Neil Young has been making the media rounds lately, and since he always has some new album or other new endeavor going on almost every year, I figured instead of interviewing Neil Young, I’d interview a Neil Young fan instead.
Actually, I couldn’t land an interview with Neil Young if I tried, so “Interview With (A) Neil Young (Fan)” isn’t just the next best thing, it’s the only thing.
We were both born in the early 70’s, so we were still mere babies when Neil Young became a star and first embedded himself into the rock’n’roll popular culture consciousness with his solo works and albums with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. As a teenager in the 80’s (probably the commercial and critical low point of his career), what drew you to Neil Young and how did you become such a big fan? Or did it start earlier as a child in the 70’s?
I remember one of my older brothers owning the Live Rust album and him cranking the songs “Sugar Mountain” and “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” and just being enamored with the sounds. I had no grasp of who Neil Young was. Like any younger brother I just wanted to emulate whatever my brother did. A few years later I started playing the guitar and I heard “Down By The River.” I remember thinking that it was a song unlike any I had ever heard before. It’s unpolished, simplistic nature was just something I was not used to hearing at that time. Matter of fact, I recall the first CD I ever purchased being Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere simply for that song. When I headed off to college I somehow scored the Decade compilation and that pretty much pushed me over the edge.
Your personal Absolute Favorite Neil Young Album, if you were force to name just one?
Wow, now that might be the hardest question you could ever ask a Neil Young fan such as myself. I honestly can’t say that I have a “favorite” album of his since there are so many that I am drawn to. I mean, On The Beach holds a special place in my heart because I love every single song on that record (an album I received in a trade with a close friend. I got On The Beach, he got a Cindy Crawford Playboy). And while Decade is a “compilation” vs. a proper album, it is perhaps the album that turned me from a casual fan into a hardcore one. It would be the album that I would probably tell someone who’s never heard Neil to listen to first. Those being said, I also absolutely love Tonight’s The Night, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Le Noise, and I do own the 63-72 Archives box set which is off the hook awesome. Might as well toss in Rust Never Sleeps because let’s face it, it’s fuckin’ awesome. Live At Massey Hall used to only be a bootleg but it’s since had a proper release, and is Neil as his intimate, solo, acoustic best!
What’s “The Worst” Neil Young album?
I supposed Re-ac-tor, Landing On Water (though I love the cover!) or Trans should be my answer but I appreciate their experimental nature. But most all of his albums between 1996-2009 did absolutely nothing for me. I was not a fan of Prairie Wind, Greendale, Are You Passionate?, or Living With War. Just don’t think those albums were up to par. Some of those late 90’s Crazy Horse albums sound like burnt-out versions of great songs played by old men fulfilling a record contract obligation.
Now, in your opinion of course, what’s the worst Neil Young album that most people think is pretty good?
You know, I hate to say this since in a previous question I listed this album as one of my favorites—I know it totally goes against the grain with most Neil Young critics/fans opinions and it might cause a semi-controversy and people to call me a hypocrite—but…I actually think Tonight’s The Night is an over-rated album. There, I said it. I mean, I LOVE the album. But I do not think it’s his best album. It has it’s moments of greatness but I find it to a be a little too mish mashed together. It would also be popular to say I think Harvest or After The Gold Rush are over-rated since they’re his most successful albums, but there are some really great songs on those records. Now…Harvest Moon? Over-rated. Period.
Flipside, among Neil’s many “missteps” or panned albums often held up as duds, which bad Neil Young album would you argue is actually pretty good?
Le Noise. I don’t think people think it’s a “dud” album by any means but when it came out most folks dismissed it as Danny Lanois-infused trickery. But underneath the cool effects lay a collection of great songs. I think it’s Neil’s best album since Ragged Glory. I also think people need not overlook Psychedelic Pill, his most recent album with Crazy Horse. Not sure any of these are in his “dud” category but definitely albums that didn’t get a lot of love.
