Neil Young’s illustrious discography can be daunting for even longtime fans. With 35 full-lengths and dozens of live and tribute albums, it’s impossible to concisely classify his sound. Folk, country, and rock dominate much of his material, but Young’s sheer willingness to stretch out his stylistic boundaries – throughout every decade of his career – makes classifications like the “Godfather of Grunge” a bit head-scratching to some. It’s not that the tag is worth arguing. Young’s influence on the majority of rock and folk music today is impossible to overlook. It’s that emotive and narrative efforts like “Powderfinger”, or everything on bleak and stoned albums like On the Beach, are hardly representative of the grunge we know today. But a thorough look at his discography, and both the popular and overlooked efforts within it, proves that Young was indeed the “Godfather of Grunge” – or at least the only one still going strong today. Many who argue with the label “Godfather of Grunge” simply have not immersed their ears in enough of Young’s discography.
While some argue that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain rightly deserves the label, glimpses of Young’s influence on grunge is heard as early as the late ‘60s, when Cobain was learning how to walk. 1969’s “Cinnamon Girl” is one surefire predecessor. Its twangy distortion rides over the tender nonchalance of dual vocals, and a booming bass descends ominously at each verse’s end. Young’s vocals are more sweeping and melancholic than grunge staples here, and the vocals are more up-front as opposed to grunge’s traditionalized tendency of pushing vocals toward the back, a trademark inclination of producer Steve Albini, a noted Neil Young fan. Albini was responsible for producing Nirvana’s In Utero, as well as a slew of releases from artists that dabbled in their own grunge hybrids – like PJ Harvey and Manic Street Preachers. While largely in the more alt-rock sphere, these artists and others (like The Pixies and Sonic Youth) proved to be vital influences on future grunge acts. Many of these grunge predecessors have referenced Young, a mention that seems mandatory among artists of that era and then-burgeoning grunge sub-culture. The frequent references to him among grunge’s most stalwart acts are no coincidence.
The aforementioned “Cinnamon Girl” is arguably the most popular track on Young’s pivotal 1969 album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, his first with Crazy Horse as the backing band. His self-titled solo debut a year earlier, and preceding Buffalo Springfield releases, emphasized a direction more centered on country and folk. “Cinnamon Girl” kicked off an album confident in a distorted sound, carrying Young to a new direction that often epitomized his legendary ‘70s output. And while it’s easy to hear how the production on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere later influenced grunge, a more underlying and equally important factor was the sorrow depicted in the songs, even over fleeting guitars and an active musical backing. “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” rode on gently swaying acoustics as opposed to electric fury, but its focus on the frailty of life was something grunge echoed in many of its greatest his. Even on tracks like this, where the musical accompaniment suggests more country-folk and grunge, a topical influence is apparent.
There are plenty of Young tracks throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that show glimpses of what was to come in early ‘90s grunge. His 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, is one of the greatest examples. The genius of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” is never to be understated, as its crunchy guitars and Young’s gripping guitar solos went on to influence a legion of grunge artists. An acoustic version includes the lyrics “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, which was by no coincidence the last line in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. The track represented a clashing of punk and New-Wave, its ferocious tone touting an irresistible presence that saw Young entering yet another phase, this one remembered most by future grunge stars. This stage continued into the ‘90s, where he put out such pinnacle albums as 1990’s Ragged Glory, perhaps Young’s album most true to contemporary grunge. The 1991 release Weld, one of the greatest live albums ever, showcased grunge’s spiritual presence in a live setting.
The reason why Neil Young is the “Godfather of Grunge” cannot be pinned down to a single methodology, or a continued technical aspect of his production. He wasn’t the first to infuse distortion into his songs. Many argue in favor of The Kinks, and many other early ‘60s psych-rockers there. And it’s not that he was the first to sing of woe and youthful aggression. Plenty came before. But listen to any one of his releases – whether it’s Rust Never Sleeps, Ragged Glory, or even early Buffalo Springfield material – and browse his discography. Young’s influence is impossible to overlook. On a purely superficial level, his plaid shirts and unkempt hair made it all the more comprehensible. Like many grunge heroes, he seemed to always dress like it was autumn. But even that hardly matters. Any pivotal figure in the grunge movement, including Cobain and Albini, proudly pays tribute to Young for one specific reason. He was able to inject life into a presentation that, prior to him, was indecipherable and unclassifiable. Distortion and aggression found new life in his music, even in its most solemn and melancholic moments. It is an essential aspect of grunge that often goes overlooked.
