Some artists make it seem utterly courageous to follow their own muse. Neil Young makes it seem like there's no other choice. For the last 45 years, Young has glanced at his options, shrugged for a moment, and lit off for the place that seemed right. Young has always kept his fans guessing, turning an array of stylistic corners — country twang here, poignant picking there, and a whole lot of blaring guitar rock everywhere between. It doesn't matter if the songs are personal confessions, allusive tales, or bouncy throwaways — since the mid-1960s Young has filled each with immediacy and passion, two hallmarks of a career that has been utterly influential and wildly fun to follow. He's like your weird old uncle — if your uncle were a rock & roll genius.
Young was born in 1945. As a child he moved with his mother Rassy Ragland to Winnipeg, Canada, after she divorced his father Scott Young, a well-known sports journalist and author. Neil played in several high school rock hands, including the Esquires and the Stardusters. He also began hanging out in local folk clubs, where he met musicians Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell. Mitchell wrote "The Circle Game" after hearing "Sugar Mountain," Young's paean to youth. In the mid-1960s he moved to Toronto, where he began performing solo. In 1966 he and bassist Bruce Palmer joined the Mynah Birds (which included Rick James and had a deal with Motown Records); after that fizzled, he and Palmer drove to L.A. in Young's Pontiac hearse (it was nicknamed "Mort"). There Young and Palmer ran into Stills and another mutual friend, Richie Furay, and formed Buffalo Springfield, one of the most important folk-rock bands of the 1960s, who love of country music helped shape their overall sound. The Springfield recorded Young's "Broken Arrow," "I Am a Child," "Mr. Soul," and "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" — key titles of Young's early catalogue. But friction developed: the moody Young quit the band, only to rejoin and quit again, and in May 1968, after recording three albums, the band split-up for good.
Young connected with Joni Mitchell's manager, Elliot Roberts, and released his self-titled debut in January 1969; it was co-produced by Jack Nitzsche. Around the same time Young began jamming with a band called the Rockets made up of drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot, and guitarist Danny Whitten. He renamed them Crazy Horse, and they backed him on the killer guitar album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Number 34, 1969), which contains three of Young's most famous songs: "Cinnamon Girl," "Down by the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand." The singer once told a journalist that they were all written in one day while he was stricken with a fever from the flu. The album went gold (and much later, platinum), and Young found that he had a backing group who he could rely on for decades. In 1970 he accepted an invitation to join Crosby, Stills & Nash. In the spring of that year, CSN&Y released the much-acclaimed Déjá Vu.
All of a sudden, Young work was ubiquitous. His third solo album, the masterful After the Gold Rush (Number 8, 1970), included Crazy Horse and 17-year-old guitarist Nils Lofgren. The album went gold and yielded the single "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" (Number 33, 1970). Déjà Vu was still a strong seller, and it was becoming obvious that Neil Young was one of rock's most fertile artists. Harvest (Number One, 1972) was written largely while Young was recuperating from a slipped disc and recorded with an assemblage of studio musicians dubbed the Stray Gators; it featured the Number One single "Heart of Gold" and made the hippie singer-songwriter a superstar.
By the release of their double-disc live album, Four Way Street, in the spring 1971, CSN&Y had broken up. In 1972 Young made a cinema vérité film, Journey Through the Past, directing under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey; the movie and its soundtrack were panned by critics. Young confused fans further with Time Fades Away (Number 22, 1973), a rough-hewn live album recorded with the Stray Gators, including Nitzsche (keyboards), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar), Tim Drummond (bass), and John Barbata (drums).
In June 1975 Young released a bleak, ragged album recorded two years earlier, Tonight's the Night (Number 25). Its dark tone reflected Young's emotional upheaval following the drug deaths of Crazy Horse's Danny Whitten in 1972 and CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry in 1973. It's often cited as one of Young's most harrowing albums.
In November 1975 Young released the harder-rocking Zuma (Number 25), with Crazy Horse, an emotionally intense work that included the sweeping "Cortez the Killer." Crazy Horse now included Talbot, Molina, and Frank "Poncho" Sampedro (rhythm guitar). In 1976 Young recorded Long May You Run (Number 26) with Stills. The album went gold, and the two old friends launched a tour. But Young bowed out with only half the dates done, informing Stills of his parting via telegram.
In June 1977 Young was back on his own with the gold American Stars 'n Bars (Number 21), again a more accessible effort, with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson supplying backing vocals. Compiled by Young, the three-LP Decade was a carefully chosen, not entirely hit-centered compilation. Comes a Time (Number 7, 1978) had country echoes and went gold.
