Neil Young on his greatest hits: “The songs are on their own little trip, I go out and ride along with them”

Shakey recalls the creation of some of his classic songs

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Southern Man
Album: After The Gold Rush
Released: Sept 1970
Recorded: Topanga, early 1970

A scathing indictment of racism and bigotry, “Southern Man” had its roots in an incident that took place during a Buffalo Springfield tour of the Deep South with The Beach Boys in early 1968. Beating up longhairs was at the time a popular sport in certain parts of the South and, sitting in a diner one night with members of the tour retinue after a gig, Young heard a bunch of rednecks planning to attack them.


A quick phone call to summon reinforcements from the road crew prevented an Easy Rider-type scenario. But Young was left both angry and shaken by the event. Dennis Dragon, one of The Beach Boys’ backing line-up, recalls: “Neil was really upset. Just the vibration, the ignorance, the stupidity. He’s a very sensitive guy. That did it. He went straight to work writing ‘Southern Man’.”

Young tells a more confused story. “This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch Gone With The Wind,” he joked later. Then he claimed, “Actually, I think I wrote it in the Fillmore East dressing room in 1970.” Even later, he told McDonough he had written it in his home studio in Topanga.

Certainly CSN&Y were playing it live by May of that year, and an epic version appears on Four Way Street. But the studio recording is more indignant and angry, although, according to Young, this had as much to do with marital strife with his wife Susan as his hatred of racism. “Susan was angry at me for some reason, throwing things. They were crashing against the [studio] door. We fought a lot. There’s some reason for it, I’m sure. It was probably my fault.”

He revisited the theme of the South on his 1972 Harvest album with the song “Alabama”, which provoked Lynyrd Skynyrd to respond with “Sweet Home Alabama”, in which they chided: “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

Young later announced that he had stopped singing the song: “I don’t feel like it’s particularly relevant. It’s not Southern Man. It’s White Man. It’s much bigger than Southern Man.”

Single: with CSN&Y (B-side “Find The Cost Of Freedom”)
Released: May 1970
Recorded: Los Angeles, May 1970


On May 4, 1970, four student protesters were gunned down and killed by National Guards at Kent State University, Ohio. At the time, Young was hanging out with David Crosby at road manager Leo Makota’s place in Pescadero. When Crosby expressed his outrage, the far less political Young picked up a guitar and wrote “Ohio” on the spot.

The pair then took a plane to LA, rounded up Stills and Nash and went straight into the studio to cut the song live. According to Crosby, the tape was delivered to Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun that same night. Within little more than a week it was in the stores, with Stills’ “Find The Cost Of Freedom” as the B-side. Banned by various radio stations, it nevertheless climbed to No 14 in the US singles chart.

“It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song,” Young observed in 1977 when he included “Ohio” on the retrospective Decade. “It’s ironic that I capitalised on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”

Crosby, whose voice can be heard towards the end of the song emotionally yelling, “Why? How many more?”, broke down in tears after they had finished. “I was so moved, the hair was standing up on my arms. I freaked out because I felt it so strongly,” he recalled.

The track remains Young’s proudest moment as part of CSN&Y. “That’s the only recording where CSN&Y is truly a band,” he says. “It felt really good to hear it come back so fast – that whole idea of using music as a message and unifying generations and giving them a point of view. That song gave the band a depth. Aside from that one thing, I was a hindrance to their progress.”


The Needle And The Damage Done
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: UCLA (live), Feb 1971

The inspiration behind Young’s stripped-down junkie lament, which stood in stark contrast to the other tracks on the bucolic Harvest, was the descent into heroin addiction of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten. It’s less dark than some of the drug songs that would subsequently appear on Tonight’s The Night (1975), for by then Whitten was dead. In 1971, Young still hoped that he could save his friend, whose addiction had already led him to sack Crazy Horse in March 1970 after Whitten had reputedly nodded off onstage at the Fillmore East.

Young began playing the song live during his solo tour in early 1971. He introduced the cautionary tale by telling the audience: “This is a serious song I’d like to do about some people you know, some people I know and some people that neither one of us knows. It’s about heroin addiction. Somewhere in the universe there’s probably a place where all the great art is that didn’t get out. A museum of incredible lost art that didn’t get out because of heroin.”

Hearing that Whitten had cleaned up, Young took him back into the fold in the fall of 1972, when he invited him to rehearsals for the forthcoming Time Fades Away tour at his Broken Arrow ranch. When it turned out Whitten was as wasted as ever and barely able to hold a guitar, Young sacked him for a second time on November 18, giving him $50 and a ticket back to LA. He used the money to score, and died of an overdose later that same night. The following day Young wrote “Don’t Be Denied”, which would later appear on 1973’s Time Fades Away album.

“I loved Danny. I felt responsible,” he later told Cameron Crowe.


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