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Neil Young at Live 8
Neil Young (born November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario)
is a Canadian singer-songwriter who has become one of the most respected
and influential musicians of his generation.
Young is recognizable for his high-pitched, nasal voice and for his deeply
personal lyrics. Musically, most of Young's work falls into two distinct
styles; the first is an acoustic, country-tinged folk rock, heard on such
songs as "Heart of Gold," "Old Man" and "Long
May You Run." The other style is a grinding, lumbering form of hard
rock, heard on songs like "Cinnamon Girl," "Southern Man"
and "Rockin' in the Free World" and often recorded with the
backing band Crazy Horse. He has also experimented with soul, swing, jazz
and electronica in his widely varied career.
Young came to prominence with folk rock band Buffalo Springfield in the
mid-1960s. He reached his commercial peak during the singer-songwriter
boom of the early 1970s with the albums After the Gold Rush and Harvest
and his role in the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He has
since fiercely refused commercial stardom, which has led him to create
both durable, uncompromising music and outlandish experiments that have
left critics, audiences and - in one notable case - his record label baffled.
Despite a lack of consistency, though some will say just because of it,
Young is a widely influential and acclaimed performer. He has been inducted
into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the cable music channel VH1's 2000 list of the top 100 artists of rock
and roll, he ranked number 30. He was also ranked number 30 on VH1's list
of top 100 hard rock artists.
Young is also film-maker, directing the 1979 concert film Rust Never Sleeps
and 2003's Greendale, a fictional film based on his concept album of the
same name. He's also an outspoken advocate for environmental issues and
small farmers, co-founding the benefit concert Farm Aid.
Young was born in Toronto; his father was sportswriter and novelist Scott
Young and his mother Rassy 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. Young was also acquainted with
another soon-to-be-famous Winnipeg guitarist, Randy Bachman (The Guess
Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive).
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 manufacturer of heavy equipment
such as steamrollers. 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'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". "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 among these disparate forms.
Young rejoined in time to help record a final, disappointing, album --
Last Time Around -- released in 1968. By that 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
Neil Young (1969)Young and Nitzsche immediately began work on Young's
first solo record, Neil Young (January 1969), which contained a mix of
songs similar to his Buffalo Springfield contributions and received mixed
reviews. The album is a promising debut; the track "The Loner"
is still a staple of his live shows. Wanting a harder rock sound for his
next record, 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 took the name "Crazy
Horse". Their album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (May 1969) --
credited to "Neil Young with Crazy Horse" -- was recorded in
just two weeks, and is dominated by two lengthy jams, "Cowgirl in
the Sand" and "Down by the River", both of which showcased
the understanding between the musicians and Young's idiosyncratic guitar
Shortly after the release of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young was
recruited to join the supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash which became
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with Neil on board. Over the next year
with CSNY, he performed at Woodstock and recorded the classic album 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
Crazy Horse, and Whitten in particular, were also in evidence on Young's
next solo album, After the Gold Rush (1970), (which also featured the
young Nils Lofgren as well as Stills and CSNY bassist Greg Reeves). The
album was a commercial breakthrough, aided by his new-found fame in CSNY.
The album contains some of his best work, covering subjects from the environmental
concerns of the title track, redneck racism on "Southern Man"
(which, along with the later song "Alabama", prompted the reply
"Sweet Home Alabama" from Lynyrd Skynyrd) to the acoustic love
songs of "Tell Me Why" and "I Believe in You". Single
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart" was a minor hit.
With CSNY splitting up and Crazy Horse signing their own record deal,
Young recruited a new group of country-music 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
On 8 September 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
From country to rock
During the rehearsals for the tour that would produce the Time Fades 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 heroin
In the second half of 1973, Young 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. The album received mixed reviews at the time, but is
now generally well regarded by critics and seen by some as a precursor
to punk rock. In Young's own opinion it was the closest he ever came to
By the time Tonight's the Night was released, Young had also recorded
On the Beach (1974), another blues-influenced record but more focused,
based loosely around the theme of the downside of fame and the Californian
lifestyle. Like Tonight's the Night it sold poorly, but both would become
critical favourites and may represent Young's most original work. A review
by Derek Svennungsen of the 2004 CD re-release calls it "mesmerizing,
harrowing, lucid, and bleary".  The mood of these albums 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 in Franco's Spain. 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."
In 1976, Young performed with The Band, Joni Mitchell, and other rock
musicians in the high profile all-star concert The Last Waltz. The release
of Martin Scorsese's movie of the concert was delayed while Scorsese unwillingly
re-edited it to deemphasise the lump of cocaine clearly visible hanging
from Young's nose during his performance of "Helpless".
