Neil Young: Life After Near Death
Allegedly, "death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.” Evidently no-one told Neil Young. Experiencing "blurred vision” after performing with The Pretenders at their induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame alongside U2, Buddy Guy and Percy Sledge in March 2005, he was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Within three weeks he’d written and recorded two thirds of a new album, Prairie Wind, while waiting to be treated. Within four months of the operation he was previewing the completed album and asking a few questions along the way.
Complete with its introspective soul-searching country feel, Prairie Wind was full of the joy of life itself. "I think I'm going to be making country records for as long as I can see into the future. It's much more down-home and real,” he told interviewers.
But, it was the brooding, closing track, ‘God Made Me’, wrestling with the issues of faith and belief, that set a thousand message boards twitching. Questioning religion’s part in the modern world, full of choir and candour, it was likened to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, but with none of the solutions. "I'm not into organized religion,” he noted. "I'm into believing in a higher source of creation, realizing we're all just part of nature.”
Neil Young has always spoken his mind, from the Nixon-baiting Ohio of the late ‘60s, to when he recorded ‘Let’s Roll’ following the 9/11 attacks. Based on dialogue between Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer and an Airfone operator, using Beamer’s favourite saying as a rallying call for his battered nation, the song was sent to radio by Young himself. There was no proper release, he just felt it needed to be heard, at a time when general disbelief was gripping the US.
Four years on, within six months of the release of what some saw as his new relaxed state of mind on Prairie Wind, Young was yet again the troubled messenger, with a point to make, "I don't like war. I particularly don't like the celebration of war, which I think the administration is a little bit guilty of,” he harangued as he unleashed his most controversial album to date, Living With War. It’s abrasive, edgy sound was recorded in one day and rush released, underlining the immediacy of the issues. This time the questions weren’t for God but for the American people. And, for the president.
Living With War is an angry record, which was sparked by a picture on the cover of USA Today featuring a cargo plane full of doctors and soldiers heading for Iraq. "The story was about how medicine had made such leaps and bounds in this war,” Young told Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian, "how doctors had learned so much from this conflict. Man, that was just too much for me. Are you really trying to tell me that the positive side of the war is the medical experience gained from all those wasted people? There's really something wrong with that picture.”
Young’s ability to frame the most poignant of stories in music has been evident throughout his career, whether it’s student activism as in Ohio from Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young’s ‘Four Way Street’, racism as in ‘Southern Man’, drug abuse as in the ‘Needle And The Damage Done’ or the harrowing ‘Tonight’s The Night’, (which detailed the demise of friend and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten), Young has the ability to expand on situations that are hard for most people to even talk about. ‘Impeach The President’ he appealed on ‘Living With War’, before closing the album with an eerie rendition of ‘America The Beautiful’. This was real heart on your sleeve stuff, a Young speciality.
Neil Young is an enigma. He’s unpredictable but always honest. In many cases his music is like a self-exorcism, he has to get it out there so that he can move on. There is no set formula to his songs. Just when you think you’ve got him pegged as a contemporary country crooner, he whacks it up to 11 and unleashes a salvo of feedback. He is the changing man. "I don't like to be labeled, to be anything. I've made the mistake before myself of labeling my music, but it's counter-productive,” he says, helpfully."I don't see change as a curse. It's just part of my make-up. Without change, the whole thing would fall apart. I'm not talking about Rock ‘N’ Roll, I'm talking about my life. I've got to keep moving somewhere.”
Young’s post-op productivity has been wide-ranging and plentiful. Living With War was followed by Raw, an even more stripped down version of those songs, plus a DVD of how they grew with the assistance of the 100 Voices Choir. Simultaneously he finished a DVD concert film of two intimate Nashville shows entitled Neil Young: Heart Of Gold directed by Jonathan Demme. Plus, finally, the first two live instalments of the much-talked about anthology series which were greeted with ecstatic reviews. The series will hopefully shed light on how Young’s ever-changing moods have allowed him to continually re-invent himself.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Young has always embraced new music and celebrated it. He’s acclaimed as being the godfather of punk, as well as something of a midwife to grunge, Living With War even inventing the new tag of ‘metal folk’. According to Young’s producer David Briggs, "What makes Neil a hero to the grungers and valid to people like Dylan is that he's unpredictable. He's the only old guy who can still rock.”
