It’s been 50 years since Neil Young left Canada for California, but the rock legend hasn’t forgotten where he came from; Canada remains a place of fascination for the singer, be it in his music, lyrics or political causes. Hot on the heels of Young’s newest release, The Visitor, and ahead of tonight’s intimate concert in Omemee, Ont. (streaming live on CTV.ca, CTV GO and iHeartRadio.ca at 8 p.m. ET), we’re taking a tour across Canada to see how the country has influenced him and how he has influenced the country.
Young was born in Toronto but raised in this small town about two hours outside of the city. Omemee looms large in his legend: The 2012 documentary Journeys saw Young driving around his old neighbourhood and reminiscing about his childhood before driving down to Toronto for a two-night stand at Massey Hall. But it’s most famously the “town in North Ontario” the singer references on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Helpless.” It’s no wonder Young chose it as the setting for tonight’s homecoming.
Driving around aimlessly listening to classic rock is a rite of passage for pretty much every teen. No doubt Neil Young’s jams were in regular rotation in Joel Plaskett‘s car growing up in suburban Clayton Park, N.S. The singer-songwriter’s constant toggling between introspective folky and guitar-shredding rocker, not to mention a penchant for switching up his band with each new album, bears a striking resemblance to a certain Canadian legend. In fact, Plaskett paid tribute to this exact scenario on 2012’s “North Star” singing “We were listening to Neil Young/Man, you gotta shoot to kill/If you wanna get that heavy” just as the electric guitar goes into overdrive.
Giving a boost to young bands is nothing new for Neil Young; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder often refers to him as Uncle Neil. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that he took Montreal collective Arcade Fire under his wing. They once broke bread for (American) Thanksgiving after which Young imparted some sage advice. He also invited them to his Bridge School Benefit concert in 2011 and again in 2013. During the latter performance Young and the band performed a very Harvest-era sounding original tune that came to lead-singer Win Butler in a dream.
For better or worse, Kingston is best known for its prisons (sorry Queens), a rep that was probably not helped by Young’s inclusion of the lines “My brother went to prison/he’s in Kingston doing time/he got seven years for selling/what I’ve been smoking all my life,” on 1985’s “Time Off for Good Behaviour.” Still, Young can be forgiven; even the city’s favourite sons, The Tragically Hip, were inspired by the stories surrounding its correctional facilities, chronicling an escape from Millhaven on “38 Years Old” just four years later.
All respect to Drake, but before “the 6ix” there was “T.O.,” a still commonly used nickname for Toronto, where Young was born. The line “I’m up in T.O. keeping jive alive” comes in the second verse of “Ambulance Blues,” a song that, despite being separated by about 40 years, manages to capture the same sense of dark foreboding found in Drizzy’s famed Toronto sound.
Walking through Yorkville today, you’d be hard pressed to find evidence that the tony neighbourhood was once the hub of a folk scene that counted Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and yes, Neil Young, among its ranks. The Riverboat coffee house was a particularly popular spot, and Young graced its stage in February of 1969, just a month after dropping his self-titled debut. True to form, he eschewed cuts from said record in favour of then-unreleased tracks like “Sugar Mountain” establishing a pattern of dashed expectations that would mark his entire career. An official recording of the evening didn’t surface until 2009.
“Prairie Town” is technically a Randy Bachman tune, but Young lends his voice and considerable guitar chops to this ode to Winnipeg, where he spent his teenaged years following his parents’ divorce. Despite the local boosterism (Bachman was born there), the line “Portage and Main, 15 below” doesn’t exactly sell the city to outsiders.
The prairies’ large expanse have been a constant source of inspiration for Young. On 2005’s “Far from Home” he even sang “Bury me on the prairie/where the buffalo used to roam/where the Canada geese once filled the sky/and then I won’t be far from home.” So it should come as no surprise that bands from the region took note, giving Young’s multiple musical phases a prominent space in their cauldron of influences. Case in point: Regina’s Rah Rah covering Zuma deep-cut “Barstool Blues” live on a national radio broadcast.
Young’s influence on prairie rockers (and Rolling Stone cover stars) The Sheepdogs is hard to quantify; the main riff on early hit “I Don’t Know” was an interpolation of CSNY’s “Ohio,” and the quartet have frequently covered their hero, including classic “Down By the River.” Perhaps their greatest contribution, though, is wedding a Southern aesthetic Young once famously maligned to the singer-guitarist’s breezy Laurel Canyon-cool, thus ending this long-simmering international incident.
Fort McMurray, Alta.
As beloved as Young is, he’s certainly ruffled feathers in Canada’s oil patch over the last few years. The artist famously stumped against Fort McMurray’s oil sands, comparing them to Hiroshima. He doubled down last year when he went to bat for the people of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, who were protesting the Dakota access pipeline, with the song “Indian Givers,” which includes the lines “Big money going backwards and ripping the soil/Where graves are scattered and blood was boiled.” To be fair, Young has certainly put his money where his mouth is: He loves classic cars, not generally known for their fuel efficiency, and converted his 1959 Lincoln Continental into a hybrid.
Young isn’t one for showy displays of nationalism. Yet his appearance during the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games was an indication of the important role Canada continues to play in his life. The opening lines of the Stills & Young classic “Long May You Run” spoke volumes: “We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come…”