Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Neil Percival Young, 12 November 1945, Toronto, Canada) Singer-songwriter, guitarist, leader, filmmaker. He had diabetes, epilepsy and polio as a child; music gave him a goal. He met Stephen Stills in a high school group called the Squires, but couldn't get a work permit to join him in the USA; he joined the Mynah Birds, whose lead singer (Motown soul star Rick James, then known as Ricky James Matthews) had to return to US Navy. Young finally made it to Los Angeles and joined Buffalo Springfield, leaving before their demise and signing to Reprise as a solo act. Debut Neil Young '68 was a disturbing folk-style album, with stage favourite 'The Loner' and 9.5-minute 'The Last Trip To Tulsa' noteworthy. But the songs and their plaintive singer needed a band: he recruited Crazy Horse, from the Rockets (album on White Whale '68): Danny Whitten, guitar; Ralph Molina, drums; Billy Talbot, bass. They proved their worth on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere '69: manic, passionate 'Down By The River' had singer and band on the edge, while they could equally deal with pop picking on the whimsical 'Cinnamon Girl'. (Crazy Horse made a debut on Reprise '71, with guests Jack Nitzsche, Nils Lofgren and Ry Cooder, followed by Loose '72 and a switch to Epic for Crooked Creek '73.) Sales of After The Goldrush '70 profited from Young's stint with Crosby, Stills and Nash '69 (see their entry): the top ten album included 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' (no. 33 hit), 'Southern Man' (an inexorable warning for the likes of Alabama Governor George Wallace in the style of CSN&Y's protest song 'Ohio'); the plaintive title track told of spaceships and surrealistic images (revived by the Preludes for top 30 UK/USA hit '74, which hit again in the UK '82).

Harvest '72 was a no. 1 LP USA and still Young's best seller, despite the strange inclusion of the London Symphony Orchestra on two tracks; standout numbers included 'Heart Of Gold' (no. 1 single USA), 'Old Man' (no. 31), 'Are You Ready For The Country' and anti-drug 'The Needle And The Damage Done', recorded live after Whitten's death from a heroin overdose. (Young had dabbled with drugs, but was always in control of himself, disliked the drug subculture and soon left it behind.) A patchy soundtrack Journey Through The Past '72 included remakes of Buffalo and CSN&Y hits; live Time Fades Away '73 included Crosby and Nash; On The Beach '74 laughed in adversity's face while Tonight's The Night '75 (actually recorded first) wallowed in misery: observations of the drug culture were dedicated to Whitten. As on Goldrush, Nils Lofgren helped out on guitar. By Zuma '75 Young had worked it out, creating the guitar tour-de-force 'Cortez The Killer', about Spanish imperialism in South America. Long May You Run '76 was credited to 'Stills--Young Band'; American Stars'n'Bars '77 had guests Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and was below par except for stage favourite 'Like A Hurricane'; Comes A Time '78 was all acoustic guitars with Crazy Horse playing bit parts: his softest album since Harvest included a cover of Ian and Sylvia's 'Four Strong Winds'. Crazy Horse were back on Rust Never Sleeps and concert Live Rust '79, fusing the attack of Tonight's The Night with punkish lyric on 'My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)' ('It's better to burn out than fade away'). (Whitten had been succeeded by Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro; the new Crazy Horse made Crazy Moon '78 on RCA, Left For Dead '90 on Heyday.) Young's Hawks And Doves '80 was loose country; Re-ac-tor '81 was R&B; he switched to Geffen for Trans '83, a synthesizer LP using vocoder on a remake of Buffalo's 'Mr Soul', mixing Crazy Horse, Lofgren and drum machines in a set that amused some, alienated others. Everybody's Rockin' '83 was rock'n'roll (by 'Neil and the Shocking Pinks'); Old Ways '85 a return to country followed by Landing On Water '86: unpredictable as ever, he made a full-length video of the entire Landing On Water album, financing it himself and playing a variety of visual parts, but not aimed at MTV: 'He doesn't want to be associated with that rubbish and neither do I,' said director Tim Pope, but the album was MOR rock with studio musicians, not one of his best. Both the last two albums suffered from that decade's fashion of being recorded in different times and places with different lineups; they seemed to have no centre.

