Neil Young Biography

The number of artists whose careers began in the '60s and whose work has continued to command critical respect through the '90s can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Somewhere on that hand--and he'd probably prefer being the middle finger--is Neil Young (b. Nov. 12, 1945, Toronto). A brilliant songwriter, a quirky, high-pitched singer, and a guitarist whose piercing style has influenced an entire generation of young alternative rock fans, Young has spent his career exploring nearly every genre of popular music. Beginning with the countrified pop/rock of '60s legends Buffalo Springfield, he has played rock (Neil Young, 1968), hard rock (Re*Ac*Tor, 1981), singer/songwriter-style pop (After The Goldrush, 1970), synth-rock (Trans, 1983), '50s-style rock and rockabilly (Everybody's Rockin', 1983), country music (Old Ways, 1985), rhythm & blues (This Note's For You, 1988), protest rock (Freedom, 1989), feedback-heavy art rock ( Arc, 1991), and, of course, the mandatory MTV Unplugged (1993) set. Through it all, though, he has always sounded like Neil Young--which may be the major reason he remains such a vital artist.

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Young began as a folk singer in Toronto, where he first met future bandmates Stephen Stills and Richie Furay in the early '60s and played in the Mynah Birds with future R&B star Rick James, Steppenwolf's Goldy McJohn, and bassist Bruce Palmer. In 1966, Young drove with Palmer to Los Angeles, where he soon met up with Stills and Furay; together with drummer Dewey Martin, the five musicians formed Buffalo Springfield and were soon signed to Atco Records. The group recorded three classic albums between 1966-68, then disbanded; each member then pursued a career either in a solo or new group context, with Young, Stills, and Furay achieving the most notable success.

Though Young's 1969 solo debut Neil Young failed to chart, in some ways it remains one of his best--and most overlooked--efforts. A stylistic extension of his better work with Buffalo Springfield (particularly his collaborations with producer/arranger Jack Nitzsche), the album featured Young working within a gorgeously melodic pop structure; including some of his best early material such as "The Loner" (covered the next year by Three Dog Night), "I've Been Waiting For You," and "What Did You Do To My Life," the album also featured two atmospheric instrumentals and the extended, surrealistic folk-dirge "The Last Trip To Tulsa."

Needing a band, Young soon found one in Crazy Horse, who as the Rockets had already recorded a 1968 album for White Whale Records. Backed by guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina, Young then recorded Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, an album that has since assumed classic status in his canon. Crazy Horse were a near-perfect match for Young; by no means sessioned studio pros, they played hard and emotionally, providing drama and adrenalized surges to Young's sometimes bare-boned songs. Featuring "Cinnamon Girl," "Cowgirl In The Sand," and "Down By The River"--a song that would be covered by Buddy Miles, Roy Buchanan, and every high school band formed in the next 10 years--Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was the first of eight albums Young would record with Crazy Horse.

In the meantime, Young had rejoined his former bandmate Stephen Stills as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Always seeming more an appendage than part of the original core trio, Young played with the group at Woodstock, and contributed to both 1970's multi-platinum Deja Vu and the next year's live 4 Way Street. That group's immense popularity helped set up the success of his third album, 1970's After The GoldRush, which went top 10, stayed on the charts 66 weeks, and was certified double-platinum. His success was further consolidated by its follow-up, Harvest--his all-time bestseller, thanks largely to its No. 1 gold single "Heart Of Gold" and top 40 hit "Old Man."

The Neil Young heard on Harvest was a far cry from the rocker of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; a soft, countryish singer-songwriter-style album (with appearances by both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt), the disc might have established Young as a soft-rock superstar, had he so desired. But he didn't. On his 1976 compilation Decade, Young revealingly wrote of the track "Heart Of Gold": "This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."

The "ditch," as Young described it, comprised a series of seeming slapdash, erratic albums that were the antithesis of the smooth, polished sound of Harvest. Among them were the confusing soundtrack to Young's rarely-seen film Journey Through The Past (1972), a rough-sounding live set by Young and his new band the Stray Gators called Time Fades Away (1973), the sluggish, but semi-return to form On The Beach (1974), and Young's all-time depressing landmark, Tonight's The Night (1975), a harrowing, emotional tribute to Crazy Horse guitarist and Danny Whitten and CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry, both victims of drug overdoses.

Since then Young has enjoyed two major career surges. First in 1979, when his Rust Never Sleeps album found him again paired triumphantly with Crazy Horse; the title track, which mentioned punk rock star Johnny Rotten by name, both opened and closed Young's most captivating album in over a decade. Followed by a live album (Live Rust, 1979) and a film documentary of the same name, the period was one of artistic renewal for Young, who unlike his former bandmates in Crosby, Stills & Nash, still seemed a vibrant, probing artist. The second peak came 10 years later, with Freedom, not incidentally his first gold album since Live Rust. Young--more politically outspoken than he'd been since penning "Ohio" for CSN&Y in 1970--took on the subjects of homelessness and crime (belittling President George Bush's "thousand points of light" phrase in the powerful "Rockin' In The Free World"), yet balanced that harshness with acoustic tracks such as "Hangin' On A Limb," which featured guest vocalist Linda Ronstadt. Young then rejoined Crazy Horse for 1990's much-praised Ragged Glory and the live WELD, which featured the bizarre, 35-minute instrumental bonus CD Arc--a so-called "sonic pastiche" digitally edited by Young and featuring waves of feedback and grungy electronic howl.

If there was a low point in Neil Young's career, it came in the mid-'80s. After delivering a series of stylistically quirky albums (from 1983's Trans through 1987's Life) to Geffen Records, with whom he'd signed in 1983, the label actually sued him for producing "non-typical" work. It was extremely ironic, since Young's work had habitually flitted from style to style for a decade previous to his Geffen signing.

The one constant in Young's body of work, however, is Crazy Horse, whose playing on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1975's Zuma, Rust Never Sleeps, and Ragged Glory made the albums the most acclaimed in Young's catalog. Why hasn't he simply made the group his permanent band? "I saw where Crazy Horse worked the best," Young said in 1990, "and I saw where what I tried to do got in the way of what Crazy Horse did. And my answer to that was to not use Crazy Horse to do things Crazy Horse shouldn't do--and to be more careful, and more respectful of what I have with Crazy Horse than to ever try to make it something it isn't."

Twenty years after Harvest, Young returned to "complete the circle" with the warmly accessible Harvest Moon, which stylistically echoed its predecessor in large part due to its inclusion of the Stray Gators, who'd played on the original. It was his first top 20 album in 13 years. Young's follow-up was his 1993 Unplugged session, which included material spanning his career from Buffalo Springfield, through his early solo days and underrated Trans period, on through Harvest Moon.

Young's status as a cross-generational icon was further cemented twice over soon after--first with 1994's Sleeps With Angels--which acknowledged the death of Nirvana 's Kurt Cobain (who had quoted a Young lyric in his suicide note), then with 1995's Mirror Ball, recorded with longtime fans Pearl Jam. And yet again, following a summer tour with Crazy Horse, Young released another live album--this one titled Year Of The Horse *. -

Neil Young Biography