Neil Young – bio
This series of articles are telling the story of Neil Young. For this biography various sources have been used, and they are mentioned after the article.
Neil Percival Young was born in the Canadian town Toronto on November 12, 1945. The first years Neil lived at 335 Broke Avenue before the family moved on to the rural areas of Toronto: first Lake of Bays and when Jackson’s Point.
His mother was born October 16, 1918 Edna Blow Ragland, but her nickname would be “Razzy”. She, that played the piano herself, would arrange that Neil and his older brother get in contact with music in early ages.
His father was born April 14, 1918 Scott Young. Scott was a writer and over the years he has written over 30 books (among his writing there was Neil and Me that was published 1984 and is biographical about him and Neil) and also contributed to the Toronto Globe and Mail among other newspapers. He first started as a sports writer and later on he an ice hockey commentary on TV.
Neil with this father, Scott Young 1969
His brother was born April 27, 1942 Robert Ragland Young, but got the nickname Bob. Compared to Neil, he was extrovert and jovial as Neil was somber and inbound. As a little child, Neil Young was fat. He was described as a loner who most of all liked spending his time fishing. Then going fishing he had often company with the last member of the family, the dog Skipper which Neil was very attached to.
In 1949, the family moved to a three-story house in the much smaller Omemee, still in the same province Ontario. In this little town with 700 citizens lived Neil with his mother, father and older brother at the street Highway 7. This was a happy time in Neil's life. Both his parents would be home as his mother was taking care of the house. His father used to sit in the loft and write.
Two years later a dramatic event would strike the family and Neil in particular. After feeling sick and weakened Neil was talking to the hospital. He was diagnosed with polio that was life-threatening because the Salk vaccine wasn’t developed yet. But the treatment went out successfully and Neil could soon be returning home. But Neil had to learn to walk again. This wouldn’t be fixed over a day but eventually he began to walk again. Besides the walking difficulties the polio had transformed Neil from a chubby child to some very thin and frail.
Neil began to listen to pop music on a transistor radio and Elvis was the biggest favorite at this time. He was then thirteen when he got his first instrument, a cheap ukulele made of plastic. He began to practice and his brother Bob have later claimed that he showed Neil his first chords. The next instrument Neil possessed was a banjo and his uncle Bob, who mastered several string instruments explained some techniques for the beginner.
By time, the relationship between Razzy and Young would go downhill. Where were conflicts in several issues that the two weren’t getting along, the main problem was Scott’s interest in other women and the fact that he attracted many of them didn’t make things better. Around this time the family moved back to Toronto.
Finally, Scott would leave the family for another woman. In the process, it was decided that Neil stayed with Razzy and his older brother lived with Scott. Neil has never blamed him for splitting the family even that it agonized him they were keeping a warm relationship until Scott died in 2005.
After the separation, Neil would be moving again with his mother. This time they settled down in Winnipeg at the address 1123 Grosvenor Avenue. Neil was now a teenager and this was a period upon his musical interest evolved.
In school the teachers weren’t always pleased with Neil’s conduct, especially in high school then Neil passion for music had increased, and he had problem concentrate in school – the music was always on this mind. The twofold direction against both rock music and romantic that later would characterize Neil Young’s own music was already apparent: he altered between rock ‘n’ roll songs by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly to slower songs by Roy Orbison and Bobby Darin.
At school, he was something of an outsider and nonconformist, he was thinking and dressing different. He had few friends, but would hang out with Comrie Smith who shared his music taste. Comrie Smith would also be a musical collaborator then Neil first band was being formed. The other two members were Bob McConell and Harold Green that Neil also known from school. Neil himself was playing the ukulele and the other instruments were bongos, guitar and bass. “We were pretending we had a band. None of us could play.”
I was a matter of time until Neil would abandon his ukulele and banjo and start playing guitar. Now he was into the music real serious: people around him witness that he could play 6-8 hours a day at this time. He was already determent to become a musician. Besides the music that came from the transistor radio and from the records he listened to at his friends houses Neil would also get inspired from bands at the Winnipeg club scenes. Chad Allen and the Expectations (former Allan and The Silvertones) played regularly and especially the guitarist Randy Bachman would get Neil’s attention.
Neil Young was otherwise self-taught on the instrument except for two lessons he attended at Earl Gray School. He ended it after two lessons, but then interviewed in Shakey (2003) he declares:: “Mr. Riddell taught me everything I know in those two lessons [sic!]".
After the divorce, the relation between Neils parents was infected. Razzy was devastated by the separation and would become bitter. Neil would face his mother going through strong emotional turmoil and also witness her sometimes alcoholic behavior. Scott would re-marry, but Razzy would live on alone. Razzy’s primary mission would hereafter be applied on Neil and she became a strong force behind him. It was Razzy who encouraging Neil to continue with his music and loaned him money to equipment and also borrowed her car that was needed for transportation to gigs. Scott was more unwilling in this matter because he thought that Neil should focus more on the school.
