This story originally appeared in SPIN’s January 1994 issue. In honor of Young’s birthday, we’ve digitized it below.
Neil Young and I were talking in the deserted parking lot of the Mountain House, a restaurant on Skyline Boulevard in the mountains above Stanford University, near La Honda, where Young lives. Although I’d driven down from Berkeley, I’d grown up here, and as I headed down Skyline—a rambling two-lane shadowed by huge fir trees—I wondered if the radio was going to cough up any of Young’s music: At the last minute it did—the radio standard “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the sonic assault that closed his 1989 album, Freedom.
It’s a brutal, raging song about the free world as a black hole, throwing out the tale of a woman choosing between crack and her baby (it’s no choice at all, despite those perfect lines juggling life and death and just life, “That’s one more kid / That’ll never go to school / Never get to fall in love / Never get to be cool”). I gunned the motor, sped past the Mountain House, turned the car around and drove back when the song was over. Pulling into the lot, though, waiting for Young, I thought about how you never hear the version of “Rockin’ in the Free World” that opens Freedom: Young solo, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, onstage at Jones Beach on Long Island, singing a song no one there had heard before. It’s an altogether bizarre recording. In some ways it’s much tougher, meaner, than the electric take, even if it lacks the last verse about “a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand,” the fabulous, mindless rant about Styrofoam, the ozone layer, cars, highways, and the world going to hell. From Jones Beach you get not irony and controlled fury but a picture of a scorned prophet telling people what they don’t want to hear—or, rather, what they aren’t even listening to. Shouts from the audience wash over the song, seemingly at all the wrong moments. There’s no sense of anyone listening to anybody else. It’s more like someone’s tossed a beach ball into the crowd and it’s bouncing from hand to hand; people are cheering for that. Well, that’s always been my fantasy of what was going on that night; I couldn’t help asking Young what had.
He bore down straight off. “See,” he said, “the challenge to me is to do the new song, to deliver the shit out of the new song, to immerse myself in the song—and whatever else happens is part of that. Because if I’m doing that, nothing else matters. So what you heard was part of the recording; it was even part of the event, it was part of the time when this went down. I loved the crowd noise in it; to me it sounded incongruous—’What’s going on here?’ The sound of the background, the distraction—you can’t fake that. Where else can you get that, but in a crowd? You have to go into a crowd and do something they can’t… some of them are hearing it and some of them aren’t. The idea is the tension: the tension of the crowd, and me, the performance, everything at once.”
“Incongruous” and “tension” do fine as words to frame the entire scope of Neil Young’s career. Even in 1967 and ’68, with the superb Los Angeles folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield, he stood out—or didn’t fit, dotting their albums with songs of torment and paranoia (“Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” the shattering “Out of My Mind”) among the celebrations and reveries. In 1969, when he joined Crosby, Stills and Nash, he was hailed as the solid ground for the group’s New Chipmunk harmonies (though, to be fair, it was only onstage with CS&N that Young was able to get his “Southern Man” off the ground, even though you won’t find the evidence on the live 4 Way Street). In his solo work, beginning in 1969 with Neil Young and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, he crashed back and forth between oversensitive singer-songwriter greeting cards (“A Man Needs a Maid”) and all but nihilistic explosions of doubt, fatalism, and guitar madness—an ability to get gone—a cycle that defines his work to this day. In 1977, he was Johnny Rotten’s favorite hippie—or maybe he was the only hippie Rotten would suffer to live. But by then, the National Lampoon public service announcement, “The previous half-hour of no Neil Young music has been brought to you by…” was as much a staple of FM radio as the endless spins of “Sugar Mountain,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “Heart of Gold” the spot was presumably meant to negate. It’s possible that in the ’80, however, the name “Neil Young” was heard on the radio more often by way of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” than by DJs announcing his own songs.
