He’s been called a dirty rock n’ roller, a bluesy bad boy, and a hippie narcissist. But regardless of your thoughts on Neil Young, there’s no denying he’s a huge creative force. The Canadian singer is a brilliant songwriter who has proved that it’s possible to be successful and play by your own rules at the same time.
Throughout his career, he’s given up on incredible opportunities because he felt they were too commercialized and dishonored the art at hand. Impressive right? I mean, not many stars would give up a million-dollar performance at Woodstock (1994) out of sheer principle.
From solo folkie to a grungy rocker, here’s a deep dive into the life of Neil Young.
Neil Percival Young was born on November 12, 1945, in Toronto, Canada, to two outspoken parents. His father, Scott, was a journalist and a writer who wrote over 45 books, and his mom, Edna (nickname “Rassy”), was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
When Young was four, the family moved from the big city to the rural town of Omemee, which he described as a “sleepy little place.” Later on, his parents divorced. This was a troubling time for Young, who moved to Winnipeg with his mother while his brother Bob stayed with his father in Toronto.
In 1951, at the age of 5, Young contracted polio and nearly lost his life. Because the virus is extremely tricky, and symptoms of fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite are easily overlooked, Young was misdiagnosed for quite a while before his hospitalization.
His health deteriorated to the point where he had to re-learn how to walk when he returned home. His brother Bob described him as “trying to get from one part of the living room to another by hanging onto furniture to keep his balance.” Scared and confused, five-year-old Young wondered, “I didn’t die, did I?”
Young was a hard-working kid who woke up every Sunday morning at six to deliver The Globe and Mail, the newspaper his dad worked for. He would get on his bike and pedal through his usual paper route until noon.
But Young’s main source of childhood income was selling eggs from his backyard chickens. They meant a lot to him, and he enjoyed tending to them (and not only because he sold their produce). When foxes would sneak into his backyard, Young would sleep by the chicken coop to protect them.
Young was fascinated by the music he heard on the radio. Whether it was rock, country, or R&B, he could always connect to the different lyrics and tunes. As his interest in music grew, he decided to try and make some of his own.
His first instrument was a plastic ukulele his mom got him for Christmas in 1958, and he played its flimsy strings until he progressed to a better instrument. He bought himself a banjo ukulele, then a baritone ukulele, and, finally, his very own acoustic guitar.
After his parent’s divorce in 1960, he moved to Winnipeg to live with his mom, where he attended Kelvin High School and formed his first band, The Jades. It was his first taste of jamming in a group, and he enjoyed every minute of it.
He enjoyed it so much that he eventually dropped out of school to form his second band, The Squires. He was 17 years old when the band released their first single, “Sultan/Aurora” in 1963, and while it didn’t skyrocket him into stardom, his time with The Squires was fruitful. He wrote “The Sugar Mountain” while on tour with them.
In the mid-1960s, Young joined an R&B band with some memorable musicians, including funk star Rick James. They called themselves the Mynah Birds and were about to release an album before James got arrested for going AWOL from the U.S. Navy.
But the little time they did spend together was, according to Young, “incredibly wild.” He mentioned a lot of drugs and feeling super hazy for the most part. He even recalled singing the same song for about a day and a half.
Following The Mynah Bird’s disbandment, Young packed his bags and headed straight for sunny L.A. He explained, “Canada just couldn’t support the ideas I had. By 1966, I knew I had to leave Canada, and the sounds I was hearing and the sounds I liked were coming from California.”
He sold the band’s equipment so he could afford to buy a 1953 Pontiac Hearse. He then drove to the border along with former bandmate Bruce Palmer, another guy named Mike, folk singer Tannis Neiman and two more girls.
In Los Angeles, Young ran into musician Stephen Stills in a traffic jam on the Sunset Strip. They had met before in Canada, so it was exciting to reunite like that out of the blue. They pulled into a nearby parking lot and rushed to hug one another. Palmer called their encounter with Stills, “The most remarkable karmic event ever.”
Following their chance encounter, Young, Stills, Palmer, Richie Furay, and Dewey Martin formed the band Buffalo Springfield. They released their self-titled debut album in December 1966, and people were digging it. Their single “For What It’s Worth” became a Top 10 hit!
The Sunset Strip curfew riots began at the end of 1966. L.A. developers wanted to turn the street into a fancy financial district and were upset that wild-haired hippie kids spent their nights there jamming until the break of dawn. So L.A. country enforced a curfew for anyone under 18. But the kids weren’t having it.
Young and his bandmates got into a violent confrontation with the police one night, and things spiraled quickly, to the point where Young got his teeth knocked out. Following that brutal night, Stephen Stills picked up his guitar and wrote what would become Buffalo Springfield’s first hit, “For What It’s Worth.”
