Starting out his life as a sickly child with a passion for music, Neil Young has grown to become one of the most influential songwriters and musicians of all time. Coming into prominence during one of the most pivotal moments of music history, he has proven himself to be a master of genres with a deep understanding of music. Known for his work in Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, and Crosby Stills, Nash & Young, he has gifted us with songs like “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” and “Harvest Moon”. He’s called the Godfather of Grunge for a reason and his music and accomplishments are recognized by generations both young and old. This is the life and times of Neil Young.
A Sickly Childhood
Neil Young was born on November 12, 1945, in Toronto, Canada. After living in Toronto for just four years, his family moved to the rural town of Omemee, where Neil and his brother Robert would spend their boyhood years. While Neil should have had a typical childhood, he suffered from numerous illnesses including epilepsy, Type 1 diabetes, and polio.
By 1951, he was in such bad health that he was unable to even walk. Over time, Young got over his ailments and had developed an interest in music, learning to play the ukelele and the banjo.
The Split Of The Youngs
After years of his father being involved in extramarital affairs, Neil’s parents finally divorced in 1960. Brother Robert stayed with his father in Toronto and Neil’s mother moved to Winnipeg, taking Neil with her. After moving to Winnipeg, Young made it clear that he was more interested in music than his education.
In the upcoming years, he played in numerous bands before forming the Squires in 1963. He then dropped out of high school and began performing at clubs in the area with the Squires and eventually as a solo act.
Meeting Lifelong Friends
During his early years playing in Canada, Neil began to meet with other up-and-coming Canadians such as Joni Mitchell, The Guess Who, Stephen Stills, and future funk star Rick James. Together, Young and Rick James even formed the band Mynah Birds and signed with the Motown label in 1966.
However, the band broke up before they ever finished their album with the label. Around the same time, Young felt that he needed to move to Los Angeles if he wanted to make it in music. So, he and his friend Bruce Palmer brought what they could fit and drove down to Los Angeles, California.
Buffalo Springfield Started Everything
After settling in Los Angeles, Young ran into his old friend Stephen Stills. It wasn’t long until he became a member of Buffalo Springfield along with Stills, Palmer, Richie Furay, and Dewey Martin. In December 1966, the group released their first self-titled album with their single “For What It’s Worth” becoming a Top 10 hit. It wasn’t long until the group began to receive recognition for their experimental instrumentals, vocal composition, and intricate songwriting.
Distrust of their management and internal conflict hinted at the band’s early demise. The band released two more albums, Buffalo Springfield, Again in 1967 and Last Time Around in 1969 before finally breaking up. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 although Young was not in attendance.
On His Own Once Again
In 1969, Young signed with Reprise Record and came out with his debut self-titled solo album. The album received mixed reviews, although it hinted at what was to come for Young and his approach to music. Only a few months later, he came out with Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, this time backed up by the band known as Crazy Horse.
The band was comprised of drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot, and guitarist Dan Whitten. The band’s raw sound matched with Young’s melancholy vocals produced haunting tracks such as “Down By The River,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and more. The album went on to reach No. 34 and eventually went gold.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
At the same time, Young reconnected with old friend and ex-bandmate Stephen Stills, who had been working on a project with David Crosby of the Byrds and Graham Nash of the Hollies. The group was called Crosby, Stills, and Nash and added Young to become Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The group performed at the Woodstock Festival in the summer of 1969 which catapulted the group into fame. In 1970, they released the album Déjà Vu and even earned the nickname “The American Beatles.” However, it wasn’t long until some issues began to come between the band members, causing Young to leave the band.
Young Spreads His Wings
After going off on his own, Young released After the Gold Rush in 1970. The album made it into the Top 10 and had some of Young’s most famous songs on it including “Southern Man,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and “Tell Me Why.” Then, in 1971, Young came out with his arguably most popular album ever, Harvest.
On the record, there were tracks such as “Old Man,” The Needle and the Damage Done,” and his most famous song to date “Heart of Gold,” which peaked at No. 1. The mainstream success that Young received from Harvest caught him off guard, and his instinct was to shy away from the limelight.
A Rough Couple Of Years
As Young was experiencing the height of his current success, he was also faced with one of the most challenging periods of his life. At the end of 1972, Young had a son with his then-girlfriend and actress Carrie Snodgrass. Unfortunately, the boy Zeke was born with cerebral palsy, forcing Snodgrass to put her acting career aside to care for their son.
Months later, after being fired from Crazy Horse by Young, guitarist Dan Whitten died of a drug overdose, something that Neil couldn’t help but feel partially responsible for. Additionally, Young experienced a string of unsuccessful projects after that, one which included the 1972 soundtrack album for the film Journey Through the Past. Unfortunately, his live album Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night were also unsuccessful. These three albums all sold poorly and have become known as The “Ditch” Trilogy.
Recovering From The Early 70s
Thankfully for Young, the second half of the 1970s wasn’t as painful as the first. In 1974, Young reunited with Crosby, Stills, and Nash after a four-year break for a summer of 1974 concert tour. It was the group’s first-ever stadium tours and remains Young’s biggest tour to date. Then, in 1975, Young brought Crazy Horse back together, this time with Frank Sampedro on the guitar.
Together, they made Zuma, an album reflecting on failed relationships with the theme of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. He went on to team up with Stephen Stills once again in 1976, and the two recorded Long May You Run which went gold. In 1977, Young married Pegi Morton, a waitress near his ranch and his album Comes a Time made it into the Top 10. Things were looking up for Young.
