70 Facts You Might Not Know About Neil Young
[This was another fun one. To celebrate Neil’s 70th journey around the sun, and to subtly gloat that TIDAL is, in fact, the only streaming service to offer his music, I compiled this feature with two of my closest co-workers: Bjørn Hammershaug and Jonas Kleinschmidt. And if researching, writing and editing 70 interesting facts about a septuagenarian rocker sounds challenging, try adding a 24-hour deadline. I was sweating by end of it.]
Since cruising into Los Angeles and helping form Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young has had a long, twisting and frequently brilliant career in the rock and roll spotlight.
There been many glorious peaks, and a few frustrating valleys, but what’s undeniable is that when Neil is playing at his best, he’s mighty hard to beat. And much to his credit, Young has always taken the road less traveled, steering away from the streamlined conventions and proven formulas. He dives, not dips, himself into his various sounds and projects – equally at home strumming an acoustic guitar in a dimly lit room, harmonizing for stadium crowds with CSNY, or rocking in the free world with his raging Crazy Horse.
In honor of Neil Young’s 70th birthday, we’ve collected 70 interesting, funny, strange and shocking facts about the life and times of one of the truest rockers who ever lived.
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1. Neil’s dad, journalist, sportswriter and author Scott Young, is considered to be a national icon in Canada. He wrote over 30 books in his career, amongst others the 1952 schoolboy favorite, Scrubs on Skates. The book was dedicated to his sons: “To Neil and Bob, whose greatest games are still ahead of them”.
2. Neil’s middle name is Percival.
3. Although Neil is Canadian, his mother, Edna Blow Ragland “Rassy” Young, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, meaning she could trace her lineage to individuals directly involved in United States’ independence.
4. His mother, Rassy, appeared in the quiz show Twenty Questions while they lived in Winnipeg. His dad also appeared in a game show, although Neil never did.
5. Even though he’s lived in the U.S. for decades, Neil has never renounced his Canadian citizenship.
6. In 1951, at age 7, Neil contracted polio during the last major outbreak of the virus in Ontario, and nearly lost his life. Fellow Canadian music legend Joni Mitchell, two years his senior, also caught polio during the same outbreak.
7. The family brought him to New Smyrna Beach, Florida in December 1951 where they stayed for 6 months for him to regain his strength. In his 2002 biography, Shakey, he says his strongest memory from the trip was watching all the brand new American cars along the way, which he attributes to triggering his lifelong interest in cars.
8. His first instrument was a cheap plastic ukulele he got as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 1958.
9. After his mother divorced Scott in 1960 they moved to Winnipeg, where he started his first band, The Jades.
10. In 1963, at age 17, Neil joined The Squires, who released the 7” single, “Sultan/Aurora,” the same year. Less than 300 copies were pressed, with just 10 now known to exist, making it one of the rarest and most coveted 45’s to (barely) exist.
11. In order to get around to gigs, Neil acquired a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse he named Mortimer Hearseburg, or simply Mort.
12. At a club in Fort William, Ontario in 1965, The Squires crossed paths with an American folk-rock band called The Company, which featured a singer/guitarist named Stephen Stills.
13. Though it wasn’t properly released until 1977, Neil wrote the “Sugar Mountain” on his 19th birthday, after just leaving his band the Squires.
14. Joni Mitchell fell in love with “Sugar Mountain” and went on to write “The Circle Game” inspired from it.
15. In the mid-1960s Neil played in an R&B band called the Mynah Birds, which at one point simultaneously featured future funk star Rick James and Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer, as well as future Steppenwolf members Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas.
16. For a short period in 1966, Neil even shared a Toronto apartment with Rick James. Remembering the experience in an interview with Howard Stern, Neil said, “We did some wild things. It’s all very hazy to me now. I’m glad I made it through that stage. It got a little dicey. There were some drugs going on. I remember singing one song for about a day and a half.”
17. The Mynah Birds cut a deal with Motown, but never released a proper album. Just before entering the studio, James was arrested for going AWOL from the Navy.
18. When Mort broke down, Young bought a 1953 Pontiac hearse (Mort II) and illegally crossed the border, heading for California with Bruce Palmer. The Buffalo Springfield song, “Mr. Soul” was written during this trip.
19. While Young and Palmer were stuck in traffic on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard, the hearse was spotted by Stephen Stills and singer/guitarist Richie Furay, who were driving in the opposite direction. After making an illegal u-turn to wave the hearse down, this meeting led to the birth of Buffalo Springfield, one of the most successful folk-rock band of the 1960s.
20. In 1966 Neil developed epilepsy, and began to have seizures with increased frequency – often while on stage with Buffalo Springfield.
21. Three of Neil’s most famous cuts from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) – “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” – were all written while he was ill with a 103 °F (39.5 °C) fever.
22. Although Neil memorably wails, “Down by the river, I shot my baby,” the song isn’t about anyone dying. In a 1970 interview, he clarified, “There’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick.”
23. He’s never revealed who the real “Cinnamon Girl” is.
24. In the late ‘60s, at a gathering at the house of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, Neil was introduced to Charles Manson. In his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, he recalls Manson picking picked up Young’s guitar and impressing the room with his off-the-cuff, Dylanesque style.
