Music / Neil Young

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"Old man, look at my life
I'm a lot like you were"

"My my, hey hey
Rock and roll is here to stay
It's better to burn out than to fade away
My my, hey hey"

Neil Percival Young (born November 12, 1945) is one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the 20th century. He has written and performed numerous hits throughout The '60s and The '70s and had a major comeback during The '90s. He's best known for his solo work, but was also a member of Buffalo Springfield. He's also performed with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, albeit on an irregular basis.

His style changes often, with his albums falling into blues, acoustic folk, rockabilly, jazz, and even electronic. He is sometimes called the Grandfather (or Godfather) of Grunge, as his music and harsh, noisy guitar playing had a strong influence on both the bands that would later popularize that genre (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) as well as Alternative Rock in general (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.). Young is also adept with many different instruments, though is best known for the piano, harmonica, and guitar.

Though well-known in America and currently living in California, Young is a Canadian citizen and wishes to remain so. Despite this, he has been very vocal about American policies and politics, and is a well-known liberal activist. He is also an active philanthropist, having founded The Bridge School and the benefit concert, Farm Aid. He is also a sometime engineer-inventor, whose most recent projects are a prototype electric car and the PONO music system which plays extremely high-resolution digital sound.

Rolling Stone recognizes him as the seventeenth greatest guitarist of all time on their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

Not to Be Confused with Young Neil.

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He/His Work Contain Examples Of:

