Ladies and gentlemen, grab your guitars and get ready to rock, because we're diving into the life and times of one of the most iconic musicians of all time - Neil Young! This music legend wasn't always the picture of health, starting out as a sickly child, but he had a passion for music that burned bright. And, boy, did it pay off.
Neil Young rose to fame during one of the most pivotal moments in music history and has proven himself to be a master of many genres. From his days in Buffalo Springfield, to his collaborations with Crazy Horse and Crosby Stills, Nash & Young, he has gifted us with timeless classics like "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and "Harvest Moon". He's earned his title as the Godfather of Grunge, and his music continues to inspire generations young and old. So, join us on this journey through the life and times of Neil Young.
Marked By Illness
Neil Young, born on November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Canada, spent the early years of his childhood in the rural town of Omemee with his family. Despite what should have been a normal childhood, Young struggled with various illnesses such as epilepsy, Type 1 diabetes, and polio.
These illnesses were so severe by 1951 that he was unable to walk. Despite these struggles, Young eventually overcame his ailments and developed a passion for music, learning to play instruments such as the ukelele and banjo.
Neil's parents divorced in 1960, after years of his father's infidelity. Neil's mother moved to Winnipeg with him, while his brother Robert stayed with his father in Toronto. After the move, Young made it clear that music was his primary interest, rather than his education.
He played in various bands before forming the Squires in 1963. He dropped out of high school to focus on performing at local clubs with the Squires, and eventually as a solo act.
Forming Lasting Friendships
During his early music career in Canada, Neil Young had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other rising Canadian musicians such as Joni Mitchell, The Guess Who, Stephen Stills, and Rick James. He even formed a band called Mynah Birds with James and signed with the Motown label in 1966.
However, the band disbanded before they could release an album with the label. At the same time, Young realized that to make it in the music industry, he needed to move to Los Angeles. He packed up his belongings and drove to Los Angeles with his friend Bruce Palmer.
Beginning Of Their Career
After moving to Los Angeles, Young reconnected with his friend Stephen Stills and joined the band Buffalo Springfield, along with Stills, Palmer, Richie Furay, and Dewey Martin. In December 1966, the group released their debut album, which featured the hit single "For What It's Worth." They quickly gained recognition for their experimental instrumentals, vocal composition, and intricate songwriting.
However, the band's success was short-lived due to mistrust of their management and internal conflicts. They released two more albums, "Buffalo Springfield Again" in 1967 and "Last Time Around" in 1969 before breaking up. Despite the band's breakup, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, although Young did not attend the ceremony.
Return Of Solo Career
In 1969, Young signed with Reprise Records and released his debut solo album, also titled "Neil Young." The album received mixed reviews, but it foreshadowed his later musical style. Soon after, he released "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere," this time backed by the band Crazy Horse.
The band consisted of drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot, and guitarist Dan Whitten. Their raw sound complemented Young's melancholic vocals, resulting in notable tracks such as "Down By The River," "Cinnamon Girl," and more. The album reached No. 34 on the charts, and eventually went gold.
At the same time, Young reunited with his old friend and former bandmate Stephen Stills, who was working on a project with David Crosby of The Byrds and Graham Nash of The Hollies. The group called Crosby, Stills, and Nash added Young to the band's lineup, becoming Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
They performed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, which propelled the group to fame. In 1970, they released the album "Déjà Vu" and were even referred to as "The American Beatles." However, internal issues caused Young to leave the band.
Young Spreads His Wings
After going off on his own, Young released After the Gold Rush in 1970. The album made it into the Top 10 and had some of Young's most famous songs on it including "Southern Man," "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," and "Tell Me Why." Then, in 1971, Young came out with his arguably most popular album ever, Harvest.
On the record, there were tracks such as "Old Man," The Needle and the Damage Done," and his most famous song to date "Heart of Gold," which peaked at No. 1. The mainstream success that Young received from Harvest caught him off guard, and his instinct was to shy away from the limelight.
A Rough Couple Of Years
As Young was experiencing the height of his current success, he was also faced with one of the most challenging periods of his life. At the end of 1972, Young had a son with his then-girlfriend and actress Carrie Snodgrass. Unfortunately, the boy Zeke was born with cerebral palsy, forcing Snodgrass to put her acting career aside to care for their son.
Months later, after being fired from Crazy Horse by Young, guitarist Dan Whitten died of a drug overdose, something that Neil couldn't help but feel partially responsible for. Additionally, Young experienced a string of unsuccessful projects after that, one which included the 1972 soundtrack album for the film Journey Through the Past. Unfortunately, his live album Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight's the Night were also unsuccessful. These three albums all sold poorly and have become known as The "Ditch" Trilogy.
Recovering From The Early 70s
Thankfully for Young, the second half of the 1970s wasn't as painful as the first. In 1974, Young reunited with Crosby, Stills, and Nash after a four-year break for a summer of 1974 concert tour. It was the group's first-ever stadium tours and remains Young's biggest tour to date. Then, in 1975, Young brought Crazy Horse back together, this time with Frank Sampedro on the guitar.
Together, they made Zuma, an album reflecting on failed relationships with the theme of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. He went on to team up with Stephen Stills once again in 1976, and the two recorded Long May You Run which went gold. In 1977, Young married Pegi Morton, a waitress near his ranch and his album Comes a Time made it into the Top 10. Things were looking up for Young.
Rust Never Sleeps
In 1978, Young set out on tour with Crazy Horse known as the "Rust Never Sleeps Tour." The tour showcased songs for a future album by the same name. In 1979, Rust Never Sleeps was released, demonstrating Young's desire to be experimental with his music.
