Neil Young’s songwriting prowess is unparalleled; Old Shakey can make listeners feel every emotion under the sun within one song. He is a modern-day poet with rock ‘n’ roll DNA that, when put together, creates a match made in heaven. However, his career hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and there have been many road bumps on the way that have shaped him into the artist he is today.
Hardly any artists have been as prolific as Neil Young during their career. Never deterred by workload or expectation, Young has always been his own master and has made sure that everything he has done has been an accurate reflection of himself. Staying true to his own vision of art has been an imperative factor of Old Shakey’s output, and he’s maintained this by putting his imagination first ahead of anything else. This authenticity has remained the most important thing to him throughout his career. He has embraced the occasions that some projects fail rather than holding anger that they didn’t connect in the same profound way that other albums had previously. Learning from his mistakes has helped Young secure this longevity, burning bright for over half a century.
There are plentiful mistakes that Young has made throughout his career, but none have been fateful errors. One famous example arrived when he experimented so much that he aggravated the bosses at Geffen Records to such a mammoth degree that, on December 1st 1983, they astonishedly opened a lawsuit against the artist. The label was furious with Young after his two records flopped. They stated his output was “unrepresentative” and “uncharacteristic” from the artist they had paid a lucrative amount to secure. Young would end up being the victor in the lawsuit, but the albums he released around that time were far from a victory lap. During a conversation with filmmaker Jonathan Demme at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival, Young opened up about the importance of learning from your mistakes, and his speech was a remarkably poignant one delivered from the heart.
“First of all, you have to trust yourself, there’s nobody else that matters,” Young says with no hesitation. “It’s over if you start looking at other people, that’s what I think. The other thing that you have to be willing to do, and you have to be ready to embrace it and accept it and really open it into your life with open arms with wide-vision is failure.
“Be sure to welcome failure, say, ‘You’re okay with me failure, come on in.’ Because then you have no fear, if you have no fear and you believe in yourself and only listen to yourself then you are number one. Everything else is behind you. Your name is on it, it’s your life, it’s your film. Everybody else be damned,” he ruthlessly added.
The legendary singer-songwriter then touched on the subject of self-doubt and how it’s possible to overcome this indecision. “If you doubt what you’re doing, then fuck it, don’t do it and live with that. Why do something if you doubt it’s what you should be doing? What do you want to do? What is the way that you want to do it? Is somebody telling you to do something a certain way that you don’t want to and doubt if this is the right way, or do you doubt if this is something worth making a film about? Those two things, that’s taboo. Doubt, no.”
An audience member then asks young if he ever suffers doubt, and he beautifully replied, “Yeah, I doubt things, and as soon as I doubt them, I get the hell out of there. That’s a secret warning system. Abandon movie.”
These slices of wisdom on offer from Young provide a perfect insight into how he’s become the iconic artist beloved by millions. He’s open to not everything going right but never does something that he doesn’t believe in, and if it fails, then he accepts that with his head held high. Young knows that when he created it, he knew that this was undoubtedly the right thing to do in his heart of hearts. Even though you’re going to get it drastically wrong occasionally, there’s something to be said about staying true to yourself as Neil Young has over his life and wild career.