Neil Young: His Tender Heart


The established consensus around Neil Young’s music, one which he himself concurs with, is that his bruising, ragged, noisy rock music (often made with the band Crazy Horse) is artistically valid and his tender music is sappy, commercial pabulum. This dichotomy was established very early on with the success of “Harvest” in 1972. It subsequently drove him away from “middle-of-the-road” music and “into the ditch” and the raw trilogy of “Time Fades Away” (1973), “On the Beach” (1974) and “Tonight’s The Night” (1975).

In the nineties Young was endorsed by Grunge (Kurt Cobain quoted “Rust Never Sleeps” in his suicide note) and its affiliates like Sonic Youth. The blistering rock of the series of records starting with the shot across the bows that was “Eldorado” (1989), and which ran through “Ragged Glory” (1990) to “Arc” (1991) cemented this critical perception between “hard” (cool) and “soft” (uncool).

I’ve never been comfortable with this. My take on Neil Young is that alongside The Beatles, and without all of the technological wizardry which helped propel their music into the ether, he is probably the pre-eminent psychic and spiritual musician of our times. Young’s tenderness, flying as it does in the face of our brutalised society, is absolutely central to this and to my way of thinking his tender music is more radical, open and interesting than his noisy.

Like John Lydon, Neil contracted Polio as a child. In his autobiography “Waging Heavy Peace” his brother describes how, “When he came home he had to learn to walk again.” He also caught Diptheria and Measles. And like Ian Curtis, after a series of fits, he discovered he had Epilepsy. Neil describes one really terrible episode which was triggered at the Doctor's surgery: “He drew my blood. I crashed and had another full-on seizure on the spot. The same feeling. The room spinning slowly, the echoes, the darkness creeping in, and finally the doctor and nurses trying to get me back on the table, shoving a piece of wood in my mouth so I wouldn’t bite off my own tongue. Then remembering my name, starting over. Getting a grip on my identity, where I lived, etc.” His brother remarked: “I do not know why Neil has had to contend with all these things.

Epilepsy is a terrible curse; but it should in no way diminish that to point out that it is sometimes associated with states of ecstatic bliss. Dostoevsky’s being considered the first description of these ecstatic auras in literature. Markus Gschwind and Fabienne Picard at the Department of Neurology, University Hospital and Medical School of Geneva give some examples from their patients testimony of their religious and mystical experiences:

“Maybe the closest sensation that I know would be an orgasm, but what I felt was not at all sexual. I have no religious feeling, but it was almost religious.”

“These experiences brought me confidence. They confirm that there is something that surpasses us.”

“It is a big happening in your life to have these seizures. Thanks to these experiences, I do not fear death anymore. I see the world differently.”

These experiences of ego dissolution cloaked in intense blissful sensations are familiar to us from the literature around psychedelics. It shouldn’t surprise us that Neil claimed to never having taken LSD. After this aforementioned scan which triggered a fit; “The doctor’s recommendations were that I not take any LSD. I had never taken acid. I never wanted to, anyway. I hallucinate enough on my own and can’t control that.

This picture of a liminal personality teetering at the threshold of ego coalescence, at that conjunction of the mystical and psychiatrically problematic, is given a hilarious pop spin by Gerald Casale of Devo who describes collaborating with Neil on his film “Human Highway”: “Neil Young, when we met him, we just thought he was the grandfather of granola, and as soon as we talked to him we realised all of our preconceptions were wrong – he was really far out – I mean really loopy – almost like a mad scientist.

Reading “Waging Heavy Peace” confirms this impression of an exceptionally sensitive individually more or less at the whim of both his own instincts and those beyond his ken. He describes the process of songwriting thus: “When I write a song, it starts with a feeling, I can hear something in my head or feel it in my heart. It may be that I just picked up the guitar and mindlessly started playing. That’s the way a lot of songs begin. When you do that, you are not thinking. Thinking is the worst thing for writing a song. So you just start playing and something new comes out. Where does it come from? Who cares? Just keep it and go with it. That’s what I do. I never judge it. I believe it. It came as a gift when I picked up my musical instrument and it came through me playing with the instrument.

Elsewhere he is more explicit describing what he feels are the source of these vibrations. He claims that his greatest records, those that he made with producer David Briggs, are “the transcendent ones where I am closest to the Great Spirit” and that, although he is not a religious person, “The Great Spirit, as I like to call her, is in us all and in everything that lives or used to live, in everything that exists or used to exist.” On the surface, classic Hippie babble, but in this case profound.