Pairing a cool, folkie dream like Comes a Time with a cage-rattler like Re-ac-tor, Young was his own most complete critic, no matter which side he was on, or you were. “Incongruous” and “tension” are, perhaps, not strong enough—with Neil Young, at least every other record sounds like his last word, a dried-up nothing-more-to-say, or a damned farewell. You don’t exactly keep up with Neil Young; he’ll hold your hand one minute and burst into flames the next.
He may look like a star today, when his presence is both ubiquitous and strong—tearing up the Bob Dylan 30th-anniversary tribute concert and releasing Harvest Moon, his highest-charting album for 13 years, in late 1992; in 1993 combining a solid Unplugged and an even better PBS Centerstage with a successful Unplugged release and a greatest-hits tour with Booker T. and the MG’s, then again stealing the show at the MTV Video Music Awards, using Pearl Jam as backup for “Rockin’ in the Free World”—but in fact, hits for Neil Young are as incongruous as anything else. He only seems like a star: On his own he’s had precisely one No. 1 album and single, 1972’s Harvest and its “Heart of Gold.”
If the 48-year-old Young can be named Artist of the Year for 1993, it’s not only because of what he’s done over the last 12 months or so, but because of the extraordinary fusion of weight and grace in his work of the last four years. Beginning with the five-song non-U.S. release El Dorado (“A declaration,” Young says today)—spare, wild demos for songs that would turn up on Freedom—he moved to the 1990 Ragged Glory with his longtime bandmates in Crazy Horse (the album title reviewed the album), and from there to an alliance with Sonic Youth for the tour that was captured on Weld (two discs of songs) and Arc (one disc of orchestrated feedback). These records brought Young the title Grandfather of Grunge, and the nearly absolute credibility he currently enjoys.
“None of these old guys around know how to do it,” Young told Terry Gross on the NPR radio show Fresh Air, when, in 1992, she asked him how it felt to play “that loud grunge sound … as somebody in your 40s who’s been playing since the mid-’60s, playing a music that mostly people who are a generation younger then you know—” “I know how,” Young said. “If they were as lucky as me, they’d be doing it too. I mean, it’s fantastic. There’s no sensation like it.”
But Young is his own inheritor, and he makes sense as Artist of the Year less for what he’s done than for where he is. On his own self-defined ground, he also occupies a certain public center—the unstable moral center of the most extreme contemporary white rock’n’roll, from Nirvana and Bikini Kill to Bratmobile and Pearl Jam. At the same time, there is a recognition that Young has a capacity for a greater musical extremism—which is a kind of moral extremism, a picture of limits and of limits transgressed—than any of his erstwhile soulmates, no matter that most of them could be his biological (never mind musical) children. And as some of them now wrestle with the sort of commercial success Young has never quite known and is never likely to, there is also a recognition that regardless of how extreme Young gets, he can always get back from any edge he calls into being. He can open up a hole in the world turning over the first guitar solo in “Over and Over,” on Ragged Glory, dive through it, and then find himself in the sylvan glades of Harvest Moon.
It all looks shining—but with Neil Young there is always a fine line between riding the wind and, as one character on Young’s 1974 On the Beach says to another, pissing into it. Novelist John Irving once said the same thing slightly differently, talking about Young both as a fellow artist and as “one of my heroes—along with Bob Dylan. They’re not afraid to embarrass themselves—and you’ve got to be able to do that.”
Young has never been afraid to embarrass himself (or his listeners: I always try to mentally rewrite “On our foggy trips,” the sappy line in “Like a Hurricane” that comes just before Young as a guitarist turns the metaphor of the song’s title into fact), and his current ascendance is, among other things, merely a moment in a long career. Ten years ago, matters looked altogether different. Beginning with Trans, a proto-techno album, Young launched a whole series of records that seemed to connect with nothing: Everybodys Rockin’ (a blend set of rockabilly exercises sealed with the deathless “Ronnie and Nancy do the boppin’ along / Rockin’ in the White House all night long”), the vaguely country Old Ways, Landing on Water, the stunningly pallid Life, and the stilted This Note’s for You. The records rested briefly in the lower regions of the charts and then disappeared almost as if they’d never been. Early on, Geffen, Young’s label from 1983’s Trans through 1987’s Life (Reprise was his label before and has been since), took the remarkable step of suing Young for not being who he was supposed to be, seeking both damages and compensation for Young’s production of records “which were not commercial in nature and musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous records.”
