Neil Young saved my life

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This might sound familiar to you. Some bespectacled chubbo walks into a record store. Or some scrawny spaz breaks into his older brother's room. Or some slob sneaks into a party. (Any one of these scenarios can work.)

This guy's life, up to that point, has been a series of unremitting indignities. He can't get his hair right. He can't get with women. His jokes aren't laughed at. He spends his weekends watching videos with his grandmother, who makes him stop movies whenever she hears a curse. He's too tall. He's too short. (Details may vary.) This is where the album or tape or CD comes in. The music he's heard up until then is too crass, too wimpy, too calculating. It might do for other people, and he has to remind himself that not everyone listens to music the way he does. Not everyone is looking for consolation.

But today he plays this record and it leaves him with his hair standing on end, like in a science-fair disaster. It makes him feel cool; it feels like secret information. He realizes not only that he's a fan of this rock star, but that he's always been his fan. Even before he heard of him, he was a fan. He was a fan from the womb; he just didn't know it at the time.

Maybe this was you. It certainly was me; it certainly is me. Neil Young saved my life…

Why was I such a fan? Let me count the reasons. There was that voice, so unusual-many would say so screechy or alley-cat-that you knew he wasn't skating by on gloss. I remember watching television as a child and seeing a man in a flannel shirt and sunglasses singing on the 1985 all-star famine-relief song "Tears Are Not Enough," Canadian music's answer to "We Are the World." He looked like a lumberjack-pirate among the zipper-clad and poodle-headed Canadian talent, which included Corey Hart, Geddy Lee from Rush, and Paul Shaffer. There was something even stranger about his voice. How did he ever become famous? When the song's producer, David Foster, told him that his singing was flat, Neil replied, with characteristic assurance, "That's my style, man!" And yet it would take me a few more years to realize that this man wasn't Gordon Lightfoot.

Young, whose idyllic childhood was ruptured by a near-fatal polio attack and his parents' divorce, sang like the child who is the father of the man, in the voice of innocence singed by experience. His lyrics balanced stoner abstraction ("It is hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you're old enough to repay but young enough to sell" in "Tell Me Why") with compelling, fragmented imagery ("Big birds flying across the sky" in "Helpless"). Young's trippy songwriting style-which bowled over distinctions between you and me, you and her, now and then, before and after, here and there-was unified by his melancholic vision, his tenuous tenor, his unerring sense of melody.

It was the peculiar, sometimes begrudging way he confessed feelings that made them inevitable, rather than simply a formal requirement of rock songwriting. And yet the off-the-cuff manner in which Young produced his music-songs quickly written while he was laid flat by illness or injury, then recorded with a minimum of rehearsal and studio gimmickry-revealed not only a desire for rawness and immediacy but a fear of equivocation, a fear of his own fear to commit. Even when Young was ambivalent, he wavered fiercely and noisily.

Without idealizing it, he exalted melancholy, which, novelist Thomas Pynchon once mused, "is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances of productive behavior, even what may be identified as a sense of humor."

Then there was his guitar: the way it shrieked and whinnied sounded outside of music, less about melody or hot licks, and more about punishment, more like a stream of anguish.

By the time I finished high school, Young had become something of a role model for me. Looking back, I could have done worse. Young was the embodiment, in his appearance, his singing, his music, of a type of anti-beauty. To an awkward kid, this was appealing. Young sought beauty in frayed edges and worn-out patches. He reveled in bum notes, in buzzing guitar strings. Even his album covers had a rough, unfinished quality. The solarized photo of Young on the cover of After the Gold Rush would cost a Fotomat operator his job. Jim Mazzeo's far-out line drawings for Zuma of a naked woman, a "danger bird," and some pyramids look at first to be found art from a discarded Denny's placemat.

In August 2004, I decided to follow the same route Young took from Winnipeg to Fort William (now Thunder Bay), and then from Toronto to Los Angeles [in 1965]. With three pot-smoking buddies and a hatbox's worth of space cakes, I crossed North America in one triangular swoop, traveling 14,000 kilometers and 7,500 miles, through five provinces and fourteen states, in twenty-two days. I visited places that were important to Neil and a few people associated (albeit tangentially) with Neil, and stopped in Auburn, Washington, to see Young play at Farm Aid 2004. It was a trip: in the here-to-there dictionary sense, in the foggy mind-journeying granola sense, in the pratfall sense…

This is strange but true: everything I know about being young I learned from Neil Young, a jowly man approximately twice my age and now hurtling toward senior citizenship. "Well, I keep gettin' younger," he sings in "Crime in the City," "My life's been funny that way." He bristles against expectations; he chooses spontaneity over precision, passion over perfection. This was exactly what I wanted in my life, in my art. What Young called reckless abandon. The expressions go kid at heart or old soul, but these are mere consolations for most people. For Young, old is a choice, a train you can elect not to board. Being young is an awareness of possibility, an unwillingness to stick with what one already knows and lead with one's strengths. And, in my opinion, this frame of mind is much harder to achieve than the physical agelessness exemplified by news readers or yoga instructors.

One can be a rock star at sixty, just as there are teenagers who are already planning to sell life insurance. As a novelist turning thirty, working through the night, searching for the right word to describe a one-note guitar solo, then sleeping into the afternoon, I felt like someone looking for a place in between.

From the book Neil Young Nation, í‚ © 2005 by Kevin Chong, published by Greystone Books. Reprinted by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.