Neil Young is one of the most influential Canadian songwriters and guitarists of his generation, known for recording such favorites as ‘Old Man,’ ‘Harvest Moon‘ and ‘Heart of Gold.’ He was nicknamed the “Godfather of Grunge” for his undeniable influence on the folk-rock genre.
Young is also a strong advocate for environmental and disability issues, as demonstrated by his co-founding of the Benefit for Farm Aid and the Bridge School Benefit Concerts. More than 50 years into his musical career, he continues to record and tour on a regular basis.
[Credit for much of the writing in this article should go to Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson, as well as WikiPedia – RS]
Neil Young – Old Man / Neil Young sings his classic song “Old Man” alongside Neil Young.
Heart Of Gold / 1985 / Farm Aid concert
Neil Young / May 1992 / Cleveland Music Hall
Neil Young’s parents married in 1940 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and their first son, Robert “Bob” Young, was born in 1942.
Neil Percival Young was born on November 12, 1945, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He moved several times with his family, including a brief stint in the Winnipeg, Manitoba suburb of Norwood in the mid-1950s.
Compared to Neil, Bob was extrovert and jovial while Neil was somber and retiring. As a little child, Neil Young was fat. He was described as a loner who most of all liked spending his time fishing.
His father, Scott Alexander Young was a writer who had written over 30 books (among his writing there was Neil and Me that was published 1984 and is biographical about him and his son Neil) . Scott also contributed to the Toronto Globe and Mail among other newspapers. He first started as a sports writer and later on he became an ice hockey commentary on TV.
His mother, Edna Blow Ragland “Rassy” Young Edna Blow Ragland, but her nickname would be “Rassy” played the piano and would arrange that Neil and his older brother get in contact with music at early ages.
Although Canadian, his mother had American and French ancestry.
In 1949, the family moved to a three-story house in the much smaller municipality of Omemee, Ontario. In this little town with 700 citizens lived Neil with his mother, father and older brother at the street, Highway 7. This was a happy time in Neil’s life. Both his parents would be home as his mother was taking care of the house. His father used to sit in the loft and write.
Two years later a dramatic event would strike the family, and Neil in particular. After feeling sick and weakened Neil was talking to the hospital. He was diagnosed with polio that was life-threatening because the Salk vaccine wasn’t developed yet. Fortunately, treatment went well and Neil could soon be returning home. But it was some time before he could walk again. Besides the walking difficulties, the polio had transformed Neil from a chubby child to someone very thin and frail.
Neil began to listen to pop music on a transistor radio and Elvis was the biggest favorite at this time. He was thirteen when he got his first instrument, a cheap plastic ukulele he received as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 1958.
He began to practice and his brother Bob later claimed that he showed Neil his first chords. The next instrument Neil possessed was a banjo and his uncle Bob, who mastered several string instruments explained some techniques for the beginner.
Unfortunately by this time, the relationship between Neil’s parents, Rassy and Scott Young would go downhill. They were not getting along; the main problem being Scott’s interest in other women and the fact that he attracted many of them didn’t make things better. Around this time the family moved back to Toronto.
In 1960 Neil’s parents divorced. With this split, brother Robert stayed with his father in Toronto. Neil, now 15, relocated with Rassy to Winnipeg.
Scott would re-marry, while Rassy would live on alone. she was devastated by the separation and would become bitter. Neil would face his mother going through strong emotional turmoil and also witness her sometimes alcoholic behavior.
Rassy saw her primary mission hereafter as being a strong support force behind Neil. It was she who encouraged Neil to continue with his music. She loaned him money to buy equipment. She also loaned him her car for transportation to gigs.
His parents’ split and subsequent move to another city was devastating. It was many years before he reconciled with his father. Instead, he found solace in music.
Although he would live in Winnipeg a mere five years, it was there, among the thriving community clubs, church basements and teen club dances, that Young would define himself and set his career path.
“Winnipeg is where it all started for me,” he acknowledges. “I have so many fond memories of that time.”
While there are those who take issue with Winnipeg’s claim to him, Young does not and has often referenced the city as his hometown. His 1969 breakthrough album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, boasted a cover photo of Young and his dog, Winnipeg.
