Born November 12, 1945, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; son of Scott (a sports reporter) and Edna (a television celebrity) Young; first wife's name, Susan (divorced, 1970); second wife's name, Pegi; children: Zeke (with actor Carrie Snodgrass), Ben, Amber (with Pegi Young). Addresses: Home--La Honda,CA. Office--c/o Lookout Management, 9120 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069; Record company-- Reprise, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
In the 1991 Trouser Press Record Guide, writer Jon Young chose a host of adjectives to describe Neil Young: "Dirty rock `n' roller and hippie narcissist. Rockabilly hepcat and techno-troubadour. Folkie romantic and bluesy bad boy." To that list could be added "godfather of grunge," since by the early 1990s Young's iconoclastic music and personal style had been discovered by a new generation of music aficionados desperately in search of a credible hero. His longevity in the sometimes fatal world of rock and roll, exploration of radically different musical styles, and the consistency of his own distinct sound over time all combined to bring Young renewed popularity as he turned 50 in 1995.
Born in Toronto in 1945, Young is the son of a sports reporter and local television personality. Bouts with diabetes, polio, and epilepsy marred his childhood, and after his parents divorced Young and his mother relocated to the city of Winnipeg in Manitoba. While his first musical endeavors involved a ukulele, Young later switched to guitar, and by the early 1960s he had performed with a number of local bands. His first steady success came with a folk-rock ensemble called the Squires, a group that made regular appearances in both Manitoba and Ontario. In 1965, at a bar in a small Ontario town, Young first encountered Stephen Stills, an American musician who would become an occasional collaborator of Young's over the next few decades.
Slowly establishing a base in his birthplace of Toronto, by 1966 Young was playing with a group called Rickey James and the Mynah Birds. James later became famous in the 1980s for his hit "Super Freak" and some well-publicized legal troubles. With the Mynah Birds Young achieved some minor successes, including a jaunt to Detroit for recording sessions at the legendary Motown studios. Yet the tracks were never released, and the Mynah Birds disbanded when James clashed with authorities in 1966. At that point Young and another band member, Bruce Palmer, decided to leave for greener pastures.
Young and Palmer bought a hearse, filled it with everything they owned, and drove out to California. In a Los Angeles traffic jam, Stephen Stills spotted the vehicle and recognized the Canadians. With Stills's friend Richie Furay and a fifth member, Dewey Martin, the Buffalo Springfield was formed. The group was an almost immediate success and released three albums, but the quick money and fame was difficult for the still-youthful musicians. Buffalo Springfield was often plagued by temporary defections, including Young's own just before the pivotal Monterey (California) Pop Festival in June of 1967.
By 1968 Buffalo Springfield had disbanded permanently, leaving Young free to record his first solo album. The self-titled work was released in January of 1969, and Young has sometimes referred to the record as "overdub city" for its rather overproduced sound. Later that year, Young formed a band with some former members of a local L.A. group called the Rockets. With Danny Whitten on guitar, Ralph Molina playing drums, and Billy Talbot on bass, the ensemble took shape as Crazy Horse, and within a short time they recorded their first release together, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The 1969 work "marked the first of many radical shifts, turning to the raw, driving rock many feel still suits him best," wrote Jon Young in the Trouser Press Record Guide. The writer also noted that Young's backing band "display the ratty fervor of punk years before the fact."
As the 1960s drew to a close, Young was fast becoming a pivotal figure in music. He reunited with Stills in the latter's new band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, in the summer of 1969, and together the act played at the Woodstock Festival in August of that year. Their first studio effort together was Deja Vu, released in 1970, followed by 4-Way Street a year later. Meanwhile, Young continued to work with Crazy Horse and recorded a number of well-received albums during the seventies, including After the Gold Rush and Harvest, a 1972 work remembered for Young's only Number One single, "Heart of Gold." The musician later wrote in the liner notes to 1977's Decade of the mixed demons this country-rock ballad brought out in him. "This song put me in the middle of the road," he said of "Heart of Gold." "Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
The success of the Harvest album was marred by tragedy when Young's guitarist, Whitten, succumbed to the rock lifestyle and died of a drug overdose shortly before a scheduled tour. The resultant turmoil in Young's life was evident on the 1973 release Time Fades Away, and on Tonight's the Night, written and recorded during this period but not released until 1975. In a 1978 Newsweek article, Tony Schwartz called Tonight's the Night "a depressing tribute--out of tune and repetitive, but hauntingly memorable." Young told Schwartz that it was his personal favorite. "When I handed it in to Warner [Bros. Records], they hated it. We played it ten times as loud as they usually play things and it was awful," he recalled in the interview. "Tonight's the Night was a story of death and dope. It was about a sleazy, burned-out rock star just about to go, about what fame and crowds do to you. I had to exorcise those feelings. I felt like it was the only chance I had to stay alive."
