Wednesday 17 July 2019

Obituary: Pegi Young

Singer-songwriter and co-founder of the Bridge School for children with speech and physical impairments

INSTANT LOVE: Pegi with Neil Young in 2012
INSTANT LOVE: Pegi with Neil Young in 2012

Pegi Young, who has died of cancer aged 66, was a singer and songwriter who was inspired by the educational struggles of her son Ben, who suffers from cerebral palsy, to set up the Bridge School in California for children with physical and speech impairments.

She gave birth to Ben, her son with fellow-musician Neil Young, in the late 1970s, and they were frustrated to discover that there were no suitable educational establishments for him. Eventually, Young recalled in his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace: "She just blurted out, 'Why don't we just call your friends and put on a concert to raise money and start a school? We could get Bruce Springsteen'."

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In 1986, Springsteen was duly joined by Robin Williams, Tom Petty and a hastily reformed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY) in the first Bridge School benefit gig. Subsequent concerts, which continued until 2016, included appearances by Paul McCartney, The Who, Tony Bennett, Elton John, Sheryl Crow, Metallica and John Lee Hooker. The school has become a world leader in the fields of Augmentative and Alternative Communication and Assistive Technologies.

Pegi Young was born Margaret Mary Morton at San Mateo in California on December 1, 1952, one of five children. In her teens, she hitchhiked across North America, then lived in a tepee back in California, dabbling in music and songwriting.

In 1974, she was working as a waitress near Palo Alto when she met Neil Young, whose ranch was nearby. "I loved her instantly," he recalled. "In her eyes, I saw myself." He was an international star by then: his career had begun in earnest with Buffalo Springfield in the late 1960s and continued with CSNY; his solo albums After the Goldrush (1970) and Harvest (1972) had both been bestsellers.

Although Pegi had musical aspirations, she concentrated on family life: Young's son Zeke (from his relationship with the late actress Carrie Snodgress) also suffered from cerebral palsy, while their daughter Amber had epilepsy.

In 1983 Pegi sang with the Pinkettes, backing singers on her husband's Shocking Pinks rockabilly tour, and made several more appearances over the years, including backing Neil at the 1994 Academy Awards ceremony on his Oscar-nominated title song to the film Philadelphia.

"Even with all of the great singers I have sung with, there is nothing like singing with Pegi," Young wrote. But her first solo album, self-titled and recorded in the studio at the couple's Broken Arrow ranch in California, did not appear until 2007.

More well-received LPs followed before Neil filed for divorce in 2014, having begun a relationship with the actress and activist Daryl Hannah. Pegi put together a band, the Survivors, with whom she toured and recorded. During one show in Los Angeles, while the divorce was being finalised, she told the audience: "What do you do when you get dumped after 36 years? You just start over."

Pegi Young stayed at Broken Arrow ranch after the divorce, modernising the studio there. Her final album was Raw (2016), which lived up to its title as she laid bare her anger and distress.

"My life had been turned upside down," she told a journalist when the album was released. "I didn't want to mince words. 'Rollercoaster' would be the operative word. In the immediate aftermath of the separation, I just wrote and wrote and wrote."

Pegi Young, who died on January 1, is survived by her daughter, son and stepson.

© Telegraph

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