Graeme Mitchell for The New York Times
Driving down the hill above his ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, Neil Young took a deep whiff of the redwood forest momentarily serving as the canopy for his 1951 Willys Jeepster convertible.
“I can still remember how it smelled when I first pulled in here – I was driving this car,” he said, recalling the trip in 1970 when he bought the place and named it Broken Arrow, after the Buffalo Springfield song.
The author of some of the spookiest, darkest songs in the American folk canon seemed jolly on this late-August day. Even if he was accompanied by a reporter, generally not his favorite species of human, the motion soothed him. “I’ve always been better moving than I am standing still,” he said.
Young, 66, spotted this land out the window of a plane banking out of San Francisco four decades ago and now owns nearly 1,000 acres of it. His song “Old Man” is a tribute to the caretaker who first showed him the place.
“I ran out of money, so I had to sell some of it,” he said. “That’s O.K., because it was too big. Everything happens for a reason.” He kept his eyes on the narrow road through the giant redwoods.
It was hard to reconcile the affable guy motoring along on a sunny day with his past incarnations: the portentous folkie of “Ohio,” the rabid anti-commercialist who gave MTV the musical middle finger with “This Note’s For You,” the angry rocker who threatened to hit the cameramen at Woodstock with his guitar. He was happy partly because he was here.
“For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it,” he said. “You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.”
We would spend a few hours creeping along – he drove slowly but joyfully, as if the automobile were a recent invention – on our way there or on our way from there, the ranch where Young lives with his wife, Pegi, and their son, Ben. His longtime producer and friend, David Briggs, who died in 1995, hated making records here, deriding the hermetic refuge as a “velvet cage.”
In addition to the studio, where more than 20 records have been made, there is an entire building given over to model trains, another where vintage cars are stored and another piled with his master recordings. Llamas and cows roam under cartoonishly large trees. It seems like a made-up place, an open-air fortress of eccentricity meant to protect the artist who lives there. But what it has most of all is not a lot of people.
“I like people, I just don’t have to see them all the time,” he said, laughing. David Crosby, his bandmate in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, used to describe the complicated route into his ranch as “my filtering system,” Young said.
He made a bunch of rights and lefts through the forest before getting out to unlock the gate. Others might have an electronic gate, but Young likes the mechanical experience of slipping a key into a padlock and swinging something open. He is fundamentally analog, despite the occasional electronic excesses in his music. He likes amps with knobs that go to 12 and things that click when you touch them.
I made it past the filtering system because Young was promoting his autobiography, “Waging Heavy Peace,” which comes out next week. The book is elliptical and personal, with little of the period poetics of “Just Kids,” by Patti Smith, or the scabrous detail of “Life,” by Keith Richards.
Young once promised he would never write a book about himself, according to Jimmy McDonough’s biography of him, “Shakey.” But time passed, and then Young broke his toe a year ago and needed something to fill his time and refresh his fortune.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to continue to mainly be a musician forever, because physically I think it’s going to take its toll on me – it’s already starting to show up here and there,” he said. Writing a book, he added, allowed him “to do what I want the way I want to do it.”
“Waging Heavy Peace” eschews chronology and skips the score-settling and titillation of other rocker biographies. Still, Young shows a little leg and has some laughs. Yes, he partied with Charles Manson and tried to hook him up with a recording contract. He admits he saw a picture of the actor Carrie Snodgress in a magazine before he courted her, married her and divorced her. He pleads guilty to having been busted for drugs with Eric Clapton and Stephen Stills. He even has a little fun with Crosby. “I still remember ‘the mighty Cros’ visiting the ranch in his van,” he writes. “That van was a rolling laboratory that made Jack Casady’s briefcase look like chicken feed. Forget I said that! Was my mike on?”
But as the book progresses, the operatics of the rock life give way to signal family events, deconstructions of his musical partnerships and musings on the natural world. It is less a chronicle than a journal of self-appraisal. The book, like today’s drive, is a ride through Young’s many obsessions, including model trains, cars like the one we were touring in and Pono, a proprietary digital musical system that can play full master recordings and will, he hopes, restore some of the denuded sonic quality to modern music.
Although he rarely meets the press, mostly out of lack of interest, there is no reluctance on this occasion. A plain-spoken Canadian from the tiny town of Omemee, Ontario, and a son who has done the work of his father – Scott Young, a Canadian journalist, wrote more than 30 books – he wants to be understood. Every question is mulled and answered directly, without ornamentation. But each time when I guessed which way we were turning, on the road or in conversation, he almost always went the other way. “Too many decisions to make with no sign of what to do,” he said, laughing as he steered around a hairpin onto a side road.
Young has routinely fled success, severed profitable musical partnerships, dumped finished records and withdrawn when it was precisely the moment to cash in. He is a person who will never leave well enough alone. “Sometimes a smooth process heralds the approach of atrophy or death,” he writes in “Waging Heavy Peace.”
