Origin: Toronto, Ontario - Winnipeg, Manitoba
Neil Young was born November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario to Rassy and Scott Young. As a youth, he survived diabetes, polio, epilepsy and the divorce of his parents. His father was a highly respected sportswriter for The Toronto Sun and has authored several books, including Neil & Me, a 1984 title covering his relationship with his musician son.
In 1960, Neil moved with his mother to Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was there that music first became the driving force in his life. After switching from ukulele to guitar, he was in a succession of Winnipeg-based bands, including The Jades, The Esquires, The Classics and Neil Young & The Squires. Initially an instrumental band in the mold of The Shadows, The Squires eventually became more of a folk-rock group. Several early Neil originals from this era, including "Ain't It The Truth" and "Find Another Shoulder," would be resurrected years later with the Bluenotes. From early 1963 to mid- 1965, The Squires performed regularly at clubs and dance halls in Manitoba and Ontario.
At a club in Fort William, Ontario in '65, The Squires crossed paths with an American folk-rock band called The Company, which Featured a singer/guitarist named Stephen Stills. Young and Stills became fast friends but soon lost track of one another as The Squires disbanded in the summer of '65.
Neil Young recorded an acoustic demo for Elektra Records in New York in 1965 featuring early versions of "Sugar Mountain" and "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," but he was not offered a contract by the label. Returning to Toronto, Young played the same Yorkville district coffeehouse circuit as fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell before he joined The Mynah Birds, a Toronto-based band led by singer Ricky James Matthews (later to be known as Rick James and singer of such dance hits as "Super Freak"). The Mynah Birds recorded several songs for Motown Records in Detroit that were never released. During one of these recording sessions, James was arrested and charged with deserting the U.S. Navy. The Mynah Birds flew apart when James was forced to complete his tour of duty.
In search of fresh opportunities, Young and ex-Mynah Birds bassist Bruce Palmer packed most of their worldly possessions into Young's car (a black hearse!) and drove from Toronto to Los Angeles. On Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the hearse was spotted in traffic by Stills and singer/guitarist Richie Furay (who previously met Young in New York and had come West a short time earlier.) The four musicians huddled in a supermarket parking lot and immediately talked of forming a band. With the addition of drummer Dewey Martin, the Buffalo Springfield was born. Fusing folk and rock with dashes of country and R&B, the Springfield gained immediate raves sharing bills with The Byrds at The Whisky on the Sunset Strip. Live, Young unleashed his stinging lead guitar and high vocal cries. On the band's subsequent three albums, Young's songwriting excellence was evident on such songs as "Mr. Soul," "Broken Arrow," "Expecting to Fly" and "I Am a Child."
Neil Young quit the Buffalo Springfield in the spring of '67, before the band's appearance at The Monterey Pop Festival in June, then re-joined later that year. The Buffalo Springfield broke up for good in May of 1968. With no small amount of original material to work with, Young, now living in Topanga Canyon, launched his solo career in earnest. His self-titled debut album was released on Reprise Records in January of 1969, and featured such songs as "The Loner" and "The Last Trip to Tulsa." He would later refer to Neil Young as "overdub city." Indeed, most of his recorded work to follow would bear little resemblance to the layered process used on much of his first album.
Early in '69, Young got re-acquainted with a rough-hewn Los Angeles-based band he'd first encountered during the early days of the Buffalo Springfield. Called The Rockets, the group featured guitarist/vocalist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. In a matter of weeks, Young and these musicians would record "Down By the River" and then, transformed into Neil Young & Crazy Horse, would go on to cut more songs with visceral immediacy, including "Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl In The Sand," for the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, released in July.
Though enjoying success as a solo artist, Young agreed to join forces with Crosby, Stills & Nash in the summer of '69. He added dark grain to CSN's front porch harmony. Following an appearance at Woodstock, the riotously-received "Carry On Tour" and the early 1970 release of the album Deja Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were often referred to as "The American Beatles." This level of fame, however, did not deter Young from his commitment to pursuing his solo career.
Neil Young recorded After the Gold Rush with contributions from Crazy Horse, Stephen Stills and several other musicians. The 1970 album included poetic acoustic songs like "Tell Me Why" and "Birds" and unbridled rockers such as "Southern Man" and "When You Dance I Can Really Love." After the Gold Rush exhibited the full range of Young's formidable musical talents during this phase of his career.
