In last March issue Uncut , we brought you the inside story on Neil Young’s long-awaited Archives project. We spoke to his friends, colleagues and conspirators and, over the next few weeks on www.uncut.co.uk, we’ll be printing the complete transcripts of these interviews.
Winnipeg’s star guitarist in the early Sixties, revered by Young. Founder of The Guess Who and, later, Bachman Turner Overdive
There wasn’t a formal introduction when I met Neil: just a bunch of teenage guys learning to play guitar and starting bands and dreaming of being like Elvis or The Shadows. I remember meeting him at a gig I was playing in Winnipeg. Someone introduced him and a couple of his friends he was with. One of them was immensely tall for a teenager and that was Ken Koblun. I noticed at that first meeting, and then subsequent meetings, that Neil had a “look” in his dark eyes. A focused determination of getting to a place far from where he was. I’ve been told I had the same look. When one knows at an early age that their gift, talent and direction is musical, one tends to focus on that and let nothing interfere or impede the forward motion toward the end of that rainbow. And after 50-something years of rockin’ out, you still realise there is no end to that distant rainbow until one’s last sunset.
I saw Neil play many times in several different bands. In those days many band members revolved or went in and out of bands. Some guys didn’t have the dream and discipline, some chose sports or girlfriends over being in a band, but the ones who were constant figures in the bands were the ones that made it. No obstacle was too big to overcome. We all had the same issues with parents: girlfriends, education, getting a ‘real job’, playing for the love of it. And as there was no money involved, just living the rock and roll life of living to play and playing to live. So I did see Neil play many times but whether they were called The Jades or The Squires I’m not sure. Later on I do remember Neil Young & The Squires when he took more of an upfront stance in the band and it clearly became his focus.
I remember both Neil and Ken coming to many gigs. I was playing a Gretsch 6120 through a Kortung tape deck to get an echo delay, through a Fender Concert amp and playing early Shadows. I remember Neil asking me about the songs and where I got them and how I learned them. I was playing “Apache”, “Kon-Tiki”, “Man Of Mystery” and “Mustang”, and our lead singer Chad Allan was singing Cliff Richard songs like “Living Doll”, “Move It”, “Dynamite”, “Pointed Toe Shoes”, “We Say Yeah” and “Summer Holiday”. We were totally different than any other local band because of this British repertoire we played. Our bass player, Jim Kale, had a Fender Concert Amp which had four inputs and would handle a whole band. When we weren’t playing gigs, we’d lend the amp to Neil and his band. A set of drums and a Fender Concert Amp was all you needed for a night of instrumental music. We even plugged a mike into one of the inputs and sang through it at the same time.
On Saturday, after watching American Bandstand to see the latest dances and rock bands, it was a ritual for most musicians to take the bus to downtown Winnipeg. The main street there was called Portage Avenue and had two large department stores on it about four blocks apart. The stroll from one called Eaton’s to the other called Hudsons Bay was lined with music stores, record shops, clothing stores and restaurants. Most of us were playing catalogue guitars like Sear Silvertones and Harmonys and would walk this strip on Portage Avenue every Saturday and look at the real rock guitars in the windows of the stores. We’d literally stand for hours and stare at the blond ‘Chuck Berry’ Gibsons, the ‘Buddy Holly’ Fender Strats and the ‘Duane Eddy’ Gretsches that were in the windows. Once in a while we’d get brave enough to go in and ask to try the guitar out.
There is a great book out called Everything I Needed to Learn I Learned in Kindergarten and I believe that everything I ever needed to learn on guitar was in my first two years of hungry learning: Scotty Moore, Hank Marvin, Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. That was my training and I believe it was also Neil’s. When we do a solo today, there are always “quotes” from Hank Marvin and Chuck Berry. We both still have an echo repeat on most guitar solos and use the wang bar more than others do.
In 1965, The Guess Who were invited to New York City. Our recording of “Shakin’ All Over” had hit Number One in Canada and made Top 20 in Billboard Magazine. We were on Scepter Records, whose sister label was Wand, which had the monster hit “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen. We played the whole East coast and Midwest with The Kingsmen tour which also had Dion & The Belmonts, Barbara Mason, Sam the Sam and The Turtles on some dates. When we got back to Winnipeg to go back to school in the fall of ’65, we were local heroes. I remember Neil asking what it was like “outside of Winnipeg” and I remember the look in his eyes when I told him how great it was to get out of town, to live the rock and roll life and live by playing music. He left shortly after that and ended up in LA after some brief stops in Port Arthur and Toronto. He came back to Winnipeg briefly for a visit and I remember him playing me and Jim Kale an acetate of the first Buffalo Springfield LP. “Out Of My Mind” was the song I heard first. It was the first time I heard his unique vocals. I said, “Who’s that singing?” and he proudly said, “It’s me!”. You don’t have to have a great voice to sing, just a distinctive one. But make sure you say the words clearly and tell a story. Then Buffalo Springfield happened big time and they were so cool. Like the Beatles they had several different lead vocalists and writers and their solos sounded very distinct with Stills’ blues riffs and Neil’s Hank Marvin stylings.
