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The stories behind five of Neil Young’s best songs

The “Godfather of Grunge”, Neil Young, is an artist who has always operated on his own terms. Whether it be as the sideman in iconic hippie troupe Buffalo Springfield, as a solo artist or as a quarter of the definitive rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY), the Candian singer-songwriter is of unmatched parallel. He has made such a dent in the annals of popular culture that he is even said to have been the aesthetic inspiration for the character of the perpetually stoned P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 mystery, Inherent Vice.

Young has earned himself scores of admiring fans by incorporating a range of styles, including folk, country, and rock. A brilliant lyricist and guitarist, his work with the band Crazy Horse afforded him the moniker as the “Godfather” of all things grunge. This is significant, as, in 1995, he released an album alongside Pearl Jam, entitled Mirror Ball. It is a testament to his prowess as an artist that 21 of his 40 solo albums have been certified as either gold or platinum in the US alone. He has also been awarded a plethora of different accolades for his efforts over the years, including a handful of Grammy and Juno awards. 

In addition to Pearl Jam and other grunge acts such as Nirvana, some of the most influential contemporary artists rank among Young’s disciples. Young can count Phish, Radiohead, Sonic Youth and even Noel Gallagher of Oasis as members of his cult of sonic personality.

Whether it be hightailing it down the highway from Canada in a beat-up car kicking out smoke with the police on hot on his heels (“I attracted police officers a lot, because of the cars I was driving, and I didn’t have a licence because I was Canadian – I wasn’t even supposed to be there”) or buying a ranch off an elderly couple in the hills of Northern California, Young’s life is a rich tapestry of events that have influenced his work. The story of his life is as iconic as any of the fictional stories he put to wax.

Young’s life is a critical part of his musical legend, marked by staggering ups, crushing downs with sprinklings of tragedy. In fact, this goes some way in suggesting that to become an artist of the most esteemed standing; it is almost a given that there has to exist some degree of a personal journey as it makes the artist’s ethos more palpable by consumers. One only has to wager that many of the largely anonymous pop stars today remain so because they have, well, nothing really to them. It makes you wonder why the likes of Young, Dylan, Cohen and Cobain are viewed in the highest regard. Aside from the most crucial point, which is brilliant artistry, a highly mythologised character profile goes a long way in cementing an artist’s status. 

Young’s songs have a mythologised status, with many having interesting back story’s. So in this trail of thought, join us as we list five of the best that inspired Neil Young song’s.

Five stories behind Neil Young songs:

‘Down by The River’

A single from his 1969 album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, ‘Down by the River’, is one of the standout moments from the whole of Young’s career. A nine-minute ballad featuring what people widely perceived to be a theme of murder, the track comes from the stage in Young’s career when he was truly starting to blossom as a generation-defining talent. 

It also presents itself as one of his most memorable on the six-string. Played on his ‘Old Black’ Les Paul, the song is smattered with a variety of brilliant guitar moves that confirm his place as a true master of rock. The most memorable lyric, “I shot my baby, down by the river,” is what often sees the song fall into the murderous category. However, the truth is that the effort is more about lost love rather than losing a life.

“There’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick,” recalled Young when speaking with Fusion magazine in 1970. “See, now, in the beginning, it’s ‘I’ll be on your side, you be on mine.’ It could be anything. Then the chick thing comes in. Then at the end, it’s a whole other thing. It’s a plea… a desperation cry.” There you have it; Young is a brilliant lyricist, a master of the implicit. 

In 2015, stoner hero, and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, summed up the song: “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young’s original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It’s one-note, but it’s so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It’s like he desperately wants to connect.”

‘Ohio’

This CSNY protest anthem is one of the most revealing songs of the famously tumultuous time in American history. The backstory to the 1970 classic is a dark tale concerning state violence and unarmed protestors. What became known as The Kent State Shooting became one of the lowest points in American history. On May 4th 1970, the US National Guard opened fire on a group of protestors at the Kent State University in Ohio. Four people were killed, and nine were injured after 67 shots were fired at the innocent anti-Vietnam War protestors. 

The most shocking part of the whole tale was not the wanton killing but the fact that the American public largely sided with the brutal actions of the National Guard, as polls showed at the time. CSNY wasted no time in making their feelings heard. The quartet recorded it on May 21st, and it was out in June.

