Neil Young (born November 12, 1945) is a Canadian singer, guitarist and organist whose music ranges from country (and alt-country) to folk to hard rock. Among Young's most popular songs are "Heart of Gold", "Cinnamon Girl", "Hey Hey, My My", "Harvest Moon" and "Rockin in the Free World."
Young was born in Toronto; his father is sportswriter and novelist Scott Young. Having first played in high school instrumental rock bands in Winnipeg (one of whom, the Squires, had a local hit with "The Sultan") he began to work the folk clubs of Toronto, where he befriended guitarist Stephen Stills.
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 the Buffalo Springfield, taking their name from a popular brand of tractor. 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 rejoined in time to help record a final, disappointing, album -- Last Time Around -- released in 1968, by which 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'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", whereas "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 between these four disparate forms.
Neil Young (1969)Young and Nitzsche immediately began work on Young's first solo record. Neil Young (January 1969), which contained a similar mix of songs as his Buffalo Springfield contributions, and received mixed reviews. While a promising debut -- the track "The Loner" is still a staple of his live shows -- it remains a relatively weak set of songs compared to his latter output. Wanting a harder rock sound, 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 from "The Rockets" took the name "Crazy Horse". Their album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (May 1969) -- credited to "Neil Young and Crazy Horse" -- was recorded in just two weeks, and is dominated by two lengthy jams, "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Down by the River", which showcased the understanding between the musicians and Young's idiosyncratic guitar soloing.
Crazy Horse, and Whitten in particular, were also in evidence on Young's next album, After the Gold Rush (1970), (which also featured the young Nils Lofgren). The album was a commercial breakthrough, aided by his new-found fame as a member of the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (with whom he performed at Woodstock), having been invited to join as a foil for Stills. The album contains some of his best work, covering subjects from the environmental concerns of the title track, redneck racism on "Southern Man" (which prompted the reply "Sweet Home Alabama" from Lynyrd Skynyrd) to the acoustic love songs of "Tell Me Why" and "I Believe in You" and even a minor hit in "Only Love Can Break Your Heart".
After the Gold Rush was certified gold, but that success was minor compared with what came next. Young spent a year with CSN&Y, recording the classic 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.
After the supergroup split he recruited a new group of country 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 heroin 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. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
On September 8, 1972 Academy Award nominated actress Carrie Snodgress gave birth to Neil Young's first child. The boy, Zeke Young, would later be diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The relationship with Snodgress lasted until 1975.
From country to rock
During the rehearsals for the tour that would produce the "Time Fade 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, with Danny Whitten dead of a drug overdose, he 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. By that time he had also recorded On the Beach (1974), another blues-influenced record but this time more focused, being based loosely around the theme of the downside of fame and the Californian lifestyle. Both of these albums, though they sold poorly, would become critical favourites and may represent Young's most original work. The mood 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 by Franco. 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."
1977's American Stars 'n' Bars was another country-tinged affair, originally planned as a sequel to Harvest and entitled Homegrown. The record, with sweet harmonies from Emmylou Harris and Young protege Nicolette Larson 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 (Out of the Blue)" 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".
During the late 1970s, Young was sometime referred to as a "disciple" of the "master" Bob Dylan and seemed on the verge of surpassing the legend.
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), an uncharacteristically reactionary 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.
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 synthesiser 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, MuchMusic 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. 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 the few highlights on that year's limp CSN&Y reunion American Dream.
Back to country-rock roots
Freedom completed the return to form, a mixture of acoustic and electric rock dealing with the state of the US and the world in 1989, alongside Young's best love songs for some time and a version of the standard "On Broadway". "Rocking 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). 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".
Weld (1991)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 and their influence could be clearly heard on the accompanying home video and live album, Weld, which included a bonus CD (also sold separately), Arc, 35 minutes comprised entirely of feedback and guitar noise.
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 was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song, losing out to Bruce Springsteen's contribution to the same film. A later tour with Booker T. and the MGs was widely praised as a triumph.
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 the singer had tried to contact Young prior to his death, and quoted Young's "It's better to burn out than fade away" in his suicide note. Others 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, that only occasionally rose above the perfunctory. His next, 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 the inferior Are You Passionate? (2002), an album of love songs dedicated to his wife, Pegi, which also included his 2001 single "Let's Roll", 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", in defiance of a post-9/11 order by controversial media giant Clear Channel Communications "recommending" that song be removed from the airwaves, along with some 150 others.
Young's latest album Greendale, which was recorded with Horse members Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, is a rock opera that 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 lipsynch the songs from the album.
Young was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1982 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 for his solo work and in 1997 as a member of the Buffalo Springfield.
He has directed three movies as Bernard Shakey: Journey Through the Past (1979), Human Highway (1982), and Greendale (2003).
He is one of the founders of Farm Aid and owns Vapor Records.
Shakey: Neil Young's Biography, Jimmy McDonough, published by Random House in 2002, ISBN 0679427724
Neil Young: Zero to Sixty: A Critical Biography, Johnny Rogan, published by Omnibus Press in 2000, ISBN 0952954044
Neil and Me, Scott Young, published by McClelland and Stewart in 1997, ISBN 0771090994
Neil Young, the Rolling Stones Files: the Ultimate Compendium of Interviews, Articles, Facts, and Opinions from the Files of Rolling Stone, published by Rolling Stone Press in 1994, ISBN 0786880430
A Dreamer of Pictures, David Downing, published by Bloomsbury in 1994, ISBN 0747518815