Happy Birthday, Neil

Thurston Moore reflects on the seamless guitar-playing brilliance of Neil Young, who turns 75 on Nov. 12. 

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Neil Young performs in London in 2019. Credit: Jo Hale/Redferns.

Back in October, when we spoke with guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Thurston Moore for an interview keyed to his latest solo album, By the Fire, we closed by asking him to think about the inimitable guitar mastery of his hero Neil Young, for a testimonial marking Young’s 75th birthday. After all, who better to pay tribute to the mind behind the “Cinnamon Girl” solo than a player who has himself redefined the possibilities of the electric guitar? But what began as an assessment of Young’s guitar work drifted into other fascinating areas, including the momentous early ’90s tour in which Moore and Sonic Youth opened for Young and Crazy Horse. — Ed.

Neil was one of those guitarists who was able to say so much in the most economical means as a lead guitar player. I remember in the ’80s buying Decade, the compilation he put together of what he felt was his most significant work. That was the first Neil Young record I ever bought. I was with my guitar-playing brother, who is five years older, who was all about Jimi Hendrix. And [I remember] buying that record and telling him, “This is my favorite guitar player.” And he was really confounded, because he never thought of Neil Young as a lead player.

For me, he was somebody whose songwriting, singing, lyricism and guitar extrapolations all had equal value, and were in equal service to the song. [For example,] Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin was a great guitarist all around, but I always felt the elements of his playing were singular within the songs. ... Whereas I felt with Neil that you couldn’t really separate what he was doing as a guitar player from any other element of the songcraft. That’s what distinguished him for me. There was unity in his music, with all the elements in it.

We toured with Neil in 1991, and I got to talk to him a bit about his guitar playing. He said to me, “I always play the same thing.” [laughs] High up on the fretboard and then into the middle of the fretboard. But it went beyond hyper-dexterity and to this place where it was completely beholden to this kind of emotional touch. And that was also something that was completely his own.

If you’ve seen Neil Young play solo, he’ll pick up the acoustic guitar, he walks over to the piano. ... He’s pretty remarkable as a multi-instrumentalist, and his vocal range is just so magical. There are very few singers who have that quality. I think that’s why a band like Nirvana was so magical to so many people — just the quality of magic in Kurt’s voice.

The whole [experience] of us touring [with Neil Young and Crazy Horse] was quite remarkable. For us it was like being on some rock ’n’ roll dream tour. Even though we were completely not appreciated by most of Neil Young’s audience. But I don’t think many bands supporting Neil Young are going to get too much love from an audience. You realize pretty quickly that 99.9 percent of that audience is there to see one thing and one thing only, and that’s for Neil Young to play the hits. And he’s kind of in defiance of that. He wants to challenge his audience.

So we were his challenge; we were purposefully his challenge. And so we rose to the occasion. [laughs] And that’s what we were doing. He would come back into the dressing room [to say he appreciated our closer], because we would play this long, droning feedback piece at the end of “Madonna, Sean, and Me” — “Expressway to Yr. Skull” is the more common title. And that would be the last piece in a 35-minute set, and we would get into this long drone. And then it would start interspersing with the booing from the audience: “Get the fuck offstage! What is this bullshit?” And of course Neil started incorporating long feedback drones into his set. ... So I take full blame for that. [laughs]

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Essays  / Rock

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