  • After the End: "After the Gold Rush" paints a striking and saddening image of this trope.
  • Age-Progression Song: "Sugar Mountain".
  • Album Title Drop: "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" for Rust Never Sleeps. By proxy, "Cortez the Killer" (in which Montezuma is mentioned) for Zuma.
  • All There in the Manual: Elements of the plot of Greendale that aren't clear in the lyrics are made clearer in other mediums, including the Live at Vicar St. performance where Neil often provides lengthy introductions providing background on the characters as well as his thoughts when writing the album. The plot probably won't be entirely comprehensible without this material (and even with it, there are some unanswered questions).
  • Answer Song:
    • Joni Mitchell's "Circle Game" was written to complement "Sugar Mountain".
    • Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" is a Take That! to "Alabama" and "Southern Man". Despite this, the band members were friends with Young and were even planning to collaborate before the band's unfortunate plane crash. Young has performed the song on occasion, including the night after the aforementioned plane crash.
  • The Ark: "After the Gold Rush" has the narrator dreaming of "the chosen ones" being loaded into spaceships bound for "a new home in the Sun", presumably after a nuclear war or ecological catastrophe on Earth.
  • Author Avatar: Grandpa and Sun Green both have elements of this in parts of Greendale.
  • The Band Minus the Face: Crazy Horse's albums without Young.
  • Bookends: Several of his albums open and close with the same song. Examples include Tonight's the Night, Rust Never Sleeps, and Freedom. In the latter two cases, the opening rendition is acoustic and the closing one is electric.
  • Boxed Set: Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972, an 8 CD (or 10 DVD, or 10 Blu-ray) set released in 2009, and the first in a planned series of in-depth boxes covering Young's entire career. He took so long preparing it — mostly due to concerns about recorded sound quality — that fans began putting out bootlegs of his early and lesser-known work in a collection called Archives Be Damned. In an attempt to give listeners the highest quality sound experience, he is about to provide his entire catalogue online, with already-released material available for free listening, in high-resolution audio by Xstream Music / OraStream.
  • Braids, Beads and Buckskins: Neil wore them while he was in the Buffalo Springfield, but insists he has no Native American ancestry that he knows of. He has written many songs about Native Americans and is an official member of the Muckleshoot tribe in Washington state. In September 2014 he and Willie Nelson were invested with sacred buffalo robes by elders of the Lakotah, Ponca and Omaha nations for, among other things, their help in stopping the Keystone Pipeline.
  • Breakup Breakout: After Buffalo Springfield split. Temporarily subverted while a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash (And Young).
  • Break-Up Song: "Star of Bethlehem".
  • Canada, Eh?
  • Car Song:
    • "Long May You Run", performed in collaboration with Stephen Stills, an elegy for his first car, a 1948 Buick Roadmaster that broke down in 1956 in Blind River, Ontario. He performed it again during the last episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien on January 22, 2010, and a few days later, at the closing ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, as the Olympic Flame was being extinguished.
    • Fork in the Road, released in 2009, is a whole album of Car Songs.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Averted in Greendale, where the FBI harass Sun, kill her cat, and (it's implied) set her up on drug charges. The CIA are not mentioned at any point in the story.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Fuckin' Up". Neil says he wrote it as an attempt to get a Parental Advisory sticker, but the attempt failed.
  • Companion Cube: Old Black, the 1953 Gibson Les Paul guitar that Neil has played on almost every album and tour since 1969. Reportedly, it's now so beat up that only Neil and his personal guitar tech Larry Cragg are able to get anything but random noise out of it.
    • Asked what his most treasured material possession is, Neil describes his bamboo case in companion cube terms:
    It's my bag. I've been carrying it for a while. It's a bamboo bag with a bamboo handle. Been carrying it since 1969. I carry all kinds of stuff in it, whatever I'm doing. I've lost it twice but people keep returning it to me. I left it at a yogurt place once and six months later I got a phone call from somebody who met me at an intersection outside of a mall to give it back to me.
  • Concept Album: Several, such as Greendale and Fork in the Road.
  • Cool Old Guy
  • Deep South: "Southern Man" references many of the negative aspects of this area.
  • Drugs Are Bad / Ode to Sobriety: "The Needle and the Damage Done", about heroin.
    • Neil wasn't against all drugs, but he had a particularly strong loathing for heroin because two of his close friends died due to overdoses. On the other hand, most of Tonight's the Night was recorded in various states of intoxication on marijuana and alcohol.
