Neil Young has ridden countless waves of change in the musical landscape of the past 50 years, but his promise that “rock and roll is here to stay” remains as well founded as ever. Young may be largely to thank for this. He is considered by many to have invented the genres of folk rock and country rock during his tenures with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Some of his later works served as a direct bridge to the Grunge movement of the early 1990s. Although his fans may have loved him most as a lyricist, as a poet leading so many calls to action amidst a chaotic backdrop of joyful noise, Neil Young understands rock ‘n roll as well as anyone. He has continued to re-define it and has always protected its core values in rebellion and social progress.
From an early age, music served as Young’s salvation. His parents’ divorce led him to move frequently between different cities in Canada throughout his childhood. In the midst of this incessant traveling, Young found refuge in the music of his idols – acts like Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley. He found the time to learn a variety of instruments, including guitar, banjo, piano, harmonica and ukulele, and he played with other musicians as often as he could. As a result, Neil Young formed friendships with fellow Canadian acts like The Guess Who and Joni Mitchell. He also met a young Stephen Stills, with whom he went on to co-found Buffalo Springfield.
In 1967, Buffalo Springfield released the song “For What It’s Worth,” which quickly became one of the most memorable protest songs of the 1960s. Neil Young has been a creative force to be reckoned with ever since. His uncompromising vision as a songwriter became legendary over the years, even leading to some infamous disagreements with fellow members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Not surprisingly, Young’s best work has been as a solo artist, with Young commanding full creative control of his songwriting – from inception up until the end of production. Under his own name, Young released folk classics like “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Heart of Gold,” and “After the Gold Rush,” as well as rock staples like “Southern Man” and “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World,” to name but a few. He has released a prolific catalog over the past several decades, but Young is most proud of his work as a live performer. Over the course of his career, he has played with countless bands and songwriters across the spectrum of rock genres, including Social Distortion, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, The Band, and Bob Dylan. Neil Young is, without question, one of the most revered and respected musicians alive today.
As much as Neil Young’s music has inspired activism in support of a myriad of significant causes, he has proven himself as a man of both words and actions. His songs have spoken out against the violence perpetrated on the victims of the Kent State and Tiananmen Square massacres, as well as the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars. He has dealt with topics of racism, economic inequality, political injustice, mental illness, and drug addiction in his songs, and continues to be a champion for these causes. His steadfast support of the American farming industry led him, Willie Nelson, and John Mellancamp to co-found the Farm Aid organization and benefit concert, which has since raised over $40 million for local farmers. Young and his wife also host an annual concert series near their Northern California home called the Bridge School Concerts, in support of children born with disabilities. Young has two sons with cerebral palsy and a daughter with epilepsy, so it is clear why this work is of special importance to him.
Young’s most recent and exciting project is the Pono music service, which seeks to re-imagine the model for digital music downloads by offering higher quality audio that is also more true to the master studio recording. While many of his generation have resisted the shift into the Digital Age, Young has accepted the change and is leading the charge to improve the way new music sounds. In so many ways, Neil Young is rock and roll, and just as Young promises, “rock and roll will never die.”