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Neil Young: The Open Man

The rocker doesn’t so much write songs as wait for them. Last year, facing brain surgery, the wait was over

Neil Young, FARM AID

Neil Young during FARM AID 2005 performance in Tinley Park, Illinois, on September 18th, 2005.

Rick Diamond/WireImage/Getty

THE FILAMENT TETHERING NEIL YOUNG TO THE ACTUAL world is delicate. One is aware almost on meeting him that nobody else appears to be quite as real to him as he is to himself, and that behind his seerlike eyes is a capacious landscape that is just as absorbing as the one that he sees in front of him. He doesn’t seem so much defended or reserved as singularly constituted, one of the small tribe of artists for whom responsiveness is a creed. He receives songs as much as he writes them. The exchange is a mystical one, and mysticism, as G.K. Chesterton somewhere remarks, keeps people and cultures sane. Logic, too emphatically embraced, is what undoes the mind.

In the past few months, Young has released a CD of new songs, Prairie Wind, and with Jonathan Demme has made a movie, Heart of Gold, that will be released on February 10th. The movie features Young performing most of the CD’s songs. Both projects record the deeply felt testimony of a maverick mind that has been at work for forty years. The songs’ arrangements are restrained and unembellished; not a note is played for show. The themes are those of mature life, both backward-looking and hopeful, the expression of a sensibility determined to preserve its integrity. They are suffused with mortality and with ardent feelings for his wife and family and his friends. In the movie, he talks disarmingly about his love for his daughter, a college student, and because his manner is typically so subdued, even remote, the profound sentiments have the quality of being nearly a revelation. It is well known that Young’s circumstances while writing and recording Prairie Wind were dire. Last spring he had an episode of blurred vision, which turned out to be the result of a migraine. In performing tests to arrive at the diagnosis, however, doctors in New York discovered that he also had a cerebral aneurysm. It had likely been in place for years, but it might fail at any time, Surgery was scheduled to take place in four days. The procedure was not notably ambitious, but any invasion of the brain includes the possibility that a person might not wake up as who he was before he went under the knife. Young and his wife, Pegi, a singer, flew from New York to Nashville and stayed at the Hermitage, a hotel Young likes especially. On an old guitar that had belonged to Hank Williams, he began writing songs and recording them with musicians he had played with for years. He recorded three or four songs a day, then came back to the hotel and wrote three or four more. They appear on the record in the order in which they were written. Young says that he has never been very good at determining the sequence of songs on a record — “too impatient,” he says. He finished all but one song, “When God Made Me,” a hymn, then had the operation. He was to play at a Canadian awards show in Winnipeg, where he was partly raised. Several weeks before the show, he was walking with a friend when blood appeared on his pants leg. He began to bleed heavily from an incision made in his leg to remove a blood vessel used to patch the aneurysm. When he came to, he was staring into a bright white light. He was in an ambulance, but for a moment he thought he might have gone to glory. Needing more time to heal meant missing the awards show, and canceling meant having to explain his absence. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have let anyone know.

Young’s father, Scott, a sportswriter famous in Canada, died last year, in his eighties, after a period of dementia. As a child, Young would watch his father writing. On those occasions when he pointed out to his father that he appeared to be doing nothing, his father would say, “That’s when I get my best ideas,” Waiting for an idea is a hall-mark of Young’s method. His father’s death was not unexpected, but it haunted Young, especially in light of his own mortality. He felt blessed to have escaped any lasting consequences and fortunate to have discovered his problem by means of an MRI and not as the result of having a stroke in a backstage hallway of a stadium.

YOUNG LIVES IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, south of San Francisco, on property he calls the Broken Arrow Ranch. On the Rand McNally Road Atlas, a small fir tree appears more or less where the ranch is. He bought the place thirty-five years ago. Before moving to it, he lived in Los Angeles, in Topanga Canyon. Leaving L.A., he drove through a brush fire. “The freeway was in the middle of it,” he told me. “Both sides of the road were in flames. It was very dramatic. I was driving out of town, and the place was burning up.”