Renowned for their songs depicting societal defiance and individuality, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s protest songs are vast and consistently strong. These three, however, hit a certain mark that best represents the ingeniously talented songwriters and their fight for freedom and courage in a time where productive counterculture was on the rise:
Neil Young wrote “Ohio” in reaction to the 1970 Kent State shootings, when the Ohio National Guard shot at students protesting the American invasion of Cambodia. Four students were killed, and nine were wounded. “Ohio” received radio play not even three weeks after the shootings, as audiences found Young’s impassioned lyrics and swanky guitar accompaniments an apt way to shed light on the incident. As is often the case, the government was reluctant to admit wrongdoing on their end, so Young sang about what most of the youth was singing – more eloquently than most. “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own,” he sings feverishly to begin the song. “This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” Young was bold enough to blame President Nixon directly, and for many it was a relief to hear such a venerated artist expressing such sentiments in a time where opinionated governmental opinions were brushed aside as a product of youth. “It was the bravest thing I ever head,” David Crosby said in response to Young actually name-dropping Nixon. Now we call that sort of thing ballsy.
Teach Your Children
“Teach Your Children” is Graham Nash’s successful stab at capturing the grave impact of adult role models in a time where the media and government had a pivotal role in molding a child’s perception of war, sexuality, and independence. Nash was inspired to write the song from his own difficult relationship with his father, who spent time in prison. He wonders aloud how one’s upbringing molds their outlook on life, and life’s controversies. “You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by,” he sings, acknowledging that although everyone departs the nest eventually, the experiences there continue to thrive and influence. The song has a twangy hint of country that Nash attributes to Stephen Stills. “’Teach’ started out as a slightly funky English Folk song but Stephen (Stills) put a country beat to it and turned it into a hit record.” Although it may not technically be a protest song in the vein of “Ohio” or “Almost Cut My Hair”, “Teach Your Children” protests against narrow-minded parental figures who view it as an obligation rather than a privilege. And there have been few better lines than this one to describe the love that parents have for their children: “Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by, and feed them on your dreams, the one they picks, the one you’ll know by.”
Almost Cut My Hair
If David Crosby’s sensual howl isn’t enough, the powerful lyrics of “Almost Cut My Hair” convey a time when any form of counterculture was under attack, particularly by those fearful of change. Off Crosby, Stills & Nashs second album, Déjà Vu, “Teach Your Children” and “Almost Cut My Hair” pack a powerful one-two punch that help establish one of the band’s best albums. It was certainly one of their most receptive of protesting. The track features a howling guitar that seemingly echoes Crosby’s voice, as he questions cutting his hair before deciding: “But I didn’t and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly / And I feel like I owe it to someone.” Much of the fear among protestors and anyone with unconventional views is the threat of authority, particularly an unjust one intent on maintaining a faltering status quo. “You know, it increases my paranoia, like looking in my mirror and seeing a police car,” Crosby sings during the second verse, one of the most apt indicators of paranoia one could find. “Almost Cut My Hair” is an anthem for anyone courageous enough to defy societal norms, and risk backlash in the process.
Neil Young has just announced a four-night stand at New York’s Carnegie Hall on January 6th, 7th, 9th and 10th next year.
The concerts are set to take place at the venue’s Stern Auditorium and are currently Young’s only confirmed upcoming concert dates.
These Carnegie Hall shows will be the first performances Young will play after last week’s Bridge School Benefit concert in California and a September performance at his annual Farm Aid festival in New York. Young was supposed to go on tour this year with Crazy Horse, but the tour had to be postponed after guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro injured his hand.
Last year, Young released his autobiography “Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream”, which was released on September 25th to broad critical and commercial success. Since then, he’s also been working on the development of a new high-resolution digital music-download service, player and audio format called Pono, which is due for release sometime soon.
While no one is quite sure what Pono will entail, Young has been trying his hardest to keep fans informed with his typically poetic way with words and metaphor, posting on Pono’s official Facebook page with this explanation:
“The simplest way to describe what we’ve accomplished is that we’ve liberated the music of the artist from the digital file and restored it to its original artistic quality – as it was in the studio. So it has primal power.
Hearing PONO for the first time is like that first blast of daylight when you leave a movie theater on a sun-filled day. It takes you a second to adjust. Then you enter a bright reality, of wonderfully rendered detail.”
For a unique story of Graham Nash and Neil Young listening to Young’s new album in a rowboat, check out Nash’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR.
Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit line-up for 2013 has just been announced and as always it’s shaping up to be pretty impressive.
