Neil Young: Still rocking at 70
Young's years here made lasting impression
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/11/2015 (2648 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Neil Percival Kenneth Ragland Young turns 70 Nov. 12. As a member of two of rock music’s most revered outfits — Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — his music lit up the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip and defined the Woodstock generation in the 1960s.
The New York Times declared Young’s song Ohio the greatest protest song of all time. The two-time Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer set the template for the ’70s introspective solo singer-songwriter while also thrashing out riffs with Neanderthal rockers Crazy Horse.
Since then, Young has recorded in a wide array of genres — punk, rockabilly, techno-pop, country-rock, R&B — before a new generation of Nirvana-weaned rockers in the ’90s anointed him the Godfather of Grunge. He has released more than 60 albums in a career that continues to careen across a wide musical landscape with no sign of slowing down. Young’s most recent album, 2015’s The Monsanto Years, finds the veteran rocker railing against corporate agriculture and its genetically modified foods. While many of his contemporaries are content to be nostalgia acts, Young’s creative spark endures.
Charting the mercurial ex-Winnipegger’s myriad twists and turns is enough to make anyone dizzy.
“I’d rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way,” he once remarked. “If that’s the price, I’ll pay it.”
Young remains the quintessential enigma and one of rock music’s most fascinating mavericks.
Born in Toronto Nov. 12, 1945, Young moved several times with his family, including a brief stint in the Winnipeg suburb of Norwood in the mid-1950s. He returned to our city with his mother in the summer of 1960 after the dissolution of her marriage to noted writer Scott Young. Although he would live in Winnipeg a mere five years, it was here, among the thriving community clubs, church basements and teen club dances, that Young would define himself and set his career path.
“Winnipeg is where it all started for me,” he acknowledges. “I have so many fond memories of that time.”
While there are those who take issue with Winnipeg’s claim to him, Young does not and has often referenced the city as his hometown. His 1969 breakthrough album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, boasted a cover photo of Young and his dog, Winnipeg.
Young and his mother, Edna (or Rassy, as she was called by friends and Neil himself), first rented an apartment at the southwest corner of Hugo Street and Corydon Avenue in Fort Rouge. He attended nearby Earl Grey junior high for Grade 9. Although he had already completed the grade in Toronto, Young was forced to repeat it here, so he was a year older than his classmates.
His 1973 autobiographical song Don’t Be Denied tells the story of his difficult integration into the Earl Grey student community (“The punches came fast and hard, lying on my back in the schoolyard”). Young served on the yearbook committee and contributed his first writing, a paragraph titled Why I Chew Gum. In the fall of 1961, he enrolled at Kelvin High for Grade 10. Rassy moved the two of them to a stately older home at 1123 Grosvenor Ave., in Crescentwood, where she rented the second-floor suite (the same house to which Bob Dylan paid a surprise visit on his own Neil Young tour a few years ago). This would be Young’s home until leaving Winnipeg.
For Young, his parents’ split and subsequent move to another city was devastating. It was many years before he reconciled with his father. Instead, he found solace in music. Having progressed from ukulele to acoustic guitar in Toronto, Young acquired his first electric guitar in Winnipeg and wasted little time forming a band: the Jades. The quartet made their debut in January 1961 at an Earl Grey Community Club canteen dance, where Young had previously spun 45s for teen dances. It would be the fledgling band’s one and only performance. His bandmates were more interested in hockey; for Young, it was always about music.
“I knew when I was 13 or 14 that that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. “There was nothing more important in my life than playing music. It took me a long time to grow up because all my growing-up time was spent on music. All the other things suffered for it.”
That included school. Young repeated Grade 10 and quit one month into his second try at Grade 11.
“I wasn’t into school,” he later conceded. “I had a pretty good time there, but I really didn’t fit in because I wasn’t very good in school, and I wasn’t very interested in being very good in school. I used to spend my time at Kelvin drawing amplifiers and stage setups. I was always flunking out.”
Nevertheless, Young attended Kelvin’s 75th anniversary celebrations.
Young was rarely without his guitar. As former girlfriend Fran Gebhard recalls, “We’d go to a party and everyone would be upstairs having a good time, and Neil and I would be in the basement listening to him play guitar. He loved that guitar, and he loved to play. All he talked about was playing music and writing songs. He never talked about being rich and famous, just playing all his life, doing something he enjoyed as his job.”
A series of short-lived bands including the Stardusters, Twilighters and Classics — as well as a brief stint with the Esquires — followed, until the Christmas holidays of 1962, when Young formed the Squires. This was his band: he was the leader and called the shots. Consisting of Grant Park High School students Allan Bates and Ken Smyth, Ken Koblun from Churchill High and Young from Kelvin, the Squires debuted on Feb. 1, 1963 at the Riverview Community Club, earning $5 for their efforts. In short order, the quartet became a popular attraction, playing the community club circuit over the next two years.
“There was nothing like the community clubs anywhere,” recalled Young. “It wasn’t too long before we had our own little following.”
What set the Squires apart was the inclusion of an ever-growing catalogue of original songs penned by Young.
“Neil played just by ear, but he wrote a lot,” said Smyth. “We’d get together at my parents’ house in River Heights to practise a couple of times a week, and he would show up each time with a new song or two. He had piles of songs, songs that we never even played.”
“I used to sit in my bedroom a lot with my guitar and write songs,” said Young. “It’s almost like the song feels the need for me to write it, and I’m just there. Songwriting, for me, is like a release.”
One of his early compositions — later recorded as demo in 1967 with Buffalo Springfield, The Rent is Always Due, was subtitled River Heights Where Are You?
