On November 12, 1945, Neil Percival Young joined the human race by way of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in the manner of his unmistakable vocal style and one-of-a-kind guitar technique: wailing, flailing, bawling, and squalling.
Over the course of the next 70 years, Neil Young has forged a path through rock history like no one else’s. He is a supreme folky acoustic troubadour and the plugged-in, sludged-up godfather of grunge. Neil is a solo superstar who also flourishes in group settings, as evidenced by Buffalo Springfield; Crazy Horse; and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Neil is also Renaissance man whose genius extends beyond music into cutting-edge electronic technology, experimental filmmaking, alternative-energy development, and, yes, model railroading.
As he turns 70, Neil Young has lived countless lifetimes. Let’s celebrate the man, the musician, and the occasionally maniac on this momentous occasion with 70 random facts about rock’s most iconic iconoclast.
1. Neil Young’s preferred alias is “Bernard Shakey.”
2. Friends call him “Shakey” for short.
3. Other noms-de-Neil include: Shakey Deal, Phil Perspective, Clyde Coil, Joe Canuck, Joe Yankee, Marc Lynch, and Pinecone.
4. Human Highway, an utterly bizarre 1982 nuclear power comedy directed by Neil and co-starring Devo, is credited to “Bernard Shakey.”
5. After existing almost entirely off the grid upon its completion turning up only in clip forms or at extremely rare one-off screenings, Human Highway finally got full theatrical release in 2015.
6. “Bernard Shakey” has also either directed or co-directed the psychedelic freak-out Journey Through the Past (1973); the all-time classic concert film Rust Never Sleeps> (1979); and Greendale (2003), a video accompaniment to the Neil Young concept album/rock opera of the same name.
7. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by the great, great, great Jimmy McDonough was more than ten years in the making. The author spent countless hours with Neil, interviewing him, shadowing him, and often effectively living with him. When the book was finally slated to be released in 2002, Neil sued to block its publication. He lost, and one of the all-time most epic rock bios reached the public at long last.
8. Neil Young is a dynamic multi-instrumentalist who routinely plays guitar, bass, piano, banjo, harmonica, organs, ßand synthesizers.
9. Neil’s first taught himself to play music on a series of ukuleles.
10. Young Mr. Young idolized Elvis Presley.
11. Neil’s first band of note was the Squires.
12. The Squires, uh, squired their equipment from gig to gig around Canada in Neil’s 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse that he nicknamed “Mort,” short for “mortician.”
13. Mort died on the road in 1965, the victim of a blown transmission somewhere in Blind River, Ontario.
14. “Long May You Run,” one of Neil’s most popular live songs and one of his most frequently covered, was inspired by and dedicated to Mort.
15. Although typically perceived as a Neil Young solo effort, “Long May You Run” is actually the product of the Stills-Young Band, from their 1976 album of the same name. The group was a collaboration between the ex-Buffalo Springfield members and erstwhile components of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
16. Neil’s second band, the Mynah Birds, tilted toward rhythm-and-blues, and boasted a most amazing frontman: the one-and-only Rick James. He, of course, would go on to his own titanic solo success (bitch!).
17. Other Mynah Birds of note included future Steppenwolf rockers Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas, along with bassist Neil Merryweather, who became one of rock’s most in-demand sidemen, ultimately playing with (among others) Steve Miller, Lita Ford, Billy Joel, Wilson Pickett, Dave Mason, and, yes, solo Rick James.
18. Motown signed the Mynah Birds to a a seven-year contract in 1966, but the deal went belly-up when Rick James got arrested for having deserted the Navy several years earlier.
19. The Mynah Birds never released a finished album.
20. Neil Young has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice—both as a solo artist and as a member of Buffalo Springfield.
21. Stephen Stills has also been inducted twice, first alongside Neil for their work in Buffalo Springfield, and then as a member of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
22. Other two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees include all four Beatles, Jimmy Page (the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin)Jeff Beck (the Yardbirds and solo), Peter Gabriel (Genesis and solo), Rod Stewart (Faces and solo), David Crosby (the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash), and Paul Simon (Simon and Garfunkel, solo).
