Neil Young Biography

The Godfather of Grunge

By Dave Zimmer

Neil Young News

Release "Time Fades Away"

Neil Young  
Neil Young was born November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario to Rassy
and Scott Young. As a youth, he survived diabetes, polio, epilepsy and the
divorce of his parents. His father was a highly respected sportswriter for
The Toronto Sun and has authored several books, including Neil & Me,
a 1984 title covering his relationship with his musician son.

In 1960, Neil moved with his mother to Winnipeg,
Manitoba. It was there that music first became the
driving force in his life. After switching from
ukulele to guitar, he was in a succession of Winnipeg-
based bands, including The Jades, The Esquires, The
Classics and Neil Young & The Squires. Initially an
instrumental band in the mold of The Shadows, The
Squires eventually became more of a folk-rock group.
Several early Neil originals from this era, including
"Ain't It The Truth" and "Find Another Shoulder,"
would be resurrected years later with the Bluenotes.
From early 1963 to mid- 1965, The Squires performed
regularly at clubs and dance halls in Manitoba and

At a club in Fort William, Ontario in '65, The Squires
crossed paths with an American folk-rock band called
The Company, which featured a singer/guitarist named
Stephen Stills. Young and Stills became fast friends
but soon lost track of one another as The Squires
disbanded in the summer of '65.

Neil relaxing
Neil Hangin  

Neil Young recorded an acoustic demo for Elektra Records in
New York in 1965 featuring early versions of "Sugar
Mountain" and "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," but
he was not offered a contract by the label. Returning
to Toronto, Young played the same Yorkville district
coffeehouse circuit as fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell
before he joined The Mynah Birds, a Toronto-based band
led by singer Ricky James Matthews (later to be known
as Rick James and singer of such dance hits as "Super
Freak"). The Mynah Birds recorded several songs for
Motown Records in Detroit that were never released.
During one of these recording sessions, James was
arrested and charged with deserting the U.S. Navy. The
Mynah Birds flew apart when James was forced to
complete his tour of duty.
(Also, see more on Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Rick James and Neil Young).

In search of fresh opportunities, Young and ex-Mynah
Birds bassist Bruce Palmer packed most of their
worldly possessions into Young's car (a black hearse!)
and drove from Toronto to Los Angeles. On Sunset
Boulevard in Hollywood, the hearse was spotted in
traffic by Stills and singer/guitarist Richie Furay
(who previously met Young in New York and had come
West a short time earlier.) The four musicians huddled
in a supermarket parking lot and immediately talked of
forming a band. With the addition of drummer Dewey
Martin, the Buffalo Springfield was born. Fusing folk
and rock with dashes of country and R&B, the
Springfield gained immediate raves sharing bills with
The Byrds at The Whisky on the Sunset Strip. Live,
Young unleashed his stinging lead guitar and high
vocal cries. On the band's subsequent three albums,
Young's songwriting excellence was evident on such
songs as "Mr. Soul," "Broken Arrow," "Expecting to
Fly" and "I Am a Child."
(Also, see more on The Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young.)

Neil Young at Farm Aid 2000  
Neil Young quit the Buffalo Springfield in the spring of
'67, before the band's appearance at The Monterey Pop
Festival in June, then re-joined later that year. The
Buffalo Springfield broke up for good in May of 1968.
With no small amount of original material to work
with, Young, now living in Topanga Canyon, launched
his solo career in earnest. His self-titled debut
album was released on Reprise Records in January of
1969, and featured such songs as "The Loner" and "The
Last Trip to Tulsa." He would later refer to Neil
Young as "overdub city." Indeed, most of his recorded
work to follow would bear little resemblance to the
layered process used on much of his first album.

Early in '69, Young got re-acquainted with a rough-
hewn Los Angeles-based band he'd first encountered
during the early days of the Buffalo Springfield.
Called The Rockets, the group featured
guitarist/vocalist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot
and drummer Ralph Molina. In a matter of weeks, Young
and these musicians would record "Down By the River"
and then, transformed into Neil Young & Crazy Horse,
would go on to cut more songs with visceral immediacy,
including "Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl In The Sand,"
for the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,
released in July.

Though enjoying success as a solo artist, Young agreed
to join forces with Crosby, Stills & Nash in the
summer of '69. He added dark grain to CSN's front
porch harmony. Following an appearance at Woodstock,
the riotously-received "Carry On Tour" and the early
1970 release of the album Deja Vu, Crosby, Stills,
Nash & Young were often referred to as "The American
Beatles." This level of fame, however, did not deter
Young from his commitment to pursuing his solo career.

neil_hands.jpgNeil Young recorded After the Gold Rush with contributions
from Crazy Horse, Stephen Stills and several other
musicians. The 1970 album included poetic acoustic
songs like "Tell Me Why" and "Birds" and unbridled
rockers such as "Southern Man" and "When You Dance I
Can Really Love." After the Gold Rush exhibited the
full range of Young's formidable musical talents
during this phase of his career.

