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The songs Neil Young wrote about his fellow musicians

Modern music is one giant caldron where magic is mixed together, and new alchemical masterpieces are poured out. Musicians from all genres are forever inspiring or influencing each other with golden tunes of their own. As Nick Cave once said: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time.”

Adding: “It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.” Sometimes, however, that feeding frenzy is a banquet with one host laying on an appreciative spread for his contemporaries, or else turning them away at the door. More than most, Neil Young has been an artist who puts his references to fellow musicians at the forefront of his songs. In turn, Young has also featured in other people’s songs, including being on the receiving end of a blasting in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern defence ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.

Over the years, Young has name-dropped a fair few fellow musicians, either directly or through thinly veiled references. Below we have collated the best of these songs and looked at the stories behind them. Enjoy…

Neil Young songs about fellow musicians:

Joni Mitchell – on ‘Sweet Joni’ 

From their early days in the Canadian folk scene, the paths of Joni Mitchell and Young crossed many times. They first met at the Penny Farthing in Toronto’s Yorkville district in 1964. Thereafter their lives became heavily entwined in all sorts of fateful ways. 

This interloping livelihood was eulogised by Mitchell on her song ‘The Circle Game’ about Young, and he later returned the favour when singing of their platonic admiration on ‘Sweet Joni’. Whilst it is a ditty that doesn’t offer up much in terms of revealing lyrics, the sentiment alone is a sweet gift from Young.

Graham Nash – on ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’

At the core of Neil Young’s 1970 After the Gold Rush track, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ is an archetype of a gingham-clad hard-luck troubadour. Rather than portraying Young himself, this is, in fact, his CSNY bandmate, Graham Nash.

As it happens, the aim of the song was to mend his broken heart following his break-up with none other than Joni Mitchell. As Young reveals in the biography Shakey, the paean of love-lost was an attempt to help pick up his pal from the depths of breakup despair. Personally, something like Chic a record might’ve been more befitting in terms of an uplift.

Led Zeppelin – on ‘Downtown’

Neil Young had always been a huge fan of Led Zeppelin, but when he got the chance to play with the band in 1995, he was so exhilarated by the performance that he wanted to reform the band permanently with himself in the mix. However, John Paul Jones, who had been left out of a previous Robert Plant and Jimmy Page was still too bummed out to consider it. 

Instead, Young decided to immortalise his night on stage with his heroes by penning the track ‘Downton’. Taken from his twenty-third studio album, Mirror Ball, recorded with Pearl Jam, the single was even nominated for a Grammy Award the following year. It sees Young reimagine his performance on stage with the band in the utopian setting of the 1960s as they tear through classics in a fantasy-like hysteria. 

Danny Whitten – on ‘The Needle and Damage Done’

On his 1972 album Harvest, the tender anti-drug ballad and ode to friend wrapped up in ‘The Needle and Damage Done’ stands out from the pack as one of the best songs on offer. The harrowing tale of this Heroin jeremiad is that Young’s friend and Crazy Horses bandmate, Danny Whitton, would die of an overdoes the same year that the song was released. The song captures the haunts of both what was occurring within the music scene and what was to come. Later Bruce Berry, a roadie and friend of Young’s would also die of a fatal heroin overdose. 

These horrors were transposed onto the record without any dressing up or down, taken directly from a live recording at Royce Hall, UCLA, IN 1971. The whole furore of Young’s unabated sadness and woe at the weary narcotic that was blighting lives cuts right through and could haunt an empty house. When looking back at the classic rock it can be easy to laugh at the high-jinks and frolics of a substance saturated world, but Young tempers this naive narrative with some hard home truths. This is the great anti-drug song.

Johnny Rotten – ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’

‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)‘ was released by Young in 1979 and, for the first time in his solo career, he had been deemed irrelevant by the masses due to the birth of punk music which, in many aspects, ridiculed artists of the old school—a category Neil Young had unfairly found himself bundled into.

This obsolescence is something he spoke about The Complete Guide to the Music of Neil Young, where explains why the line “rust never sleeps” appealed to him so greatly. “It relates to my career; the longer I keep on going the more I have to fight this corrosion,” he said, before adding: “And now that’s gotten to be like the World Series for me. The competition’s there, whether I will corrode and eventually not be able to move anymore and just repeat myself until further notice or whether I will be able to expand and keep the corrosion down a little.” As he asks in the song, “Is this the story of the Johnny Rotten?”

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