In a rare interview ahead of his special recognition at the Grammys this month, Peter Howell talks to the music legend Neil Young. But which incarnation of the veteran performer will he talk to? Neil Young is being a chameleon again. He swears to me he's not the guy who is supposed to attend a big event in his honour in his home town of Toronto. It must be some other Neil Young they're talking about.
"This is the first time I ever heard I was supposed to be there," he growls. "I didn't know I was a scheduled event." I should have expected this, and so should the Grammy Awards officials, who are planning their own celebration of the 64-year-old rock icon's life and music in Los Angeles this month. Young has never been exactly the same person each time I've met him. Evading precise definition has been his modus operandi - and perhaps his safety valve - for nearly a half century, as any rock fan could tell you.
They call his friend Bob Dylan mercurial. But Dylan's identity switches have nothing on Young's, whose personalities change like the weather. He threatened to smash his guitar over the head of a filmmaker at the original Woodstock festival in 1969 if a camera was aimed at him, yet he once obligingly suggested that I pose with him and other rock critics for a photo backstage at a concert. I've encountered his quicksilver personality many times before, most recently when he was supposed to be performing in Toronto at last September's film festival, where he was billed as a major draw to present his new concert film, Neil Young Trunk Show. Instead he's "gone fishin'" on his ranch near San Francisco, as if he doesn't have a care in the world.
I tell him he's supposed to be presenting his new film alongside the director Jonathan Demme and also playing a few songs for the fans. He denies all knowledge of it. Not his fault. He's totally Zen about it, and not the least bit apologetic. This news comes as a shock to me and also to the people of Toronto. The show has been confirmed and publicised for weeks. Young has a manager, a publicist and presumably a calendar.
But on reflection, it's entirely in keeping with his personality. On one occasion when I was flying to California to interview him, he made me change my flight reservations seven times because he kept changing his mind about where and when the interview would happen. I eventually ended up renting a car at the San Francisco airport, then driving winding roads for what seemed like hours to a hilltop restaurant near his ranch. He was gracious but reserved. He seemed lost in thought as he sat eating pasta during the interview, hiding behind sunglasses the whole time.
At other encounters, such as at the Sundance Film Festival a few years ago, he's been the epitome of hospitality. "C'mon in!" he said, motioning me to sit down as if I was a long-lost friend. So a word of warning, then, to the people at the Grammys: you just never know which Neil Young you're going to get. He is nominated for two prizes this year; Best Solo Rock Vocal performance, for the title track of his Fork In The Road album; and Best Boxed Set for the first volume of his exhaustive Neil Young Archives collection, both released last year.
Two days before the Grammys ceremony, which takes place on January 31, he'll be feted as MusiCares' Person of the Year at a gala dinner and concert honouring his many years of charitable works. Fellow musicians scheduled to perform tunes from Young's mammoth back catalogue that night include Elton John, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, kd lang, Jackson Browne, Norah Jones, John Mellencamp and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The organisation is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out which Neil Young they're saluting, because the man is simply indefinable. He's channelled his plaintive tenor yelp and guitar fire to many different personas throughout his nearly 50-year career: the protest rocker (including band stints with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash), the earnest folky (Harvest, After The Gold Rush), the doom prophet (On The Beach, Tonight's The Night), the rockabilly nostalgist (Everybody's Rockin'), the electronic wizard (Trans), the anti-capitalist ranter (This Note's For You), the contented family man (Harvest Moon), the grunge god (Arc/Weld, Mirror Ball), the country squire (Prairie Wind), the agitprop filmmaker (Greendale, Human Highway) and now his current incarnation as a humble roadshow entertainer.
In a rare interview, Young chuckles when asked about the many and varied phases of his career, as if he's an impressionist painter or something. He insists he doesn't notice the dividing lines, and doesn't like to put on airs about being an artiste. "Only in retrospect can I see where I've been, the way things fit together," he says, speaking at his 1,500-acre family ranch in La Honda, near the Santa Cruz mountains, about an hour north of San Francisco.
"It always comes as a surprise to look back at it. I think I'm pretty focused on what I'm doing and then suddenly what I'm dong changes to something else." Young may be the only rock star ever to have been sued by his record company for failing to be himself, as happened during an extended experimental phase in the 1980s when his label, Geffen, and label boss David Geffen were convinced Young was deliberately sabotaging his own image.
The lawsuit failed, to nobody's surprise. Even Bob Dylan, no slouch himself in the quick-change department, once admitted to being confused while listening to his pal Neil. He sang about it in his 1997 song Highlands: "I'm listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound Someone's always yellin', 'Turn him down' Feel like I'm driftin', driftin' from scene to scene I'm wondering what in the devil could it all possibly mean."
Young has been reinventing himself almost since his birth in Toronto on November 12, 1945, the son of Scott and Edna "Rassy" Young. There were brains in the family - his mother was a former TV quiz show panellist, and his father a newspaper sportswriter who wrote 45 books before his death in 2005. It was Scott Young who got Neil started down the path that would define his life when he gave his teenage son a ukulele for Christmas. 1958.