In the spring of 1970, Neil Young wrote "Ohio" in the wake of the Kent State killings and CSNY recorded it as a single. And while CSNY succeeded in achieving several moments of musical magic on stage - some of which were captured on the aptly titled 4-Way Street live album - the group splintered in July.
Young's solo career kept right on rolling. A good portion of the new material he performed on a '70 - '71 acoustic tour was inspired by his recently purchased Northern California ranch. Songs such as "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" would eventually be recorded by Young and a band he dubbed the Stray Gators (featuring bassist Tim Drummond, steel guitarist Ben Keith and drummer Kenny Buttrey). James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and the London Symphony Orchestra also made guest appearances on Harvest, which was released in early 1972 and remains Young's best-selling album, featuring the only Number 1 single of his career, "Heart of Gold."
Young also completed his first film, Journey Through the Past, in '72. A soundtrack album, released in November, preceded the film's '73 release.
The drug overdose death of former Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten happened right before Young began a post-Harvest tour. Fans expecting "Heart of Gold" instead heard sets dominated by a passel of new reckless rockers. Time Fades Away, a live album released in September of '73, captured Young's edgy emotions.
Crosby & Nash made guest appearances on the last leg of the Time Fades Away tour, while Young had dropped in on several early '70s Crosby & Nash shows (as well as recording a single with Nash called "War Song") and a couple of '73 Stills/Manassas gigs. But CSNY did not re-group for any extended period until the 1974 summer stadium tour. Several of the new songs Young performed at these shows were released on his '74 solo album, On the Beach. Despite cutting several new tracks in the mid '70s, CSNY only managed to release a greatest hits album called So Far during this period.
Young could have released three albums in 1975. However, he shelved one of them, a collection of introspective songs called Homegrown, in favor of a dark, ragged song cycle called Tonight's the Night. Most of the songs on the album, influenced by the drug-related deaths of Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry, were recorded in '73 with a band that included Talbot, Molina and Nils Lofgren.
A new version of Crazy Horse, featuring new guitarist/singer Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, recorded a powerful, often jagged-edged album called Zuma in '75. It was released in the fall of that year and featured such songs as "Cortez the Killer" and "Danger Bird."
Crazy Horse would contribute to several other Young projects during the rest of the '70s, including the '77 album American Stars 'n' Bars ("Like A Hurricane" soared next to songs that featured Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson) and '78's Comes A Time (Two songs that showed the quieter side of the Horse fit well amidst a set of harmony-filled numbers recorded with Nicolette Larson and The Gone With the Wind Orchestra). Then there were the transcendent NY&CH live shows in America and Japan in '76 and the tour de force concerts in late '78. On stage, Young accentuated the feeling that he was "dwarfed" by the music industry by using oversized amp covers and a gigantic microphone - all documented on the 1979 Rust Never Sleeps album and film, and the Live Rust album released later that same year.
In addition to working with Crazy Horse, Neil Young also formed the short-lived Stills-Young Band with Stephen Stills, resulting in one album, Long May You Run, and one aborted tour - both in 1976. Later that year Young was one of the all-star performers at The Band's last "Last Waltz" concert at Winterland in San Francisco.
Other Young highlights in the 1970s included his tenure with The Ducks, a Santa Cruz, CA band led by an old Springfield-era friend of Young's, singer Jeff Blackburn. Young performed numerous raucous sets of "country roll" with The Ducks during the latter part of the summer of '77 at small bars around the coastal town. In the spring of '78, Young played and recorded five straight nights of solo acoustic music at a cozy 150-seat club in San Francisco called The Boarding House. The first side of Rust Never Sleeps was drawn from these shows. Is it any wonder both Rolling Stone and The Village Voice named Young "Artist of the Decade" in their reviews of the '70s?
Rock's most intriguing chameleon revealed an even broader spectrum of musical colors in the 1980s. He forcefully ricocheted between many different genres, performing and recording with an ever-revolving (often recurring) collection of old and new musician friends.
Young swung hard into country music on parts of 1980's Hawks & Doves and again throughout 1985's Old Ways (featuring guests Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings). Adopting a perceptible twang in his voice, he toured extensively in the mid '80s with The International Harvesters (including Tim Drummond, Ben Keith, singer Anthony Crawford and fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux).
Inspired by European groups such as Kraftwerk, Young experimented with computers and synthesized vocals on 1982's Trans album and subsequent tours in '82 and '83.