Neil Young’s lyrics openly addressed the American publics’ dumbfounding opinion, appealing to them through empathy and rhetorical questions. “What if you knew her? / And found her dead on the ground,” he asks in an attempt to expel the widespread nationalism of the day.

“What was so important about that song was that it didn’t let the moment die,” David Karen, a sociology professor at Bryn Mawr College told Esquire on the 50th anniversary of the incident, “Neil Young underlined just how corrupt and awful the government was, not only about Vietnam.”

‘Cinnamon Girl’

‘Cinnamon Girl’ is perhaps the song that most cemented Young as the “Godfather of Grunge”. He took rock music in a heavier direction by simply dropping his low and high E strings down to D. Coupled with his use of fuzzy distortion, Young laid the foundations of what would become grunge twenty years later. The song is so iconic that everyone has covered it from Radiohead to Wilco to goth-metal pioneers, Type O Negative.

The song is also one of Young’s most famous for another reason, its ambiguous back story. Who is the titular Cinnamon Girl? Young has been frustratingly tight-lipped about the song’s inspiration. However, in the liner notes for his Decade compilation, he revealed: “Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.”

It is alleged that the “finger cymbals” part is a direct reference to Jean Gray. Gray made up one half of ’60s folk duo Jim and Jean, alongside her husband Jim Glover. According to Songfacts, Brian Ray, who played with Paul McCartney and is Jean’s younger brother, claims the song is about Jean. 

Young even went as far as to admit having a crush on Gray in his biography, Shakey. Surprisingly, Young, who was married when the song was written, disclosed: “only part of the song. There’s images in there that have to do with Jean and there’s images that have to do with other people.”

‘After the Gold Rush’

Taken from his 1970 album of the same name, ‘After the Gold Rush’ is one of Young’s most iconic pieces of folk. The subdued vocals, the beautiful piano and the flugelhorn, are critical elements of this emotive piece. In the song, Neil Young shows himself to be an ardent environmentalist, the line: “Look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies” is particularly pertinent today. 

Classically Young, he at first tried to remain coy about the song’s origins. He once told Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, who were working on a cover of the song, that he couldn’t remember where the song’s inspiration came from. 

Parton recalled: “When we were doing the Trio album, I asked Linda and Emmy what (the song) meant, and they didn’t know. So we called Neil Young, and he didn’t know. We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.'” 

Young would, of course, make a U-turn and reveal what the song was about if it was not already crystal clear in the lyrics. 

In 2012, he revealed that the song was an environmental warning, inspired by a mysterious screenplay he had read of the same name, which depicted California’s destruction by a flood of biblical proportions. The title refers to the historical “Gold Rush” which brought thousands of prospectors to the state in the hope of discovering their fortune through mining gold.

Young concluded: “After The Gold Rush is an environmental song… I recognise in it now this thread that goes through a lotta my songs that’s this time-travel thing… When I look out the window, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way this place looked a hundred years ago.”

‘Cortez the Killer’

Track eight on Young and Crazy Horse’s 1975 album, Zuma, contains one of Young’s best guitar solos and some of his most colourful storytelling. The main inspiration for this emotive, fuzzy classic will be instantly obvious to history buff’s when noting the title. It is a direct reference to Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez. Cortez is widely credited with kicking off the Spanish Kingdom’s centuries-long, bloody conquest of the New World in South America. According to the liner notes of Decade, the song was banned under the government of Spanish dictator Franco, as it caused offence to the ethno-nationalist, fascist government. 

Young’s lyrics are a mix of fact and fiction – but they clearly denote the destruction the Cortez and the conquistador’s caused to the native Aztec people. They are also interesting as Young jumps from a third-person narrative to the first person. He also references an unnamed woman: “And I know she’s living there / And she loves me to this day. / I still can’t remember when / or how I lost my way.”

It has been alleged that this woman was meant to embody Carrie Snodgress, whom Young had recently split up with, Zeke’s mother. However, this remains a pure rumour. Regardless, in Shakey, Young confirmed the song to be a hybrid of influences: “What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in ‘Cortez the Killer’ like I was there, wandering around? ‘Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me.”

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