I was in the grocery with my wife the other day and while she bee-lined for the meat section trying to cope with the two hungry wolves at home, I checked out the books. There big as life was a book I knew would written someday but had figured it would still be years away. The book was Neil Young's autobiography. I looked at the pictures and put it down.
My connection to Neil Young began when I was a child in Louisiana. It survives to this day with some twists and turns. When I left Louisiana I was about eleven years old. My two sisters, my dog and I were told we could only bring what would fit in the trunk of our old Impala. I gave everything I had to my neighborhood friends in the space of an hour. Save my guitar. That was non-negotiable.
My Dad announced the move the night before at supper with no explanation forthcoming and we all understood not to ask. My best friend's family owned the original Barq's at that time and he gave me a six-pack through the open car window as we sped off on a three day manic road-trip to some place in Canada called Vancouver. I am still particularly fond of good root-beer.
A few months before we left I had seen the copper-haired girl down the corner sitting in her yard playing guitar and singing. She was six or seven years older than me and I was too shy to ask her the name of the song she kept practicing. I would just sit in my own yard and listen. One day they played it on WLCS Baton Rouge and I got a fix on the name and the composer. It was Heart of Gold. I loved the song, I loved the pretty girl and I decided I liked this Neil Young guy.
When we got to Canada we went straight to Lynn Valley in North Vancouver. It was December and the snow was drifted up and over the five foot fence of the elementary school I was to attend later on. We moved into an old apartment on the corner of Lynn Valley Road and Mountain Highway. I lost my savings learning the intricacies of a strange kind of pool called snooker. I lost to the manager's son and wound up shoveling the snow for the apartments that winter.
I heard another Neil young song on the local station CKLG and it sank into my soul permanently. It was called Old Man. I started school after winning a fight with the principal who insisted on placing me back an entire year due to my bayou origins. He said I'd never catch up with the French. I told him to give me the two week Christmas vacation to catch up. Little did he know that one of my my hobbies was studying languages at home with Berlitz books I bought with money I earned.
At home we children each got a gray and red striped Zellers blanket, a pillow, a toque and some Wellies. I learned half the French book for that year during the holidays and was more than ready come school-time. The teacher then took it upon himself to add any insult he could. I was placed in a chair at the back and given a stack of Lil' Abner comics by this man, who asked me in front of the class if we rode alligators to school. He was a pompous sack of shite and in spite of his efforts I maintained very good grades.
I brought my guitar to school for something to do at recess and soon met the other pickers. One guy who became pals with me was Howard Young. He lived across the street from school. He had a nice guitar and we made friends quickly. We went over at lunch and played our guitars. He had the sheet music to the Harvest album of Neil Young. It had the chords to Old Man.
I went everyday to practice that song til I learned it. I couldn't and still cannot read music and Howard only read a little. When you like a song as much as I liked that one, it didn't matter. We figured that thing out. At this time I learned that Howard was Neil's cousin. I was truly blown away. I asked all the usual questions. Had he met him and talked to him? Howard replied in the negative but spoke what he had heard from his parents conversation about Neil and his family. There was another guy, Leif who was a musician at that early time and is still today with his own band in New York City. He plays guitar and trumpet.
Outside of these two and maybe two others, I was culture-shocked, out-gunned and running on empty. Neil made a song called Don't Be Denied. It was about parents splitting up and him and his Mom moving from Ontario to Winnipeg. It contained the lyrics, “The punches came fast and hard. Lying on my back in the schoolyard.” I lived the lyrics along with him. Neil made a song about childhood lost called Sugar Mountain. It contained the lyrics, “You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain, though you think your leaving there too soon. Now your underneath the stairs and your giving back some glares to the people you just met and its your first cigarette.” I had my first cigarette in a hollow tree in Lynn Canyon with a little English girl from my apartment. My father died violently when I was twenty.
One day after school my mother told me we were going back to Beaumont, Texas without my father. We had been only six months in Lynn Valley. It was abrupt and now I got to wave good-bye to my few hard-won new friends. I still had my guitar and I heard Neil on every radio in every town we moved to. I played Old Man every day and learned some other songs of Neil's.
My father appeared suddenly a few weeks later and we moved two or three times within Beaumont and finally to Houston, Texas, my birthplace. I was now back on the first street I had lived on after being born and I was a freshman in grade nine. I had left all my Beaumont friends and made one close Houston friend.
During my time in Houston, heroin flooded in from Mexico and the returning addicted Vietnam vets. All the boys in my hood were about ten years my senior. I watched them graduate, go overseas and some came home with monkeys on their backs. I went to more funeral parlors and morgues in a year in Houston than in the balance of my life before or hence. Many victims were in their teens and I saw first hand The Needle and The Damage Done.
