Overnight, we received exciting news of Neil Young’s new album, The Monsanto Years, which is reportedly due for release later this year. It seems like an auspicious time, then, to post my cover story from last year: a detailed look at Neil’s 2014, with help from some of his closest collaborators and friends…
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A Fork In The Road
Two intense and personal albums. A possibly valedictory tour with Crazy Horse. Revelatory solo shows. A new book and a new sound system, a political engagement – and a new relationship… 2014 shaped up to be one of the strangest and most compelling years of Neil Young’s storied career. With help from his closest compadres – including Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and the late Rick Rosas – Uncut discovers the truth about what really happened in the last 12 months and wonders just what rock’s greatest maverick might do next. “I think it’s a musical decade coming up, as much as it is one fighting for mankind…”
Writing in his latest memoir Special Deluxe, Neil Young recalls meeting his son, Ben, for dinner one evening last spring. The venue was a familiar hangout – the Mountain House, a homely weatherboard cantina in the hills south of San Francisco, just a ten-minute ride from Young’s Broken Arrow ranch. “Pulling the old Jeepster up in front of that place,” Young writes, “with the heater blasting welcomed warmth, I felt the passage of life and how fleeting it really is. In a silent prayer to the Great Spirit, I asked to be worthy of more time. There was still so much to do.”
Based on the evidence of the last 12 months, perhaps not even Young himself realised quite how hectic his 2014 would be. Next year, Young turns 70; an age when many people would be looking forward to scaling back their commitments in favour of a gentler pace; not adding to them. “But why slow down?” asks Bruce Botnick, a friend of Young’s since the late 1960s. “It’s no fun to slow down. Neil’s very creative, and we know now that our remaining lifetime is getting pretty short. We don’t know about tomorrow, so why not go for it? Be in the now, enjoy yourself, and that’s what Neil’s doing.”
Certainly, this year, Young has had two brushes with mortality: Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot suffered a mild stroke in June, while another long-serving collaborator, bassist Rick Rosas, died on November 6.
Young’s many endeavours – biofuel cars, revolutionary new audio systems, albums, tours, art exhibitions, environmental activism, vinyl box sets, books and films – seem inextricably tied together. It’s possible to divine a path, for instance, between his electro-hybrid car venture, Lincvolt, and his audio project, Pono. Both are about resurrecting and refining the past: whether it be updating beautiful vintage gas-guzzlers for an eco-future or restoring some of the denuded audio quality to music.
But with all these various undertakings, the suspicion exists that Young currently has too many priorities on the go. While Bruce Botnick thinks “it’ll all even out”, at least one old accomplice thinks Young has risked stretching himself too far this year. Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro reveals, “Honestly, some of my last conversations with Neil, when we were just talking like guys, I can’t help but look him in the face and say, ‘Neil you’re a great musician. I think you should keep writing songs and stay out of business.’ That’s from my heart. He puts so much energy and passion and love into the Pono project, into the Lincvolt project and writing books, all these other things. But I think it takes a little away from his music. That’s really what his calling is. At the same time, if he can make a difference, if he really did change something, more power to him.”
More than most, Sampedro is aware of the unpredictable nature of Young’s muse. The guitarist recalls an incident that took place earlier this year, on the last day of rehearsals for Crazy Horse’s European summer dates. “As we were finishing, we played a version of ‘Tumbleweed’,” Sampedro says, identifying a song that eventually appeared on Young’s Storytone album in November. “At the time we didn’t know it was called ‘Tumbleweed’. We played it at low level, all huddled in front of the drums. Neil grabbed his iPhone and hit record, then threw it on the floor in between us. We were just jamming and he was saying/singing some words. We stayed on one chord and played it every way we knew how. When we finished, a lot of the crew came out and asked what was that. They said it sounded spooky and really good. So, the only recording of it was on Neil’s iPhone. At one point his engineer, Mark Humphreys, came out and tried to pick up the phone but Neil blocked him! Later, on the road, Neil spoke to Ralph [Molina; drums] about going into the studio and overdubbing the drums so it could be used on the record. I don’t know what happened to that. You know, most people turn a corner. Neil ricochets.”