This year’s benefit will feature performances from the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (obviously, captain obvious), Queens of the Stone Age, My Morning Jacket, the Killers, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Fun., Heart and Jenny Lewis. As per tradition, every artist will play an acoustic set. The show will be held October 26th and October 27th at the Shoreline Ampitheater in Mountain View, CA. The Killers will only perform on the 26th, but all other acts will take part on both days.
The Bridge School Benefit was first held in 1986 and has taken place (with the exception of 1987) every year since. It’s big gimmick is that it’s always 100% acoustic, meaning it’s played host to numerous unique sets from A-list artists like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, the Who, Metallica, Arcade Fire, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Tom Petty, Simon and Garfunkel and many more.
Neil and his wife Pegi Young founded the Bridge School when they struggled to find suitable schooling for their physically-challenged son, Ben. Pegi told Rolling Stone in 2010:
“He was in a program for special ed students at a school and had some good friends. But they decided to move the special ed program off campus. This isn’t unusual and I was really sad about it. I was talking to [Neil Young's manager] Elliot [Roberts] and he said, ‘Why don’t you just start your own school, Peg?’ And I was like, ‘Okay, there’s an idea.’ It just kind of blossomed from there.”
“Neil came up with the acoustic format idea. It was genius. Nobody was doing that at the time. This is before MTV Unplugged or any of that. It keeps costs down, and it took artists outside their comfort zone. Looking back, that first concert was an exercise in simplicity compared to what it is these days.”
Legendary music man Neil Young has updated us all on the state of his Pono music service, including details of when we can expect it. Most of the details remain pretty abstract, though, so I’ll be reproducing a bunch of quotes and hoping you can glean more meaning from it all than I have been able to.
The “high resolution” service will be available in early 2014, according to a post on its Facebook page. From what I can gather, the project seems to, fundamentally, be an iPod and iTunes alternative, with Young planning to release some kind of music device and an online music library from which the user can purchase, you guessed it, music.
Now, I’m not entirely sure what makes this a different service to that of iTunes or Spotify, but Young has a well-documented hate relationship with CDs, and now claims to want to “save listeners” from MP3s.
In his own words:
“The simplest way to describe what we’ve accomplished is that we’ve liberated the music of the artist from the digital file and restored it to its original artistic quality – as it was in the studio. Hearing Pono for the first time is like that first blast of daylight when you leave a movie theatre on a sun-filled day.”
So, who knows what that really means, but at first glance, it seems the service has some shy supporters, including Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, who in a promo video said “MP3s suck” and Marcus Mumford from Mumford and Sons saying “It’s a drastic difference.”
It was also reported in Rolling Stone magazine that Young’s service has also secured deals with Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group and Sony Music, so I suppose there must be something to this Pono business.
Keep an eye out to see if Pono can make in roads in this space.
Neil Young has to cancel a bunch of festival dates across North America, including a date in Port Chester, New York with Patti Smith, because his guitarist has gone and broken his hand. (Fair enough, really – playing guitar + broken hand = not good, I imagine.)
His guitarist, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, recently suffered a broken hand, an injury seemingly sustained in the 24 hour period directly following his last performance with Young in Oslo on August 7th of this year. Their next performance was meant to be on August 31st at Greenbelt Harvest Picnic, in Dundas, Ontario, which was set to feature appearances from Young’s famous friends, including Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and his very own wife, Pegi.
“We are sorry for any inconvenience this causes to our fans or the festivals where we were scheduled to appear,” Young’s representative said in a statement. “[The] doctor indicated that Sampedro’s hand requires additional time to heal properly … As you must be, we too are disappointed at this unfortunate turn of events.”
Young and Crazy Horse were also set to perform at festivals in Ottawa, Ontario and Arrington, Virginia, and, of course with Patti Smith in Port Chester, New York, but none of those are going to happen either, obviously.
Sampedro actually told Rolling Stone magazine that he, old Neil Young and Crazy Horse were getting to the point where they might be too old to tour, saying:
“My gut tells me this is really the last tour. It just seems at some point something is going to break.”
Oh, the dark, literal, self-fulfilling prophetic irony.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse released two albums last year, Psychedelic Pill and Americana, both of which were critically acclaimed, but if things carry on like this, it looks like they could be their last. Let’s hope not. On behalf of every music fan ever: Poncho, get well soon!
Farm Aid will move to New York this year, and the bill will be topped once again by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.
Nelson, Young and Mellencamp founded Farm Aid in 1985 in an effort to help farmers pay off their mortgages and to keep farms in the family. The event has become the longest-running benefit concert in the nation, and has raised more than $43 million to date. Matthews is a board member of the event.
