Neil Young is now in his sixties, with many great achievements and awards, including MusiCares Person of the Year. When Young received the honor given his decades of work with Farm Aid and Bridge School Concerts, some of the most famous musicians in the business serenaded Young with his own songs: Elton John, James Taylor, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow Leon Russel, and Keith Russell. Young was quoted as saying that he’d forgotten how many songs he’d written. When did cultural superstar Young hit retirement age? He’s at the point in his life when he either 1) created so many songs he lost count or 2) really can’t remember. Not to worry, Neil.
This kind of confusion happens when you’re talented, successful and 64 – and the culture loves you. Jack Black was the emcee at the event. Black talked about how the young singers on stage had been influenced by Young’s unique style. How ironic! Black and the young’uns weren’t even born when Young began his career. But I was, and I sat in the audience at Young’s debut all those years ago. I was a student at New York University in NYC in 1971. I attended the Greenwich Village campus and got to experience the Village culture in all its glory. Singers and dancers performed in the lofts and modest studios in every nook and cranny in the Village. Singers at free public concerts in the park were commonplace as were artist exhibiting their work on the sidewalk. The wild artistry of the sixties was still with us; the commercialized disco era wasn’t yet launched.
I hung out with friends at the NYU radio station. We listened to singers like Carol King, Carly Simon and James Taylor who were just emerging on the music scene. So much social change was in the air, but not fully formed. We had no idea that any of them would become a superstar, especially the women singers. A fellow student argued with me that women singers would never equal the fame of their male counterparts. I objected, naming several famous women. They happened to be African American and in a sign of the times, he said famous women singers who were African American didn’t count.
One winter evening, the radio crowd decided to go to the Village in freezing weather for the debut concert of a new, unknown singer named Neil Young. I tagged along and found myself in a large, run-down studio with chairs set up theater style. Going to the public bathroom in that building was part of experiencing the music scene, an art form in itself. The stage was slightly elevated in theater-in-the-round style. A lone singer was seated on a wooden chair, playing his guitar and singing into a single microphone.
Dressed unremarkably in jeans, Neil Young sported a full head of dark hair partly obscured his face. It was the style in the Village during Sixties, a style that Young stayed with even with fame and fortune. He closed his eyes and tuned out the raucous audience, losing himself in the music. He was the post child for Artist-at-Work and some things haven’t changed since.