As Buffalo Springfield grew in popularity, the singer began questioning their music. He was afraid they were becoming too commercialized or popularized and losing their originality and edge. He even turned down a great opportunity to perform on the Johnny Carson Show.
He decided to quit the band, but not before creating their farewell album, Last Time Around. It was a shock to everyone, including his bandmates. How could Neil turn his back on his rock star dreams just like that? The band was doing so well that it was hard to understand his rash decision.
In the midst of all the rock and roll craze, Young began having seizures, and doctors informed him he had epilepsy. His first seizure happened at the age of 20, and Young once admitted that although his epilepsy had calmed down with time, it’s still very much a part of him.
He never had a seizure on stage, though, because he could always feel them coming and knew to take off before they took over. Young’s daughter, Amber, also suffers from the condition, but the two have successfully managed to live with it and thrive against all odds.
Neil began jamming with a group of guys known as the Crazy Horse. With drummer Ralph Molina, bass player Billy Talbot, and guitarist Dan Whitten, Young released his first golden album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Surprisingly, he wasn’t in his best shape when he wrote those golden hits.
He wrote three of the album’s greatest songs – Cinnamon Girl, Down by the River, and Cowgirl in Sand while he was in bed with a 103-degree fever. With nothing to do but lay and stare at the ceiling, his mind took off, and his creativity spilled onto the page.
Neil described his first wife, Susan, as a wonderful woman he simply wasn’t grown and mature enough for. The two met at the Topanga Canyon kitchen where she worked as a hostess and served him a one-eye and bacon each morning.
In December 1968, the two exchanged vows at Young’s redwood property overlooking the mesmerizing canyon. But the rock star’s hectic lifestyle and constant touring created a wedge between the lovebirds, and they called it quits after two years.
Young’s solo career proved successful, but that didn’t stop him from reconnecting with old pals, and when Stills asked him to join his new-formed band, Crosby, Still, and Nash (CSN), he agreed. They played in the legendary 1969 Woodstock Festival and one year later released the album Déjà Vu.
Funny enough, if you take a look at CSN’s Woodstock performance, you’ll probably notice Neil is nowhere to be seen. That’s because he ticked off the cameraman by telling him to “Get the f*ck off the stage.” The film crew (who acted like babies) didn’t appreciate Young’s remark so they decided to edit him out.
In any case, Neil’s time with CSN made him rich and famous, and the band became known as “the American Beatles.” The singer split his time between the band and his solo career and, incredibly, managed to both tour with the band and write songs for his next solo album, After The Gold Rush.
Neil’s career was at its peak in the early ‘70s, but his physical state was its lowest. He was suffering from unbearable pain due to damaged discs in his back and was told he would probably spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Of course, that never blocked Neil’s musical creativity.
According to Young, “The music just kept on going. It’s a good example of not letting things get in the way of a musical idea.” He recorded Harvest in 1972, and his single Heart of Gold became his first No. 1 single. Former CSN bandmate Crosby admitted, “Neil is bigger by himself than the three of us [CSN] are together.”
Neil split with his band, Crazy Horse, after guitarist Danny Whitten’s drug abuse spiraled out of control. Young attempted to go on the Harvest tour with Danny in 1972, but the guitarist constantly showed up to rehearsals way too high to play.
Neil fired him and gave him money for a ticket home. Tragically, Danny used that money to buy drugs and died of an overdose that very same day. Young admitted, “That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I felt responsible.”
Neil needed a break from music, so he spent most of 1972 working on his movie, Journey Through the Past. He wanted to get away from music and try his hand at something he had never done. The film was a combination of his concert and backstage footage from 1966 onward.
Film producer Neil wasn’t as loved as rock star Neil, and his movie received poor reviews. But it was Neil’s chance to experiment with film production, and it was a good distraction from creating music. When all was set and done with his film, he returned to the recording studio. But this time, he was re-energized and felt fresher than ever.
At that point in his life, Neil had lost two close friends to drugs, guitarist Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Berry’s death inspired the song, Tonight’s the Night, whose lyrics read, “Bruce Berry was a working man… a sparkle was in his eye, but his life was in his hands.”
He knew his sounds were getting a bit dark, but he didn’t care one bit. He became desperate to break free from the public’s expectations and began writing songs he would have never dared to write before.
Neil first saw award-winning actress Carrie Snodgress on screen in the film Diary of a Mad Housewife. He was taken by her and was inspired to write the song A Man Needs a Maid. The lyrics include, “I fell in love with the actress / she was playing a part that I could understand.”
