After Bob Dylan, it is probably Neil Young who takes the mantle of the most prominent folk-rock artist of all time. Sometimes referred to as the ‘musician’s Bob Dylan’, what Young lacks in Dylan’s unrivalled poetry and storytelling ability he makes up for in musicianship. That’s not to say that Young himself is not poetic nor an excellent storyteller (he is, and has certainly brought tears to this author’s eyes on many occasions), but it would be hard to argue that Young is not the better guitarist and harmonica player of the two.
After a brief initial stint of a solo career – during which time he met fellow Canadian folkster Joni Mitchell – Young made out for Los Angeles, where he formed Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills. Springfield were only around for a couple of years, though Young would later team up with Stills again in the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Post-Springfield, Young embarked on what would become an absolutely glittering solo career, backed mainly by his collaborating band Crazy Horse. Young would write and record some of the best folk albums ever written in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After the Gold Rush (1970), Harvest (1972), On the Beach (1974) and Harvest Moon (1992), to name but a few.
Young has never been one to conform to the expectations of the music industry. Just this year, he inspired an exodus of high-profile musicians (including Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash) in removing their entire music catalogue from streaming behemoth Spotify. The reason was that Spotify was the exclusive platform that hosted the divisive entertainer Joe Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. Young felt that Spotify had a responsibility to censor Rogan’s show as it was spreading dubious information about the Covid pandemic and its vaccines. “They can have Young or Rogan, not both,” Young said. Ultimately, Spotify chose Rogan as he was one of their biggest and most exclusive assets. Young’s music has been sorely missed from the platform ever since.
Yet, this is not the first time Young has denied an entertainment platform access to his work. In an interview, Young once revealed that he refused to be filmed during his live Woodstock performance, and with good reason: owed to the relationship between musician and audience without interference from external entertainment sources.
When asked if the rumours of Young’s denial of being filmed were really true, he said, “I believe it was.” He goes on to explain: “That was a turning point when music was becoming media and music was turning into an industry instead of a direct communication between musicians and the audience. In my view, cameras had no place on stage. They could film from far away and it wouldn’t bother me at all.”
Young has an excellent point here; there is clearly something we miss out on when cameras are obstructing not only the view between a performing musician and their audience, but the very feel of the performance itself. There is a magic happening when the musician and the crowd are in union, locked in the heart and soul of an act. It is something that has been echoed by Big Thief singer Adrienne Lenker in her request earlier this year for audiences to pay attention to the magic that occurs on stage and to put their mobile phones away.
In the interview, Young also stresses the importance of respecting the limitations of what just one individual can achieve politically and socially on their own. In this age, an awful lot of pressure and guilt is placed on individuals for them to be morally, socially and politically perfect beings. This, of course, is not possible. Young said later in the interview: “My life is not a political campaign. I just write about what is on my mind. I just play whatever I feel like playing. Whatever is in my soul at the time is what I want to do. I have, thank god, enough people who are still interested in what I am doing so that I can go out and keep doing it.”
However, Young is keen to highlight the necessity of working towards a cleaner environmental future. He adds, “I’m an older person now. I see things differently. Some things that used to be important to me to write about, social things, are not important at all anymore. What’s really important now is not the politics of the world, not who is the president, but how you can get to the source of the problem: energy.”
Regardless of Young decides to spend the rest of his days (he is currently content with the work he has done as a musician, and his present fascination is creating a car that generates its own fuel), he will always be remembered as the hero of folk music who stood up to entertainment monoliths and gave generations of fans music that is unrivalled in its poetry and eternal wisdom.