Neil Young was born in Toronto, Canada November 12, 1945. His father was an author, journalist, and sportswriter and his mother could trace her ancestor’s roots back to their involvement in the American Revolution. Neil contracted polio when he was 7 years old and his parents brought him to Florida in 1951 to recover where he first became infatuated with cars.
He began playing ukulele when he was 13 and after moving to Winnipeg with his mother he began his first band the “Jades.” When he was 17 in 1963 he joined the “Squires” and 2 years later met Stephen Stills. Young then played in an R&B band called the “Mynah Birds” which featured Rick James and was signed to “Motown Records” but failed to record.
After driving his 1953 Pontiac hearse named “Mort II” with bassist Bruce Palmer to Los Angeles, he ran into Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. This led to the formation of the folk rock band Buffalo Springfield. It was during this time period that Neil was diagnosed with epilepsy which resulted in seizures that even took place on stage. When he began performing and recording as a solo artist he also joined Crosby, Stills and Nash when they performed at “Woodstock” in 1969.
Since then and over the next 53 years he released over 40 studio albums and a dozen live and compilation albums as both a solo artist as well as with “Crazy Horse” and other band configurations. At the same time, he’s been on three studio albums with CSN&Y as well as touring with them on and off for over five decades. He’s been inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame twice as both a solo artist and a member of Buffalo Springfield. In 2020, he became a US citizen after living there for 50 years while retaining his Canadian citizenship. His voice is one of a kind and his guitar playing proficiency is phenomenal as both an acoustic and electric performer but his electric dissonant feedback drenched compositions are especially enticing.
Here are Blues Rock Review’s top 10 Neil Young songs.
10. “Southern Man”
“Southern Man” appeared on After the Goldrush which was released in 1970. It is one of his most controversial songs because it directly criticized Southern American race relations as a Canadian citizen. “It spoke in generalizations and Young even said at a later time that he didn’t care for some of the lyrics in the song in retrospect. Lynyrd Skynyrd responded to Young with “Sweet Home Alabama” which had the line
“I hope Neil Young will remember,
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
There wasn’t really any animosity between the two artists because Ronnie Van Zandt often wore a Neil Young T-shirt on stage during Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts and Young performed “Sweet Home Alabama during his set on occasion and even said “I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.”
9. “Mr. Soul”
“Mr. Soul” appears on “Buffalo Springfield’s” second album Buffalo Springfield Again which was released in November of 1967. Young is said to have written it after he experienced his first epileptic seizure while performing with the band on stage. He wrote the words on a discarded newspaper, which was something that he commonly did at the time while living in a cabin in Laurel Canyon. It was released as a B side on the band’s 45 rpm single release of “Bluebird” prior to the album’s release in July.
“Ohio” was released as a 45 rpm single on June 4, 1970 a few months after CSN&Y’s Déjà vu release in March. It first appeared on an album as a live cut on CSN&Y’s 1971 release 4 Way Street but not as the studio recording until So Far in 1974. It was a direct reaction by Neil Young after reading the May 15, 1970 issue of “Life Magazine” about the May 4 Kent State Massacre. Within 20 minutes after reading the article he wrote the song about the shooting, in which four Kent State University student protestors were killed. The tragedy took place when Ohio National guard troops fired into the gathered crowd for breaching Martial Law. The protest was over the escalation of the war in Vietnam by President Nixon; when it was found out that he secretly bombed the North Vietnamese operating in Cambodia.
7. “Cinnamon Girl”
Young wrote it while he was sick with a 103 degree temperature along with “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” He has never disclosed who the “Cinnamon Girl” was but the reference to finger cymbals in that time period immediately brought to mind 1960s folk singer Jean Ray. She was a friend of Phil Ochs who Young referred to by name in his liner notes on his 1977 compilation album Decades. Phil Ochs wrote the title song for Jean and her performing partner Jim Glover’s second album Changes that the song appeared on.
6. “Cowgirl in the Sand”
“Cowgirl in the Sand” appeared on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere Young’s second album which was released in May 1969 before he appeared at “Woodstock” with Crosby, Stills and Nash. It’s another enigmatic composition whose actual interpretation has never been divulged by Young. It features a raw unrehearsed feedback drenched guitar assault that established him as an amazing master of the guitar in his own rite.
5. “Down by the River”
“Down by the River” appeared on Neil Young’s second studio album but his first with his backup band “Crazy Horse” in the spring of 1969. “Crazy Horse” was a folk rock band called the “Rockets” when he first began to play with them and the band was comprised of guitarist Danny Whitten, bass player Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. They enjoyed playing long instrumentals and when they were recording “Down By the River” it was the first one with Young. They began recording it the day after “Cinnamon Girl” and when they were having trouble making it work, Molina and Talbot suggested slowing it down to ½ time which worked.
4. “Rockin’ in the Free World”
“Rockin’ in the Free World” appears on Young’s 1989 studio album Freedom which was released in October only a month before the East German “Berlin Wall” fell and the city and country were united for the first time since WWII ended and 20 years after the wall was erected. Neil wrote the song in February 1989 just after President George Bush Sr.’s inauguration and it was inspired by two things. First all the political events of the day from the new President to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni who issued a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie and Russia’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. The title was inspired by the second event which was a failed cultural exchange between Russia and the USA where Neil Young and Crazy Horse reciprocated with the Russian Ballet. The promoter in Russia that was putting the deal together ran off with the money and everyone got burned. Guitarist Pancho Sampedro then told Neil, “Man I guess we’re just gonna have to keep on rockin’ in the free world.” Neil liked the line and told Poncho that he wanted to use it for a song which they wrote on a tour of the Northwest in Portland, Oregon.
3. “Song X”
“Song X” is from From Mirror Ball which was released in 1995 with Neil Young as a solo artist using “Pearl Jam” as his backup band. The song is a classic guitar driven Neil Young 6 string orgy as the band repeatedly repeats the chorus.
“Hey ho away we go
We’re on the road to never.”
It was at the height of the “grunge” craze in the Pacific Northwest with Portland and Seattle as their centers. Neil and “Pearl Jam” toured together and they acted as his backup band for a tour and even played at his annual “Bridge” benefit concert.
2. “Cortez the Killer”
“Cortez the Killer” first appeared on Zuma recorded with “Crazy Horse” in 1975 and is a history lesson about the conquest of the Aztec’s and Mexico by the Spanish Conquistador Herna`n Cortez. Neil’s feelings about the subject are summed up in the song’s title. He once attributed the inspiration for the composition as indigestion after consuming six hamburgers one night when he was in high school studying history.
1. “Like a Hurricane”
“Like a Hurricane” first appeared on American Stars `n Bars in 1977. The song was inspired by Neil’s intense infatuation with a woman after failing to connect with her at a bar. It was during the period after he broke up with Carrie Snodgress and before he met his wife Pegi Morton.
“Once I thought I saw you in a crowded hazy bar
Dancing on the light from star to star”
He wrote the melody immediately after the incident but wrote the lyrics later starting with two lines on a piece of newspaper in the back seat of his friend Taylor Phelph’s 1950 DeSoto Suburban after snorting cocaine. It took 10 days to work it out with “Crazy Horse” at the ranch and was recorded later because Neil was recovering from throat surgery at the time.
of his friend Taylor Phelph’s 1950 DeSoto Suburban after snorting cocaine.