Neil Young is busy at 68 with a new memoir, new album and commitment to solving the planet's energy crisis
Neil Young is way too busy to spend much time contemplating his mortality, but in his vivid new book, Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars, he describes a rare exception. Last year, Young had dinner with his son Ben at the same restaurant where he first met Ben's mother, Pegi, four decades earlier. As Young pulled into the parking lot, "I felt the passage of life and how fleeting it is," he writes. "In a silent prayer to the Great Spirit, I asked to be worthy of more time. There was still so much to do."
And what, exactly, is on that list? "Number one: love and happiness and enjoying the earth for what it's worth, which is an incredible place to be," says Young, 68, sitting on his boat off the coast of someplace he won't name. "And number two: protecting that earth for the children and the grandchildren and their grandchildren, on and on. Those are the things that matter to me."
What about music? "Music is the offspring of all of it. Music is a conversation that happens while I'm doing these other things. I don't think I've accomplished enough, but it's been a really good trip so far."
Special Deluxe, Young's follow-up to 2012's bestselling Waging Heavy Peace, was released on October 14. It will be followed this month by his second studio album of 2014, Storytone. So far this year, Young has released the low-fi, Jack White-produced covers compilation A Letter Home, led a successful Kickstarter for his ultra-hi-fi portable music player Pono, and trekked through his native Canada to protest the planned construction of the continent-spanning Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he has called "a disaster waiting to happen".
On September 27, he took the pipeline protest to Nebraska, playing a one-off benefit show with Willie Nelson. Young ended up bashing through an unrehearsed, guitar solo-filled set backed by Nelson's son, Lukas, and his band Promise of the Real. "I don't think Neil's ever gonna slow down," says Lukas. "He's still fairly young, really. I mean, my dad's 81 and he's still going strong."
Young's new book is structured around recollections of the cars that he has driven over the years, a literary device that elicited more emotionally charged memories and prose than anything in his previous memoir. He writes evocatively about rough childhood moments (he once saw his father slap his mother during an argument and retreated into the basement to play with his electric trains) and adult triumphs (he composed the album Ragged Glory in an empty car barn on his ranch, sitting for days on end with a joint, his guitar and his amp).
"I wrote about anything that came to mind in the history of things that had to do with a car - and that is almost everything!" says Young, who wrote much of the book on planes or on his tour bus. "These are my memories, they made me what I am."
The book is simultaneously an ode to the glories of the internal combustion engine and an acknowledgment that its era must come to an end - the final car in the book is his Lincvolt, the 1959 Lincoln that he has spent years modifying to run on batteries and ethanol. "Transportation, government, politics, food, the way we relate, corporations - everything, it all needs to change, in order for us to survive to the end of the 21st century," Young says.
Storytone will be released in two versions: one recorded solo, and the other gilded with orchestral and big-band arrangements, all recorded live with no overdubs, and Young singing in the same room as the musicians. "It's the most different thing I've ever attempted", Young says - which is really saying something for a guy who was sued by his label in the 1980s for making "unrepresentative" music.
The orchestral Storytone is the first Young album where he plays no guitar or piano - other musicians took on instrumental duties so he could focus on his vocals. Music industry veterans Michael Bearden and Chris Walden conducted, arranged and co-produced the album. "He took himself out of his comfort zone," says Bearden, who worked with Michael Jackson and is Lady Gaga's musical director. Young gave the arrangers considerable freedom: "He basically told us to do what we felt," says Bearden.
"He went through some changes in his private life, which is always a fruitful time for new songs," says Walden, who has worked with Michael Bublé and Rihanna. "So … a lot of these recent personal experiences went into these songs."
Bearden adds: "It's a big ball of vulnerability, and that's what I love about it."
Earlier this year, Young filed for divorce from Pegi, his wife of 36 years, and has since been spending time with actress Daryl Hannah, also his recent partner in environmental activism. Many of the lyrics evoke the joys of a new relationship. "In the summertime/ We met to see a threat/ That came to harm something we both loved," Young sings on the opening ballad, Plastic Flowers. On Glimmer, he sings, "Tough love can leave you almost alone/ But new love brings back everything to you/ All the feelings in your heart come reawakened."
Young is particularly focused on the album's first single, the environmental anthem Who's Gonna Stand Up?, recording four separate versions: one has a children's choir, another is a fierce live rendition with Crazy Horse.
There have been other changes in Young's life. He's started smoking weed again, in moderation, after quitting in the wake of his 2005 brain aneurysm, but that may not matter much: "I'm still high from the '70s," he says.
He has also just started painting, decorating his new book with watercolour renditions of cars. "I sort of developed my own primitive kind of way of doing it," he says. "So I don't know if that's the right way or the wrong way, but I enjoyed it a lot. So I'm going to continue doing it."
He laughs at the idea that it might be late in the game to discover a whole new talent. "Oh, hell, I don't know if it's late. For me, it might be pretty early."