although the recordings never really matched the intensity of the actual punk singles of the time. A new song, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” compared the changing public perceptions of Johnny Rotten and the recently deceased Elvis Presley, once dismissed as a dangerous influence himself but later hailed as an icon. It also coined the infamous phrase, “It’s better to burn out than fade away”, which would return to haunt Young some years later. Rotten, meanwhile, returned the favor by playing one of Young’s records on a London radio show. The accompanying albums, Rust Never Sleeps (new material, recorded in front of a live audience but essentially a studio album) and Live Rust (a mixture of old and new, and a genuine live record) captured the two sides of the concerts. A movie version of the concerts, also called “Rust Never Sleeps”, was released in 1979, and directed by Young under the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey”.
Like many rock stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the 1980s were a lean time for Young both critically and commercially as he struggled to remain relevant. After providing the incidental music to the film, “Where the Buffalo Roam”, a biopic of Hunter S. Thompson, he recorded Hawks and Doves (1980), a folk/country record in step with his public—and surprising—support for Ronald Reagan. Re-ac-tor (1981) was another set with Crazy Horse, with a mask of distortion and feedback obscuring a relatively weak selection of songs, but his strangest record of the decade came with 1982’s Trans. Recorded almost entirely electronically with the instruments and vocals modified by effects, such as vocoder and a reliance on synthesizers, it is often considered Young’s attempt to experiment with technology that might give his son, Ben, who has severe cerebral palsy and cannot speak, a way to communicate. (In 1986 Young and wife Pegi would help found The Bridge School and they continue to support it with an annual benefit concert). Fans, however, were baffled and the album, along with 1983’s rockabilly-styled Everybody's Rockin' would lead record company head David Geffen to sue Young for making “unrepresentative” music (i.e. suing Young for not sounding like Neil Young!).
Old Ways (1985) saw a return to country music, recorded with a group of friends and session musicians, but the songs were largely tepid, whereas Landing on Water (1986) was an equally unsatisfying amalgam of his older styles, ‘80s synthesizer pop and Trans-era experimentation. Young would later claim that he had grown so angry with Geffen that he was now producing music purely to watch it anger the bosses at Geffen Records. Even the resumption of his partnership with Crazy Horse on 1987’s Life failed to raise him from the artistic doldrums. It was, however, enough to fulfill his contract with Geffen and enable him to switch labels.
Signing for Warner Brothers and returning to Reprise Records, he produced This Note's for You (1988) with a new band, the Bluenotes (unrelated to Harold Melvin’s old group). The addition of a brass section provided a new jazzier sound and the title track became his first hit single of the decade. Accompanied by a witty video which parodied corporate rock, the pretensions of advertising and Michael Jackson in particular, the song was initially banned by MTV (although the Canadian music channel, Much Music ran it immediately) before being put into heavy rotation and finally given the MTV Video Music Award for Best Video of the Year for 1989. Strangely, there were sound problems during Young’s acceptance speech. Incidentally, Harold Melvin himself sued Young for use of the Bluenotes name (since Melvin held the rights to it). As a result, Young renamed his back-up group, Ten Men Workin' for the balance of the accompanying concert tour that followed. Now in something of a renaissance, Young also provided a few highlights on that year’s CSNY reunion American Dream, though tensions with the band were always high.
Freedom completed the return to form, a mixture of acoustic and electric rock dealing with the state of the U.S. and the world in 1989, alongside Young’s best love songs for some time and a version of the standard “On Broadway”. “Rockin’ in the Free World”, two versions of which bookended the album, again caught the mood (becoming a de facto anthem during the fall of the Berlin Wall, a few months after the record’s release). Like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, the anthemic use of this song was based on largely ignoring the verses, which evoke social problems and implicitly criticize American government policies. By 1990 grunge music was beginning to make its first inroads in the charts and many of its prime movers, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, were citing Young as an influence, which led elements of the press to dub him somewhat dubiously “The Godfather of Grunge”.
Using a barn on his Northern California ranch as a studio, he rapidly recorded the aptly titled Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse, whose guitar riffs and feedback- driven sound showed his new admirers that he could still cut it, though again the music was not quite as intense as the actual grunge bands themselves - no one could mistake Young’s “Country Home” for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Young then headed back out on the road with alternative rock elder statesmen Sonic Youth as support. Their influence could be clearly heard on the accompanying home video and live album, Weld, which also included a bonus CD entitled Arc, a single 35-minute-long collage which consisted mostly of feedback and guitar noise. Arc was later sold separately.
Typically, Young’s next move was another return to country music. Harvest Moon (1992) was the long awaited sequel to Harvest and reunited him with some of the musicians from that session, including Linda Ronstadt. Despite being out of step with fashion again, the title track was a minor hit and the record was reviewed well, and sold equally well, containing fine songs such as “From Hank to Hendrix” and “Unknown Legend”, a tribute to his wife, and his resurgent popularity saw him booked on MTV Unplugged in 1993. That year, he contributed music to the soundtrack of the Jonathan Demme movie Philadelphia, and his song “Philadelphia” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song, losing out to Bruce Springsteen’s contribution to the same film. A summer tour covering both Europe and North America with Booker T. and the MGs was widely praised as a triumph. On a few of these dates the show ended with a rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World” played with Pearl Jam.
