Neil Young Turns 70: Still Nobody’s “Old Man”
The Canuck rocker enters his eighth decade in the midst of a “Flannel Renaissance.”
“Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true.”
You’ve got to hand it to Neil Young, who celebrates the big 7-0 today – he’s certainly not one to rest on his legendary laurels. Among the greatest rockers in music history, the proud Canuck could easily kick back in a cocoon of flannel and let those famous mutton chops gray in the privacy of his California home.
And yet there he is, splashed across the tabloids holding hands with new squeeze and fellow environmental activist Daryl Hannah, 54, wearing neon green sunglasses while shopping for housewares. Neil Young. Shopping for housewares. I mean, sure we could picture the guys from Nickelback perusing Bed, Bath and Beyond, but Neil Young?
It’s a testament not only to the joy the relationship with Hannah brings Young, but the general state of cheerfulness his life allows for at 70 – an age where some older rockers are either pumping out rehashed greatest hits discs or touring as nostalgia acts. Young, by contrast, appears content, still touring and protesting environmental ills while also preparing to release the latest in his Archives and Performances Series of discs, Bluenote Café, due out Nov. 13, featuring songs from his 1988 tour in support of the album This Note’s for You.
Of course, 2015 isn’t simply Young’s second wind. Rather, it’s the continuation of what we coined last November as his “Flannel Renaissance.”
It began on a political note in January of 2014, when Young called out the Canadian government on behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), warning of the effects of the development of the Alberta oil sands on native communities and the environment as a whole.
“We made a deal with (the ACFN). We are breaking our promise. We are killing these people,” Young declared at a press conference at Toronto’s Massey Hall. “The blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands, and it will be the result of not just a slow thing, but of a fast and horrific thing if this continues.”
Young’s message gained traction and attention across the country. By April the headlines changed from oil sands to studio albums with the surprise release of his 34th disc A Letter Home – a covers album recorded with rocker Jack White on a near 70-year-old coin-operated Voice-o-Graph recording booth – on Record Store Day (April 19).
It’s an “an unheard collection of rediscovered songs from the past,” the singer’s website noted, “recorded on ancient electro-mechanical technology [that] captures and unleashes the essence of something that could have been gone forever.”
In June, Young joined Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde on her first solo album, Stockholm, while in July he reunited with band mates Crosby, Stills, and Nash on The Tonight Show. In actuality, it was host Jimmy Fallon doing a dead-on impression of the singer with the band, performing a cover of Iggy Azalea’s Fancy, but it went viral nonetheless and kept his name top of mind. Later that month, the real Neil Young filed for divorce from his wife Pegi after 36 years of marriage.
Divorce can put a damper on one’s summer, but Young was back in the saddle in September, walking the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival before debuting the director’s cut of his 1982 film Human Highway. Following TIFF he released the first track from his album Storytone, called “Who’s Going to Stand Up?” in three different formats – acoustic, live, and orchestral.
October saw two books about the singer hit store shelves: Young Neil: The Sugar Mountain Years, by Sharry Wilson, and the car-memoir Special Deluxe, by Young himself. Young also hit the talk-show circuit in support of the then-upcoming album Storytone, appearing on The Colbert Report where he performed a duet with host Stephen Colbert after declaring U.S. President Barack Obama should be impeached for fracking.
“It’s not in the interest of the American people. . . I am part of the free world, and he is the leader of the free world!”
And when he wasn’t making or promoting his own music, Young worked to ensure other artists’ music sounds better. His Pono music device (think an iPod and music library built specifically to provide the best quality/sounding music possible) became available for pre-order.
November saw the release of Young’s 35th studio disc, Storytone, available as both a solo album and another disc, as Rolling Stone noted, “gilded with orchestral and big-band arrangements, all recorded live with no overdubs, and Young singing in the same room as the musicians, Sinatra-style.”
“It’s the most different thing that I’ve ever attempted,” Young said in the same piece, demonstrating his willingness to, even late into his career, sacrifice his comfort zone in the service of music.
Of course, Young also found love with Hannah last year and in June of 2015, he released his 36th studio album, a concept album titled The Monsanto Years on which he collaborated with Willie Nelson and Nelson’s sons.
But one of the most telling moments of the Flannel Renaissance came earlier this year when Young appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in a duet with the host, who was, once again, dressed as a young Neil. In a captivating performance they sang “Old Man” and when Fallon reached the line, “Take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were,” he turned to Young as if to sing the words directly to him. And yet Young didn’t flinch at this acknowledgement, or perhaps even tribute, from the host 29 years his junior.
Sure, his muttonchops were grey, his back hunched and his voice a little lower, but Young took to the microphone and defiantly sang the line right back.
He may be 70 this year, but Neil Young is no one’s “old man.”