Young and his mother, Edna (or Rassy, as she was called by friends and Neil himself), first rented an apartment at the southwest corner of Hugo Street and Corydon Avenue in Fort Rouge. He attended nearby Earl Grey junior high for Grade 9. Although he had already completed the grade in Toronto, Young was forced to repeat it here, so he was a year older than his classmates.
His 1973 autobiographical song Don’t Be Denied tells the story of his difficult integration into the Earl Grey student community (“The punches came fast and hard, lying on my back in the schoolyard”). Young served on the yearbook committee and contributed his first writing, a paragraph titled Why I Chew Gum.
In the fall of 1961, he enrolled at Kelvin High for Grade 10.
Rassy moved the two of them to a stately older home at 1123 Grosvenor Ave., in Crescentwood, where she rented the second-floor suite (the same house to which Bob Dylan paid a surprise visit on his own Neil Young tour a few years ago). This would be Young’s home until leaving Winnipeg.
“I knew when I was 13 or 14 that that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. “There was nothing more important in my life than playing music. It took me a long time to grow up because all my growing-up time was spent on music. All the other things suffered for it.”
That included school. Young repeated Grade 10 and quit one month into his second try at Grade 11.
“I wasn’t into school,” he later conceded. “I had a pretty good time there, but I really didn’t fit in because I wasn’t very good in school, and I wasn’t very interested in being very good in school. I used to spend my time at Kelvin drawing amplifiers and stage setups. I was always flunking out.”
Young was rarely without his guitar. As former girlfriend Fran Gebhard recalls, “We’d go to a party and everyone would be upstairs having a good time, and Neil and I would be in the basement listening to him play guitar. He loved that guitar, and he loved to play. All he talked about was playing music and writing songs. He never talked about being rich and famous, just playing all his life, doing something he enjoyed as his job.”
Having progressed from ukulele to acoustic guitar in Toronto, Young acquired his first electric guitar in Winnipeg and wasted little time forming a quartet: the Jades.
The Jades made their debut in January 1961 at an Earl Grey Community Club canteen dance, where Young had previously spun 45s for teen dances. It would be the fledgling band’s one and only performance. His band mates were more interested in hockey; for Young, it was always about music.
A series of other short-lived bands including the Stardusters, Twilighters and Classics — as well as a brief stint with the Esquires — followed, until the Christmas holidays of 1962, when Young formed the folk-rock group the Squires in 1963. He was 18 at that time.
Neil Young and The Squires
This was HIS band: Neil was the leader and called the shots. Consisting of Grant Park High School students Allan Bates and Ken Smyth, Ken Koblun from Churchill High and Young from Kelvin, the Squires debuted on Feb. 1, 1963 at Winnipeg’s Riverview Community Club, earning $5 for their efforts. In short order, the quartet became a popular attraction, playing proms and the community club circuit over the next two years.
“There was nothing like the community clubs anywhere,” recalled Young. “It wasn’t too long before we had our own little following.”
What set the Squires apart was the inclusion of an ever-growing catalogue of original songs penned by Young.
Beginning with writing instrumentals, Young soon progressed to lyrics, becoming the Squires’ lead vocalist (to the dismay of some audiences). At a St. Ignatius Church basement dance in January 1964, Young gave one of his first vocal performances, a Beatles song, only to be met with a shout of “Stick to instrumentals!” As he recalls, “People told me I couldn’t sing, but I just kept at it.”
“I used to sit in my bedroom a lot with my guitar and write songs,” said Young. “It’s almost like the song feels the need for me to write it, and I’m just there. Songwriting, for me, is like a release.”
One of his early lyrical compositions (later recorded as demo in 1967 with Buffalo Springfield), The Rent is Always Due, was subtitled River Heights Where Are You?
I think you can hear Bob Dylan’s influence in the 6/8 feel of this song and the way Neil sang it.
You're still the child Suspended in space Crying out to you Beckons you to yet another fine place Where the trials of life are few Who says you are coming on Don't think you're living long They won't remember you The rent is always due. The cloudy men Who take their place And stand in line They do Know not of The satin face That separates them from you Just put your blue jeans on Grab your guitar and write a song Don't think I'm kidding you The rent is always due. She rides a broom With gold-plated straw And flutters around And dies The Brylcream fools Just standing on Digesting all their lives But then you walk along And she starts coming on Beneath her melting broom The rent is always due
CKRC recording engineer Harry Taylor once told Young, “You’re a good guitar player, kid, but you’ll never make it as a singer.”
