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Can Canada reclaim Neil Young as one of their own?

Neil Young

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.

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  • WJT

    Favourite recent NY Canadiana moment: coming offstage after his Live 8 performance, having an interviewer (Ben Mulroney?) asking him questions.

    His line was something like,

    “When I heard the show was up here in Barrie, I thought they meant ‘Live Bait.’”

    Yep.

  • Alan McKinlay

    ‘when hippie culture came back into fashion’ When did that happen?

  • Klondike

    Canadians are used to playing second fiddle, it’s ingrained in their personalities and Americans love it whilst Canadians accept it, which has a rather cause and effect.
    As they most famously said in Canadian Bacon:
    Canadians are always dreaming up a lotta ways to ruin our lives. The metric system, for the love of God! Celsius! Neil Young!

  • Patrick

    It should be noted that Neil never has renounced his Canadian citizenship. He still works here in the States via a green card.

  • Pushkin

    can you tell me these songs that bonnie prince billy “frequently covers” live? i love neil and will, but i can’t think of one neil young song he has ever done.
    …come to think of it – the cover of beware doesn’t look at all like tonight’s the night. where are you pulling this shit from?

  • Alexandra Molotkow

    Pushkin,
    Off the top of my head, I know that Will Oldham has covered “Barstool Blues” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” But you’re right that “frequently” wasn’t appropriate. My mistake.

    As for the similarities between the Beware and Tonight’s the Night covers, here’s a side-by-side comparison: http://6.media.tumblr.com/EgKsJ1W6fion3a0bQ84Dw55Po1_500.jpg

  • pushkin

    cover: yep, you’re right.

    covers: nope, you’re wrong and your pants are on fire.

  • Ryan Ebner

    Great article, but you missed the point. The vast majority of Americans don’t know that Neil Young is Canadian!

  • wilytrout

    Sure we know Young is a Canadian. Everybody knows Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen are Canadian, too. There were some odd complaints when US public television featured Mitchell and then Young on their “American Masters” series – whiners acted as if no one but US citizens live on an American continent. It was pretty embarrassing to those of us down here who love visiting Canada and respect our Northern neighbor.

    • http://www.facebook.com/mushgamushga Connor Hendrix

      Yes, I’ve watched American Masters many times, and there are tons of people featured on that show that are not American. For instance, John Lennon.

  • AZ

    From the time I was a little boy with parents who loved pointing out the Jews on TV (Kirk Douglas??? No way!), I have had mixed feelings about this pride issue. He’s Jewish, he’s Canadian (e.g. Leonard Cohen), so what? He’s not my child and he’s not me either. What did I have to do with his or her success?
    But I do protest a bit too much because of course, the first time I heard Neil sing “Northern Ontario”, I tingled with national, even provincial pride. (Is Neil more Ontarian or Manitoban, that’s the question you didn’t answer.)
    In the case of Neil, the other pride issue involves his Dad Scott who was my favorite newspaper columnist before I ever heard of his son. So maybe I did have a paternal pride for Neil, however removed.
    I’m not really addressing your point am I? Well, if I had to come down on one side or another, I’d say Neil is still more Canadian than American. Unlike say Jason Priestley.

  • bruce

    i thought he was a new zealander

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  • http://www.achangeinthewind.com Kit Stolz

    Take the point about the Canada in Neil Young, but the claim that “his guitar technique is like that of a kid trying to emulate his heroes before he’s finished learning how to play” is nonsense.

    Yes, Young likes the straightforward and the unadorned (news flash!), and doesn’t use any more notes than necessary. You could say the same thing about Count Basie in jazz. Does that mean he hasn’t finished learning how to play? Of course not.

    The rhythm Young brings to the playing gives his choices the crunch. For example, his lead in Buffalo Springfield’s most famous song — “For What It’s Worth.” What could be simpler? That’s it’s art…

  • mike glueck

    i like the article and the feeling it spreads – but i have to underline what kit stolz says – i’ve seen neil play 10 times now and especially the solo shows are unbeliebable – not one mistake during the whole show – he plays the guitar that precise it’s hard to believe … at least for me – and i play guitar for nearly 30 years now. in my opinion he’s one of the finest guitarplayers i ever heard …..examples? the silver and gold dvd, the dead man soundtrack, andandand …..
    i simply love this american canadian
    cheers from europe
    mike

  • Wilbil

    There’s this great episode of the radio show “This American Life” that asks who in the “Great American Culture” is Canadian.

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=65

    It’s funny how some of the guests and even the host seem somehow disappointed to learn that a given artist ISN’T American.

    Being from Quebec, I must say that Canadian musicians such as Young, Cohen, Mitchell are among the few products of Canadian culture that transcend most quebecers’ political identity. This reminds me of when author Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for his novel “Life of Pi”. Before his success, in Quebec, he was just another “anglo” from the Rest-of-Canada. All of a sudden, the guy wins a prize, has his novel translated in French, and now, he’s “one of ours”… This goes a long way in terms of cultural appropriation!

    As for Neil Young, I tend to see him as a Northern-American… Producing Northern-Americana!

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  • greendale

    As a U.S. citizen, I am in not qualified to comment Neil’s “Canadian-ness.” But I am qualified to note that Alexandra Molotkow is one of the most eloquent, best-informed, provocative writers I have read on Mr. Young. Congratulations on a fine piece.

  • Your Mom

    I’ll tell you why Neil Young is a real Canadian, and I say this with the authority of hanging out with Neil, the High Flying Birds (Mynah Birds) and Mort. In Thunder Bay. I was 15 and he was 19, and not one of us budding hippies doubted for one single moment he would make it. His Canadian-ness is as granite-solid as the Trans-Canada Highway, as resolute as the long, lonely geography that runs from Winnipeg to Omemee.

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