Then the next time I saw him was at his house in Topanga Canyon where he played solo at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and was in process of joining CS&N. He was holding out to get his name in the group name and not be just a sideman. He held out and got it and they became CSN&Y.
I have accomplished a lot for a kid from Winnipeg but whatever I have done pales in comparison to what Neil has accomplished. He passed me by a long time ago and it’s true that I use his songwriting, guitar playing, lifestyle, his work ethic and his relationship with his manager Elliott (who I’ve also known forever) as a template to follow. I drop in to see Neil several times a year when he’s on tour. I visited with him at two different gigs at his recent Hammersmith Odeon run in March and we always shake hands, hug each other and say: “I’m so glad you’re still doing what you do. And we gotta keep on doing it.” I’ve been very blessed that he has invited me down several times to his ranch and studio to record and hope to do it again in 2009.
I don’t feel that my songs are cheap copies of Neil’s but more of reflection of some of his attitudes in his songs, more soul, more capturing of great moments of performance and less finicking with “perfection”. It makes it more fun. He also doesn’t worry about being commercial and getting radio airplay. He just keeps going doing what he does and bouncing around from rockin’ the free world to cool country rock stuff and everything in between.
Neil’s best qualities are: hard work, honesty, generosity, determination, setting goals to complete each dream and then working step by step to get it done. This was evident when we first met and every time I’ve seen him since over the years. He has the same determined look and heart of gold. He’s a great friend and recently at his 60th surprise birthday party, many of us got a chance to talk on mike about our relationship with him and it was amazing how many of us have been in his circle for 40 or 50 years.
I remember hearing Neil play me both “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Sugar Mountain” as acetate demos. I also saw him play them live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles in 1971. Neil had got me an appointment After I’d seen his Greendale show a couple of times, I sent an email to him and Peggy and told him about a parallel story happening in my life like the main character and story in Greendale. It was about a pulp and paper mill in Crofton, British Columbia polluting the soil, air and water with their smokestack emissions and killing everything around it. It boiled down to getting the government to put better and stricter zero tolerance laws into place to stop the pollution as the mill was basically complying with the regulations. Out of the blue I got an email from Peggy telling me to come and meet with her and Neil at their Vancouver show.
When I did, Neil said, “Let’s have a concert to raise money to help the people who are fighting this fight and trying to monitor the emissions from the smokestacks. I can come on this date”. And to my amazement, because of his offer, we put on a concert with Neil, Barenaked Ladies, my son Tal and myself all doing acoustic sets in a hockey rink in Duncan B.C. and raised many hundreds of thousands of dollars for the “Fresh Air” concert fund that is still being worked on and is still a work and fight in progress to this date. I will be forever indebted to Neil and Peggy and their whole crew for their time, talent, compassion and generosity. They do this every fall for a couple of charities and right after our event went on to Farm Aid and The Bridge School event. God Bless them all.
I met with Mo Ostin at Warner Bros and Don Schmitzerle at Reprise Records for my new band Brave Belt, which was a country-rock outfit. I had left The Guess Who after the American Woman album and hit single in the summer of ’70 and was trying to get back into the rock race. At that time Neil invited me to the Pavilion and I was absolutely amazed. He had sold out several nights in a row and performed solo on guitar and piano. He had the crowd mesmerised. I couldn’t believe that this kid from Winnipeg had turned into this artist that had the audience so mesmerised with his music. It seemed so surreal to me. At that concert he did “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and then announced that he had written “Sugar Mountain” about a Joni Mitchell connection and while driving in the canyons the other day, he’d written about ten more verses. He asked the audience “Do you want to hear the new verses?” The answer was a resounding yes. And he sang it for about eight minutes with the audience singing along on every chorus.
I know he’s been working on this complete works [Archives] for decades now, through all kinds of digital conversions and is still gathering the source material. It will be a fantastic treasure of memories over 50 years of music.
INTERVIEW BY ROB HUGHES