100 Greatest Artists

34

Neil Young

Illustration by Gerard DuBois

By Flea

There's a rare contradiction in Neil Young's work. He works so hard as a songwriter, and he's written a phenomenal number of perfect songs. And, at the same time, he doesn't give a fuck. That comes from caring about essence. There can be things out of tune and all wild-sounding and not recorded meticulously. And he doesn't care. He's made whole albums that aren't great, and instead of going back to a formula that he knows works, he would rather represent where he is at the time. That's what's so awesome: watching his career wax and wane according to the truth of his character at the moment. It's never phony. It's always real. The truth is not always perfect.

I can't say enough about how much I love Crazy Horse. The sound is so deep, the groove is so deep — even when they're off, it still sounds great, because they feel it so much. I don't usually go for that approach. I like Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis and Mingus. I like consummate steady musicianship. I grew up on jazz. I didn't listen to rock music until I played in my first rock band when I was in high school. I went from progressive to Hendrix to funk to full-on L.A. punk. That's when I had the realization that emotion and content, no matter how simple, were valuable. A great one-chord punk song became as important to me as a Coltrane solo, and I've had the same feeling about Neil Young. He changed the way I thought about rock music. As a bass player, I used to be into very boisterous, syncopated and rhythmically complex songs. After hearing Neil, I appreciated simplicity, the poignancy of "less is more."

My favorite Neil album is Zuma, with "Pardon My Heart" and "Lookin' for a Love": "But I hope I treat her kind/And don't mess with her mind/When she starts to see the darker side of me." And "Tell Me Why," on After the Gold Rush — when he says, "Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you're old enough to repay but young enough to sell?" it feels like me. I know I'm not alone. Tonight's the Night is probably the greatest raw rock record ever made, on a level with the Stooges' Fun House or any Hendrix album. It's such a mess, with stuff recorded so loud that it distorts. The background vocals are completely out of tune. And I wouldn't change a note. It's the spirit of what rock music is, and it's the reason to play rock music.

Neil is the guy I look at when I think about getting older in a rock band and still having dignity and relevance and honesty. He's never, ever sold out, and he's never pretended to be anything other than what he is. The Chili Peppers get offers all the time to sell songs for commercials. Maybe we could whore ourselves out for the right price someday. But I always think, "Would Neil Young do this?" And the answer is no. Neil Young wouldn't fuckin' do it.

Best of Rolling Stone

Around the Web

x

Add a Comment