Young's work is characterized by his deeply personal lyrics, distinctive guitar work, and signature tenor singing voice. Although he accompanies himself on several different instruments, including piano and harmonica, his clawhammer acoustic guitar and often idiosyncratic electric guitar playing are the defining characteristics of a sometimes ragged, sometimes melodic sound. Although Young has experimented widely with differing music styles, including swing and electronic music throughout a varied career, his best known work usually falls into either of two distinct styles: acoustic folk and country rock and electric-charged hard rock, in collaboration with the band Crazy Horse. In recent years, Young has adopted elements from newer styles such as alternative rock and grunge. His profound influence on the latter caused some to dub him "the Godfather of Grunge". The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website begins their article on Young stating him to be "one of rock and roll’s greatest songwriters and performers". He was inducted into the Hall of Fame twice; first as a solo artist in 1995 and secondly as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997. Young has been nominated for multiple Grammy Awards and has won once.
Young has directed (or co-directed) a number of films using the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, including Journey Through the Past (1973), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), Human Highway (1982), Greendale (2003), and CSNY/Déjà Vu (2008). He is currently working on a documentary about electric car technology, tentatively titled Linc/Volt. The project involves a 1959 Lincoln Continental converted to hybrid technology, which Young plans to drive to Washington, D.C. as an environmentalist example to lawmakers there.
Young is an outspoken advocate for environmental issues and the welfare of small farmers, having co-founded in 1985 the benefit concert Farm Aid. In 1986, Young helped found The Bridge School, an educational organization for children with severe verbal and physical disabilities, and its annual supporting Bridge School Benefit concerts, together with his wife Pegi Young (née Morton). Young has three children: Zeke (born during his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress), Ben and Amber Jean (born to his wife Pegi). Zeke and Ben were diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and Amber Jean, like Young himself, with epilepsy.
Young lives on his ranch in La Honda, California. Although Young has lived in northern California since the 1970s and sings as frequently about U.S. themes and subjects as he does about his native country, he retains Canadian citizenship, which he has never wanted to relinquish. On July 14, 2006, Young was awarded the Order of Manitoba. On December 30, 2009, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Neil Percival Young was born on November 12, 1945, in Toronto, Ontario, to sportswriter and novelist Scott Young and Edna "Rassy" Young (née Ragland), who had moved to Toronto from their family home in Manitoba to pursue a sports journalism career. Neil spent his early childhood in the Toronto suburb of Pickering and the village of Omemee, northeast of Toronto. The village later established the Youngtown Museum in tribute to Young.
During the mid-fifties, at around the age of ten or eleven, Young was drawn to a variety of musical genres including rock and roll, rockabilly, doo-wop, R&B, country, and western pop. He would listen to pop music on the CHUM radio station, on his transistor radio as a boy. Young has stated in interviews that growing up he idolized Elvis Presley and strived to be just like him. When being interviewed by Guitare & Claviers Magazine, Young claims that the life of Presley had inspired some of his most famous songs such as "Hey, Hey, My, My" and "He Was The King". Young would watch Chuck Berry and Little Richard on TV in admiration. Young states in an interview with McDonough that the groups and artists whom he found most influential in his early years were Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, The Chantels, The Monotones, Ronnie Self, The Fleetwoods, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Gogi Grant.
Young was diagnosed with diabetes as a child and a bout of polio at the age of 6 left him with a weakened left side; he still walks with a slight limp.
His parents divorced when Young was 12, and he moved with his mother back to the family home of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where his music career began. Neil and his mother settled into the working class suburb of Fort Rouge where the shy, dry-humoured youth enrolled at Earl Grey Junior High School. It was there that he formed his first band the Jades, and met Ken Koblun, later to join him in the Squires.
While attending Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, he played in several instrumental rock bands. Young's first stable band was called the Squires, with Ken Koblun, Jeff Wuckert and Bill Edmondson on drums, who had a local hit called "The Sultan." Young dropped out of high school and also played in Fort William (now part of the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario), where they recorded a series of demos produced by a local producer named Ray Dee, whom Young called "the original Briggs." While there, Young first encountered Stephen Stills. In the 2006 film Heart of Gold Young relates how he used to spend time as a teenager at Falcon Lake, Manitoba where he would endlessly plug coins into the jukebox to hear Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds".
