"It's better to burn out than to fade away," he famously sang. But Neil Young, who just turned 73, did neither. For more than a half-century—as a member of the seminal bands Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, as a solo artist and backed by Crazy Horse—Young has remained an iconoclast, experimenting with musical genres ranging from folk-rock and country to punk and grunge. Click through for 20 of his essential songs.
"Cinnamon Girl" (1969)
"I wanna live with a cinnamon girl / I could be happy the rest of my life with a cinnamon girl"
The catchy guitar hook overcomes the cryptic lyrics about "a dreamer of pictures" who runs in the night. One thing, however, is abundantly clear: His cinnamon girl is the spice of life.
"Old Man" (1972)
"Old man take a look at my life / I'm a lot like you / I need someone to love me the whole day through"
It's best to grow up before you grow old. Young wrote this thoughtful ballad for the elderly caretaker of Broken Arrow, the northern California ranch he bought for $350,000 in 1970. "Well, tell me," the old man said to his 24-year-old landlord, "how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?" Young's response: "Just real lucky." "Well," said the caretaker, "that's the darnedest thing I ever heard."
"Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" (1979)
"Hey hey, my my / Rock and roll can never die"
The anthem of a generation that thrived on sex, drugs and rock and roll. This is the aggressive twin brother of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Blue)," the acoustic variation that opened the "Rust Never Sleeps" album. Turns out black and blue are the inevitable result of Young's punishing electric guitar riffs.
"The Loner" (1969)
"Know when you see him / Nothing can free him / Step aside, open wide / He's the loner"
The first single from Young's self-titled debut solo album proved to be a telling introduction to the 23-year-old singer-songwriter's yin and yang. The jagged strut contrasts sharply with the record's folksy, almost childlike B-side, "Sugar Mountain."
"Like a Hurricane" (1977)
"You are just a dreamer / And I am just a dream / You could have been anyone to me"
A mesmerizing eight minutes and 20 seconds of sonic bliss that established Young (with Crazy Horse, his backup band on many of these songs) as a force of nature. Rolling Stone was especially blown away by the "gale-force guitar playing" that wreaked havoc throughout the song's "foggy trip."
"Rockin' in the Free World" (1989)
"We got a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler / Machine gun hand"
Never the stereotypical polite Canadian, Young taunted new President George H.W. Bush by coupling his genteel campaign slogan with snapshots of a far grimmer America.
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart" (1970)
"But only love can break your heart / Try to be sure right from the start"
Twenty years before he realized there was love to burn, Young played it safe with a heartfelt lament supposedly inspired by pal Graham Nash's breakup with Joni Mitchell.
"The Needle and the Damage Done" (1972)
"I've seen the needle and the damage done / A little part of it in everyone"
As war raged in Vietnam, Young reported from the front lines of the devastation he witnessed much closer to home: Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten's losing battle with heroin. "I am not a preacher," Young once said of this cautionary tale, "but drugs killed a lot of great men." Whitten, 29, died of an overdose of arthritis medication and alcohol on the night he was fired from Crazy Horse, nine months after "The Needle and the Damage Done" was released.
"Love to Burn" (1990)
"You got to let your guard down / You better take a chance / A chance on love"
Sage advice to the lovelorn: Don't hold back when Cupid comes calling. You've got love to burn.
"Southern Man" (1970)
"Southern change gonna come at last / Now your crosses are burning fast"
Wielding his trusty 1953 Gibson Les Paul (aka Old Black) like a flamethrower, Young torched Dixie racism with this early tour de force. The blistering takedown caught fire on FM radio and ignited concert audiences, but good ol' boys like Lynyrd Skynyrd did a slow burn. The band's 1974 hit "Sweet Home Alabama" delivered a personal message to the Canadian immigrant. "Well, I hope Neil Young will remember," sang Ronnie Van Zant, "a Southern man don't need him around anyhow."
"There is a town in north Ontario / Dream comfort memory to spare / And in my mind I still need a place to go / All my changes were there"
Feeling helpless never felt so good. On an album called "Déjà Vu" (for which he joined CSN, forming the quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), the Canadian artist conjured up memories of his early childhood in the tiny town of Omemee. It was a "sleepy little place," he later said. "Life was real basic and simple…"
"This Note's For You" (1988)
"Ain't singin' for Pepsi / Ain't singin' for Coke / Ain't singin' for nobody / Makes me look like a joke"
If you want to accuse Neil Young of selling out, you better be talking about his concert tours. The snarky song title, of course, was inspired by Budweiser's omnipresent sales pitch, "This Bud's for you." But Young's lampoon of artists who allow their music to be turned into jingles cut even deeper in a hilarious video that featured commercial parodies and a Michael Jackson lookalike whose hair catches fire. "I've got the real thing, baby," Young sings. "Yeah, alright."
"Love and Only Love" (1990)
"Hate is everything you think it is / Love and only love will break it down"
Think of it as a searing companion piece to Elvis Costello's 1978 cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," and an electrifying riff on doe-eyed ballads like "What the World Needs Now Is Love."
"Harvest Moon" (1992)
"Because I'm still in love with you / I want to see you dance again /Because I'm still in love with you / On this harvest moon"
An irresistible invitation to slow-dance under a full moon. Like a master storyteller warming his hands by the campfire, Young settled into the nostalgic yarn with the patience of a whittler, carving out the title track of the CD that worked as a fitting sequel to 1972's "Harvest," his only No. 1 album.
"Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We're finally on our own"
It's still hard to believe the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War in 1970. But it's even more shocking to know that a large swath of the American public thought those kids had it coming. Performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the gut-wrenching protest song's rousing chorus, "Four dead in Ohio," lashed out against the horror and shame.
"A Man Needs a Maid" (1972)
"I was thinking that maybe I'd get a maid / Find a place nearby for her to stay / Just someone to keep my house clean / Fix my meals and go away"
Let's face it: Sometimes it's easier to opt for a business relationship.
"Shelter me from the powder and the finger/ Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger"
At 22, a country boy stares down the barrel of his own mortality and is gone in a flash. There's a white boat coming up the river for all of us. Take good aim.
"Cowgirl in the Sand" (1969)
"After all the sin we had / I was hopin' that we'd turn bad"
A 10-minute track about encounters with three different women perked ears with its whiff of promiscuity and what Rolling Stone described as "long, violent guitar jams." Young thinks of the rocker as a fever dream. He says he wrote it while stuck in bed with a 103-degree fever at his home in Topanga, California.
“Long May You Run” (1976)
"We've been through some things together / With trunks of memories still to come"
Collaborating with Stephen Stills after CSN&Y's acrimonious breakup, Young penned this ode to Mort, his first car. The 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse blew its transmission in his native Ontario in 1965, the year before Stills and Young formed Buffalo Springfield with Richie Furay.
"Heart of Gold" (1972)
"It's such a fine line / That keeps me searching for a heart of gold/ And I'm getting old"
Young's one and only No. 1 single, with backing vocals by James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt. "This song put me in the middle of the road," he observed in the liner notes for his 1977 retrospective, "Decade." "Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." Long may he run.
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Charitable celebrities on the front lines both locally and worldwide
Celebrities who lived out of cars, slept on park benches and took refuge in homeless shelters before—and in one case after—they became famous
He keeps on rockin' in the free world. Here, to celebrate Neil Young's birthday, are 20 of his greatest songs.