Young, Neil

Young, Neil
born Nov. 12, 1945, Toronto, Ont., Can.

Canadian rock singer and songwriter.

He began his career as a folksinger in Winnipeg and later moved to Los Angeles, Calif., U.S., where he formed the rock group Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills. In 1968 he released a solo album; in 1969 he joined Stills, David Crosby, and Graham Nash, to form Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. His high-pitched, nasal vocals were instantly recognizable in any band. With a new band, Crazy Horse, he had great success with albums such as Harvest (1972) and Comes a Time (1978). In the 1980s he experimented with rockabilly and electronic music.

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▪ Canadian musician
born Nov. 12, 1945, Toronto, Ont., Can.
 Canadian guitarist, singer, and songwriter best known for his eclectic sweep, from solo folkie to grungy (grunge) guitar-rocker.

 Young grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his mother after her divorce from his father, a well-known Canadian sportswriter. Having performed in bands since his teens and later as a soloist in Toronto coffeehouses, Young was both folkie and rocker, so when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1966 he was ready for Buffalo Springfield, the versatile and pioneering group he joined. His material defied categorization and tested unusual forms and sounds. Fuzztone guitar duels with Stephen Stills offset Young's high-pitched, nasal vocals; his lyrics veered from skewed romanticism to metaphoric social commentary, but his voice's naked, quavering vulnerability remained the constant in Young's turbulent, shape-shifting explorations.

      His 1969 solo debut, Neil Young, sold poorly but staked out ambitious musical territory. Its follow-up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), teamed Young with the garage band Crazy Horse. When nascent FM radio played “Cinnamon Girl,” whose one-note guitar solo encapsulated Young's sly sarcasm about established forms, and “Down by the River,” a long, raw-edged guitar blitzkrieg around lyrics about murder, the album made Young an icon.

      Soon he joined Crosby, Stills and Nash, who had already released their first hit album. Young added heft, but Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Crosby, Stills and Nash) was an ongoing clash of egos. Following the release of the quartet's first album, Déjà Vu (1970), Young penned and sang “Ohio,” an anthem that rallied campus activists after National Guardsmen killed four antiwar demonstrators at Kent (Ohio) State University (Kent State University) in May 1970.

      Young's next characteristic zigzag led him back to acoustic music—a move forecast by Déjà Vu's “Helpless,” which depicted him as totally vulnerable, trying to bare his emotional world musically. His confessional singer-songwriter (singer-songwriters) mode became a key part of his multifaceted persona. On his next solo album, After the Gold Rush (1970), Young underlined his stance as a rock-and-roll shaman, a visionary who projected his psyche onto the world and thereby exorcised his own demons and those of his audience. Harvest (1972) continued the confessional vein, and its rare stylistic continuity made it one of Young's best-selling but, in the minds of some, least-satisfying discs. Its simplistic attitudes apparently set off an internal reexamination; at least it started a decade's artistic wanderings. The experimentation cost Young both artistically and commercially. Nevertheless, in 1979 Rust Never Sleeps reasserted his mastery—ironically, in response to the punk revolt. Young made the Sex Pistols (Sex Pistols, the)' singer, Johnny Rotten, the main character in “Hey Hey, My My.” Thus, Young's reenergized reaction to punk sharply contrasted with that of his aging peers, who generally felt dismissed or threatened. It also demonstrated how resistant he was to nostalgia—a by-product of his creative restlessness.

      Young's resurgence culminated in Live Rust (1979), a live recording with Crazy Horse. He continued to be an artistic chameleon, releasing in quick succession the acoustic Hawks and Doves (1980), the punkish Re-ac-tor (1981), the proto-techno (techno) Trans (1982), which led his new record company to sue him for producing an “unrepresentative” album, and the rockabilly-flavoured Everybody's Rockin' (1983). On 1989's Freedom, he resurrected the social engagement and musical conviction of earlier triumphs such as “Ohio.” This disc marked yet another creative resurgence for Young and brought him a younger audience; soon he would tap emerging bands such as Social Distortion and Sonic Youth as opening acts. The peak of this most recent artistic rebirth came in 1990 with Ragged Glory, with its thick clouds of sound, riddled with feedback and distortion, and gritty, psychologically searing lyrics. Examining time's passage and human relationships, Young never succumbed to easy, rose-coloured allure. Typically, he followed this critical and commercial success with defiantly howling collages, Arc and Weld (both 1991).

Gene Santoro
      In 1992 Young again reversed direction, releasing Harvest Moon, a plaintive, mostly acoustic sequel to Harvest that reached number 16 on the album charts. His next significant album, Sleeps with Angels (1994), was a meditation on death that mixed ballads with more-typical Crazy Horse-backed rockers. In 1995 Young was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and added to his grunge bona fides with Mirror Ball, a collaboration with Pearl Jam. His long-standing interest in film manifested itself in two projects with director Jim Jarmusch, who chronicled Crazy Horse's 1996 tour in the documentary Year of the Horse (1997) and for whose film Dead Man (1996) Young provided the guitar score.

      In 2001 Young responded to the September 11 attacks with Let's Roll, a song honouring passengers' efforts to foil the hijacking of one of the planes (Flight 93) used in the attack. Young's politics continued to be as mercurial as his music. In the mid-1980s he had expressed admiration for conservative U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan (Reagan, Ronald W.). In 2006 Young's angry opposition to the Iraq War and conservative Pres. George W. Bush (Bush, George W.)'s handling of it was expressed in the album Living with War, which was performed on a tour with Crosby, Stills and Nash that was captured in the film Déjà Vu (2008; directed by Young under his filmmaking pseudonym, Bernard Shakey). Earlier, in 2003, Young had written and directed another film, Greendale, a family saga and an exercise in environmentalist agitprop based on his album of the same name. The documentary Heart of Gold (2005), directed by Jonathan Demme, captured a pair of emotional performances by Young in Nashville that came in the wake of his brush with death caused by a brain aneurysm and that drew on Young's reflective, deeply autobiographical album Prairie Wind (2005).

      Having fathered two sons with cerebral palsy, Young helped establish and support the Bridge School in San Francisco to help meet the needs of those challenged by the disease. A self-taught electrical engineer who invented an innovative switching system for model trains, Young also dedicated himself in the early 21st century to developing an automobile that would not be dependent on fossil fuels.


Representative Works

Buffalo Springfield
Buffalo Springfield Again (1967)

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Déjà Vu (1970)
● “Ohio” (1970)

Neil Young
After the Gold Rush (1970)
Harvest (1972)

Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Ragged Glory (1990)

Additional Reading
David Downing, A Dreamer of Pictures: Neil Young, the Man and His Music (1994), attempts to put Young's long and varied career in perspective. Michael Heatley (compiler), Neil Young: In His Own Words (1997), is a long interview that reveals as much about Young's attitudes as it does facts. Johnny Rogan, The Complete Guide to the Music of Neil Young, ed. by Chris Charlesworth (1996), is an exhaustive track-by-track examination of Young's output. Paul Williams, Neil Young: Love to Burn (1997), presents an empathetic if somewhat oversensitive portrait. Don McLeese, "Neil Young," in Anthony DeCurtis et al. (eds.), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 3rd ed. (1992), pp. 324–331, offers a good basic introduction to Young's life and work.

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