Ahead of Neil Young's Kilkenny concert, Barry Egan remembers his greatest moments - and music
In the late 1990s, Mr Neil Young was asked, unwisely, how he felt being called The godfather of Grunge. He thought about it for a second before harrumphing hilariously: "I prefer Don Grungio..."
Don Grungio is playing Nowlan Park in Kilkenny this Sunday. God — or Bob Dylan — only knows what Young will get up before he goes onstage at 5.30pm. He might even take some pals out on a boat with giant speakers to play them his latest recording. Disciples of Young might be aware of the famous - and for once - actually true story involving his 1972 album Harvest.
Graham Nash, of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, arrived one afternoon at Young’s fine ranch south of San Francisco. Young enquired of Nash whether he wanted to hear an album he had just finished. When Nash started walking towards Young's studio, Young turned to him and pointed towards the lake nearby.
"Get into the rowboat,’” Young said.
"Get into the rowboat?’" Nash asked, puzzled.
"Yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake," Young replied.
Shortly after Young and Nash had rowed out into the exact spot on the lake the creator of Harvest had wanted. Young had no brought a cassette player and headphones for Nash to listen to the new album.
"He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker," recalled years later, "And I heard Harvest coming out of these two incredibly large loud speakers louder than hell. It was unbelievable."
Legend has that when the producer of Harvest, Elliot Mazer, arrived at the edge of the lake, he shouted to Young: "How was that, Neil?" To which Young roared back: "More barn!’” In 2016, Young when asked was the story true had this to say.
“Well it’s funny," he began, "it’s just a little thing that happened one day and it keeps growing and getting crazier. But I had the left speaker, big speakers set up in my house with the windows open. And I had the PA system — that we used to rehearse and record with in the barn where I recorded Alabama and Words and a couple other things — over there playing the right-hand channel. So, we were sitting in between them on a little lake and that’s what we were doing.”
Did Young really shout back to Mazer, "More Barn!”?
“Yeah,” laughed Young, “I think it was a little house heavy.”
That’s my favourite Neil Young story. (My second favourite Neil Young story involves the current president of the United States. In which Mr Trump at Madison Square Gardens in New York in 2006 was “grooving” to Young sing Let’s Impeach The President, from Young’s 2006 studio album Living with War:
‘Let's impeach the President for lying
'And misleading our country into war
'Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door.’
As Graham Nash told Mojo: “He [Trump] was right in the centre of Row 8, sitting next to Salman Rushdie, for God’s sake! You can’t make this shit up!”)
Here are a few of my favourite Neil Young songs. You might have heard some of these stories before, but they are worth retelling:
Paul Weller does a fin version of this. Young wrote the song in 15 minutes. In 15 minutes when he saw some photographs in Life magazine documenting what had happened at Kent State University on the orders of President Nixon: on May 4, 197. the National Guard fire into the middle of a protest and killed four students.
"You wouldn't believe this fucking song Neil's written," David Crosby told Graham Nash. And all these years on, none of us can f**king believe the simple power of Ohio, one of the finest counter-culture fight-the-power anthems of the age. In 1977, Young said that “it’s still hard to believe I had to write this song. It’s ironic that I capitalised on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning,” he said with profound irony referring to Kent State University where the students were mowed down.
David Crosby broke down in the studio hearing Young sing the lines of one of the most compelling Crosby Stills Nash and Young songs: Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Heart of Gold
What’s not to love about this mellow masterpiece? Ironically — given who Neil is supporting at Kilkenny on Sunday — it was a certain singer songwriter from Hibbing who upon hearing Heart of Gold in 1972 said this: "I used to hate it when it came on the radio," Dylan said in an interview 1985.
"I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to 'Heart of Gold.' I think it was up at Number One for a long time, and I'd say, 'Shit, that's me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.'" Be that as it may, Young himself said himself in the liner note on his Decade album in 1977. "This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.
A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there." He later added: “Good thing I got past that stage. I thought the record was good. But I knew something else was dying.”
Neil wrote this song as a 19 year old about leaving his childhood behind. (A beautiful semi of Sugar Mountain is found on 2009's Archives Volume 1. ) In 1971, Young’s friend – and Graham Nash’s ex - Joni Mitchell gave some background to the song, and indeed young Young:
"In 1965 I was up in Canada, and there was a friend of mine up there who had just left a rock'n'roll band (...) he had just newly turned 21, and that meant he was no longer allowed into his favourite haunt, which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you're over 21 you couldn't get back in there anymore; so he was really feeling terrible because his girlfriends and everybody that he wanted to hang out with, his band could still go there, you know, but it's one of the things that drove him to become a folk singer was that he couldn't play in this club anymore.
'Cause he was over the hill. (...) So he wrote this song that was called "Oh to live on sugar mountain" which was a lament for his lost youth. (...) And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 and there's nothing after that, that's a pretty bleak future.."