After leaving the Squires, Neil worked folk clubs in Winnipeg, where he first met Joni Mitchell. Here he wrote some of his earliest and most enduring folk songs such as the classic "Sugar Mountain", about lost youth. Mitchell wrote "The Circle Game" in response. Winnipeg band The Guess Who (Randy Bachman being their lead guitarist) had a Top 40 Canadian hit with Young's "Flying on the Ground is Wrong," which was Young's first major hit as a songwriter.
In 1965 Young toured Canada as a solo artist. In 1966, while in Toronto, he joined the Rick James-fronted Mynah Birds. The band managed to secure a record deal with the Motown label, but as their first album was being recorded, James was arrested for being AWOL from the Naval Reserve. After the Mynah Birds disbanded, Young and bass player Bruce Palmer relocated to Los Angeles. Young has admitted in an interview that he was in the United States illegally until receiving a green card in 1970.
Once they reached Los Angeles, Young and Palmer met up with Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and Dewey Martin to form Buffalo Springfield. A mixture of folk, country, psychedelia, and rock lent a hard edge by the twin lead guitars of Stills and Young made Buffalo Springfield a critical success, and their first record Buffalo Springfield (1967) sold well after Stills' topical song "For What It's Worth" became a hit, aided by Young's melodic harmonics played on electric guitar.
Distrust of their management, as well as the arrest and deportation of Palmer, exacerbated the already strained relations among the group members and led to Buffalo Springfield's demise. A second album, Buffalo Springfield Again, was released in late 1967, but two of Young’s three contributions were solo tracks recorded apart from the rest of the group.
In many ways, these three songs on Buffalo Springfield Again are harbingers of much of Young's later work in that, although they all share deeply personal, almost idiosyncratic lyrics, they also present three very different musical approaches to the arrangement of what is essentially an original folk song. "Mr Soul" is the only Young song of the three that all five members of the group perform together. In contrast, "Broken Arrow" was confessional folk rock of a kind that would characterize much of the music that emerged from the singer-songwriter movement. Young’s experimental production intersperses each verse with snippets of sound from other sources, including opening the song with a sound bite of Dewey Martin singing "Mr. Soul" and closing it with the thumping of a heartbeat. "Expecting to Fly" was a lushly produced ballad featuring a string arrangement that Young's co-producer for the track, Jack Nitzsche, would dub "symphonic pop."
In May 1968, the band split up for good, but in order to fulfill a contractual obligation, a final album Last Time Around was released, primarily from recordings made earlier that year. Young contributed the songs "On the Way Home" and "I Am a Child", singing lead on the latter. In 1997, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Young did not appear at the ceremony.
After the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young signed a solo deal with Reprise Records, home of his colleague and friend Joni Mitchell, with whom he shared a manager, Elliot Roberts, who manages Young to this day. Young and Roberts immediately began work on Young's first solo record, Neil Young (November 1968), which received mixed reviews. In a 1970 interview, Young deprecated the album as being "overdubbed rather than played," and the quest for music that expresses the spontaneity of the moment has long been a feature of his career. Nevertheless, the album contains some songs that remain a staple of his live shows, most notably "The Loner".
For his next album, Young recruited three musicians from a band called The Rockets: Danny Whitten on guitar, Billy Talbot on bass guitar, and Ralph Molina on drums. These three took the name Crazy Horse (after the historical figure of the same name), and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (May 1969), is credited to "Neil Young with Crazy Horse." Recorded in just two weeks, the album opens with one of Young's most familiar songs, "Cinnamon Girl," and is dominated by two more, "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Down by the River," that feature lengthy jams showcasing Young's idiosyncratic guitar soloing accompanied sympathetically by Crazy Horse. Young reportedly wrote all three songs on the same day, while nursing a high fever of 103 °F (39 °C) in bed.
Shortly after the release of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young reunited with Stephen Stills by joining Crosby, Stills, & Nash, who had already released one album as a trio. Young was originally offered a position as a sideman, but agreed to join only if he received full membership, and the group – winners of the 1969 "Best New Artist" Grammy Award – was renamed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The quartet debuted in Chicago on August 16, 1969, and later performed at the famous Woodstock Festival, during which Young skipped the acoustic set and refused to be filmed during the electric set, even telling the cameramen: "One of you fuckin' guys comes near me and I'm gonna fuckin' hit you with my guitar". During the making of their first album, Déjà Vu, the musicians frequently argued, particularly Young and Stills, who both fought for control. Stills continued throughout their lifelong relationship to criticize Young, saying that he "wanted to play folk music in a rock band". Despite the tension, Young's tenure with CSN&Y coincided with the band's most creative and successful period, and greatly contributed to his subsequent success as a solo artist.
