Neil Young Saved My Life

With "Harvest" and "Heart of Gold," he helped me lose the down that I found in a strange new place called Los Angeles

Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Like most teenagers, I was passionate about music. Back when there were record players and 33 rpm albums with creatively rendered covers that opened like books, I collected and listened, read the liner notes and knew the words to hundreds of songs by heart. Artists like Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel and the Eagles were on my daily playlist. And then there was the voice that, more than any, was the soundtrack of my high school years — Neil Young.

There must be some way

that I can lose these lonesome blues.

Forget about the past

Find someone new. —Oh Lonesome Me

Having moved across the country at the beginning of 10th grade, I searched for a way to feel at home in the strange place called Los Angeles. In the beginning, when I first arrived, my music was all I had to keep me from feeling completely alone. Neil Young — specifically "Heart of Gold" and "Harvest" — played constantly in my bedroom, his high, plaintive warbling a familiar voice in L.A., where all my senses had to be adjusted to the changes in my atmosphere.

I have a friend I've never seen

He hides his head inside a dream.

Someone should call him and see if he can come out

Try to lose the down that he's found. —Only Love Can Break Your Heart

The view of the San Fernando Valley as we drove to our new home on a hot August night was like nothing I'd ever seen before — a black lake of suburbia filled with twinkling lights where people lived who knew nothing of the lush green landscapes of my former home on Long Island. Palm trees replaced maples and oaks, dry Santa Ana winds blew instead of the moist, oppressive summer humidity of the northeast. The radio station call letters started with the letter "K" instead of "W." So many people were blonde. The Beach Boys were popular.

Nearly everything was different, except for me.

Don't let it bring you down

It's only castles burning

Find someone who's turning

And you will come around.Don't Let it Bring You Down

My sorrowful days grew fewer as I began to meet people — strange, different people — and find friends. I struggled to understand the social culture at my new school, a typical California campus with a collection of low-slung buildings and portable classrooms, completely different from the enormous structures that were my schools on Long Island, where we spent our days indoors. In California, walking to class was a chance to get some sunshine. Everyone would gather in the central "quad" each day with their friends to eat lunch. It wasn't too long before I met a few people to sit with at lunchtime, but it took a while before I found real friends, starting with a loud, bushy-haired girl I met on the school bus who adored my New York accent and became my closest friend, until she wasn't anymore.

You and I

We were captured

We took our souls and we flew away. —Comes a Time

Even as I adapted, I continued to change. Even as I grew more comfortable with my life in California, I grew angrier about having moved there in the first place. Even as I figured out where I might fit in, I moved further away from those people. It was the only time in my life when I did what was worst for me. I needed to put away the girl I had been on Long Island and find a new identity, and this was how I did it.

But no matter how far off course I went, I never gave up my music — never let go of the songs and voices that had been on a continuous playlist since I bought my first record in 7th grade. No matter how angry or unhappy or alienated I felt, I could listen to Neil Young and find my way back to the girl who was put away for a little while, waiting for a chance to emerge again. Waiting to be myself.

But only love can break your heart

Try to be sure right from the start

Yes only love can break your heart

What if your world should fall apart?" —Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Tags: music