With 1986’s Landing on Water, a strange ad appeared in the U.K.: a picture of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, fresh from signing the Munich Pact with Hitler in 1938, giving his speech proclaiming “Peace in our time,” but holding in his hand not the infamous “piece of paper” that sealed the Munich sellout to the Nazis, but a copy of Young’s album. I asked Young what in the world that was supposed to mean—that Young was Chamberlain and Geffen was Hitler? He responded with a demonic chuckle. “I didn’t have anything to do with that,” he finally said. “But I kind of like the concept. Whoever thought of that must have been a genius.” “If I can find my copy of that ad I’ll send it to you,” I said. “Oh, I’d love it,” Young said. “I’d frame it. Sounds like high art to me. It does.
“You see,” he said after a moment, “the cover and the title of that album, it’s directions on how to survive an insurvivable thing: how to land on water, in a jet that’s crashing. The most ridiculous damn thing you’ve ever heard of. You’re really landing on water where there’s no clear floor underneath you: everybody dies. That title was there because I knew where that album was going. I knew the process and the thought behind the people who were putting the album out; what they wanted me to do. That was me doing their method. And my title for it. Geffen tried to force me to do things—the record company, not David Geffen himself—when they saw that I was on—tangents. Ultimately, ‘Make a record that sounds like you.’ That was a very tough thing to do. But I tried to do a great record. We put everything we had into making that a great record. But I was just starting to come out of the trees at that point.”
I said I could remember almost nothing about the records Young had made in the mid-’80s, except the titles—when I could remember the titles. “I was doing things that didn’t really commit me one way or the other,” he said. “I think I was disillusioned with a lot of things—”
“With what was going on in music?” I asked. “With what was going on in the country?”
“With life,” Young said. “For whatever reason, I chose to disguise the music, and keep everything inside the music, and not reach out, do things in styles that I knew would piss everybody off so nobody would even buy it or listen to it.”
He looked combative for a moment. “I don’t make excuses for those records,” he said. “I think those records are going to stand up, in time. I don’t feel the records are not as good as the records I’m doing now. I just feel that they’re not aimed at success—in any way. Yet if you put them on a wall—I look at them as if you’re walking through a museum. You see somebody’s paintings. You go, ‘Wow, look at this period here! Is this weird!’ Especially considering what came after it and what was before it. And then you have to look at ‘Well, during that period, what was the artist doing?’—and even knowing what he was doing, no one knew whet was going to follow. Obviously [in my case], people considered nothing was going to follow. This was the end.”
The dynamic, Young insisted, was just as crucial today, when everything he touches seems to come to life. Onstage, now, he said, “I really try to do something every time I go out there that stretches my capabilities, that puts me on the edge of going too far—where it might not work. But if I deliver the song right,”—then, Young said, something new can happen, and the museum vanishes. “If I deliver the song right, then it’ll make people forget who I am. What I’m doing and what I’ve done. Especially what I’ve done. That’s the only way to the next step.”
I said that for me, as a fan, the next step was when I saw Young on Saturday Night Live on September 30, 1989, a picture of a very dead-looking Elvis Presley on his T-shirt, flailing all over the stage, nearly down on his knees shaking bent notes out of his guitar for the then-unreleased “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Not catching a word, I was happy to be lost in the sound, and then thinking when it was over, “If he’s been away, he’s sure as hell back.”
“That’s when I was starting to get sonic,” Young said. “I knew that I was starting to break out. That I was coming out of an egg. The egg started to crack, pretty soon pieces of white shit were flying everywhere, and—there I was again. I could break out of the shell that I’d put around myself. I don’t know how this happened, or why it happened, but it happened. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I’d already been making records for 17 years before it happened.
