Editor’s Note: This essay on Neil Young originally ran in 2014 as part of our Faces literary journal. We’re reposting it as Young’s new album, Peace Trail, gets ready to drop. Not only do its sentiments on Young remain relevant, but its mentions of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen only further illustrate the sense of loss that has permeated 2016. Feature artwork is by Steven Fiche.
Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet.
The cure for writer’s block often comes from unlikely places. I had spent a fruitless few days kicking around ideas for this essay — assignment: 800 words on the last decade or so of Neil Young’s career — when Comic Book Men of all things, “Netflixing” in the background, intervened. One comic book store clerk asked another, “Do you think superheroes retire?” In other words, does there come a point when it’s time to hang up the mask and tights and reflect on a lifetime’s work?
After weeding through some tangential thoughts (e.g., If there was a rock and roll Justice League, Neil Young would probably be Batman), that epitomic geek question gradually steered me towards what strikes, or even awes, me about latter-day Young. Now, I’m by no means the type of Neil Young fan who can rattle off his discography in chronological order or hold my own for more than 15 seconds in a conversation about his deep cuts. I fall more into the category of fan who realizes that if you love rock and roll, it’s a safe bet you owe Young a debt of thanks for something or other. From what I do know, though, I can say this much: I can’t imagine Neil Young ever retiring.
Not a very profound revelation, but it’s a start. And something I had to unpack.
Certainly, 68, Young’s age, ain’t what it used to be — for rock stars or anyone else. A climate of middle-aged headliners and would-be AARP members who can still keep pace with their younger counterparts — at least onstage for a 90-minute set — has instilled newfound respect for our elders. It puts me in mind of the classic aging rock star joke in director Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. Square band manager Dennis Hope, played by a comically coiffed Jimmy Fallon, pitches his clients: “If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, you’re sadly, sadly mistaken.” It was a golden line when the flick came out in 2000 and gets better as the film ages alongside Jagger, who might still be strutting onstage at 80. And Jagger and Young are far from alone. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Leonard Cohen (the latter, despite onstage collapses) all carry on touring and recording, and it’s difficult to envision subsequent generational rock figureheads like Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, or Jack White hanging up their guitars in favor of dozing in and out to Family Feud each afternoon once they reach Young’s age. So, clearly, age alone doesn’t distinguish Young; rock’s become an old man’s game — such a far cry from “I hope I die before I get old” — and will likely remain so.
There’s a popular literary theory that American novelists produce their best work by 50 and what follows promises only diminishing returns. Despite rock and roll’s relative youth as an art form, we already more or less hold that belief about rock musicians and albums. Unfortunately, when an artist’s later work lacks the spark of earlier output, we often assume that the artist no longer has anything left to say — no fiery impetus to create anymore. While I won’t attempt to argue that 21st century outings such as Living with War or Le Noise can even begin to rival classic records like After the Gold Rush or Rust Never Sleeps, I’d be even more foolhardy to dismiss the former, a fed-up political polemic, and the latter, an experiment with a guitar, two amps, and dub sonics, as the work of an old man content to pass his time quietly and unnoticed.
No, Young doesn’t lack passions, muses, opinions, or messages. If anything, the difficulty for him might be finding enough outlets and time to say all he still wants to say. Think about it for a moment. Last week’s surprise release of A Letter Home marks the 12th studio album from Young since 2000. If we look beyond the recording studio over that same time frame, Young’s abbreviated résumé reads like this: a regular touring schedule (solo, with band, or as part of a reunion); a 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, sans ghost writer; two films directed by Young pseudonym Bernard Shakey; three starring roles in concert films by Jonathan Demme; an ongoing seat on the Farm Aid board of directors; annual organizer of the Bridge School Benefit alongside wife Pegi Young; partner on LincVolt and other eco-friendly projects; and, most recently, founder of Pono, his own digital music service.
But why even bring up prolificacy when talking about art, about music — something that should defy simple numeration, notches, or tallies? Well, to begin with, it sets Young apart from many of his contemporaries who are also around retirement age. For all I know, David Bowie might wake up each morning, throw on the “Ashes to Ashes” clown suit, and record a new album, but I’ve never heard any of those hypothetical records. The only statement I have from Bowie over the last decade is The Next Day — that’s one record to love, loathe, or ignore. Whereas Young, for better or worse, in both sickness and in health, has been a pipeline of creativity through a variety of mediums. And that’s part of what intrigues me about him. Young’s recent creative flourish reminds me of a young person’s first fling with art — whether that be discovering you can write a song, paint a bit, or even blog about music. At that moment, every plate in the house –paper, cheap flatware, Grandma’s heirloom china — begins to spin, and rather than worry about gravity and what might come crashing down, you just keep spinning and searching for additional plates.
Really, if you were to write about Young’s career during his 50s and 60s, you could mimic Joseph Heller by tweaking James Joyce and call your book A Portrait of a Young Artist as an Old Man.
This idea of Young creating like a young artist goes beyond mere prolificacy or even variety of creative outlets. There’s also an undeniable youthful streak of unpredictability in him. Look no further than 2014 for evidence of that. His partially Kickstarter-funded Pono, which aims to restore original studio sound quality to digital formats, debuted its portable playing device and announced a launch date for October. How many 68-year-olds do you know who are hip to crowdsourcing and fighting technology with, gasp, even more cutting-edge technology? Well, at least one. Young’s new record, A Letter Home, features collaborations with Jack White, an artist 30 years his junior (not that Young needed the career-rejuvenating Icky Thump bump), and was recorded in, of all places, White’s 1947 Voice-o-Graph booth, a phone booth-sized space so cramped it would give Super Man second thoughts. And how did Young release this new album? That’s right. He pulled a Beyoncé, dropping it in our laps one day with no warning.
I think it’s that blend of tireless creativity and ability to still surprise us (and probably himself) that led to my initial thought: I can’t imagine Neil Young ever retiring. These aren’t the traits of a man ready to hang it up anytime soon, if ever. And if Neil Young doesn’t have to, why do we? It’s hopeful, isn’t it — the idea that art can be our lifelong companion, our personal fountain of youth? It’s the idea of “Forever Young”, “Young at Heart”, “He not busy being born is busy dying,” and “I had a guitar hanging just about waist high/ And I’m gonna play this thing until the day I die” all rolled into one. Young’s career gives us hope that we can remain passionate and untamed if not in our daily habits and actions, then at least in our art. Men grow old, but the artist never has to, never has to reach retirement age.
I still remember being on the pavilion lawn when Young rolled into my town and unapologetically played the entirety of his Greendale small-town rock opera for a crowd that wanted nothing but a greatest hits jukebox of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like a Hurricane”. That was my introduction to Neil Young. A decade later, he shows few signs of ever burning out and zero possibility of simply fading away.