Unfazed, Young persevered with a revolving door of Squires members. Singularly focused and uncompromising, his determination drove him onward.
“The hardest thing I learned to do was to fire someone,” he later admitted. “If I hadn’t been so serious about music, I probably wouldn’t have had to do that. But knowing where I wanted to go, there was no way I could put up with things that were going to stand in my way. Music had to come first. I had to leave a lot of friends behind, especially in the beginning. I had almost no conscience for what I had to do. I was so driven.”
On July 23, 1963, The Squires were recorded by Harry Taylor of local radio station CKRC in a tiny two-track recording studio in downtown Winnipeg. Two tracks were released later that year by V Records as a 45 single.
300 records were pressed, only around 10 are known to still exist, which makes it one of the rarest 45 rpm records around the world.
Neil Young & The Squires / V Records / 1963 . V-109 / “The Sultan“.
Despite several other recording dates in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, the Squires released only one single on local V Records: The Sultan, backed by another instrumental, Aurora. Both were penned by Young and cut at radio station CKRC’s two-track studio in downtown Winnipeg.
“It was good to have it out, but I hadn’t got the sound I was after yet,” he admitted. “It was my first recording session, and I was just glad to be there for the experience. I was still searching for that right sound.”
In the fall of 1964, Young quit school to pursue music full time. Rassy purchased a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse for him and the band.
Christened “Mortimer Hearseburg”, or “Mort”, the vehicle allowed the Squires to venture further afield for a week long gig at the Flamingo Club in Thunder Bay. It was there, on his 19th birthday, that Young penned one of his most enduring songs, Sugar Mountain.
On another trip to Thunder Bay in April 1965 to play a coffeehouse, Young met American folk-rocker Stephen Stills, and an instant bond was formed. It would be another year before the two would hook up again.
A brief history of the Squires by band member, Ken Smyth …
Then-girlfriend Pam Smith often accompanied Young to Squires gigs. “When he was playing his music,” she described, “he had one leg that was kind of stiff, and he would just move his knee back and forth, in and out, in time to the music. He didn’t move around much on stage, but he moved that knee. He used to use his vibrato arm on his guitar a lot, going ‘twang’ with it. You could tell in his eyes the music went right through his whole body. His guitar was like a part of him, and he didn’t feel whole without it.”
“Neil loved playing hooky from school,” Bates remembers. “He thought school was a total waste of time, so we’d go down to Winnipeg Piano, where they had these great guitars. That was a great place. We’d spend an afternoon getting all those guitars down off the walls and trying them out.”
By 1964, the Squires had broadened their base to other neighbourhoods throughout the city, as well as playing teen clubs such as the Cellar and the Twilight Zone.
A January 1964 Winnipeg Free Press story by reporter Mike Maunder celebrating the opening of the Twilight Zone teen club on St. Mary’s Road in St. Vital quoted Young stating, “The music we play was written for this type of audience. This is the only place in Winnipeg where we can hear this music.”
Unlike his rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries, Young developed an appreciation for folk music and would attend the Sunday night hootenannies at Pembina Highway’s Fourth Dimension (4D) coffeehouse.
“He was a rock ‘n’ roll guy, but he fit in with everyone at the 4D,” recalls folksinger Len Udow.
Even back then, Young’s songwriting stood out. “He was a scruffy-looking guy with this high voice,” says Udow, “but all the girls loved him because he wrote these love songs.”
“Nobody was doing folk-rock at that time,” recalls 4D regular Bernie Barsky. “Neil used to play folk music on an electric guitar, and it was great. When I heard him doing Oh Susannah at the 4D one night, I said to him, ‘Neil, this is wonderful!’ ”
The Squires played the 4D often and were compensated with free food.
“I got into a thing where we did classic folk songs with a rock ‘n’ roll beat,” said Young. “We also did Clementine and She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain. We did a really weird version of Tom Dooley which was like rock ‘n’ roll, but it was in minor keys. I wrote all new melodies. It was pretty interesting. It was different.”