But his admiration didn’t end with a few lyrics. He sent a note to Carrie’s dressing room that read “Call Neil Young.” She had no idea who he was but called him anyway and admitted she quickly fell for “the wonderful artist [who] needed me.” Soon afterward, she moved into his ranch in Northern California.
In September 1972, Neil and Carrie Snodgress’s son, Zeke, was born. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a movement disorder that causes a weakening of the muscles and affects a person’s stability and coordination.
Young says that having a son with a disability, and seeing him overcome that disability, has given him great strength, “There are so many kids with challenges that are so great, and yet they just keep trying. So, if I come up against something that’s hard to deal with, I can handle it.”
After a few short years, their relationship wasn’t looking as idyllic anymore. Carrie gave up acting to take care of their son Zeke, and Young’s professional life was moving at such a high speed that he couldn’t tend to family life.
In 1975, the couple split. Carrie explained, “I think it was time for him to move on. He started hanging out with the guys, going to L.A. alone. Then, one day he came back and said he thought it was time for me to leave… I don’t know why we broke up. We never fought.”
Young met his future wife Pegi Young at a diner near his ranch. The young beauty was a waitress there and served him coffee each morning. Here too, Young felt inspired to pour his heart out on paper and wrote the song Unknown Legend: “She used to work in a diner. Never saw a woman look finer…”
They married in 1978, and over the years, they became a lot more than husband and wife. The couple were music collaborators (performing on stage together through the ‘90s) and co-founders of the Bridge School – a non-profit school for children with severe physical impairments.
Pegi and Young have two kids, Ben and Amber. Both of them were diagnosed with unfortunate conditions. Ben has cerebral palsy, like his stepbrother Zeke, and his daughter Amber has epilepsy.
To deal with Ben’s condition, Neil had to come up with different toys and modify existing ones to suit his son’s motor skills. It was a lot to come to terms with, and in 1982, Young released his electronic-synth album, Trans, as a reflection of his inability to communicate with his child.
Young’s lyrics were honest, raw, and not always accepted by the public with open arms. The rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, for example, weren’t that sympathetic to some of his songs. Especially the ones in his album The Golden Rush, where Young criticized the American South.
His song Southern Man goes, “I saw cotton, and I saw black, tall white mansions and little shacks. Southern Man, when will you pay them back?” In return, the rock band released their song Sweet Home Alabama that went, “Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down\ southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” All in all, their feud was largely overblown by the media.
Believe it or not, but before Charles Manson became an evil, twisted, infamous murderer, he tried to make a name for himself as a singer. And Young admitted he had the potential to become one. The two were introduced by a mutual friend in California and began playing together.
According to Neil, “Manson would sing a song and just make it up as he went along, for three or four minutes, and he never would repeat one word, and it all made perfect sense, and it shook you up to listen to it. It was so good that it scared you.”
Neil hates releasing music that sounds too commercialized and won’t agree to sell his soul for money and fame. But when you sign with a record company, you become more or less “their property,” and things get tricky. In the ‘80s, he was sued by his own label, Geffen Records, for releasing albums that didn’t fall in line with his previous work.
They basically told him: Don’t change, don’t be your creative self, just stick to what works. They filed a $3 million lawsuit against him, to which Neil responded with a counter lawsuit for $21 million. Their contract clearly stated he was allowed creative freedom, and Neil wasn’t about to give that freedom up. Label owner David Geffen apologized to Young for any inconvenience, and the case was settled.
Neil Young is a model train enthusiast and has been collecting trains for decades. He loves them so much that he became a part-owner of toy brand Lionel Trains. His contribution has made it possible for the company to produce more models with accurate train sounds and special remote controls that make them accessible to all kids.
Always with his sons in mind, Young explained how important these train models are to kids who aren’t able to play with regular toys, “It’s good for everybody. The fact that it’s good for Ben and good for disabled kids only makes it better for everyone else.”
Despite a religious upbringing, the thought of a monotheistic God never really made sense to Neil: “I was reading a lot about God, but I was bored. I couldn’t wait to get out of Sunday school. God was secondary to the whole thing.”
As time went by, Neil became more and more upset with religion and eventually rejected it altogether. He explained, “Jesus didn’t go to church. I went way back before Jesus. Back to the forest, to the wheat fields, to the river, to the ocean. I go where the wind is. That’s my church.”
Young once explained, “Before there was organized religion, there was the moon. The Indians knew about the moon. Pagans followed the moon. I’ve followed it for as long as I can remember, and that’s just my religion.”
He’s written numerous songs about the faraway planet and has explained the power he believes a full moon has over our lives: “I am a strong believer in the full moon as a good time to be creative, so I try to record all of my albums based on that timing.”
