Way back in college, when I first discovered his catalog in earnest, a musician friend remarked to me that “Neil Young is a god.” A few years ago, that same friend phoned me as I was pulling into my driveway to say he was listening to the song “A Man Needs a Maid,” one of our favorites from back in the day, just to relive together the peculiarities of the song, its strange mood and cryptic lyrics.
Today, the outspoken, idiosyncratic, prolific, irascible Young turned 70. He’s still recording music at a clip and making his mark in other ways.
I’ve been thinking about Young all day today, listening to some of his many incredible albums, and I got to thinking.
Sound Opinions recently did a World Series-themed show on artists who hit a so-called “Grand Slam,” consisting of the difficult task of releasing four great albums in a row. An argument can easily be made that Young released six great studio albums back to back. These albums form the core of the launch of Young as a solo artist apart from Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash:
- Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, with the raw guitar Crazy Horse template established by classics like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down by the River”
- After the Gold Rush from 1970, a slightly sadder affair highlighted by “Southern Man” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
- The country-tinged Harvest, which was 1972’s top-selling album
- The quiet, plaintive devastation of 1974’s On the Beach
- The messy and raucous grief of Tonight’s the Night from 1975 (but recorded earlier than On the Beach)
- And Zuma from 1975, a reunion album with Crazy Horse that features the immortal song “Cortez the Killer”
Young would go on from there to explore new paths, releasing a lot of misses but also many hits along the way and influencing countless imitators and new generations of musicians. I remember seeing him at The Palace of Auburn Hills in the early 1990s, when Sonic Youth, his chosen opening act, ended their set with 15 minutes of shapeless, crushingly loud feedback. Old-timer Neil fans were largely not pleased; I wondered if they realized what they’d been listening to all these years (certainly it wasn’t the album he was touring behind, 1990’s noisy Ragged Glory).
As AllMusic writes, Young “continually explored new musical territory, from rockabilly and the blues to electronic music. But these stylistic exercises only gained depth when compared to his two primary styles: gentle folk and country-rock, and crushingly loud electric guitar rock, which he frequently recorded with the Californian garage band Crazy Horse.”
I’ve admittedly not kept pace with Young’s staggeringly voluminous catalog since Sleeps With Angels in the mid-90s; I’m sure it contains many clunkers but also some underrated gems. He remains a fascinating personality nevertheless, a man known for converting his 1959 Lincoln Continental to run on modern lithium-ion battery power and biomass, for introducing the oddly shaped Pono digital music player that he boasts has superior sound, and — last I had read — had renounced smoking weed and drinking, saying, “I did it for 40 years. Now I want to see what it’s like to not do it. It’s just a different perspective.”
So here’s to you, Neil Young, you Canadian original, you. Long may you run.