Techno evolved into retro when Young and The Shocking Pinks (featuring Drummond, Keith and drummer Karl Himmel) rattled and rolled on stage and recorded the 1983 album Everybody's Rockin', featuring '50s-style Young originals alongside covers of such vintage classics as "Mystery Train" and "Betty Lou's Got A New Pair of Shoes."
Young plugged back into modern technology on 1986's Landing On Water, a jittery collection of songs co-produced by Danny Kortchmar, who also contributed guitar, synthesizer and vocals to the recording.
And what would a decade be without Crazy Horse and CSN&Y? Young saddled up with Frank, Billy and Ralph for 1981's rampaging Re*ac*tor (featuring the stuttering "Rapid Transit" and war-like "Shots"), 1986's bruising "In A Rusted-Out Garage" Tour and the 1987 album, Life, featuring "Inca Queen" and "Prisoners of Rock and Roll." Next, Young fulfilled a promise to David Crosby that he'd work with CSNY again if his old partner ever licked his severe drug addiction. The 1988 CSNY album, American Dream, included such Young songs as the title track, "Name of Love" and "This Old House."
Though elements of the blues had been present in many of Young's songs over the years, the style didn't take center stage in his music until the 1988 album, This Note's For You, and during corresponding live shows, featuring Neil Young & the Bluenotes (later incarnations of which were to be billed as The Restless and The Lost Dogs). The video for the song "This Note's For You," a pointed swipe at Corporate sponsorship, was banned for a time by MTV, then, ironically, voted "Video of the Year" at the 1988 MTV Music Video Awards.
A special late fall tradition began in 1986 with the presentation of the first Bridge School Benefit at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA. Hosted by Young and his wife, Pegi, the now annual and largely acoustic concerts benefit a special school where children (such as Neil's youngest son) afflicted with severe cerebral palsy are taught how to communicate with computers and other technology. Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Don Henley and Willie Nelson are among the artists who have appeared at this continuing event.
Young's forays into the film world also continued in the '80s with the 1982 release of his surreal "nuclear comedy" Human Highway, starring Dennis Hopper, Sally Kirkland, Dean Stockwell, Devo and himself. Young also had parts in the films '68, Made In Heaven and Love At Large (the latter actually released in early '90). The end of the '80s found Young issuing stark electric statements, first on a Neil Young & The Restless five-quantities in Australia), then on Freedom, a riveting album which shared several songs and players with Eldorado and was framed by acoustic and electric versions of "Rockin In The Free World". A blistering live take of "Free World" on Saturday Night Live in September of '89 served notice to all that Young was still very much a vital rock and roll artist. He reinforced this fact on the road in '89, performing mostly solo with occasional subtle backing from Ben Keith and Frank Sampedro.
Crazy Horse galloped back onto the scene in 1990, recording the album Ragged Glory with Young and hitching up for numerous searing live shows on the "Don't Spook The Horse" Tour. Some of the best moments were chronicled on 1991's live double-CD Weld. A third CD, Arc, was an electric guitar "sound sculpture" comprised of extended, feedback-laden instrumental outros and sundry other live fragments. Alternative bands such as Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, and Dinosaur Jr opened many of the "Spook the Horse" shows and legions of Generation X fans began referring to Young as "The Godfather of Grunge."
In 1992, Young returned to his warm, acoustic side with the release of Harvest Moon, featuring most of the same core players (The Stray Gators) and singers (Ronstadt and Taylor) he used on Harvest over 20 years earlier. Young's half-sister, Astrid, and Nicolette Larson also appeared on this record as well as on Unplugged, a CD and video gleaned from Young's February '93 "MTV Unplugged" performance.
In typical fashion, Young shifted musical gears once again in 1993 and teamed up with Booker T. & the M.G.s for a series of soulful live shows that included new arrangements of many familiar Young classics as well as covers of such songs as Otis Redding's "Dock Of The Bay" and Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" (the latter of which Young had performed with feverish abandon at the Tribute To Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden in October of '92).
At the personal request of director Jonathan Demme, Young wrote the title track for the 1993 film, Philadelphia. The emotion-filled song was nominated for an Academy Award and Young performed it live at the 66th Academy Awards ceremony.
With the 1994 album Sleeps With Angels, Young & Crazy Horse further extend the realm of their sonic library and are letting the challenging new music speak for itself.
Dave Zimmer is a Los Angeles-based writer and a former
editor of BAM, a California rock music magazine. He is
also the author of Crosby, Stills & Nash: The
Authorized Biography (published by St. Martin's in
1984 and currently being updated for re-publication by
Sierra Books later this year.)