Young, Neil (1945—)

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Young, Neil (1945—)

A modest commercial success in the late 1970s, Neil Young's heavy-rocking music had a profound impact on young musicians who started a new movement of grunge rock in the 1990s, leading many to dub him the "godfather of grunge." From his beginnings in the mid-1960s rock band Buffalo Springfield, to his intermittent stints as a 1970s acoustic singer-songwriter and hard-rocker, on through his 1990s incarnation as grunge's guru, Neil Young has spent his career ducking audience expectations. This US-based Canadian expatriate's idiosyncratic and sometimes perverse approach to music-making has allowed him to be perhaps the only member of his generation to maintain critical respect years after most of his peers began artistically treading water.

On his varied and numerous albums Neil Young has worn many hats, including those of folk-rocker, acoustic singer-songwriter, rockabilly artist, hard-rocker, punk-rocker, techno-dance artist, and blues guitarist. His body of work, which is matched in its depth and breadth only by Bob Dylan, is characterized by a sense of restlessness and experimentalism. More often than not it is the contrasting acoustic Neil Young and distorted-guitar-meltdown Neil Young that are most prominent.

After leaving Buffalo Springfield he released two solo albums in 1969 that would set a pattern for the rest of his career. His self-titled debut album featured country and folk-styled songs, utilizing acoustic guitars buffeted by lush string sections and tasteful female backing vocals. His second album, released a few months later, was a collaboration with an unknown garage band called Crazy Horse, a group Young would use throughout the rest of his career. The Crazy Horse collaboration, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, showed off Young's other half—the hard rocking, noisy side.

Most of his 1970s albums would follow this pattern, with Harvest and Comes a Time filling his acoustic singer-songwriter shoes and Tonight's the Night and Zuma satisfying his craving for molten-hot guitar distortion. Young's artistic and commercial success reached its zenith with 1979's Rust Never Sleeps, which incorporated both musical tendencies into one album split into a quiet side and a loud side.

During the 1980s, Young's career began to falter as he released a series of wildly varying albums that incorporated rockabilly, garage rock, electronic dance, folk, country, and blues. His records weren't selling, and his new label Geffen sued him for releasing noncommercial, non-Neil Young-like albums. From 1983 to 1988 Young confused and lost much of his audience, but with the release of 1989's Freedom he began to regain the critical and commercial clout that had dissipated in the 1980s.

Another key to Young's career rejuvenation (that had little to do with his then-current output) was the changing musical climate during the late-1980s and early-1990s: the rise of alternative guitar rock. One marker that signaled Young's reincarnation as the "godfather of grunge" was the release of the Neil Young tribute album The Bridge in 1989. This compilation album featured contributions by the likes of Soul Asylum, Flaming Lips, The Pixies, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr.—all of whom became minor or major mainstream successes. By the early 1990s, Young was named by the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam (who later played with Young) as a main influence. Young cultivated this fandom by playing the most rocking, noisy music of his career and by taking guitar experimentalists Sonic Youth and grunge kings Pearl Jam on the road with him.

Young's influence over young grunge musicians took a sad turn when Nirvana's Kurt Cobain referenced a well-known Neil Young lyric in his suicide note, stating "it's better to burn out than it is to rust," a line from "Hey Hey, My My." Young reacted to this by recording Sleeps with Angels, a mournful low-key album filled with meditations on death and depression that served as a eulogy for Cobain. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Young continued to release a series of solid but stylistically similar live and studio albums, primarily with his longtime band Crazy Horse.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Williams, Paul. Neil Young: Love to Burn: Thirty Years of Speaking Out, 1966-1996. New York, Omnibus, 1997.

Young, Neil, and J. McDonough. Neil Young. New York, RandomHouse, 1998.