Me and Neil

There was a time from around 1971 to … well … now, I guess, when I was rather obsessed with a singer/songwriter from our great neighbor-nation to the north. Some who knew me in the seventies—I grew more discreet over the years—might say that ‘obsessed’ is perhaps an understatement. I wouldn’t argue. It is likely that those who were around me, when I was still in the early stages of all this, have heard or seen me sing, quote, praise, imitate, dress like, act like, listen to over and over and over again and altogether become one with a tall stringy guy who sang in a high pitched, nasal and often irritating voice to many—my mother, for example—a guy whose themes and music ranged from soft and nostalgic to country to pure hippy drug-fueled, fantastical, wild-eyed ecstasy, especially when he went electric unleashing a fierce anger that often belied the poetic lyrics underneath. I am speaking, of course, about one Neil Percival Young; he of the Mynah Birds, The Squires, Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, and various incarnations with Crazy Horse, The Stray Gators, The Ducks, The Bluenotes and any number of other combos playing behind him.

neil young

Neil and I became an item from the first time After the Gold Rush hit the turntable at a party in a friend’s basement in one of the small south shore towns hugging Sunrise Highway in Nassau County, Long Island, where I lived and roamed. I remember that party not only for the intro to Neil Young but also the vision of beautiful Anne Squires looking at me across the room and marveling, I like to think, at the sophistication of my taste, the penetrating erudition that she saw written on my face, and I, of course, didn’t want to dispel any of that so I simply kept my mouth shut and puffed the joint that was being passed around the room, emoting with the music playing deep within my young, awkward, Anne Squires preoccupied soul.

Neil and l lasted far longer than did Anne and I. And we have been together now, in our own unique way, ever since. Sure, there were some disappointments. If you are a Neil Young fan, you know the albums. But we don’t dwell on them. We are too simpatico to let them divide us on this weird trip we embarked upon together. Together might be pushing things. There were two trips. His and mine. Our paths never crossed. We never met.

Well, that’s not entirely true either. This one time after attending his show at Queens College, I believe it was the Tonight’s the Night tour, I distinctly remember—which is amazing, given the prep work I did to ready myself for the show—a fake palm tree up on there on the stage with him so it could have been the On the Beach tour but I am as clear now as I was toasted then that he did a remarkable set of “Albuquerque,” “Roll Another Number,” “Tired Eyes” and “World on a String” one after the other which screams Tonight’s the Night—right?—and, oh man, Nils Lofgren was up there with him which is this whole other story but I met him and his band a year or so later as I waited on them at a Holiday Inn on Old Country Road in Westbury. Nils was wearing a black and white t-shirt that read “Tonight’s the Night”—how cool is that?—and one of the band members asked me if I could round up a team to play them in a game of basketball which I did. They were good and that was a blast and Nils gave me and my buddies free tickets to his show at My Father’s Place in Roslyn after which we followed them all back to the hotel and, in the lobby, Nils Lofgren (!) says to me, in response to my question about what is next up for the evening, “I’m going to bed, man. I suggest you do the same.” As you can imagine, I was beside myself.

But I was saying something about Neil, right? Oh, yeah, Queens College after his show, he—Neil Young, that is—walks right past me and the other five million guys wearing flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up over arm-length thermal waffle weaved undershirts, bleached out, ravaged, patched jeans and construction boots that never touched a construction site as he made his way to the limo in the parking lot under the auditorium. It was obvious that he ignored me much differently than he did the others. There was some intense mega-telepathy going on between us though that ended lickety-split when my buddy, John, a rather unpredictable companion, shouted out something crude and might have actually thrown a bottle and a bodyguard moved in our direction cratering one hell of an opportunity for Neil and me to finally connect. Still and all, I count it as a meeting. I am sure he does too.

Around that time, my brother Bill and I were staying with my sister, Susan, and brother-in-law, Larry, in a spare bedroom up a long, dark narrow staircase in their new home in Merrick. Larry – we called him Mr. Perfect back then – was putting in 5000 hours a week at his job at Citibank and going to grad school at night and loving my sister with whatever hours were left. I really don’t know what either of them were thinking given the unambiguous lifestyle signals that Bill and I were sending out at that time. Larry has voiced similar comments in the years since. It was pretty damned cool of them. I was hard at work, myself, overachieving as a porter at the Lerner’s Store in Roosevelt Field (where I met my wife of 40 years and still going I might add). I was always goal focused and had set my sights on the world record for the number of continuous days a person could go without sleep though I was unaware of the stupid rule prohibiting any chemical aids which was the whole freakin’ point of the thing I thought. But anyway, back to Larry and the life-size cardboard replica of Neil Young holding his guitar – did I mention this? – that I had convinced the manager of a local record shop to give me after much begging and cajoling on my part and perhaps sweetened with an exchange of an illicit substance of some kind or other. I put ‘Neil’ at the top of the stairs while I considered a more proper, permanent place for him in the room Bill and I had painted blood red and black—I think we owe Sue and Larry a dinner or something as I think about all this—and Larry came home one night around a zillion o’clock and for some reason opened the door to the stairs only to see a huge silhouette of Neil Young standing at the top which pretty much raised his heart rate a bit though he survived (as did this story within my family) and I believe this might have been one of those times when he discussed more specific terms of this living arrangement behind closed doors with my sister who kinda informed me to perhaps get rid of the cardboard Neil which I did much to my regret to this very day. I think Larry was considering other options for me as well. Let’s not even bring up what I did to his brand-new Volvo earlier that year.

