The Resurrection of Neil Young
When the Godfather of
Grunge discovered he had a potentially fatal aneurysm, he took a week, went to
Nashville and added to his legacy by making another classic album
Posted Sunday, Sep. 25, 2005
Every Neil Young album arrives with a question:
which Neil this time? the folkie? The grunge progenitor? The acoustic country
guy? Or the avant-gardist whose sonic violence can make instruments--and
sometimes fans--cry out for mercy? For his 31st album, Prairie Wind, out Sept.
27, it's yet another Neil Young: a mortal one. In March, Young was told he had a
brain aneurysm, and Prairie Wind poured out of him in the week between diagnosis
and his undergoing surgery. Naturally, there are songs about death and
loneliness, but the album, one of the most melodic of his career, also deals
with religion, family and the good times he remembers growing up on the Canadian
Young doesn't do many interviews, in
part because he hates to sit still. So he asked Time's Josh Tyrangiel to join
him for a drive in his bio-diesel-powered Hummer--"I love it when people yell at
me about the environment," says Young, "and then I tell 'em I'm burning 90%
cleaner than them"--down the Pacific Coast Highway. For nearly four hours,
Young, 59, talked about how facing death has affected his music; the recent
death of his father; his sons, both of whom have cerebral palsy; and his early
days in a funk band with Super Freak Rick James.
I KNOW YOU'RE NOT EAGER TO DISCUSS
THIS, BUT WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED TO YOU THIS PAST MARCH?
I inducted Chrissie Hynde into the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame, and the next day I was shaving in the hotel, and I
noticed this weird thing in my eye, like a piece of broken glass. Then I noticed
that no matter what I did, it was still there. And then it started getting
bigger. So I went to my doctor, had an MRI and the next morning I went to the
neurologist, Dr. Sun--a Chinese guy, very funny guy. He says, "The good news is,
you're here, you're looking good. The bad news is, you've got an aneurysm in
your brain. You've had it for a hundred years, so it's nothing to worry
about--but it's very serious, so we'll have to get rid of it right away." He's a
funny guy. I was supposed to go to Nashville to do some recording, so I went
down there ...
YOU FLEW WITH AN ANEURYSM?
Dr. Sun said I'd been flying for 100
years with the thing. So I went into the studio on Thursday and recorded three
songs. I wrote one on the way there and two more right away after I recorded the
first one. The whole album's chronological--I wrote and recorded in the order it
appears on the record. Then I went back up to New York on Monday for a
presurgery thing, flew back to Nashville, wrote and recorded [songs] four, five,
six, seven, eight and most of nine and 10. And then I got admitted, and they put
AT ANY POINT WERE YOU THINKING, "THIS
MIGHT BE MY LAST SONG," AND IF SO, DID YOU WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT ONE WAS, YOU
KNOW, REALLY GOOD?
I was thinking about things like that,
and it's kind of too bad that people know about this, because it's like, "The
only way he could make a good album is if he had an aneurysm," or something. I
feel a little funny about it, because I know I would have made an album anyway,
and I don't feel like I'm slowing down, but these things happen. Yeah, there's a
lot of reflection. [Grudgingly] It affected all the songs.
YOU WERE OBVIOUSLY WORKING FAST, BUT
SONGS LIKE FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH HAVE BOTH URGENCY AND CLARITY. DID
YOU HAVE TIME TO ACTUALLY CRAFT LYRICS?
Most things just came pouring out, but
that song's unique because a lot of it came from a voice-mail message. A friend
of mine called, knowing I was going through this, and left me a voice mail that
was, "Thinking about you--just want to tell you that you mean a lot to me," that
kind of stuff. So I wrote it all down and made up this kind of bass-ackwards
melody. With songwriting, the key thing is not to have any preconceptions, to be
wide open and never worry about whether it's cool or not. Use whatever you can,
and worry about cool after you finish the record.
YOUR SURGERY WENT SMOOTHLY, BUT THE
RECOVERY DIDN'T. WHAT HAPPENED?
