Neil Young: Chaos Is Good

Chaos is really good for art, and sometimes friction causes chaos. But chaos is really the catalyst. I really think that chaos is like gas. It's like energy.

-Neil Young

Photo of Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg

When I was a young boy my mama said to me/ Boy your daddy's leavin' home today/
I think he's gone to stay/ We packed up all our bag and drove out to Winnipeg

Neil Young
Neil Percival Young was born on November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Canada. Things were never all that great at home as his parents, Scott Young and Edna "Rassy" Ragland, fought through two decades of bitter turbulence before they were officially divorced in 1960. A well-known sports columnist and author, Scott often gave into temptation and Rassy raked him over the coals for his infidelity. It was a messy split and the experience only sent Neil deeper into the solitary world of sound. After the divorce, Rassy and Neil moved back to Winnipeg, where the family was originally from. It was in icy Winnipeg that Young's music career began, but not before he would battle for his young life.

On August 31, 1951 a five-year-old Neil Young was pulled from sleep by pain in his shoulder and a high fever. Even before they got him to the specialty hospital in Toronto it was clear he was he had contracted polio. "Damn near died. Gawd, that was awful" recalls Rassy in Skakey.

Polio didn't take the child's life, but it would have an ongoing impact on everything Young would encounter from that day on. It ravaged his body, leaving him frail, vulnerable, lacking confidence and with serious, lasting physical ailments. The disease heavily affected his motor function, so much in fact that Young says when he closes his eyes he can't feel the left side of his body.

"There was a time back in the early '80s when I couldn't even lift my guitar up over my shoulder because my rotary cuff was so gone," recalls Young in between sips of cranberry juice. "I had post-polio syndrome and all this shit. My body was falling apart."

Fifteen years after battling polio Young would find himself afflicted with another debilitating disease: epilepsy. In 1966, just as Young's first prominent band, Buffalo Springfield, was getting off the ground, the seizures began and came back with increased frequency. It got so bad that the Springfield had a plan for when Young would go into a seizure while performing. There were signs that a fit was coming on and the band would throw on the house lights while guitarist Richie Furay grabbed Young's Gretsch guitar as he went down. They would then carry Young off the stage, often reaching into his mouth so he didn't swallow his tongue.

You are like a hurricane there's calm in your eye/ And I'm gettin' blown away/
To somewhere safer where the feeling stays/ I want to love you but I'm getting blown away

Neil Young is not like the rest of us; he's literally wired in a different way. His epilepsy produced brief disturbances in the electrical function of his brain and some argue that the disease led Young to his unique relationship with electricity and the guitar (although Young isn't so sure of that). He can literally hear and feel the difference in watts coming out of the speakers, so much that he can tell his guitar tech Larry Cragg exactly how many volts are pumping through the walls.

This heightened awareness and ability to control and work with electricity along with the debilitating affects of polio have helped define Young's raw, heavily distorted guitar style.

Neil Young by Jay Blakesberg
"There's some musicians [that get it] - Jimi [Hendrix] knew what he was doing - but some guitar players don't understand that aspect of it. They don't want to," explains Young. "First of all, they have two hands that work really well, and so they can do all this by themselves. They don't need the help of something else, but I do. I need the help of power. I need to have that resonance. I need to have that availability of a space between me and the source, and fucking with that - bending notes and doing things to make the sounds happen. It's more physical, so I enjoy that. But, it's unpredictable and sometimes has edgy, bottomless or shallow results."

Violence. Anger. Frustration. Chaos. Volume. These are the cornerstones of Young's electric guitar playing. He's one of the greatest songwriters to have ever lived and his success has been partly based on his unique, high- pitched, whining voice. But, without the guitar, Young would never be the Dionysian rock god we love. He balances perfect song structure with messy, expansive, free-flowing jams as he funnels his emotions through his guitar. It's as if all the years of physical and emotional struggle are being reconciled through his instrument. It's this high-wire balancing act that allows Young to transcend styles and genres – from the solo acoustic, tender country rock that permeates his career to the electronica influence found on 1982's Trans to the full-bore guitar meltdowns that fans of Crazy Horse obsess over - it's all Neil Young.

"It's a marriage of all kinds of things. The emotion in the song has got to be - you gotta have a feeling about what you're singing, and then when you're finished singing, then you play," smiles Young from across the table. "Then, there's no rules; you can do whatever you want. Sometimes the notes don't matter. Sometimes just noise is required. Sometimes it has to explode, deconstruct. It's not an exercise in technical prowess or anything like that, because I'm not really very good. But, I can really beat the shit out of it if I feel like it, and I can be melodic and gentle if I feel like. Between those two extremes, if you have a song that means something to you, all those things kind of fit together and you never know what's going to happen."

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