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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Comes A Time
Album: Comes A Time
Released: November 1978
Recorded: Florida and Nashville, 1977

“Comes A Time” and the rest of the album that bears its name was originally recorded as a solo acoustic record in Florida, but when Young played it to Warner Brothers label boss Mo Ostin, he suggested the sound needed filling out. For once Young, who usually greeted such record company interventions with truculence, took the advice.


“I decided, ‘Hey, that sounds like fun. I’ll try that – go to Nashville, have ’em all play on it at once,” he recalls. “So I got all these people out there to play along with these existing tracks of me. Bobby Charles was like our guru. He was at all the sessions.”

The band included Drummond and Keith from The Stray Gators, augmented by, among others, Spooner Oldham and Rufus Thibodeaux, who plays the Cajun-style fiddle on the title track and went on to play with Young in his Hawks & Doves band (1980). According to Keith, Charles’ role was to “roll the joints”, which, given Young’s smoking habits, certainly qualified him for ‘guru’ status.

Also appearing on the sessions was Nicolette Larson. At the time she and Young were having a brief romance, and as they harmonise on the title track you have to imagine they’re thinking about their own situation, as they sing, “You and I we were captured/We took our souls and we flew away.”

“We sang on the same mic. I could look in his eyes and keep up with him and that’s as much rehearsal as he wants,” recalled Larson, who died in 1997.

Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
Album: Rust Never Sleeps
Released: July 1979
Recorded: The Cow Palace, San Francisco, Oct 28, 1978


The idea of Neil Young as a punk, of course, was ludicrous. By the time the Sex Pistols arrived to consign rock’s bloated dinosaurs to the dustbin, he was a 31-year-old superstar millionaire. Nevertheless, when he first witnessed the gathering punk explosion on tour in Britain during 1976, he immediately identified with its ethos. He liked punk’s rejection of pomposity, saw in it a resurrection of the original rebel spirit of rock’n’roll, and proudly sported a Never Mind The Bollocks T-shirt.

Young expanded on his enthusiasm for punk in an LA radio interview: “When you look back at the old bands, they’re just not that funny. People want to have a good time. That’s why the punk thing is so good and healthy. People who make fun of the established rock scene, like Devo and The Ramones, are much more vital to my ears than what’s been happening in the last four or five years.”

In turn, the punks recognised in Young a true maverick, and exempted him from the brickbats they hurled at his CSN&Y bandmates.

“Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”, with its name-checking of Johnny Rotten, encapsulated Young’s sympathy with the punk zeitgeist, and its insistence that “it’s better to burn out” sounded like a sentiment Sid Vicious would have subscribed to.

Some, including John Lennon, criticised Young for glorifying rock’n’roll’s self-destructing casualties. But Young stood by the song, and when challenged in a 1979 radio interview, he explained: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away or rust because it makes a bigger flash in the sky.”

The words returned to haunt him in April 1994 when Kurt Cobain made a sizeable flash by blowing his brains out. Near the body was found a suicide note which quoted the line from Young’s song. Young then wrote “Sleeps With Angels” about Cobain and his widow Courtney Love, and was (mis)quoted as saying he would never perform “Hey Hey” again. In fact, he sang it on his second live appearance after Cobain’s death. “It just made it a little more focused for a while,” said Young. “Now it’s just another face to think about while you’re singing it.”

Love responded by including the line “It’s better to rise than fade away” on Hole’s 1998 album Celebrity Skin, and Oasis have also played the song live, dedicating it to Cobain’s memory.

The Rust Never Sleeps album opened with an acoustic version of the song listed as “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and closed with the dramatic electric version, recorded live with Crazy Horse at the Cow Palace, San Francisco on October 28, 1978. Somewhat hilariously, Frank Sampedro reckons that Crazy Horse based their approach to the song on the stomping beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.

The song is co-credited to Jeff Blackburn, part of the ’60s San Francisco duo Blackburn & Snow and who later toured with The Ducks, the incognito band Young put together to play local bars in the Bay area. The line “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust” first appeared in one of Blackburn’s songs. Young reports: “I called him up after I’d written the song and said, ‘Hey, I used a line from your song. Want credit?”


Rockin’ In The Free World
Album: Freedom
Released: October 1989
Recorded: LA/San Francisco, summer 1989

As the 1980s came to a close, the post-WWII international settlement was crumbling. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had ushered in the era of “perestroika” and “glasnost”. Soon the old communist regimes were crumbling all over eastern Europe, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. The Berlin Wall was about to be torn down and Germany reunited. The Cold War was over. The free world had won.

Many of these events were yet to happen when Young recorded “Rockin’ In The Free World” but they were already in train, and the song found Young astutely tapping into a moment of world-shattering change. Indeed, when the Berlin Wall did come down, television footage was often accompanied by the strains of the song.

Yet like Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, “Rockin’ In The Free World” is misunderstood if it’s regarded as some kind of celebratory anthem to the triumph of Western capitalism, for its lyric actually focuses on the heavy price which can accompany democracy, painting a nightmarish picture of a free world populated by derelicts, burnt-out cases and junkie mothers.

As a father, Young admitted he was particularly worried about the availability of drugs on the streets. “The lyrics are just a description of events going on every day in America. Sure I’m concerned for my children, particularly my eldest son, and he’s a Guns N’Roses fan,” he told Nick Kent in Vox. “He has to face drugs every day in the school yard that are way stronger than anything I got offered in most of my years as a professional musician.”

“This is like the Bible. It’s all completely out of control,” he went on. “The drugs are gonna be all over the streets of Europe. We’ve got a lot to deal with here.”

Asked if the song was intended to be a celebration or an indictment, Young answered: “Kinda both, you know? You asking the question means you got the song.”

As with “Hey Hey” on Rust Never Sleeps, two versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World” were used to bookend the Freedom album. The acoustic take which opened the LP was recorded live at Jones Beach, Long Island, while the electric version which closed it contained an additional verse.


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