Music Matters: Neil Young

Forever Young

Neil goes on breaking our hearts
Will Stubbs

Winter is here. Goodbye to carefree leaf-kicking and long golden afternoons fading into twilight, and hello to curt, greyed-out days when you wonder if there’s actually been any light at all. And don’t even mention the January-February slog ahead. Only music can save us, and my money’s on one battle-scarred horseman to ride to our rescue: Neil Young.

Mandatory in a teenager’s rite of passage is to listen to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Van Morrison, co-mingled with whatever “youth” genre is circulating. As a student in the late ’80s, it was all about house and rave music, hip-hop – and latterly, the Madchester Stone Roses / Happy Mondays explosion. My go-to late night accompaniment was Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Much nonsense and unrequited swooning spoken over tea and toast. But Neil? I couldn’t get into him. For me he was a whiny old hippy. If Dylan had “a voice like sand and glue” (as per Bowie’s Song for Bob Dylan), Neil sounded like a disgruntled goose caught in a hedge. Then came grunge in the early 1990s and “Shakey” was anointed guru of Seattle’s plaid shirts / torn jeans scene. Still he left me cold. No doubt I was listening to terrible rock-dance crossover bands at the time (anything with a stupid guitar riff over a James Brown drum loop).

It wasn’t until a few years ago that Neil Young hit home. I was in LA, driving down palm-striped streets, enjoying a brief flit from grey UK gloom. I stuck on a Neil Young mix, and…. it all fell into place. Neil’s quavering tenor pierced my heart, straight to the left ventricle. The first album I got into was his 2016 release, The Visitor. Not considered a classic, but the track Almost Always rang heavenly in my ears with its wistful guitar, homely harmonica and sparingly simple lyrics about a “crazy little bird” singing out to its mate: “She answers every time…. almost always”. And Change of Heart, opening with an echoey whistle, before Neil gruffly intones: “Talk to the people / They know the truth / Time don’t mean nothing / It’s the ways that you choose / To go on living…”. Enough said, Neil. I am IN.

My love for Winnipeg’s favourite son was cemented during Covid. I would return from a rain-soaked country run, then hit the shower to defrost. On would go a Neil Young album, and I’d be transported to wide-open freeways, dusty desert plains and craggy pine-topped peaks. With Neil by my side, we would clip-clop together as eagles flew overhead, campfires crackled in our faces and a pickup’s engine thrummed around us. His voice and guitar whisk you out into the wide open yonder – far away from traumatised urban sprawls. 

If like me, you are a recent convert to Neil Young, where on earth do you start? The man has released 41 albums, not to count the side projects, live albums and of course Buffalo Springfield and CSNY. You could simply listen to After the Gold Rush and Harvest, both pretty much perfect records. But what about his other work? Here’s a quick canter through just a few tracks, from the 1960s through to his latest album Barn.

Helpless: Neil auditioned for CSNY by playing four songs to David Crosby, including this achingly beautiful track. Crosby was blown away. Oh, that chorus.

Down by the River: A murder ballad that (says NY) is actually about getting intimate with your partner. Sink into the rolling bass-and-drum groove as Neil’s guitar gnaws away at you.

See the Sky About to Rain: Haunting electric piano and slide guitar that sounds like a sigh. Everything’s gone wrong, but it still sounds gorgeous. 

Don’t Cry No Tears: After the darkness of previous albums, Neil gets back on the Crazy Horse with an upbeat message for wounded souls. 

Thrasher: Over a floating melody that recalls Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’, Neil bemoans drugged-out friends “lost in crystal canyons”.

We Never Danced: Neil made some curious choices in the 1980s, like the Pet Shop Boys “angelic vocal” synth on this. But (whisper it quietly), I love it. 

One of These Days: Celebrity backing singers James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt join in the “won’t be long” call-and-response. Utterly charming.

I’m the Ocean: This guitar rocker heads for the horizon Thelma and Louise-style, as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard hang on for dear life.

When I Watch You Sleeping: Strings, orchestra, emotion! “Today I paint my masterpiece / Tonight I trace my tears”. No…I’m fine, Neil. Really. Just some dirt in my eye. 

Song of the Seasons: Neil talks Covid angst on new album Barn as a woozy harmonica envelops us against the scary world. Winter’s here, but so is Neil Young. Forever. 

Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love

Arts & Culture

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