This year’s event will be held September 21 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which is located about 30 miles north of Albany. Other performers will be announced in the coming months.
“There’s a whole lot of small family farmers in upstate New York,” Nelson told the Associated Press. “I think this is a great place to try to reach some family farmers.”
He went on to speak about the importance of knowing where your food comes from.
“More and more people are asking about where their breakfast comes from, why it comes from 1,500 miles away when there’s a farm next door,” Nelson continued. “A lot of people are thinking about what we’re feeding our kids. Young people are trying to stay healthy, wondering who’s watching out for our food supply.”
Speaking to the Albany Times-Union, the 80-year-old Nelson said that he keeps putting on the shows every year for the farmers he talks to.
“Every time we have a Farm Aid, a lot of farmers show up and say, ‘Hey, keep it going,’ so it’s not a hard decision for us,” he said.
The most recent Farm Aid was held in September of last year in Hershey, Penn. The same headliners performed, though Young played with Crazy Horse and Matthews appeared with Tim Reynolds. Other artists performing at the event included Kenny Chesney, Jack Johnson, Jamey Johnson, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and Dale Watson, among others.
Neil Young sang of a town in north Ontario in “Helpless,” but he’ll be in the southern portion of the province later this year for the 2013 Greenbelt Harvest Picnic. The event is only a one-day festival, but organizers have packed a slew of great artists into that time. Young will perform with Crazy Horse, and other artists include Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois, Rocco DeLuca, Trixie Whitley and Whitehorse.
The festival will be held August 31 at the Christie Lake Conservation Area in Dundas, Ontario. The name of the festival refers to Ontario’s Greenbelt, which consists of 1.8 million acres of protected green space.
“The event serves to celebrate the importance of the Greenbelt, local farmers, art, the outdoors and the eat-local movement,” says the official website of the festival. Festival founder Jean-Paul Gauthier said in a statement he is excited about this year’s lineup.
“It is a great honor to have Neil Young & Crazy Horse join us for what will be an historic event for this region”. Gauthier said. “Fans can expect high quality sound, food and art in the most beautiful and intimate outdoor venue around.”
The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation is the title sponsor of the event for the third year in a row, and that organization’s CEO, Burkhard Mausberg spoke of how the event serves to help raise awareness for the Greenbelt.
“The Greenbelt Harvest Picnic is a great opportunity to bring together the things we enjoy the most – our friends, our families, and entertainment – in celebration of local food,” said Mausberg. “The Greenbelt is home to 7,000 farms, and some of the most fertile agricultural lands in the province. This event is just one of the many ways the Foundation is raising awareness for all the healthy local foods Ontario farmers provide.”
Organizers of the Interlocken Festival are making sure they are being noticed: the inaugural incarnation of the event will feature Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the Black Crowes, Zac Brown and Widespread Panic.
The event will be held September 5-8 at Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington, Va., which is about 35 miles south of Charlottesville, Va. and about 100 miles from both Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C.
While a full schedule has yet to be released, thus far we know that Widespread Panic, Black Crowes and String Cheese Incident will each play two-nights of the festival Furthur, the band featuring formal Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir will play three nights, with one of those nights being used to perform the classic album Workingman’s Dead in its entirety.
Former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty will sit in with Widespread Panic during one of their two nights. That’s not a pairing I would have ever thought of, but it could produce a great set.
Zac Brown will be sans Zac Brown Band for his participation in the festival, and will guest with the String Cheese Incident during one of their performance, forming the debut of the Zac Brown Incident.
The event is clearly going after a certain type of music fan, and co-creator Peter Shapiro said in a press release that this was the original idea.
“Most festivals these days are trying to be everything to everyone – very eclectic with an emphasis on a large number of artists in various genres,” Shapiro said. “With Interlocken, we want to break away from that mold and create something more identifiable and distinct.”
To put it another way, if you like jam bands and you like other people that like jam bands, you’re probably going to dig this festival.
Oak Ridge Farm is a privately owned, 4,800 acre farm that will offer close camping options in the Blue Ridge mountains, as well as VIP camping inside the concert site.