As testament to his influence, The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young was released in 1989, with the grunge and alternative stars of the day covering Young tunes on an album that still stands up today. Contributions included The Flaming Lips doing ‘After the Goldrush’, Nick Cave on ‘Helpless’, Pixies tackling ‘Winterlong’, Soul Asylum’s ‘Barstool Blues’ and Sonic Youth’s ‘Computer Age’ among many others.
Dylan summed his complex lyrics up on the song Highlands: "I'm listening to Neil Young/ I gotta turn up the sound/Someone's always yellin', 'Turn him down'/Feel like I'm driftin', driftin' from scene to scene/I'm wondering what in the devil could it all possibly mean."
If the greatest and most complex songwriter ever struggles to decipher Young, what chance have we got? Where do you start? His catalogue boasts a staggering 32 solo studio albums, not to mention various live sets, his early recordings with legendary ‘60s psychedelic pop outfit Buffalo Springfield and collaborations with Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young. Young is a chameleon, shedding personalities, switching moods. His emotive vocal, his distorted guitar, his aching country soul are all part of the mystery.
"The music of Young’s golden decade,” that’s between Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in 1969 and Rust Never Sleeps in 1979, according MOJO’s Barney Hoskyns, "can be broken down into four main styles: Electric grunge, Singer-songwriter balladry, countrified rock and symphonic pop.”
OK. And we know that the 80s were troubled. Erratic. Experimental. And, the 90s? "They’ve started calling me Don Grungeone,” he admitted. A rebirth. Mass acceptance. But a sluggish slide into the noughties, till his brush with the scalpel.
In 2004, Reprise created a Greatest Hits package, there had been a couple of ‘best of’ styled compilations before but nothing definitive. Compiled "based on original record sales, airplay and known download history" it ran chronologically, from 1969’s lengthy jams ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ through to his expansive solo career in the early 70s, its 16 tracks ending with a sole 1980s offering in ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and 1991’s ‘Harvest Moon’. The internet glowed with homemade alternative selections. And Q magazine even went to the lengths of compiling a comprehensive three CD set tracing the "folk hero” turned "rocker from hell”.
Fact is you can’t just dip in and out of Neil. It’s a life’s work. A challenge. A journey. A comfortable overstuffed sofa on the back porch with its own sweaty mosh pit and tinnitus for the week following. There are many secrets and mysteries along the way. And, dangers too. There are some stinkers that even Neil doesn’t like. And some he does. Neil Young joined Buffalo Springfield in 1966, breezing in from Canada in his favourite mode of transport, a Pontiac hearse called Mort. The competition within the band between Steve Stills and Young was intense and, according to producer Brian Stone, "Stills was out of his mind if Neil was singing.”
External response to the 21 year-old’s high and lonesome croon was also mixed. Dave Marsh of Creem magazine reckoned he sounded like the Delta bluesman Skip James, while Rolling Stone thought it was more like "pre-adolescent whining.” It was certainly different.
By 1969 the band had split up, Young claiming that, "My nerves couldn’t handle the trip.” He embarked on his first solo album in league with legendary arranger and former Phil Spector-disciple, Jack Nitzsche, who recognised Young’s flair and ability. "He was a genius. He lit up the room with a crazy idea.” The first incarnation of which can be heard on their Buffalo Springfield collaborations Broken Arrow and the goose pimpled ‘Expecting To Fly’. Young’s self-titled debut stripped it down and went a few tokes further. A kaleidoscopic blur of overdubbed guitars and luscious melodies, a haunting understated gem, which was followed, within six months by Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a bi-polar opposite, a metallic tour de force of pre-grunge jamming dramatically played out with Crazy Horse.