Rust Never Sleeps
In 1978, Young set out on tour with Crazy Horse known as the “Rust Never Sleeps Tour.” The tour showcased songs for a future album by the same name. In 1979, Rust Never Sleeps was released, demonstrating Young’s desire to be experimental with his music.
The album was played in almost a concert format, alternating between mellow acoustic songs and edgy electric tracks. The album featured one of Young’s most popular tracks “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)” and a double LP recording from the tour called Live Rust was released the same year, reaching No. 15 on the charts.
The Decade Of Experimentation
At the beginning of the 1980s, Young was focused more on taking care of his disabled son rather than writing music. He began the decade by making music for the biographical film about Hunter S. Thompson titled Where the Buffalo Roam. It was during this time that Young began to release some more experimental works starting with Hawks & Doves which was a collection of songs recorded years earlier.
In 1981, he came out with his rough-edged album Re-ac-tor with Crazy Horse. He didn’t go on tour for either of these albums but instead played only one show. However, his most experimental album yet was Trans in 1982, which utilized synthesizers, vocoders, and other unusual equipment, surprising both his record label and fans.
Hard Times In 1983
1983 was another rough year for Neil Young. His album Everybody’s Rocking caused his label to file a lawsuit against him for $ 3 million making what they called “unrepresentative music.” Furthermore, his ex-girlfriend Carrie Snodgrass was suing him for child support, and on top of all of that, his current wife had given birth to two children: Ben, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and Amber Jean who was born with epilepsy.
1984 was the first year that Neil Young didn’t release an album since he first teamed up with Buffalo Springfield in 1966. In order to make amends with his record label, he decided to take a pay cut for his next few albums while he toured with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
The Bridge School
Due to his experiences with his disabled children, in 1986, he and his wife Pegi helped open the Bridge School in Hillsborough, California. The school’s mission was to help provide education for children with severe disabilities. The school holds annual benefit concerts that have featured artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Beck, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, and many others.
To this day, the shows are hosted organized by Young and Pegi, with Young usually headlining either solo or with Crazy Horse or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This isn’t the only benefit concert that Young is a part of, as he played in the 1985 Live Aid concert and began helping to organize Farm Aid concerts since 1986.
Young Makes A Comeback
In 1988, Young returned to Reprise Records and released This Note’s For You, a blues and R&B-focused album. The track “This Note’s For You” was a diss on commercialism in music and the issues he had with MTV. However, ironically enough, his music video for the song won the Video of the Year Award at the MTV Music Video Awards.
Later that year, Young reunited with Crosby, Stills, and Nash to release American Dream, charting at No. 16 although wasn’t shown any love by critics. However, it was clear that Young was back on the way up after a rocky couple of years.
The Godfather Of Grunge
When Young came out with his edgy album Freedom in 1989, the track “Rockin’ in the Free World” reached No. 2 on the charts. In addition to the album’s overall success, it caught the attention of some upcoming bands such as Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth.
These bands were attracted to Young’s new sound and incorporated it into their own music, earning Young the title “Godfather of Grunge.” The bands that he influenced also came together to contribute tracks for a tribute album titled The Bridge, in which the proceeds went to the Bridge School.
Returning To His Roots
After establishing himself as the inspiration behind numerous up-and-coming musicians, he continued to experiment and adjust his sound. Once again, he reunited with Crazy Horse releasing Ragged Glory in 1990 and the live album Weld in 1991. However, in 1992, Young returned to his folk roots and recorded the album, Harvest Moon. The album contained songs such as “Unknown Man,” “War of Legend,” and his iconic song “Harvest Moon.”
The album has been considered one of the most successful albums, reaching No. 16 on the charts and even going double platinum. Although Young had won the hearts of his old fans back, he went right back into experimenting.
Reaction To Kurt Cobain’s Suicide
On April 8, 1994, music icon Kurt Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle, Washington. Assumed to be a suicide, the final words of the note he left were the lyrics “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” from Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My.” Upon hearing the news, Young teamed up with Crazy Horse to make Sleeps With Angels, a somber and reflective album in response to Cobain’s death.
Young was particularly affected by this death after he had tried to connect with Cobain numerous times leading up to his suicide. Feeling a deep connection to the growing grunge scene, Young then recorded the album Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam in 1995, his highest album charting since 1972.
Activism And A Near-Death Experience
Going into the 2000s, Young began to show increasing interest in activism, and particularly political issues. In the early years of the decade, he released the single “Let’s Roll,” a tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks. Then, in 2003, he released the concept album Greendale, about a fictional town in California. This album allowed him to discuss environmental issues and other themes that he has always been passionate about.
Suddenly, in 2005, he suffered a near-death aneurysm that required him to have brain surgery and put his life in serious danger. Thankfully, he recovered and he went on to release his acoustic album Prairie Wind, focusing on mortality and illness.
No Sign Of Settling Down
In the wake of his nearly career-ending health troubles, Young showed no sign of slowing down in making music or speaking his mind. In 2006, he released the album Living In War, a protest album about Young’s opinions on the war in Iraq which had less-than-subtle songs such as “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Shock and Awe.”
Finally, after a few other reflective albums, he released the first installment of his collection of work titled The Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972. The collection was highly anticipated by fans and was a nine-disc box set that covered the entirety of the first decade of his musical career.
Young Is Still Going Strong
Over the past decade, Neil Young has continued to do what he’s always done. He is consistently putting out new music, tinkering with new ideas, speaking his mind, and performing at benefit concerts. He currently has 38 albums under his belt, and he even took some time to write his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace.
Young and his wife Pegi divorced in 2014, but the two still worked together to support the Bridge School while Young still plays a major role in Farm Aid, the Global Poverty Project, and MusiCares, along with his many other activist roles.