Literally the Best Thing Ever: Neil Young

His music is so much loneliness, which is something I understand.

Illustration by Marjainez

Illustration by Marjainez

I feel most like myself when I am alone and making wishes. Being young is a whole lot of that, but sometimes I get tangled in busy things and anxious breathing and forget what my comfort zone is: aloneness and longing. When I need to be reminded, I listen to Neil Young. He’s the Canadian-born symbol of my personal Americana, where part of me believes I’ll have my own Broken Arrow Ranch someday, where home means quiet and fame is a farce.

When I was 12, I was given the thing I most wanted for Christmas: a record player, plus whatever albums my dad’s side of the family thought I should start with. A ragged copy of Neil Young’s 1972 album Harvest was among the hand-me-downs from my aunts’ college days, and after a few listens it became the only one that mattered. “Heart of Gold,” a candid song about being alone and yearning to connect with another person, made me feel, somewhat ironically, less alone. “Keep me searching for a heart of gold…and I’m getting old,” Neil sings, but he doesn’t sound bitter about not having found it yet; he sounds weary from his search, but with a genuine (if tattered) faith in humanity. The song “Alabama” taught me that “the devil fools with the best-made plans,” and that truth got me through the next few tumultuous years of my life.

I think I was in 11th grade when I bought my own copy of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969), Neil’s first album with his backing band Crazy Horse. Here were even more songs that were astonishingly similar to my feelings, as enigmatic and intensely personal as Neil’s lyrics are. The title track is a hymn of homesickness that I regularly return to. Although I would never describe my literal home as “cool and breezy,” that’s how I think of my mental fortress of solitude—and how I hope I might describe a future physical dwelling where I might be able to finally relax. I burned a copy of a friend’s Live at Massey Hall CD and stashed it in my mom’s glove compartment to turn every grocery run into a deeply emotional experience. In high school I was pretty good about going to bed before I’d regret it in the morning, but those nights when I failed, the YouTube search bar plus “neil young demo rare” was usually to blame. “Everybody’s Alone” is one of my favorite songs that I found that way. I presented “Love in Mind” in theology class at my Catholic high school when we had an assignment to bring in something we thought we could use as a prayer. I really fell in love, or something. Fell into understanding, maybe.

Neil Young’s music is so much loneliness, which is something I understand. Being young is a whole lot of that, too, and that’s what makes me feel at home in his songs. Just like me, Neil does know happiness: He has been in love, achieved world fame, bought a ranch, shared it with dogs. Still, no matter where he is in life, his art still lives in longing. Like me, he finds comfort in aloneness.

There’s a lyric in the song “On the Beach” (from the 1974 album of the same name) that goes: “I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day.” The first time I heard it I was going through that overwhelming period of life called teenagerhood, and I related so hard that it just about knocked me over. I know I need other people, and that some part of me always longs for belonging, validation, closeness, congratulations. But there’s still nowhere more comfortable to me than solitude. The crowd of people is everything that I think I want, but I always need an escape hatch to somewhere I can be alone and hide. Being alone breeds longing, but pining for something always feels better to me than striving for it does. Alone time gives me space to wallow in longing, which is my natural habitat. I think Neil feels the same way: “Even when I’m happy,” he once said in an interview, “I write about being lonesome.”

Four summers ago I checked Jimmy McDonough’s 2003 Neil Young biography out from the library. I had read John Lennon’s the summer before, and it had filled in so many blanks about the era and the life that his songs came from. I got to see the musical legend in a real-life context, to understand how his work intertwined with his fame, his image, his childhood, his activism. I started to hear his music as a response to the world he lived in, and my appreciation for it was deepened and enhanced. I wanted to have that same experience with Neil Young and his music. For so many years his songs were like lullabies to me, security blankets I curled up with when I needed soothing—but I knew nothing about what they were supposed to “mean.” As I got older and craved understanding more than comfort, I started to wonder what he meant when he told us to “look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s” in “After the Gold Rush.” When he sang, “Don’t let it get you down—it’s only castles burning,” I wondered what his burning castles were. There were more than a few times in life when I heard myself in “Cowgirl In the Sand”, but differently each time—whether it was turning 18 and realizing the power that was being “old enough now to change [my] name,” or growing out of childhood to understand what it was “to be a woman and to be turned down,” or being 15 and awkward and hoping I was a diamond in the rough, or a “ruby in the dust.” But I wanted to know: Who was this cowgirl really? Who was she to Neil?

I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to close the book, but I never got farther than the first few chapters. Not because it wasn’t well-written or -researched, but because I realized that unlike with John Lennon, I felt too close to Neil already. Biographical facts weren’t going to get me any closer; I already understood his heart. Actually, that’s not quite right—I don’t know Neil Young at all, but his music makes me understand myself. Knowing more about him isn’t the point.

