Welcome to Neil Younglandia
For Ernest Hemingway, that drunk bully, good writing begins with “one true sentence.” To do it right, you sit down and write something simple, pure and true as hell. Neil Young’s music is the “one true sentence” of rock’n’roll. Songs are built around a couple chords and timeless, plain-spoken lyrics frequently made from full sentences. And so often deliver a disproportionate punch.
One of these days,
I’m going to sit down
and write a long letter
to all of the friends
That’s a nice sentiment, simple enough, but when delivered genuinely it becomes an unforgettable, heavyweight chorus.
Neil’s unpredictability is a whole lot of fun too. He started in various Canadian bands, before driving a hearse named “Mort” to California (see “Long May You Run”) and settled into Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (neither are my favorite Neil periods). Neil never stays with anything long, leaving for a solo career that soon scored a #1 hit with a country-rock Harvest album and following it with a purposefully brooding “ditch trilogy” of less accessible, yet superior albums (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night), before scrapping mostly finished albums, collaborating with Devo, going full-on distorted overdrive, then electronic, back to country, then rockabilly, then blues mocking corporate advertising.
His songs can be angry (“Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”), or sweet (“Unknown Legend”), topical (“Ohio,” “Impeach the President”), self-reflective (“Don’t Be Denied”), goofy (“Motorcycle Mama”), bizarre (“Pocahantas”) or offering a sense of comfort in a world where none of us gets out alive (“Don’t Let It Get You Down”).
He puts a lot out there for all to see.
Of course, Neil doesn’t always know what it all means. (In the middle of “Ambulance Blues,” he admits, “it's hard to say the meaning of this song.”) On “Highlands,” Bob Dylan feels like he’s drifting while listening to Neil Young. He finishes, “I’m wondering what in the devil could it all possibly mean?” Which may or may not be a statement on Neil’s lyrics. (Though it didn’t keep Bob, a big fan, from visiting Neil’s childhood home in Winnipeg in 2008.)
It’s very hard to make a list of his best songs. Some classics miss the cut entirely. No “Cinnamon Girl” here, no “Ohio,” no “Helpless,” no “After the Gold Rush.” It could go on and on.
27 - RAMADA INN (BONUS)
This is a gross over-generalization, but there are kinda two Neil Young templates: the country-tinged Harvest-type song and the Crazy Horse overdrive song. The latter template comes with a few incarnations, but the most notable is the brooding, open-space meditations built with heart-wrenching solos like “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane.” In 2012, Neil made another all-timer, a 17-minute look back for an old couple late in their life. It earns all its 17 minutes, and the video is great.
26 - SUGAR MOUNTAIN
Neil is just 19 when he writes this lament of time fading away. “You’re leaving there too soon,” he chides himself, not long before he even left Canada. (Similarly, eight years later on his lone #1 hit, he worries when he’s “searching for a heart of gold, and I’m getting old.” He was 26.)
25 - DON’T BE DENIED
Neil Young dislikes Time Fades Away, his fantastic live album of new songs recorded on his Harvest tour. Suddenly he was playing bigger halls (and his band was demanding bigger money). It rubbed him so wrong that he followed it with his “ditch trilogy” where he purposely left the mainstream.
This song, regularly played by Norah Jones (Neil sang it with her at the Bridge School benefit), runs as a mini-autobiography of Neil’s early music dreams in Winnipeg. He sings, “we used to sit on the steps at school and dream of being stars.”
You can see the steps in this Winnipeg music tour video:
24 - LA
Speaking of Time Fades Away, Neil depicts his adopted home in a damning light, before sarcastically singing, “don’t you wish you could be here too?”
23 - SAMPLE & HOLD
Neil’s 1982 album Trans (like Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music) deserves a special award for a rock star making a seemingly willful self-destructive move. With the benefit of time, Trans sure can be a lot of fun to hear, a full-blown apocalyptic epic riddled with electronic sounds and synthesized vocals.
Watch the live version of “Sample & Hold” where he has Nils Lofgren (who played with Neil before becoming a Springsteen regular) singing high-pitched synthesized vocals into wireless mics as both he and Neil twirl on stage with rock guitars. Neil wears a tie, Nils goes with a headband.