Halfway through grade nine we moved back to Lynn Valley. I found myself at the local high school and I found that my few friends from elementary were there. They had grown a lot and we regrouped but it wasn't as tight as before. Howard still played, I did and Leif did. We were old enough now that everyone had jobs and other pursuits to do. My parents split up again. I thought of a Neil young lyric from the album On The Beach. The song was Walk On. It said, “Sooner or later it all gets real. Walk on.”
My mother remarried and one night I was having dinner with my step-father and my two new step-sisters and the eldest girl had brought her boyfriend. Her father was drunk and greatly disliked the young man. The boyfriend was suffering verbal abuse and he had reached his limit. There was going to be blood. The stepfather was a Dane and the boyfriend was a Chilcotin cowboy. My step-sister brought my guitar and asked me to play. I took the instrument and played Old Man. My step-father fell happily asleep, the cowboy cooled his jets and violence was averted.
I quit school two weeks before graduation after changing high-schools and towns three times since grade nine. I only saw Leif twice more after that and Howard I never saw again. I did work with his mother when I was twenty and took a job as a bank manager in training at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Lynn Valley. The job was not my cup of tea and a lady phoned me once and warned me to get out while I still could. I heeded her advice. I thought later of a lyric from one of Neil's songs that said, “You're all just pissing in the wind. You don't know it but you are. And there ain't nothing like a friend who can tell you your just pissing in the wind.” Thank you Jill.
Howard was with me when I purchased my first real guitar to upgrade from the drugstore guitar I had dragged around learning on since the Christmas of 1966 in Baton Rouge when my parents presented me with it. I bought myself a Yamaki and it cost all my savings from working at a butcher shop.
The guitar was my friend and companion after that where ever I went. I went between Texas and the Valley many times by bus, car, plane and anyway I could. I wanted to spend time with my grandparents. I bought my Swedish grandpa the Harvest album. He was a man with fifty years at sea and had been orphaned at birth. He heard the song Old Man and made me play it for him every time I was back in town. As soon as I turned 18, I went across the ocean and in the next two years I and my Yamaki saw many ports of call. It was a pillow, a desk, a weapon, a wallet and an art gallery of stickers.
I was on a Greyhound bus once crossing the Texas pan-handle and there was a fellow from Oklahoma on board. He was about my age at the time and he loved Neil young's music. Turned out he knew how to play all the songs that I didn't and I knew the ones he'd yet to figure out. I asked the bus driver if we could swap songs. The driver was another Okie and he got on the loudspeaker and asked the folks if they'd mind being entertained for free. The folks said, “Hell no.”
For the next couple of hours we played and sang. One for one taking turns. We both sang every song and we knew how to play about three in common. The folks loved every minute of it and I remember them saying that it should always be like that. I opened with Old Man.
On one trip through Texas, while passing through Houston, I got to see Neil Young at an outdoor concert at the University of Houston. It was the only time I have seem him with my own eyes. He sat in an old oak chair in a white shirt and played his new song Long May You Run.
I married a girl from North Las Vegas when I was twenty who had a horse in her yard. It later struck me that she may have been my Cowgirl In The Sand. She met me because a friend of mine from Beaumont was getting married in Vegas and asked me to play Neil young songs at his wedding. I met the girl at that time because she was a guitar player and songwriter who also loved Neil Young music.
In my travels around the world, Neil Young songs have been like a passport. I remember being in Monterrey, Mexico with a buddy. We were without accommodations and it was late at night. A young woman saw my guitar case and asked if we would escort her home. Due to the hour, she said it wouldn't look right in her culture to be out alone as an unmarried woman. She promised to show us a church where we could find safe haven on the way to her casa.
We arrived at a massive colonial church and she got on the phone and called a Padre Nacho who was away In Mexico City on church business. I heard her mention that I could “toca las canciones de Neil Young” when she was describing who needed refuge for the night in the church. We were admitted and the girl said she would send some friends to keep us company.
About thirty minutes later a half dozen people our age came to the church with several guitars. With the finest acoustics I have ever encountered we had a Neil Young jam session that I am sure I shall never forget. Later, I was in Baja and I wanted to hike to the sea. It was quite a few miles away and I appeared to be lost after several hours in the solar furnace.
An old man showed up from a side trail in the baked clay and sand landscape. He was a fisherman and very old. Most of his teeth were gone. You could tell he would misdirect you just to giggle about it later. I didn't trust him, so I didn't ask for directions. We spoke a bit about the weather, Hot. Yeah. Hot.
