Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jun 10th 2009 4:20PM by Mike Doherty
They wore baseball caps, bandanas and cowboy hats. They sported Maple Leaf badges and flags. They came in from the suburbs, from Ottawa, from Indiana. On a gloriously sunny day in downtown Toronto, 1623 guitarists packed Yonge/Dundas Square with one common goal – to strum out Neil Young's three-chord classic 'Helpless' together.
The collective sound was like the world's largest campfire surrounded by a buzzing swarm of insects. The guitars weren't in tune with one another, but then again, technical perfection was never Young's bag. Perhaps that's why voters on the website of the Luminato Festival (which organized the strum-along) picked 'Helpless' over songs by Leonard Cohen, Bryan Adams, and others. Or maybe it was because the winning song would be dubbed "The Great Canadian Tune" and Neil Young is widely perceived to be the country's most enduring musical icon.
His influence on younger Canadian artists has been particularly strong as of late. Just this year, one can hear it in the Crazy Horse-esque rock numbers on Attack in Black's album 'Years (By One Thousand Fingertips),' in the stark, folky songs on Joel Plaskett's 'Three,' and in the quiver of Great Lake Swimmers frontman Tony Dekker's voice on 'Lost Channels.' More overtly, Jenn Grant includes a dreamy cover of 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' on 'Echoes,' and the duo Human Highway cribbed their very band name from a Neil Young song. As well, on June 10 a gaggle of Canadian musicians from different generations gather at Toronto's Massey Hall to run through the setlist of Young's celebrated 1971 concert in the same venue.
Certainly, the fact that Young retains his Canadian citizenship and plays here often keeps him in touch with the Great White North. Yet, he hasn't lived in Canada since 1966, is a fan of the San José Sharks; and while he once crooned about a "town in north Ontario" where Canada geese flew across the sky, nowadays he writes lyrics about "Floating along on the Rio Grande, Coca-Cola in my hand in the Promised Land" (on Young's newly released LP 'Fork in the Road').
So what is it that makes Neil Young seem intrinsically Canadian?
"I think it's a lack of flash and trappings," offers blues singer and guitarist Colin Linden, who's covering "Dance Dance Dance" at the Massey Hall tribute. "There's something really visceral about what he does. Even when he's playing a song with pretty chords, he's playing it like his life depended on it. There's something in that that I find is consistent with a lot of Canadian music. It is not trite – you play as if you plugged in a few block heaters."
Certainly Young has a reputation for thumbing his nose at anything vaguely flashy. A story about his appearance at the recording session for the 1985 all-star benefit song 'Tears Are Not Enough,' as related by Kevin Chong in his book 'Neil Young Nation,' is emblematic of Shakey's approach. "He looked like a lumberjack-pirate among the zipper-clad and poodle-headed Canadian talent," Chong wrote. "When the song's producer, David Foster, told him that his singing was flat, Neil replied, with characteristic assurance, 'That's my style, man!'"
It's telling that Young used the word "style" in this context. His approach is ostensibly artless, but there's always been an element of calculation to it. Allen Bates, Young's former bandmate in the mid-'60s surf-rock group the Squires, told biographer Jimmy McDonough, "When he was eighteen he appeared to be twenty-five. He took control and he knew what the hell he wanted to do."
No doubt the massive, exhaustively detailed box set 'Archives, Vol. 1,' released this month, is the work of someone with a fussy approach – it was in development for 20 years.
Perhaps, then, Young's vaunted honesty and authenticity – traits that are often said to characterize his work, and aren't at odds with being a control freak – mark him as being essentially Canadian?
Margo Timmins, who will be singing 'Love in Mind' and 'Don't Let it Bring You Down' at the tribute with her band Cowboy Junkies, isn't so sure. "You can name a million singer-songwriters down in the States that have that same sort of honesty and authenticity," she says. "You're just starting from a different point of honesty – the way you express things, what you expect from yourself, and what you think the world owes you. I don't think that Canadians think that anybody owes them anything – they just get what they can get, and they're excited! Americans in general, of course, have a level of expectation."
Young has been so hard-working and prolific in the face of many personal and professional setbacks, it's clear his career hasn't been marred by a sense of entitlement. If anything, he seems unimpressed by honours. He skipped Buffalo Springfield's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction and he hasn't said a word about winning the "Great Canadian Tune" contest. One might consider this modesty evidence of another supposed Canadian trait, but for every instance in which Young has shunned the limelight (e.g., refusing to be filmed at the Woodstock Festival), he's made a statement, or released a song, that has kept him in the news.
The Luminato Festival's news-baiting "Great Canadian Tune" event, meanwhile, was rather stereotypically, almost comically "Canadian," characterized by self-deprecation, sensitivity and resigned stoicism. The strum-along to 'Helpless' (whose title alone would disqualify it for voters seeking the "Great American Tune") was led by a band called The Heartbroken, and after being told they were short of a world record for guitarists playing the same song simultaneously by 179 people, the gathered musicians were consoled by an announcer: "What a fantastic opportunity to be able to try to break this record!"
One can only speculate what Young would have made of all this. Indeed, the event was missing a little of his irreverence. Margo Timmins recalls how Young has reacted to her being star-struck in his presence. "He's the way he is onstage – he's not an easy conversationalist. He doesn't put you at ease as you act like an idiot. He just sort of stares at you, like, 'Oh, you must be an idiot!' which only makes you act like more of an idiot. He's a nice guy. He's just not that fuzzy, warm, friendly kind of guy."
There's nothing apologetic about Young – he's adamant about how he presents himself and his music. As Colin Linden notes, Young's guitar playing is characterized by his "not being afraid to make mistakes – going for it in a certain way, and having a sound that speaks for itself."
Over the years, Young has successfully told his record label boss, David Geffen, to get stuffed after being hit with a $3.3 million lawsuit for making "unrepresentative" music. He's sung "Get off of that couch, turn off that MTV" (on 'This Note's For You') and won an MTV video award for his efforts. And he's toured the U.S. singing a song called 'Let's Impeach the President.'
Arguably, then, he's a Canadian icon because he represents exactly what many Canadians would like to be: an honest, hard-working person free of pretence, in tune with nature and unwilling to take crap from anyone.
That's why this Neil's for us.