Friday, February 24, 2012

The #77 Guitarist of the Rock Era: Neil Young

The next guitarist has been a fixture of the Rock Era, he's been right there at the front line helping to shape it:
#77:  Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and solo artist
53 years as an active guitarist
("Cinnamon Girl" live)

Neil Percival Young was born November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He began performing at the age of 15 in Canada, before moving to California and co-founding Buffalo Springfield.  Young later joined Crosby, Stills & Nash as a fourth member in 1969 and has periodically rejoined his mates from time to time at live shows.  Neil has released over 34 studio albums as a solo performer.

Young is a great experimenter, delving into several musical styles and techniques.  He began to take an interest in popular songs that he heard on the famous radio station CHUM in Toronto in the early 1950's, particularly rock and roll, rockabilly, doo-wop and R&B.  Young idolized Elvis Presley; other influences were Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Monotones.  Young began playing a plastic ukulele, then progressed to a better ukulele to a banjo ukulele to a baritone ukulele.

Neil and his mother soon settle in Fort Rouge, Winnipeg and Neil went to Earl Grey Junior High School.  Neil formed his first band the Jades at Earl Grey and later played in several instrumental rock bands at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg.  Young's first stable group was the Squires.

After leaving the Squires, Young worked the folk music circuit in Winnipeg and wrote several songs including "Sugar Mountain" and "Flying on the Ground is Wrong", a Canadian hit for Winnipeg group the Guess Who.  In 1965, Young toured Canada as a solo performer, then joined the group Mynah Birds, which was led by Rick James.  The group signed a record deal with Motown but disbanded after James was arrested for being AWOL from the Naval Reserve.

Young and bass player Bruce Palmer moved to Los Angeles and met Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin.  They started the group Buffalo Springfield, which played a mix of folk, country, psychedelia and rock.  The group was a critical and popular success but when Palmer was arrested and deported, the group split after just three albums. 

Young then signed a solo recording contract with Reprise Records, home of colleague and friend Joni Mitchell.  Young and manager Elliot Roberts began working on his debut album Neil Young from 1968.  For his follow-up, Young brought in guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on drums.  The three musicians named themselves Crazy Horse and the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in 1969 is credited to Neil Young with Crazy Horse.  It includes the live staple "Cinnamon Girl".

Shortly after the release of his second album, Young joined the trio Crosby, Stills & Nash and the quartet debuted in Chicago, Illinois on August 16, 1969.  They were one of the featured attractions at Woodstock, although Young skipped the acoustic set and refused to be filmed during the electric set.   During the making of the CSNY album Deja Vu, Stills and Young argued and fought for control of the group.  Young wrote "Ohio" for the album, one of The Most Important Songs of the Rock Era*.

Deja Vu became a big hit and is still one of the great albums of the Rock Era.  Later in 1970, Young released the album After the Gold Rush.  He dismissed Crazy Horse early in the sessions and enlisted the help of Stills, CSNY bass guitarist Greg Reeves and Nils Lofgren.  It was some of Young's best work, including the biting "Southern Man" and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart".  Neil went on tour to promote the album, including a sold out show at Carnegie Hall in New York City and two acclaimed shows at Massey Hall in Toronto.

In 1972, Young released another of his great albums--HarvestHarvest included the #1 "Heart of Gold" as well as the popular "Old Man".  While Harvest was a commercial success, Neil's next three albums were collectively known as the "Ditch Trilogy", three failures that dealt with conflicts he was feeling and the decaying idealism of his generation in America.

Young's eighth solo album, Zuma in 1975 included "Cortez the Killer", a retelling of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.   He did a project with Stills and in 1976, Young performed with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and others in the all-star concert The Last Waltz, the final performance by the Band.

By 1978, Young had formed a new Crazy Horse and went on the Rust Never Sleeps Tour, which featured an acoustic set and an uptempo, electric set.  It was highly successful and the two accompanying albums, Rust Never Sleeps (live recordings of new material with studio overdubs) and Live Rust (a mix of old and new songs recorded live).

Young did several albums with little success and appeared at the 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, reuniting with Crosby, Stills & Nash for the first time in ten years.  Neil's 1989 song "Rockin' in the Free World" from the album Freedom brought him back as a force in the music business.  The song deals with homelessness, terrorism and criticizes the policies of U.S. President George H.W. Bush.  The use of feedback and distortion on Freedom had a major influence on the rising grunge stars of the era, including Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. 

Alternative and grunge acts including Sonic Youth and Soul Asylum released a tribute album called The Bridge:  A Tribute to Neil Young later that year. and Social Distortion and Sonic Youth opened for Neil during a 1990 tour.  Young changed direction again, however, in 1992 with the release of Harvest Moon, which reunited him with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, who had helped Neil with the Harvest album.  In 1993, Young collaborated with Booker T. and the MG's on a summer tour of Europe and North America.  Pearl Jam joined him for the encore with a rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World" on some shows.  Young reconnected with Pearl Jam in 1995 for the album Mirror Ball.  Later that year, Neil was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, introduced by Vedder.

Young recorded the Soundtrack to "Dead Man" and in 1998, shared the stage with Phish at the annual Farm Aid concert.  In 1999, Young reunited again with Crosby, Stills and Nash for the Looking Forward album and subsequent tour that netted the quartet $42.1 million, the eighth largest tour of 2000.

The studio album Silver & Gold and live release Road Rock Vol. 1 were released in 2000 and his 2001 single "Let's Roll" was a tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks and effective action taken by the passengers of Flight 93.  While working on the Prairie Wind album in March of 2005, Young was diagnosed with a bran aneurysm. He was treated successfully, and eventually was back on stage, appearing at the Live 8 concert in Barrie, Ontario, Canada.

Young had resisted writing protest songs for some time, giving younger artists an opportunity, but when they didn't say anything, Neil came out with the 2006 album Living With War, another of his best career efforts.  The album dealt with themes from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the casualties that were escalating. 

Young's most recent appearance on an album was on Booker T. Jones' album Potato Hole, in which Young played guitar on nine of the album's tracks.  He continues to tour extensively as well, headlining the Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, England, where he was joined onstage by Paul McCartney for a rendition of "A Day in the Life".

An original founder of Live Aid, Neil is still on the board of directors for the project.  Each October, Neil and his wife host the Bridge School Concerts, which have drawn performers such as Sir Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, the Who, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, Sonic Youth and the Smashing Pumpkins in Mountain View, California.    Proceeds from the concert benefit the Bridge School, which uses advanced technologies to aid in the education of children with disabilities.

Young has received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1992 and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from San Francisco State University in 2006.  In 2006, Young was appointed to the Order of Manitoba, the highest civilian honour for a province and in 2009, Young was appointed to the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour in the nation.

Young uses a 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop nicknamed "Old Black" as his primary electric guitar.  A Minihumbucker pickup from a Gibson Firebird was installed in the lead/treble position in 1972 and is a key component of his guitar playing.  The Martin D-45 is Young's primary steel-string acoustic guitar that was bought by Stephen Stills in 1969.  Young also plays a Martin D-28 nicknamed "Hank" after previous owner Hank Williams.  Young also plays a Taylor 855 12-string, a 1927 Gibson Mastertone, a six-string bajo tuned like a guitar, a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins model , a GIbson Flying V, a Fender Broadcaster and a Gretsch White Falcon.

Young uses several vintage Fender Tweed Deluxe amplifiers.  The Tweed Deluxe is used in conjunction with a late-1950's Magnatone 280.  Young uses the Whizzer to control the Deluxe, which is connected to footswitches in the manner of an effects pedal.

A guy who has contributed much to the Rock Era--Neil Young at #77...

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