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Neil Young: The Uncompromising Spirit of a Native Son


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He is a rare artist whose every note, every word, every musical nuance is brutally honest, a relentless and intense creative spirit, unwilling to bend in the search for higher truths; a genius with extraordinary depth and clarity.
At some point during his youth, I get the sense that Neil Young looked death in the eye and didn't like what he had seen. He chose a different path and because of that decision, we have been blessed to share in the vision of one of music's greatest and most brilliant artists. There are those faster of guitar and more technically sound, but Young's genius lies in his ability to transcend genre and style with his own creative spirit. He is Rodin with a piece of rock, Picasso with paint brush and Dostoevsky with pen. And like the great ones before him, his work is immediately identifiable and cannot be judged by technique alone.

Stricken with diabetes, epilepsy and polio before the age of ten, Young is an activist, frequently labeled a 60s' throwback, a bleeding heart liberal that uses his stature and visibility as a podium for his political beliefs. But this view is narrow and unfair, for it is the artist that has always cried out against actions that cause injustice, despair and loss of human dignity. For that alone, Young should be applauded.

But just what is the responsibility of the artist, or is there one? In February of 2008, while Young was in Berlin for the opening of his film, CSNY Deja Vu Live, he stated, "I think the time when music could change the world is past... the world is a different place and it's time for science and physics and spirituality to make a difference..." But I'm not sure that music ever had the power to change the world as much as it had the power to bring people together to have one unified voice. And that voice has always come from the energy and passion of youth.

The voice and music of the '60s was more a result of the "draft" than it was of Vietnam. Without a draft, would there have been Kent State? If there was a draft today to support a war in a foreign land, our youth would be affected in a way that would change the entire landscape surrounding their lives. How could their music not reflect the need and demand for change? If lessons were learned in the '60s, unfortunately it was learned best by those that support fascism, nationalism and war.

As a Canadian citizen, there are those who claim that Young should have no voice when it comes to United States domestic and foreign policy. But this doesn't take into consideration that he has lived on American soil for over forty years and that all three of his children were born as U.S. citizens. His daughter has diabetes and his two sons were both born with cerebral palsy. Moreover, as a consequence of the lack of education available for children with such disabilities, Neil and his wife Pegi started the Bridge School, which has developed new technologies to aid in the education of these children. Young may be a Canadian citizen but his vision has no cultural boundaries and importantly, that vision has improved life for many children in the American community, including his own.

I first attended a performance of Young in 1973 but it was his concert in 1991 during the "Weld" tour that gripped me in a way that doesn't happen often. The immediacy of the statement being made from the very first note was overwhelming. I remember my thoughts clearly; that there wasn't any way that Young could sustain this level of intensity, this level of sheer power and ferocity for an entire concert. But sustain it he did in one of those performances that can define a period of time.

Looking back, there are moments when I still remember hearing specific pieces of music for the very first time. Each one of those memories carries with it a musical awakening that expanded my own personal universe that included one of hope. Music had that power in my youth and the record, Everybody Knows This is No Where was a torch that there was more to it all than we were led to believe. Of all the musical statements that Young has authored, this is arguably one of his greatest works. Raw, unpretentious and without compromise, this is a record that tears and beats down the walls of resistance until there is no argument remaining.

But perhaps Young's most endearing personal statement is yet to come, a haunting journey into the dark depths of the human spirit. A road that has already crushed and destroyed the lives of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Cobain and his dear and close friends, Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. Yet Young still chooses to take the voyage and documents the journey which will become the disfigured and wretched beauty that is his masterpiece, Tonight's the Night.

Now in his fourth decade of composing and performing, Young remains a paradox, a visionary with a disdain for conventions, boundaries and even success. His passions burn deep yet there is a turmoil that will not let him rest, will not leave him at peace, with doubt now seeping through the cracks of an aging soul. Age can be a cruel companion, but the spirit has an eternal candle whose brightness is determined by the tenor and resolve of the woman or man. He is a rare artist whose every note, every word, every musical nuance is brutally honest, a relentless and intense creative spirit, unwilling to bend in the search for higher truths; a genius with extraordinary depth and clarity.

In March of 2005, Young had to undergo surgery for a brain aneurysm; a brush with death and a face to face with his own mortality. The song below was composed right after his surgery and perhaps no words exist that could better reflect the man that is Neil Young.

"When God Made Me"

Was he thinkin' about my country

Or the color of my skin?

Was he thinkin' 'bout my religion

And the way I worshipped him?

Did he create just me in his image

Or every living thing?

When God made me

When God made me

Was he planning only for believers

Or for those who just have faith?

Did he envision all the wars

That were fought in his name?

Did he say there was only one way

To be close to him?

When God made me

When God made me

Did he give me the gift of love

To say who I could choose?

When God made me

When God made me

Did he give me the gift of voice

So some could silence me?

Did he give me the gift of vision

Not knowing what I might see?

Did he give me the gift of compassion

To help my fellow man?

When God made me

When God made me

This article will be included in the future book publication by Lloyd Peterson, Wisdom Through Music. He is also the author of the book, Music and the Creative Spirit.

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