The notion of being “introduced” to Neil Young seems ridiculous: In the 1970s, his music was always in the air, and on the air. On rock stations like WPLJ and WNEW (which all the cool kids listened to), and even Top 40 stations like 99X (which I listened to until it switched formats to disco and then the cool kids and Dr. Johnny Fever shamed me into listening to the rock stations), they were always playing songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Ohio” and “Southern Man” and “Like a Hurricane” and that one with the line about “Johnny Rotten,” whoever that was.
At some point, I’m pretty sure, my friend Chris, who wasn’t one of the cool kids but had a lot of surprisingly cool musical tastes, brought over a copy of Live Rust, the live album recorded on the tour for Rust Never Sleeps, the album with that song with the Johnny Rotten reference. (Rust Never Sleeps, I would find out years later, was also recorded mostly live on a previous tour, but was considered a studio album, while there was also a movie called Rust Never Sleeps that was of the concert that on record was called Live Rust. These was just some of the many things about Neil Young I would have to puzzle out in coming years.) It was pretty cool: There were a bunch of sweet acoustic songs I’d never heard, like “Sugar Mountain” with its lyrics about not wanting to grow up; and then a bunch of rocking electric songs I’d never heard, like “Cortez the Killer,” with its lyrics about brave and strong Incas and the European conquerer who came to slaughter them and, for some reason, a woman who still lives there and “loves me till this day.” And there was some bizarrely fascinating banter, like a reenactment of the scene in the film of the Woodstock festival (which I’d never seen, but would soon enough) where someone announced from the stage, “Maybe if we try real hard we can stop this rain! NO RAIN! NO RAIN!”
Something was happening here, and what it was wasn’t exactly clear.
More information became available a couple of years later, when Neil played a show at the Beacon Theater, an old movie palace that was only a few blocks from my house growing up. I would see pretty much anyone halfway interesting who played at the Beacon (I later went to a show by GTR, a deservedly short-lived band featuring Steve Howe from Yes and Steve Hackett from Genesis, which will not be showing up on this site under any circumstances), so Neil Young was a no-brainer. I’d only been to a couple of concerts ever at this point, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this: Neil, alone on stage, wandering among a few guitars and a piano, searching his pockets for the right harmonicas and singing songs from all over his discography, and some from off the map entirely. After playing the then-unreleased “Too Far Gone,” he quipped, “If I’d known you’da liked it that much, I woulda put it on the record.” It was enough to make me a fan for life, even if bits of it were kind of weird.
Okay, more than kind of weird. The acoustic set was just the opening act, it turned out: After a little over an hour, Neil left the stage, and returned with a full band in the rockabilly guise under which he’d recorded his recent album “Everybody’s Rockin’.” While it wasn’t exactly bad, it was also a puzzling encore to what had been a folk-rock master class.
Thirty years later, my feelings haven’t changed much. One can’t exactly have a love/hate relationship with Neil Young — it’s more like love/bafflement. I’ve since followed him through some of the greatest albums (and shows) I’ve ever heard — just last week I took part in a Facebook debate over which of his 1970s albums, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere/After the Gold Rush/Harvest or On the Beach/Tonight’s the Night/Zuma, might be the best three consecutive albums by any artist — and some of the worst as well. (This is a man who in complete seriousness released an entire album of nothing but guitar feedback. Eat that, Lou Reed.) Sometimes it’s impossible to separate out which is which, as in possibly my favorite Neil Young lyric of all time, from 1975’s Tonight’s The Night:
It’s too dark to put the keys in my ignition
And the morning sun has yet to climb my
A lyric that only Neil Young could get away with? A lyric that not even he should have tried to? Is there a difference?
After a stellar solo show at Jones Beach in 1989 (accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith and with a special guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen), I went years without seeing another Neil Young show because they were always at the Enormodome. Finally, in 2012, I went to see him during his maybe-final tour with Crazy Horse; I hated it. (I can’t say how much was due to self-indulgent feedback solos, how much to the self-indulgent record he was then touring, and how much due to it being at the Enormodome.) A year later he played solo at Carnegie Hall and I skipped it; I later saw a video of it and he was terrific. Most recently, in the last year he has divorced his wife of 36 years, started dating Daryl Hannah, and written and recorded an entire album about it, using an orchestra and a vintage microphone that once belonged to Barbra Streisand.
There is no excusing this kind of thing; there is barely any understanding it. It is all part and parcel of what makes Neil, as he loved to say of others in Jimmy McDonough’s fascinating biography of him, Shakey, an “inneresting character.” There’s a recording of a Neil Young show from 1971 in which he pauses in the middle of playing “Sugar Mountain” to explain that he initially wrote 126 verses to the song, and purposely left in the absolute worst one, “just to show what can happen.” Whether that’s true or just a story that his muse told him sounded good at the time, it’s about as Neil Young a concept as you can get.