Beginning with instrumentals, Young soon progressed to lyrics, becoming the Squires’ lead vocalist (to the dismay of some audiences). At a St. Ignatius Church basement dance in January 1964, Young gave one of his first vocal performances, a Beatles song, only to be met with a shout of “Stick to instrumentals!” As he recalls, “People told me I couldn’t sing, but I just kept at it.”
CKRC recording engineer Harry Taylor told Young, “You’re a good guitar player, kid, but you’ll never make it as a singer.”
Unfazed, Young persevered with a revolving door of Squires members. Singularly focused and uncompromising, his determination drove him onward.
“The hardest thing I learned to do was to fire someone,” he later admitted. “If I hadn’t been so serious about music, I probably wouldn’t have had to do that. But knowing where I wanted to go, there was no way I could put up with things that were going to stand in my way. Music had to come first. I had to leave a lot of friends behind, especially in the beginning. I had almost no conscience for what I had to do. I was so driven.”
Despite several recording dates in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, the Squires released only one single on local V Records: The Sultan, backed by another instrumental, Aurora. Both were penned by Young and cut at radio station CKRC’s two-track studio in downtown Winnipeg.
“It was good to have it out, but I hadn’t got the sound I was after yet,” he admitted. “It was my first recording session, and I was just glad to be there for the experience. I was still searching for that right sound.”
Then-girlfriend Pam Smith often accompanied Young to Squires gigs.
“When he was playing his music,” she described, “he had one leg that was kind of stiff, and he would just move his knee back and forth, in and out, in time to the music. He didn’t move around much on stage, but he moved that knee. He used to use his vibrato arm on his guitar a lot, going ‘twang’ with it. You could tell in his eyes the music went right through his whole body. His guitar was like a part of him, and he didn’t feel whole without it.”
“Neil loved playing hooky from school,” Bates remembers. “He thought school was a total waste of time, so we’d go down to Winnipeg Piano, where they had these great guitars. That was a great place. We’d spend an afternoon getting all those guitars down off the walls and trying them out.”
By 1964, the Squires had broadened their base to other neighbourhoods throughout the city, as well as playing teen clubs such as the Cellar and the Twilight Zone. A January 1964 Winnipeg Free Press story by reporter Mike Maunder celebrating the opening of the Twilight Zone teen club on St. Mary’s Road in St. Vital quoted Young stating, “The music we play was written for this type of audience. This is the only place in Winnipeg where we can hear this music.”
The group played between wrestling matches in St. Boniface and on a flatbed trailer in the parking lot of the Topps Discount Department Store by Polo Park. They also became one of the first rock ‘n’ roll bands to play country music club Paterson’s Ranch House on Keewatin Street.
“That was a pretty wild place,” Young remembers. “They let us do our thing Saturday or Sunday afternoons. We had to really work hard to get paid. We’d play four hours in the afternoon and make like $3 or $4 each.”
Unlike his rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries, however, Young developed an appreciation for folk music and would attend the Sunday night hootenannies at Pembina Highway’s Fourth Dimension coffeehouse.
“He was a rock ‘n’ roll guy, but he fit in with everyone at the 4D,” recalls folksinger Len Udow.
Even back then, Young’s songwriting stood out. “He was a scruffy-looking guy with this high voice,” says Udow, “but all the girls loved him because he wrote these love songs.”
“Nobody was doing folk-rock at that time,” recalls 4D regular Bernie Barsky. “Neil used to play folk music on an electric guitar, and it was great. When I heard him doing Oh Susannah at the 4D one night, I said to him, ‘Neil, this is wonderful!’ “
The Squires played the 4D often and were compensated with free food.
“I got into a thing where we did classic folk songs with a rock ‘n’ roll beat,” said Young. “We also did Clementine and She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain. We did a really weird version of Tom Dooley which was like rock ‘n’ roll, but it was in minor keys. I wrote all new melodies. It was pretty interesting. It was different.” In 2012, Young returned to those Winnipeg-era folk-rock arrangements for an album with Crazy Horse entitled Americana.
In the fall of 1964, Young quit school to pursue music full time. Rassy purchased a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse for him and the band. Christened Mortimer Hearseburg, or Mort, the vehicle allowed the Squires to venture further afield for a weeklong gig at the Flamingo Club in Thunder Bay. It was there, on his 19th birthday, that Young penned one of his most enduring songs, Sugar Mountain. On another trip to Thunder Bay in April 1965 to play a coffeehouse, Young met American folk-rocker Stephen Stills, and an instant bond was formed. It would be another year before the two would hook up again.
In early June, Young was driving a friend to Sudbury when Mort’s transmission fell out on the highway near Blind River, Ont. Abandoning Mort, Young made his way to Toronto, where he tried to regroup the Squires.
“It was really hard for me to let Mort go,” he later lamented. “I loved that hearse.”
Young would later pen a paean to his beloved vehicle, Long May You Run. Unable to keep the band together, the Squires folded in the summer of 1965. It would be six years before Young would play Winnipeg again. He returned in January 1971 for two sold-out shows at the Centennial Concert Hall. By then, Young was a star.
“The Squires was the first band that I ever got anything happening with,” said Young. “We were pretty young and just learning the business, and we were pretty naive, but we had a lot of fun back then. They could have made it. I just wanted it more than they did.”
Following a brief stint with Rick James in Toronto’s Mynah Birds, Young and bass player Bruce Palmer embarked on an overland odyssey in March 1966 in another hearse bound for Los Angeles in search of Stills. The two finally found him in a star-crossed traffic jam on the Sunset Strip. That same night, Buffalo Springfield was formed. Their debut recording, Young’s Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, was inspired by Kelvin classmate Clancy Smith.
On the back of Buffalo Springfield’s debut album, each band member offered a selection of biographical info, including their hometown. Underneath Young’s name was “Winnipeg.”
Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.