The album was played in almost a concert format, alternating between mellow acoustic songs and edgy electric tracks. The album featured one of Young's most popular tracks "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)" and a double LP recording from the tour called Live Rust was released the same year, reaching No. 15 on the charts.
The Decade Of Experimentation
At the beginning of the 1980s, Young was focused more on taking care of his disabled son rather than writing music. He began the decade by making music for the biographical film about Hunter S. Thompson titled Where the Buffalo Roam. It was during this time that Young began to release some more experimental works starting with Hawks & Doves which was a collection of songs recorded years earlier.
In 1981, he came out with his rough-edged album Re-ac-tor with Crazy Horse. He didn't go on tour for either of these albums but instead played only one show. However, his most experimental album yet was Trans in 1982, which utilized synthesizers, vocoders, and other unusual equipment, surprising both his record label and fans.
Hard Times In 1983
1983 was another rough year for Neil Young. His album Everybody's Rocking caused his label to file a lawsuit against him for $ 3 million making what they called “unrepresentative music." Furthermore, his ex-girlfriend Carrie Snodgrass was suing him for child support, and on top of all of that, his current wife had given birth to two children: Ben, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and Amber Jean who was born with epilepsy.
1984 was the first year that Neil Young didn't release an album since he first teamed up with Buffalo Springfield in 1966. In order to make amends with his record label, he decided to take a pay cut for his next few albums while he toured with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
The Bridge School
Due to his experiences with his disabled children, in 1986, he and his wife Pegi helped open the Bridge School in Hillsborough, California. The school's mission was to help provide education for children with severe disabilities. The school holds annual benefit concerts that have featured artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Beck, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, and many others.
To this day, the shows are hosted organized by Young and Pegi, with Young usually headlining either solo or with Crazy Horse or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This isn't the only benefit concert that Young is a part of, as he played in the 1985 Live Aid concert and began helping to organize Farm Aid concerts since 1986.
Young Makes A Comeback
In 1988, Young returned to Reprise Records and released This Note's For You, a blues and R&B-focused album. The track "This Note's For You" was a diss on commercialism in music and the issues he had with MTV. However, ironically enough, his music video for the song won the Video of the Year Award at the MTV Music Video Awards.
Later that year, Young reunited with Crosby, Stills, and Nash to release American Dream, charting at No. 16 although wasn't shown any love by critics. However, it was clear that Young was back on the way up after a rocky couple of years.
The Godfather Of Grunge
When Young came out with his edgy album Freedom in 1989, the track "Rockin' in the Free World" reached No. 2 on the charts. In addition to the album's overall success, it caught the attention of some upcoming bands such as Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth.
These bands were attracted to Young's new sound and incorporated it into their own music, earning Young the title "Godfather of Grunge." The bands that he influenced also came together to contribute tracks for a tribute album titled The Bridge, in which the proceeds went to the Bridge School.
Returning To His Roots
After establishing himself as the inspiration behind numerous up-and-coming musicians, he continued to experiment and adjust his sound. Once again, he reunited with Crazy Horse releasing Ragged Glory in 1990 and the live album Weld in 1991. However, in 1992, Young returned to his folk roots and recorded the album, Harvest Moon. The album contained songs such as "Unknown Man," "War of Legend," and his iconic song "Harvest Moon."
The album has been considered one of the most successful albums, reaching No. 16 on the charts and even going double platinum. Although Young had won the hearts of his old fans back, he went right back into experimenting.
Reaction To Kurt Cobain's Suicide
On April 8, 1994, music icon Kurt Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle, Washington. Assumed to be a suicide, the final words of the note he left were the lyrics "it's better to burn out than to fade away" from Young's "Hey, Hey, My, My." Upon hearing the news, Young teamed up with Crazy Horse to make Sleeps With Angels, a somber and reflective album in response to Cobain's death.
Young was particularly affected by this death after he had tried to connect with Cobain numerous times leading up to his suicide. Feeling a deep connection to the growing grunge scene, Young then recorded the album Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam in 1995, his highest album charting since 1972.
Activism And A Near-Death Experience
Going into the 2000s, Young began to show increasing interest in activism, and particularly political issues. In the early years of the decade, he released the single "Let's Roll," a tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks. Then, in 2003, he released the concept album Greendale, about a fictional town in California. This album allowed him to discuss environmental issues and other themes that he has always been passionate about.
Suddenly, in 2005, he suffered a near-death aneurysm that required him to have brain surgery and put his life in serious danger. Thankfully, he recovered and he went on to release his acoustic album Prairie Wind, focusing on mortality and illness.
No Sign Of Settling Down
In the wake of his nearly career-ending health troubles, Young showed no sign of slowing down in making music or speaking his mind. In 2006, he released the album Living In War, a protest album about Young's opinions on the war in Iraq which had less-than-subtle songs such as "Let's Impeach the President" and "Shock and Awe."
Finally, after a few other reflective albums, he released the first installment of his collection of work titled The Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972. The collection was highly anticipated by fans and was a nine-disc box set that covered the entirety of the first decade of his musical career.
Young Is Still Going Strong
Over the past decade, Neil Young has continued to do what he's always done. He is consistently putting out new music, tinkering with new ideas, speaking his mind, and performing at benefit concerts. He currently has 38 albums under his belt, and he even took some time to write his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace.
Young and his wife Pegi divorced in 2014, but the two still worked together to support the Bridge School while Young still plays a major role in Farm Aid, the Global Poverty Project, and MusiCares, along with his many other activist roles.