On April 2, 1964, the group again entered CKRC studios, and, according to Young recorded “about twenty songs.” According to drummer Ken Smyth, these were for a possible record deal with Canada’s London label.
Neil Young & The Squires / CKRC studios/ 1964 /”I Wonder”
On November 23, 1964, while on tour in Fort William, Ontario, the Squires were again recorded, this time by a local CJLX radio station DJ in their studio, producing two versions of Neil Young’s “I’ll Love You Forever“.
No longer content with a formal education, and now focused on a career as a musician, Neil dropped out of high school and started performing at clubs and coffee houses in the area, first with the Squires and later as a solo act.
At a club in Fort William, Ontario in 1965, The Squires crossed paths with an American folk-rock band called The Company, which featured a singer/guitarist named Stephen Stills.
Setting out in 1965 on a solo trajectory after leaving the Squires, Young began making the rounds as a solo performer on the Canadian folk circuit. He worked folk clubs in Winnipeg, where he first met Joni Mitchell. Mitchell recalls Young as having been highly influenced by Bob Dylan at the time.
Just after leaving his band the Squires and on his 19th birthday, Neil wrote a very enduring folk song about his lost youth, “Sugar Mountain” .
Joni Mitchell fell in love with “Sugar Mountain” and went on to write “The Circle Game” inspired from it.
The Winnipeg band The Guess Who (with Randy Bachman as lead guitarist and vocalist Burton Cummings) had a Canadian Top 40 hit with Young’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong“, which was Young’s first major success as a songwriter.
The Myna Birds
In 1966, while in Toronto, Neil joined an R&B group called the Mynah Birds, which was fronted by future funk star Rick James , with Bruce Palmer on bass as well as future Steppenwolf members Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas.
1966 / The Myna Birds / It’s My Time / Neil Young & Rick James / The Riverboat, 134 Yorkville Ave., Toronto
This group managed to secure a record deal with the legendary Motown label. Unfortunately, James was arrested for being AWOL from the Navy Reserve, before they could finish their Motown album.
When the Mynah Birds disbanded, Young and his friend Bruce Palmer decided to set out in search of new frontiers of possible fame and fortune. But Young’s first car “Mort” broke down, so he bought a 1953 black Pontiac hearse (Mort II). The pair packed their possessions into the hearse and made the long drive to Los Angeles, California. The Buffalo Springfield song, “Mr. Soul” was written during this trip. (Young admitted in a 2009 interview that he was actually in the United States illegally until he received a “green card” – a permanent residency permit – in 1970.)
Buffalo Springfield 1966- 1968
While Young and Palmer were stuck in traffic on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard, the hearse was spotted by Stephen Stills and singer/guitarist Richie Furay, who were driving in the opposite direction. After making an illegal u-turn to wave the hearse down, this meeting led to the birth of Buffalo Springfield, one of the most successful folk-rock bands of the 1960s.
An interesting anecdote is how they decided to name the group. I heard that they were sitting in the car and a piece of construction equipment was parked nearby.
One of the band guys said something like, “There’s a cool name for the band”.
A mixture of folk, country, psychedelia, and rock, lent a hard edge by the twin lead guitars of Stills and Young, made Buffalo Springfield a critical success.
In 1966 Neil developed epilepsy, and began to have seizures with increased frequency – often while on stage with Buffalo Springfield.
Their first album Buffalo Springfield (1966) sold well after Stills’ topical song, aided by Young’s melodic harmonics played on electric guitar, “For What It’s Worth” became a hit.
According to Rolling Stone, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other sources, Buffalo Springfield helped create the genres of folk rock and country rock.
Going solo, Crazy Horse (1968–1969)
After the break-up of Buffalo Springfield, Young signed a solo deal with Reprise Records, home of his colleague and friend Joni Mitchell, with whom he shared a manager, Elliot Roberts, who manages Young to this day.
Young and Roberts immediately began work on Young’s self-titled debut solo record, Neil Young (January 22, 1969), which received mixed reviews.
The album contains songs that remain a staple of his live shows including “The Loner“.