I asked him if he liked guitar. He nodded with a look that said he didn't expect to enjoy whatever the gringo would do next. I played the first few bars of Old Man and his face split into the biggest grin I have seen this side of a Halloween pumpkin.
“Pinche cabron! Neil Young!” he exclaimed and did a Mr. Bojangles dance on the spot til the song was over.
He put his arm on my shoulder like a father would have and gave me perfect specific directions to what I sought and warned me of the hazards on the way.
I was in the Metro in Paris once and there was a guy playing for spare francs. He had a guitar festooned with old coins he had glued on. His black beret was empty and he was barely strumming in his discouraged state. Busy people buzzed to and fro and ignored him completely. I was between guitars and dying for the chance to wrap my hands around one. I asked him if I could play a tune.
I looked so road-worn he agreed. I opened with Old Man and followed with a song of my own composition called White Trash. People started to drop francs into the beret at a rate that alarmed me.
When I was a gas-fitter in North Vancouver, I was on a call in West Vancouver in a rich area. The client was Terry Jacks a local one hit wonder star. His song with Susan, Seasons In The Sun was a chart-buster when I first set foot in North Vancouver. He had a massive house with an indoor swimming pool. I was hooking up gas ranges, water tanks, furnaces, pool heaters and boilers. Terry was home.
He was in his blue bath robe and in the kitchen chatting to me while I hooked up the pipes. He heard a thump on the gigantic glassed front wall facing the sea. A bird had gone wrong and crashed into the glass. His cat had pounced on it before he could go outside and try to save it. He came in the kitchen and held it in his hand and sobbed for half an hour.
I saw some photos on his bar-top in the kitchen when he had settled back down and gotten me a mug of coffee. I asked if I could look at them as I had seen guitars in the pictures. They were Polaroids and taken that weekend prior. He said he had had a party and some friends had popped by. I recognized Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell straightaway. Taken around the very pool I had just done the new piping for.
I was passing through Lake of the Woods and Kenora, Ontario once. They were having a Smoke and Fish Derby. I was hitch-hiking and ready for a days rest. The derby was an annual event and the prizes were bricks of marijuana. One for the smallest fish and one for the largest. It would begin in the morning but the festivities were well underway. I found a pub. I met a local guy and we got to talking and drinking beer.
A guitar player showed up to entertain. He was real good and though I had never heard of him, I felt like I must have heard his playing before somewhere. My drinking buddy asked me if I had my guitar on me. I said I hadn't brought it this time. He looked pained and said that the performer was coming to his place after the show and I could play his guitar there.
True to his word we all go into a boat and went to a small island in the lake where my host lived. The picker was called Doc Tibbles and he played for Gordon Lightfoot. That was why I recognized the style. He said I could play his guitar. I carefully opened the case out of respect for this masterful finger-picker and bluegrass working studio musician. When I lifted the instrument out of the case, there were some Polaroids in the bottom.
They were obviously taken in Hawaii on a beach. They were dated about a week prior. They were shots of Doc and Neil Young relaxing and playing guitars. I had a good talk with Doc and played him Old Man. The next morning the fellows tried to give me a guitar to take to Morocco and drove me out to the highway ramp.
Once in Vancouver a few hundred yards from where I type, I lived in a duplex. I had finally gotten a copy of one Neil Young album I had wanted and had never owned. I do not have a complete collection nor do I want one. There are certain songs he has written that I cannot ignore and others that don't care for. This album I did want and I finally got permission from an old friend to use his vinyl to make a cassette.
The song I most wanted was Comes A Time. After I got it I played the tape day after day. One evening in the Fall I was on the front walk chopping some wood for the fireplace. The tape was playing as usual. We were having high winds and intermittent heavy rains. I went in and stoked the fire. A bit later I went on the porch for a smoke. Comes A Time was playing and I left the door cracked open so I could hear it.
In the song the lyrics say, “ Comes a time when your drifting, comes a time when you settle down. Comes a light, feelings lifting. Lift that baby right up off the ground. Oh, this old world is spinning around. It's a wonder tall trees ain't laying down. There comes a time.”
The line about tall trees laying down happened to exactly coincide with a gust that toppled a tall cedar across the street and it did lay down on the power line and took out the electricity on that side of the street for hours til a crew came to buck it with chainsaws. I went back to my fire.
I don't idolize Neil and wouldn't call myself a fan. There is something running through his music that vibrates close to something that runs through me. I “get” many of his lyrics. I found this to be true all over the globe from Squamish to Manila. It is like climbing a mountain and someone is ahead going the same way. You see traces and hear reports of them from people going down. You never see the person but for a fleeting instant through the trees but it is a comfort to know they are there. Neil, we are not out of the woods yet and lots of us have your back.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.