In fall 1978 Young did an arena tour entitled Rust Never Sleeps, performing half the show on solo piano or guitar and the other half (which was pointedly loud) with Crazy Horse, amid a stage set that featured oversized mock-ups of mics, amps, and speakers. In June 1979 he released Rust Never Sleeps (Number Eight) with songs previewed on the tour, including "My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," which conflated the worlds of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten. (The same song was reprised at the end, as "Hey Hey My My [Into the Black].") The album also featured "Sedan Delivery" and "Powderfinger," two titles Young had offered Lynyrd Skynyrd, though the band didn't record them. (Back in 1974 Skynyrd had written proud "Sweet Home Alabama" as an answer to Young's cranky "Southern Man.") In November 1979 Young came the inevitable Live Rust (Number 15), a double-LP culled from the previous shows and the soundtrack to a film of the tour, entitled Rust Never Sleeps. All of the Rust activity was some of the most potent music Young ever made.
The 1980s were a particularly strange and erratic decade for the singer, even by his own unpredictable standards. Ultimately, it seemed he was going on a genre-hopping spree. Right before the presidential election in 1980, he issued Hawks and Doves (Number 30), an enigmatic state-of-the-union address, with one side of odd acoustic pieces and the other of rickety country songs. A year later he released Re*ac*tor (Number 27), a bruising hard-rock LP. In 1982 he moved to the Geffen label and released Trans (Number 19), which introduced his audience to what he called "Neil 2"; the singer fed his voice through a computerized Vocoder and sang songs with compu-speak titles such as "Sample and Hold." It was adventurous, and he explained that he was trying to put himself in the place where he could communicate with his speech-impaired son Ben who was born with cerebral palsy (as was his old brother Zeke). He toured arenas as a solo performer when the album was released, singing his most-requested songs, covering "backstage" action on a large video screen, and singing along with his Vocoderized video image on songs from Trans.
Young's wanderlust got more extreme with Everybody's Rockin', a rockabilly album recorded and performed with a group he dubbed the Shocking Pinks. Despite an amusing video for the song "Wonderin'," all this stylistic swerving started to irritate longtime fans, and the records began sliding down the charts. Old Ways was a country album with guest spots by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Landing on Water used synthesizers on standard rock songs. Life reunited him with Crazy Horse in lackluster performances. The lack of commercial success created a disastrous relationship with Geffen — ultimately the imprint slapped him with a $3 million lawsuit for making "unrepresentative" music —.
Young kept jumping genres, returning to his former label Reprise for This Note's For You, a horn-based blues/R&B album. The video for the title song attacked artists who allowed their music to be licensed for TV ads; MTV avoided airing it, although it earned the network's Music Video Award for Best Video of the Year.
In 1987, after appearing with his old cohorts in CSN at a Greenpeace benefit, Young briefly rejoined the group for the 1988 CSN&Y album American Dream (Number 16). None of Young's 1980s albums was particularly well received beyond the artist's loyal core audience, though some — such as Trans— had captured critics' interest. Many wrote off the bulk of this era's work as typical Neil Young flakiness.
Young's extra-musical activities during the 1980s were bountiful. He participated in the 1985 Live Aid benefit and helped John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson organized the subsequent Farm Aid concerts. He and his wife Pegi started the Bridge School in San Francisco in 1986, a learning center for disabled children. In 1989 a group of alternative rockers, including Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr., contributed to The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, whose proceeds went to the school. Young also organized an annual benefit concerts for the school.
Because of his renegade spirit and unruly music, Young was hailed by a new generation of post-punk musicians as "the Godfather of Grunge." He had a major comeback beginning in 1989 with Freedom (Number 35), his biggest chart success since Trans, as well as his biggest critical hit in a decade. He introduced its single, "Rockin' in the Free World," in an unbridled, transcendent 1989 performance on Saturday Night Live — one of the greatest moments in all of rock television.
Young then regrouped Crazy Horse for Ragged Glory (Number 31, 1990), a raucous, lauded album. With distortion-drenched garage rock, the album verified Young's influence on younger alternative-rock bands such as Dinosaur Jr. and Pearl Jam. In 1991 he embraced this new generation by taking noise-rockers Sonic Youth and Social Distortion on the road; the tour was documented on Weld (a disc whose 35-minute instrumental companion Arc featured extended feedback jams). Young also began praising rap, particularly the music of Ice-T.
Reuniting him with members of the Stray Gators, Harvest Moon (Number 16, 1992) once again found Young performing sentimental acoustic songs. A sequel to Harvest, it was his biggest seller in 13 years. In 1992 he appeared at the 50th birthday celebration for Bob Dylan, covering "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "All Along the Watchtower." Released in 1993, Lucky Thirteen compiles Young's Geffen material, and Unplugged documents his live acoustic performances following the release of Harvest Moon.