Young said this a few weeks ago, in Northern California, while we were riding in an old Plymouth he owns and more or less widely circling the borders of the ranch. He has a fleet of cars from the era of his childhood — he is sixty. His fascination with cars has its genesis in an early misfortune. When he was six, he went swimming with his father in the Pigeon River and woke that night with his shoulder hurting. Before the morning was through, he was so stiff that his father described him as moving like “a mechanical man.” In Shakey, Young’s biography, written by Jimmy McDonough, there is a description of his being taken to the hospital and how the polio he’d contracted in the river nearly killed him. When his parents came to take him home, he said, “I didn’t die, did I?” The nurses sang “Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes” to him, and he wept. He had lost so much weight, his mother told McDonough, that “he looked like hell on the highway. Skin and bones.” He had been a fat baby, as wide as he was tall, she said. When she played “Boogie-Woogie,” by Pinetop Smith, he would stand up in his playpen and hold on to the rails and dance. A family friend described him as “a sullen, fat, darkeyed little baby. Not a happy baby, not a smiler, not a joiner.” Young has an older brother, Bob, who is a former club golf pro in Florida. Their parents, absorbed with the difficulties of a failing marriage, sometimes overlooked them, so Neil “became a little watcher,” the friend said. He liked turtles and fishing. He liked to draw trains, and he could do so with either hand. His mother predicted that he would become an architect or a musician. His father used to take him and his brother for rides in the car and sing “Bury Me on the Lone Prairie.” A relative said he was “a droll little boy.”

After the polio, he remained permanently skinny. He walked awkwardly. (“I had to learn to walk again,” he said in the car. “That was interesting.”) Having set his mind on something, his mother said, he couldn’t be deterred. He insisted on walking the few blocks to the doctor’s office by himself. He would sometimes fall on the way, and people would come out of their houses and help him.

His body seemed too frail for winter clothes, so his parents took him to Florida. He loved the cars in America. The ones in Canada were older and tended not to have as many accessories. When the family returned to Canada, they lived in the country outside Toronto, and Young raised chickens and had a paper route. “When I finish school I plan to go to Ontario Agricultural College and perhaps learn to be a scientific farmer,” he wrote in a school essay. He was ten when he began listening to rock & roll. By himself in the house, he would dance to his parents’ records and pretend that he was winning a contest. The first instrument anyone remembers him playing was a plastic ukulele from his Christmas stocking. His father’s family included farmers who were musicians. When rain kept them from the fields, they sat in the living room and played. He had three girl cousins who sang harmony parts, a scene he describes in “Far From Home,” on Prairie Wind.

Young was thirteen when his parents separated. His brother went with his father, and Young lived with his mother. One of Young’s friends of the period recalls that Young was much affected by the collapse of the household and that when he talked about it, which was often, his face would flush. His mother moved him to Winnipeg, on the prairie. If he could manage on the way there in the car not to bite his nails for an hour, she let him play the guitar.

The first song he wrote was called “No.” It had a chorus that went, “No, no, no.” A friend from this period told McDonough, “Looking back at it, I think he was alone more than he should have been.”

In 1962, Young was a member of a band called the Squires, which another member said was the third-best band in the city. The first single he released was on V Records, a polka label. “At that point I was different,” he said while we drove. “I wasn’t into sports. I wasn’t an exceptionally good student — I didn’t have the focus for it. I was a musician. I was more concerned with playing shows on the weekends, and I missed a lot of the social aspects growing up. Instead of thinking about who was I going to pick up at the dance, who was I going to be with or what was I going to do, I was thinking about playing. That whole part of me was put on the back burner until my twenties. I was late that way. I think I moved at a slower rate. In my own head, a lot of times, I’m still twenty. When I dream, I’m very young. I feel that way and I see things that way — it’s my outlook in the dream. I don’t see things as a mature person. I feel like everybody’s doing this; the human condition is not really understood on the surface; the waking, walking person and the sleeping person are completely different. That’s why we need sleep; that’s how the soul develops, in sleep.”

In his twenties, from an instinct for self-preservation, Young avoided psychedelic drugs. “I was too scared, because my thoughts were already there,” he said in the car. “People were talking about what happens to them when they’re tripping, and I’d think, ‘That’s what happens to me all the time. I was warned by neurologists, Don’t do these drugs — you won’t be able to come back. I was already having enough trouble.” As a boy, he had mild seizures that became severe as he got older. Playing with Buffalo Springfield, he would often have a seizure that would begin during the last song of the night and have just enough time to escape the stage before it became pronounced. McDonough writes that while in the grip of them, Young would see other people, as if in another world. They would ask how he was and where he had been, and they would call him by a different name. His identity would return to him slowly — it was as if he were putting himself back together a piece at a time.