Simultaneously, Young had renewed his friendship with Stills and performed with ex-Byrd David Crosby and ex-Hollies Graham Nash as Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young, debuting at Woodstock in front of half a million naked people. A year later the quartet’s groundbreaking Déjà Vu album, including Young’s outspoken Ohio, Helpless and the typically complex Country Girl, was released alongside Young’s third solo album, After The Goldrush, which confirmed his status as the skinny but prolific patchwork-denim icon of West Coast singer-songwriting.
Young was at the peak of his powers as the recently released archive CD/DVD of Young with Crazy Horse live at the Fillmore East (although, beware, the DVD is merely a string of stills set to music) testifies. Neil Young Live At Massey Hall from the following year (again on CD/DVD with a fascinating no expense spent one camera shoot) is a glorious insight into Young, the songwriter, humbly begging the audience to listen to some stuff he’s working on, including an early version of ‘Heart Of Gold’ and ‘A Man Needs A Maid’.
By Young’s standards, 1972’s Harvest was a drawn out affair. Three years in the making and forever delayed, its arrival met mixed reviews. Rolling Stone weren’t impressed and the NME called it "excruciatingly dull.” But it topped the UK and US charts and single-handedly invented Americana - the gatefold sleeve presenting a view of down-home ease, the band trading licks in a barn, perfectly capturing the idyllic world of west coast cosmic country, a million miles from the man mountain of Woodstock, a moment in time that inspired a generation of Brits to yearn for the American lifestyle.
The plan was to take it on the road and Young recruited Danny Whitten, who’d been fired by Crazy Horse to play rhythm guitar. In rehearsals in San Francisco, Whitten’s heroin use was hampering his performance and Young sent him back to LA with $50 to seek help. Whitten overdosed and Young’s silver lining suddenly had an ugly black cloud. When he heard of his death, Young said: "It fucking blew my mind… I felt responsible.”
A few months later, the band’s long time roadie, Bruce Berry also overdosed and the mood in the Young camp became decidedly dark. After the tour, the band headed into the studio for what became an elongated wake powered by dope and booze. The result of these all night sessions was the highly acclaimed Tonight’s The Night, a raw and emotional journey into their loss. "We were spooked, right out on the edge,” he told MOJO years later. And you can hear it.
The album didn’t appear till 1975, a year after On the Beach, also acclaimed as one of Young’s finest now, which, on release, was dismissed as a self-pitying wallow. "Probably the most depressing album I’ve made,” added Young.
"Nothing and no-one is spared.” Enthused Chris Jones on the BBC’s website. "Nixon ('Ambulance Blues), global fuel conglomerates ('Vampire Blues'), Manson and the whole West Coast 'me' generation ('Revolution Blues'), the wife ('Motion Pictures'), but most of all himself.”
A new incarnation of Crazy Horse was put together the same year lifting the proceedings to an emotional high on the subsequent album Zuma, especially on the spectacular ‘Cortez The Killer’, where Young addressed the political incorrectness of the Spanish explorer’s invasion of the Aztec empire. Was no-one safe from his lyrical prowess?
However, the new direction became the old direction pretty quickly. Young told Nick Kent, "Well, I was going one way and I needed to move entirely in the opposite direction just for some kind of release. My career is built around a pattern that just keeps repeating itself over and over again.”
Amid the hail of punk, it became apparent that Neil Young’s creative flair was going way beyond the traditional album/tour model. He was not into routine and punk’s attitude gave him a new push to do things differently; "When the punk thing came along and I heard my friends saying, I hate these people with the pins in their ears. I said, Thank God, something got their attention.”
Briefly playing with Stephen Stills (he quit the tour after 18 dates – musical differences), doing five nights acoustic in San Francisco, then returning to the studio for the Harvest-like Comes A Time, Young also delivered a rock masterpiece in ‘Like A Hurricane’ among the ballads of American Stars ‘n Bars, Young was multi-tasking and motivated. However, 1978 will be best remembered for his Rust Never Sleeps tour with Crazy Horse. Bassist Billy Talbot recalls: "Some of the best music anyone ever played, we played on that tour.”