Doing as he pleases has worked out pretty well for him. As a young musician torn between the crunch of the Rolling Stones and the lyricism of Bob Dylan, he avoided the fork altogether and forged his own path. Over the course of more than 40 records and hundreds of performances that date to the mid-’60s, he has backed Rick James, jammed with Willie Nelson, dressed up with Devo, rocked with Pearl Jam and traded licks with Dylan. Some of it has been terrible, much of it remarkable. He has made movies by himself and with Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Demme. He called out Richard Nixon, praised Ronald Reagan and made fun of the second Bush. And he has little interest in how all of that was received. “I didn’t care and still don’t,” he said, then went on: “I experimented, I tried things, I learned things, I know more about all of that than I did before.”
His longtime manager and friend Elliot Roberts describes Young as “always willing to roll the dice and lose” and says: “He has no problem with failure as long as he is doing work he is happy with. Whether it ends up as a win or loss on a consumer level is not as much of an interest to him as one might think.”
His records don’t sell as much as they used to, but while many of his contemporaries are wanly aping their past, Young takes to the stage surrounded by mystery and expectation. And now he’s doing so again on tour with Crazy Horse, a thunderous, messy concoction of a band that has backed him over the years and been a source of constancy amid all the hard turns in his career. “We’ve got two new albums, so we’re not an oldies act, and we’re relevant because we’re playing these new songs, so that gives us something to stand on,” he said.
It’s safe to predict that people will come, critics will rave and a 66-year-old man afflicted with epilepsy and serious back problems (and who has had polio and suffered an aneurysm) will rock hard enough to become a time machine back to when music was ecstatic and ill considered.
Dylan, in a note his manager passed to me, says it’s clear why Young has not tumbled into musical dotage: “An artist like Neil always has the upper hand,” he says. “It’s the pop world that has to make adjustments. All the conventions of the pop world are only temporary and carry no weight. It’s basically two different things that have nothing to do with each other.”
“Waging Heavy Peace” faithfully catalogs the disappointment Young has produced in those around him, but he expresses little regret today. “I work for the muse,” he said. When he swerved into techno and country after Geffen Records signed him in the early ’80s, Young was accused of making “unrepresentative” music. He responded by taking a pay cut of half a million dollars for each of his next three albums. “I’m not here to sell things. That’s what other people do, I’m creating them. If it doesn’t work out, I’m sorry; I’m just doing what I do. You hired me to do what I do, not what you do. As long as people don’t tell me what to do, there will be no problem.”
Two nights before, at the Outside Lands festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Young headlined with Crazy Horse, their sixth performance this year after going the better part of a decade without playing together. Beck went on before them and covered “After the Gold Rush,” and Foo Fighters followed, with Dave Grohl mentioning that the sooner he got done, the sooner they’d all get to hear Young play. (He stood at the side of the stage afterward for Young’s entire set.)
The youthful festival crowd wore little more than tattoos on this damp summer night. Young and Crazy Horse took the stage looking like the Friday-night band at the local V.F.W.: big shirts, work boots and hair gone gray or just gone. Given the growing chill and a restless crowd, it would have made sense to begin with a song reminding the audience that a Big Deal Rock Star was at work.
Instead, the band kicked into “Love and Only Love,” a remarkable song from Young’s 1990 album with Crazy Horse, “Ragged Glory,” but hardly a singalong. It lasted 14 minutes, with Young shredding huge reams of noise and mixing it up with his fellow guitarist Frank (Poncho) Sampedro. Seeing them play was like watching an ancient steam shovel unfurl, claw the night air and dig in. “We thought it was important to introduce ourselves, to remind people what Crazy Horse is all about,” Sampedro said later.
Young, who has never been a graceful stage presence, lurched to the front. He is old – he began playing in this town more than 40 years ago – and bent over his guitar, but he is not old and bent. Young has never been physically whole, but that brokenness has annealed rather than slowed him. He is anything but a frail man when he has a guitar in his hand.
His musical ideas work, whether plugged into a stack of amps or plucked on an acoustic guitar. As his solo career veered from unadorned folk into multiple genres, critics scratched their heads and fans felt whipsawed. But the “Rust Never Sleeps” tour in 1978 was bifurcated into acoustic and electric sets, a set of tracks he still switches between, which, along with his refusal to license his music for ads, has made him an emblem of authenticity for the next generation, the keeper of rock’s soul. And after all his side trips, he always came back to Crazy Horse, as he had tonight.
Derided by more sophisticated players over the years, Crazy Horse is as much an ethos as a band. As Young says in his book: “The songs the Horse likes to consume are always heartfelt and do not need to have anything fancy associated with them. The Horse is very suspicious of tricks.”
