Nine Perfect Minutes: Neil Young

Text by Jaan Uhelszki
Photograph by Danny Clinch

Bob Dylan may have famously said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” but his longtime friend Neil Young likes a few more guarantees before he takes action. The august musician has long plotted his life around the phases of the moon. Ancient and antediluvian, prehistoric and pre-sentient but strangely effective, the moon is a psychic touchstone for Young, who uses the heavenly body to determine when to tour, book a studio or make a television appearance – but oddly enough, not to plot the day he got married.

On your last album, did the songs come faster because of your aneurysm? They’d come fast to me before. It was all just a combination. I don’t think it was directly tied, but I don’t think it wasn’t either. I don’t know what it was. I just know, behind the scenes in my head, we knew I had that aneurysm and that I was going to go in the hospital. That must have been hard for you, since you’re notorious for liking to control things. Someone else was controlling. The whole thing was out of my control. There was nothing I could do, so I had a schedule of things that I was doing, that I liked to do, and you know, if that was the only chance I was going to get to do them, I was going to do them. I mean, nothing was going to stop me, so I just went ahead. I had something to do. That’s why I’m lucky. So I have a purpose.

It always seem like you’re a pre-sentient writer. I almost feel like you write your life, like you write a song when you live that life. I don’t know what comes first, but some things that you’ve written, like “Mr. Soul,” anticipated your diffident reaction to fame. Or even a song like “Old Man.” Yeah. Well, I got to be an old man after that, didn’t I? I just write what I’m thinking. I write what comes to me. I don’t bother editing it. I’m not writing to get commercial songs. I’m not writing them to be a success. I’m writing because I’m driven. I just have to do what I do and there’s nothing that’s going to stop me from doing that. How do you know when it’s time to write a song? Does the pressure build up and you know it’s time to write a record? I sit around and sometimes nothing happens for a couple of years. Not usually two years, but there was a two-year gap after Greendale. The Greendale album was such a huge thing that it just drained me. I couldn’t figure out whether I was going to write another story like Greendale, or whether my next album was going to be like a novel or what I was going to do, and whether it was going to have more characters, or a continuation of the same story. I couldn’t figure out what it was so I just waited, and then finally, after 18 months, started picking up the guitar. I never do it if I don’t feel like it. I mean, I don’t sit around and practice.

Like you never pick it up if you’re not working… No. If I don’t feel like it, I don’t do it. And if I do feel like it, I won’t do anything else. I just go where it takes me and my family, and everybody is ready for that.

Do you really wait for the muse? I tend to beat myself up when I’m not writing. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make it come faster.

Were you always like this or did you grow into that? I wrote more songs all the time when I was younger because I was driven. This was my life, this is what I’m doing. Now I know, you know. It’s not a surprise.

The moon shows up in a lot of your songs, and you tend to schedule around full moons. Am I crazy, or do you plan for that? Things are timed for – yeah, I do. It’s like planning. Yeah, me too. I plan around the moon. Yeah. So I mean some people know that, some people don’t. I just wondered because I’m very scrupulous about it. The moon is part of a lot of things. Before there was organized religion, there was the moon. People knew the moon meant something. The Indians knew about the moon. Pagans followed the moon. I’ve followed the moon for as long as I can remember, and that’s my religion. There’s two times in the month that I think are creative moments, and one is zero moon – when the moon starts, when it’s just a little new sliver and you start feeling the new one. And the other one is when it’s full. And then there’s times that when you really don’t want to do anything, and that’s right after the full moon, after it wanes, and right before the new one comes. So those times are dead. And if you’re on the road during that period, you’ve got to be prepared to just forge on.

Do you believe in astrology? I don’t really know that much about it. I take them as they come. I don’t really anticipate which is which, I just go. I just say, well, you know. If the spirits are with me, this is going to be a good moon. That’s the greater part of it. You’ve got to listen to yourself before what’s out there. It can be dangerous. You’re working in a full moon atmosphere, because if there are things that are going to go wrong, they can really go wrong. But that’s great, especially for rock and roll. This is so much more simple than having to follow a bunch of rules and go to a building with everybody every week. I respect people who are dedicated to organized religion, and I respect their way of life and everything, but it’s not mine. And so I feel grossly underrepresented in the current administration, but nonetheless I feel like I’m doing the right thing for me. And the Great Spirit has been good to me.

Do you find yourself more religious as you get older? My faith has always been there. It’s just not organized. Like there’s no doctrine, there’s no book I follow. There’s no story that I follow. To me, the forest is my church. It’s a cathedral to me. If I need to think, I’ll go for a walk in the trees, I’ll go for a walk on the prairie or I’ll go for a walk on the beach. Wherever the environment is most extreme is where I will go, and I will go no matter what. If there’s a moon, I’ll try to get out and walk under the moon. So it’s just a natural thing for me. That’s just the way it is.


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