    • Long known for smoking marijuana as though it were regular cigarettes (thus explaining those periodic junkets to Amsterdam), Neil has given it up along with drinking, after doctors detected pre-dementia changes in his brain. He discusses this in his 2012 book Waging Heavy Peace.
    • Martin Scorsese's concert documentary The Last Waltz filmed Young coming out to play with a cocaine caked booger hanging from his nose. It was so visible that Robbie Robertson of The Band had to pay to have it rotoscoped out, later joking that it was "The most expensive cocaine I've ever bought."
    • In the song "Ramada Inn", released in 2012, Neil briefly mentions his decision to stop drinking. He's spoken in interviews about the fact that he doesn't entirely know who he is without alcohol and pot, and it's interesting to find out and look for grounding in other ways.
  • Eagleland: Neil has several songs about the United States; best described as Type 2 or mixed flavor. Michael Moore uses them a lot in his films.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Neil has quite often played unreleased songs live years or even decades before recording them. Some examples include "Wonderin'" (performed in the mid-'60s, recorded 1983), "Country Home" (1976 / 1990), "Ordinary People" (1988 / 2007) and "Hitchhiker" (1992 / 2011).
  • Epic Rocking: Half the reason he gives concerts at all. Pretty much any song can go beyond 10 minutes if he feels like it. Frequent examples include "Cowgirl in the Sand", "Like a Hurricane", "Down by the River", "Spirit Road", "Cortez the Killer"...
    Neil: Okay, here's another one, just like the last one.
    Audience: It all sounds the same!
    Neil: It's all one song!
    • "It's all one song" was a running gag on the Rust mailing list, which Neil was known to read.
    • Several tracks on his studio albums invoke this trope as well, especially when Crazy Horse is his backing band:
      • 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has the well-known examples of "Down by the River" (9:13) and "Cowgirl in the Sand" (10:06).
      • 1989's essentially live in the studio album Ragged Glory has two tracks that exceed 10 minutes ("Love to Burn" and "Love and Only Love") and an additional two that exceed 7.
      • 1975's Zuma has "Danger Bird" (6:54) and "Cortez the Killer" (7:29, which was even longer in the studio performance).
      • 1994's Sleeps with Angels has the nearly 15-minute "Change Your Mind", and two additional songs that exceed six minutes ("Blue Eden" and "Safeway Cart").
      • 2003's Greendale has three songs that top ten minutes ("Carmichael", "Grandpa's Interview", "Sun Green") and an additional three that top seven ("Falling from Above", "Leave the Driving", "Be the Rain").
      • 2012's Psychedelic Pill is an eight-song double CD with three songs topping 16 minutes. The opening number, "Driftin' Back", clocks in at 27:37. (The other two monster tracks are "Ramada Inn", 16:49, and "Walk Like a Giant", 16:27 for the record). Also note that the Blu-Ray Audio version of the album features the absolutely monstrous "Horse Back" as a bonus track; this runs for 37:05. However, it is a medley of previous Neil Young & Crazy Horse tracks, hence the name - there is an 18:50 vamp on a riff from "Fuckin' Up" and an 18:15 version of "Cortez the Killer". You may hear it here. Young actually released this video on Youtube months before Psychedelic Pill was even announced.
    • Even when Crazy Horse isn't involved, he can still get pretty long-winded:
      • 1974's On the Beach has one song that approaches seven minutes (the title track) and one that approaches nine ("Ambulance Blues").
      • 1977's American Stars 'n Bars has "Will to Love" (7:11) and "Like a Hurricane" (8:20, performed with Crazy Horse).
      • Two of the songs on 2007's Chrome Dreams II ("Ordinary People", 18:13, and "No Hidden Path", 14:31) surpass the fourteen minute mark with ease.
    • This is still far from an exhaustive list.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor: In his live acoustic performances of Greendale, Neil notes that the Devil's sense of humour is rather mean.
  • Exact Words: See Genre Adultery below. Geffen was annoyed with Young attempting to create electronic music on Trans and requested he put out something more representative next time:
    After [Trans], the Guy Who Was President of Geffen started telling me what to do. He told me to make a rock and roll record. So perhaps vindictively, I gave them a record called Everybody's Rockin' that was traditional old rock and roll, literally what he had asked me to do. I conveyed his misguided request into an expression by becoming an old-fashioned rocker. Of course, my literal interpretation was not what he had in mind.
  • Gainax Ending: Greendale. The Devil spikes Earth Brown's drink with devil dust, which evidently will cause him to be thirsty for the rest of his life. In the midst of a trip with Sun Green to Alaska, he leaves the camper during the middle of the night, and Sun has a bizarre dream involving most of the characters in the story (several of whom are now dead). The next morning, Sun finds Earth in the midst of a standoff with industrial machinery, and then "the green army rose". What happens next is left to the listener's imagination. This is likely done deliberately on Young's part.
