In one of Neil Young’s many great songs on Harvest Moon, we are given a description of a free soul, a woman with long blonde hair flyin’ in the wind. This woman also dresses two kids, used to work in a diner, and grew up in a small town. The woman in the song is loyal. The woman in the song is a strong person, colliding with the air she breathes; she doesn’t burn out or fade away. The woman, like the song’s title, is an unknown legend.
The woman is Pegi Young.
There are many things I can write about Pegi that have little to do with her husband or her debut, self-titled album, Pegi Young. I get the feeling from talking to her that this album is a major accomplishment and a dream come true; she’s a joy to talk to, and her music is a comforting listen. But there are reasons why you might be surprised that she has waited until now to explore her own career as a musician.
The reality is that Young’s life hasn’t been easy. In November of 1978, Pegi gave birth to Ben Young, her first child with Neil Young. In early 1979, Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Ironically, it was Neil’s second child with the condition, the first being Zeke, who Neil had in a previous relationship with the now late Carrie Snodgress; there is no evidence that heredity is a factor with cerebral palsy (Pegi and Neil have since had a second child, Amber, who does not have any form of the condition). Unlike Zeke, who shows only minor symptoms of cerebral palsy, Ben is confined to a wheelchair, spastic paraplegic.
Seeing the potential in children who live with cerebral palsy, Young helped co-found the Bridge School in 1986. The Bridge School helps children explore their hidden talents and lead an independent life, giving them a chance to communicate through the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). AAC is the use of other means to communicate in support of, or as an alternative to, speech. You can learn much more about The Bridge School at www.bridgeschool.org.
Finding time for her creative side, mostly singing, writing, and playing guitar, has been hard to do for Pegi Young. In 1994, she made her live debut on a darkly-lit stage at the Academy Awards, singing back-up while Neil played a solo piano performance of “Philadelphia”. In the summer of 2000, she joined Neil and others on tour, singing back-up on songs like “Motorcycle Mama,” “Walk On,” “Harvest Moon,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” And in June of 2007, she released Pegi Young, a collection of 11 songs that is the perfect listen for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
I recently had the great opportunity to talk to Pegi about her new album, her creative process, The Bridge School, and her husband, Neil Young.
This record has a great organic feel to it. Do you think it’s because you wrote a lot of these songs?
I did write a lot of the songs. I wrote a bunch more that we recorded and are done and mixed, but didn’t make this record. The sound—I love the sound on the record. We recorded to tape, which I think gives it that beautiful, warm feeling—you feel the room, I love that. Of course, I’m pretty biased in terms of tape, because my husband is a pretty big fan of tape, too! (laughs) But I love the feel of it myself. I think that’s maybe what you’re hearing, it’s certainly that and the delivery and it’s my first record and so it’s maybe a little tentative and a little quiet, the songs are very intimate. So it just kind of came out that way, I didn’t deliberate on it too much, it just sort of flowed that way organically I guess.
Describe your band for those that aren’t familiar.
I’ve been friends with most my band for many, many years—Ben Keith and I probably the longest. Rick Rosas played with Neil back in The Bluenotes and The Lost Dogs and all that in the 80s, so we’ve certainly known each other a long time, and Spooner Oldham the same. Anthony Crawford, Karl Himmel…you know, I feel very lucky to have musicians of this caliber to play with.
What’s it like to hear Ben Keith’s pedal steel on some of your songs?
You know, I didn’t try to give Ben any direction because he’s such a master (laughs). So when I heard him bringing some of my songs to life, putting his beautiful steel on like a song like “Key to Love,” it just blew my mind. You know, I wrote that song so long ago, sitting by myself in my teepee, 20 years old or something. Who would have ever imagined in a million years I would have the great Ben Keith playing this beautiful, beautiful part on it. It was just like that really across the board with all these musicians. So many of these songs, I had only really played for myself; I never played them for anybody. So to hear a band, not just a band, but this band, bring them to life, was really a great moment for me.
Tell me a little about “Key To Love.” To me, it’s the standout track on the album.
Well I wrote it originally as a poem actually. And when I thought about recording it, obviously I needed some music for it and I came up with that little pattern and I think it’s nice, it’s sweet, it fits the song. And it’s just sort of telling a story that’s certainly evolved because what a young 20-year-old girl is thinking about versus a woman that has lived and experienced things. But I can still tell the story, I still believe it, it hasn’t changed at all. You just go, “Boy, if I thought it was going fast then, it’s going lightning speed now!” (laughs) But it’s a story that a lot of people can relate to, it’s a little sad, a little melancholy, a little love maybe not working out entirely great, everybody goes through that, right? A somewhat universal experience, I think.
And like you said, you were living in a teepee at the time…
Yeah, it was great! (laughs). But I don’t recommend it. If my daughter told me she wanted to live in a teepee now, I’d freak. It was a different world then…I lived there for a year and I experienced four full seasons, which was great. It happened to snow, which, in our area of California, it doesn’t snow very much, and if it does, it’s sort of a light dusting. But this was like a freak snow storm and everybody was out of power and having issues. But I lived without power anyway, so it didn’t make any difference to me. I just had to tromp up through the snow, I had to find my trail. I can contend to be a solitary person, so that was a good situation for me. I was there by myself with my dog and a few cats.