Old Man is a profound song Neil wrote about a caretaker on the ranch he purchased in Northern California. The caretaker’s name was Louis, and he once asked Neil, “Tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?”
Neil answered, “Well, just lucky, Louie, just real lucky.” Louis was surprised and responded, “Well, that’s the darndest thing I ever heard.” So Neil wrote the song for him. It’s a beautiful depiction of the similarities between humans, regardless of their age.
Neil is no stranger to drugs and was even arrested a few times on suspicion of using marijuana and cocaine. He would go on stage with a large white chunk sticking out of his nose, so hey, it was only a matter of time before the police intervened.
But as the years went by, Young realized that booze and drugs were only keeping him from being his true, authentic, and creative self. So, he ditched his bad habits and explained, “I did it for 40 years. Now I want to see what it’s like not to do it. It’s just a different perspective.”
In 2005, Young experienced visual field disturbances and was taken to the hospital, where an MRI revealed some disturbing news. The singer had a brain aneurysm, a blown-up artery at risk of popping and causing bleeding in the brain.
Luckily, his doctors caught it on time, and he underwent a life-saving surgery where they reached his brain through an artery in his thigh. But that wasn’t the end of it. A few days after he left the hospital, his leg popped, and blood poured out of his shoe. He fell unconscious but was successfully revived by the emergency crew.
Joni and Young, both brilliant Canadian songwriters, met in the ‘60s as they were both part of the growing folk scene at the time. They spent precious time together and released songs about each other, including Mitchell’s The Circle Game and Young’s Sweet Joni.
But were they ever more than just good friends who shared an affinity for songwriting? According to sources, probably not. They each went their separate ways. Mitchell married, got divorced, then moved to Britain, while Young moved to the U.S. and met other people. But the fact they have never been in a relationship doesn’t mean Neil didn’t want to. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to be with Joni?
When Young was still a fresh-faced ambitious kid, he bought a Buick Roadmaster hearse he named Mortimer Hearseburg, or for short – Mort. Mort would take him from this gig to that gig and was just as part of his musical journey as his guitar was. Until that is, Mort broke down.
But have no fear! Mort II came around, and this time as a 1953 Pontiac hearse. After all these years, Mort’s legacy lives on. Neil’s song Long May You Run tells the tale of his loyal companion. The lyrics go like this: “We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather. Long may you run.”
Young has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame twice. Once as a solo artist in 1995, and a second time as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997. His solo induction was an incredibly emotional evening, with Eddie Vedder calling him “a great songwriter, a great performer, a great Canadian.”
But his band’s induction was a different story. Neil refused to participate in the event claiming, “Although I accept the honor, in the name of rock and roll, I decline to take part in this TV presentation and be trotted out like some cheap awards show. There are already too many of these.”
The Canadian rocker cares about his fans and respects his art too much to let it play on the Internet with poor audio quality. So, in 2015, he pulled out all of his music from streaming websites. He explained, “I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution.”
But fans weren’t happy with his decision. One mad follower wrote, “Kids don’t care about sound quality. They’re listening to music on earbuds, computer speakers, and phones. All you’re doing is making sure your music is not heard by younger generations. Not something to be proud of.” Eventually, Neil’s music returned to Spotify, Apple Music, etc.
Guilty, miserable, and anxious, Kurt Cobain quoted Young’s famous words, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” in the suicide note he left behind. The lyrics come from Neil’s song My My, Hey Hey, and the Canadian rock star admitted it came as a huge shock to see his words in that context.
In Neil’s memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, he wrote, “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It f*cked with me.” It was especially painful because the singer tried to get in touch with Cobain before his death, telling him to play only when he felt like it and to be strong.
Young suffers from tinnitus – the perception of high-pitched ringing in your ears. It’s a lot better than it was before, but, at its worst, Young had to steer clear from loud sounds and sink into gentle melodies instead.
Neil explained, “I made ‘Harvest Moon’ because I didn’t want to hear any loud sounds. I still have a little bit of tinnitus but, fortunately, now I’m not as sensitive to loud sounds as I was for a year after the mixing of Weld. My hearing’s not perfect, but it’s OK.”
The magazine described Neil’s playing as “an open tube from his heart right to the audience.” And Phish’s guitarist Trey Anastasio wrote, “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young’s original Down by the River solo.”
Trey described Neil’s solo as a one-note tune that’s melodic and snarls with attitude and anger. And this is true for many of Young’s creations. He’s undoubtedly considered a guitar god whose accessibility was part of what made him so appealing to the grunge generation.