The band’s music with Young is built around a long-running sibling argument between Young and Old Black, his painted-over Gibson Les Paul guitar. Young, born in 1945, is the older brother to Old Black, made in 1952. Through the years, Old Black has been souped up, tweaked and rebuilt, but it has never been replaced as his musical partner. When he plays it, he often looks and sounds furious. (In explaining the equanimity that characterizes his book, he writes: “Sometimes it’s better not to blow up at someone. I can save that anger and emotion for my guitar playing.”)
Young can plink out a song on a piano, and play harmonica when it serves, but he has an intimate, if savage, relationship with his guitars. “If you wanna write a song, ask a guitar,” he said to Patti Smith onstage at a book convention earlier this year to promote “Waging Heavy Peace.”
He played that night as if he were mad at Old Black, even if he smiled into the squall. The crowd remained enthralled as he tortured a single note with the whammy bar, although this kind of indulgence has worn out some of his other playing partners. “We’ve played that note, can we move on, Neil?” Stephen Stills says with a laugh over the phone as he recalls playing with Young.
The guitar owned the night, but the secret to Young’s durability is his voice, a nasal-inflected borderline whine that was never a luxurious instrument, but remains intact. He sounded as he always did, yelling the chorus to “Powderfinger” or plaintively singing “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
Jonathan Demme, who has made three concert films with Young, including “Neil Young Journeys,” which came out in the summer, finds Young’s playing and visage “irresistibly cinematic.” “I saw Neil after a show and told him how amazing it was, and he said: ‘Well, it better be amazing. Those people out there paid a lot of money to be here.’ “
Part of the reason they pay to see Young in concert is that he respects the form. And they show up expecting the unexpected.
“You never know what you are going to get in a Neil Young concert because he never knows exactly what he is going to do,” says Willie Nelson, a friend who started Farm Aid with Young and John Mellencamp in 1985. “That way everyone is surprised.”
Tonight, he was feeling playful, telling the crowd, “I wrote this one this morning,” before starting into “Cinnamon Girl,” one of a trilogy of songs, which also includes “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River,” that he wrote in a single-day fever back in 1968. Later, he stepped to the mike and introduced a new song by saying: “We can’t help ourselves, we’re trained like chimps. They trained us to write songs, and we don’t know how to stop.”
The fourth song of the night was “Walk Like a Giant,” from the forthcoming album with Crazy Horse, “Psychedelic Pill”:
I used to walk like a giant on the land
Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream
I want to walk like a giant.
The song ended with a solid four minutes of a repeating, thudding note as the band stomped in big steps, dinosaurs in full frolic. Boom. Boom. Boom. The audience tried clapping but finally gave up until the amps died down. It sounded like a hair-metal parody, but in Young’s hands it had the aura of ceremony.
While Young played, I stood stage right with his son Ben, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who is unable to speak. When he was born, Young and his wife, Pegi, a singer and musician, put everything else aside to help him develop his motor skills. Now 34, Ben goes on every tour. “He’s our spiritual leader in that way,” Young says. “We take him everywhere, and he’s like a measuring stick for what’s going on.” (Zeke, Young’s son by Snodgress, has a very mild case of cerebral palsy and works at Home Depot. Young’s daughter, Amber, is a talented young artist who works in San Francisco.)
Ben Young, which is how his father often refers to him, was bundled against the chill and surrounded by friends. He looked over at me at one point, and I found myself wishing I knew what he thought about the proceedings. “I tell Ben everything, and he listens,” Young would tell me later. “He knows everything, but who is he going to tell?”
Sitting with Young in his bus after the show as he ate a salad and drank lemonade – he’s been sober for a year, the first time in decades that he has worked without drinking or smoking pot – it felt as if we were inside a guitar, the bus’s rococo interior constructed out of layers of redwood sheets, built exactly to Young’s taste. Money doesn’t seem to matter much to Young unless he is out of it, but things matter plenty. With assorted companions, he builds and tweaks guitars, cars, buses and trains.
Sampedro, along with the drummer Ralph Molina and the bassist Billy Talbot, passed through, all of them clearly pleased with the night. Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, talked mostly about how cold it got, but Young said, “All I felt was a cool refreshing breeze every once in a while.”
True enough, the wind had picked up at the end of the set, when Young played “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” a version of which poses one of rock’s eternal riddles: Is it better to burn out or fade away? In the book, Young acknowledges that Kurt Cobain quoted the line in his suicide note and John Lennon disagreed with its premise. Young settled on a hedge: “At 65, it seems that I may not be at the peak of my rock ‘n’ roll powers,” he said. “But that is not for sure.”
For no reason other than it pleases Young, the model-train barn near his home is framed by two actual rail cars. Back in the day, he and his pals used to snort coke and drink wine and tinker with the model layout until it grew into 3,000 square feet of track and trains.