23. Eric Clapton has actually been may it into the R&R Hall of Fame three times, for the Yardbirds, Cream, and his solo career. Neil’s best shot at tying Slow Hand’s record would be if individual nods go to either Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young andor Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
24. In The Last Waltz (1976), Martin Scorsese’s classic concert film documenting the final performance of the original version of the Band, Neil performs “Helpless”—with a lot of help, indeed, from both snortable pep powder and the movie’s special effects department. Band drummer Levon Helm chronicled the incident in his memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire: “”He performed with a good-size rock of cocaine stuck in his nostril. Neil’s manager saw this and said no way is Neil gonna be in a film like this. They had to go to special-effects people, who developed what they called a ’traveling booger matte’ that sanitized Neil’s nostril and put ’Helpless’ into the movie.”
25. Neil Young has epilepsy.
26. Neil’s daughter, Amber Jean, also has epilepsy.
27. Neil’s two sons, Zeke and Ben, were both born with cerebral palsy, even though they had different mothers.
28. Inspired by his sons, in 1986 Neil proved instrumental in establishing the Bridge School, which serves children who contend with verbal and physical difficulties by using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Assistive Technologies (AT).
29. Neil’s second wife, Pegi Young, co-founded the Bridge School.
30. Neil headlines a concert in Mountain View, California every October to benefit the Bridge School.
31. Artists usually play acoustic sets at the annual Bridge School concert. Among the most remarkable performances in the event’s history have been those by Metallica, Bob Dylan, Green Day, Pearl Jam, and radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
32. Neil’s other high-profile annual charity concert is Farm Aid, which he co-founded in 1985 with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.
33. The first Mrs. Neil Young was restaurateur Susan Acevedo. Their marriage lasted from 1968 to 1970.
34. Prior to marrying diner waitress Peggy Morton in 1974, Neil’s other significant relationship of note was with actress Carrie Snodgress (Zeke’s mom). In 1970, she made a huge splash starring in the feminist comedy Diary of a Mad Housewife.
35. Neil wrote two songs directly addressing his relationship with Carrie: 1972’s “A Man Needs a Maid” (specifically the line: “I fell in love with an actress/she was playing a part I could understand)” and 1974’s “Motion Pictures.”
36. Carrie Snodgress’s coolest non-Neil rock association is that Diary of a Mad Housewife contains the big-screen debut of Alice Cooper.
37. “Old Black” is the name of Neil Young’s signature electric guitar. It began life as a a 1952 or (possibly ’53) Gibson Les Paul Goldtop painted black. Among Old Black’s myriad customizations are the addition of a humbucker pickup from a Gibson Firebird, a B-7 model Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, and aluminum backing plates.
38. Old Black first came Neil’s way in 1969, when he picked up the guitar in a trade with rocker Jim Messina.
39. Nearly as ubiquitous as Old Black is Neil’s trademark guitar strap emblazoned with doves and peace signs.
40. Neil’s only other electric guitars of note are an orange Gretsch Chet Atkins, and a series of Gretsch White Falcons.
41. LincVolt is the name of Neil Young’s 1959 Lincoln Continental that he’s converted into hybrid fuel vehicle. It runs on Domestic-Green Carbon-Neutral Cellulosic Ethanol from Biomass.
42. In 2015, Neil Young released Pono, a high-resolution music player he’d been developing over the previous three years.
43. Neil developed Pono over frustration with the sound of MP3s. “I didn’t listen to music for the last 15 years,” Neil said, “because I hated the way it sounded, and it made me pissed off and I couldn’t enjoy it any more. I could only hear what was missing.” He also noted, ““I think MP3s, basically, are too much of a compromise. As an artist, I look at it that way. I think it’s the low bar for music.”
44. Pono was financed in part by Kickstarter, with fans rushing to back Neil’s dream of better sounding portable music. “The reason we went to Kickstarter is because the venture capitalists didn’t have the vision to see what this was,” Neil said. “They have no interest in rescuing an art form. That sounds like a waste of money.”
45. The pyramid-shaped, yellow Pono retails for $399.
46. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” via the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama” is arguably the most famous musical back-and-forth beef in rock “ (“Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her/Well, I heard ole Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A southern man don’t need him around anyhow”). Less well known is that each artist was a huge fan of the other’s work.
