Watching him onstage I couldn’t see any sign of tension: just a tall thin kid slouching on a plain wooden chair between a couple of acoustic guitars and a piano, singing to 3,000 people in that clear, high, quavering voice of his. He’s always loved simple things, such as trees and getting up early, mornings in the country, so that I found myself wondering what he was doing here of all places. He looked lonely. “You have to be good at Carnegie Hall,” Neil Young, my younger brother, had told me three weeks earlier by
phone from his ranch south of San Francisco. “The money you make there isn’t important. I’d do it for nothing. It’s playing Carnegie Hall — that’s the important thing.” And so he had worked hard for this night, December 4, 1970, and when he walked onto the most famous stage in New York wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and work boots, I was sure he was ready. His limp would be noticeable if you knew he’d caught polio 19 years ago at our home in Omemee, Ontario, when he was six. No one in the crowd knew that, though.
They didn’t know that Neil’s and my father, Scott Young, the Toronto sportswriter, was there with them and apart from them, as fathers always are, I guess, from the contemporaries of their sons. This was a young crowd — there was enough hair in our row to stuff a sofa — and apart from that and their determinedly scruffy clothes what they all had in common was a devotion, not fanatical but considered, to Neil Young. His Friday concert had sold out in 25 minutes flat and a Saturday concert had been added. Some of his fans had stood in line for two days to get tickets.
To the fans he was a veteran of the super-group called Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young, then a folk singer who had made it big on his own with two solo gold albums to his credit: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and, his latest, After The Gold Rush. But my father watched this solemn, woodsy - looking character and his shoulder - length, grey - flecked black hair and must have compared him with the easy though never conventional boy he’d known. After a while he leaned over and said to me, “Neil hasn’t changed so much.”
I knew then that he was listening closely to the lyrics — you can learn a lot about where Neil’s at from his songs. One national critic in the States described him as “probably the best young lamenter around.” I think he meant that Neil’s melancholy was tempered with sense and a love of life. Jack Batten, the Toronto pop critic, said the same sort of thing another way: “There is, not to put too fine a point on it, no crap about him.” His lyrics, like the tunes he sets them to, are simple but effective, and some of them are memorable :
After all the sin we’ve had I’ve been hopin’ that you’d turn bad.
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold . . . and I’m gettin’ old. and
I’m sorry for the things I’ve done.
I’ve shamed myself with lies.
But soon these things are overcome.
And can’t be recognized.
“They’re loud and boisterous, but they listen,” Neil said of the Friday crowd. To placate them he sang 23 songs — more than two complete albums. They expressed a need for him that sometimes reminded me of a family dispute. “I’m going to do a new song now,” he said, “one I’ll be
NEIL'S MELANCHOLY IS TEMPERED WITH SENSE AND A LOVE OF LIFE
doing on The Johnny Cash Show in a couple of weeks.” There was a spontaneous response from somebody sitting behind me: “Why? Why with Cash, man?” He was theirs, not the media hucksters’. He had no answer to that, or to the girl who broke everybody up when Neil introduced a song called Sugar Mountain. “Does anyone know Sugar Mountain?” And then this shrill voice from what sounded like the fourth balcony: “I do, Neil! Ethel, Ethel Leibowitz, Neil! Remember?” At the end of the concert he got a standing ovation. Back-
stage he had to beat his way across the dressing room to talk to our father, our stepmother, me and — according to his manager, Elliot Roberts — “about 800 relatives.” It was difficult to carry on a conversation. Jack Nicholson of Five Easy Pieces came into the dressing room and told Neil excitedly, “You sold out Carnegie Hall, man, you sold out!” Neil said later that he sounded just like one of the family.
Back in Toronto my father reviewed the concert in his column, opposite reports of the Muhammad AliOscar Bonavena fight. I like to think that for some readers it was a pleasant departure. He wrote, in part: “I suppose I did the things that a father might do in the circumstances. I went around hours before the concert just to walk by and see the posters. Passing there in the cold wind, I thought of the other good musicians in the family who, for one reason or another (I guess there are quite a few), never made it to Carnegie Hall ... I turned up my collar and kept on walking, and I will not tell you my thoughts, because they were my own.”
Well, he had a lot to think about. Neil’s musical career began inauspiciously in North Toronto in 1958, the Christmas he was 13, when my father bought him a plastic ukelele as a stocking stuffer. Soon after that our parents separated and Neil and Rassy — that’s our mother’s nickname — moved to Winnipeg, her hometown. I visited them there whenever I could get away from Toronto, where I had stayed not wanting to move to a new city. By this time Neil had traded a banjo he’d acquired somehow for an acoustic guitar of doubtful tonal quality. On the way to Winnipeg he and Rassy had made a deal: Neil could play the guitar all he wanted as long as he stopped biting his fingernails.