22 - LOOKOUT JOE
No one else will put this on their list. But I love it. It sure adds to the ragged Tonight’s the Night theme, where everyone is apparently “having a ball, rolling to the bottom” – with tasty rising guitar riffs filling the verse gaps before everyone sings the doubled chorus line, “old times were good times.” I wish Joe had looked out.
21 - LIKE A HURRICANE
The Guitar Solo is a part of rock’n’roll that rarely moves me. But Neil is very good at guitar solos. His wailing notes frequently continue his storylines on their own, with bended distorted flourishes. And this song’s two solos add a layer of frustration as Neil sings “I’m a dreamer, but you are just a dream.”
Incidentally, Neil struggled in the studio to get this right, until Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro pulled out a Stringman synthesizer and Neil immediately started playing over it before the engineers could hit “record.” (It’s that slightly clipped version that appears on the underrated American Stars ‘N Bars from 1977, whose great cover was designed by Al from Quantum Leap… Here’s how you can play our Quantum Leap bingo-binge game.)
I love how Neil keeps flicking his tie out of his guitar strings here and never misses a beat:
20- DOWN BY THE RIVER
About eight of its nine-plus minutes feature just two perfectly matched chords: Em7 and a straight-up A. (I may or may not have used them for the soundtrack of the Neil Young portion of this Winnipeg rock tour video.)
I don’t care for the CSNYish sing-along melody in the shooting-a-baby-dead-by-the-river chorus – “baby” could be heroin or a women, fans still argue about it – but I could listen to that verse all day. Particularly when Neil launches into that solo with a repeated single note.
19 - TIRED EYES
Where to begin on Neil Young’s wonderful Tonight’s the Night album? A roadie Bruce Berry dies from a heroin overdose. Neil’s friend and Crazy Horse guitarist, Danny Whitten, is fired from excessive drug use, gets fired, and ODs the same day. Reeling from personal guilt (and mainstream success), Neil writes about the wreckage and records an album’s worth of songs with a stoned band in a late-night session that almost never saw release. Somehow in the haze, these songs plod forward, barely staying upright. Probably only Neil could pull this off.
None of the songs are more bizarre or heart-breaking than “Tired Eyes.” Neil talk-sings the verses, “was he a heavy doper… or was he just a loser?” and “what do you mean he had bullet holes in his mirrors…? He tri-i-ied to do his best!! (But he could not.)”
18 - F*!#IN’ UP
Neil uses Native American themes in a lot of songs (“Pocahantas,” “Goin’ Home”), the name of his former ranch (Broken Arrow) and his band Crazy Horse, named for the Sioux leader involved in Custer’s Last Stand.
When you get past this loud song’s funny title and brutal two-note riff, and start to think what the narrator is messing up, it gets particularly interesting. I believe, as some have argued, it’s about treatment of Native Americans and First Nations. A clue comes from the live album Weld, when Poncho (I believe) yells out a Native American war call as the seven-minute song begins and ends. Neil sings “I can see you on a hill, comatose but walking still,” adding “you must have a heart of steel,” before lashing out at himself, “why do I keep f*!#in’ up?”
It’s my favorite Neil song of the past three decades (though special props to my unofficial #27, “Ramada Inn,” and all 16 minutes of its glory).
Neil played this with Pearl Jam at his Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. After a long break to tune, he deadpans, “This song has a lot of meaning for us.”
17 - CORTEZ THE KILLER
Most fans come to “Cortez” for the guitar solo, then debate how literal the lyric is. (Supposedly Neil first wrote it in high school.) Significantly, in my mind, this story of “killer” Cortez wreaking havoc on Montezuma and the Aztecs ends with a shifted perspective.
Suddenly Neil sings:
I know she’s living there
She loves me to this day
I still can’t remember how
Or where I lost my way
Considering he had just separated from Carrie Snodgress at the time of recording, I can’t help but think the song is less about literal conquistadors than Neil’s own destructive side.
On August 1, 1983, Neil Young released a 50s-style rock’n’roll/doo-wop album called Everybody’s Rockin’.
On August 8, 1983, Billy Joel released a 50s-style rock’n’roll/doo-wop album called An Innocent Man.