Young still laughs at the memory of the gift: "I didn't know what to do with it, but he said, 'You might need this sometime.'"
Shortly after that, Young's parents split up, and he moved to Winnipeg with his mother. Perhaps it was the uke that kept him going during a difficult childhood. He overcame more than his share of adversities, surviving diabetes, epilepsy, polio and his parents' divorce in 1961.
Once in Winnipeg, Young switched from the uke to the banjo and guitar and began playing in a succession of bands. The bands were a stronger draw than the classroom, and he eventually dropped out of high school to focus on the band he'd put together, Neil Young and The Squires.
Young has lived full time in northern California since the 1970s, having first moved to Los Angeles in 1966 for a three-year stint with Buffalo Springfield (joining his friend Stephen Stills, later his band mate in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and a solo recording career that began with the release of the eponymous album Neil Young in 1968. He still retains his Canadian citizenship, though, and he's proud of it.
It may seem at times as if Young takes his work as casually as his attire. More often than not, he's in jeans and untucked plaid shirt, his unruly, steel-grey hair, now just a memory of its youthful length, is untouched by comb or brush and the sharp western hat he often wears is now used more to provide warmth rather than to make a fashion statement.
The look hides a very tidy and determined mind that has been undimmed by age or a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 2005. Microscopic surgery saved his life. "They did an excellent job," Young says of his doctors, with a palpable sense of relief. "They stopped it from doing anything to me. They caught it and they tricked it."
Unlike many rock musicians of his vintage, who have quelled the anger of their youth, he still feels the same fire of societal outrage as when he wrote the anti-war classic Ohio in 1970.
In 2006, he was still raging against the war machine (and then US president George W Bush) with the album Living With War, reportedly bashed out in three days, where he damned the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and called for Bush's impeachment.
"It's a reaction to what's going on, you know?" he says, his reedy voice revealing a hint of anger. "I try to be aware of what it is I'm doing and to sing songs that mean as much to me as possible every time I open my mouth."
One thing that means the world to him is the charitable work he does, all with little fanfare. He is mindful of the toll that disease takes on families: both his sons, Zeke and Ben, have cerebral palsy, and his daughter, Amber, has epilepsy, like him. (Zeke, now in his late 30s, is Young's first son, born when he was living with the late actress Carrie Snodgress. Ben and Amber are the children Young had with Pegi, his wife since 1978.)
Difficulties in getting adequate schooling for the boys led Pegi and others to co-found The Bridge School in the San Francisco Bay area, devoted to helping children with complex communication needs grow and learn. But the dream of a special nurturing place for children with severe disabilities might have died without a concert on October 13, 1986, given by Young and his friends that raised the money to get The Bridge School started. The Bridge School Benefit Concert is now an annual event, where rock's biggest names show up to help out.
Young has also long been an advocate for the environment and small farmers, co-founding the Farm Aid benefit concert, now in its 25th year.
Considering all he does and the many causes he supports, does Young feel that all his songs have to have a message or a weight to them?
"Well, only to me," he replies. "I really want them to be relevant to me, so when I'm singing them, they're real. That's just the way it is."
Lately, however, he's been happy just to get out on the road and perform tunes from his recent Fork In The Road album, and from his decades of hits, including Heart Of Gold, Helpless, The Needle And The Damage Done and Rockin' In The Free World.
He travels with trusted bandmates, including Pegi, who is also a backing singer. Lately, he's also toured with Demme, for whose 1994 film Philadelphia Young wrote the Oscar-nominated title song. They reunited to make Neil Young: Heart Of Gold, a 2006 concert film chronicling a show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, celebrating his complete recovery after his brain surgery.
They are together again on the film Neil Young Trunk Show that further illustrates Young's uncanny ability to be both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It will be released on DVD some time in 2010.
"It really is a collection of stuff, a trunk load of music and songs and stuff. That's how I look at it," Young says, explaining the title.
Young never did show in Toronto to present Trunk Show with Demme and to perform innthe city's main square.
He was also a no-show at a tribute concert to him at Toronto's Massey Hall last June, honouring a famous 1971 gig there that helped launch his solo career.
Young says he likes performing at tributes for other people - he was an enthusiastic star at the 1976 Last Waltz for The Band and the 1992 Bobfest for Bob Dylan - but he's uncomfortable about sitting and listening to others sing his tunes in his honour.
"It's cool, but it would be very uncomfortable for me, I think."
So it must have taken quite the sales pitch to get him to agree to attend the MusiCares event this month, because it will be all about Young.
What he'd really like to do is just keep on rocking, and for as long as he can keep standing.
He keeps his show fresh by shaking up his set lists, unlike many other classic rockers who prefer to be live jukebox versions of their catalogues.
"Eventually you start to get sick of yourself doing the same thing over and over again like a machine," Young says.