After finding Manson didn’t have a recording contract, Neil recommended that Reprise check him out. The Sharon Tate-La Bianca murders occurred shortly thereafter, making Charlie Manson’s name was known the world over. Young commented on the murders with the song “Revolution Blues.”
(Photo Credit: Joel Bernstein)
25. Although Neil famously joined Crosby, Stills & Nash to form Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he was not actually the first choice for the job. Hoping to add a keyboard player to the group, Atlantic Records initially approached Steve Winwood, who was tied up with his newly formed supergroup Blind Faith.
26. The CSNY song “Helpless” is about Young’s childhood in the northern Ontario town of Omemee. “Life was real basic and simple in that town,” he recalled. “Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody.”
27. CSNY performed their second live gig at Woodstock, with Stills famously confessing to the crowd, “This is only the second time we’ve performed in front of people. We’re scared shitless.”
28. 25 years later, Neil was offered $1,000,000 to headline Woodstock ‘94, but he turned it down for the fest becoming too commercial, preferring to let the spirit of the original festival live on.
29. In 1970, Neil Young penned the CSNY song “Ohio” in the wake of the Kent State killings.
30. The songs on After the Goldrush (1970) were inspired by a film of the same name that was never made. After reading the now-lost script, Neil asked if he could produce the soundtrack, later recalling that “After the Gold Rush” and “Cripple Creek Ferry” were written explicitly for the movie.
31. The album cover for After The Goldrush was shot by photographer Joel Bernstein, who was only 18 at the time. Bernstein was supposedly “shocked” over the fact that Neil chose that photo, describing it as an accidental snap of Neil walking through Greenwich Village during an outdoor photo session. Bernstein even solarized the print in order to hide the fact that it was out of focus.
32. The list of guest musicians on Harvest includes James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, all members of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the London Symphony Orchestra. According to Neil, Ronstadt used to be obsessed with peanut butter.
33. The Harvest song “The Needle and the Damage Done” is well known to be about losing friends to drug overdoses. In the liner notes for his compilation album, Decades, Young wrote, “I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men.”
34. The title track to Tonight’s The Night (1975) was written for Young’s former roadie, Bruce Berry, who died of a heroin overdose.
35. “Heart of Gold” is based on a riff for the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Slowpoke.”
36. Young first spotted the land for his current home – a 1,500 acre ranch in La Honda, CA, called Broken Arrow Ranch (after the Buffalo Springfield song) – from the window of an airplane.
37. His song, “Old Man,” is a tribute to the caretaker who originally showed him the place.
38. The iconic cover of On The Beach (1974) displays a newspaper halfway hidden under the table with the headline “Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign.” The partially-buried 1959 Cadillac in the picture was found in a Santa Ana scrapyard and cut it in half at the scene.
39. The mellow vibes that characterize On The Beach can be partially credited to fiddle player Rusty Kershaw, who brought large amounts of “honey slides” (a confection of sauteed honey and marijuana that supposedly “felt like heroin”) into the recording sessions.
40. After writing “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” (1972), confronting the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the American South, Neil sparked Lynyrd Skynyrd to write “Sweet Home Alabama” in 1974, which includes the line, “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
41. Though it sparked one bigger rivalries in rock and roll history, the “feud” was largely overblown by the media. The two parties later both expressed their mutual admiration, with Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant wearing a Neil Young T-shirt on the cover of their 1977 album, Street Survivors, while Young has performed “Sweet Home Alabama” live on more than one occasion.
42. In the 1970s Neil travelled around in a customized 1973 Eagle tour bus, named Pocahontas, which he fitted with wooden wings on the sides and Studebaker and Hudson car roofs placed on top.
43. When given the news that his beloved custom rig had caught fire and burnt out, he had its remains transported back to Broken Arrow Ranch and buried in a eucalyptus grove.
(Photo Credit: Gary Burden)
44. Neil’s axe of choice is called “Old Black” – a heavily-customized early 1952 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, painted black.
45. Neil also goes under the name Bernard Shakey, his filmmaking alter ego. He has co-directed films like Journey Through the Past (1973), Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and Human Highway (1982) – an anarchic satire of Cold War America starring amongst others Young, Dean Stockwell and Devo.
46. In 1976, while David Crosby and Graham Nash were touring and recording as Crosby & Nash, Neil and Stephen Stills formed the The Stills-Young Band. The title of their only album together, Long May You Run, turned out to be somewhat overly-optimistic.
After only nine live dates, the ensuing tour collapsed abruptly after a concert in Columbia, South Carolina. Abandoning the tour for Stills to continue on his own, Young informed him of his departure with this telegram: “Dear Stephen, funny how things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.”
47. When Neil Young took the stage to play “Helpless” at the Band’s 1976 farewell concert (documented in the Martin Scorsese film, The Last Waltz) he was under the influence. “He performed with a good-size rock of cocaine stuck in his nostril,” Band drummer Levon Helm wrote in his memoir. After Neil’s manager complained, Scorsese and his crew had to go to special-effects people to get help, developing what they called a “traveling booger matte” that sanitized Neil’s nostril in post-production. Problem solved.