He was back with Crazy Horse for 1994’s Sleeps with Angels, a much darker record. The title track told the story of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, after Young had tried to contact the singer prior to his death. Cobain had quoted Young’s “It’s better to burn out than fade away”—a line from “Hey Hey My My (into the Black)” in his suicide note. Other songs dealt with drive-by killings (“Driveby”), environmentalism (“Piece of Crap”) and Young’s own vision of America (the archetypal car metaphor of “Trans Am”). Still admired by the prime movers of grunge, Young jammed with Pearl Jam at the MTV Music Awards, which led to a joint tour, with the band and producer Brendan O’Brien backing Young. The accompanying album, Mirror Ball (1995), recorded as live in the studio captured their loose rock sound.
After composing an abstract, distorted feedback-led guitar instrumental soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film, Dead Man, he recorded a series of loose jams with Crazy Horse that eventually appeared as the disappointing Broken Arrow. This return to Crazy Horse was prompted by the death of mentor, friend and long time producer David Briggs in late 1995. The subsequent tours of Europe and North America in 1996 resulted in both a live album and a tour documentary directed by Jim Jarmusch. Both releases took the name “Year of the Horse”.
The decade ended with Looking Forward, another reunion with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The subsequent tour of the United States and Canada with the reformed super quartet was a huge success and brought in earnings of 42.1 million dollars, making it the eighth best grossing tour of 2000.
Neil’s next album, the subtle, understated, acoustic Silver & Gold (2000), was a marked improvement. It was also his most personal record for a long time, a trend which continued on Are You Passionate? (2002), an album of love songs dedicated to his wife, Pegi.
Young’s 2001 single, “Let’s Roll”, was a tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the passengers and crew on Flight 93 in particular. At the America: A Tribute to Heroes concert he performed a cover version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Young’s shift toward political commentary became more pronounced with the advent of the Iraq War and Young’s next project, an anti-Bush rock opera that would come to take a unique position in the Young canon.
That project was Greendale, the album version of which was recorded with Horse members Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina. Greendale chronicles the saga of a California family torn asunder by post-9/11 America. This tale of the Green family also resulted in a movie called Greendale, written and directed by Neil Young (again using his “Bernard Shakey” pseudonym) and starring a few of his friends that act out and lip sync the songs from the album. Young toured extensively with the Greendale material throughout 2003 and 2004--first with a solo, acoustic version in Europe, then with a full-cast stage show in North America, Japan, and Australia. While audience reaction was sometimes mixed (drunken requests for “Southern Man” being an aesthetic impediment at most Young performances), the live stage version of Greendale was for many critics the most satisfying incarnation of the material, and bootlegs of the shows have been widely traded. The second half of each concert consisted of high-decibel renditions of Young classics, such as “Hey Hey, My My”, “Cinnamon Girl”, “Powderfinger”, and “Rockin’ in the Free World”, as well as rarities, such as “The Losing End”, “The Old Country Waltz”, and “Danger Bird”.
Young spent the latter portion of 2004 giving a series of intimate acoustic concerts in various cities with his wife, Pegi, who is a trained vocalist. Reports out of the Young camp in early 2005 had him booking time in a Northern California recording studio to work on material that is a closely held secret.
In 2002, Q magazine named Neil Young in their list of the “50 Bands to See Before You Die”.
On March 31, 2005 Young was admitted to a hospital in New York for treatment of a brain aneurysm. He was treated successfully by a minimally invasive neuroradiology procedure. He next performed on July 2, 2005 at the close of the Live 8 concert outside of Toronto. He presented a new song, a soft hymn called “When God Made Me”, and ended with “Rockin’ in the Free World”.
Young was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1982. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice; first in 1995 for his solo work and again in 1997 as a member of the Buffalo Springfield.
He has also directed three movies, under his pseudonym Bernard Shakey: Journey Through the Past (1979), Human Highway (1982) (starring new wave band, Devo), and Greendale (2003).
He is one of the founders of Farm Aid and remains on their board of directors. Each year on a weekend in October in Mountain View, California, he and his wife host the Bridge School Concerts, which have been drawing international talent and sell-out crowds for nearly two decades. The concerts are a benefit for the Bridge School, which develops and uses advanced technologies to aide in the instruction of handicapped children.
Young owns Vapor Records, who have signed such artists as Jonathan Richman and Catatonia. Since 1995 he has been part owner of Lionel, LLC, a company which makes toy trains and railroads.
In a “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list in the June 1996 issue of Mojo magazine, Young was ranked number nine.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Neil Young is stirring things up again. This time he is rolling on down the road not only with an auto-centric concept album but with his own electric ride. Fork in The Road (2008), whose largely eco-car themed songs he debuted in concert during the past year, will get a promotional push from the 1959 Lincoln Continental Young has converted to hybrid technology and which he plans to drive to Washington, D.C. With Fork in The Road as current as today’s headlines, the controversial and mad-as-hell Neil Young is still rockin’ the free world and once more is taking the road less traveled.