But yeah, I was big time into Neil. Someone once told me his lyrics were insipid, adolescent gibberish and his slashing guitar style did not invite closer scrutiny for the mastery of the phrasing and picking and I replied with my usual, unflappable reserve, ‘what the f*** do you know? Neil Young is god!’ (with apologies to Eric Clapton and, oh yeah, God). I mean, the guy who said that was a total jerk. I could tell you other stories about him but I don’t like to digress. Suffice it to say that anyone who writes “Powderfinger,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane” is exempt from any and all criticism for all time and should probably be president though that is a hallowed office and they would never let just any schmuck in. All these years later I never play those songs, those indisputable masterpieces, below max volume and my lovely wife tells me that she and the neighbors and all the dogs on the street know I am homeward bound when I am about a mile away. Especially if I am playing “Like a Hurricane,” which I often am.

This other guy told me that he once worked in a record store in Santa Cruz which Neil would occasionally visit and that he, Neil, would walk around and peruse the bins, never saying a word, with his head down, occasionally looking up and smiling in a really cool way. I tried doing that for a year or so and had it pretty much perfected by my smoke-filled sophomore year at SUNY Stony Brook where I took an advanced literature class with this absolutely lovely Jewish girl in flowing skirts and large hoop earrings and nary a bra in sight who told me once that she really ‘digged how [I] never say anything.’ I was certain that we were going to get…well…intimate, but then she told me that her parents wouldn’t let her date Catholics. How did that even come up? Damned weed is like truth serum.

Back to Neil and me. We were so alike. He’s about 6’3” or something, kinda frail, with long soft black hair, dark mournful eyes, and a permanent, chiseled scowl. I was 5’8”, scrawny with frizzy red hair that stuck out at right angles so that I looked like the spawn of Bozo the Clown and The Flying Nun and had a cherubic freckle faced grin, blue eyes and was working on the scowl thing which often left me with a headache. You could hardly tell us apart.

I moved out west to Oregon in the mid-seventies. Did you know that Clark Gable used to be a tie salesman at the Meier & Frank store in Portland? I am tempted to tell you about this but like I said earlier, I like to tell a tight story and not digress. I think of myself as Hemingway-like but my sentences are longer and I use more commas. And I haven’t published a novel either. I am so tempted to tell you about all this but discipline is my middle name so I won’t. Though I do feel I should mention that discipline is not really my middle name. I don’t actually have a middle name. My Catholic Confirmation name is Martin. I told you earlier that I was Catholic and how that admission fecked up a possible romp with the girl in the flowing dress who dug my silence. I mean I was so freakin’ Neil Young and she dug me and then boom I tell her I am a Catholic and it is back to the Playboys. Neil would not have made that mistake.

I brought him with me to Oregon, of course, and pretty much wore out the needle on my roommate’s turntable. He was cool about it all and even said to me once, ‘you know, I really liked Neil Young till I met you.’ I am not sure what he meant by that but I think it was jealousy. He knew he could never match the relationship that I had built with ol’ Neil Percival. He probably didn’t even know that Neil’s middle name was Percival. The guy was not the brightest bulb in the lamp shop. He once told me that he didn’t think that civilization, as we know it, was forever cursed and diminished when Neil Diamond played at the Last Waltz. I moved out soon after. How can anyone live with someone who thinks like that? That’s just perverted.

The years passed. I threw away childish things. Actually, I hid them out of sight. It was either that or I would be eating canned mushrooms and sliced onions sautéed in margarine while I read myself asleep alone for the rest of my life as Kyle, lovely Kyle, my future wife who was then my lovely girlfriend, told me to … well, grow up or it wasn’t happening with her. This was no easy task in Eugene, Oregon, which was basically a country club for people who had absolutely no plan, living out their meandering lives on the sidewalk with their guitar cases open for tips while playing “Heart of Gold” and “Truckin’”. The flannel shirt and thermal undershirt, the worn jeans, the construction boots all became less a daily uniform than an occasional outfit for appropriate venues like the Renaissance Fair or the odd concert. And, of course, it was de rigueur when Neil came to town.

I let other albums onto my turntable: Van the Man, Leonard Cohen, Springsteen, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams and have been really digging a whole slew of other artists these days like the Sadies, the Drive By Truckers, Robert Earl Keen, Chris Knight. I love classical music and opera. I even tried some jazz and I dig it. I love them all. But none of them equal the rush of adrenaline, none of them stop me in my tracks like those moments when the steel strings start snapping at the beginning of “Alabama” or when I hear Neil’s voice call out ‘Look out mama, there’s a white boat coming down the river….’ Me and Neil go way back and I will never let him go. I will continue to crank him up and watch the passengers in the cars near me at a red light in Lake Oswego roll up the windows. Or roll them down, the driver looking sideways at me with a smile and nodding.

The other night a Beatle’s song came on Pandora and I asked my daughter, Julia, 26 years old, if she could name who was playing. She paused and shrugged. ‘Bob Dylan?’ I hurt inside. But I know this: neither she nor my son, Conor, would ever get it wrong if it was Neil. I raised those kids right.

Oh yeah, my brother-in-law Larry, aka Mr. Perfect, really likes Neil too. Larry’s a good guy.

–Joe McAvoy


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