Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young has one of the most distinctive styles in American music. Especially during in his generation, Young rose to become one of the most influential singer-songwriters by writing and recording songs such as “Heart Of Gold,” “Old Man” and “Harvest Moon” which have transcended and defied time. He is also known for having experimented with various styles (even including electronica) but he is basically known for being a folk and rock artist, expertly taking on both warm, acoustic sounds and electric-guitar based hard rock (which he has mostly played with his band Crazy Horse). He has also undertaken other pursuits such as film directing and producing, as well as been involved in several causes that mostly address concerns about the environment.
Early life and start in music career
Neil Percival Young was born on November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, but later grew up in another Canadian city, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Young had difficult formative years, as he had suffered a variety of illnesses from diabetes and then polio as a child, during what was to be the last polio epidemic in Canada during the 1950s. Following the separation of his parents Young went to live with his mother, finally settling in Manitoba. His older brother went to live with their father.
It was in Manitoba where Young’s passion for music started to develop. Early on, he was influenced by a variety of genres like rock and roll, R&B, doo-wop, and country. He spent much of his time listening to songs on the transistor radio. Among Young’s earliest influences were Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and many others.
Like many other musical legends, Young started small. He had formed a junior high school band The Jades. Lack of formal musical training didn’t stop Young from developing his own melodic style, even coming up with the “vibrato effect” in his guitar which would still be known years later.
During the early 1960s Young went on to form another band called the Squires that lasted for quite a while. Averse to rigidity and convention, Young dropped out of school and continued to pursue his musical path. After performing in Fort William for a while, Young started to recording demos along with his bandmates. It was around this time that he met Stephen Stills.
During this time he was influenced by folk music (as well as musicians such as Bob Dylan) while working at folk clubs in Winnipeg. It was also around this time that he encountered kindred folk spirits such as Joni Mitchell. Young wrote “Sugar Mountain” while Mitchell penned “The Circle Game” as a response.
Moving to the United States, and tenure with Buffalo Springfield
Young attained his first charting hit (as a songwriter) when the Canadian group The Guess Who covered one of his songs, “Flying On The Ground,” which broke into the national Top 40 chart.
Establishing Crazy Horse and joining Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
During the mid-1960s Young moved to the United States along with his friend Bruce Palmer, a bassist. There they drove miles to Los Angeles, California, where he and Palmer eventually formed Buffalo Springfield in 1966. The band also included Stills, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin. Stills wrote Buffalo Springfield’s classic song “For What It’s Worth,” which appeared on their eponymous debut album that same year. The single became a success on the charts, raising Buffalo Springfield to popularity. It was also through this band that the Americans got to know Neil Young for the first time.
Unfortunately, Young’s tenure with Buffalo Springfield was short-lived as the band broke up in less than two years since they had formed. Despite the band’s very brief existence, their legend grew over the years, catapulting into an honor from the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1997.
#1 hit single “Heart of Gold”; joining CSNY again, and solo work with Crazy Horse
Probably because of the pressures of fame, and rifts with his band mates, Young left CSN&Y, reducing the group to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Young continued with his solo career, backed up by Crazy Horse. He found phenomenal success when he released his album Harvest in 1972 which featured the single “Heart Of Gold.” The song topped the charts that year, and to date remains Young’s only #1 single in his career.
Despite his joining Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young again in 1974, Young continued with his solo work along with Crazy Horse. Among his more notable releases was 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps which did well on the charts. Into the 1980s, Young tried his hand on electronic music as such was the trend then; however, it wasn’t successful, neither critically nor commercially.
Entering the alternative rock territory
He resurrected his foibles by releasing another album, Freedom, in 1989, which saw him enter the alternative rock territory. The album’s single “Rockin’ In The Free World” almost topped the mainstream rock charts that year, and has now been often credited as the instigator of a later rock genre called grunge music. This led some rock fans to dub Young the “Godfather Of Grunge.”
Young’s later career, other interests, and impact on the music industry
Young also dabbles in films, including directing a number of productions like Journey Through The Past, Human Highway, and CSNY/Deja Vu, using Bernard Shakey as a pseudonym. Young has also been involved in other pursuits such as being the co-founder, along with his wife, of Bridge School in San Francisco, a center devoted to kids with disabilities (Young’s own children suffer from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, with the last a condition he himself has struggled with). Young also passionately supports pro-environmental causes and the welfare of the small local farmers by co-establishing Farm Aid, a benefit concert which has been held periodically.
Young’s contributions landed him inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame twice– one for being a member of the Buffalo Springfield, and another for his solo work. He was also inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Despite his other interests, music has always been and will always be Neil Young’s heart and soul. He never seemed to get tired of challenging himself musically, as well challenging and charming his fans by his distinctive musicianship, deeply personal songs and his renowned versatility.