Who Is Neil Young?: A Video Essay Explores the Two Sides of the Versatile Musician–Folk Icon and Father of Grunge

Neil Young has worked with Rick James in the Mynah Birds and David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash in CSNY. He’s recorded everything from tearjerking piano ballads to brilliantly meandering psych rock to folk, country, and early 80s electronic. He perfected the spontaneous sound of albums recorded live and loose in a barn, but he is meticulous about technology and sound quality. He’s a superstar and self-described “rich hippie” who has near-universal credibility with indie artists. He is both “a hippie icon but also the godfather of grunge,” says the Polyphonic video above.

Young’s many seeming contradictions only strengthen his musical integrity. The shaggy Canadian singer, songwriter, guitarist, and leader of Buffalo Springfield and Crazy Horse has made films under the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey,” recorded soundtracks for acclaimed films, and inspired far more than the signature Seattle sound, though Pearl Jam and Nirvana both acknowledged their debt.

The Velvet Underground may get much of the credit for the sonic qualities of indie and alternative rock, but Young deserves more than a little recognition for influencing not only Kurt Cobain but also the likes of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus.

It’s a hell of a rock and roll resume, to have achieved lasting, significant influence on modern folk, country, and indie rock, just to name the most obvious genres Young has touched, in a career showcasing some of the most emotionally honest music ever captured on record. Despite the shambling, seemingly out-of-control nature of much of his output, it’s a very carefully crafted showcase. The 1979 live album Rust Never Sleeps, for example, functions as both a summation of his musical output up to that point and a metacommentary on the many—or well, the two—sides of Neil Young.

On one side, mellow, moody, solo acoustic folk, on the other, raucous, distorted rock and roll, courtesy of Crazy Horse. Bookending the record, the mirror image songs “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” tracks that apply the two different treatments to similar lyrics and arrangements, integrating the two sides of Young, which Polyphonic roughly divides into his acoustic Canadian pastoral side—warbling homesick ballads full of references to Ontario and other points north—and his American side: raw, edgy, full of righteous political indignation in songs like “Ohio, “Southern Man,” “Alabama,” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Those who love Neil Young need no further inducement to embrace his contradictions, even when his work is uneven. The tension between them keeps fans hanging on, knowing full well that his less successful efforts are paths on the way to yet more brilliant restatements of his major themes and minor chords. Those less familiar, or less appreciative, of Neil Young’s formidable legacy may find they’ve underestimated him after watching this whirlwind tour through his tireless crusade against musical complacency, war, racism, and environment destruction, and the rust that has crept over so many of his contemporaries.

Related Content:

When Neil Young & Rick James Created the 60’s Motown Band, The Mynah Birds

Neil Young Performs Classic Songs in 1971 Concert: “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold” & More

Neil Young’s Film “Le Noise” Debuts Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Andy Riggs says:

    Very good not sure he was the leader of Buffalo Springfield – Stills & Furay may have something to say about that ?

  • John Welcome says:

    I have been a Neil Young fan for almost 50 years people ask me what my favorite Neil Young song is. I tell them whichever one I’m listening to now.

  • Antonio mennite says:

    I migrated to US in 74 and didn’t pay attention to music too much i did not speak any English. I came to know about Neil Young a few years ago and saw him perform live at Saratoga NY .at 63 years of age i started taking guitar lessons for the very first time .I like Young’s music the best and that’s what i try to learn and play.What a great Artist !!! May He go on for ever!!!

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