48. The song “Cortez the Killer” is about the infamous Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, who defeated the Aztec Empire and built what is now known as Mexico City with slave labour.
49. When singing about “the King” and Johnny Rotten, in the song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” he is indeed referring to Elvis Presley and the lead singer of the Sex Pistols.
50. In the ‘80s, Neil was sued by his own label, Geffen Records, accusing him of violating his contract for releasing albums “unrepresentative” of his past work. In other words, Neil was sued for not being himself.
51. Neil is widely regarded as the “Godfather of Grunge,” in part due to his pioneering use of feedback and distortion, not to mention his perennial love for flannel shirts.
52. In 1991 he released an album essentially composed of feedback noise from various live shows. Arc was originally released with the live album Weld, and came to life after a suggestion from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
53. Kurt Cobain’s suicide note infamously quoted Young’s song, “My My, Hey Hey,” writing, ‘‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
54. In the wake of Cobain’s death, Neil recorded the 1994 album, Sleeps With Angels, writing the title track in Cobain’s memory.
55. In 1995 Neil Young recorded the collaborative album Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam. This caused concern for Epic Records, who weren’t too eager to drop a Pearl Jam album with another label. They eventually allowed the record to be released, as long as the front cover didn’t mention Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder’s original songs were left out.
56. It was Eddie Vedder who inducted Neil Young into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Neil was honored a second time when Buffalo Springfield was inducted two years later in 1997.
57. Has two sons with cerebral palsy, which led he and his former wife, Pegi, to help found the Bridge School organization for children with severe speech and physical impairments. Every year they put on a star-studded benefit concert, which largely funds the Bridge School’s annual budget.
58. Alongside Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, Neil Young also co-founded Farm Aid in 1985, which fundraises through their own annual benefit concert, and lobbies for the benefit of struggling American farmers.
59. Neil loves model trains – so much so that he became a part owner of toy brand Lionel Trains in the early ‘90s. Along with working with them to get the models to produce more authentic train sounds and designing special remote controls that his sons could control without using their hands, he even helped raise the company out of bankruptcy in 2008.
60. After hearing Neil’s 2003 album, Greendale, Neil claims U2’s Bono once tried to give him songwriting advice, saying “the songs needed hooks that went over and over again and more people could hear them.”
61. Neil Young has never allowed his songs to be used in commercials.
62. Frequently outspoken for his views on politics, Neil is not a fan of the Bush family. His 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World” implicitly criticized the policies of George H.W. Bush, while his 2006 album Living With War is an album-length attack on the George W. Bush administration, containing the explicitly-titled tracks “Looking for a Leader” and “Let’s Impeach the President.”
63. As mutual admirers and friends, Neil Young and Bob Dylan have both mentioned each other in songs. In the Greendale track “Bandit,” Neil sings, “No one can touch you now / but I can touch you now / you’re invisible / you got too many secrets / Bob Dylan said that / somethin’ like that.” And on “Flags of Freedom,” off 2006’s Living With War, Young sings, “Listening to Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963 / Watching the flags of freedom flying.” On Dylan’s “Highlands,” the closer to 1997’s Time out of Mind, Bob sings, “I’m listening to Neil Young / I gotta turn up the sound / someone’s always yelling turn it down.”
64. Neil owns LincVolt, a 1959 Lincoln Continental that was converted to run entirley on alternative energy. The project inspired his 2009 album, Fork in the Road.
65. Neil also has a 1949 Cadillac named Hank.
66. Neil has written over 30 songs about or mentioning the moon. He once said, “before there was organized religion, there was the moon. The Indians knew about the moon. Pagans followed the moon. I’ve followed it for as long as I can remember, and that’s just my religion.”
67. According to Jimmy McDonough, author of the Neil Young biography, Shakey, Neil once declared he’d never write a book about himself. However that changed in 2011 when, after breaking his toe, he started writing to kill the time, resulting in his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace.
68. Neil is an avid fan of stand up paddle boarding, saying “It’s a beautiful thing…I can’t worry about the paparazzi. You can’t see them anyway. They are taking pictures from behind trees. You can’t think about that.”
69. On the Tonight Show, Neil Young once performed a live duet with himself.
70. Despite his well recognized career and passionate fanbase, “Heart of Gold” is his one and only song to top the charts in the U.S. and Canada. He’s never had a no. 1 in the U.K.
(Photo Credit: Pegi Young)
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Written by: Bjørn Hammershaug, Jonas Kleinschmidt and Ryan Pinkard.
Sources: Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy Mc Donough / Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young /Neil Young Nation by Kevin Chong / The Godfather of Grunge by Dave Zimmer / “25 Neil Young Facts” (Huffington Post) / “Neil Young Comes Clean” (The New York Times) / “Neil Young vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd – Clash of the Titans “(Ultimate Classic Rock) / “Mother of an Icon” (Winnipeg Free Press) / “The Squires 45″ (Neil Young News) / “Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young” – review (The Guardian) / The Telegraph / Wikipedia