I’m an analytical person; when I feel something, my brain wiggles around trying to objectify, rationalize, and explain it so I can make sense of it. This is how, by and large, I understand the world…but not all of it. The people and things I find the most magical are the ones that I allow to remain mysteries to me. I let myself love them without trying to figure them out, because I think any attempt at analysis would unravel the magic threads that connect me to them. Neil is exactly this to me. There is something about his music that I can’t explain, a connection that I can’t quantify with answers and explanations. Neil escapes the churning gears of my brain, and I follow him, “out of my mind, through the keyhole in an open door, happy to find that I don’t know what I’m smiling for.” ♦


  • Unicorn Heels June 24th, 2013 11:13 PM


    I was just listening to Live Rust. Seriously.

    How did that happen. How. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

    • Abby June 25th, 2013 7:42 AM

      Tavi lives under your bed, remember?

  • whatnaomiloves June 25th, 2013 12:17 AM

    Incredible, incredible, INCREDIBLE.

  • lilyrose June 25th, 2013 12:54 AM

    This speaks to me so so much

  • 403harvest June 25th, 2013 3:38 AM

    journey through the past is probably the best thing about love and longing that i’ve ever heard…

    ‘when the winter rains
    come pourin down
    on that new home of mine,
    will you think of me
    and wonder if I’m fine?
    will your restless heart
    come back to mine
    on a journey thru the past.
    will I still be in your eyes
    and on your mind?
    now I’m going back to Canada
    on a journey thru the past..’

    love neil!

    • Dylan June 25th, 2013 1:02 PM

      Oh boy. It’s a gem.

      • 403harvest June 26th, 2013 4:03 AM

        i just left back home to canada after a serious relationship overseas and after writing (and throwing out) a whole bunch of ideas for a goodbye letter, decided that these lyrics were the only way i could fully address how i felt… such a gem!

  • AliceS June 25th, 2013 5:44 AM

    Love him so much. And the illustration is very very cute.

  • Sophie ❤ June 25th, 2013 7:13 AM

    Amazing. That’s all I can say.

  • thenoisythinker June 25th, 2013 7:37 AM

    I really love this. And him too. Ugh he is amazing.

  • Lea June 25th, 2013 7:50 AM

    Great illustration :)

  • FlowerandtheVine June 25th, 2013 9:40 AM

    This is so amazing! I’ve spent many nights listening to Neil sing “I Believe in You” or “Expecting to Fly” with tears streaming down my face. He is an amazing writer.

  • opium-kisses June 25th, 2013 10:01 AM

    I love Neil Young, his music for me brings back memories of a ridiculous crush I had on a boy in my year who loved Neil Young and would impress the other girls by playing different songs of his on guitar. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have discovered Neil’s music which I absolutely ADORE <3

  • Maryse89 June 25th, 2013 10:41 AM

    my last name is Young, and when I was a kid my parents used to tell me that Neil Young was my distant cousin/uncle, and I really believed it until I was maybe 7 or 8! (They also told me this about Angus Young from AC DC, which was a lot scarier)

    Harvest Moon had just come out and was in heavy rotation in my house when I was a toddler and now it’s completely inseparable from my earliest memories…and my dad used to play ‘Down By the River’ all the time on guitar too…

    god i love Neil Young! I wish he really were my uncle…

  • Mary the freak June 25th, 2013 11:11 AM

    neil young is so so so awesome<33 his music seems to put all angstiness, all loneliness, but also luck and summertime in one song.

  • M.Rose June 25th, 2013 11:56 AM

    Neil Young is the best! So much love for this.

  • Jacklyn June 25th, 2013 4:01 PM

    This is soooooo perfect for this month’s theme! Neil Young is just perfect in general. This is exactly what I needed to start my summer.

  • megantron June 25th, 2013 4:11 PM

    “He’s the Canadian-born symbol of my personal Americana…”

    Yes, THIS. Neil Young is my favorite Canadian-I-think-of-as-American.

  • lollafox June 25th, 2013 8:51 PM

    My dad met Neil Young at a hockey game and had a chat with him. My dad told him he saw him live in Tasmania and Neil knew the exact date and venue off the top of his head! Apparently he’s a very down-to-earth guy. I’m a big fan.

    • Dylan June 26th, 2013 1:21 PM

      A CHAT, just a light chat at a hockey match. No big!

      I’d cry.

  • Joyce June 26th, 2013 1:37 AM

    yes, yes, Yes, YES

  • Naomi Morris June 26th, 2013 5:45 PM

    this is so special, i love this dylan

  • ringodethstarr June 27th, 2013 9:32 AM

    this is such a weird coincidence
    perfect song at the perfect moment
    this srsly makes me wanna cry even more