Was it long after that when you met Neil Young?
I did meet Neil just after I moved out of the teepee, actually. I met him in December of 1974 and I had moved out in October or something. I had gone from living in a little circular dwelling to a little square box, a little cabin. We’ve been married now 29 years, it’s amazing to us.
What part of his creative process helped you create your own album?
Yeah, he really is the most creative guy I’ve ever known in my life. And I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of really creative people, and I have a creative streak, too. But, when you compare yourself to him, you know, “Uh Oh!” An impossibly high bar, you don’t want to go there. Because then you feel like, “Oh my God, I’m never accomplishing anything!” But things he really helped me with, in terms of thinking about the recording process, for instance, you know he’s made some 40 odd records, at least, I don’t even know anymore. But he had some really good advice for me in terms of…you know, you’re in the studio and working on a song and it’s maybe just not coming together. So leave it–leave it and go on to another one and come back to it. Don’t try to hammer it; it’s just not going to not have the feel you want it to have. He’s a really…the guy, he’s a feel guy. He really goes with what feels right to him and that has been really reinforcing for me, because I think we all kind of know that, you have to feel it in your gut and write whatever it is you’re doing. And he has really reinforced me to listen to that, to tune in to that.
Was the recording process easy for you?
The struggle was trying to figure out which songs to choose to have on this first record; which songs sort of went together thematically to tell some kind of a story, and then also musically so it wasn’t all just kind of downer, heartbreak songs, have a little levity in there, too. So that’s where “Heterosexual Masses” and “I Like the Party Life” come in, to give it a little comic relief. But when you look at the underbelly of those songs, they’re not really cheery songs, either! (laughs)
We probably spent close to two years doing the project. Because even though I was able at the point in my life to carve out dedicated chunks of time to work on my music, there were still the other things that surfaced that needed my attention. But when we got in the studio…we went in the studio three times here on the ranch over a period of probably a year, each time for just about a week. And we were just so blessed, we were just incredibly productive, we just got so many songs and things just flowed so well. And then we did one session in Los Angeles, just one day, actually trying to re-do one of the songs, which is the take we used on the record, “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet.” We just tried that one again and really got it. So we used that one, but by then I had written a couple more songs, so we recorded those, and I think we did like eight songs that day! (laughs) It was kind of one of those magical things, we were just really lucky. So once we got in the studio, and the struggle was going, “Ok, I have 30 songs, now what do I do? I have way too many songs here.”
So I went to Nashville and mixed them all back there with Chad Hailey and Rob Clark and Ben (Keith) was always with us, he’s got such great ears, he was a huge help. Then we kind of closed the herd and…I was just driving back from the beach one day (in California) and I was down there doing a walk with one of my lady friends and was thinking about my music and all of a sudden it came to me—these ones in a row that appear on the record.
“White Line in the Sun” is an interesting song, a sort of traveling song.
It is certainly a traveling song. I wrote that one somewhere along the way on this big hitchhiking trip I took, I used to hitchhike around a lot—another thing I don’t recommend. These are the things you don’t do, ok? (laughs) But, yeah, it is a personal song. I just hitchhiked by myself with my dog and met people along the way and so forth. So I guess it’s a reflective song, just thinking about the journey and now having lived most of my adult life, a good portion of it has been spent out there on the road, just a different style than standing out there on the road with my thumb out. We spend a lot of time on the bus, watching the road go by. It’s a great place and space to let your mind roll free a little bit. You’re not answering the telephone, being pulled this way or that way—you’re just sitting there and everything is going by you, and I find that a really relaxing place to be for my mind and creative mind. It’s like you’re traveling, but you’re not really moving, an interesting dynamic, one that I love.
You have done a few shows so far, with more to come. How has the live experience gone?
It has been such a blast, we have had so much fun. Other than the Conan show recently, we’ve been playing for about 200 people, just the perfect size for me right now. Really intimate, the songs are intimate, it really works, and I’m really pleased with that. And we just have fun, so much fun, I enjoy it a lot. The small, sweaty clubs, fun places for music.
Back in 2000, when you and Astrid were back-up singers for Neil’s Music in Head Tour, I was at your first show in Virginia Beach.
Yeah, Music in Head, otherwise known as Friends and Relatives. That was my first show, that was cool.
Seemed like you had a lot of fun on that tour.
We had a blast. Once again, it’s obviously something I love to do, so getting the opportunity to do it after all these years is so great. And getting to back-up Neil and have all these wonderful musicians all over the stage, it’s just a dream come true.
And also the Greendale play/tour in 2003…
That was a trip and a half, what a concept that was! That was wild! And that was a lot of fun, a lot of people. A lot of things going on, a lot of people doing double duty. Our tour manager was the devil and Jed. Most of the crew had some character to play. And we were singers and also our characters, so it was a lot of fun.
I saw three Greendale shows and my wife thought I was crazy.