MAINLY, YOUNG DRIVES HIS OLD cars around the Broken Arrow, which is extensive. Chauffeurs who service the place draw maps for each other of the interior roads, so that they don’t get lost. In addition to his house, he has a barn for his toy trains. Young is a partial owner of Lionel Trains and works with the company’s R&D department. Among his contributions is something called Rail Sounds. For Rail Sounds, Young recorded train noises and installed them on chips inside the toy trains. According to Young’s manager and friend Elliot Roberts, “It sounds like Amtrak coming through.” The Broken Arrow is remote. A few people, such as Roberts and Graham Nash, visit by arrangement, but it is “a long way to go,” Roberts said, “to find out no one’s home.” Some of the old cars Young has restored to a standard he calls museum quality. Some he just has put in running order. The Plymouth had high, rounded fenders and a rounded roof and, above the windshield, a visor like the bill of a cap to keep off the rain. The paint had been dissolved by the sun, so that it was a mottled gray and had the grainy texture of a hide. The front seat was like a sofa. An eagle feather hung from the sunshade and another hung from the stanchion for the rearview mirror, and attached to the shade was a blurred photograph including one of Young’s sons: He has three children — two boys, in addition to his daughter.

We had started from the parking lot of a restaurant near the ranch. Redwoods towered over it. Young drove us west, toward the ocean, down a road in deep shade. Through the treetops came shafts of light so distinct that they seemed like the buttresses of enormous structures out of sight above the canopy. The road appeared just wide enough for the car. The descent was steep, and the turns were sharp. The steering wheel was of a cream-colored plastic and very big, and Young seemed almost to be wrestling with it, as if he were driving a truck. The impression made by the oversize wheel and the car’s ample fenders, by the trees being so tall and straight and gathered in shadow like huge curtains around us, and the sun’s being concealed somewhere above them, gave one the sense of the unequal scale of childhood, where the eyes of one’s parents seem to look down from a height, and the far wall of the living room appears to lie on the other side of a field.

Young’s songs are descriptive more than narrative. They portray his state of mind or his relation to something he is going through. An autobiographical writer is typically trying to shed material that torments him. Since Young’s songs document his states of mind over the past almost forty years, I wondered whether he had been struck by any themes that recur, and whether he might have guessed at them as a young man. His answer was oblique. “I’ve been blessed in my life by something,” he said. “By having this ability, and the ideas I’ve had.” He shrugged. “There are things that I’ve done that have been hard for people to get into. They haven’t liked everything. They want me to do the same thing over and over, and they think I’m inconsistent and erratic when I don’t. That’s a very narrow viewpoint, I think. Just because I don’t do what people like, I’m not erratic. I am lucky to have new ideas. I just try to stay open.”

“But you don’t see any themes in the subjects?”

“I’m happy when I have a new idea,” he said, “when my music turns a corner. What’s hard for me is to go from one band to another. People think it is a solo trip, or me as the centerpiece; I think it’s a band. Guys like Ben Keith have been with me thirty-five years. Rolling with it, butting out when I don’t need them, then coming back strong, telling me what they think of things. Whether it’s a band on a business level or any other, it’s still a band to me.”

Being in the car felt a little like sitting in a room that was spinning. Each time Young turned sharply, my pencil would slide across the page of my notebook. “I like to rock, and then I don’t want to rock,” Young went on. “I want to play loud, and then I don’t want to play loud. I feel abrasive, then I don’t. I feel mellow, and I don’t. I had a band, then I didn’t. Then I was a folk singer. I’m always going from one extreme to another. That’s a way of making music that I follow. The only hard part is making the change. You have to tell the band you’re not going to use them this time. Which is difficult, because I get so into what I’m doing that I feel like I’m going to do this for the rest of my life. But it doesn’t happen that way. I do my best to keep it together, but if I have to change it, I will. I crave that. If I’m playing with the right people and the stories keep coming, the stories flow through me. If I’m trying to do something that’s too hard, everything gets closed down.”