Young had created a powerful body of work (three-disc compilation Decade '77 went platinum); his guitar style has echoes in work of new wave artists like Tom Verlaine; despite experiments he remained the darling of the Woodstock generation, yet he had never traded in youth. Every album had charted except the first, averaging no. 23 in Billboard, and he wasn't finished yet. Life '87 with Crazy Horse marked a return to Reprise; This Note's For You had a nine-piece backing band as 'Neil Young and the Bluenotes'. Freedom '89 made the critics ecstatic, including three tracks from a Japanese-only mini-album Eldorado. This was followed by Ragged Glory '90 and Arc Weld '91, both with Crazy Horse. Arc Weld was a three-disc set, his first release in 22 years not to make the top 100 albums in Billboard; the third disc was the 35-minute 'Arc' and in the USA there were three editions including Arc on a single and Weld, a double. Harvest Moon '92 recalled and celebrated Harvest from 20 years earlier, making everybody happy and winning awards. Lucky Thirteen '93 was a compilation from the experimental albums on Geffen, while Unplugged that year was another hit; Sleeps With Angels '94 and Broken Arrow '96 had Crazy Horse again, while Mirror Ball '95 saw Pearl Jam, one of the hottest acts in the business, honoured by backing Neil Young: it was hailed as one of his classics. Dead Man on Vapor-Reprise was Young's desultory music for the Jim Jarmusch film of that name, with Johnny Depp reading Blake and other dialogue from the film; two-CD Year Of The Horse '97 was a recording of a tour with Crazy Horse, filmed by Jarmusch. 

Later albums include Silver & Gold 2000; Are You Passionate? 2002 was with Booker T. & The M.G.'s; Greendale 2003 was a controversial rock opera with Crazy Horse, both a CD and a movie, and was being adapted into a comic book in 2007. Prairie Wind 2005 was highly praised, the kind of album usually described as a return to form by critics who are easily flummoxed by a project as ambitious as Greendale.  

The Bridge '89 was a various-artists tribute album to Young on Caroline, proceeds to a San Francisco school founded by his wife Pegi to help children with learning difficulties; The Bridge School Concerts '97 was a compilation from ten years of star-studded charity gigs, in which the stars concentrate on interesting covers. Young was a co-founder of the annual Farm Aid concerts; he has directed or co-directed several films as Bernard Shakey, including Journey Through The Past, and the comedy Human Highway '82, as well as Greendale. Despite his long-time residence in California, he has never given up his Canadian citizenship.

Like Willie Nelson and a few others in the history of commercial music, Young has been successful by doing as he pleased. His early albums with Crazy Horse were described as 'three chords and a cloud of dust', and Crazy Horse as a band that couldn't play very well, but they were good enough to do what Young wanted, which was a presage of what we now call Americana. Young says he has a great many unreleased albums in the can, including Homegrown '70, which music exec Mo Ostin thought at the time was a masterpiece; from the time of Young's split with the actress Carrie Snodgrass, it was too close to the bone: 'It scared me,' he said. Another unreleased but widely bootlegged album was Chrome Dreams, recorded '75-6. Songs from some of these have turned up on later albums. 

It puzzled many people that there had been very little protest music during Bush-Cheney's disastrous war in Iraq; Young released Living With War in 2006, followed by Living With War - In The Beginning in 2007, a stripped-down version of the album, just the trio tracks as they were recorded in the studio with no post-production: a special CD-DVD package included videos directed by Young of all the songs, using film footage from a wide range of sources for a portrait of political and environmental turmoil. Chrome Dreams II was released in 2007. Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough was published in 2002, updated in 2008, a very well-written book that combines its subject's observations with the documentary evidence, making it more valuable than most such books.