"Ohio" was written following the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, and was a staple of anti-war rallies in the 1970s. The song was quickly recorded by CSNY and immediately released as a single, even though CSNY's "Teach Your Children" was still climbing the singles charts. Many believe that the release of "Ohio" as a single cut into the sales of "Teach Your Children" and prevented that song from reaching the top ten. In the late 1970s and for much of the 1980s, Young refrained from performing "Ohio" live, as he considered the song to be dated. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Young revived the song in concert, often dedicating it to the Chinese students who were killed in the massacre. Crosby, Stills & Nash, as a trio, also returned the song to their live repertoire around the same time, even though Young had provided the lead vocals on the original recording.
Also that year, Young released his third solo album, After the Gold Rush (1970), which featured, among others, a young Nils Lofgren, Stephen Stills, and CSNY bassist Greg Reeves. Young also recorded some tracks with Crazy Horse, but dismissed them early in the sessions. Aided by his newfound fame with CSNY, the album was a commercial breakthrough for Young and contains some of his best known work. Notable tracks include the title track, with dream-like lyrics that run a gamut of subjects from drugs and interpersonal relationships to environmental concerns, as well as Young’s controversial and acerbic condemnation of racism in "Southern Man," which, along with a later song entitled "Alabama," later prompted Lynyrd Skynyrd to decry Young by name in the lyrics to "Sweet Home Alabama". The respectful rivalry and friendship between Young and Skynyrd front man Ronnie Van Zant would serve as a recurring theme in the Drive-By Truckers' 2001 concept album Southern Rock Opera.
With CSNY splitting up and Crazy Horse having signed their own record deal, Young began the year 1971 with a solo tour entitled "Journey Through the Past." Later, he recruited a new group of country-music session musicians, whom he christened The Stray Gators, to record much of the new material that had been premiered on tour for the album Harvest (1972). Harvest was a massive hit and "Heart of Gold" became a US number one single. It remains the only No. 1 hit in his long career.
Another notable song was "The Needle and the Damage Done," a somber lament on the pain caused by heroin addiction; inspired in part by the heavy heroin use of Crazy Horse member Danny Whitten, who would eventually die of an overdose.
The album's success caught Young off guard, and his first instinct was to back away from stardom. In the handwritten liner notes to the Decade compilation, Young famously described "Heart of Gold" as the song that "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."
On September 8, 1972, the actress Carrie Snodgress, with whom he had been living, gave birth to Neil Young's first child. The boy, Zeke, was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Young fell in love with Snodgress after seeing her in a movie, Diary of a Mad Housewife on television after which Young wrote the song "A Man Needs a Maid" from the Harvest album, featuring the lyric "I fell in love with the actress/she was playing a part that I could understand."
Young's 1989 single "Rockin' in the Free World", which hit #2 on the U.S. charts, and accompanying album, Freedom, rocketed him back into the popular consciousness after a decade of sometimes-difficult genre experiments. The album's lyrics were often overtly political; "Rockin' in the Free World" deals with homelessness, terrorism, and environmental degradation, implicitly criticizing the government policies of President George H.W. Bush.
The use of heavy feedback and distortion on several Freedom tracks was reminiscent of the Rust Never Sleeps album, and foreshadowed the imminent rise of grunge. The rising stars of the genre, including Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, frequently cited Young as a major influence, contributing to his popular revival. A tribute album called The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young was released in 1989, featuring covers by alternative and grunge acts including Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Soul Asylum, Dinosaur Jr, and the Pixies.
Young's 1990 album Ragged Glory, recorded with Crazy Horse in a barn on his Northern California ranch, continued this distortion-heavy aesthetic. Young toured for the album with Orange County, California country-punk band Social Distortion and alternative rock elder statesmen Sonic Youth as support, much to the consternation of many of his old fans. Weld, a two-disc live album documenting the tour, was released in 1991. Sonic Youth's influence was most evident on Arc, a 35-minute collage of feedback and distortion spliced together at the suggestion of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and originally packaged with some versions of Weld.