Young rejoined Crosby, Stills & Nash briefly in 1974 for some unreleased recordings and a tour and continued to put out albums with Crazy Horse. He also reunited with Stills for the 1976 release Long May You Run. Young's 1977 work American Stars 'n Bars was memorable for its hit "Like a Hurricane." The following year he released Comes a Time, another switch back to a less rock-influenced, more country sound, toward which Young often veered during this time. The softer sound prompted Young to tell Schwartz in Newsweek that "folk music can be as authentic as rock 'n' roll. It's the in-between that bothers me. Soul and depth matter most."
Forty musicians appeared as guests on Comes a Time, while ten engineers added their production skills. The too-many- cooks maxim seemed to work against the LP. Young was dissatisfied with the final product at its first pressing. His label re-did it, and offered to mix in with the first pressing the shipments of the better records at a later date. Young purchased all copies of this first pressing himself for a dollar apiece, setting him back $200,000.
Young's status in the pantheon of living rock legends had achieved epic proportions by the late 1970s. He released his acclaimed Rust Never Sleeps album in 1979 and toured the same year in support of the LP, selling out shows across North America. Sailing with his wife, Pegi, and young son across the Pacific, Young came up with the scenario for the Rust tour: he would awaken atop oversized amplifiers, role-playing a youngster seduced by rock 'n' roll and then dwarfed by the industry and hype of it. Evil-looking "road-eyes" with glowing eyes and hooded heads moved the giant "equipment" around. Young played an acoustic set the first half, replayed announcements recorded at Woodstock during the intermission, then returned with Crazy Horse for a full-blown electric set. Live Rust, a chronicle of this tour, was released later in 1979.
As the 1980s progressed, Young was sometimes accused of having lost his cutting edge. Yet his musical efforts had taken second place in his life to some other, more personal, issues. His first son, Zeke, with actor Carrie Snodgrass, was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy. A second child, with his wife, Pegi, was also born with the condition, but in a more severe form. In a 1988 Rolling Stone interview, Young spoke of the then-nine-year-old Ben with writer James Henke. Explaining that Ben was quadriplegic and unable to speak, Young described his attempts to develop his son's communication skills through games and computer technology. "A lot of the things that we take for granted, that we can do, he can't do. But his soul is there, and I'm sure that he has an outlook on the world that we don't have, because of the disabilities."
Having two children afflicted with cerebral palsy from different mothers prompted Young to be tested, and doctors told him that it was literally a one-in-a-million coincidence. A third child, daughter Amber, was not affected. "Often in my life, I've felt that I was singled out for one reason or another for extreme things to happen," Young told Henke. "This was hard to deal with ... and we've learned to turn it around into a positive thing and to keep on going." Pegi became involved in setting up a Bay Area school for disabled children called the Bridge School, while Young put together an annual fundraising benefit noted for its celebrity roster.
Trouser Press's Jon Young termed Young's releases both with and without Crazy Horse during the eighties "particularly erratic." 1980's Hawks & Doves contained "a few incisive tunes amidst the throwaways," the writer noted, and was followed by "a series of genre exercise that seem more arbitrary than heartfelt." Two years later, Trans ventured into a heavily synthesized sound, while Everybody's Rockin' of 1983 experimented with rockabilly. A 1987 work, Life, was made with Crazy Horse and occasionally exhibited "a tough edge not glimpsed in years," according to Jon Young. The work was Neil Young's last for Geffen Records, who initiated a lawsuit against the artist. Rolling Stone's Alan Light explained that the court action was taken by the label against the iconoclastic musician "for making what the company called 'unrepresentative' albums--for making albums that didn't sound like Neil Young albums, whatever that could possibly mean."