  • Genre Adultery: When he signed with Geffen Records in 1982, he released Trans (a synthesizer based album) followed in the same year by Everybody's Rockin' (a rockabilly album). He was ready to release Old Ways (a country album) before Geffen filed a lawsuit against him for making music "unrepresentative" of his previous work.
  • Greatest Hits Album:
    • Decade (1977) is an in-depth one for his early work.
    • Lucky Thirteen (1994) for his Geffen period.
    • It took a very long time, but Young finally released one for his overall output (actually titled Greatest Hits) in 2004.
  • Green Aesop: Some of his music has environmentalist themes. Examples include "After the Gold Rush", "Vampire Blues" (which, as mentioned below, is a metaphor for the oil industry), and the entire albums Greendale and Fork in the Road, though there are others. Some examples are quite subtle, others less so.
  • Handicapped Badass: Neil suffers from epilepsy, and in his Buffalo Springfield days would often have fits on stage, earning him the nickname "Shakey". He's since learned to control it, but his eccentric guitar playing style and tendency to almost go into trance during Epic Rocking often come across as barely controlled seizures.
    • He's also a polio survivor, diabetic (type 1) and in 2005 nearly bled to death from complications following (successful) surgery for a deadly brain aneurysm. In 1970 he ruptured a disk while working on his house, and spent most of the next year in a brace - but this led to his writing numerous soft acoustic songs, including the #1 hit single, "Heart of Gold", because he could sit down to play them. Surgery helped, but he's been plagued with back pain throughout his life. As if that weren't enough, he has scoliosis and osteoporosis. And he still gets up onstage and rocks his (and YOUR) ass off.
  • I Call It "Vera": Young has a tendency to name his guitars. Some in his collection include "Old Black" and "Hank," the latter of which was named after its previous owner, Hank Williams.
    • He names his cars, too. He buys wrecks for pennies and restores them to be even more splendid than when they were new.
  • Le Film Artistique: Journey Through the Past. Possibly Human Highway too.
  • Location Song: "Alabama", a critical song about racism and slavery in the American South.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Rockin' in the Free World" is not proud or patriotic.
    • It may take a few listens to the Native American themed "Pocahontas" to register just how awful the events in it are.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The Devil definitely has some supernatural powers in Greendale, but it's left ambiguous as to how far they extend. Questions such as whether he influenced Jed to kill Officer Carmichael are left unanswered, but there is definitely a connection between them, since Jed sees the Devil before his crime, Earl paints the Devil shortly after it, and Jed and the Devil are noted to share similarities in their appearances. Earth Brown qualifies, too. It's not clear whether he's the literal manifestation of the Earth or just a particularly passionate defender of it.
  • Mayincatec: "Like an Inca", "Cortez the Killer", "Inca Queen".
  • Misogyny Song: "A Man Needs a Maid" is sometimes interpreted as one. "Stupid Girl" probably also qualifies, though it's also probably worth noting that Neil was in the midst of a rather tumultuous breakup when he wrote it. His material in more recent years has generally been pretty good about avoiding this.
  • Murder Ballad: "Down by the River" (..."I shot my baby").
  • Old Media Are Evil: The local media in Greendale are not given a particularly flattering portrayal. In fact, they're implied to be responsible for Grandpa's death - it's not specifically said what causes it, but it's strongly implied to be a heart attack due to his rage at their continued intrusions into his family's life. This could be considered to border on Strawman News Media. Later in the album when they cover Sun Green's protest, they're given a more flattering portrayal, though.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: "Vampire Blues" is a metaphor for the oil industry.
  • Perfume Commercial: Spoofed in his video for "This Note's for You".
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: Young's distinctive voice has been imitated by some Alternative Rock singers, like Wayne Coyne and J Mascis.
  • Pun-Based Title: Le Noise was produced by Daniel Lanois, and Young's guitar tone on most of the album could be described as "noisy" note .
  • Pop-Star Composer: Young for the film Dead Man.
  • Protest Song: So, so many.
    • "Ohio" — Written / performed during his time with CSNY about the famous Kent State shootings in 1970 within two weeks of the tragedy itself.
    • "Southern Man" and "Alabama" were tied to the mistreatment of African-Americans.
    • "Rockin' in the Free World" is a a general protest against the George H.W. Bush administration and the effects of Reaganomics.
    • Living with War is an entire album about Neil's thoughts on George W. Bush. Including one cheery sing-along called "Let's Impeach the President"!