In the spring of 1970, Neil Young wrote "Ohio" in the wake
of the Kent State killings and CSNY recorded it as a
single. And while CSNY succeeded in achieving several
moments of musical magic on stage - some of which were
captured on the aptly titled 4-Way Street live album -
the group splintered in July.


Young's solo career kept right on rolling. A good
portion of the new material he performed on a '70 -
'71 acoustic tour was inspired by his recently
purchased Northern California ranch. Songs such as
"Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" would eventually be
recorded by Young and a band he dubbed the Stray
Gators (featuring bassist Tim Drummond, steel
guitarist Ben Keith and drummer Kenny Buttrey). James
Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and the London Symphony
Orchestra also made guest appearances on Harvest,
which was released in early 1972 and remains Young's
best-selling album, featuring the only Number 1 single
of his career, "Heart of Gold."

Young also completed his first film, Journey Through
the Past, in '72. A soundtrack album, released in
November, preceded the film's '73 release.

The drug overdose death of former Crazy Horse
guitarist Danny Whitten happened right before Young
began a post-Harvest tour. Fans expecting "Heart of
Gold" instead heard sets dominated by a passel of new
reckless rockers. Time Fades Away, a live album
released in September of '73, captured Young's edgy

Crosby & Nash made guest appearances on the last leg
of the Time Fades Away tour, while Young had dropped
in on several early '70s Crosby & Nash shows (as well
as recording a single with Nash called "War Song") and
a couple of '73 Stills/Manassas gigs. But CSNY did not
re-group for any extended period until the 1974 summer
stadium tour. Several of the new songs Young performed
at these shows were released on his '74 solo album, On
the Beach. Despite cutting several new tracks in the
mid '70s, CSNY only managed to release a greatest hits
album called So Far during this period.

Young could have released three albums in 1975.
However, he shelved one of them, a collection of
introspective songs called Homegrown, in favor of a
dark, ragged song cycle called Tonight's the Night.
Most of the songs on the album, influenced by the
drug-related deaths of Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie
Bruce Berry, were recorded in '73 with a band that
included Talbot, Molina and Nils Lofgren.

A new version of Crazy Horse, featuring new
guitarist/singer Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, recorded a
powerful, often jagged-edged album called Zuma in
'75. It was released in the fall of that year and
featured such songs as "Cortez the Killer" and "Danger

Crazy Horse would contribute to several other Young
projects during the rest of the '70s, including the
'77 album American Stars 'n' Bars ("Like A Hurricane"
soared next to songs that featured Linda Ronstadt and
Nicolette Larson) and '78's Comes A Time (Two songs
that showed the quieter side of the Horse fit well
amidst a set of harmony-filled numbers recorded with
Nicolette Larson and The Gone With the Wind
Orchestra). Then there were the transcendent NY&CH
live shows in America and Japan in '76 and the tour de
force concerts in late '78. On stage, Young
accentuated the feeling that he was "dwarfed" by the
music industry by using oversized amp covers and a
gigantic microphone - all documented on the 1979 Rust
Never Sleeps album and film, and the Live Rust album
released later that same year.
(Also, see more on Neil Young and Crazy Horse).

In addition to working with Crazy Horse, Neil Young also
formed the short-lived Stills-Young Band with Stephen
Stills, resulting in one album, Long May You Run, and
one aborted tour - both in 1976. Later that year
Young was one of the all-star performers at The Band's
last "Last Waltz" concert at Winterland in San

Other Young highlights in the 1970s included his
tenure with The Ducks, a Santa Cruz, CA band led by an
old Springfield-era friend of Young's, singer Jeff
Blackburn. Young performed numerous raucous sets of
"country roll" with The Ducks during the latter part
of the summer of '77 at small bars around the coastal
town. In the spring of '78, Young played and recorded
five straight nights of solo acoustic music at a cozy
150-seat club in San Francisco called The Boarding
House. The first side of Rust Never Sleeps was drawn
from these shows. Is it any wonder both Rolling Stone
and The Village Voice named Young "Artist of the
Decade" in their reviews of the '70s?

Rock's most intriguing chameleon revealed an even
broader spectrum of musical colors in the 1980s. He
forcefully ricocheted between many different genres,
performing and recording with an ever-revolving (often
recurring) collection of old and new musician friends.

Young swung hard into country music on parts of 1980's
Hawks & Doves and again throughout 1985's Old Ways
(featuring guests Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings).
Adopting a perceptible twang in his voice, he toured
extensively in the mid '80s with The International
Harvesters (including Tim Drummond, Ben Keith, singer
Anthony Crawford and fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux).

Inspired by European groups such as Kraftwerk, Young
experimented with computers and synthesized vocals on
1982's Trans album and subsequent tours in '82 and

Techno evolved into retro when Young and The Shocking
Pinks (featuring Drummond, Keith and drummer Karl
Himmel) rattled and rolled on stage and recorded the
1983 album Everybody's Rockin', featuring '50s-style
Young originals alongside covers of such vintage
classics as "Mystery Train" and "Betty Lou's Got A New
Pair of Shoes."

