Quite liking Neil Young is a strange position find yourself in. He usually elicits much stronger feelings than that. By way of example, the first time I met one of my AUK colleagues he was dressed in a rather fine jacket, the pattern of which was made up entirely of Neil Young album covers. On the other hand, another AUK colleague will at the very mention of Neil Young, pull the kind of face usually only brought about by accepting an invitation to try one of your kid’s sour sweets.
My own relationship with Neil Young was a slow burner; in fact it was quite a long time before it even smouldered, let alone burned. I probably have to fill in a bit of background here by way of context. I was a punk in the 70s immersing myself in the wonder and excitement of a Lurkers single, so Neil Young was nowhere near my radar. Wind forward a few years and I’m sharing a flat with a cool guitarist who listened to and played 60s psychedelic music and another guy who reminded me of Dylan, the magic roundabout character, in that his life appeared to consist almost exclusively of sitting around smoking dope and listening to what appeared to me to be incredibly dull music.
The house was full of music and my own tastes had turned towards what was then termed ‘cowpunk’. Bands like Rank and File and Jason and The Scorchers were where I was at. I recall one day putting on The Beat Farmers’ ‘Glad ‘n’ Greasy’ mini-album (remember those?). The six tracks kick off with an energetic cover of ‘Powderfinger’ which somehow managed to raise my flatmate off of his beanbag and to my door. He informed me that this was a cover version and he played me the original – and that folks, was my introduction to Neil Young! I began to take more interest, after all if he was good enough for Country Dick Montana to cover, then this Neil Young chap was surely worthy of further investigation. Interestingly, much of that “incredibly dull music” that my flatmate played at that time, now fills a large part of my own record collection. As well as Neil Young, he would listen to Michael Chapman, John Martyn, Richard Thompson etc.
Even by this time (mid-eighties) Neil Young had already built up a considerable catalogue of work. So where to start? I’d soon move out of that flat to take up residence in Scotland for four years, so raiding my friend’s collection wasn’t an option, although we did send one another tapes on a fairly regular basis. Most of my money was being spent by this time on records by the likes of REM, The Smiths and The Go-Betweens. Although I was still not a massive Neil Young fan, I was now at least fully aware of Shaky and he continued to seep into my tastes. However, it was almost another decade before I actually handed over any cash in return for a Neil Young album. That came with 1994’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’ which is an excellent record, but probably not an obvious starting point.
Since that initial purchase, I have over the years gradually built up a decent collection of Neil Young’s work. Mostly through second-hand purchases and lucky finds, such as the time when I bought around 25 albums from a guy at the local cricket club car boot sale for a quid each, including no less than seven Neil Young albums. Sadly, with the revival of interest in vinyl and the likes of eBay and Discogs, such finds at car boot sales or charity shops are now almost unheard of. It also means that because of the random way in which I’ve accumulated my Neil Young collection, there are big holes in it. You are far more likely to come across a cheap copy of ‘Trans’ than you are ‘Harvest’ for instance.
Discovering an artist, even one with the longevity of Neil Young, nowadays is much easier and quicker through access to streaming. It makes sense to start with the key works. You can plan and do it in a much more efficient way than relying on mates taping their records for you and by chance purchases. On the other hand, if a record doesn’t do it for you immediately, you are more likely to skip and move on, whereas if you’ve paid good money for it, you are more likely to give it that second and third listen that sometimes is required to build a relationship with it and fully appreciate it’s finer points.
Neil Young did not have instant appeal for me, that relationship did take time. I persisted partly because people who I respected kept telling me how good he was, which almost made me think that there must be something wrong or inadequate about me, because I couldn’t initially see it, but also because there was definitely something there that kept drawing me back.
I am not an expert on Neil Young and as such wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else what to listen to. All I would say is listen to a cross-section and give it time. Despite the gaps in my collection, I’ve listened to enough Neil Young over the last twenty-five years to come to the earth-shattering conclusion that yes – I quite like him.
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