This Tuesday, former Winnipegger Neil Percival Kenneth Ragland Young turns 68. Never one to slow down, the mercurial rock iconoclast recently announced dates for an upcoming tour. When asked recently if he considered retiring, his response was, "Why? It's kind of like having a car and not driving it. If you've got it, you might as well use it."
I owe my writing career in part to Neil Young. Back in 1986 when I was researching Shakin' All Over, a book on the exciting 1960s Winnipeg music scene, I was introduced by a mutual friend to Neil's irrepressible mother Edna "Rassy" Young. Rassy was in Winnipeg for a holiday, having driven on her own all the way from Florida where she had lived since the latter '60s. She and I met at the Tuxedo Salisbury House for what turned out to be an engaging two-hour conversation about her famous son and his time in Winnipeg. Rassy was delightfully irreverent as she described her unwavering support back then for her "Neiler" and pulled no punches in dissing her ex-husband Scott's biography, Neil and Me. "It's all daddy this and daddy that," she groused. At the end of our get-together, she said to me, "You should talk to Neil. Here's his home number. Give him a call."
How do you just pick up the phone and call someone of Neil Young's stature? And at his home no less, as opposed to going through a phalanx of managers and agents whose job it is to keep people like me away? Notoriously media-shy, Neil rarely deigns to be interviewed unless he has an album to promote and even then is cautiously selective about whom he will speak to.
I finally worked up the courage to call and was immediately put at ease by his response. "Oh hi John. I have your articles here. What's up?" Turns out a relative in Winnipeg had sent Neil the series of articles on Winnipeg bands, including The Squires, I had been writing for both local newspapers. The ice broken, we then chatted at length about his embryonic years toiling away on the Winnipeg community-club circuit and his dreams and hopes at the time. I asked him why so little had been written about this early yet significant period in his career. Even his father Scott's book had little to say about the five years Neil spent rockin' and rollin' in Winnipeg. His replied: "No one ever asked me."
A couple of years later, I determined there was a fascinating story to be told about Neil's musical journey --not only in Winnipeg, but also in Thunder Bay and Toronto --before he headed off to find fame in California. So I called him up again suggesting that I might write a book on that time period. He liked the idea and agreed to sit down for an interview with me at his sprawling ranch near Redwood City, Calif., and a date was set for me to come down.
I was to be ensconced in a guest house. However, at the last minute, Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson arrived to overdub some vocal parts on his then-current recording project, Harvest Moon. They took over the guest house and I was put up in a lovely suite at a San Mateo hotel. The next day I arrived at the secluded ranch via limousine for a sit-down with Neil at his home. He was extremely animated and warmly nostalgic, vividly recalling gigs at various community clubs and other venues like The Cellar and Paterson's Ranch House, along with his struggles to succeed against daunting odds -- not the least being his distinctive singing voice. "Everyone told me I couldn't sing but I just stuck with it."
Right from the start, Neil's focus was singularly on music. "There really wasn't anything more important in my life back then," he admitted to me, "and you had to really want to do it and make music first in your life." As for The Squires' revolving door of personnel, "I had to shit on a lot of people in one way or another and leave a lot of friends behind to get where I am now, especially in the beginning. There was no other way. I had almost no conscience for what I had to do. If I could justify it in terms of furthering my goal, I would just do it. And it's obvious when you look back at my early years that's what I was like. I was so driven. I knew what needed to be done to make it and I was willing to make those sacrifices. You never realize at the time that you won't see these people again."
My book, Neil Young: Don't Be Denied - The Canadian Years was well-received for its insights into a hitherto-undocumented period. "Winnipeg is where it all started for me," Neil said. "I have so many fond memories of that time." Years later when Neil was writing his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, he contacted me to have a copy of my book sent to him for reference. A friend in the publishing business was privy to an early draft of Neil's memoir and told me there were several instances of Neil writing in the margin, "Check DBD book" (Don't Be Denied). I later contributed to his massive Archives Volume 1 box set and received a wonderful thank-you gift from Neil.
Granting me a personal interview for a book opened many doors for me as a budding writer of music history. There are literally dozens of books chronicling Neil's various twists and turns in his 50-year career, but with the exception of his father's biography, Jim McDonough's Shakey (which began as an authorized biography but ended with Neil disowning it completely) and Neil's own autobiography, none include Neil's direct input in the form of a personal interview. I certainly don't fancy myself a great wordsmith by any stretch, but getting Neil Young, one of music's most notorious recluses, to talk to me for a book was a major coup and a calling card of sorts for me starting out. While I've gone on to write a dozen more books and interview hundreds of musicians, both famous and near-famous, it was landing that interview with Neil that set me on my path. His patronage bestowed credibility on me.
Happy birthday, Neil, and thanks. Long may you run.
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