“It’s that old expression you hear,” he said, “‘How can I miss you if you don’t go away?'”
He lost me there: How can you miss yourself?
Young grinned. “Right,” he said. “How can you find yourself if you don’t lose yourself? How can you be renewed if—if you don’t get old? You can’t. You have to do that. There have to be peaks and valleys, or it’s boring. If I’ve done that, I guess it’s because I believe in that part of life, and I believe that’s the way things are. Even if it means temporarily sacrificing success. I don’t really give a shit.”
For some reason I wasn’t buying Young’s up-is-down and down-is-up philosophy—maybe because somewhere in the back of my mind I figured it meant I’d now have to go back and really listen to all those albums I’d so happily dismissed. I argued for the present not just as a peak, but as a world. “In the last four years,” I said, “it seems like you’ve been everywhere at once. It seems like there’s been no place in the world of pop music where you weren’t welcome, or comfortable….” But if I wasn’t buying Young’s point of view, he wasn’t buying mine.
“Look,” he said, “this’ll be history at some point, too. A point where people will be saying, ‘Well, there was a time when Neil Young could have done anything—and now look at him. Can’t do shit.’ That’s down the road. I know that. But I don’t care. Because I know it’s coming. By then—who knows? Record companies may be paying millions of dollars for any one of my records, no matter what the fuck it is. Or I may not be able to get a contract. I don’t know these things. Right now, everybody thinks I’m great. But I’ve been there before.
“I know that the sacrifice of success breeds longevity,” Young said. “That’s an axiom. Being willing to give up success in the short run ensures a long run. If you’re really doing what you want to do. I think that works. I don’t know. I won’t know for 20 years.” He broke off laughing.
It wasn’t as if, Young had said earlier, that the present was any sort of utopia. He wasn’t referring to crime, or pollution—he was referring to digital recording.
We’d been talking politics. No, Young said, he couldn’t see himself playing the White House, were Bill Clinton to invite him. While Young liked the Clintons’ health plan, he saw nothing in Clinton’s response to the Farm Aid programs Young has supported for years. It was no denunciation; one sentence into a thought about the preservation of the family farm, Young talked circles around himself. “It’s like interstates against two-lane blacktops,” he said with weary disgust. “Route 66 is dying—and yet it’s an American tradition. Is this progress, or are we going to be saying in 20 years, ‘Oh, we should have kept Route 66 alive, and kept all of these beautiful little motels going, and charged people a certain something for traveling on the road, because it’s a piece of history?”
This took us quickly enough to the death of vinyl—but immediately Young’s regret turned into anger and his vagueness into specifics. It was a question, he was saying, of the fullness of sound—the fullness, really, of the picture a musician could draw of the possibilities of life. “Someday,” Young said, “the digital age will be seen as the Dark Ages of recorded sound.”
We were talking about “Cowgirl in the Sand,” from 1969, as explosive as anything Young has ever done on old vinyl, but dead on its CD reissue: Turn up the volume, the bass, lock the doors, set fire to your speakers, you can’t make it sound. Analog recording, Young said, “produces real emotion, because there are so many possibilities for the sound in that recording, so many variations in sound that are recorded, that it’s almost like real life.” He didn’t mean like a live show; he meant the way you can walk down a street and never begin to exhaust the possibilities of light and shadow, noise and quiet, that one street holds. Digital, though, is a single, stable picture. Young described the record industry sitting in a room, changing the picture: “‘We don’t really need to see the sky in all its detail—just paint that in blue. Now, look'”—Young pointed up through the trees around the Mountain House to the clear Bay Area sky—”‘that’s blue. There are really no nuances to that that we need to put in so—it’s blue. Fine. No one will know.’
