Neil Young, still not burning out or fading away


I guess if you are famous for singing “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” (from “My my, hey, hey” off the Rust Never Sleeps album from 1978) you have to be pretty careful not to do either one — and Neil Young seems to be doing more than just about any other senior citizen (he’s 76) to avoid either of those fates, with the possible exception of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Willie Nelson (okay, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen are doing okay too).

Neil just told Spotify to remove all of his music, because they let Joe Rogan promote COVID misinformation on his podcast, which Spotify bought in 2020 for $100 million. And he also just released a documentary — filmed by his wife, Darryl Hannah — to go along with his newest album, called Barn. It’s called that because he reunited with the members of Crazy Horse, his legendary band, and they set up shop in an 18th-century barn on a ranch in Colorado.

It’s kind of amazing to watch Neil wail away at his guitar and harmonica, stomping up and down in classic Neil Young style, wearing ripped jeans and an old T-shirt, just like he did 40 years or so ago. And all the guys bang away at their instruments too, although they do so a little more gently than they used to, and they are a bit more hunched over. Maybe they forget the lyrics now and then. Still, kind of inspirational. Pitchfork’s review says: “Neil Young is standing on the porch, smoking weed, waiting for somebody else to show up. That’s the basic premise of “They Might Be Lost,” the strangest, loosest—and thus, the quintessential—song from Barn, his latest album.”

Rolling Stone says of the album: “You generally know what’s coming when you hit play on a new Neil Young record. You know there will be a few sweet lovestruck hymns that sound as if they’re being played in dusty Old West saloons or around campfires. You anticipate the songs that wax nostalgic about his childhood, and the ones that rage against the destructiveness and stupidity of mankind and the impact on the planet. You await those moments when he turns the volume knob up and makes his guitar sound like it’s sandblasting paint off an old shed.”

Neil has kept up his output even during the depths of COVID. I wrote in 2020 about his penchant for posting video clips of himself playing old standards, standing in the snow beside a fire pit, or just sitting at the piano with his dogs lying nearby. He and Darryl at one point create a harmonica stand from an old horseshoe because they can’t find one and they don’t want to leave the ranch. It’s an incredibly intimate portrait of Neil.

neil young, neil young archives, fireside sessions

There’s no question that Young is a problematic figure in many ways. He is notorious for dropping things when he loses interest, including his second wife, Pegi, whom he left in 2014, after 36 years of marriage, to start dating Darryl Hannah (she died of cancer just a few years later). Neil also quit Buffalo Springfield the day before they were to go on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, just before they were going to headline the Monterey Pop Festival. And he infamously abandoned a tour that he was on with Stephen Stills in mid-tour, by sending Stills a note saying “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.”

All that said, however, Neil is still an incredibly talented singer-songwriter (even if his voice is not to everyone’s taste), and it’s inspiring to see him still pounding away on that guitar. I hope he keeps doing it for many years to come

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