Godfather of Grunge, Neil Young turns 72

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November 12, 1945 Neil Young entered the world at a Toronto, Ontario hospital. The rest is the stuff Canadian dreams are made of: Fifty years of beautiful, uncompromising music.

Growing up in Fort Rouge, Winnipeg, and a small (very small) Ontario town, Omemee (The “town in north Ontario,” from Young’s classic “Helpless”), Young established the rural sensibilities that would inform much of his musical career.

Neil’s first official foray into rock ‘n’ roll was with The Squires, who found small success with a regional hit, “The Sultan.” In 1965, The Squires scored a gig at 4D in Fort William (Thunder Bay), Ontario, where they opened for Stephen Stills. That trip to Thunder Bay with The Squires turned out to be a seminal moment for Young and his burgeoning music career.

“We did ‘Farmer John’ really good back then in Fort William. We used to break loose in it. That was one of the first times I ever started transcending on guitar. Things just got onto another plane, it was gone. … That’s when I started to realize I had the capacity to lose my mind playing music,” explained Young in “Don’t Be Denied: The Canadian Years.”

And it’s that spiritual, transcendent style, coupled with his affinity for raw, heavy distortion, that has garnered Young the distinction ‘godfather of grunge.’

Young would go on to develop his ability in the Yorkville (Toronto) folk scene, where he played along side folk artists like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Kris Kristofferson in coffee houses, like The Riverboat.

Neil’s first major musical success came with The Guess Who’s cover of his song “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” which was a Top 40 hit.

Around that same time he played in a band with an AWOL Rick James, called The Mynah Birds.

In 1966, Rick James was arrested, and Neil, along with Mynah Bird’s bassist, Bruce Palmer headed out to Los Angeles. There they got together again with Stills, forming Buffalo Springfield along with Richie Furray, and Dewey Martin.

Despite a short run which was exacerbated by the arrest/deportation of Palmer, poor management, and tension between Young and Stills, Buffalo Springfield was quintessential to the inception of folk and country rock.

Following the band’s break-up in 1967-68, Young signed a solo record deal and began work on his 1969 debut, “Neil Young.” The album wasn’t received well critically, and later that year Young brought together a new backing group, Crazy Horse. Shortly after, Young and Crazy Horse would release “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.”

In 1969, Neil joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash, demanding full-membership, the band became CSNY. CSN had just released their first record, and were just about to go on tour. They were looking for musicians to accompany them (approaching Jimi Hendrix and Steve Winwood), because Stills had played the majority of the instruments (lead guitar, bass, organ, piano) in the studio.

The friction between Stills and Young is well- documented, but with Young, the band rivalled The Beatles as one of best acts performing at the time. Graeme Nash recalls that before they made the decision to include Neil, he insisted on meeting with him first.

According to an NPR interview, “I had breakfast with Neil on Bleecker Street – after that breakfast I would have made him Prime Minister of Canada,” Nash says to laughter, “he was so funny, and so sure of what he could bring to our band, that’s how we got Neil.”

In 1970 Young embarked on a solo tour that included his iconic 1971 Massey Hall performance, and culminated in the equally iconic Nashville session with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt that would become “Harvest.” 

After that session Young scrapped plans to release a live album from material he recorded at his two Massey Hall shows in favor of a studio album including that Nashville session, tracks recorded at his barn, and two tracks recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. On that album is “Heart of Gold” Neil’s only number one hit.

  Trans
“Trans” album artwork

Neil would release three similarly commercially maligned albums of experimental music inspired by his son, Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy and couldn’t talk. Despite being named in the David Geffin lawsuit against him – for releasing intentionally ‘bad’ albums – Trans was reviewed positively (4/5) by Rolling Stone’s Park Puterbaugh, and remains Neil’s personal favourite.

“‘Like an Inca’ in fact, is one of the least ironic and unabashedly visionary songs he’s ever written, right up there with such masterpieces as “Last Trip to Tulsa,” “The Old Homestead” and “Like a Hurricane,” writes Puterbaugh in his 1983 review.

“At that time he was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people,” explains Young, “That’s what “Trans” is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s exactly the same feeling I was getting from my son.”

Eat A Peach

Today, Young is still going, having released an album pretty well every year since 2000. Most notably however is ‘lost’ album, “Hitchhiker,” 10-songs of just Young, his guitar, and harmonica, recorded in one session in Malibu, 1976. The album was shelved by the record label (dubbed as merely a demo), but its September 2017 release was met with high critical praise. Eight of the the tracks you may have heard before, being dispersed throughout various projects in different forms. Here, the songs are hauntingly bare. The stunning performances are inspired by Dylan, and 1960’s folk scene.

The album came together after Young’s now famous telegram to Stills, “Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil,” ended the Stills-Young Band “Long May You Run” tour.

In 1995, the so-called “godfather of grunge” released an album with members of Pearl Jam. The release, “Mirror Ball,” was certified gold.

Young’s latest album (besides the Hitchhiker reissue) is 2016’s Peace Trail. On Dec. 1 he’ll release his 46th album, “The Visitor,” his second with backing band Promise of the Real.

Last, my personal favorite. Happy Birthday, “Uncle” Neil.

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