Neil Young has led an exciting life. Not only is he rightly regarded as one of the finest songwriters of his generation, but the guitarist has also been a part of some of the most influential bands of all time. From his spell alongside Rick James in the Motown band, Mynah Birds, to his collaboration with supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the ‘Powderfinger’ singer has always expressed visceral emotion into his songs. One such track, ‘ Long May You Run’, had a similar inspiration.
The song featured as the titular track on Young’s 1976 album with Stephen Stills under the moniker The Stills-Young band and captured a special bond between the two artists. The duo have always shared a kindred spirit, having formed the enigmatic 1960s band Buffalo Springfield with Stills. But this song was exceptional as it paid tribute to one of the most extraordinary things in both of their lives: a hearse called ‘Mort’.
A Pontiac hearse, whose full name was Mortimer Hearseburg, is a fabled piece of Young’s iconography. The vehicle is primarily thought of as being the primary reason Buffalo Springfield got together at all. The story goes that, after Mynah Birds singer Rick James was taken into custody and incarcerated by the Navy for avoiding the draft, an incident which led Motown to scrap plans to release a Mynah Birds album, and Young’s dream was over. Following the singer’s incarceration, Young and fellow bandmate Bruce Palmer were clueless about what to do next. Then, on a whim, they decided to pack their bags, sell their belongings and drive to Los Angeles — a decision which inadvertently led to Buffalo Springfield being born.
Stephen Stills came to The Golden State with the same aspirations and soon landed an audition in The Monkees. After suffering rejection, Stills became intent on being the master of his destiny and decided to form a band. He didn’t want to go down the manufactured shortcut to success and, instead, wanted to head down the traditional route. Stills just needed to find some bandmates. His friend Richie Furay had already joined him on his journey to Los Angeles, and the two played in a group together in New York and made a move together in search of riches.
After a week of hunting Stills in California as he attempted to form his band, Young and Palmer decided that it was time to head to San Francisco. Coincidentally, Stills, Furay, and their manager Barry Friedman found themselves stuck in a traffic jam when they clocked a black Pontiac hearse heading out of town in the other direction. They honked, and they waved but got nowhere. Even though Stills didn’t see a driver, he knew nobody else apart from Young would be eccentric enough to drive that vehicle. Miraculously, they somehow changed lanes and caught up with the pair.
Shortly after, Young and Palmer headed back to Los Angeles, and Buffalo Springfield got underway. “It didn’t take any time before we all knew we had the right combination,” Young recalled in the Jimmy McDonough-penned biography Shakey. “These were people who had come to LA for the same reason, identical, all finding each other. Time meant nothing; we were ready.”
With such a fabled story connected to the hearse, there’s no surprise the vehicle meant so much to both Stills and Young. The track refers to the moment the hearse broke down in Canada, but another sense of irony is attached. Not only was the album called Long May You Run but the tour was, too, fittingly coming to an end much more quickly than it had begun. Young abandoned the tour before completion, leaving only a telegram for his friend: “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.”
There are few things off-limit for Neil Young to write a song about, and we’re very glad that Mort has been immortalised forever. It’s a classic song, dripping in irony and steeped in rock and roll folklore. It’s a perfect piece of musical memorabilia.