A bluesy, big-band sound on This Note's for You, released in 1988 with a backing band called the Bluenotes, brought Young back into the limelight. The title song was a biting indictment of the selling-out of rock--the use of classic tunes in advertisements hawking everything from beer to sneakers, and the near-necessity of winning large corporate sponsorship contracts with beverage giants in order to underwrite the increasingly overblown costs of putting on large-scale tours. Young's video for the title song was banned for a time on MTV, but the network relented and eventually it was voted best video of 1988 in its annual video awards. The year also saw the reunion of Young with former bandmates for a well-received but unimpressive Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album entitled American Dream.
Young ventured back into the world of amplified, guitar- driven rock with 1989's Freedom. Like some of his other releases, the work contained some softer, acoustic numbers as well. It opened and closed with two versions of the same song, "Rockin' in the Free World," "a sing-along ball spinning on an axis of deadly irony, its superficial cheerleading charm soured by Young's parade of victims," declared David Fricke in Rolling Stone.
In the same review, Fricke also spoke of an apparent pattern in Young's career: As each decade neared to a close, he released a seminal, biting record that tore apart what rock music, and the promise of the decade, had really devolved into in the preceding years. In the lyrics of this album, Young seemed to indict the hollow patriotic slogans of U.S. President George Bush's administration, and pay homage to the underclass of destitute people government policies of the decade created. "Freedom is the sound of Neil Young, another decade on, looking back again in anger and dread," Fricke noted. The album, he wrote, "leaves you feeling both exhausted and invigorated, dismayed at what we've wrought yet determined to set it right."
It was also in 1989 that The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young was released, marking the beginning of the aging rocker's entry into the status of cultural icon for a new generation. Several alternative rock acts, at the time heard little outside the college-radio circuit, covered Young's songs for The Bridge. Artsy New York noise band Sonic Youth took one of his early 1980s forays into electronic music, "Computer Age," while Minneapolis rockers Soul Asylum submitted a version of "Barstool Blues." The project was the idea of a dedicated Young fan, Terry Tolkin, who coordinated the bands and arranged for part of the tribute album's proceeds to go to the Bridge School, the institution set up with the help of Pegi Young. Rolling Stone's Fricke lauded The Bridge for saluting "not only Young's enduring songwriting but the iconoclastic spirit and anarchic glee with which he continually challenges rock myth and defies rock convention."
Ragged Glory was Young's first 1990 release and was recorded with Crazy Horse in a few weeks at Young's northern California ranch in a session memorable for the series of local earthquakes on its final day. By this point Young and Crazy Horse had been working together for almost two decades, a relationship marked by members' periodic artistic differences. After one particularly grueling European tour, Young had declared that he was through working with them, but they regrouped for Ragged Glory and another tour. "It's just cycles," Young commented in a Rolling Stone interview of the bond between himself and the band. "You wear something out, and you can beat it into the ground, or you can leave it and let the rain fall on it and the sun shine on it and see if it comes back. We've always done that. We've had musical low points and musical high points throughout the last twenty years. I think this is one of the high points."
Ragged Glory was marked by longer, solo-laden tracks--some stretching on toward ten minutes--and a mood Henke compared to Young's first release with Crazy Horse, 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The writer termed it "a classic Crazy Horse album, with lots of rough edges, screeching guitar and feedback." Another Rolling Stone writer, Kurt Loder, praised the collaboration between Young and his backing band, whom he termed "maybe the last great garage band of our time and definitely Neil's greatest group." Loder called the record "a monument to the spirit of the garage--to the pursuit of passion over precision, to raw power and unvarnished soul."
Young and Crazy Horse also announced plans for a tour--to be designated the "Don't Spook the Horse" tour, named after a seven-minute bonus track on Ragged Glory. Young invited several alternative acts, such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Social Distortion, to open dates. The tour was held in smaller arenas left behind in the wake of the predominance of the mammoth sports stadiums. "I'm tired of the sheds," the veteran performer told Rolling Stone's Henke in 1990. "It's like you go into this big box that's got a brand name on it and play for all these people who are paying exorbitant prices. And everybody's got these big shows, because they got all this money from the sponsor."
The aural result of the successful 1991 tour in the smaller venues could be heard on the double compact disc Weld, released later that year. The tour began during the Persian Gulf crisis, and Young rearranged the set list to include a cover of Bob Dylan's antiwar protest song "Blowin' in the Wind." A companion release to Weld called Arc, 30 minutes of feedback-drenched live guitar, also appeared in 1991. The brainchild of Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Arc took introductions and endings to Young classics, as well as some solo moments, and distorted them into what Rolling Stone's Fricke called "utter melodic holocaust" and perhaps "the most extreme record he's ever released."