In a 1970 interview, Young deprecated the album as being “overdubbed rather than played.”
Neil Young With Crazy Horse
For his next album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (May 1969) Young recruited three musicians from a band called The Rockets: Danny Whitten on guitar, Billy Talbot on bass guitar, and Ralph Molina on drums. These three took the name Crazy Horse (after the historical figure of the same name).
Recorded in just two weeks, the album included “Cinnamon Girl“, “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River.” Young reportedly wrote all three songs in bed on the same day while nursing a high fever of 103 °F (39 °C). He’s never revealed who the real “Cinnamon Girl” is.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Down By The River
Although Neil memorably wails, “Down by the river, I shot my baby,” the song isn’t about anyone dying. In a 1970 interview, he clarified, “There’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (1969–1970)
Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN) was a vocal folk rock supergroup made up of American singer-songwriters David Crosby and Stephen Stills and English singer-songwriter Graham Nash. When joined by Neil Young they were known as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) . They were noted for their intricate vocal harmonies, often tumultuous interpersonal relationships, political activism, and lasting influence on US music and culture.
The terms of Young’s commitment to the group allowed him full freedom to maintain a parallel career with his new band, Crazy Horse. They initially completed the rhythm section with former Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer. However, Palmer was let go due to his persistent personal problems following rehearsals at the Cafe au Go Go in New York City’s Greenwich Village; according to Crosby, “Bruce Palmer was into another instrument and his head was not where it should have been.” The teen aged Motown bassist Greg Reeves joined in Palmer’s place at the recommendation of Rick James, a friend of the band.
With Young on board they embarked on a four-leg, 39-date tour that ended with three European concerts in January 1970. Their first gig was on August 16, 1969, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, with Joni Mitchell as their opening act. They mentioned they were going to someplace called Woodstock the next day, but that they had no idea where that was.
As the 23-show tour progressed, the tenuous nature of the partnership was strained by Stills’ alcohol and cocaine abuse and perceived megalomania, culminating in an extended solo set not countenanced by the other band members at the Fillmore East when he was informed that Bob Dylan was in the audience.
In this turbulent atmosphere, Crosby, Nash and Young decided to fire Stills during a two-night stint at the Chicago Auditorium Theatre in July 1970. Following his reinstatement, the tour ended as scheduled in Bloomington, Minnesota on July 9, 1970; however, the group broke up immediately thereafter
At the famous Woodstock Festival, Young skipped the majority of the acoustic set and refused to be filmed during the electric set, even telling the cameramen: “One of you fuckin’ guys comes near me and I’m gonna fuckin’ hit you with my guitar”.
1970 Album: Déjà Vu.
Great anticipation had built for the expanded supergroup and their first album with Young, Déjà Vu, which arrived in stores in March 1970.
One of the tracks on this album was previously recorded with Young’s band Crazy Horse in early 1969. .. Helpless
“Helpless” was about Young’s childhood in the northern Ontario town of Omemee. “Life was real basic and simple in that town,” he recalled. “Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody.”
CSNY – Down By The River
CSNY performed their second live gig at Woodstock, with Stills famously confessing to the crowd, “This is only the second time we’ve performed in front of people. We’re scared shitless.”
Young’s relationship with his bandmates quickly became contentious, and he left the group to focus more exclusively on his solo work.
After the Gold Rush was the third studio album by Neil Young. Released in September 1970 on Reprise Records. Personnel included:
- Neil Young – guitar, piano, harmonica, vibes, lead vocals
- Danny Whitten – guitar, vocals
- Nils Lofgren – guitar, piano, vocals
- Jack Nitzsche – piano
- Billy Talbot – bass
- Greg Reeves – bass
- Ralph Molina – drums, vocals
- Stephen Stills – vocals
- Bill Peterson – flugelhorn
All songs were written by Young. The album featured classics as “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Tell Me Why” and “Southern Man.” (The latter, a condemnation of racism that angered many Southerners, would inspire Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” in which Neil Young is called out specifically.)
Harvest was the fourth studio album by Neil Young, released on February 1, 1972, on Reprise Records, catalogue MS 2032. It featured the London Symphony Orchestra on two tracks and vocals by noted guests David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Stills, and James Taylor.
