Photo: Henry Diltz, Neil Young, Broken Arrow Ranch, Half Moon Bay, California 1971
Full of historic highs and lows, the life and career of Neil Young is a reminder that we truly are the sum of our experiences. To commemorate the singer-songwriter's birthday, student becomes teacher as we retrospect the "Old Man" artist's compelling rise with 74 facts spanning the gamut from the definitive to the seldom heard.
1. Neil Percival Young was born on November 12th, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario to journalist Scott Alexander Young and Edna Blow Ragland "Rassy" Young who was a Daughter of the American Revolution.
2. Neil Young may be a legend in his own right but fame seems to run in the family as his father, Scott Young is widely considered a great Canadian icon. Of the 30+ books he wrote during his lifetime, his 1952 schoolboy sports novel Scrubs on Skates is considered his most noteworthy with a seemingly foreboding dedication: "To Neil and Bob, whose greatest games are still ahead of them."
3. At just 7, Neil fell ill to Ontario's last major polio outbreak in 1951.
4. Fellow Canadian and future collaborator Joni Mitchell (age 8) also contracted polio during the same outbreak.
5. Fortunate to have overcome the disease, the Young family relocated to New Smyrna Beach, Florida for six month so that Neil could regain his strength--a period that he would later accredit as the origins of his lifelong passion for American cars.
6. Though best known for his prowess as a singer-songwriter, Young is also a celebrated player of piano, harmonica and electric guitar but his first instrument was actually a plastic ukelele he received as a Christmas gift in 1958.
7. Raised on mid-1950s rock 'n roll, it's little wonder as Neil cites Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and The Chantels as some of his earliest influences. However, perhaps lesser known is just how much the folk icon idolized Elvis Presley.
8. Forging his own path to rock royalty, the "Godfather of Grunge" formed his first band, the Jades, with Earl Grey Junior High School classmate Ken Koblun. Naturally, the project was short-lived but if we know anything about the history of Young, Koblun or Buffalo Springfield, this would not be the end of the road.
8. After playing in several instrumental rock bands throughout high school, his union with local band the Squires at age 17 would signal his first stroke of promising success and the roundabout time Young dropped out to pursue music full time.
9. Though hometown heroes at best, the Squires would give Young his earliest demos and regular gigs in Winnipeg and Ontario which also played host to fortuitous encounters with the likes of Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell.
10. While much of his early reputation may have been a testament to his frequent local gigs, his mode of transportation may have also made Neil Young something of an enigmatic newcomer. Paid for by and large by his first major success as a songwriter with "Flying on the Ground is Wrong", a Canadian Top 40 hit as made famous by Winnipeg band The Guess Who, Young owned a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse he dubbed "Mortimer Hearseburg" which he considered an ergonomic choice for transportation of gear.
11. Though it wasn’t properly released until 1977, Neil wrote the “Sugar Mountain” on his 19th birthday, just after leaving his band the Squires.
12. After a brief solo tour of Canada, Young returned to Toronto in 1966 and joined Mynah Birds, an R&B band fronted by rising funk vanguard Rick James. Also featured was future Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer and future Steppenwolf members Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas.
13. Young's tenure with the Mynah Birds is not to be underwritten, marking a period when rising stars Neil Young and Rick James were not only bandmates but also roommates. Of the unwittingly star-crossed chapter, Young would later recall, "“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."
14. While the Mynah Birds had proven themselves compelling enough an act to cut a record deal with Motown, this fate was not in the cards as frontman's arrest for going AWOL from the Navy prevented the band from ever releasing a proper album.
15. After trading in his broken down Mortimer Hearseburg for a slightly newer model--a 1953 Pontiac hearse (Mort II)--, Young and Bruce Palmer illegally crossed the border into California.
16. By cosmic encounter or sheer coincidence, Mort II was spotted in Sunset Boulevard traffic by Stephen Stills and Richie Furay who, driving in the opposite direction, made a fortuitous (albeit illegal) u-turn to flag down friends and fellow Canadians. The encounter has been cited as the genesis of Buffalo Springfield.
17. To a similarly star-crossed ends, it is also around this time that the newly formed Buffalo Springfield
were introduced up-and-coming photographer Henry Diltz who would not only lens many of the band's most pivotal moments but also go on to be considered one of the group's chief collaborators.