Everything was cool, so I figured I
might actually get to Winnipeg to do the Juno Awards, which is a big deal in
Canada, where I'm from, and I had planned to do it and never bothered to cancel.
So, two days after the surgery, you can start walking--I went out for a walk,
and I made it half a block, and the thing burst on the street, and there was
blood in my shoe and--I don't know if you need to share this. Let's just say
there was a complication. It was my femoral artery [which the surgeons had used
to access his brain]. I was unconscious, and the emergency guys had to revive
me. There was no way I could make the Juno Awards, so we had to make an
announcement about what happened. But I came very close to no one ever knowing.
I would have had an aneurysm, got rid of it, and no one would know the
difference. [Laughs] It would have been so cool.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER YOU FINISHED PRAIRIE
WIND, YOUR FATHER, WHO WAS A FAMOUS SPORTS JOURNALIST IN CANADA, DIED AT 87.
WHAT WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE?
I had a great relationship with my dad,
and I felt like everything was O.K. when he died, that I was at peace with him
and everything was cool. Then I went to the service and completely broke down
out of nowhere. He had dementia for the last years of his life, so I couldn't
talk to him on the telephone--he couldn't remember what we were talking about.
But he was a loving father and a loving grandfather and a great
ONE OF HIS BOOKS WAS 1984'S NEIL AND
ME, ABOUT BEING NEIL YOUNG'S DAD. DID YOU READ IT?
Oh, yeah! It was a good book. [Laughs]
I learned a few things about what I was like when I was a kid and stuff. Learned
more from that book than anything else I ever read about myself.
YOU HAVE TWO SONS, BOTH OF WHOM HAVE
CEREBRAL PALSY. ZEKE'S CASE IS MILD, BUT BEN'S IS SEVERE. AS SOMEONE WHO
COMMUNICATES FOR A LIVING, DOES IT FRUSTRATE YOU THAT YOU CAN'T TALK TO BEN THE
WAY MOST FATHERS AND SONS TALK?
Ben's 25 and a quadriplegic. He's a
nonverbal guy, and he's paralyzed basically, but we've developed ways we can
play together and do things together for enjoyment. To other people it looks a
lot different than it really is. Most people see a severely handicapped or
physically disabled person, and they feel uncomfortable. "Oh, my God, I'm glad
it isn't me," or they talk too loud or treat him like a baby. But Ben has always
been a great communicator with me. There are times when he can't tell me exactly
what's going on, when he comes home and he looks a little [upset] and I wish he
could say, you know, "Daddy, I wanted to go somewhere today, and the guys with
me wouldn't go there." There's all kinds of things like that. But Ben is such a
DID YOU FEEL AT ALL CURSED THAT TWO OF YOUR CHILDREN WERE BORN
WITH CEREBRAL PALSY?Yeah. It took time to get used to the fact that it wasn't just
one, but two. Eventually Pegi [his wife of 27 years] and I just came to the
understanding that we had been chosen, and this is one of the things we're doing
with our life, turning this situation into something positive for all kinds of
kids. One of the things we've done with the Bridge School [the Hillsborough,
Calif., school the Youngs founded in 1986] is to make a place where nonverbal,
physically challenged kids can communicate through technology and alternative
methods of communication.
TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF THE DEVICES YOU HAVE INVENTED TO ENHANCE
YOUR COMMUNICATION WITH BEN.
When he was a kid, we got into electric trains, and at first I
hooked him up so he could turn the trains on and off. Then I developed a
command-and-control system so the train could hear Ben send directions. Now he
can really control the whole thing--and, of course, he wants to make it go as
fast as possible and cause wrecks. When he was young, he used to laugh his butt
off every time he derailed the train because I had to put it back on. We've also
developed interfaces so he can use his computer and do things that are part of
DO YOU HOLD PATENTS ON THIS STUFF?
