Young’s early years detailed to a fault


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"Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/01/2015 (2893 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain.”

In Young Neil, first-time author Sharry Wilson attempts to have us do just that, taking us back to Neil Young’s early years, his childhood in and around Toronto and his teen years in Winnipeg.

The subtitle The Sugar Mountain Years is taken from one of Young’s songs written, Wilson tells us, on his 19th birthday. He had left home and was looking nostalgically back at his childhood.

A lifelong fan and a professional proofreader, Wilson, who lives just north of Toronto, interviewed many of Young’s old school chums and fellow band members from Ontario and Winnipeg. She offers many previously unseen photos and includes material gathered from letters, documents, biographies and other memorabilia.

The result is an incredibly thorough but sometimes excessively detailed story that follows Young from a chubby-cheeked Huck Finn-like child to the teen who came to Winnipeg sporting a brush-cut and preppy sweaters, to the high school dropout who left Winnipeg determined to make it as a musician no matter the cost.

The first section, Born in Ontario, focuses on Young’s childhood from 1945 to 1960. The middle section, the largest, covers his musically formative teen years in Winnipeg from 1960 on. A final brief section shows Young leaving for California in 1966 to follow his dream. “You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain,” Young explains in his song.

We do gain some insight into Young’s life from the facts and minutiae Wilson has filled the pages with. Young’s parents, Scott (who was a prolific writer) and Rassy, had two boys, Neil and an older brother, Bob. They moved around a lot, and Neil was constantly faced with being the new kid at school.

The peaceful rural town of Omemee in Ontario is often portrayed as the one place Neil looked upon as truly “home” — it’s where his family spent the most time together.

Neil was never considered athletic. Bouts with childhood illnesses such as scarlet fever and polio had hit him hard.

Scott walked out after several affairs, leaving a devoted and devastated Rassy behind to pick up the pieces. She moved to Winnipeg, where she had family, and 14-year-old Neil moved with her. Neil faced another new school, another neighbourhood and another new group of kids.

The one constant in his life seems to have been his music. He had already learned to play folk songs on a plastic ukulele his father had bought for him years earlier, and he had spent a few years prior to the move glued to his transistor radio.

It is in Winnipeg that music became Neil’s single-minded focus, an obsession almost, and perhaps even an escape.

Young Neil‘s tempo is thrown off by a bewildering amount of unnecessary detail. Did we really need to know the particulars of Neil’s conception and what the weather was like that day? Likewise, the average reader probably couldn’t care less about the physical layout and official opening of the Toronto hospital where he was born.

Throughout, a preponderance of detail pertaining to the schools, houses, and cottages stayed in by the family bog the story down. The rhythm picks up once we hit Winnipeg. Except for lengthy, unnecessary paragraphs detailing the dimensions of various amplifiers as well as details of dances held at Kelvin High School, Wilson’s writing flows evenly here as she describes the teen, the mom who is supportive but not often around, and the father who is as extremely distant.

Always it is the music that is shown as having come first in Neil’s life; school work, his relationships with girls and even with some band members are all portrayed as being secondary — if that.

Despite the digressions, the many interesting old photos and nostalgic moments from the ’50s and ’60s will likely entertain Neil Young fans and perhaps even give a better understanding of the man who in some ways never really left the Sugar Mountain years behind.

They’ve not only impacted his life, they continue to live on in his music.


Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer who also loves music.

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Updated on Saturday, January 3, 2015 8:48 AM CST: Formatting.

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