      • Parodied on Saturday Night Live (where he was played by Kevin Spacey) as a "subtle, understated" album called "I Do Not Agree with Many of This Administration's Policies".
    • The Monsanto Years is all about the global effect of the Monsanto Corporation's chemical products and policies on farmers and the environment. Neil is boiling mad about Monsanto's copyrighting of seeds and draconian legal practices. This and the live album Earth were recorded with Promise of the Real, led by Willie Nelson's sons Micah and Lukas.
    • Young occasionally shouts invective at Donald Trump while playing "Rocking in the Free World" at concerts. Apparently Candidate Trump misunderstood the song, similar to Reagan's cluelessness on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA", and tried to use it to promote his Eagleland Type 1 message. Young explains here.
  • Rail Enthusiast: Some people buy model trains. Young bought a model train manufacturer. Young's son Ben has severe cerebral palsy, and is especially into model trains - so he started getting into trains to have something he and Ben could enjoy together. Young also invented a new kind of control for the train set allowing everything to be run from what he called "The Big Red Button", so that Ben, a nonspeaking paraplegic, could run the whole set himself. He's also the inventor of the CAB-1 remote control device, the Trainmaster Command Control that lets you run multiple trains from one controller, and Rail Sounds, which provides the authentic sounds of each train in your setup.
  • Record Producer:
    • DIY Producer: Neil's had a production credit on every album made since his solo debut.
    • The Martin: Count how many of his albums are co-produced with David Briggs, Tim Mulligan, Elliot Mazer or Niko Bolas.
  • Retraux: A Letter Home.
  • Rock Opera: Greendale, which has been adapted into a film and a Graphic Novel.
  • Satan: While this may not be obvious from simply reading the lyrics, he is a character in Greendale. The DVD Live at Vicar St. features Neil performing the entire album on acoustic guitar with additional explanations, and he describes the devil's characterisation at length here. Amongst other things, he has a fairly mean sense of humour and is capable of walking through walls, amongst other supernatural traits.
  • Self-Deprecation: In Live at Vicar St., Neil makes a remark to the effect that when he was writing Greendale, he had "absolutely no idea what I was doing, as usual".
  • '70s Hair: Neil originally wore his hair in a modified Beatle style, with enormous sideburns.
  • Shout-Out: Greendale has one to Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and one to The Beatles' "Come Together". There's also a reference to environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill.
  • Sincerest Form of Flattery: Neil's musical styles, particularly his heavy rock style, have inspired a number of musicians to create closely detailed copies, as a tribute to him. Drive by Truckers' "A Blessing and a Curse" makes you expect to hear his voice. Dawes' rock version of "If I Wanted Someone" is another; it even references "A Man Needs a Maid". And Fox manage to capture the Horse in High Tide Rising in a beautifully crunchy, screaming, howling, loving tribute.
  • Something Blues: "Revolution Blues", "Vampire Blues", and "Ambulance Blues", all from the 1974 album On the Beach.
  • Something Completely Different: Neil explained his Genre Roulette experiments after Harvest to a NME reporter by saying "This song ["Heart of Gold"] 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."
  • Song of Song Titles: Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" contains many references to Young's songs "Alabama" and "Southern Man", mostly in the form of a Take That!, though not as much as you might think. note 
  • The Stoner: In his autobiography, Neil admits to having spent the last 40 years smoking marijuana "like other people smoke tobacco".
  • Stylistic Suck: The musicianship on "Roll Another Number" is atrocious because they were completely trashed when they recorded it. Somehow it just makes the song even more effective.
  • Suspiciously Similar Song: Invoked with "Borrowed Tune", which outright admits it's lifted from The Rolling Stones' "Lady Jane".
  • Take That!: "Alabama" and "Southern Man" are attacks on the racism of the southern United States.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: In fact, his 2009 release Fork in the Road uses only one chord. Many of his other songs also use this to various extents - it may not be immediately obvious because of Neil's lyrical soloing, but "Cortez the Killer" is, in fact, made up of a total of three chords.
  • Uncommon Time: "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" has interludes in 11/8 (specifically, (3+3+3+2)/8).
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: Young's 2006 release Living With War was an experimental album detailing all the ways in which he disapproved of George W. Bush.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: This seems to be his relationship with Crosby, Stills, & Nash.

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