Neil Young: Legendary guitarist and rock star turns 75 | Music | DW | 11.11.2020

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Neil Young: Legendary guitarist and rock star turns 75

Icon of folk, country, rock and "godfather of grunge": At 75, after decades of concert tours and many dozens of albums, Neil Young is still going strong.

In an interview with Rolling Stone back in 1975, just before turning 30, Neil Young said every one of his records was, to him, "like an ongoing autobiography … My trip is to express what's on my mind."

Looking back 45 years later, that is exactly what the restless and highly productive award-winning icon of rock, country and folk has done over the many decades of a career that is far from over.

The guitarist, singer and songwriter collaborated with numerous bands and singers, including Pearl Jam, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris and many more.

Among the world's greatest guitarists

In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked him 17th among the 100 greatest guitarists, saying that "Neil's playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience."

Neil Young on stage in 2016 | Neil Young, Rockmusiker

At Denmark's Roskilde Festival in 2016

His style of playing has indeed been an inspiration to many bands. He has been called the "godfather of grunge" because of his influence on the genre's most iconic star, Kurt Cobain.

It began with a ukulele

Neil Young was born on November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Canada. The boy who suffered from childhood polio was interested in music at an early age, starting off by playing the ukulele.

In the 1975 interview with Rolling Stone, he remembered that at some point he couldn't stop thinking about playing music: "All of a sudden I wanted a guitar and that was it." 

In 1963, he formed the folk-rock group Squires, and dropped out of high school to play at local clubs and coffee houses. He met Stephen Stills during those years.

Neil Young (1972)

The prolific musician in 1972

In the 1960s, he moved to L.A. and in 1966 formed, along with Stills and three other musicians, the band Buffalo Springfield.

Two years later, he left the band again. His career as a solo artist had begun. For a while, he joined the trio Crosby, Stills and Nash, a band that performed at the legendary Woodstock Festival in August 1969 and with which he would reconnect on and off for concerts for many years to come.

Over the decades, he also toured and recorded a number of studio and live albums with the American rock band Crazy Horse.

A political hitmaker

Since 1968, Young has just about released a studio album a year.

His all-time greatest hits include "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Ohio," "Helpless," "Cinnamon Girl" and "Harvest Moon" — and there are many more.

Many people identify with his popular rock anthems; even Donald Trump often used iconic hits like "Rockin' in the Free World" in his rallies. But Young said that he could not allow in good conscience "his music to be used as a 'theme song' for a divisive, un-American campaign of ignorance and hate," and filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the US president.

His opinion about Trump was well known by then. The Canadian-born musician, who has been living in California since the 1960s but only took on US citizenship in January 2020, famously slammed the US president in an open letter in early 2020, proclaiming "You are a disgrace to my country." 

Young has always been politically outspoken. Early on, his lyrics served as anthems of counterculture, such as the iconic protest song "Ohio," which was released days after the 1970 Kent State shootings during which the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at an anti-war protest.

close-up of Neil Young at the Harvest the Hope Concert

Neil Young at the 2014 Harvest the Hope benefit concert, where he also performed with Willie Nelson

'Unbridled passion'

In 1995, Young was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Young has consistently demonstrated the unbridled passion of an artist who understands that self-renewal is the only way to avoid burning out. For this reason, he has remained one of the most significant artists of the rock and roll era," the website declares.  

The musician is currently writing a sci-fi novel with the working title Canary. In 2012, he released a memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: a Hippie Dream.

Musician, songwriter, author — but that is not all. Neil Young also has a keen social and environmental awareness. He was one of the founders of Farm Aid, an annual benefit concert for American farmers, and is still a member of the board of directors.

On stage:  Stephen Stills & Graham Nash & David Crosby & Neil Young

Back on stage with Crosby, Stills and Nash in 2000

Oscar nomination

In 1994, Young was nominated for an Oscar for his song "Philadephia" in the Jonathan Demme's AIDS drama of the same title, starring Tom Hanks. The acclaimed director has meanwhile made three feature-length documentaries about Neil Young, the most recent one in 2012.

Neil Young runs an archival website called the Neil Young Archives on which he has made several unreleased recordings available for free. He is known to be a collector of model trains, vintage cars and guitars, and is married to American actress, director and environmentalist Daryl Hannah. He has three children from his two previous marriages.  

spider named after Neil Young East Carolina University/dpa/picture alliance)

A biologist and Neil Young fan named a newly discovered trapdoor spider Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi after his favorite singer

Most septuagenarians would be long retired, and happily so. Not so Neil Young. As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, he offered on his website several acoustic concerts from his home, the "fireside sessions."

When asked by Rolling Stone in 2018 if he had retirement plans, the musician simply joked: "I'm going out with Cher. Cher and I are doing a retirement tour," he said, adding, "When I retire, people will know, because I'll be dead."

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