Young plugged back into modern technology on 1986's
Landing On Water, a jittery collection of songs co-
produced by Danny Kortchmar, who also contributed
guitar, synthesizer and vocals to the recording.

And what would a decade be without Crazy Horse and
CSN&Y? Young saddled up with Frank, Billy and Ralph
for 1981's rampaging Re*ac*tor (featuring the
stuttering "Rapid Transit" and war-like "Shots"),
1986's bruising "In A Rusted-Out Garage" Tour and the
1987 album, Life, featuring "Inca Queen" and
"Prisoners of Rock and Roll." Next, Young fulfilled a
promise to David Crosby that he'd work with CSNY again
if his old partner ever licked his severe drug
addiction. The 1988 CSNY album, American Dream,
included such Young songs as the title track, "Name of
Love" and "This Old House."

Though elements of the blues had been present in many
of Young's songs over the years, the style didn't take
center stage in his music until the 1988 album, This
Note's For You, and during corresponding live shows,
featuring Neil Young & the Bluenotes (later
incarnations of which were to be billed as The
Restless and The Lost Dogs). The video for the song
"This Note's For You," a pointed swipe at corporate
sponsorship, was banned for a time by MTV, then,
ironically, voted "Video of the Year" at the 1988 MTV
Music Video Awards.

A special late fall tradition began in 1986 with the
presentation of the first Bridge School Benefit at the
Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA. Hosted by
Young and his wife, Pegi, the now annual and largely
acoustic concerts benefit a special school where
children (such as Neil's youngest son) afflicted with
severe cerebral palsy are taught how to communicate
with computers and other technology. Bruce
Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Don Henley and Willie
Nelson are among the artists who have appeared at this
continuing event.

Young's forays into the film world also continued in
the '80s with the 1982 release of his surreal "nuclear
comedy" Human Highway, starring Dennis Hopper, Sally
Kirkland, Dean Stockwell, Devo and himself. Young also
had parts in the films '68, Made In Heaven and Love At
Large (the latter actually released in early '90).
The end of the '80s found Young issuing stark electric
statements, first on a Neil Young & The Restless five-
song EP called Eldorado (initially released in limited
quantities in Australia), then on Freedom, a riveting
album which shared several songs and players with
Eldorado and was framed by acoustic and electric
versions of "Rockin In The Free World". A blistering
live take of "Free World" on Saturday Night Live in
September of '89 served notice to all that Young was
still very much a vital rock and roll artist. He
reinforced this fact on the road in '89, performing
mostly solo with occasional subtle backing from Ben
Keith and Frank Sampedro.

Crazy Horse galloped back onto the scene in 1990,
recording the album Ragged Glory with Young and
hitching up for numerous searing live shows on the
"Don't Spook The Horse" Tour. Some of the best moments
were chronicled on 1991's live double-CD Weld. A third
CD, Arc, was an electric guitar "sound sculpture"
comprised of extended, feedback-laden instrumental
outros and sundry other live fragments. Alternative
bands such as Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, and Dinosaur
Jr opened many of the "Spook the Horse" shows and
legions of Generation X fans began referring to Young
as "The Godfather of Grunge."

In 1992, Young returned to his warm, acoustic side
with the release of Harvest Moon, featuring most of
the same core players (The Stray Gators) and singers
(Ronstadt and Taylor) he used on Harvest over 20 years
earlier. Young's half-sister, Astrid, and Nicolette
Larson also appeared on this record as well as on
Unplugged, a CD and video gleaned from Young's
February '93 "MTV Unplugged" performance.

In typical fashion, Young shifted musical gears once
again in 1993 and teamed up with Booker T. & the M.G.s
for a series of soulful live shows that included new
arrangements of many familiar Young classics as well
as covers of such songs as Otis Redding's "Dock Of The
Bay" and Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" (the
latter of which Young had performed with feverish
abandon at the Tribute To Bob Dylan concert at Madison
Square Garden in October of '92).

At the personal request of director Jonathan Demme,
Young wrote the title track for the 1993 film,
Philadelphia. The emotion-filled song was nominated
for an Academy Award and Young performed it live at
the 66th Academy Awards ceremony.

With the 1994 album Sleeps With Angels, Young & Crazy
Horse further extend the realm of their sonic library
and are letting the challenging new music speak for

by Dave Zimmer
Dave Zimmer is a Los Angeles-based writer and a former
editor of BAM, a California rock music magazine. He is
also the author of Crosby, Stills & Nash: The
Authorized Biography (published by St. Martin's in
1984 and currently being updated for re-publication by
Sierra Books later this year.)

For more from CSNY historian Dave Zimmer, see 4 Way Street: The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Reader book reviews.


Also, see Book Review: CROSBY, STILLS & NASH: The Biography by Dave Zimmer

CROSBY, STILLS & NASH: The Biography is available on (Your purchase will help support Thrasher's Wheat. Thanks!)


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