Public response varied, big-time. Billy’s led to huge hit singles like “Uptown Girl” and (futile) Grammy nominations in the year of Thriller. Meanwhile, Neil’s fans booed his version, and it outraged his record company, Geffen. Unfair!
Anyway, I always liked the song a lot. In the hilarious video, Neil looks dazed and disheveled while miming the lyrics before oil wells, suburban homes and Hard Rock Cafe. You really should watch it:
Incidentally “Wonderin’” had been laying around a long time. On Live at the Fillmore East, recorded in 1970, Neil prefaces the song by saying, “this is a song from our new album… when we record it.” (It’s probably the superior version.)
15 - LONG MAY YOU RUN
In the middle of his prolific ‘70s, and for no clear reason, Neil made an album with his inferior former bandmate, Stephen Stills. Just as they were set to tour, Neil left the band. “Eat a peach” he wrote in a farewell note. Funny guy.
The lone highlight of the whole endeavor is the title track. Absurdly, it’s supposedly about an old Pontiac hearse named “Mort” that he drove from Canada to LA. But the song has grown to a loftier impact, becoming something of Neil’s “Forever Young.”
In 2010, when NBC screwed over Conan O’Brien to give back the Tonight Show seat to the unfunny Jay Leno, Neil went on Conan’s last show and played this song during the closing credits.
(I’ve not watched the Tonight Show since. Long may my ban on that dumb show run.)
14 - HUMAN HIGHWAY
By the way, when people get mad on Twitter (or ban TV shows), they should listen to how Neil (sometimes) responds to critics. A gentle little country song delivered wide-eyed, with little-to-no judgment, and a chorus that casually wonders “how could people get so unkind?” (I like how he says how people “get” unkind, as if it’s not their natural state.)
On this live recording from 1976, he prefaces it noting that “every time I try to record this song, someone steps in and stops it.” It finally made it to vinyl on 1978’s Comes a Time.
13 - HEY HEY, MY MY (INTO THE BLACK)
For many, this song died when Kurt Cobain quoted it in his 1994 suicide note. So let’s talk about its origins instead.
Punks were attacking the old guard when Neil asked Devo to be in his weirdo film The Human Highway. While filming it (in 1978), Mark Mothersbaugh as “Booji Boy” sings the song with Neil (even coining the immortal phrase “rust never sleeps”). Then he recorded it live, guitars on overdrive, giving the sensation of blown-out speakers at any volume.
Hey, it’s better to burn out than fade away
12 - DON’T LET IT BRING YOU DOWN
If you ever feel down about something, remember, “it’s only castles burning.” This is like “Sweet Jane,” where Lou Reed notes it’s easy enough to see what’s wrong (but that’s not what he wants all night long). Neil knows we all die, but we can still go round.
11 - THE NEEDLE & THE DAMAGE DONE
Yes, you’ve heard this song about addicted friends (before they OD’ed) a thousand or two times. It’s still very good, the sparse guitar and Neil hitting those high notes, then ending it before the song resolves its progression. Not your typical B-side to a Top 40 song (“Old Man”).
10- BORROWED TUNE
On this song from Tonight’s the Night, Neil is alone, wasted, with a piano, and cannot come up with his own melody. So he steals one and confesses it in the lyric: “I’m singing this borrowed tune I took from the Rolling Stones [a slowed down “Lady Jane”], alone in this empty room, too wasted to write my own.” Who else does that but Neil Young?
Maybe the Verve should have paid attention. After they slyly co-opted an obscure melody of a forgotten Stones track no one recognized for their biggest hit, “Bittersweet Symphony,” the Rolling Stones Corporation sued them for all the royalties.
9 -FOR THE TURNSTILES
People these days love the hell out of On the Beach, his weary studio follow-up to Harvest filled with self-reflective, strung-out ballads. (They sure didn’t when it came out.)
My favorite moment is this sparse banjo song about death, rich with juicy details (“bush league batters” dying on diamonds, and “all the sailors with their seasick mamas”).
I like how Ben Keith doubles vocals on the reassuring chorus too: “you can really learn a lot that way, it will change you in the middle of the day, though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.” Then Neil’s voice quivers on the last note as the crowd heads “for the turnstiles.”
And here’s to change in the middle of the day.