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.
His next offering was a return to his country/folk roots. 1978's Comes
A Time once again featured Nicolette Larson and also featured Crazy Horse
making their first appearance since Zuma. Comes A Time 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 (Into the Black)" 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".
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), a 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. Strangely,
there were sound problems during Young's acceptance speech. 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 a few highlights on that year's CSNY reunion American Dream,
though tensions with the band were always high.
Back to country-rock roots
Freedom completed the return to form, a mixture of acoustic and electric
rock dealing with the state of the U.S. and the world in 1989, alongside
Young's best love songs for some time and a version of the standard "On
Broadway". "Rockin' 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). Like Springsteen's "Born in the USA", the anthemic
use of this song was based on largely ignoring the verses, which evoke
social problems and implicitly criticize American government policies.
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. Their influence could be clearly heard on the accompanying
home video and live album, Weld, which also included a bonus CD entitled
Arc, a single 35-minute-long collage which consisted mostly of feedback
and guitar noise. Arc was later sold separately.
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 "Philadelphia"
was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song, losing out to Bruce
Springsteen's contribution to the same film. A summer tour covering both
Europe and North America with Booker T. and the MGs was widely praised
as a triumph. On a few of these dates the show ended with a rendition
of "Rockin' in the Free World" played with Pearl Jam.
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
Young had tried to contact the singer prior to his death. Cobain had quoted
Young's "It's better to burn out than fade away" (a line from
"Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)") in his suicide note. Other
songs 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. The subsequent tour of the United States and Canada with the
reformed super quartet was a huge success and brought in earnings of 42.1
million dollars, making it the 8th best grossing tour of 2000.
Neil's next album, 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 Are You Passionate? (2002),
an album of love songs dedicated to his wife, Pegi.
In the aftermath of 9/11
Young's 2001 single "Let's Roll", was 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". Young's
shift toward political commentary became more pronounced with the advent
of the Iraq War and Young's next project, an anti-Bush rock opera that
would come to take a unique position in the Young canon.
That project was Greendale, the album version of which was recorded with
Horse members Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina. Greendale 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 lip sync
the songs from the album. Young toured extensively with the Greendale
material throughout 2003 and 2004--first with a solo, acoustic version
in Europe, then with a full-cast stage show in North America, Japan, and
Australia. While audience reaction was sometimes mixed (drunken requests
for "Southern Man" being an aesthetic impediment at most Young
performances), the live stage version of Greendale was for many critics
the most satisfying incarnation of the material, and bootlegs of the shows
have been widely traded. The second half of each concert consisted of
high-decibel renditions of Young classics such as "Hey Hey, My My,"
"Cinnamon Girl," "Powderfinger," and "Rockin
in the Free World," as well as rarities such as "The Losing
End," "The Old Country Waltz," and "Danger Bird."
Young spent the latter portion of 2004 giving a series of intimate acoustic
concerts in various cities with his wife, Pegi, who is a trained vocalist.
Reports out of the Young camp in early 2005 had him booking time in a
Northern California recording studio to work on material that is a closely
In 2002, Q magazine named Neil Young in their list of the "50 Bands
To See Before You Die."
On 31 March 2005 Young was admitted to a hospital in New York for treatment
for a brain aneurysm. He was treated successfully by a minimally invasive
neuroradiology procedure. He next performed on 2 July 2005 at the close
of the Live 8 concert outside of Toronto. He presented a new song, a soft
hymn called "When God Made Me," and ended with "Rockin'
In The Free World."
Young was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1982. He has
been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice; first in 1995
for his solo work and again in 1997 as a member of the Buffalo Springfield.
He has also directed three movies, under his pseudonym Bernard Shakey:
Journey Through the Past (1979), Human Highway (1982) (starring new wave
band Devo), and Greendale (2003).
He is one of the founders of Farm Aid, and remains on their board of directors.
Each year on a weekend in October in Mountain View, California, he and
his wife host the Bridge School Concerts, which have been drawing international
talent and sell-out crowds for nearly two decades. The concerts are a
benefit for the Bridge School, which develops and uses advanced technologies
to aide in the instruction of handicapped children.
Young owns Vapor Records, who have signed such artists as Jonathan Richman
and Catatonia. Since 1995 he has been part owner of Lionel, LLC, a company
which makes toy trains and railroads.
In a "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" list in the June
1996 issue of Mojo magazine, Young was ranked number 9.
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