I first heard Neil Young’s music in high school, sitting on the passenger side of my friend’s beat up car. As we were pulling out of his driveway, he fumbled through a few cassette tapes, and, not knowing what he had chosen, threw one in. The album was Harvest Moon. The song happened to be “One of These Days.” My life has never been the same.
Since 1997, I’ve seen Young 15 times live, in one form or another. My second show, in 1999, will always live with me as one of my greatest concert memories. It was at The Fox Theatre in St. Louis, and I was spoiled with second row seats, thanks to my sister, Joy, who, before internet pre-sales, snagged the tickets by spending a Saturday morning in the freezing cold with Young fanatics. All for a concert that she didn’t really want to see with her little brother, but is now glad she did.
One of my favorite things about concerts is seeing the band or artist walk out on stage to begin the show. I hate missing this moment. And when Young appeared solo before my eyes on that April evening, scraggly and wearing a wry smile, I remember my sister asking if I was okay. What I don’t remember is responding, or uttering a mere word for the rest of the show. Neil had it going that night, beginning his set with After the Gold Rush’s “Tell Me Why,” and ending it with Rust Never Sleeps’ “Pocahontas.” He even told a lengthy, engaging story about his late dog, Elvis, during “Old King.” I was stunned at how friendly and normal he seemed.
Since then, I’ve seen Young in five different states, many of those being classic road trips with friends and family that now make me smile and laugh. And while I do know many who share my love for Young’s music, I’ve also come to realize that it’s hard to force him on someone who just doesn’t get him.
I still have no clue on how to respond when the question is asked, “What’s his best album?” I don’t think the answer exists, only because you don’t start by listening to one complete album and understand what kind of musician Young is. You don’t even make a mixed CD, or throw a bunch of songs on an iPod and hope for the best.
No, I truly believe that the best way to get into Neil Young’s music is by accident. For me, it was the homespun lyrics and sound of “One of These Days” that just felt right. For you, it could be the epic “Cortez the Killer,” the storytelling in “Thrasher,” or the rawness of “Love to Burn.” You might even hear “Unknown Legend” at the supermarket and become hooked, you never know.
What I am getting at here is that Neil Young isn’t likely to make a difference in your life just because someone expects you to listen. His albums are so random, his overall body of work too intense to declare any kind of statement about how his music is supposed to make you feel. If you’re ever moved by one of his songs, it’s more likely to happen in minute of spontaneity, not when someone’s fingers are crossed their backs.
Neil may be right – that it’s better to burn out than to fade away – but don’t worry about any of that until you’re on his wagon. If you ever get on board, you’ll see what I mean.