Some people don’t “get” Neil Young. Some might think he’s okay but they don’t understand why you love him so much. So, if someone said “what’s so great about Neil Young?” what album would you give them?
Decade. It is the album that “turned me on” to Neil Young. It’s a great (at the time) career-spanning compilation that has his best work from Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and The Horse. Since we all know that Neil can be all over the musical map, I find this album to be a great representation of his work: psychedelic 60’s cuts, somber acoustic numbers, country twangers, rock songs, piano ballads, and of course, Crazy Horse! Decade simply has it all.
If they asked me why he is so great my first answer would be that he is an amazing songwriter. The second would that he truly follows his own muse and doesn’t give two shits about what anyone thinks. For better or worse. And my third would be that he is an incredibly emotional singer and guitar player that never stops pushing the boundaries.
Same question, but you can only play them one song.
Wow, another really, really, really tough one. I was actually working on writing a blog post about this very thing but was unable to really come up with a concrete answer. Per the previous question, there are just so many styles that Neil has covered. I supposed I would have to decide based on the person. If they were a “rocker” I’d probably start with “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black),” “Southern Man,” “Alabama,” “Rockin’ In The Free World,” or “Fuckin’ Up.” If they were folkies I’d probably pick “Sugar Mountain,” “Thrasher,” or “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” “Country Girl” is another great one as is “Cortez The Killer.” Man, I simply cannot answer this question unless you want another 2000 words and links.
Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you….. what’s the most surprising thing about Neil Young the Elder Statesmen? Is it his fascination with electric cars or new formats of lossless digital audio files? Or his Godfather of Grunge status? Did you envision him still being so active and relevant (and still throwing curve balls) this late in his life?
I am not surprised at all that Neil still remains relative. It doesn’t shock me one bit that he still puts out albums recorded in phone booths or with 90-piece orchestras. His entire career has been progressive and he never thinks backwards.
As for what surprises me about Neil, well, being a Neil Young fan means you should never be surprised by anything he does. Example: I saw him with The Horse on the Psychedelic Pill tour a few years ago and some of the older fans started walking out halfway through his set due to the excessive, self-indulgent feedback that ended each song. I am sitting there thinking: you purchased Crazy Horse tickets and you are shocked they are playing noisy feedback ? What were they expecting? Four-minute versions of “Down By The River” and “Harvest?”
What is the most common misconception about Neil Young?
That he isn’t a good singer. Crosby, Stills, and Nash—in my opinion—are perhaps the greatest vocal harmonizers ever in rock music (sorry Beach Boys/Beatles). Why would they ask Neil to join their group if he wasn’t able to hold his own? While I know he mainly joined them as a songwriter/guitar player (and he didn’t do many harmonies with them) there is still no doubt that his voice added something to their sound. People assume that because he often sings falsetto and with vibrato that he is singing off-key. Quite the contrary. As someone who sings I can tell you this: Neil Young has an astonishing voice and absolute perfect control over it.
Best cover of a Neil Young song?
Is it too self-promoting to push a cover of “On The Beach” that my wife and I recorded? I also really dig Gillian Welch’s cover of “Country Girl” and kinda like The Pixies version of “Winterlong” from The Bridge tribute album.
Best cover of another artist’s song by Neil? What song by another artist should Neil Young cover?
I know A Letter Home is a collection of Neil doing covers but I have to say that my favorite cover I have heard Neil perform is “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” from the Bob Dylan Tribute Concert in 1992. He absolutely tore that one up! Though I have yet to hear it supposedly Neil used to cover “Sweet Home Alabama”—which I think is pretty fuckin’ cool. I’ve also heard him do a cover of “A Day In The Life” where Macca made a surprise appearance on the stage to sing along. That was obviously very cool. I think it would be great to hear Neil do some covers by more of his contemporaries such as Tom Waits or Nick Cave. Could you imagine him tearing up Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)”?
What kind of career, if any, would Neil Young have had if he’d emerged around 1980 or 1990, instead of 1970? Would he have made it in 2010 or now?