"The road is dangerous that way. I've got a lot of songs, so I kept bringing them in and trying them out. On my last tour I did a lot of different songs and it keeps changing. It's not always going to be like that."
He has never tired of any of his songs, despite having played some of them for more than 40 years. "I don't have any songs that I hate. You don't hate your children; you don't hate your friends."
He doesn't really have a favourite from among his own songs, which are often covered by other artists. His preferences change from day to day and year to year.
Right now he's grooving to Hold Back The Tears, a forgotten tune from his 1977 American Stars 'N' Bars album.
"I just found it the other day searching around for stuff and to me right now, that's my favourite thing of mine that I've heard. But that will fade away and something else will come along. Eventually. Probably shortly."
Remarkably, Young still sounds pretty much as he did in the 1960s. His voice is as strong as ever - unlike that of his friend Dylan - and his guitar playing could still blow 20-year-old punks off the stage. "Well, I work out a little bit," he says."I do a lot of things to stay in shape. I use the [exercise] machines every once in a while. I just try to keep doing things. I like to swim. I like to move around."
He doesn't do anything special to keep his distinctive voice in shape. "It's different. It's still loud and aggravating. If I want to do that- it's always around, to tell you the truth."
One thing that won't be holding him back is his age. He doesn't see reaching the age of 65, which he'll do in November, as any reason for slowing down.
"I could do this indefinitely. Willie [Nelson] is over 70. He's out there doing it, so we'll just see what happens with me. Music is good that way. So we'll see what happens."
He pauses for a second, and then concludes: "When you don't see me any more, you'll know I've stopped caring about it."
With dozens of albums made in a career spanning nearly 50 years, a list of Young's "best work" is no easy task. But most Young fans will agree that these discs, both solo projects and collaborations, deserve room in any serious collection. The 1977 triple album Decade is a superlative compilation of Young's output from 1966-76, chosen by the man himself.
Buffalo Springfield Again (1967) This landmark folk-rock album from Young's short-lived, tumultuous project with Stephen Stills captures the psychedelic sound and energy of that remarkable year. Standout tracks: Broken Arrow, Expecting To Fly, and Mr Soul, a Stones-influenced track that Young claims he wrote in five minutes. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) People tend to think of Young as a solo act, yet often his accomplishments owe a debt to the power and personalities of his various bands. None more so than Crazy Horse, a noise-loving group of Californian rockers who would (and still do) help Young create that raw, stripped down sound that so enamoured the grunge bands of the 1990s. Standout tracks: Cinnamon Girl, Down By The River. Déjà Vu (1970) Young never does anything by half. Invited by Stephen Stills to join the supergroup Stills had formed with Graham Nash (ex-Hollies) and David Crosby (ex-Byrds), Young insisted on adding his name to the roster like a partner in a law firm. He was far from a silent partner, giving Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young a needed rock edge and contemporary relevance. Standout track: Young's Helpless, a heartbreaking memory of his youth and Canadian homeland. After The Gold Rush (1970) Written and recorded about the same time he was working with Crosby, Stills & Nash on Déjà Vu, Young proved his solo career was also flourishing. It's a stark masterpiece of disillusion with romantic love and his adopted country, America. Standout tracks: Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Southern Man. Harvest (1972) A classic of Seventies rock with its illusion-shattering laments about love, drugs and racism, this is the record that made Young a global star and gave him his only No 1 single, Heart Of Gold. Ever the contrarian, he now rarely plays the song in concert, complaining it makes him sound too mainstream. Standout tracks: Heart Of Gold, Old Man, The Needle and The Damage Done. Tonight's The Night (1975) Recorded in 1973, when Young was still riding high with his Harvest breakthrough, yet shot through with gloom from beginning to end. Much of it has to do with his despair over the heroin-overdose death of Danny Whitten, his Crazy Horse singer/guitarist and friend. The album was so unlike Young's earlier material, record company Reprise sat on it for two years, hoping he'd lighten up. He didn't. Standout track: Tonight's The Night. Rust Never Sleeps (1979) A mostly live album, reportedly named after an advert for a rust-inhibiting oil product (of all things), this finds Young in top raging form with his Crazy Horse stalwarts, knocking out tunes both harsh and sweet that showcase his split personality as a concert performer. Standout tracks: Powderfinger, Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black). Ragged Glory (1990) Reuniting once again with Crazy Horse, Young bids farewell to his Eighties experimentation (and misfires) with a roof-rattling collection of tunes that remind everybody how good these guys are live. Standout tracks: Country Home and White Line, originally written and performed live in the 1970s. Prairie Wind (2005) Recorded in Nashville and marking the start of his seventh decade of life and his brush with death, it sounds like Young is finally ready to mellow out and return to the more folk-based music of his early days. Tunes like This Old Guitar and He Was The King (an ode to Elvis) suggest a yearning for simpler times. Don't bet on it, though - the one constant with Young is constant change. Standout tracks: The Painter, When God Made Me. * Peter Howell