Young outdid himself with this album, which is regarded as the best-selling album of 1972 in the United and the best selling Canadian album of all time.
A hallmark work, it contains the songs “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old Man” (inspired by the aging caretaker of the ranch he had recently purchased in the Santa Cruz mountains) and “Heart of Gold,” which is Young’s only No. 1 hit to date.
But just as he reached this early peak, Young was faced with one of the more difficult periods in his life. At the end of 1972, Young and his girlfriend, Academy Award–winning actress Carrie Snodgress, had a son, Zeke, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Snodgress had to set aside her acting career to care for him.
A few months later, Neil Young had to fire Crazy Horse guitarist Dan Whitten before an upcoming tour. Shortly after being fired Dan Whitten died of an drug overdose.
These events were compounded by a string of relatively unsuccessful projects, including the 1972 film Journey Through the Past, the live album Time Fades Away and 1974’s On the Beach.
Young and Snodgress split up in 1975, the same year that Young released his album Tonight’s the Night, which had been recorded shortly after Whitten’s death and reflected Young’s frame of mind with its dark character and themes, as well as Zuma, a hard-edged album featuring Crazy Horse’s new lineup, with Frank Sampedro replacing Whitten on guitar.
The second half of the decade would prove to be a more positive one for Young, who teamed up once more with Stephen Stills to record Long May You Run, which reached No. 26 on the charts and went gold.
In 1977, he released the more country flavored Stars ’n Bars as well as the triple-LP compilation Decade, which featured a handpicked selection of his work up to that point.
Things got even better the next year, when Comes a Time broke into the Top 10, he married Pegi Morton (who was waitress at a restaurant near his ranch and would inspire many of Young’s songs in the future, most notably, “Unknown Legend”) and embarked on a tour with Crazy Horse called “Rust Never Sleeps,” during which they showcased songs from an upcoming album.
Released in 1979, Rust Never Sleeps echoed the structure of the concerts, alternating between quiet, acoustic tracks and aggressive electric numbers. Among its highlights is one of Neil Young’s best-known tracks, the anthem “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” A double LP recording from the tour, Live Rust, was released later that year, reaching No. 15 on the charts.
Hawks and Doves
Young began the 1980s by indulging his experimental urges, not always to the best results. His first album of the new decade, Hawks & Doves, was more or less a collection of acoustic and country-flavored songs recorded several years earlier, and their at times politically right-leaning sentiments alienated some of his audience.
He followed with an abrupt about-face in 1981, releasing the hard-edged Re-ac-tor, before mixing it up even more with Trans, incorporating synthesizers and vocoders into his songs and further confusing fans and critics and underwhelming his new label, Geffen.
The year 1983 was a tough one for Young, whose poorly received rockabilly offering Everybody’s Rockin’ was the last straw for his label, who filed a $3 million lawsuit against him for producing what they termed “unrepresentative” music.
Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend Carrie Snodgress was also suing him for child support and he was coping with the disabilities of his and Pegi’s two recently born children, Ben (cerebral palsy) and Amber Jean (epilepsy).
Unwilling to sacrifice his independence and artistic integrity to please his label, he eventually reached a deal with them in which he would take a pay cut for his next few albums. This led to the heavily country Old Ways (1985), featuring guest appearances by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings; the New Wave–tinged Landing on Water (1986); and the 1987 album Life, all of which were only mildly successful but fulfilled his final obligations to Geffen.
However, during this period, Young’s priorities had shifted to the care of his children. An avid model-train collector, Young created a 700-foot model train track within a barn on his property as a way to interact with his son Ben and developed special controllers for the train set, allowing him to control switching and power using a paddle system. (The controls later formed the basis for a company called Liontech, formed in 1992. In 1995, when the Lionel company was facing bankruptcy, Young put together an investment group to purchase the train company so he could continue his research and development.)
In 1986, Young’s experience with his children’s cerebral palsy and epilepsy led him and Pegi to help found the Bridge School in Hillsborough, California, whose mission is to provide education for children with severe disabilities. The school has since been supported in part by annual benefit concerts that attract hundreds of thousands of music fans and feature a vast array of major artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Beck, Pearl Jam, No Doubt, Paul McCartney and countless others. The shows are organized by Pegi and Neil Young, who typically headlines as a solo act or with Crazy Horse and CSN&Y. No stranger to benefit shows, Young participated in the 1985 Live Aid concert and has worked with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to organize the Farm Aid concerts since 1986.