Young is the ecstatic more than the painstaking species of songwriter. Songs arrive for him so rapidly sometimes that he has trouble writing down all the words. Occasionally an entire song reveals itself to him in twenty or thirty seconds. In New York, a few weeks earlier, I had looked with him through the book in which he had written the lyrics for Prairie Wind. It had a soft binding and pages like newsprint. On one cover Young had drawn an eighth note several inches tall, with a little flag at the top of the stem. “That’s one title,” he said. Then he flipped the book over, top to bottom, so that the writing on the back cover was inverted compared with the writing on the front. On this cover he had written “Notes to Self(s).” He turned through the pages to show me that this section contained drawings of controllers for toy trains. “I don’t know what was the point of doing it that way,” he said, “but sometime they’ll meet.” Then he turned the book over and showed me the lyrics, written in pen, with only a word here and there crossed out, and with the verses themselves not usually running below the top half of the page. “I might have two lines and use only one version of them,” he said. “Or a line or two not used. If you look, sometimes it’s three, four, one, two in terms of the order of verses, but usually it’s just as it came. It’s just a matter of where did I tap into it, what part of it. If I don’t question it, it comes together. If I question it, it can take months.”

I said something about how unusual it is to be able to write so fluently. Other writers don’t usually describe it, I said.

“Maybe they don’t let themselves,” Young said. “Maybe they let too many other things get in the way.”

He closed the book. “When you start writing,” he said, “don’t let other things bother you. Just keep going. It doesn’t take long. It isn’t long to be absent.”

YOUNG HAS WRITTEN THAT HE IS a child, but he is not a lost child. Something severe and idiosyncratic has guided him remorselessly toward his purposes. Innocence, however, seems never to have left him. His music, his presence and his talk are so freighted with the intention to be receptive to sensation and interior suggestion that they amount to an enforced innocence, an embrace of a near-primitive engagement with whatever stream, river, cataract or rushing source supplies the images, words and sounds that become song in the proper gifted hands. Out of a desire to preserve his cast of mind, he doesn’t read much, if at all. The influence, he feels, would be unwelcome. On the other hand, it is not unusual for writers’ children not to read, to feel that they cannot find their own ground anywhere but outside the shadow cast by their fathers or mothers.

Having a song in hand, Young rarely revisits it. He tries to record it quickly. He hardly ever changes anything. He regards editing as a loss of confidence, as a failure of method. His experience is that if he is sufficiently responsive, the song will arrive in its final form. “You have to be open,” he said in the car. “If you’re paying too much attention, you’re not open. I just want to be there, and the thoughts and ideas will come. Don’t rush them, and when they’re there, don’t criticize them. If I have to edit something, it’s because I wasn’t open enough to receive it. And I’m not always successful.” “There are things I’ve done that have been hard for people. They want me to do the same thing over and over.”

Years ago, Young used to like to write lyrics on the pages of a newspaper, because his own words would then be lurking within the printed ones, making the activity of writing seem less self-conscious. (Perhaps also he was making an unconscious connection with his father, who had a newspaper column.) “In writing,” he said in the car, “you have to try to be as unaffected as you can by what’s going on around you, while also writing about what’s going on around you. I like to remove myself from me to be able to write about the thing I want to write about. I like to think about myself as another soul on the planet. If I thought of myself as a rock star, I don’t think I could have a point of view that’s very interesting.

YOUNG GIVES THE IMPRESSION OF being a man who is stalked by the forces of art, which will find him more easily than he will find them. When nothing arrives, he occupies himself in other ways. “In the morning maybe I’ll come out to the studio and start a fire,” he said in the car. “Pick up a guitar. Different guitars make you write differently. Each day’s different, though. Could be writing while I’m walking. If it’s not happening, I continue living my life. I look at writing songs as like hunting for a wild animal, but you’re not trying to kill it. You’re trying to communicate with it, to coax it out of its lair. You don’t go over and set a fire and try to force it from its lair, or try to scare it out. When it comes out, you don’t want it to be scared of you. You have to be part of what it sees as it’s looking around, what it takes as natural, so that it doesn’t regard you as a threat. To me, songs are a living thing. It’s not hunting to capture. I just want to get a glimpse of it, so I can record it.”

The songs on Prairie Wind often have an obvious meaning and a less spelled-out one. In the forefront of “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” is a suggestion of remorse and worry. At a slight remove there is the impression of the soul’s flight at death, if there is such a thing, and certainly there is a substantial archive of references to support the image, as well as a catalog of metaphorical evidence. Such a description does not ask a listener to believe in an afterlife, only in the plausible argument that something ineffable happens at death; a presence seems to desert the human form, whether suddenly, aggressively or peacefully. In the song “Prairie Wind,” he sings, “Prairie wind blowing through my head.” When I brought up the idea in the car that in certain cultures wind blowing through one’s head is an image of madness and death, he smiled wryly but didn’t say anything.