8 -HEART OF GOLD
You know it well. It’s very very good. It went to #1 in the US (1972 sure was a different time).
6 / 7 - HARVEST MOON / UNKNOWN LEGEND
Neil and Pegi Young were married 36 years. She built up their shared charity event, The Bridge School. She often sang backups on his albums and concerts, and served as the subject of many classic songs. None more poignant than the 1993 title track to Harvest Moon, as the couple appears – blissfully in the “autumn of their years,” per Frank Sinatra – as a broom lazily sweeps the beat.
On the same album, “Unknown Legend” explains literally how they met: “she used to work in a diner, never saw a woman look finer, I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.”
Hearing either feels almost voyeuristic.
They divorced in 2014 (and then she died of cancer in 2019), giving these songs a sadder aftertaste.
Sometimes gold doesn’t stay...
5- TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT
There are a lot of songs called “Tonight’s the Night” – Rod Stewart’s was a #1 hit in 1976 – but only one involves bringing an overdosed roadie back from the dead. Thanks Neil. In 1973, with tequila and drugs around, he recorded it (and the whole album named for it) “with a drunk band in the back of a retail store.” Then he scrapped it, then released it in 1975. With liner notes featuring a scathing review of a Neil show, in Dutch.
It’s really his best album.
4 - KEEP ON ROCKIN’ IN THE FREE WORLD
If troubled times, such as ours, can’t spawn new, essential, powerful rock’n’roll songs, then maybe rock’n’roll should die. Meanwhile, almost every line of Neil’s furious 1989 single smacks of equal relevance today.
Following his explosive performance on Saturday Night Live that year, one critic said the band looked like “a bunch of car thieves” (per the Neil Young biography Shakey). Well, Neil never looked more alive. Wearing a leather jacket over an Elvis shirt and generously patched jeans, he pushes his bandmates around on stage then erupts into a tears-of-rage solo that might fail to change the system, but is going to die trying.
It is fantastic rock’n’roll music.
3 - OLD MAN
I don’t know where and when that seductive “Neil Young beat” first came to be. That definitive “boom-boom POP [pause], boom-boom POP [pause]” that Tom Petty borrowed for “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” But nowhere does it sound as good as in this 1972 song about a former caretaker at the California ranch Neil bought the year before.
Dynamics in Neil’s best songs are built by small additions. Listen here for James Taylor’s unexpected banjo debut plucking its way into the chorus, then Ben Keith’s steady sliding note on the pedal steel. Gorgeous music.
2 - POWDERFINGER
Few people agree what happens to the narrator of Neil's remarkable 1979 song "Powderfinger," rolling along a countryfied beat during the disco/punk age. But we do know he doesn't survive the five-minute song.
Did our hero get shot from shooters of the boat coming up the river? Did his own gun backfire when his "face splashed in the sky"? Filled with incredible details and backstory – “Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmy Lou” – the song essentially plays out like a darkest Mark Twain story.
What this is all for, I don’t know. Maybe a Canadian's tsk-tsk over gun culture in the USA, delivered over a 19th-century American landscape? Again, timeless territory.
The original recording, for the unmaterialized Chrome Dreams album in 1977 (and finally appearing on Hitchhiker in 2017), is a stripped-down acoustic version. Nice, but it pales big-time to the live recording from 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, where – as with so many of his songs – the guitar solos shoot for the sky and continue the narrative on their own right.
1 – ONE OF THESE DAYS
The chorus of this beautiful song from Harvest Moon, the best of Neil’s many “Neil is back!” albums since the 1970s heyday, goes: “one of these days, I’m going to sit down and write a long letter to all the good friends I’ve known.” Every note is restrained, relaxed, sitting back in a low-key pocket. The sum swells very big. Hear the little guitar noodles here, a welling of steel guitar there. And ANYONE who doubts Neil’s ability to sing needs to revisit the third verse of the live recording, below: “Some are we-e-eaak, some are strong.” It destroys me.
Neil finished his incredible concert at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium with this (as documented in Jonathan Demme’s excellent film Heart of Gold). IT IS PERFECT. Four acoustic guitars, little horns peppering behind the melody, over a dozen backup-vocalists in restrained harmony.
Play this one at my funeral, if I have one.