47. After the deadly plane crash tragedy that befell Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977, Neil performed an acoustic version of his song “Alabama” at a Children’s Hospital Charity benefit, respectfully changing lyrical mentions of “Alabama” to “Sweet Home Alabama.”
48. Trans, Neil Young’s 1982 album that features high-tech new wave sounds and vocals on some songs performed through a science-fiction-sounding robotic Vocoder, baffled fans, but it has its devotees.
49. The mechanical vocals on Trans arose from Neil trying to communicate with his young son Ben, whose cerebral palsy rendered him nonverbal from birth. Neil had been working to use technology to empower Ben with a voice.
50. As Neil explained further, “At that time, [Ben] was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That’s what Trans is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something, but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s exactly the same feeling I was getting from my son.”
51. Neil has stated that Trans is his favorite of his own albums.
52. Neil’s second favorite of his own albums is Everybody’s Rockin’ from 1983. It’s a tribute to 1950s rockabilly and rock-and-roll and runs less than 25 minutes in total length.
53. Number three among Neil’s favorite of his own LPs is the 1975 mind-blower, Tonight’s the Night.
54. Neil’s all-time least favorite Neil Young album is 1973’s Time Fades Away.
55. Time Fades Away is one of just two Neil Young LPs not to be reissued on CD. The other is the soundtrack album from his film, Journey Through the Past.
56. Time Fades Away is also the first of three records described by Neil fans as “The Ditch Trilogy. The others are On the Beach (1974) and Tonight’s the Night (1975).
57. Compared to Neil’s 1972 multiplatinum Harvest, “The Ditch Trilogy” ranked as commercial failures. The latter two albums, though, are revered as creative masterworks.
58. “Heart of Gold,” from Harvest, is Neil Young’s only #1 pop chart topper to date.
59. In the liner notes for his retrospective Decade, Neil wrote, “’Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” Hence the term: “The Ditch Trilogy.”
60. On the Beach surpasses mere darkness and becomes downright apocalyptic. That’s due, in part, to the album sharing a title with a famous novel and film about life after a nuclear holocaust. It also arises from the song “Revolution Blues,” which was inspired by hippie murder cult leader Charles Manson.
61. Neil Young met Charles Manson in 1968 at the home of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. In his 2012 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, Neil writes of the encounter: “A guy showed up, picked up my guitar, and started playing a lot of songs on it. His name was Charlie. He was a friend of the girls and now of Dennis. His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good.”
62. Manson’s songs impressed Neil so much, in fact, that Young put in a good word with a record exec for the soon-to-be notorious murder mastermind. “I asked him if he had a recording contract,” Neil wrote. “He told me he didn’t yet, but he wanted to make records. I told Mo Ostin at Reprise about him, and recommended that Reprise check him out…. Shortly afterward, the Sharon Tate-La Bianca murders happened, and Charlie Manson’s name was known around the world.”
63. Neil has resided full-time in the United States since the late 1960s, but remains a Canadian citizen.
64. Paddle-boarding is Neil’s favorite way to relax and get exercise. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he says.
65. The moon figures into 30 separate Neil Young songs. “Before there was organized religion, there was the moon,” Neil said. “The Indians knew about the moon. Pagans followed the moon. I’ve followed it for as long as I can remember, and that’s just my religion.”
66. Neil Young turned down $1 million to headline Woodstock ’94. He said the event was too corporate and commercial.
67. Neil Young famously is a part owner of the Lionel model railroading company. Less well known is that he developed numerous technical upgrade to Lionel trains while working with his son Ben.
68. After 38 years together, Neil split with his wife Pegi in 2015. He’s been involved with actress Darryl Hannah since then.
69. Neil’s ex-bandmate David Crosby does not approve of Young’s relationship with Ms. Hannah, saying: “And I happen to know that he’s hanging out with somebody that’s a purely poisonous predator now. And that’s karma. He’s gonna get hurt. But I understand why it happened. I’m just sad about it. I’m always sad when I see love get tossed in the gutter.”
70. Neil Young has stated that he will never, ever again perform with David Crosby. “Never,” he said. “Not ever!”