Young has a seeker’s sensitivity, a susceptibility to impressions received in passing or only half-clearly. The hymn “When God Made Me” is deeply subversive. It is meant to unsettle those ardent believers whose certainty of holiness makes them feel they can abusively enforce their beliefs on the rest of the world.

“I was asking questions about faith,” Young says. “But one kept evading me. I couldn’t figure out what the last question was.”

Young was surprised at writing a churchy song. He had never written one before. Nor did it seem to fall into the context of the other songs on the record. He wondered aloud to one of the engineers where such a song might have come from. The studio they were working in was formerly a Confederate hospital and morgue. The engineer produced a flashlight and told Young to come with him. He shined the light through a small hole in the ceiling. “You could see the windows of an arch,” Young told me, “and a part of a steeple. Before it was a hospital, the building had been a church.” I don’t mean to suggest that Young was a medium receiving information from the spirit world. I mean that Young is attentive to obscure sensations. From the corner of his eye, walking into the building, perhaps, or from the way the rooms were designed, he may have been put in mind of a church, and in the ragbag of the unconscious, that observation merged with another that moved him to express something through writing a song.

“When God Made Me” was finished a few weeks later, after Young decided that he would perform it at Live 8: “I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m trying to say.’ That’s when I get in trouble, because I thought I knew what I wanted to say. Finally, the word ‘compassion’ came out of nowhere. You try not to scare it away.” The verses ask a series of questions regarding God’s intentions. “Was he planning only for believers, or for those who just had faith?/Did he envision all the wars that were fought in his name?/ … Did he give me the gift of voice, so some could silence me?/Did he give me the gift of vision not knowing what I might see?” The last line is “Did he give me the gift of compassion to help my fellow man?” When compassion occurred to him, he saw it was what he had been waiting for. Then he felt surprised that he had tried so hard.

“I had been thinking, ‘If the song is finished, the album is finished.’ How did I put that on the song? That’s a business thought. My method had fallen apart. I wasn’t going by my guidelines. I was looking, reaching, and it could have been for years.” He was quiet for a moment. “There’s many different people inside you,” he said next. “Many different beings traveling through you. On the outside you may look like you, but it may be that several different things are coming through you, and it’s heavy traffic.”

WE EMERGED FROM THE FOREST into rolling hills of green and yellowing grass. “I get a lot of my music from this geography,” Young said. Then he pointed at a gate across a dirt road leading through a field a and said, “That’s a back way into my ranch.” We drove on and the land became flat, and we arrived at the ocean and turned on to Highway I. For several miles we drove along the ocean, until we came to Pescadero, then we turned inland.

When he pointed out a graveyard, I asked if he had made any plans for his resting place, and he said no. “My place is on the prairie, though. Winnipeg,” he said. “I was there when I was eight and again when I was twelve. After my mom and dad split up. My dad’s roots are from Cyprus River, Manitoba.”

We began climbing hills, heading east. Except for the remains of an old truck and fences, the fields were mostly empty. When I saw some cattle, I asked Young if he had any animals on his place. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Horses, cattle, some llama.” The sky was without any clouds, and deep blue. “You get out here on these old roads in an old car,” Young said after a moment, “you don’t know where you are, you don’t know what time it is. That’s always good.”

In La Honda, we passed an empty lot and some weeds, and Young said, “This used to be a great bar, the Boots and Saddle Lounge.” We came around a turn. “No, here’s where it was,” he said. “Right where the weeds are. Burned down. I used to play there with Crazy Horse all the time. You’d let people know about two or three in the afternoon, and move in your equipment about four, and around nine when you’d start there’d be plenty of people there. If you told them any earlier, there’d be too many people.” Farther down the road, he pointed to a one-story house that looked hunched down beneath the redwoods and said that he thought it was the house Ken Kesey had lived in during the Acid Test days.

We had been driving for nearly two hours when I recognized from the trees that we must be close to the restaurant. We passed eight or nine dump trucks parked beside the road. Young said they were using the place as the staging area for the road they were building into land he had just sold. “I feel bittersweet about selling,” he said. “I don’t have to take care of it anymore, so I feel good about it. On the other hand, you never really like to lose something you love. There’s only so much you can hold on to.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Neil Young

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