What can I say about Neil Young? He is in my “special circle”. He is in my top 5 artists of all time. He’s the best. He means a lot to me even though I have never met him or even seen him live. But the music strikes a chord that hits me deeply and is interwoven into my life.
Some of the first books I ever read were by Neil’s father, Scott Young. Around age 10, I borrowed Boy On Defense from the Pointe Claire Public Library at Stewart Hall. A fiction book about hockey. It struck a nerve with a hockey-crazed kid who wasn’t much into reading.
The first songs I ever learned on guitar were Neil Young songs. I was 21 or 22. I even tried the harmonica parts in “Heart Of Gold”. Young spent some of his early years in Omemee, Ontario, a town close to where I have lived for 35 years. And Neil Young went from “Ohio” to “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World” perfectly aligning with where I am at politically.
The three-record Decade album, released in 1976, represents a span of Young’s music that manages to capture his genius in an otherwise long and winding career. Young’s songwriting is only matched by his superb guitar work and by the talent he collaborated with. He played with his band Crazy Horse with its incredible jam sessions, with Crosby, Stills and Nash who incorporated Young’s guitar genius into their hippie sound and there were many, many others.
In the 1980s when I was learning about Neil Young’s music, whether it was with friends at Trent University or later in Saskatoon, the people who enjoyed his music were often the smartest, coolest, nicest people around. Although Young is claimed as Canada’s own, he has lived most of his life in the US. But he is 100% Canadian in my mind.
When I read somewhere (possibly in David Crosby’s autobiography) about how when Young first went to California and randomly ran into Stephen Stills on Hollywood Boulevard, I just imagine that moment and the importance of it. They had met previously but only in passing in Northwestern Ontario years prior. But in L.A they later run onto each other, neither had money and only ambition and talent. Somehow it brings me joy. Pathetic? Sure.
Sides 5 and 6 of Decade are very good. The first three songs of side 5, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Tired Eyes” and “Tonight’s The Night” are about drug overdose deaths involving Neil’s friends who were part of his band or were employed by the band. To say that these songs are sad is to underestimate the depth of Young’s sorrow. He manages to combine sad with beautiful.
I’m running with “Tired Eyes” as the featured song. I have always felt an affinity for the song as Young tells the story of Danny Whitten, an amazing singer and guitarist and of Bruce Berry, who worked for the band. Both died of drug overdoses and both deaths clearly changed Neil Young forever judging by the songs he wrote.