18. A true professional by the late 1960s, Young not only continued performing despite having developed epilepsy but also pushed through a 103 °F to deliver his most famous cuts of "Cinnamon Girl", "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" on his second studio album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969).
19. Overcoming obstacles in the name of truly great artistry, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere would be Neil's first Platinum charting record.
20. Despite much speculation, Young has never released the true identity of the "Cinnamon Girl" but the belief that she is more fact than fiction is considered common knowledge.
21. Though his belief in the kindness of strangers has led him to some pretty exceptional places, the same outlook also landed him in a precarious situation in the late 60s. During a party held at the home of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, the "Heart of Gold" artist found unlikely camaraderie in aspiring singer-songwriter Charles Manson. Of the auspicious encounter, Young recalls his guitar being picked up by Manson who impressed the room with his "off-the-cuff, Dylanesque style."
22. Naturally, the friendship struck up between Young and Manson would prove short-lived but not before Neil pulled some strings at Reprise Records, requesting that they take a meeting with the folk newcomer in hopes of securing a recording contract.
23. Understandably rattled by the Sharon Tate-La Bianca murders that transpired soon thereafter, Young put sentiment to song with "Revolution Blues."
24. Ending the tumultuous decade on a higher note, 1969 saw the formation of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young though despite the fact that Neil was not the first choice for the band's expansion.
25. While Young's tenure with the band would prove prolifically worthwhile if not rocky, CSN's first choice was actually Steve Winwood who denied the offer to join the band as a much-desired keyboard player due to his commitment to newly formed supergroup Blind Faith.
26. Though far from his home and all of the anonymity of undiscovered artistry, Young conjured a certain homecoming when he penned CSNY's "Helpless", a harmonica-heavy standard about his childhood in northern Ontario where "life was real basic and simple...Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody."
27. Before year's end, Young makes a bonafide name for himself with the Woodstock debut of CSN(Y), a pivotal performance in which Stills famously divulged to the some 500,000 attendees, "This is only the second time we’ve performed in front of people. We’re scared shitless."
28. A quarter-century later, Neil declined a $1M offer to headline Woodstock '94 in favor of letting the spirit of the original festival live on as opposed to the capitalist offshoot he considered the reunion to be.
29. Though made famous by CSNY, the generational classic, "Woodstock", was actually written by Joni Mitchell who was not in fact present for the historic festival.
30. Between personal health battles and the rigorous demands of a newly formed band on the brink of mainstream success, Young somehow managed to find the time to pen and produce his third studio album, After The Gold Rush.
31. Released on August 31, 1970, After The Gold Rush, featuring hits such as "Southern Man" and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", has since gone on to be revered as one of the greatest albums of all time.
32. Most of the album was recorded at a makeshift basement studio in Young's Topanga Canyon home with CSNY bassist Greg Reeves, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and eighteen-year-old- music prodigy Nils Lorgren on piano.
33. Photographer Joel Bernstein who, then just 18, unwittingly snapped the album cover was "shocked" over Neil's choosing of the accidental image captured on an unfocused stroll through New York City's Greenwich Village.
34. Still perhaps lesser known is the inspiration behind the epochal record, inspired by a film of the same name that was ultimately never made with songs like "After the Gold Rush" and "Cripple Creek Ferry" written explicitly for the the lost motion picture.
35. Never one to shy away from putting pen to paper on difficult subject matter, Young also wrote 1970 anthem "Ohio" in the wake of the Kent State shootings.
36. Just two years down the line, Young released his fourth solo studio album, Harvest, spawning hit singles such as "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold."
37. Based on a riff for the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, “Slowpoke", "Heart of Gold" gave Young his only No.1 U.S. single to date.
38. Featuring guest musicians such as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, the London Symphony Orchestra and all CSN(Y) members, Harvest was the best-selling album of 1972 in the United States.
39. Of noteworthy album track "The Needle and the Damage Done", a song about the lives of friends claimed by drug overdose, Young insists, "I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men."
40. Underscoring much of the music industry's dark underbelly, the theme of drug addiction is continued with the 1975 release of his sixth studio album, Tonight's The Night, with a title track written for the singer-songwriter's former roadie, Bruce Berry, who died of a heroin overdose.