Interesting question. I think we all know that the music business has changed so dramatically in the past 20 years that it’s hard to say who would “make it” from the salad days of classic rock. It seems to me that in the 60’s-70’s record labels had much more patience with their artists (and treated them as artists vs. commodities). I actually don’t think Neil would be anywhere near as big as he is now if he started in the 80’s or 90’s. I just don’t think there are many solo artists left that started in that era, most are from the 70’s. Now, if Neil Young & Crazy Horse first appeared in 1990 with Ragged Glory who knows where it would’ve fit in? I could see it sandwiched between Nevermind and Ten. Though I think part of his resurgence in the 90’s was due to the immense amount of props and respect young bands (at the time) such as Pearl Jam, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth gave him.
If you could ask Neil Young one question, what would it be?
Can I play guitar in Crazy Horse?
One day, Neil Young’s tour manager calls you and says he’s leaving you tickets at the door for that night’s concert and “think of a song you want to jam with Neil and the band.” So when you get to the show and Neil invites you up on stage, what do you answer when he leans over and greets you with “OK, what song are we playing?”
“Cortez The Killer” or “Alabama.” I could see Neil and I trading off solos on “Cortez” for at least 40 minutes.
When I told you I was sending you these questions, what were you hoping I would ask? And what did you hope I wouldn’t ask?
I think you did a great job of asking interesting, unpredictable questions. I was kinda hoping you wouldn’t ask me what my favorite album of his is. I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me if I would sleep with him (answer: no) and I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me what my favorite song is.
I was hoping you would ask me the first time I heard Neil Young’s music. Being that you know I am a musician who has often covered Neil songs I was hoping you would ask me what my favorite song is to play. I am glad you didn’t ask me if it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
He’s worked with CSN, Pearl Jam, Daniel Lanois, Jack White…. Who do you wish he would have worked with at any point in his career, and who do you hope he might still work with in the future?
I suppose the obvious answer (for a producer) would be someone like Rick Rubin but to be quite honest, Danny Lanois would’ve actually been my response if you had asked me this five years ago. But Neil must’ve read my mind.
As for who I would love to hear him record with, well, that certainly opens up a can of worms. I mean, how cool would a Sonic Youth/Crazy Horse collab be? Or Thom York/Neil Young sing piano ballads? What about Willie Nelson/Neil Young singing traditional country songs? I’ve always loved when Neil has female singers with him so how about more Emmylou Harris collaborations? Back in the early 70’s I think a Grateful Dead/Neil Young collab might have produced some interesting sounds. Anyone but the fuckin’ Eagles!
When Neil Young dies, what one or two songs will be most often mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary? And what will be unjustly forgotten?
Without a single doubt in my mind the song that he is most associated with is his only #1 song: “Heart Of Gold.” The second would probably be either “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” or “Old Man” followed closely by “The Needle And The Damage Done.” The song “After The Gold Rush” was sort of a hit for him. If we’re lucky we might get a “Rockin’ In The Free World” or “Southern Man” simply because those are radio-friendly/semi-popular picks. “Ohio” is right up there as well, and perhaps “Harvest Moon” since it kind of rekindled interest in his acoustic stuff in the early 90’s.
As for songs that SHOULD be remembered, well, jeez, I mean, every song I have mentioned in this interview should be on the list. “I’ve Been Waiting For You” from his first solo album, Neil Young, is a very unheralded song as is “When You Dance (I Can Really Love).” I adore the songs “Tonight’s The Night,” “Soldier,” and “Borrowed Tune” as well. Lately I have been revisiting his piano ballad “There’s A World” that I am a huge fan of. And “Country Girl” is another one I only recently started to really get into. The acoustic song “Thrasher” off of Rust Never Sleeps is definitely one of my all time favorite Neil songs and contains some of his most prodigious lyrics.
Neil Young’s never going to die, is he?
Just like rock and roll.