There have been many icons since the phenomenon of Rock and Roll began back in the mid 50’s, from the un-restrained swagger of Elvis to the screaming wild persona of Little Richard, the faces and stories were part of the character and the music and as a complete package in the pre-music video world this was a sure fire recipe for success. Somewhere along the line the backroom stories and after hours activities started spilling out from under the velvet rope and these icons started getting judged not on their music or performance but instead by their appetites for destruction and bodily self abuse. Jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday can’t be discussed without their drug habits being mentioned within the first paragraph and almost recall their musical and cultural contributions as an afterthought.
Today musical legends such as Motorhead frontman Lemmy, Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Keith Moon and Ozzy Osborne are held up as pirates of the modern age, whose road to excess led them to the musical palace of wisdom. Although as the stories add up and the bar tabs get paid the musical credibility of the releases fall on the back burner and are ignored while another yarn is told about “the time when we all drank some poison and still played a show in front of a crowd of millions without anyone noticing…blah, blah”. It seems the true measure of a man in the world of rock and roll all depends on how much can you drink, snort, inject and swallow rather than what they are saying when they are stone cold sober.
Maybe it’s just a case of growing up and seeing your heroes fall by the wayside by drugs, drink or lack of imagination in their craft. But lets be honest, whilst figures such as Keith Moon sound great to go out for a drink with you’d almost certainly slam the door in their face if they arrived with a suitcase for a holiday. Upon closer inspection, and with the passage of time, the ‘live fast-die young’ brigade seems very silly and boring when you look at the bigger picture. For the purposes of this article, that bigger picture is Neil Young.
Formerly of Buffalo Springfield, member of super group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and superstar solo artist in his own right, with an impressive 33 studio albums under his belt, Neil Young is a survivor, a poet and someone who has never followed trends, but instead followed his own muse to the hilt. He is also the father of three children that each have medical impairments. His two sons Ben and Zeke both suffer from cerebral palsy and his daughter Amber Jean has epilepsy (like Young himself). In 1986 Young helped found the ‘Bridge School’ project, an educational organisation that helps children with severe physical and verbal disabilities. There are annual concerts where Young as well as some of the world’s biggest acts perform to help fund the organisation. During the 1980’s Neil Young and his wife Pegi raised their children and overcame the limitations and barriers laid in front of them. Although some help was taken, no publicity or star power was thrown at it. They pulled together as a family and for the outside world it was a closed shop.
Young’s career suffered in the 1980’s as a consequence, certainly from a critics point of view with many albums getting very poor reviews indeed. Albums such as ‘TRANS’ received critical attacks due to it’s synthesizer based arrangements and accompaniments. Calls that he’d “gone too far” and was “trying to be current and go electro” were ignored by Young himself, since in his eyes he was singing to his sons. Using vocal synthesizers and singing barely understood lyrics he was showing the public through this music “this is what it’s like trying to communicate to my own children”. It was very brave and some tracks such as ‘Sample and Hold’ and ‘Transformer Man’ have held up extremely well (especially the MTV Unplugged version which received cheers) and could be considered gems in his cannon. Other albums released in this period were done so to fulfil contractual obligations to his label only and were released to get himself out of his contract with David Geffen who by this time was suing Young for making “un-Neil Young sounding music”. Young carried on regardless, never losing sight of his ultimate aim to put his family first.
Anyone can shoot up heroin or drown in their own puke, it takes a real man to look after his family and weather the storm life throws at you, putting his own burgeoning career on hold to ensure the wellbeing of his children. It doesn’t take a strong heart to drink 40 shots of vodka and drown in your swimming pool, but it does take one to look after your disabled children, have a happy marriage and still stand up on stage night after night, sending 20,000 people home happy after you’ve played two hours of their favourite music. For men out there looking for a hero and a role model in rock and roll I’d point you in Neil Young’s direction.
Do you have a personal icon who deserves to be included in our REAL HEROES series? Email a maximum of 800 words explaining why they are an inspiration to you (and to all men) to firstname.lastname@example.org