Neil Young is an elusive figure in music, one whose importance is often underestimated. Sometimes out on his own, sometimes harmonising with Crosby, Stills & Nash or with the hard-hitting noise of backing band Crazy Horse, he’s drifted in and out of collaborations throughout his musical career. Currently CSN&Y seem to be embroiled in some disagreement or other, common among rock stars of course, which is preventing their reunion. Young quite probably is in no rush to fix things, always much more comfortable not looking to flog a string of their old hits. When he suddenly dropped out of a CSN&Y tour back at the height of their popularity, he was only quoted as saying “Sometimes the speed at which these collaborations come together is the same speed at which they crumble.” As a life philosophy, that quotation sums up Neil Young and all his incarnations pretty well.
Now approaching 70 years on this earth, it’s time to look back on his contributions. Young’s career first really kicked off in 1966 with the release of Buffalo Springfield’s debut, in which Young featured on guitar and back up vocals. This gave us the hit single ‘For What It’s Worth’ – one of those songs that you just can’t listen to without a shiver running down your spine after it was adopted as the anthem for the struggle in Vietnam. The band itself was short lived, and Young went on to release solo material in 1968, and later form the fully embodied rock and roll project Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Young really delved into experimental rock, with long guitar solos and mournful vocals during this period, evident in hits like the 9 minute long ‘Down By The Water.’ During this period, he and former Buffalo Springfield band mate Stephen Stills collaborated in CSN&Y, with Young drifting between this and his solo material over the next few years. Young was notoriously hard to pin down and despite the attention he received after performing with CSN&Y at the now legendary Woodstock festival, bitter disagreements between band members meant Young didn’t stick around.
As an artist he absolutely delighted in refusing to give either record labels or his fans what they expected. His most ‘accessible’ album, 1972’s Harvest is an out and out country rock album, complete with contributions from James Taylor and a host of other folk rock names. The album was a commercial hit, launching the gentle twanging philosophy of singles ‘Old Man’ and ‘Heart Of Gold’ but critics lamented that it was a step back for Young. True to himself, Young didn’t care about the success or the criticism, and quickly moved on to other projects.
As such a prolific artist, it’s entirely possible that I could spend all day discussing the various nuances and talent in Young’s discography, but we should probably focus on his seminal output with Crazy Horse – the legendary semi-live album Rust Never Sleeps. The album opens with an acoustic rendition of ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’, with a live audience clearly audible in the background. The song exudes a weird atmosphere – Young preaching to a crowd, acoustic guitar in hand, his rough vocals sliding over messages he hopes that the audience will understand. The added harmonica, echoing Bob Dylan, turns the song mournful, almost desperate. Concerned as he was at the time of his growing irrelevance in the music industry, the line ‘rock and roll is here to stay’ sounds like a determined promise. The song has now forever been immortalized in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, in which he quoted the lyrics ‘it’s better to burn out than fade away’ – although they were Young’s anxieties, they obviously deeply affected Cobain. Young was horrified at Cobain’s literal taking of his lyrics, and sadly now drives home the lyrics ‘once you’re gone you can never come back’ in his live performances. With Rust Never Sleeps, Young again turned his hand to another genre, and the album has been retrospectively credited as one of the first grunge albums. It deeply inspired artists like Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam and the music press was quick to jump on this impact, dubbing him the ‘God-father of Grunge’ ever since, a title of which he seems sceptical.
Young has always been noted for his socially conscious lyrics. Over and over again, even in his current releases, he has proved himself as one of the most politically engaged songwriters in popular music. Just take his song ‘People Want To Hear About Love’ from his most recent album The Monsanto Years, – lyrics which include “Don’t talk about all the beautiful fish in the deep blue sea, dyin’ / People want to hear about love.” It perhaps sums up Young best – not bothered by success or fame. It’s his voice, his ideas, and his concerns. Young may be pushing 70, and already inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice, but he still has some points to make and as he’s proven himself to be a musical legend many times over, maybe we should listen.