Neil Young`s Canadian Years

By John Einarson

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Neil Young Book Review - John Einarson: Neil Young`s Canadian Years


well here goes,thanks to those of you who said to go ahead with this (you know who you are)and today's part goes like this; THE KEEPER OF THE FLAME;there is rock. There is roll.And there is Neil Young.

Like all good Canadian artists in the '60s, Neil Young had to leave home to become successful. "Canada just couldn`t support the ideas i had," he said later. "The sounds i liked were coming from California. I knew that if i went down there I could take a shot at making it." After almost 30 years in California, Young remains a Canadian citizen and continues to draw inspiration from his roots. "A lot of my songs come from flashes of things in my past. It's not specific but you`ll get images here and there that are about Canada." Listen to "Helpless," "Don`t be Denied," "Ambulance Blues," "I am a Child," "Journey through the Past" or "Long May You Run" and see what he means.

"When I was a young boy, My Momma said to me, Your Daddy's leaving home today, Guess he`s gone to stay. We packed up all our bags, And drove out to Winnipeg."

When the 14 year old Neil Young arrived in Winnipeg from Toronto in the summer of 1960, he already knew what it was like to be uprooted, since his family had gone wherever his father's career in journalism had taken him. But after the break up of his parents' marriage, Neil and his mother Rassy settled into the working class suburb of Fort Rouge where the shy, dry humoured youth enrolled at Earl Grey Junior High School. It was there that he met Ken Koblum, later to join him in the Squires, and there that he formed his first band The Jades.

"I knew when i was 14 that music was all i wanted to do," he has said although he did manage to trade his skills on the links for a few guitar lessons from classmate John Daniel. Daniel in due course joined The Jades, whose one and only performance came in early January 1961 at the Earl Grey Community Club,but he soon fell out with Neil's single minded determination. "I had to go to hockey practice when Neil wanted to play guitar, and he told me I had to choose one or the other, hockey or music. I guess i wanted to play hockey."

Young's next move was to form a band to play Winnipeg's thriving community club circuit. By 1963 he and his mother had moved to the more well-heeled Crescentwood area,where he attended the prestigious Kelvin High School and formed the Squires, who specialised in instrumentals by their idols The Shadows. Young was particulary taken by Hank Marvins melodic guitar style and the use of the tremolo arm ,both of which remain a trademark of his playing today."The Shadows became the major portion of our repertoire ,"he recalled."We did 'Apache,' 'Wonderful Land,' 'FBI' and 'Shindig,' and another one called 'Spring Is Nearly Here.'"

Local DJ Harry Taylor of CKRC offered the band studio time in the stations tiny two track facility to cut a single.In the fall of 1963, V records released "The Sultan" b/w "Aurora," both instrumentals penned by Neil relying heavily on the echoey twang of Duane Eddy. "It was my first recording session and i was just glad to be there for the experience, but I was still searching for the right sound," Young says of that first release.

The Sultan scarcely hinted at the talent which lay behind it, but it did result in some airplay and some gigs. With steady work came the need for new equipment: although Neil`s mother had bought him his beloved orange Gretsch guitar, requests for a new amplifier to replace his homemade effort fell on deaf ears with his estranged father. "When your report card improves,we`ll talk about it," Scott Young wrote curtly from Toronto. Despite her limited income, Rassy supported her son`s aspirations, even borrowing the money to help her "Neiler" buy the amp he needed so badly. Later, she helped him purchase "Mort", the hearse in which he transported the bands equipment.

The Squires' schedule included performing outdoors on a flatbed truck for a department store promotion,and at the intermission at a wrestling match. Further sessions at CKRC failed to produce another single but did yield some interesting tapes. One was the self penned "I Wonder" a sort of Beatles/Dave Clark hybrid rocker which surfaced years later as "Don`t Cry No Tears" on Zuma. Afterwards the recording engineer rather bluntly opined,"You`re a good guitar player kid but you`ll nevr make it as a singer."

Other tracks from those sessions include the very Shadows influenced instrumental "Mustang" and "Ain`t It The Truth," exhumed 25 years later in a rollicking version by the Blue Notes on Lucky Thirteen.Tapes of these and other long-forgotten Squires sessions in Winnipeg and Fort William (including the beautiful "I`ll Love You Forever") have recently been unearthed and are now in Young's possession.He plans to release them on his much delayed Archives box-set.Another unreleased instrumental,White Flower, concerned the assassination of President Kennedy.

