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

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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!!!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.