Neil Young is one of the few artists to survive the rocky path from unknown struggling songsmith to superstardom. Along with so few of his peers Young has achieved this by always staying credible and - with the exception of a couple of wild card albums - has maintained an exceptional body of work.
Maybe it is something to do with the water in Canada - which has given us some of the most durable and long-lasting stars: Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Band, Alanis Morissette (and two of the brightest new stars, Leslie Feist and Rufus Wainwright).
On this day in 1969, Neil Young appeared with Crosby, Stills and Nash for the first time when they played at The Fillmore East in New York. Young was initially asked to help out with live material only, but ended up joining the group on and off for the next 30 years. Little did they know what a life- and career-changing moment this would be.
Around the age of ten, Young first began to play music himself on a plastic ukulele; growing up he idolised Elvis Presley and strove to be just like him. Other early musical influences included Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Chantels, The Monotones, The Fleetwoods, and UK instrumental group The Shadows.
Living with his mother in Fort Rouge, Winnipeg, the shy, dry-humoured youth enrolled at Earl Grey Junior High School, where Young formed his first band, The Jades and then later The Squires. In 1965 Young toured Canada as a solo artist and while in Toronto, he joined the Rick James-fronted Mynah Birds. The band secured a record deal with the Motown label, but as their first album was being recorded, James was arrested for being AWOL from the Naval Reserve. After the Mynah Birds disbanded, Young and bass player Bruce Palmer relocated to Los Angeles, travelling in Yong’s converted hearse, an 1948 Buick Roadmaster.
Young had met and hung out with Stephen Stills in Toronto, and when Stills recognised the distinctive hearse, he realised his friend was in town. Young and Palmer hooked up with Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and Dewey Martin to form the folk/country/psychedelic group Buffalo Springfield. Their first record Buffalo Springfield (1966) sold well after Stills' topical song, "For What It's Worth", became a hit. A protest song about the kids on Sunset Street being clubbed into submission by LA’s finest, its progress was aided by Young's melodic harmonics played on electric guitar.
After the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young signed a solo deal with Reprise Records (home of his colleague and friend Joni Mitchell), releasing his first album Neil Young in 1969. For his next album, Young recruited three young musicians from a band called The Rockets: Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina. These three took the name Crazy Horse, after the historical Native American figure of the same name.
This signaled a new beginning for Young, which can be heard on their 1969 album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (which is one of this writer’s all time favourite albums; if you’ve never heard it, I highly recommend it).
Stephen Stills wanted a fourth member for his three-piece group and it was Atlantic label head Ahmet Ertegün who suggested Young as the fourth member. His joining Crosby, Stills and Nash made them the first folk rock supergroup. The Woodstock festival was one of their first shows.
With four great songwriters in one group, it was always going to be difficult. Between September 1970 and May 1971, each of the quartet released high-profile solo albums (Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, Stills' Stephen Stills, Nash's Songs for Beginners, and Young's After the Gold Rush). All four solo LPs made it to the top 15 on the album charts.
After the Gold Rush was just the beginning of a spectacular solo career for Young, who has outshone his fellow group members ever since.
He’s always been his own man, releasing over 40 albums; he’s had his experimental years, and he’s directed a number of films (using the pseudonym Bernard Shakey). Young is an outspoken advocate for environmental issues and the welfare of small farmers, having co-founded Farm Aid in 1985.
Young has only ever achieved one US #1 hit single, "Heart Of Gold" - maybe because of this Young has never had to face the pressures being a pop star. But he couldn’t be a pop star, never was.
One interesting ‘side trip’, as they say in America, was the little-known album by Neil Young with Stephen Stills as The Stills-Young Band: Long May You Run (1976), whose title track, an ode to Young’s hearse, is one of the most pleasing songs in either of their catalogues. Check it out now and enjoy the chorus that speaks of “your chrome heart shining in the sun...”