On July 15, Neil Young will play for the first time in Istanbul. Here is a swift introduction to a mythical artist who already has one of the best suites (full of Gibson and Gretsch guitars) reserved for him at the rock'n'roll pantheon. By Antoine Remise
Neil Young is an obstinate individual who just can’t take things lightly, whether it comes to his own art, music in general, preserving the environment or even train modeling. The poor quality of music’s sound today repels him; he doesn’t only lament about how we became accustomed to rubbish MP3s but he has created his own high-resolution digital music service called Pono. The devastating effect of CO2 emissions on the planet outrages him; he doesn’t only go on tours to protest against the fossil fuel age but designs his own clean automobile working with biofuel and electric power to prove his point. Wondering about train modeling? Well, he built a gigantic model railroad system in his home, made up his own trainmaster system and has been named as co-inventor on seven U.S patents related to model trains.
This says a lot about Neil Young’s personality and helps understand where he found the strength to pursue until today one of the most unique and richest careers in rock’n’roll history. Why? Let’s just say that if he is that committed about a hobby like train modeling, imagine how dead serious he must be when it comes to music, his first love and as he often recalls the best way he found to express the things that are inside him.
“Be great or be gone” was the motto of David Briggs, Neil Young’s producer. Well, Neil Young isn’t gone. He keeps on recordings new songs (‘A Letter From Home’, his most recent album, was released last May) and outdoing himself in soulful live performances where his fragile and hushed voice captures our souls to connect them with his sensitive world. His songs are the confessions of a man with an amazing ability to create poetry out of what surrounds him. And from the tumultuous period of American history in the 60s and 70s, the Woodstock generation, the fame, the drugs, the women, the money to the disillusions of the post-hippie era and several dramas in his private life, Neil Young has been through a lot and has had many stories to tell.
His career started in the early 60s with a small band called The Squires who only got to play small gigs in high school and churches dances in the Canadian city of Winnipeg. Neil Young eventually left Canada, whose rock’n’roll scene didn’t echo very far at the time, to sneak into the United States as an illegal immigrant and pursue his dream of putting together a band and having a career as a professional musician. In 1966, Neil Young joined his next band Buffalo Springfields, whose idiosyncratic folk rock sound made a strong impression. Selling over one million copies, ‘For What It’s Worth’ was notably one of the most emblematic songs of the period.
From 1966 to 1979, Neil Young was in a state of creative euphoria, in pursuit of his musical identity, recording solo albums, joining bands, quitting bands, writing song after song and exploring new production arrangements and genres. Like Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys and many others, he strongly felt like a pioneer of music who had much left to discover: nothing could interrupt his personal quest for rock’n’roll.
Neil Young’s influences
It is very often stated that Neil Young is among the most influential living musicians, if not the most. Bands and artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Beck, Wilco, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and even the very proud David Bowie and Lou Reed have all confessed their admiration for him (a blog thrasherswheat.org has tried to identify all the connections between Young and other artists). The most tragic homage came from Kurt Cobain whose suicide letter ended with the line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” a direct quote from Neil Young’s song ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’.
Young joined the famous ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’. Despite their success, they could only one album together because of creative disagreements with Stephen Stills (who was also in Buffalo Springfields), with no party willing to compromise artistic vision. It was stubborn artistic integrity, a virtue that has deserted many recording studios since then.
When his masterpiece ‘Harvest’ came out in 1972 and became immensely popular, Neil Young felt uncomfortable as commercial success never was his goal. “I’m convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it’s coincidence,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1975. Instead of repeating the same formula, he shed his gentle folky image by venturing into darker, more depressed, more experimental and less reachable territories.
His three following albums (‘Time Fades’ Away’, ‘On The Beach’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’) are known as “The Ditch Trilogy” because of their commercial failure and also in reference to a quote about ‘Heart of Gold’, one of the most famous titles from ‘Harvest’. “ ‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road,” Young said. “Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people in there.” “The Ditch Trilogy” reflected a more somber period in Neil Young’s life. These were his less rosy and angrier days, when he retreated away from the Woodstock generation’s naivety and false illusions. Today, Neil Young admits that ‘Times Fades Away’ is his least favorite album but the two others are rightly considered among his most accomplished works with sumptuous, complex and poignant songs that speak Young’s desolate mind.
Neil Young is a complex musician who has had different phases in his vast career, exploring the various faces of rock’n’roll music from the comforting country ballads of ‘Harvest’ and ‘After the Gold Rush’, the psychedelic rock of his early years with Crosby, Stills and Nash, to tortured folk (‘On the Beach’), ragged and blazing electric blues rock pieces with the Crazy Horse band in albums like ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and Zuma (ah… the legendary epic guitar solo in ‘Cortez the Killer’…), to new wave attempts in the 80s.
For his concert in Istanbul, he will be touring with Crazy Horse, his historic band with which his story goes way back. Crazy Horse was Young’s back up band when he started his solo career in the late 60s. Since then, they’ve recorded 18 albums together. Despite painful moments like the death by heroin overdose of the original guitarist Danny Whitten, they never lost their creative compatibility. As 1997 Jim Jarmush’s documentary ‘The Year of the Horse’ shows, some kind of magic operates whenever they are playing on stage or in the studio together.
This is the “force of the Horse” as Young calls it in his biography untitled ‘Waging Heavy Peace’. “To me, that band is a vehicle to cosmic areas that I am unable to traverse with others,” he wrote. An intergalactic music trip with captain Young and his Crazy Horse crew awaits us on July 15. Don’t miss the flight!
Five key Neil Young albums
With more than thirty albums to date, it’s almost an impossible task to choose only five albums to best sum up Neil Young’s unique talent and career, but here we go:
1- On the Beach (1974)
Young admits it’s one of the most depressing albums he recorded, but the melancholy it conveys is profoundly beautiful and addictive.
2- Harvest (1972)
Probably the most accessible of Young’s album, but is that a fault? Absolutely not, especially with gems like ‘Old Man’, ‘Heart of Gold’ or ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ (a song that already gave a glimpse of Young’s darker mood to come).
3- Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Most of the album was recorded live with Crazy Horse and then overdubbed in the studio. Evidence of Young’s amazing songwriting talent and ability to explore the boundaries of rock’n’roll from acoustic folk to hard rocking tunes.
4- Harvest Moon (1992)
A later record from a more soothed Neil Young who delivers marvelously tender folk songs perfect for laid back afternoons.
5 – Tonight’s the Night (1975)
A cry of despair from “a man on a binge at a wake” (according to Neil’s dad at the time). For many Young’s hardcore fans, this is most impressive record he has ever delivered.