Over the years Neil Young has been called plenty of things: idiosyncratic, a genius, musical revolutionary, experimental, influential, fanatical, unpredictable, etc., etc., but over the years only two nicknames have stuck: Shakey and the Godfather of Grunge.
Shakey has been around a long time. It was allegedly given to him by friends who watched some home movie footage and found the results a little less than steady. Then there were his physical attributes and health issues, which included polio as a child and epileptic seizures later in life. Young uses the nickname as his pseudonym, Bernard Shakey, in his filmmaking endeavours.
The Godfather of Grunge, on the other hand, is a newer name, given to him by a headline writer at the top of a 1991 profile about Young written by Steve Martin for Tower Record's in-house publication, Pulse!
The story is about Young's Arc and Weld albums, the first featuring nothing but feedback during intros and outros of songs that have been edited into a single 35-minute piece, the second a live document of Young and Crazy Horse's 1991 Ragged Glory/Smell the Horse Tour with avant-garde indie rockers Sonic Youth.
The profile is a well-written, well-researched piece about Young's frame of mind at the time. The problem is the headline, The Godfather of Grunge, which turned into a nickname that stuck.
The problem is that there's nothing true about it.
There is no doubt Young had an influence on grunge artists, and his 1995 album, Mirrorball, recorded with Pearl Jam, helped solidify his comeback, which began in 1989 with Freedom after a decade of experimentation that failed to excite -- but to call him a grunge pioneer is a mistake.
Grunge is characterized by several characteristics. It usually falls on the punk, metal or sludge side of the equation, with heavy use of fuzz and distortion. Countless garage rock bands in the 1960s featured some tones that would go on to define grunge, but if we are going to crown anyone the Godfather of Grunge, I would argue it would not be Young -- nor would it be Jimi Hendrix, who also would have more claim to the title than Shakey.
It would be the Stooges.
The Ann Arbor, Mich., quartet's 1969 self-titled debut was filled with raw, ragged, in-your-face, fuzzy, distorted three-chord anthems like I Wanna Be Your Dog, 1969, Real Cool Time and No Fun that often get labelled proto-punk, which they are, but you can hear echoes in the sounds of modern grunge acts Green River, Mudhoney, Nirvana and Tad.
The same year the Stooges -- vocalist Iggy Pop, guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer Scott Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander -- released their first album on an unsuspecting public, Young was just embarking on his solo career, following his split with folk-rockers Buffalo Springfield.
Of the two solo albums Young released in 1969 -- his self-titled debut and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere -- it's only the second that could even remotely be cited as having an influence on the Seattle sound and the grunge genre.
The record marked his first association with Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, better known as Crazy Horse. Together they recorded a classic album with career highlights like Cinnamon Girl, Down by the River and Cowgirl in the Sand, great rock anthems filled with distortion and extended solos, but lacking the punk esthetic and sound the Stooges possessed. Of those, Cinnamon Girl is the heaviest, but to call it grunge is laughable when compared to a song like I Wanna Be Your Dog.
An essay on Young's online fansite Thrasher's Wheat (one of several websites devoted to all things Neil) examines several articles and blogs proclaiming Young the Godfather of Grunge, but the holes in their arguments are easily navigated.
For example, a website called AllSands lists Young's 1989 album Freedom as the No. 1 alternative album of all time. claming it "was the first true alternative album. It seems a stretch to call an album by someone Young's age alternative, but the label is applied to the music, not the artist."
Calling Freedom the first true alternative album is so ignorant and false, it qualifies as stupid. It ignores more than a decade of music, including the likes of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, the Pixies, Meat Puppets and many, many more. (None of those artists even made the top list, but Stone Temple Pilots, U2 and Garbage do).
Elsewhere, Explode.com says he's the Godfather merely because he's still alive and rockin' in the free world, while other writers simply use the term in passing.
I do agree with many of the labels Young has been given, and consider him an innovative, gutsy, experimental mad genius who has taken all sorts of admirable risks with his art. I admire and respect Young, not only for his considerable accomplishments, but also for the stuff that didn't always work -- he does what he wants, when he wants, regardless of what anyone thinks.
I don't believe he's the Godfather of Grunge, but he's something even better: the definition of a true artist who continues to make interesting music.