Young picked up a controller that appeared to be capable of landing a rocket on an asteroid and reminded me that, as an investor in Lionel Trains, he invented Train Master Command Control (which allows you to run multiple trains at once), as well as RailSounds (which provides realistic railroad audio). Young lost a lot of money on his investment, but he’s still a board member at Lionel and ended up with a lot of cool gear, so it all sort of worked out.
As different trains began to move slowly, Young choreographed and narrated. “There’s all different buttons I can press to make them go fast or slow, but they’re all going the same speed, so they’re not going to run into each other except at a crossover,” he said. “I am the Wizard of Oz in here. I can make anything happen because I know how it all works. Music is math.”
When Young finds something he likes or cares about, he has a single mode: all in. With a team of technologists and investors, he has been working on an electric car for years – the LincVolt – and when there was an accident and it burned, he just started over. He still has plans to drive it to the White House and make a movie about the car. He can speak with authority about biodiesel, Chinese battery manufacturing and the specific optical properties of 16-millimeter film.
“I worry about global warming,” Demme says, comparing himself to Young as a man of action, “but I’m not out there meeting with scientists and funding research.”
Young gets most worked up when he talks about Pono, the music system he has developed. It is beyond the hobby stage: Warner Brothers has agreed to make its catalog available on Pono, and Young and Roberts are negotiating with other record companies and investors.
We walked out of the train barn past a Hummer that runs on biodiesel and hopped in yet another car, a ’78 El Dorado, to listen to the Pono system. Right now, it needs a trunk full of gear, but Young and Roberts are working with a British manufacturer to come up with a portable version. He gave a demonstration that replicated MP3s, CDs, Blu-ray and then the full Pono sound.
“You are getting less than 5 percent of the original recording,” he said at first. He put on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and then switched to Pono. The horns jumped and the car was filled with lush, liquid sound. He madly toggled between different outputs to make sure I was getting it.
In the wake of “Americana,” a collection of folk songs recorded with Crazy Horse that was released last spring, he is already making another album and writing another book, this one about all of the cars he has owned. Roberts handles Young’s business and artistic interests with a great deal of savvy, so Young is good at making money – which helps, because he is also good at making it go away. “I spend it all,” he said. “I like to employ people and make stuff. It will be my undoing.”
He has dropped a fortune making films, directing five under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, including “Rust Never Sleeps,” “Human Highway” and “Greendale,” and sharing credit on several others. His memoir is of a piece with his moviemaking impulse, but it’s less pricey.
“Writing is very convenient, has a low expense and is a great way to pass the time,” he says in “Waging Heavy Peace.” “I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”
He decided to do it sober after talking with his doctor about a brain that had endured many youthful pharmaceutical adventures, in addition to epilepsy and an aneurysm. For someone who smoked pot the way others smoke cigarettes, the change has not been without its challenges, as he explains in his book: “The straighter I am, the more alert I am, the less I know myself and the harder it is to recognize myself. I need a little grounding in something and I am looking for it everywhere.”
Sitting at Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Boulevard near the end of the day, he elaborated: “I did it for 40 years,” he said. “Now I want to see what it’s like to not do it. It’s just a different perspective.”
Drunk or sober, he can be a hippie with a mean streak. He broke off a tour with Stephen Stills without warning and sent him a telegram – “Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil.”
I asked if he was a good person to work with or for. “The fact is that I can be really irritable when I’m unhappy about stuff,” he said. “I can be a nit-picker about details that seem to be over the top. But then again I’m into what I’m into, so a lot of people forgive me because of that.”
In the book, over and over, he is there, and then he is gone – from Buffalo Springfield, from Crosby, Stills & Nash, from his love affairs – and not given to explanations. When he loses interest, he loses interest.
After we left the restaurant, we drove back to his ranch, but we stayed in the car near the house, because his daughter, who was visiting, did not feel well. Of all the obsessions that live on the thousand acres of his ranch, the family is the one that enables all the rest, he said.
Young could have crawled inside himself and remained there, huffing his own gas and reprising a storied, moldering past as so many of his peers have. But family life – a complicated, challenging one – suits and calms him. He and his wife, along with Roberts and a group of interested parents, created the Bridge School, a private institution for profoundly handicapped children located in Hillsborough, Calif., because the existing ones nearby were insufficient for Ben’s needs. In a benediction near the end of “Waging Heavy Peace,” Young says much of his current battle is to be a person good enough to be worthy of his family’s love.
In our crisscrossing the ranch, at one point we stopped in an outdoor graveyard of old cars, a white-trash tableau of desiccated, rusting sheet metal. He stroked the giant fin of a ’59 Lincoln and said it may yet roar to life. “Every car is full of stories. Who rode in ’em, where they went, where they ended up, how they got here.”
David Carr is a culture reporter for The Times and writes the Media Equation column. He is the author of a memoir, “The Night of the Gun.” Editor: Dean Robinson