By this time Neil had taken on vocal duties. "The first song I ever sang in public was at Kelvin in the cafeteria,"he later recalled. "It was The Beatles' version of "Money". I think i also did "It Won`t Be Long." People told me i couldn`t sing but i just kept at it." Testing the waters at a gig in January 1964, Neil and The Squires launched into the Beatles' "She Loves You" only to be greeted with a cry "Stick to the instrumentals!" The band went so far as to don Beatle wigs for a few engagements, to squeals from the teenage crowd. The Squires survived several personnel changes under Neil's demanding leadership. "I always believed I could find someone else who might have the same determination i had. If somebody didn`t fit i had to tell him to go. I had to shit on a lot of people and leave a lot of friends behind to get where i am now, especially in the beginning. I had almost no conscience for what i had to do.There was no way that i could put up with things that were going to stand in my way. I was so driven to make it."

Young discovered folk music after several visits to the 4-D, a local folk club. There he developed a major crush on Bob Dylan, learned Ian and Sylvia`s Four Strong Winds, and met Joni Mitchell who was then working the Canadian coffeehouse circuit with her husband Chuck. Not long after he dropped out of high school to pursue his dream full time. "I wasn`t into school. I had a pretty good time there but i didn`t really fit in. I knew what needed to be done to make it and i was willing to make those sacrifices."

A brief road trip to Fort Wiliiam, Ontario in November 1964 resulted in another milestone. Alone in his hotel room on his 19th birthday, Neil wrote Sugar Mountain, an ode to perpetual youth. Although the song presented Neil's folk leanings ,he had not yet abandoned rock. "We did 'Farmer John' really well in Fort William. We just got way out there and went beserk. That was one of the first times I ever started transcending on guitar. Things just got on to another plane. Afterwrds people would say, "What the hell was that?" That's when I started to realise I had the capacity to lose my mind playing music."

He later revisited his manic version of "Farmer John" in 1990 on Ragged Glory.

In April 1965 Stephen Stills came to town to play the 4-D with folk group The Company, and was blown away by the opening act Neil Young and the Squires. It was mutual admiration at first sight. "Still`s voice was phenomenal," recalls Young. "We got on quite well right away. We didn`t talk about forming a band then, but we knew that we wanted to get together."

What Stills witnessed that night was Neils unique blend of traditional folk with rock`n`roll. "We did classic folk songs with a rock`n`roll beat and changed the melody. We did a really weird version of "Tom Dooley" which was like rock`n`roll in a minor key,and we did "Oh Susannah," "Clementine," "She`ll Be Coming Round The Mountain." It was different from anything i did before or after. It was funky."

Following the breakdown and abandonment of his prized 1948 Buick Hearse near Blind River, Ontario (immortalised in "Long May You Run"), Neil ended up in Toronto where he ressurected The Squires for one last stab at success. Unfortunately no-one was buying into his folk-rock vision. A name change to Four To Go with new personnel still brought no takers. Undeterred,Neil attempted to launch himself as a solo folk singer, again with little success.

"There was a review of one of my shows in a newspaper and it said my songs were all like a cliche. Toronto was a very humbling experience for me and i just couldn`t get anything going." This was a blue period which found him scuffling about Yorkville, crashing at various pads, including one on Isabella Street (immortalised in "Ambulance Blues") and writing some of his most introspective songs. One of these, "Nowadays Clancy Can`t Even Sing," the story of a Kelvin High school acquaintance, served as a metaphor for Neil's own frustrations in Toronto. After a disastrous audition tape at Elektra studios in New York, the song found its way to Stephen Stills' roommate Richie Furay. "I thought it was a real fantastic song," recalls Furay. "Clancy certainly was not a typical song of the kind i was used to hearing. It had a metaphor and allegory." Furay took the song to California where Stephen Stills had beckoned him to form a group.

With no other means of supprot, Neil accepted an offer from Bruce Palmer to join The Mynah Birds, a Yorkville-based rock group featuring a self styled "black Mick Jagger", Ricky James Matthews (aka future funk star Rick James). But this stay was brief, a mere six week rollercoaster ride that found the band earning the backing of a millionaire and a disastrous recording session at Motown in Detroit before Matthews`s arrest by the US army for desertion. A listen to the tapes years later reveals no trace of Neil's characteristic guitar or vocals. With no options left in Canada, Neil and Bruce sold off the Mynah Birds' equipment,bought a 1953 Pontiac hearse (Mort II) and illegally crossed the border, heading for California. This was a bold gamble which ultimately reaped enormous dividends.

A bout of nervous exhaustion stalled them in Albuquerque before they rolled into Los Angeles in search of Stills. Driving around by day and sleeping in the hearse at night, the two finally gave up after a week. "Bruce and I were just leaving to go to San Francisco," recalls Young . "We were on Sunset Boulevard heading North, stopped at a light. The traffic was heavy. Then i heard Stephen Stills saying, "I know that guy, it's Neil." The four pulled into Ben Frank`s parking lot, embraced and headed to a friends house where Stills and Furay played Young their arrangement of "Nowadays Clancy Can`t Even Sing." And the Buffalo Springfield was born.

THE END..............

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