You have to cut Neil Young a little slack; after all, he is 76. I know it’s easy to forget – or to not even want to accept – that those who rode the wave of a counter-cultural revolution fuelled by the uniquely strident spirit of youth half-a-century ago are all either approaching their 80s or are already octogenarians. And, like his contemporary Van Morrison, Young has always been prone to curmudgeonly behaviour, even before he reached middle-age, let alone old age. He once played a gig at the height of his creative powers in the mid-70s whereby he and his legendary backing band Crazy Horse opened the performance by playing their new album in its entirety before the expected crowd-pleasers would be exhumed; however, when the last song from the latest LP was done, rather than leading the band in ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ or ‘Southern Man’, Young then decided to play said album in full all over again; half the audience exited whilst those that remained united in a chorus of boos. One suspects Young both found it funny and didn’t give a f***. That’s the kind of artist he was and, to a degree, has remained.
In a way, it’s a miracle Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young ever managed to record as much material together as they did; regardless of the sonic magic their combined voices produced, a band housing that number of combative egos could never maintain harmony beyond their harmonies for long. Even the in-house peacekeeper Graham Nash has recently had his patience exhausted by David Crosby, publicly announcing the friendship between him and his long-term collaborator has finally reached a terminal impasse. And while it’s possible to see many of these bust-ups as common occurrences that old gits who’ve known each other for decades routinely experience, Crosby, Stills and Young have been rubbing each other up the wrong way as far back as bloody Woodstock; however, unlike his three bandmates, Neil Young has always been viewed first and foremost as a solo artist, with his most critically-acclaimed work coming outside of the CSNY unit – and he has revelled in wrong-footing critics throughout. Whenever he’s had a commercially successful album, his next release has tended to be a stubbornly difficult listen that the masses have rejected; he’s only ever occasionally flirted with the mainstream as a consequence, never really being at home in it.
I remember in the mid-80s, when the post-punk dismissal of most pre-punk acts was eroding and certain vintage artists were coming back into critical vogue, Young seemed determined to sabotage his newly-established ‘cool’ credentials by voicing his support for Ronald Reagan. Ever the contrarian, he probably found it amusing that the singer revered for railing against Nixon’s war machine in a blistering protest song like ‘Ohio’ was now voting Republican. The reaction wasn’t unlike when Kate Bush was ‘outed’ as a Tory voter a few years back, though why every artist who isn’t Phil Collins has to lean to the left always seems irrelevant to their art unless they’re Paul Weller.
Covid-19 has given rock stars of Neil Young’s generation another opportunity to air their political preferences, and whilst the likes of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison have been condemned as anti-vax fanatics for their provocative opinions on the vaccine as a pandemic panacea, Young’s response to being in the most vulnerable age category when it comes to the coronavirus has resulted in him taking the opposite route. This past week has seen Neil Young reassert his stubborn streak by demanding his back catalogue be removed from Spotify, having raised his objections to the platform’s Joe Rogan podcast allegedly spreading ‘fake information about vaccines’. I’m not a viewer/listener of Rogan myself, but I know of him and I know that he took his massively successful podcast to Spotify, signing the kind of mind-boggling, multi-million dollar deal that was once the preserve of rock stars (like Neil Young) when they switched record labels.
During the height of the pandemic, it seems Joe Rogan was one of the few online celebrities publicly questioning some of the dubious decisions being made by governments in the name of saving lives, and his opposition to vaccination has become a challenge to those who advocate uncensored free speech yet struggle when someone publicises an opinion they themselves vehemently disagree with. Neil Young issued an ultimatum to Spotify that basically said ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’, and when Spotify made it clear they weren’t prepared to abandon the star they’d invested a huge amount of money in, Young took his ball back and refused to play with Spotify again. Considering the miserly royalties Spotify pays the artists whose music it streams, Young probably won’t suffer too much in financial terms by leaving the site; but it seems ironic that his renowned obstinacy now appears to be firmly in tune with the very establishment he’s always liked to position himself on the outside of.
James Blunt, a far younger singer-songwriter who has regularly exhibited a likeable self-deprecating sense of humour online that is much more enjoyable than his insipid music, responded to the spat between Spotify and Neil Young by tweeting ‘If Spotify doesn’t immediately remove Joe Rogan, I will release new music on to the platform’. Amusing, yes, but the fact that Young issued his ‘it’s him or me’ ultimatum and was cheered by the cancel culture mob for doing so suggests his decision was a misfire, advocating corporate censorship and standing alongside those whose aim in life is to silence everyone who doesn’t share their opinions. Does that really sound like the same artist who was fond of recycling the word ‘freedom’ in the lyrics and titles of his songs? Even if Young has always possessed a mischievous talent for sabotaging his own critical and commercial success, to throw his lot in with a crowd for whom freedom is the privilege of the few and not the entitlement of the many feels like stretching his contrariness too far.
Neil Young has been accompanied in his Spotify exodus by Joni Mitchell, Canadian contemporary and, to me, an even more gifted and significant songwriter to emerge from the same richly creative era. What’s worth noting, however – and this is a crucial point – is that both Young and Mitchell were afflicted by polio as children during an outbreak in the early 1950s; the intervention of vaccination was something that enabled them to recover and understandably left them favourable towards vaccines as a means of suppressing viruses. The fact that both are within a whisker of their 80s – and this is the age demographic most at risk from Covid – has also undoubtedly formulated their judgement on this particular issue. Their generation, to which Eric Clapton and Van Morrison also belong, is one of the most pro-jab, with Clapton and Morrison being in more of a minority than Neil Young and Joni Mitchell; the stance of the latter two is the majority one. And maybe that’s what seems odd to some when it comes to Neil Young, at least to those who always expect him to take the opposite stance to the prevailing consensus.
Yet, looking at his track record, there have been many times in his life when he and the orthodoxy have clicked in harmony; ‘Heart of Gold’ topped the US Hot 100 in 1972, after all – quite an achievement for a ‘cult’ artist. Just don’t expect to hear it on Spotify.
© The Editor