Young's next move was the release of a follow-up of sorts to his acclaimed folk-rock album of 20 years earlier, Harvest. The 1992 offering, entitled Harvest Moon, was an introspective look back. Deaths of friends, the disabilities of his sons, and his legal battle with Geffen seemed to have taken their toll. Rolling Stone's Light called the record "a chronicle of survival, focusing on loss and compromise and the ultimate triumphs of being a married father approaching fifty." Performers who had guest spots on the 1972 work--such as Linda Ronstadt, Nicolette Larson, and James Taylor--made reappearances on Harvest Moon. Young also performed on MTV's popular acoustic show, Unplugged, in support of the record. The year was also marked by Young's performances in separate concert tours with such disparate veterans and sixties legends as Bob Dylan and Booker T. and the M.G.s.
In the spring of 1994 Young's seminal title track from Rust Never Sleeps release became tragically infamous when a line from it--"it's better to burn out than to fade away"--was quoted in the suicide note left by Kurt Cobain, frontman of Seattle, Washington's breakthrough alternative act Nirvana. Young had heard about Cobain's drug-related problems and, shortly before Cobain's death, had unsuccessfully tried to contact him through Nirvana's manager. The title track of Young's 1994 Sleeps with Angels is a response to the death of the young musician.
Sleeps with Angels' other songs seemed to condemn the increasingly violent and consumerist nature of American culture, and the 14-minute "Change Your Mind" was characterized by Newsweek's Jay Cocks as "equal parts rhapsody and guitar dementia that describes the full course of a difficult love affair." Stereo Review writer Steve Simels lauded the LP's plethora of instrumentation and unusual production techniques, a "kind of studied primitivism [that] disguises a canny sophistication" comparable to Young's earlier works with Crazy Horse. Simels found Sleeps with Angels rife with "extremely interesting songs and a consistently vivid atmosphere."
In a Rolling Stone review, Fricke termed Sleeps with Angels "as charged with fighting spirit and romantic optimism as it is fraught with warzone shell shock and deathbed fear." The critic also reflected that the work "is not the first album Young has made about the widening cracks in the American dream or what's left of it for the teen-age refugees after the broken promises of the '60s and the worthless covenants of the [Ronald Reagan-George Bush] era [of conservative politics]. But it is among his best, a dramatic wrestling of song and conscience that suggests--no, insists--that walking through fire doesn't necessarily mean you have to go up in flames."
As Young's prolific career chugged well into its third decade, his legions of dedicated fans were awaiting a definitive multi-CD release. "That's a giant," he told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder in 1990. "I'm still working on it. It's ridiculous." Young supposedly possessed hundreds of hours of unreleased material, and a retrospective record would incorporate many of those as-yet-unheard songs. Young's own creativity continued to hinder the release--he had began working on it in the late 1980s, and was continually interrupted by the need to write more songs while digging up the older ones from his archives. The artist had also considered headlining the annual alternative music-industry festival, Lollapalooza, in what would have been the ultimate act of 1990s career reincarnation.
In 1995 Young released the well-received album Mirror Ball, a collaboration with the highly acclaimed and popular alternative act, Pearl Jam. Although Pearl Jam's name does not appear on the LP's cover--reportedly for legal reasons--the group serves as Young's backup band on every song. Commenting on the generational gap between himself and the young grunge band, Young told Time's Christopher John Farley, "Actually, in many ways, I feel like Pearl Jam is older than me.... There's an ageless thing to the way they play." The result of the two acts' winter 1995 recording session in Seattle is, according to Farley, "one of the most consistently rewarding works of [Young's] long, winding career." Further accolades for Mirror Ball came from Rolling Stone's J. D. Considine, who gave the album a four-star rating, and Entertainment Weekly critic David Browne, who gave it an A-.