“The hardest thing for me now,” Young said, “is to listen to my own records. Because I know what’s not there. I know that when people go out to buy a record, today, that it doesn’t resemble what’s really going on in the studio.” He doesn’t use analog tape anymore, not even for himself, Young said, “because it’s too depressing. You hear it, and then it’s gone. I don’t want to hear it. I wouldn’t be able to make records anymore. I have to know what’s gone right away, and just deal with it. Rather than make the record, having it sound great, and then lose it, at the last minute, when it goes to the consumer, and go, ‘Well, the consumer got one-tenth of what I heard’—which is what I think they’re getting.
“Give us another 10, maybe 15 years,” Young said, “and we’ll be into some other kind of recording. Maybe something chemically based—computations made with chemicals, as a transporting agent, instead of hard metals.” Young pointed at a six-paned screened window on the front of the Mountain House. “Look,” he said, “imagine that window is a drum-beat. The digital drumbeat is six big panes. And the analog drumbeat is somewhere smaller than every one of the tiny little screen squares—that’s the amount of detail that’s missing. You have a universe of possibilities—averaged out to one color. And the way those possibilities, those sounds, bounce around the room, is another thing altogether. That’s why you can listen to old records over and over again—and wherever you’re standing in the room, it’s different.”
“There’s a sense of surprise in the song,” I said. “No matter how many times you’ve heard it, you still aren’t ready for what’s coming.”
Young glared at the window again. “That’s right,” he said. “Because your mind cannot conceive of the—that, that, I think, is God. That’s it. Things were created with such detail that the human mind can never understand it. Can’t encompass it. Therefore, it’s like every time you hear a pure sound, it’s like being washed with the water of heaven. You’re completely renewed.”
Having thus solved the mystery of life—if not exactly the question of how to get that mystery down on tape—there seemed little more to say. There was one more thing I had to ask about, though: Young’s car, an old surfer’s Woodie, a station wagon paneled in gleaming wood. I hadn’t seen anything like that for over 20 years. “What is that?” I asked. “That’s a ’47 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon,” Young said in one breath, as if the 13 syllables were one word. “I got it in Hollywood. I paid 1,500 bucks for it. That was a lot of money—it was a mess.” We looked at the pristine, slatted-wood ceiling inside. “That was all painted with orange construction paint.” Really, it was something.
“Its’ a cool car,” Young said, getting in. “Let’s see if it’ll start.”
There was the groaning sound of a motor wheezing, not even coughing: pure emphysema. Young tried again with worse results. “It doesn’t always do this,” he said. He gave it one more try and the engine barely made a scratching sound. “Okay,” Young said. “Now we wait.” We waited. “I might have to go into ‘Come on, Baby,'” he said. “You know, sing to it.”
I had to ask: “Alright, Neil, tell me: What song does this car respond to?”
“‘Long May You Run,'” he said. “It likes that.”
“You can do better than that,” I said—I’d always hated the song. “Okay,” Young said again. “I feel that this is it.” He turned the key, there was a lumbering noise, then a horrible clatter, and the engine turned over.
Young drove off, and I drove down Skyline and then down Old La Honda Road, a steep, twisting, narrow stretch that leads to Sandhill Road, a great circle that runs through the Stanford foothills. Buzzing along, I realized I was coming up on the local Dead Man’s Curve—the spot where, in September 1959, my first week of high school, two cars full of drunk teenagers met, head on.
All eight people were killed; the impact was so strong the two cars were stuck together by their tangled front grilles; the dead were thrown right out of their shoes. Knowing an educational opportunity when it saw one, the school board had the two cars loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken to every high school in the district. You got to climb up on the truck and look inside: the shoes were still there and the windows were smeared with dried blood. I remembered one kid wondering out loud if the radio still worked; I tried to remember what would have been on it. But then “Rockin’ in the Free World” came back on my own radio, and I drove on back to Berkeley, pressing my luck, running the dial across the stations in search of my favorite Neil Young song, “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze,” from Re-ac-tor, which I’ve never heard on the radio, not once.