Well, the shows were the same but not the same. And you could say that about any show, really. Every night is different. Some nights are just pure magic and some nights you just go, “Gosh, that song just got away from me.” I thought it was really interesting to feel what that was like, to have seven people on the stage, to all feel like they had a great night. That’s a wonderful feeling.
Did you ever read Shakey, the biography that Jimmy McDonough wrote about Neil?
No, I read little patches of it; I didn’t read the whole book. I wasn’t a big fan of the book. Well, it was no secret I wasn’t a big fan of the book idea and the concept. You know, I don’t want to put down anybody’s art, and that’s…you know…I never thought it really…I thought maybe it had a slant on it that I didn’t recognize.
He decided not to interview you for the book. But he wrote about you, saying that you were a survivor and that if you ever decided to tell your story, that it would be an inspiration for many. Any thoughts on that?
Hmm. (pauses) I didn’t know about that. But…I didn’t want to be interviewed. I just wasn’t a fan of the concept. Part of Neil’s life is for the public, I mean, that’s part of the deal. But there’s also a part of the deal that’s private, there is a place for privacy, I’m really big on that. So the things that…talking about the music, that’s fair game. But talking about our personal life, I just didn’t feel that I wanted to do that.
A lot of people have been inspired by you, though, with your work with The Bridge School and all you’ve gone through. Do you still face challenges with The Bridge School?
Oh yeah, very much so. I’ve been President of the Board forever…(laughs)…kinda one of those things they say for a healthy organization you should really change the board more often than we have. But we’ve managed to grow and evolve way beyond whatever I’ve originally envisioned for the school. But, you know, I envisioned the school.
We only have 14 children in the school at one time. So that’s not nearly meeting the needs. So we knew we had to have a means of communicating to others around the country, around the world. You know, what are we doing at The Bridge School? What can you do in your home environment to serve the needs of this particular student population. So it’s grown from the school with the transition program, as a part of that, that the kids are only there a few years and then the goal is for them to return to their home school district and really participate meaningfully in their curriculum, in their classroom, and their homes, and their communities—communication is our primary focus.
But then we have this outreach program that has been very diverse from running a summer camp, which we just had earlier this summer. It’s a week-long summer camp. We have a training institute, an international teacher-in-residence program, so every 2nd year we bring in a professional from a country with emerging sort of technological awareness. Our recent teacher-in-residence was from South Africa, she just returned I think just last week or the week before. We have open labs throughout the year, they’re on Saturdays so people in the community, parents, professionals, whomever can come in and try out technology, see how it works and can fit in with your specific needs, the needs of your child or student.
And then we started a research program about five years ago now, and that’s been just amazing because one of the things we needed to do to really have an effective dissemination model is look at things not just anecdotally, not just, “Oh, here’s a story that really worked, this particular educational strategy really worked great with this kid,”… but it was a little too…vague. So now we have ability to quantify, looking at data, collecting data. We’re videotaping and modeling and doing an entire upgrade to our Web site right now, which is www.bridgeschool.org, for those who want to learn more. There’s going to be a stream for professionals, a stream for parents; you’ll be able to look and say, “OK, Here’s a kid who uses this means of accessing the computer and has this particular academic ability. Here’s another profile of another kid , and another kid…” And you can really begin to see how you can modify things depending on what the kid’s abilities are. So it’s tremendously exciting, all of this stuff. We have a great, great Executive Director who has enabled me to really step back for the first time, significantly, in almost 20 years. We actually just had our 20th annual benefit concert.
How is your son, Ben, doing?
Ben is great, he’s awesome. He goes to work everyday. He’s got an office downtown, he’s got an organic egg business. He’s certified by the state of California and he has a couple of retail outlets that he sells his eggs to; today was one the egg delivery days, so he’s off to deliver eggs. He lives, really, quite independently. We have a great team of caregivers and companions for him. He went to a conference in Chicago earlier in the summer with his buddies, an organic farmer’s conference. So it’s really cool that he’s got that extended network, people who are doing what he does, maybe they are raising vegetables, maybe they have much larger organic egg businesses. His is pretty small, he’s got like 150 chickens, instead of like 15,000! (laughs) But yeah, he’s doing great. We’re very lucky, his health has been very good, he’s in good shape.
You got to perform at the Ryman in Nashville for the Prairie Wind film. And that was right after Neil had surgery for a brain aneurysm. How was that time for you?
It was…unexpected, to say the least. Most people who have brain aneurysms don’t find out until something catastrophic has happened. So initially, you sort of hear that “A-word” and go, “Ohhh…this is really serious.” And the music that came out as a result of that, I think it’s just beautiful, I love it, I’m so happy to be part of it. I wasn’t going to leave Neil’s side under any circumstances anyway (laughs). We went to New York for three days and we ended up being gone from home for about a month, because everything just…tumbled over onto itself. It was very interesting, very scary at times. When everything came out well, that was big relief. Then he had a little setback and he was back in the hospital….you know, again, we were just really lucky, we should have been on a plane when he had his setback. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if we would have been on a plane. It could have been really, really bad. So, all in all, we were really blessed.
Glide Senior Writer Jason Gonulsen lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.