At the age of 50, Young continued to provide inspiration for a younger breed of colleagues wary of the artifice and mainstream hype that periodically corrupts even the most groundbreaking of rock trends. As Rolling Stone's Alan Light explained, "Young's primitive guitar screech and yowling voice have served as lasting inspiration for wandering souls and f--- ups of several generations now. In the 1990s, Neil Young is simply so anachronistic that he's cutting edge." Young perhaps best summed up the philosophy behind creating the music that has earned him such a devoted cross-generational following when he told Time's Farley, "I just play what I feel like playing ... and every once in a while I'll wake up and feel like playing something else."
by Carol Brennan
Neil Young's Career
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Member of rock bands the Squires, 1962-64, Rickey James and the Mynah Birds, c. 1965, Buffalo Springfield, 1966-68, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1969-71, and the Stills-Young Band, 1976; solo artist (and with accompaniment from bands Crazy Horse, the Bluenotes, the Shocking Pinks, and Pearl Jam), 1969--; composer of soundtracks for films, including Where the Buffalo Roam, 1980, and Dead Man, 1995; director of films (under pseudonym Bernard Shakey), including Journey through the Past, 1972, Rust Never Sleeps, 1979, and Human Highway (co-directed with Dean Stockwell), 1982.
Neil Young's Awards
Winner of Rolling Stone Music Award for album of the year, 1975, for Tonight's the Night; citations in Rolling Stone critics' poll for best rock artist, best male vocalist, and best album, 1979, all for Rust Never Sleeps, Reprise.
- Selective Works
- Solo and with Crazy Horse (unless otherwise noted) Neil Young, Reprise, 1969.
- Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Reprise, 1969.
- After the Gold Rush, Reprise, 1970.
- Harvest, Warner Bros., 1972.
- Journey through the Past, Reprise, 1973.
- Time Fades Away, Reprise, 1973.
- On the Beach, Reprise, 1974.
- Tonight's the Night, Reprise, 1975.
- Zuma, Reprise, 1975.
- American Stars 'n Bars, Reprise, 1977.
- Decade, Reprise, 1977.
- Comes a Time, Reprise, 1978.
- Rust Never Sleeps, Reprise, 1979.
- Live Rust, Reprise, 1979.
- Hawks and Doves, Reprise, 1980.
- Reactor, Reprise, 1981.
- Trans, Geffen, 1982.
- (With the Shocking Pinks) Everybody's Rockin', Geffen, 1983 Old Ways, Geffen, 1985.
- Landing on Water, Geffen, 1986.
- Life, Geffen, 1987.
- (With the Bluenotes) This Note's for You, Reprise, 1988.
- Freedom, Reprise, 1989.
- Ragged Glory, Reprise, 1990.
- Weld, Reprise, 1991.
- Arc, Reprise, 1991.
- Harvest Moon, Reprise, 1992.
- Sleeps with Angels, Reprise, 1994.
- (With Pearl Jam) Mirror Ball, Reprise, 1995.
- With Buffalo Springfield Buffalo Springfield, Atco, 1967 Buffalo Springfield Again, Atco, 1967.
- Last Time Around, Atco, 1968.
- Retrospective, Atco, 1969.
- With Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; on Atlantic Deja Vu, 1970.
- 4-Way Street, 1971.
- So Far, 1974.
- American Dream, 1988.
- With the Stills-Young Band Long May You Run, Reprise, 1976.
July 13, 2004: Young's 1980 album, Hawks & Doves, was re-released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_2/index.jsp, August
April 5, 2005: Young underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm, forcing him to cancel a performance at Canada's Juno Awards in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he was scheduled to receive an award. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, April 5, 2005.
October 2005: Young signed for a week-long appearance as the musical guest on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/digest.htm, October 17, 2005.
January 23, 2006: Neil Young: Heart of Gold, the concert documentary on Young, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Source: Toronto Star, January 25, 2006.
February 10, 2006: Young appeared in Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which was released by Paramount Classics. Source: New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=339281, February 27, 2006.
- Contemporary Musicians, volume 2, Gale, 1990.
- Trouser Press Record Guide, fourth edition, Collier Books, 1991.
- Periodicals Billboard, August 19, 1995.
- Entertainment Weekly, October 14, 1994; June 30-July 7, 1995.
- Newsweek, November 13, 1978.
- Rolling Stone, June 4, 1987; November 2, 1989; September 20, 1990; October 4, 1990; November 14, 1991; November 28, 1991; October 15, 1992; January 21, 1993; August 25, 1994; July 13-27, 1995.
- Spin, May 1995.
- Stereo Review, October 1994.
- Time, October 17, 1994; July 3, 1995.