Revealing Neil

New multimedia box set shows that Shakey has fond memories — and plenty of them — of his formative years in Winnipeg

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Anyone who thought Neil Young left Winnipeg in 1965 and never looked back is in for a surprise. Seems he hasn’t forgotten his five teenage years here, nor thrown away any bit of evidence of his budding rock ’n’ roll career on the local teen scene.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/06/2009 (4982 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Anyone who thought Neil Young left Winnipeg in 1965 and never looked back is in for a surprise.
Seems he hasn’t forgotten his five teenage years here, nor thrown away any bit of evidence of his budding rock ’n’ roll career on the local teen scene.

Not even the most dedicated rustie — the nickname for Neil nuts — will be prepared for the staggering volume of information and memorabilia the rock icon has amassed in the long-anticipated multimedia autobiography Neil Young Archives Vol. 1: 1963-1972. Released worldwide earlier this month, the massive 10-disc box, available in DVD, Blu-ray and CD formats, spans the iconic singer-songwriter’s formative music years from 1963 here in Winnipeg to 1972, when he settled on his sprawling northern California ranch.
This city stars in the box set’s first disc, entitled Early Years. Seven tracks recorded by Young’s best-known hometown band, the Squires, are included, plus several more songs dating from his 1960-65 stay here.
Over a street map of Winnipeg in the 236-page hardbound book that comes with the package are photos of Young playing local high schools, jamming in a River Heights basement and standing outside the legendary 4th Dimension coffeehouse (where he first met Joni Mitchell) on Pembina Highway near the University of Manitoba. One poster for a Squires gig at the old Town ’n’ Country nightclub on Kennedy Street displays a bill that included jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. An advertisement for the band playing at a wrestling match in St. Boniface was placed alongside a copy of a CKRC Young At Heart chart.
Click on the interactive features with each Squires track and you’ll find dozens of photos, including Young playing his first electric guitar with friends in his mother’s Corydon Avenue apartment, rehearsing with the Squires on the second floor of his Crescentwood home at 1123 Grosvenor Ave., kibitzing with classmates at Earl Grey School in Fort Rouge and performing at a Kelvin High School pep rally.
There are clippings from the Winnipeg Free Press, including a January 1964 report celebrating the opening of The Twilight Zone club on St. Mary’s Road in St. Vital. “The music we play was written for this type of audience,” states Young. “This is the only place in Winnipeg where we can hear this music.” One local clipping from 1966 curiously mentions Young, now in California, writing songs for Sonny & Cher.
Other photos date from a 1964 camping trip with friends to Falcon Lake, a spot that would later inspire a Buffalo Springfield song of the same name, as well as a track on his debut solo album in 1969. In the ’70s, flush with money, Young came up to the resort community to scout out cottage possibilities but in the end failed to purchase property.
The seven Squires tracks range from Shadows-inspired guitar instrumentals (including The Sultan/Aurora, his first 45 recording in 1963 for local Flora Avenue label V Records) to Young’s earliest attempts at vocals, which prompted the now famous line from CKRC engineer Harry Taylor that Young was a good guitar player but would never make it as a singer. (Taylor is even pictured behind the recording console at CKRC studios in the old Winnipeg Free Press building on Carlton Street.)

 

With a revolving door of personnel, the Squires recordings vary in style and sound. Two tracks were cut in Fort William (Thunder Bay) during a road trip and boast multi-tracking, while another dates from an impromptu basement session. Young is heard listening to the track I’m A Man and I Can’t Cry for the first time in decades and recalling to members of Crazy Horse how the song was recorded in an East Kildonan basement, but he can’t recall whose basement it was. He also lauds guitarist Doug Campbell’s nimble fretwork. Young has declared this version of the Squires — Young, bassist Ken Koblun, Randy Peterson (brother of the Guess Who’s Gary Peterson) on drums and guitarist Campbell — the best lineup, superior to anything he saw on his arrival in Los Angeles the following year. The upbeat track bears that out.
On the death of his mother, local television personality Edna (Rassy) Young, in 1990, Young discovered among her possessions a treasure trove of correspondence he had sent her over the years. Many are featured in the box set, including an April 1965 postcard from Churchill where the Squires played to disinterested patrons at the Hudson Hotel, letters from the Flamingo club in Fort William (where he wrote Sugar Mountain), and in a crude form of establishing copyright, hand-drawn chord charts and lyrics for several of his earliest compositions mailed to himself at his Grosvenor address.
An enclosed lyric sheet to an unreleased 1965 solo recording, later cut in demo form with the Buffalo Springfield, reveals a further local connection. The Rent Is Always Due is subtitled (River Heights, Where Are You?). In an early radio interview included among the extra features, Young explains the inspiration for the first Springfield recording, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing. Kelvin High classmate Clancy Smith, who Young describes as “Canadian Jewish”-looking and “not cool,” was the subject of what he considered unfair ridicule from other students simply for being different.
Leaving Winnipeg in April 1965, Young’s journey would take him briefly to Toronto before ultimately fleeing Canada to find fame and fortune in California. The box set follows that journey, the landmark recordings, and milestone moments in a career that shows no signs of slowing down. It also leaves little doubt of the significance Winnipeg played in launching Young’s career and the fondness he still holds for our city. On the back of the first Buffalo Springfield album in 1966, when asked to identify his hometown, Young wrote Winnipeg.

Local music historian John Einarson is the author of Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied — The Canadian Years.

Neil nuggets
Among the 10 discs is a rare 1969 solo live set from Toronto’s famed Riverboat club as well as Young’s 1974 movie directorial debut, the quirky Journey Through the Past.
Young first announced a multi-disc retrospective in the late 1980s. Release dates have come and gone several times in the last 10 years as Young endlessly tinkered with tracks and technology.
Each track on the DVDs includes recording details, players, lyrics and photos, with many also featuring clippings, memorabilia and documents. Only the Blu-ray edition lets you listen to the track while viewing these additional materials. (The CDs contain music only; none of the interactive features are included.)
Many of the discs include bonus hidden tracks marked by a feathered clip.
Besides sharper image quality, the Blu-ray edition allows for ongoing uploading of newly discovered archival material from Young’s website.
With a retail price of $120 for CD format, $330 for DVD and $400 for Blu-ray, the casual Young fan may be less inclined to shell out for the box set. However, individual discs may be purchased separately.
No word on when to expect Volume 2.

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John Einarson

John Einarson

Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.

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