41. Flying over Redwood City, CA, Young spotted the land that would give rise to his widely-storied Broken Arrow Ranch from an airplane window.
42. While the estate derives its namesake from a Buffalo Springfield song, its caretaker would inspire the classic, "Old Man."
43. After writing “Southern Man” and “Alabama”, 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.”
44. Purportedly sparking one of rock history's biggest rivalries, 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.
45.By the late 1970s, Neil's affinity for hearses had been traded in for "Pocahontas", a customized 1973 tour bus fitted with wooden wings on the sides and Studebaker & Hudson car roofs placed on top.
46. 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.
47. In addition to his shared loves of music and automobiles, Young is an impassioned filmmaker who has co-directed such films as Journey Through the Past (1973), Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and Human Highway (1982)--a Cold War America satire starring Young, Dean Stockwell and Devo amongst others--under the moniker, Bernard Shakey.
48. In 1976, while David Crosby and Graham Nash were touring as Crosby & Nash, Neil formed The Stills-Young band with longtime friend and collaborator Stephen Stills for the sole release of Long May You Run before abandoning the project and accompanying tour after just nine concert dates.
49. Informing Stills that he was abandoning the tour so that each may return to their respective solo endeavors, Young sent the simply-put telegram: "Dear Stephen, funny how things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil."
50. It's no secret that wherever Young has gone over the years, trouble seems to follow in suit as was the case when Young took to the stage to play "Helpless" at the Band's 1976 farewell concert. “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.
51. When singing about “the King” and Johnny Rotten in the song, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” Young is indeed referring to the Sex Pistols frontman and childhood idol Elvis Presley.
52. Widely considered a turning point in both his career and the canon of rock & roll, Neil was released and sued by his own label, Geffen Records, in the 1980s when he was accused of violating his contract for releasing albums "unrepresentative" of his past work. In other words, Neil was sued for not being himself.
53. Now revered as the "Godfather of Grunge", the 1980s rebranding of Young is a testament to his pioneering use of feedback, distortion and perennial love for flannel.
54. 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.”
55. In the wake of Cobain’s death, Neil recorded the 1994 album, Sleeps With Angels, writing the title track in Cobain’s memory.
56. In 1995, Neil Young recorded the collaborative album Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam but naturally, the collaboration was not without its fair share of pushback.
57. The prospect of Mirror Ball caused concern for Epic Records who weren’t too eager to drop a Pearl Jam album with another label but 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.
58. As such, it is only fitting that Eddie Vedder have the privilege of inducting Neil Young into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
59. Two years later, Young would be inducted yet again with the 1997 nomination of Buffalo Springfield.
60. The parents of two sons with cerebral palsy, Young and former wife Pegi played key roles in the founding of the Bridge School organization for children with speech and physical impairments, putting on a star-studded benefit concert which annually funds the school's budget.
61. Diversifying his philanthropic portfolio, the "Heart of Gold" artist also co-founded Farm Aid alongside Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. Since 1985, the organizes hosts an annual benefit concert and advocates for struggling farmers throughout America.
62. Model trains are among Young's many passions. In the early 90s, he became a part owner of toy brand Lionel Trains in the interest of producing models with more authentic train sounds and special remote control so that his sons would operate the toys without the use of their hands. He also played a key role in raising the company out of bankruptcy in 2008.
63. 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.”
64. To this day, Young has never allowed his songs to be used in commercials.
65. 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.”
66. 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.”
67. Neil also owns "LincVolt", a converted 1959 Lincoln Continental which runs entirely on alternative energy. The project inspired his 2009 album, Fork in the Road.
68. Young also has a 1949 Cadillac named "Hank."
69. 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.”
70. 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.
71. 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.”
72. In 2015, Young performed a Tonight Show debut with his most trusted collaborator, himself.
73. Despite living in the United States since the 1960s, Young has always maintained his Canadian citizenship until recently when he claimed that his U.S. citizenship application is allegedly being held up due to his marijuana use.
74. In recent news, Neil Young has announced an ambitious plan to rollout a purportedly colossal cache of previously unheard albums in 2020 in the interest of a lasting legacy but we'd be hard pressed to think that he has any shortcomings in that department...