“Did I see you down in a young girl's town
With your mother in so much pain?
I was almost there at the top of the stairs
With her screamin' in the rain"
Young sings like only he can, a mixture of pain and vulnerability and beauty. Read Jimmy McDonough's fascinating book Shak: in it, we are told that Young and his then-girlfriend, actress Carrie Snodgrass, were hallucinating on LSD. And Young during the acid trip asked Carrie to remember her alcoholic mother Carolyn. She would pretend to be suicidal in order to test the love of Carrie.
The Needle And The Damage Done
“I caught you knocking
at my cellar door
I love you, baby
can I have some more?” sings Young on this, one of the most hauntingly sad songs ever written. "Danny just wasn't happy", Young said of Crazy Horse legend Danny Whitten who died tragically of drug overdose on May 18, 1972 aged just 29.
"It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give, boy. He was really good." His death prompted Young to write The Needle And The Damage Done. There is a story that Young held onto guilt that he fired heroin addict Whitten on November 18, 1972, and gave the 29-year-old a plane ticket to LA. And not long after, Whitten spent fifty dollars on smack and OD-ed.)
Rockin’ In The Free World
Like Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, this angry political rage recorded in mid-1989 was much misunderstood. I suppose if you think Neil Young (and Bruce Springsteen) is cheer-leading for Reagan and western civilisation capitalism then that says more about you perhaps that it does Neil Young (and Bruce Springsteen.) It is great played really loud (something Don Grungio is not adverse to).His late manager Elliot Roberts once said of Young’s political passion for truth:
"If he watches TV on the road and there's a CNN special on Bosnia, Neil wants do a record and a benefit within two days." While Young himself said of Rockin’ In The Free World: “The lyrics are just a description of events going on every day in America. Sure I’m concerned for my children, particularly my eldest son, and he’s a Guns N’Roses fan.
"He has to face drugs every day in the school yard that are way stronger than anything I got offered in most of my years as a professional musician. This is like the Bible. It’s all completely out of control. The drugs are gonna be all over the streets of Europe. We’ve got a lot to deal with here.”
Old Man Young
Is there a better song about mortality and not being young any more? (Of course there is. And Bob Dylan would point you to his back catalogue. ) Young father, Scott thought the song was written about him. Young said Old Man was written about a fella who worked on his Broken Arrow ranch.
“When I bought the place there was this old man who was working there for the people I bought it from. He was about 70 years old. He was a cattleman and that’s like something that’s never going to happen again, so I wrote a song about it,” he claimed.
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Saint Etienne do a lovely version of this on their 1991 Foxbase Alpha album. Young’s original was apparently penned for Graham Nash after he broke up with Joni Mitchell in 1970: ‘When you were young
And on your own
How did it feel
To be alone?
I was always thinking
Of games that I was playing
Trying to make
The best of my time
“Harvest Moon is about continuance, about trying to keep the flame burning. It’s about the feeling that you don’t have to be young to be young,” Young explained when Harvest Moon came out in 1992.
Another song that is difficult to get out of your head once you hear it. The "town in North Ontario" referred to in the opening line of Helpless is about a feeling, as he told Mojo magazine: "Well, it's not literally a specific town so much as a feeling. Actually, it's a couple of towns. Omemee, Ontario, is one of them. It's where I first went to school and spent my 'formative' years. Actually I was born in Toronto..."
Lest we forget, Young’s rendition of Helpless at The Last Waltz in 1976 was delivered – as The Band’s Levon Helm wrote in his memoir This Wheel’s On Fire - “with a good-size rock of cocaine stuck in his nostril. They had to go to special effects people who developed what they called a 'traveling booger matte' that sanitized Neil's nostrils and put 'Helpless' in the movie."
Sorry, I can’t stick to ten for Neil Young; it is just too difficult. So, let’s go to eleven, ok? Old hippies like Young were never that bothered about numbers.
What a guitar sound. What a lyric (‘A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night / You see us together / Chasing the moonlight’ ). Young explained in 1977 that he wrote Cinnamon Girl for “this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs’ eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.”
Girl From North Country
From the 2014 album A Letter Home, recorded at Jack White‘s Nashville music shop on a Voice-O-Graph–a super-low-def 1947 thingiemajig. This version of Bob’s
Girl From North Country is magical, even more magical for Young’s spoken introduction to the song. .
“It’s great to be able to talk to you. I haven’t been able to talk to you in a really long time,” Young says addressing hisbeloved mother Edna, who had passed away in 1990. “My friend Jack has got this box that I can talk to you from. I’m glad to be able to send you this message, and tell you how much I love you, and also tell you that I think you should start talking to daddy again. Since you’re both there together, there’s no reason not to talk.”
If Young plays it on Sunday in Nowlan Parl, I will be shouting up at him: “More barn!” I imagine barns are easier to find in Kilkenny than boats.