Yeah, I got patents on the model-railroad controls. I'm a part
owner in Lionel [the electric-train company], and we just developed a whole new
system, and I worked on that too. It's meditation for me. It's such a relief to
escape musicmaking and the pressure of music, to release it all in algorithms
and theory of operations.
IS IT TRUE THAT THE SUM OF YOUR MUSIC EDUCATION IS TWO GUITAR
One. Maybe two. I either quit after the first one and didn't go
back for the second one, or I went to the second one and that was enough. I
don't think the guitar lesson hurt me--I just realized I didn't need it. I
figured out what to do with a guitar pretty quick on my own.
ONE OF YOUR FIRST BANDS WAS CALLED THE MYNAH BIRDS, AND THE
SINGER WAS NONE OTHER THAN THE LATE RICK JAMES. WHAT ON EARTH DID THAT SOUND
The Mynah Birds were one of the best rock bands I ever played
with. We were like a Stones knock-off, but we had original material too. I
played an electric 12-string. We were funky. There was no way around it. But we
were young and making a lot of mistakes. We signed with Motown--we went over
there, and Rick got busted for dodging the draft. So the group kind of fell
apart. And Rick was a real soulful guy, but there were drugs and all sorts of
crazy stuff. I met him again years later, and we hung out a bit. He was pretty
heavily into some dark stuff, but there was still a connection. We talked about
making a record together, and he said how cool it would be, how we'd blow
WHEN DID YOU KICK DRUGS?
I never really was a big drug addict. I always could stop. But
I'm completely done with it now. I don't even smoke anything. That's more
because I had the aneurysm and I have high blood pressure, plus I don't really
need it. I'm as high as you need to be.
YOU WROTE ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS LYRICS IN ROCK: "IT'S BETTER
TO BURN OUT THAN TO FADE AWAY." A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE USED THAT LINE TO JUSTIFY
ALL KINDS OF SELF-DESTRUCTIVE ACTS, INCLUDING KURT COBAIN, WHO QUOTED IT IN HIS
SUICIDE NOTE. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT LINE THESE DAYS?
The fact that he left the lyrics to my song right there with
him when he killed himself left a profound feeling on me, but I don't think he
was saying I have to kill myself because I don't want to fade away. I don't
think he was interpreting the song in a negative way. It's a song about artistic
survival, and I think he had a problem with the fact that he thought he was
selling out, and he didn't know how to stop it. He was forced to do tours when
he didn't want to, forced into all kinds of stuff. I was trying to get a hold of
him--because I had heard some of the things he was doing to himself--just to
tell him it's O.K. not to tour, it's O.K. not to do these things, just take
control of your life and make your music. Or, hey, don't make music. But as soon
as you feel like you're out there pretending, you're f_____. I think he knew
that instinctively, but he was young and he didn't have a lot of self-control.
And who knows what other personal things in his life were having a negative
impression on him at the time?
IS PART OF THE REASON YOU HAVE VEERED BETWEEN SO MANY GENRES
OVER THE YEARS THAT YOU FEAR YOU'LL FIND YOURSELF UP THERE FAKING IT ONE
I'm as predictable as a Holiday Inn when you really look at me.
I keep doing the same thing all over again. I just make records, and the records
are usually some sort of turnabout from the last record. It took me a long time
to write this record. I didn't write anything for two years after Greendale [the
widely reviled 2003 movie he wrote and directed], 'cause Greendale was a
completely draining experience and a huge project that I think was one of the
best things I have been able to do in my life, and a lot of people were lost by
it, but that doesn't mean anything. A lot of people in the middle of the road
don't pick up on what I'm doing when I'm not in the middle of the road, and it's
an accident and a pleasant one when I do end up [there] and traffic is with
SO YOUR NEXT ALBUM WILL BE ...?
I don't know. All I know is, I don't want to die. I have a lot
left to do. I don't feel like people are giving up on me, and I won't give up on
them. So I'm just going to keep on doing whatever it is I do. But I won't stay
still for long. Don't want to grow bark.