Matt Valentine doesn’t speak the way he sings: in a nasal warble, something like Hans Moleman doing falsetto. The way he moves onstage, slumped forward, stomping out the beat, reminds me of someone I know. It all starts to make sense when I notice his Tonight’s the Night T-shirt, hear his cover of “Powderfinger,” and learn that his dog’s name is Zuma. Yes, Valentine and his partner Erika Elder, who record under the name MV & EE, really love Neil Young.
This bothers me. You see, Valentine and Elder are from New England via New York City. They live among icons and we’re rather short, so they don’t need to cherry pick our supply. Moreover, I’m a little bit jealous. We Canadians get Neil filtered through our parents’ record collections, the talking heads on public TV, grade school lessons in patriotism. To be a Canadian Neil Young fan requires a rediscovery: much like the Beatles, you become a fan when you start buying the records you once borrowed from your mother. The American Neil, the guru of Broken Arrow Ranch, is much more interesting than ours.
According to CBC viewers, Neil Young is the fourteenth greatest Canadian. That puts him one notch above Peter Gzowski and one below Stompin’ Tom Connors, neither of whom have much of a fan base stateside. Several weeks ago, “Helpless” was named the Great Canadian Tune for Toronto’s Luminato festival; to celebrate, 1,623 Canadians assembled at Yonge-Dundas Square to strum it en masse. Five days later, a “star-studded lineup” gathered at Massey Hall to recreate Young’s famous 1971 performance there. It’s easy to see why Canadians prefer “Helpless” to “Mr. Soul” or “Down by the River”; to romanticize small-town Ontario is a true Canadian achievement. Sadly, Neil is not quite Canadian. We can point to his days on the club circuit in Winnipeg, his stint in Toronto as part of the Mynah Birds, and his evident roots in Canada’s folk tradition, but we have to face the truth: the northerner in Neil went south with him, and that was over forty years ago.
You can’t blame Neil for his allegiances. Americans dote on him—even their fauna bears his name. He’s twice been a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee, but never an appointee of the Order of Canada (apparently Randy Bachman is a better Canuck). In the US, Neil worship has gone through multiple iterations. He was dubbed “the Godfather of Grunge” when the reigning Generation X was at the height of its Oedipal phase, championed by musicians who felt that Stephen Stills was the poster boy for Boomer nostalgia and David Crosby was a decadent troll. Neil may have been in California during the high sixties, but he seemed more authentic than his roots-rock colleagues: they grew up on fast cars and surfboards, whereas Neil looked like he had spent his teen years chopping wood and hopping trains. Neil gave his grunge acolytes flannel and choppy guitar solos; they gave him tribute albums, stupid suggestions (Arc was partly Thurston Moore’s doing), and shout-outs in their suicide notes.
When hippie culture came back into fashion, a new spate of American musicians found inspiration toward the far end of Neil’s discography. MV & EE model their sound (and their look) after the Neil who consumed honey slides in the ditch. Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) adapted the cover art from Tonight’s the Night for his 2009 LP Beware, and frequently covers his songs live. As a rule, if the record has a twang or a drawn-out guitar part, Neil’s name will turn up somewhere in the review. Of course, plenty of young Canadian bands follow Neil’s example. But in Canadian music, the influence is assumed. We love Neil the same way we love hockey and warm weather—so much that to discuss our feelings would be tiresome.
The romance that Neil holds for American listeners is obvious; he’s always straddled the line between loner and consummate hipster. His charm seems accidental, as nothing about him seems to make sense: his lyrics consist of one-liners pieced together with nonsense, and they rarely seem as punchy on second thought as they do when he delivers them; his guitar technique is like that of a kid trying to emulate his heroes before he’s finished learning how to play. At his most interesting, Neil is a relative moderate embroiled in a world of excess, chronicling his friends’ downward spirals with insight but far from square himself. In short, he’s always been cool, but he’s never been a fuck-up or a ham.
Some people call this mystique; I call it Canadianness. The qualities that make Neil so appealing to young Americans are the ties that bind him to his place of birth. And these qualities look much better from a distance—shyness and reserve go nicely with a Laurel Canyon pedigree. He has the bearing of someone who grew up in a tougher climate, who had some experience with manual labour but plenty of time to think. It’s worth noting that 2005’s Prairie Wind, on which he sings of Canadian geese and the Trans-Canada Highway, was recorded in Nashville: The North has its own cachet, comparable to that of the South. Neil has a certain northern authenticity, from his discovery of “Four Strong Winds” on a jukebox in the prairies through his early days playing folk clubs in Winnipeg and Toronto. If you grew up in New York City, Neil’s early life might seem awfully interesting. If you grew up here, there’s a good chance that his adolescence was similar to your dad’s.
As much as I’d love to claim Neil Young for Canada, I’m inclined to give him to the States. Americans get him without baggage; he’s just too much a part of us to get so excited over. Neil is a great Canadian, but in a diplomatic capacity: he doesn’t belong here, but he makes us look good abroad. I take it as a point of national pride that artists like Matt Valentine romanticize Neil. Whether they realize it or not, they’re saluting the north.