1992's Harvest Moon marked an abrupt return to the country and folk-rock stylings of Harvest and reunited him with some of the musicians from that album, including singers Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. The title track was a minor hit and the record was well received by critics, winning the Juno Award for Album of the Year in 1994. Young also contributed to Randy Bachman's nostalgic 1992 tune "Prairie Town," and garnered a 1993 Academy Award nomination for his song "Philadelphia", from the soundtrack of the Jonathan Demme movie of the same name. An MTV Unplugged performance and album emerged in 1993. Later that year, Young collaborated with Booker T. and the M.G.s for a summer tour of Europe and North America. Some European shows ended with a rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World" played with Pearl Jam, foreshadowing their eventual full-scale collaboration two years later.
In 1994 Young again collaborated with Crazy Horse for Sleeps with Angels, a record whose dark, somber mood was influenced by Kurt Cobain's death earlier that year; the title track in particular dealt with Cobain's life and death, without mentioning him by name. Cobain had quoted Young's lyric "It's better to burn out than fade away" (a line from "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)") in his suicide note, causing Young to then on emphasize the line "'cause once you're gone you can't come back" when performing the song. Young had reportedly made repeated attempts to contact Cobain prior to his death. Still enamored with the grunge scene, Young reconnected with Pearl Jam in 1995 for the live-in-the-studio album Mirror Ball and a tour of Europe with the band and producer Brendan O'Brien backing Young. 1995 also marked Young's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was inducted by Eddie Vedder.
Young's next collaborative partner was filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who asked Young to compose a soundtrack to his 1995 black and white western film Dead Man. Young's instrumental soundtrack was improvised while he watched the film alone in a studio. The death of longtime mentor, friend, and producer David Briggs in late 1995 prompted Young to reconnect with Crazy Horse the following year for the album and tour Broken Arrow. A Jarmusch-directed concert film and live album of the tour, Year of the Horse, emerged in 1997. From 1996–97 Young and Crazy Horse toured extensively throughout Europe and North America, including a stint as part of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival's sixth annual tour.
In 1998, Young renewed his collaboration with rock band Phish, sharing the stage at the annual Farm Aid concert and then at Young's Bridge School Benefit, where he joined headliners Phish for renditions of "Helpless" and "I Shall Be Released." Phish declined Young's later invitation to be his backing band on his 1999 North American tour.
The decade ended with the release in late 1999 of Looking Forward, another reunion with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The subsequent tour of the United States and Canada with the reformed super quartet earned $42.1 million, making it the eighth largest grossing tour of 2000.
While Young had never been a stranger to eco-friendly lyrics, themes of environmentalist spirituality and activism became increasingly prominent in his work throughout the 1990s and 2000s, especially on Greendale and Living With War. The trend continued on 2007's Chrome Dreams II, with lyrics exploring Young's personal eco-spirituality. In 2008, Young revealed his latest project, the production of a hybrid-engine 1959 Lincoln called Lincvolt. A new album loosely based on the Lincvolt project, Fork in the Road, was released on April 7, 2009.
A Jonathan Demme concert film from a 2007 concert at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, called the Neil Young Trunk Show premiered on March 21, 2009, at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas. It was featured at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2009 and was released in the US on March 19, 2010 to critical acclaim. Young's most recent album appearance was on the album Potato Hole, released on April 21, 2009 by Memphis organ player Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. & the MG's fame. Young plays guitar on nine of the album's ten instrumental tracks, alongside Drive-By Truckers, who already had three guitar players, giving some songs on the album a total of five guitar tracks. Jones contributed guitars on a couple of tracks.
Young continues to tour extensively. Most recently, he headlined the 2009 Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, England, at Hard Rock Calling in London (where he was joined onstage by Paul McCartney for a rendition of "A Day in the Life") and, after years of unsuccessful booking attempts, the Isle of Wight Festival in addition to performances at the Big Day Out festival in New Zealand and Australia and the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona. On January 22, 2010, Young performed "Long May You Run" on the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. On the same night, he and Dave Matthews performed the Hank Williams song "Alone and Forsaken", for the Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief charity telethon, in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Young performed "Long May You Run" at the closing ceremony of the 2010 Olympic winter games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Young currently lives in La Honda, California on the 1500-acre (6 km²) Broken Arrow Ranch, purchased in 1970 for $350,000 and named after one of his early Buffalo Springfield songs.