Neil Young would soon start new bands but without long existence. Notable was Esquires that lasted a while and was performing on stage. Without recognition although: the guitar playing from Neil wasn’t impressing on the audience. Another band Neil was involved with at this time was The Stardusters (which did one known gig in 1962) and The Classic (which did some gigs the same year). Later on Christmas that year Neil would finally start his first “real” band.
The name of Neil Young’s first band was The Squires. The group was formed 1963 in Winnipeg and the members were beside Neil: Jack Harper (drums), Allen Bates (guitar) and Ken Koblun (bass). Jack Harper would be replaced by Ken Smythe and after that would also Bill Edmondson – who stayed the longest time – and Bob Clark play the drums. Doug Campbell would replace Allen Bates. Neil Young part in the band was to play guitar and the music The Squire did was solely instrumental at first and the band had The Shadows as an important influence. They mostly perform their own songs with a sound that were a kind of surf music. Some of the songs can be heard on Archives Volume I.
But it was clear from the beginning that the leader of the band was Neil. He was the ambitious engine of the band and would be disturbed then somebody didn’t prioritize the band before other things. At one occasion the band had got a booking and it turned out Smythe and Bates had other plans – Neil would sack them both.
In the beginning, the band did some gigs at parties in school, in churches and sometimes at a pickup. One of the first “real” gigs with a charge was on Flamingo Club in Fort William and Neil was 18 years at this time. The Squires play at the Flamingo almost every day of the week and this was by then the best paid work Neil had had. But for the most time it was hard to live on the music.
The Squires with Neil Young to the left in the picture
In July 1963 The Squires recording two instrumental songs that got released as a single by V Records. The A-side was “The Sultan” and the B-side “Aurora”.
Neil and his bandmates were searching for a bigger scene and therefore leaving Winnipeg for Toronto. Here he would meet Joni Mitchell and other people which would be important for his music career. At this time Neil also begin to play the harmonica. He saw Sonny Terry perform in Toronto and learned to play by watching him.
When Beatles became popular, the guys in the band understood the benefits of lyrics. Nobody in the band was a natural singer and it became finally Neil that got the job. However, he would not make an instant success in his new field and it would actually take several years until Neil became confident as a singer. If Beatles had taken the band in a new direction, another big influences came across Neil this time: Bob Dylan. He did sound different, almost like Neil. At this time Neil also begins to play the harmonica.
Neil established at this time he first relations with the opposite sex, Pam Smith and he were dating several months. After a break, Neil wished a reunion, but at this time Pam wasn’t interested. Later she got a new boyfriend and Neil has admitted that the song “I Wonder” was reflecting the situation.
Neil wasn’t making the success either in the music and his father tried to pursue him to look more realistic at the future and work harder in school. But it wouldn't affect Neil a bit, he would tell his band mates: “I’m gonna be in this business the rest of my life, guaranteed. Do you mind if I put my name in front of the band?”
Songwriting and leaving for USA
Neil Young wrote at this time a lot of songs and he was looking for opportunities for playing solo. He had an audition for Elektra in New York that failed. The Squiers played electric music, but Neil took one step in a different direction then he sold his Gretsch and bought a twelve-stringed guitar. The acoustic solo career started with bad reviews and cold public response. At this time Neil got a job as solo guitarist for the band Mynah Birds in Toronto. He also began smoking grass and tried amphetamine.
In Mynah Birds, the twelve-stringed guitar wasn’t suitable and Neil had to abandon it for a Rickenbacker. The band was signed by Motown, but just then a break trough seemed close one of the members was arrested for trying to avoid military service in Vietnam War and the manager died in an overdose of heroine. The band was separated.
Neil had to get a usual job. It was in the inventory of Coles Bookstore in Toronto. He could handle it two weeks before giving up. It was hard times with cheap budget and Neil wrote songs like “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”. Neil Young’s songs were strange in many beholders ears and they were filled with introspection: “I don’t know where it comes from. It just comes out … Seems like even when I’m happy, I write about bein’ lonesome.” He used to live at other people’s apartment and was longing for playing with a great band or in else matters find a way to succeed as a musician.
Neil was looking for gigs as a solo artist, but had difficulties finding them. He didn’t catch the interest of the audiences – instead for playing covers he insisted on playing his own songs that was complex and filled with abstract imaginary lyrics.
Neil become tired of Toronto and was dreaming of USA and especially Los Angeles, the place with possibilities. Even if Neil hadn’t succeeded so far, he was very confident in his plans to be a musician. He also knew that Stephen Stills, who he had met in Toronto, was in L.A. with prospects of a project.
In the spring of 1966, he and four other friends leaved Toronto and crossed the US border. The destination was L.A. In the beginning he and his friends earned a living by give lifts to hippies from different parties. They got 50 cents for a drive.
This biography of Neil Young does not cover his whole life and career. See books about Neil Young
Photos: The photo of Neil Young on top of the article was taken by Tom O'Neil.
Sources: Shakey (2003) by Jimmy McDonough; Waging Heavy Peace (2012) by Neil young; Wikipedia (various articles).