This sensitivity is something we immediately recognise in his recordings. His voice, in psychoanalytic terms, is “unarmoured”. His quivering and high-pitched vocal tone, the model for Thom Yorke’s own whine, is too odd and tender to be that of a regular dude. In practical terms this is where the personality of manager and friend the recently deceased Elliot Roberts came in: “Although unpopular at times with my musician friends, Elliot is consistently there for the art, for the artist, protecting me from the sharks, while sometimes being accused of being a shark himself. Elliot is the friend I call every day at least five times, no matter what.” It was a classically symbiotic relationship: resourceful Young shielded his sensitivity, with Roberts – and Roberts had the sense to protect Young’s fecund creativity. Neil noted that “I am harder and harder for him to deal with as I get older and more certain of my opinions on business matters, but he still protects me from others and tries in vain to protect me from myself.” But it’s interesting, if also tragic, to see that Neil himself closely protects his sons Zeke and Ben who have Cerebral Palsy.

In the teens we heard a great deal about Young in relation to his Pono music player. I was always intrigued by these things, but not enough to actually buy one. I’ve never really enjoyed listening to music through headphones which I find wear my ears out. Pono’s business was ultimately an update on Apple’s iPod/iTunes file download model. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s apparent that the streaming/rental model was the future. It’s quite possible that Neil’s lobbying for high quality audio may have sown the seed for TIDAL and “Master Quality Audio”. I wonder if this was a project where Elliot Roberts had tried to protect him from himself?

Although I too am something of a sensitive, middle-aged “audiofool” with a cherished set of speakers, swag vinyl and a Prism DAC I believe that perhaps Neil mistakes the absence of spirit in music with declining music quality. He writes that he is hibernating “…like music lovers who can’t feel what they used to feel when they heard music because of the low sound quality. They are hibernating bears. They will come out of their caves only when the sound of music shines like the sun again.” In the era of music which I feel western culture was on that spiritual wavelength, the countercultural stretch from 1956 to 1996, the music did have an intangible quality, a kind of mania, which although not entirely absent today, present for example in the ecstatic realms of Trap and Dancehall, seems in shorter supply.

Neil discusses beautiful sonic experiences. Listening to his KLH record player: “We would hang and play records for hours, sitting on the llama rug in front of the speakers, listening to tracks like “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles over and over. The sound was so good, you could never get enough of it. I feel sorry for kids with their MP3s today who can’t hear music the way we did then. What a bummer.” The KLH was supposed to be a very good HiFi back in 1967, designed by “the famous audio engineer Henry Kloss” Worthpoint says of it “Back in the early 70's this was just about the best sounding phono component system you could buy!” Although it may have been a good setup at the time I imagine in subjective “scientific” terms it’s probably pretty average compared to a modern mid-range digital system. And surely hearing those Beatles songs for the first time as they came out would have been sensational enough, especially if one was very stoned (the ultimate HiFi upgrade...) Anyway, I don’t want to get into all that crap...

In spite of all this professional audio waffle one of Neil’s most cherished songs, “Will to Love”, from the uneven “American Stars ‘n Bars” (1977) was recorded on a humble SONY cassette player, probably the legendary WM-D6C: “Sitting on the floor late at night, I recorded in front of the fireplace with the cassette on the hearth, three feet from the fire as I played my old Martin guitar… the recording stands alone in my work for its audio verité style.

This portrait we have drawn of the sensitive Neil, enshrined in these songs of tenderness and compassion, Neil Young like the Dalai Lama as an emanation of the Bodhisattva Chenrezig, does sit at odds with the trail of destruction he has also wreaked. The song “Don’t cry” (1989) is noteworthy in this regard – Neil implores his partner “Don’t cry my sweet love, you won’t really be alone…I’ll help you pack your things, I’ll walk with you out to the car. I’ll hold on to the ring, I won’t forget the way things are…” Before the track swoons into a dive-bombing arc of feedback. It must be the most bittersweet divorce song there is, expressing the full devastation of a relationship collapsing in spite of its apparent strengths.

Near the end of his autobiography he reflects, “How do I avoid being short with those I love and respect? How do I try to make people feel good about what they are doing for and with me? How can I respect others’ tastes while retaining my own? This is the knowledge I am searching for. I can remember so many times in my life when I have hurt others and hurt myself. I really need to find a way to change those patterns for good.” It’s not something you expect to see written in a superstar rockstar’s book and as much as it’s a confession it’s also an insight into his essential nature. Beautiful.

Because of his recent David vs Goliath spat with Spotify over DMT moron Joe Rogan’s anti-vax bullshit Neil has pulled his catalogue from Spotify - so I can't share a Spotify playlist of it. Given his antipathy to low resolution audio and his experience contracting Polio before the Salk vaccine this was waiting to happen. Furthermore I can’t upload more than three tracks by a single artist onto Mixcloud. But he’s still repping at YouTube thank goodness! I have compiled this playlist there from his own channel of all my favourite NY soft tracks. Get your hankys ready for a good blub...