"The setlist was like a guitar freak’s fantasy,” enthused Q magazine’s John Robertson. "A storm broke over the PA and then there were Young and Crazy Horse, launching into the definitive rendition of ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’, at blistering volume.” The sonic assault can be sampled on Live Rust, Young’s parting shot of the 70s before the difficult 80s midlife crisis.
"Maybe my ‘80s music should be looked at as one record,” suggested Young. Talking to Nick Kent for Q, he admitted that Hawks And Doves was a "transitional album,” and that he "didn’t spend enough time on Re-Ac-Tor.” But it was the electronic influences on Trans that really surprised people. "Enter the synthesisers – exit the fans!” claimed Q.
Young still claims that his rockabilly throwback Everybody’s Rockin’ is as good as Tonight’s The Night, but few returned to the fold and a stab at Harvest territory, with a cast of pals on Old Ways produced mixed results and even the sturdy stadium rock of Landing On Water didn’t convince.
"After he’d delivered albums of synth burp, rockabilly, chart-op and faux-woodsmoke romanticism,” recalls Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, "the record company sued.” Having left Reprise for Geffen, he was called to task for producing music that was "unrepresentative”. How bizarre is that?
Neil Young’s final genre-hopping ‘80s moment came with the MTV award-winning This Note’s For You’s horn-laden blues, then it was back to formula for Freedom, with his customised mix of electric and acoustic and the anthemic ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’, delivered at the start and end of the record for good measure.
His 40s had been truly erratic and on turning 50, he pondered, "You think, well, what can I possibly write now?” On recent form, 1990’s Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse was a rebirth. Q exclaimed, "You are a dishevelled, fascinatingly unpredictable middle-aged rock star with a 5-year pedigree and the apparently inexhaustible creative energy of a teenage mutant guitar hoodlum. You sound heavier than most metal bands even when you play solo acoustic guitar.”
"A fine, puzzling mess of a record,” enthused Chris Heath in MOJO. And of course, Kurt Cobain was a fan.
"He really inspired me,” Young told Nick Kent, "Kurt was one of the best of all time for me.”
Touring with Sonic Youth led to the recording of an abrasive live set, Weld and an experimental guitar loop, Arc. Sonic Youth commemorated their association with a line from their song Crème Brule, "Last night I dreamt I kissed Neil Young/If I was a boy I guess it would be fun.”
Cobain’s death was commemorated on the 1994 album Sleeps With Angels, a collection that Young still refuses to talk about. A musical departure with broader instrumentation, The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis acclaimed it as "Young’s greatest achievement of the ‘90s to recast Crazy Horse’s good-natured blundering into this dark, mysterious, subdued album.” A year later, Young’s achievements were recognised, when he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, (pictured opposite) the two then collaborating on the album Mirrorball. "There’s nothing different in what Pearl Jam are doing right now than we were doing in the ‘60s,” Young told Q, It’s the same. Even the audiences look and feel the same.”
Young got off to a shaky start this decade. The 9/11-inspired Let’s Roll was submerged in a flat soul-less marriage with Booker T And The MGs on Are You Passionate? And, 2003’s concept piece, Greendale, divided the critics. An opera-come-movie complete with lip-synching actors, it was a tad confusing, even Young had to admit: "I’d like to tell you what’s going on, but I have no idea.”
Chrome Dreams II has been roundly applauded but the big news has been the release of two items from the legendary archive. The current talk is that the first box, 1963-72, featuring eight CDs, two DVDs and a 150-page book is imminent. Again. Whatever materialises, it will undoubtedly underline his unique talent for traversing trends and categories and producing music that matters.
"He’s one of the greatest,” enthused Noel Gallagher in the introduction to MOJO’s Young special, "the fact that he doesn’t give a shit. He still has the voice, the enthusiasm, he looks like he means it!”
Article written by Dave Henderson exclusively for Planet Rock, January 2008