Rassy is a fighter, especially where Neil and I are concerned. She’s largely responsible for Neil’s success today. She has black flashing eyes and her voice is deep — telephone operators keep calling her “sir.” She doesn’t take any nonsense. She smokes too many Black Cat Plain cigarettes and she drinks quite a lot of beer. She spends her summers in Winnipeg with her 85-year-old father and her winters playing golf and walking on the beach in Florida. At some point she became convinced that Neil’s music was worth fighting for, and she’s never stopped. She was Neil’s first fan, his greatest supporter, and he needed her. She battled on his behalf and, too
often it seemed to me, the battles were with our father.
In Winnipeg Neil and Rassy lived in an apartment on Corydon Avenue. He started to hang around dances at community clubs and schools where good local groups were playing. At 15 he was a fan of a group called The Reflections whose bass player, Jimmy Kale, later made it with The Guess Who. A couple of years later Neil joined his first group, The Squires. His amplifier promptly blew up — and the explosion reverberated all the way to Toronto and back.
“You know,” my father told me a few weeks before we went to New York, “everybody thought it was a terrible thing when I wouldn’t lend Neil the $600 for a new amplifier. But Neil had written and told me he was doing better in school. Then his report card came and he wasn’t doing better at all . . By this time Rassy had come to feel that no one could put such love into anything that wasn’t vital to his future. “When that bloody amplifier blew up it was a catastrophe,” she says today. “The Squires couldn’t function without an amp.” So she bought one with her savings — she was then a panelist on a TV show out of Winnipeg called Twenty Questions. Rassy realized that Neil was one kid who didn’t have to get anywhere at school. Neil dropped out of Kelvin High School that same year, the fall of 1962, with most of grade 10, part of grade 11 and not all of grade nine. The only subject he’d been interested in was English.
The Squires got to be very popular in Winnipeg, and Rassy, their booking agent and troubleshooter, soon was well known to every local disc jockey and entertainment writer. Nothing stopped her. Once a school official tried to cancel a dance because a local rock station had publicized it.
“The goddam fool was afraid of undesirables from other schools,” said Rassy at the time. “He told me all about camp followers during the Wars of the Roses. So I told this idiot that if he wanted to cancel the dance, that was fine with me. The contract read that .The Squires got paid regardless, and I’d be right over to pick up the cheque. He soon backed down.”
The group acquired strategic adult support in Rassy’s landlord — by this time they’d moved into the top of an old house in the rather reserved Winnipeg suburb of River Heights — and a police constable. “Pay no attention to complaints,” said the landlord after thunderous rehearsals had upset the
H IS MUSIC ALWAYS HAD A SORT OF FORLORN AND DESOLATE UNDERTONE
neighbors. The constable made several apologetic visits and finally took to sitting in on drums. “A cop with a heart,” says Rassy, “remembered fondly by us all.”
By the fall of 1964 Neil was doing his own arrangements for The Squires and had started, very tentatively, to write songs. He was uncertain of his voice, then, an uncertainty that was to last five years until it became a fear that adversely affected his first solo album, Neil Young. Only Rassy, working around the house and listening to Neil, sensed that he was finding
himself and that the journey that would lead to Carnegie Hall had begun. “To me his music always had a sort of forlorn and desolate undertone,” she told me recently. “At times I would wonder why his face would light up with a sort of joy when he’d play something he’d composed that was so sad it brought tears to my eyes.”
But the road to New York was long and tortuous. The Squires traveled in Neil’s 1948 hearse to bookings in Thunder Bay and Churchill, then broke up. Neil spent most of a year in Toronto, getting nowhere. He and a bass player, Bruce Palmer, set out for Los Angeles in another old hearse — a journey that ended with Neil’s confinement in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, hospital for shock and exhaustion following a traffic accident.
That was rock bottom. Then, in a letter to Rassy written in April, 1966, he related how he and Bruce had teamed up with three other musicians in Hollywood: “We have formed a group in which we’ll do all our own material . . . The group is called Buffalo Springfield, for no particular reason.” After all the false starts he was on his way at last.
Rassy came to the second Saturday concert at Carnegie Hall. Like my father she had read the posters outside and I’d heard her say quietly, “Sold out. My God!” Inside she was quiet, a rare thing with her. She sat transfixed as the lights went down and Neil walked across the stage to his chair. He gave what he felt was the better performance of the two. “Looser,” he said. He’d been very nervous before the first concert. There were just the three of us backstage that night, with a guard at the door. Neil’s manager saw to that — he knew that there was no way Rassy was going to stand in line to talk to her son.
I let them talk. I was thinking about Neil. He wasn’t an altogether happy guy, I knew. His marriage had recently ended in divorce and it hurt him deeply. He had gone back to Omemee last summer to think it through. There was nothing different about him now. There was one quality about him that had always set him apart, it seemed to me. He was a kid who had kept on moving toward his own undefined goal, no matter what. And all of a sudden I remembered him as a seven-year-old walking down the main street of Omemee, a fishing pole over his shoulder, unconcerned while a bunch of cats snapped and clawed at the fish dragging in a tangled line behind him. ■
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