In 1994 Young contributed the haunting title song to Jonathan Demme's film Philadelphia, which was nominated for an Oscar. (Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia," also from the film, won.) Next up was Sleeps with Angels (Number 9, 1994), a moody set of tunes inspired by the death of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, whose suicide note included the line from "Hey Hey, My My," that says "it's better to burn out, than to fade away."
Young was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who thanked Young for teaching his band a lot about "dignity, commitment, and playing in the moment." The mutual admiration between the artists resulted in the collaboration Mirror Ball (Number 5, 1995), with the Seattle superstars backing Young on his highest-charting album since 1972. The next year he was back with Crazy Horse for Broken Arrow (Number 31, 1996).
Young recorded a haunting electric-guitar score for New York independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's 1996 film Dead Man. Jarmusch then made a documentary of Young, Year of the Horse, released in 1997. Footage from Young and Crazy Horse's 1996 tour was spliced together with older stock from 1976 and 1986; interviews with Young, band members, crew, and associates run throughout. A soundtrack album was also released. Young headlined the H.O.R.D.E. summer festival tour in 1997.
In the late-1990s, Young, a lifelong model train enthusiast, bought the Lionel Toy Train company, reportedly to delight his son Ben.
In 2000 Young released Silver & Gold, a pensive, largely acoustic album featuring drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, Ben Keith on pedal steel and dobro, and keyboardist Spooner Oldham. Also that year, writer Jimmy McDonough filed a $1.8 million suit against Young alleging that the singer refused to allow publication of a biography written by McDonough that Young originally authorized; the book, entitled Shakey came out in 2002 to widespread praise. In November 2000, Young released Road Rock (Number 169), a live set featuring a duet with Chrissie Hynde on "All Along the Watchtower." In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America, Young recorded a single, "Let's Roll," in tribute to the passengers and crew of Flight 93, and he performed a version of John Lennon's "Imagine" during a telecast benefitting victims of the attacks. "Let's Roll" appeared on 2002's Are You Passionate?, a low-key album with Booker T. & the MG's backing Young.
In 2003 he released Greendale, a concept album recorded with two-thirds of Crazy Horse (Sampedro sat out); he also made a film based on the album, and mounted a stage version that toured North America, Japan, and Australia.
In March 2005, Young suffered a brain aneurysm and underwent a successful surgery. Around the same time, he wrote and began to record what became Prairie Wind, released late in September. The following year, Jonathan Demme's film of Young at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Heart of Gold, premiered.
In a move that paralleled the quick turnaround of "Ohio," (a response to the student killings by National Guard soldiers on the Kent State campus in 1970), in April 2006, Young weighed in on the Iraq debacle on Living with War, a blunt protest album. The music was available on the Web before the actual CD was issued in early May; its songs included the point-blank "Let's Impeach the President." He also reunited with Crosby, Stills & Nash for a U.S. tour, during which Living with War was showcased in concert.
Young has long been at work on the release of his much-anticipated "Archives" series — which spans his entire recording career, highlighting the many albums and live recordings he made but never released — has been mooted for so long it's become a joke to fans. But in late 2006 he finally began to make good on the promise, releasing Live at the Fillmore East, a much-bootlegged show recorded in 1970; in March 2007, he released Live from Massey Hall 1971, an acoustic set at a theater in Toronto, and Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 in 2008 from an even more intimate venue. Don't forget Dreamin' Man, a 2009 live disc of songs from Harvest Moon, issued so fans could have another perspective on that era. Heard together they provide a much better view into creative process of his early days.
Speaking of unreleased Neil Young albums, October 2007's – Chrome Dreams II not only featured a handful of songs Young had scrapped years earlier (notably "Ordinary People," an 18-minute monster from the late 1980s), it was also titled as a sequel to a 1977 album Young had never finished. In tandem with the thrown together but oddly profound Fork In the Road, which is basically his soundtrack to the green car biz he initiated. Young had his 1959 Lincoln Continental retrofitted to make it a 100-mpg bio-diesel vehicle, a project he went on David Letterman and Jay Leno's late night shows to promote.
In 2009, Young finally released of Neil Young Archives, Volume 1: 1963-1973, the multi disc box set available in Blu-Ray that traces his evolution through 129 songs. Loaded with easter eggs that lead to odd video footage and hidden tracks, the first edition of his audio autobiography is a completist's dream.
Never winning a Grammy under his own name as a solo artist, Young received a special honor at the 2010 presentations. He was named the MusiCares "Person of the Year," a designation that accounts for artistic achievement and philanthropic work.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.