Even more so than vision, a musician’s hearing is considered essential to his songwriting for obvious reasons. Constructing even a basic melody can be an obstacle with hearing loss, even if only affects one ear – as is the case with most of the musicians below. While it is incredibly rare for a successful musician to be entirely deaf, there are many afflicted with some form of hearing loss, inflicted naturally or by years of enduring loud music and re-takes. This has often forced them to alter their songwriting and performing methods, but judging by the quality of artists below it has only rarely impacted their ability to create a stunning song:
Ludwig van Beethoven
The most notable deaf musician, Beethoven began experiencing hearing loss in 1800, when he was 30. He was almost entirely deaf two years later, but that didn’t stop the classical genius from writing some of his most well-regarded works. His Symphony No. 9, The Consecration of the House, and the highly progressive Late String Quartets remain some of his most noted works, despite being arranged when Beethoven was nearly deaf.
Often called the greatest American pop songwriter of all time, and for good reason, Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson has been nearly deaf in his right ear since childhood. Theories range from Wilson being born with partial deafness to his demanding father abusing him. Regardless, Wilson’s deafness was no obstacle; his left ear proved to be more adept than most people’s two ears combined. This made Wilson forever favorable toward mono over stereo, but it’s not like the best Beach Boys tracks need to be in stereo to show their pure and utter genius.
The Who, like many great rock bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, endured plenty of shows that featured loud fans and instrumental feedback. The band’s guitarist, Pete Townsend, suffers from partial deafness due to his years of exposure. Specifically, he has tinnitus – where one hears a constant ringing in their ears. Townsend later became involved in the initial funding for H.E.A.R., Hearing Education and Awareness for Rocker. Townsend struggled to create music in the late ‘00s due to increasing hearing loss, but lately has used cutting-edge production technology to combat his partial deafness and make songwriting/production easier.
Although most popular in her native Japan, pop star Ayumi Hamasaki is one of the best-selling artists in the world. She has sold over 53 million records in Japan alone, and maintains a cult international fan base. To much of her fans’ dismay, Hamasaki announced in 2008 that she has complete deafness in her left ear. The problem dated back to 2000, but she assured fans it wouldn’t stop her from continuing to perform. Since then, she has released six new albums, and remains as popular as ever. Even partial deafness isn’t stopping the Japanese queen of pop.
Although not known to most younger audiences, singer/songwriter and pianist Johnnie Ray was an early pop songwriter whose work became a stepping stone for rock ‘n’ roll artists of the late ’50s and throughout the ’60s. Perhaps noted for UK #1 Christmas hit “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”, it was unknown to most that Ray became deaf in his right ear at age 13. He was completely deaf in both ears by 1958, though hearing aids made his life a lot easier – even as he stopped making music entirely in 1961. Still, Ray appeared on television frequently and jovially throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s before his death in 1990 at the age of 63.
The sultry voice behind The Velvet Underground was deaf in one ear, which is no surprise to critics that railed her as “tone deaf”. While this would be an insult to vocalists in most cases, for Nico it was part of her trademark. Her nonchalantly deadpan croon was a trademark of The Velvet Underground, and years later it’s obvious fans would not prefer it any other way.
Much like Pete Townsend, Clapton was big in a time when sold-out arenas and loud guitar feedback was typical. And as they’re both still active musically, it’s little surprise that Clapton has endured hearing loss as a result of his career as well. Clapton told the press in 2006 that he suffers from mild tinnitus. “My hearing isn’t ruined, but if I stop and listen I’ve got whistling all the time which I suppose is a mild tinnitus,” he said. “If I’m playing any music at home these days it’s probably classical, mainly because I haven’t got much hearing left.”
Hip-hop artist and producer Sean Forbes represents the new generation of deaf musicians, who are able to access special programs like R.I.T./N.T.I.D that cater to hard-of-hearing music lovers. In 2006, he co-founded D-PAN, a non-profit organization that helps make music accessible to the deaf. He shows that anyone who loves music, no matter how hard of hearing, can land a record deal with hard work and a genuine passion for music.
Neil Young has a “Heart of Gold”, but he also has tinnitus – much like fellow rock stars Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend. Young has plenty of bittersweet ballads that don’t rely as much on volume or ferocity, but playing harder-rocking gems like “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” hundreds of times can certainly attribute to some hearing damage. Judging by how recently Young still puts material out, it doesn’t seem to be affecting him too bad.
Ozzy’s hearing loss may be one of the most obvious on this list, as he is one of the innovators of the “hard-rock” label. Add to that a tireless work ethic and a generally reckless demeanor and you have the recipe for rock-driven hearing loss. “I am almost deaf and only understand something if someone is standing directly in front of me,” Ozzy said. It certainly hasn’t stopped him from the much-anticipated reunion with Black Sabbath this year, whose new album 13 will be released on June 11th.