Godfather of Grunge
Making his return to Reprise Records in 1988 with blues/R&B-focused This Note’s for You, the album featured a title track of the same name that took aim at commercialism in music. Though initially MTV refused to play the accompanying video in response to Young’s apparent slight, it eventually won Video of the Year at its annual awards. That same year, Young reunited with Crosby, Stills, and Nash for American Dream, which, although it charted at No. 16, was panned by critics.
However, Young’s next offering, the edgy acoustic and electric album Freedom (1989), was a return to form after a decade of musical wanderings. He also achieved his second-biggest hit with the track “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which climbed to No. 2 on the charts. Perhaps more important, it further endeared him to up-and-coming acts such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana, several of whom contributed tracks for a tribute album released the same year titled The Bridge, whose proceeds went to the Bridge School. It also underscored Young’s influence on this new crop of musicians, eventually earning him the title the “Godfather of Grunge.”
As the premier elder statesman in this new era, Young continued to record and explore, reuniting once more with Crazy Horse to record Ragged Glory (1990) and releasing the noise-laden live album Weld (1991).
The following year, he returned to his folk roots with Harvest Moon. Featuring songs such as “War of Man,” “Unknown Legend” and “Harvest Moon,” it was one of Young’s more accessible albums and was a critical and popular success, reaching No. 16 on the charts and eventually going double platinum.
Once more in the good graces of the music-listening public, Young nevertheless continued to expand into various arenas, composing the Oscar nominated song “Philadelphia” for the 1994 Jonathan Demme movie of the same name, as well as releasing Sleeps with Angels, Young’s response to the death of Kurt Cobain, who had ended his suicide note with the lyrics “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” from Young’s “Hey Hey, My My.”
The following year he was backed by Pearl Jam on his highest charting album since 1972, Mirror Ball, and was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time. (He would be inducted again two years later with the other members of Buffalo Springfield.)
Rounding out this happy decade for Young, Crazy Horse backed him up for the 1996 album Broken Arrow and he supplied the sparse, moody soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s western, Dead Man, which starred Johnny Depp. Jarmusch in turn made Young the focus of a 1997 documentary Year of the Horse.
Keep on Rockin’
Entering the next decade, Young released his 24th studio album, Silver & Gold. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he recorded the patriotic “Let’s Roll” and then followed with the albums Are You Passionate? and Greendale, a concept project with an accompanying film about a fictional town in California that allowed Young to explore the environmental themes about which he has remained passionate throughout his life.
However, Young’s steady output was briefly interrupted in 2005 when he suffered a near-fatal aneurysm that required brain surgery. While recovering, he finished work on the reflective, acoustic-based Prairie Wind. A quiet work that addresses issues of mortality in the wake of his illness and the passing of his father, it hearkened back to some of his most popular recordings and reached No. 3 on the charts. But far from mellowing out, in 2006 Young released the angry protest album Living With War, which was inspired by the war in Iraq and featured such tracks as “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Shock and Awe.” After a series of retrospective live albums in the second half of the 2000s, Young released the first installment of a much-anticipated collection of his work—The Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972—a nine-disc box set that covers the first decade of his lengthy career.
So far, the 2010s have been much like any other period along Young’s path, filled with reflections on the past, an eye toward the future and a focus on the issues about which he is most passionate. His more recent musical projects include 2010’s Le Noise, the folk standards and patriotic album Americana, the 2012 double LP Psychedelic Pill, the environmentally themed Storytone and 2015’s The Monsanto Years, his 35th album and counting.
During this period, Young also published his frank autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, and despite stating in the intro that he needed to take a break from touring, the longtime musician had already returned to the stage by the time of the book’s release. He and continues to perform on a regular basis.
Though Young and his wife Pegi divorced in 2014, they continue their work to support the Bridge School, and Young remains heavily involved with Farm Aid, the Global Poverty Project and MusiCares, as well as championing various political and environmental causes.