BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 12 November 1945
A CASE COULD BE MADE THAT NEIL YOUNG surrendered his eligibility for this book in the spring of 1966, when he left Toronto in a car bound for Los Angeles. For most of the next three decades, the singer lived in California and became that rarest of breeds: a popular musician whose popularity endured.
However, if he was in the United States, Young was never ofthe United States. While building a remarkably innovative and influential career, he returned home often and, in art and life, remained profoundly Canadian.There is no question that Young’s formative roots were in Canada. Born in Toronto just after the Second World War, Neil was the son of Scott Young, a respected journalist and author.
The Youngs lived in or near the city until Neil was fourteen, and his parents’ marriage collapsed. Seeking a new start, his mother moved to Winnipeg with Neil and his older brother. Young began high school on the prairie, but he never finished.
What gained his attention most were the new kinds of music coming out of England and the United States; a quiet teenager, he neverthe¬ less formed a band as soon as was able to play the guitar, and he came to know future notables like Joni Mitchell and Randy Bachman who shared his passion.
Young was soon playing locally at any place that would have him. He left Winnipeg and arrived in Toronto in 1965, ready to chase a musical dream.The Toronto folk scene was at its creative peak when Young arrived. He embraced the hippie counterculture in Yorkville and was drawn to the folk music that spilled from every coffee house.
Unlike many rock musicians of the era, Young did not reject folk, and he sang in both styles wher¬ ever he could in Toronto. Just as he was beginning to be noticed, though, Young set out for California.The west coast was in musical ferment in the late 1960s, with a communal atmosphere among players that could never last.
But before it ended, Young and American Stephen Stills formed Buffalo Springfield, a group whose hit song, “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound),” became an overnight classic—one of the 1960s’ anthems that perfectly captured its era. The band’s first album introduced a new kind of upbeat folk-rock and it sold quickly.
It was 1967, and the twenty-two-year-old Young had achieved wealth and celebrity beyond his wildest expectations.But Buffalo Springfield was not built to last. The pop star lifestyle took its toll on the band, and the members soon went in different directions. The break-up was a fortuitous devel¬ opment for Young, however; he was barely more than an adolescent, but he now possessed the resources and the repu¬ tation to try new things on his own.
Thirty years on, what he tried stands as one of the singular achievements in contemporary music. In more than thirty albums Young proved that it was possible to link the sophisticated lyricism of folk with the energy of rock.
His distinctive voice gave all his music an eerie credibility, and his willingness to borrow from different styles made him some¬ thing of a pioneer, since, for all its revolutionary rhetoric, most mainstream rock since the 1970s has explored only the narrowest range of the possible.
Perhaps his daring was best demonstrated in 1983, when Young was sued by his record company for producing an album that was not characteristic of Neil Young,”Still, hits like “Southern Man,” “Helpless,” and “Heart of Gold” made him unforgettable to millions of fans. And an on-again, off-again relationship with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the one supergroup of the 1970s that mattered, gave his other solo efforts continued exposure.
Through it all, Young’s songs were deeply emotional and personal. Many referred plainly to his childhood in Canada, and the message for other artists back home was clear: Canada was an acceptable place for a rock star to come from. Young also made frequent trips home, often to perform, to collect awards, and to receive honorary degrees.
His fame gave him a political platform, and Young—the detached foreigner—did not hesitate to bash or praise the United States when he saw fit.In the 1990s Young is still producing top-selling records. Unlike most others of his generation, he continues to explore new musical avenues, and he is often referred to as a seminal influence by newer stars.
A recent incident sums up his significance. In the summer of 1995 Eddie Vedder of the grunge rock giants Pearl Jam suddenly became ill on stage. Young, backstage but nearly fifty, was pressed into emergency service as the frontman for the group.
Though the band and most of its thousands of screaming fans were less than half his age, he finished out the set on lead vocals and lead guitar. Perhaps only Neil Young could have pulled it off. Without a doubt, only Neil Young would have been asked.